This sermon was preached for Sunday, September 18 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, and Luke 16:1-13.
Today’s parable is a notoriously difficult one. There is no consensus among commentators about what Jesus is trying to say here or why the second bit about being faithful with other’s property seems to contradict the message of the parable so directly. Some commentators argue that this is two different sayings mushed together with the same loose theme - Luke does that in other places. Some commentators don’t believe that Jesus told this parable - it goes against so much of what we know about what Jesus encourages in us. But the majority of Biblical scholars and historians will argue that it is the most confusing and startling sayings that are the most likely for Jesus to have said - they would be the most memorable and there would be no incentive to falsely attribute them to Jesus. So in the end, like all parables, this one has no clear meaning for me to declare to you this morning. And yet, I believe it still holds wisdom for us today.
One way to read this parable is that Jesus is critiquing his followers for not being as shrewd as the rest of their society. Like many Lukean parables, the story starts with a rich man. He learns that his manager has been squandering his wealth, so he threatens to fire him. The manager, afraid for his livelihood, decides that his best course of action is to strengthen his relationships with his master’s debtors so that he can rely on their generosity when he’s sacked. The scandal of the parable - because there is always a scandal in every parable - is that the master is impressed with the manager’s cleverness! Jesus then points out that the children of this age know how to play the game well enough to get by and get ahead, unlike his followers. Jesus is reminding his followers that in order to survive and thrive in this world they will need to participate in the surrounding society in all sorts of ways that require them to compromise their virtues. The key is to remember the ultimate purpose. The key is not getting so lost in the game that it begins to own you. The key is to do it all in service of God, not your boss, not wealth, and not the rules of the game itself.
Last spring, my confirmation class challenged my previous parish to raise funds for a charity that works to free low-income families from burdensome medical debt. The charity, RIP Medical Debt, was actually founded by two former debt collector executives, folks who had played the game long enough to know its ins and outs. They knew just how exploitative the intersection of American healthcare and debt collection can be. They had seen just how easy it was for a sudden, drastic diagnosis to upend a family’s life and bury them in an inescapable mountain of debt through no fault of their own. So these two executives decided to step away from the endless pursuit of profit and used their knowledge of the way debt is bundled and sold to benefit the struggling families instead.
The genius of RIP Medical Debt is that the charity is able to use $100 of donations to relieve $10,000 of medical debt, precisely by exploiting what’s exploitative. Over the course of Lent, my parish raised over $10,000 dollars, which translated into $1 million dollars of debt relief. So one day in May, out of the blue, dozens of families received a letter from St. Andrew’s Church explaining that their debt was instantly forgiven. They were free.
Everything we know about Jesus and Christian ethics teaches us that honesty, responsibility, and faithfulness are virtues. We don’t even have to look far for Jesus to affirm this; the next paragraph states it quite plainly. "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
Yet there is something about the choice that the shrewd manager makes that I think is important for us to commend. The manager chooses to invest in the relationships with the folks who matter over his job, over his social superior. He understands that money is a tool, not a master. He values money for what it can do, and values relationships over employment or wealth.
This stewardship season we’re talking about how the fear money brings up in us can be paralyzing, controlling - can be part of how money has power over us, getting in the way of generosity and joy. Part of that fear comes from experience of how money can damage relationships through dishonesty and exploitation. Again and again, Jesus tells us to give away what we own when it starts to own us, starts to break our relationships with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. If Jesus is advising anything to his followers with this parable, it might be this: learn how to use money and power to love God, love neighbor, and love self - but don’t let yourself be used. Notice how dishonesty with money leads to dishonesty in other things. Notice when a focus on saving, earning, stockpiling wealth overcomes everything else in your life.
Money matters because of what it can enable us to do. It can be a means to an end - God’s end. When God is our master, that end is fulfilling God’s will in the world.
In the end, I don’t think God cares much about whether we waste money for the money’s sake. God is most concerned with us squandering our love. My guess is that God cares about squandering wealth only insofar as it means squandering opportunities to be grace to others. When we encounter an opportunity to use money to build community, to spread love, and to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we are not to pass it by.
The founder and head of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia made the news this week when he made the remarkable choice not to squander his enormous opportunity. Yvon Chouinard and his family gave over their billions, control of their successful company, and any annual future profits to a trust dedicated to the preservation and rehabilitation of natural wildernesses around the world and a nonprofit supporting movements for combatting the devastating effects of climate change. In doing so, the Chouinard family bucked the usual trend of billionaires these days: enough philanthropy to be respectable and avoid taxes, a few vanity projects, rewards to investors and backers, and all the rest amassed and invested to pass down to heirs. Chouinard played the game well enough and long enough, then made a different choice. In giving away the vast majority of his assets as well as future potential personal earnings, he declared that his relationship to creation and humanity's relationship to the environment, mattered most, much more than rising in the rankings on a list of world's richest folks. “I feel a big relief that I’ve put my life in order,” the 83 year-old said in his interview with the New York Times.
No one in this room is a billionaire. But each of us does need to decide to whom we are ultimately accountable with our resources. As Christians, we are not ultimately accountable to our bosses, to shareholders, nor even to man-made laws. We are ultimately accountable to the Jesus Christ we met in the suffering and the poor, the lost, the last and the least. We are ultimately accountable to God.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, September 11, 2022 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, and Luke 15:1-10.
One of my favorite books to recommend to parishioners is a comic memoir by Roz Chast. Written in the style of a graphic novel, it chronicles her journey caring for her elderly parents as they declined physically and mentally. It’s raw, it’s true, and it’s hilarious in all the right ways. And I love its title: “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” The title springs from her parents’ earnest desire to stay in denial about what was happening to them, to sweep it under the rug. Of course, throughout the book it becomes clearer and clearer that it is what we refuse to talk about directly, transparently, that holds the most insidious sway over us. To resign something to silence is to give it power.
One thing I love fiercely about church is that church, at its best, is a place where we don’t just talk about what’s pleasant. We talk about what matters. Not just to grumble and wallow - but to lift up the truth of life. And as we do, we often discover the authenticity of the good news waiting for us in God. We break free from the fear and shame of all the big, unspeakable things holding us apart.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling again. “Can’t Jesus just hang out with people a bit more respectable and upstanding?” They are disturbed by how the sinners and outcasts flock to Jesus, and how he welcomes them.
In response, Jesus tells three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son, otherwise known as the parable of the prodigal son. Each follow the same pattern, increasing in detail and drama. Something, or someone precious is lost, then found and celebrated to great fanfare. I want to draw our attention this morning to that act of rejoicing. The shepherd and the woman could have recovered their sheep and coin and quietly went about their day. The lamb would be reincorporated into the flock, the coin slipped into the purse with relief. In some ways, that would have made more sense. Why announce to the world that you accidentally let a lamb wander off or that you are not as careful with your coins as you should be? Why gather friends and neighbors all around and proclaim, this was lost and now is found?
There are many types of welcome - here’s two that I’ve encountered. The first is the type of welcome that says, “Hello, come on in. We don’t care who you are or where you have been. We just care that you are here and that you fit yourself in.” That welcome can feel like an amazing opportunity to start afresh, it’s a celebration of one’s presence in a community, and yet there’s something missing. The second type of welcome says, “Hello, it’s great to meet you. We can’t wait to hear your story. We can’t wait to learn what brought you here and how you will change us.” This type of welcome invites the whole self, even the baggage, even the ways you’ve been lost and broken, even the ways you are still falling short. It is a fuller celebration, a more real joy. It lifts up the truth of who you were and are becoming, and uncovers the good news of God's movement in your life.
When Jesus sits with outcasts and sinners, he welcomes their stories, too. He doesn’t ask them to hide who they are or who they’ve been. Their identities, what they have overcome, that’s an integral part of the great story God is telling in their lives. You have been lost but now, now you are being found. You have been held back, by fear, by shame, by cruelty. But now you are free.
Your whole story is precious to God. Your whole self is beloved.
Growing up in my family’s New England culture, money was one of the top unpleasant topics you weren’t supposed to talk about. You might be familiar with this kind of culture, too - where you pretend not to notice the cash that falls out of the birthday card, where checks at the restaurant are whisked away, and price stickers on gifts hastily scrubbed off. The mention of money was profane, dirty, even just downright rude. But as I’ve gotten older and worked across many different cultures and relationships to money, I’ve come to learn that the silence and shame about money - whether its abundance or lack - only increases its power over us. I learned how hiding secret debts and financial losses can isolate and break down relationships, how company policies prohibiting the discussion of wages and compensation have led to decades of exploitation and inequality. Money may not be pleasant to talk about, but it matters. It matters, and there is good news to be found in how God can use what we give and earn.
A huge part of the healing work of ministry is helping people learn to tell their story. Once they can tell their story - all the parts that matter - it no longer has power over them. And when they tell their stories to others, they lift up the truth and uncover the joy. Turns out telling the whole story of our faith journeys, telling the whole story of our life as a community, includes reflecting on and talking about our relationship with money. So that’s what we are going to do today, and the next few Stewardship Sundays. We’ve got four brave folks who’ll be reflecting on their relationship with money and faith through their own powerful stories. We’ll practice being transparent about our fears and hold-ups around money, and how God can transform that into giving from a place of gratitude and joy. Today after service, you’re invited to stick around for brunch to share your stories of faith and community, the times in your life when love has cast out fear. Today, we rejoice in one another.
I believe there is a story of God’s triumph to be told in your life, and just as that story is here to tell at St. Mark’s as a whole. You may not have reached the end of that story, we may be in the midst of it. But we trust that when God guides a story, love wins out, every time. There is joy to be found and shared.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, September 4, 2022 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, and Luke 14:25-33.
Shia LaBeouf first got famous as a 90s TV star, then as a big time Hollywood actor. But he recently made celebrity news for his conversion to Catholicism - and a very traditional Catholicism at that. In some ways, his story is a familiar one - after rising to the heights of fame and stardom, LaBeouf became entangled in alcoholism, domestic abuse allegations, and legal troubles. It was there at rock bottom, preparing for a role as a Catholic priest, that the former agnostic found God. In an interview with Bishop Robert Barron, LaBeouf credited the traditional mass said and chanted all in Latin with his conversion. “Latin Mass affects me deeply, deeply,” he explained. “It feels like they’re not selling me a car. And when I go to some Masses with the guitars and stuff…it’s like they’re trying to sell me on an idea.” But in the Latin Mass, LaBeouf says he feels like he’s being “let in on something special.”
At this point in the Gospel of Luke, the crowds around Jesus are enthralled. They’ve witnessed powerful miracles and signs. They’re hoping that this guy has the answer they’ve been seeking. They are ready to be sold on his new, exciting idea. It is Jesus’ compassion and thorough understanding of human nature, I think, that compel Jesus to burst their bubbles. He wants them to know that the cost of following him is high, maybe too high.
Jesus is not a car salesman. Jesus is the real deal. He is not trying to convince us of an idea, the one true answer or insight that will change everything in an instant. Jesus is inviting us on a journey of transformation, to be reshaped by God. He wants his followers to know that the road ahead is steep and painful. It may involve conflict with loved ones, hardship and poverty, and unimaginable sacrifice.
Jeremiah, our Hebrew Bible prophet, has a similarly stark message for his people. If they do not change their ways, God will pluck up and break them down, like the potter who destroys a vessel in order to reform it in accordance with his vision.
When we are looking to grow the church or simply get more people to join in what we've discovered about God and the Christian life, it can be tempting to emphasize the shiny bits or only speak of the nourishment and support our faith has given us. It's important for us to remember that Jesus draws people seeking more. Jesus resonates with those who can see that his miracles both then and now are not gimmicks and easy fixes. They are the hand of God reshaping the world to the divine vision of justice and freedom. We must have the courage to say honestly that being part of the Jesus movement may not grant you wealth, it in fact be a financial strain. It may not be all fun, rest, and relaxation. It may be hard work, loads of precious time and energy. And Christian fellowship won't all be kindness and cheer, it may be hard decision-making and conflict. Yet through all that reworking we are being bound up in one other and God's vision for the world.
The transformation God has in store has a high cost. Many in this room already know this to be true. LaBeouf’s story echoes so many faith stories I’ve encountered, including my own: the divine act of being broken down to some extent or another in order to be built back up. So often, too, the building up is not through a deliberate, intellectual choice to believe. Rather the building up occurs as the unfathomable experience of mystery, as an authentic encounter with the ineffable divine. It is being let in on something special, profound, authentic - unlike anything we’ve known. Like a language we can’t understand, that speaks to us all the same.
How is this good news, this emphasis on the high cost of discipleship? Where is the good news in Jeremiah’s stark warnings about God plucking up and breaking down? Our psalmist today points the way.
Psalm 139’s beautiful, intimate language reminds us that we are in God’s hands, the potter’s hands - and that we have always been. God has been reworking and reshaping us long before we knew it. There is no part of ourselves that is walled off from God, no dark shadowy corner of our soul that God’s light cannot penetrate. Every bit of us is deeply and truly known. “For you yourself created my innermost parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
Now, I’m not a potter but I am a knitter. And if you’re a knitter, too, or if you have ever watched a knitter knit, you’ll know that one of the secret joys of knitting is how easy it is to pull out the stitches you’ve just made and rework them, reusing the same yarn. Even in the reshaping, every bit of our clay is reused in the new vessel. Our clay, our yarn, our inmost parts, are transformed in God’s hands, not discarded or thrown away. Our essence is precious to God, has always been. Hear how beloved the psalmist is to God, and how clearly he knows it - “You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand on me…I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”
There is pain and sacrifice in the reworking. Rock bottom, and its descent, are desperate, miserable and isolating experiences. But there is also good news. We can trust the potter. We can trust, too, in the belovedness of our essence, our clay, even as we are being radically remade.
This sermon was preached for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Mark's, East Longmeadow. The text for this sermon were: Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56.
Today’s Gospel passage landed pretty jarringly with me at first. It is hard to square this Jesus, who declares he has not come to bring peace but division, with the same Jesus who says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The Jesus who tells Peter, “Put down your weapon.” The one who answers violence with nonviolence at the cost of his life.
Part of why this Gospel might seem so harsh is that it comes to us through the scorching history of Christian violence - from colonialism to civil war to slavery to the crusades. Could that destruction and terror done in the name of God possibly be the fire and division he meant? At the same time, we must also consider, though, the times throughout our faith’s history when Christians have mistakenly prioritized peace and the avoidance of conflict over taking a stand for our convictions - we might think of German Protestants during the rise of Hitler, our own church’s cowardly stance during the Civil War. There are moments in our lives when choosing to take the stand Jesus would have us take requires us to be in conflict, even with those we love.
Starting a couple weeks ago, the bishops of all the different churches throughout the globe who trace their origins back to the Church of England gathered for a once in a decade conference called the Lambeth Conference. Meant to symbolize and strengthen unity through diversity within the Anglican Communion, the run-up to this year’s conference highlighted deep divisions that persist over the issue of same-sex marriage in painful ways. Despite this, our church, the Episcopal church, sent seven married gay and lesbians bishops, some accompanied by their uninvited spouses, to represent us as the full, dignified Christian leaders they are. Even when other bishops threatened to refuse to take communion alongside them, the rest of our bishops and other bishops from around the world rose to stand with their marginalized siblings in Christ, declaring in a signed statement,
“God is Love! This love revealed by Jesus, described in the Scriptures and proclaimed by the Church, is Good News for all – without exception. That is why we believe that LGBT+ people are a precious part of God’s creation – for each of us is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,’ and all are equally loved…We will never shy away from tackling discrimination and prejudice against those of differing sexualities and gender identities.”
When conformity demands we sacrifice our integrity, the cost of unity without conflict is too great. It is Jesus himself who compels us to side with the outcast and shoved aside, even when that results in division.
It can be completely overwhelming to consider all the ways our religion, nation, and world feel divided right now. There is one type of division, though, that crops up again and again throughout history - back to Jesus’ time and beyond. Jesus speaks of the division between generations, father and son, mother and daughter. It’s a division about which much ink has been spilled - including by the author of Hebrews passage. He also reflects about the differences between the faith of his ancestors and his own, this new generation of Christians that have arisen following the birth and death of Christ.
When the writer of Hebrews looks back on the tales of his forbearers, he sees that the faith they had was different than his own. After all, the great story was not yet complete in the lifetimes of those born before Christ. God still had so much to accomplish in Jesus’ birth, ministry and death, so many promises to fulfill.
Yet the faith of these people of God was enough, and what they needed, to stand up for what was right, to make the brave and difficult choice in the moments that mattered most, even at the cost of their very lives.
Ultimately he lands his reflection here, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
Much of the division that I see between generations as it relates to faith - and much of the sadness and grief as well - is a difficulty in understanding that the race that is set before one generation is often very different than that of the next. I have sat with many Episcopalians who lament that their children and grandchildren have no interest in or experience with practicing their faith, learning about Jesus, and relying on God. I have listened to many folks wonder with me where the rest of the people my age or younger are, why they are not in our pews. Sitting where we are today from the choices we’ve made and the experiences we’ve had, it can be a struggle to understand people these days.
Adding to that angst, there’s a perception that the pattern of life that was set before previous generations in the church was predictable, dependable - one the church could and did count on for its continuance. I’ve heard it many times: a teenager and young adult might drift away from the church for some years, but they came back - in old days to their home family parish - to marry, raise their children, and to carry on its traditions. But the patterns of life today have, on the whole, radically altered. It’s not just that folks spending more and more of their young adult lives unmarried and childfree than ever before. According to a Pew Research Study from last year, 44% adults ages 18-49 say that it is not too likely or not at all likely that they will have ever children of their own someday, a remarkable 7% jump from just three years before. Americans are astoundingly mobile, with extended families scattered all across the world. We move from our hometowns for education and employment opportunities, but also for retirement. Then there’s the pandemic - there’s just so many factors that have shifted what church membership looks like over the decades.
And so the race has changed, as it always does. Each generation has difficulty understanding the choices each other has made, they always have. For many, the divide is particularly painful when the different choices are about faith and faith expression.
But here’s the thing, too: I’ve been honored to learn and know so many of your stories in these last months. They are all beautifully unique, really they are! They each speak to a personal journey that puts a twist on or deviates from or downright defies the assumed journey of faith. St. Mark’s is a place that has a strong history of making room for people who take the less beaten path.
And so the key question that emerges for us, as a church, as a people of faith, is not whether we can convince others to make the exact same choices we have. The question is whether we offer and articulate a faith that equips people to persevere in the particular race that has been set before them in this time. Do we acknowledge that each person runs at their own authentic pace, their own unique obstacles and triumphs? Do we not only make space for the diversity of human experience - do we celebrate it and speak into it? Do we see how difference - even when it feels like division - can be a source of strength?
As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said recently, “It’s not enough to be The Episcopal Church; we need to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. We don’t need to make more Church-ians; we need to make more Christ-ians.” Our calling is not to ensure that the next generation does church in the same way that we did, or even relates to Jesus in the way that makes the most sense to us. Our calling is to bring folks into awareness that God is right there with them, has always been with them, in the midst of their life challenges.
When I take a page out of the author of Hebrews’ book and look back to my Irish Catholic and English Anglican ancestors, I see people of faith to admire. Faith brought my great-great-great Aunt Nellie across the Atlantic from Ireland as a young teen with a hopeful stack of schoolbooks. Faith was with my great-great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel Benjamin when he endured the chaos and frostbite of the American Revolutionary War. Faith accompanied my great-grandmother in her grief for her lost infant, just as it had so many of the mothers before her.
I imagine some in this great cloud of witnesses would have not approved of my womanly priesthood or my mixed marriage. I imagine many parts of the way I picture and worship Jesus would be startling and alien to them. But I hope they would recognize in me a perseverance in the face of the particular adversities of my own life. I hope they are part of the great cloud of witnesses to my faith.
When I look forward to my descendants and the generations to come, I try to resist the urge to guess at what the race that will be set before them might be. As much as I fret for their future, I come back to the need to trust in a loving God. I come back to the choice to do my best, and keep doing my best, to tell my children and the people I love about what faith in the God of love has done for me and my life. I choose to believe that faith will come to their aid in the moment they need it, in the way that speaks to them. I choose to trust that God will be right there with them in all of it, just as I trust that I will somehow mysteriously be there, too, part of their great cloud of witnesses, cheering them on.
My first year of seminary, my classmates and I decided we wanted to celebrate Maundy Thursday in our own creative way. We settled on cooking a huge meal - a giant vat of chili - and bringing it out into the streets of our city to feed unhoused and street folks we encountered. What better way to honor the Last Supper than sharing our Agape Feast with our neighbors? And we really did go out into the spring nightair with a literal bucket filled with chili and a ladle and some plastic clamshells donated from a local shop. We made our way down the hill to People’s Park in downtown Berkeley moving from group to group of gathered folks who were just settling down for the night. By the time we made it around to the other side of the park however, we were amazed to discover that some of our chili had beaten us there. Some of the people had taken their meal, thanked us, split it, and shared it with the friends who they knew needed it even more. When they came into an unexpected blessing, their first instinct was to share.
When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.
From a financial planning perspective, the man in Jesus’ parable is prudent and wise with his unexpected surplus of his crops. He invests in more capital to store it for the future, enabling good times today to mean good times for many years to come. Yet God calls him a fool.
The man’s foolishness is not in what he does and says so much as in what he does not do. It’s not about poor timing. It’s that he does not consider that the abundance of his fields springs from the hard work of others and the blessings of God. He forgets to think of who might be in need of the extra grain. There is no mention or consideration of others in his thoughts or actions at all - only himself, as if he is the only person in the world. Upon his untimely death, God asks, “And those things you have prepared, whose will they be?” But the man has not invested in any relationships. Only in himself.
What does a good life mean to you? So much of our culture and society would urge us to believe that living a good life is relaxing, eating, drinking, and being merry, especially if those comforts spring from hard work and wise planning.
Jesus calls us to more. Your life, Jesus warns, does not consist in the abundance of possessions. A good life is a life that is rich toward God. A good life is defined by connection, meaning, and service. It begins from gratitude and the recognition that the blessings of this life are not solely ours. This parable asks us to consider: What is our response to abundance and blessing? Is it to build bigger barns and higher fences? Is it to protect ourselves and our future first? Or is it to reach out to share our blessings with others? Do we use the life and the gifts we have for connection, meaning, and service?
When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence. For what does relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry mean if it is not shared? God would have those things done around a long table, with chairs enough for all to be invited.
Cyrus Kano, my husband’s grandfather and my son’s middle namesake, epitomized this way of living - building longer tables rather than higher fences. He was constantly finding ways to give out of his abundance, and not just his possessions or wealth. Cyrus used his extraordinary car repair skills to help stranded motorists, replacing spark plugs right there on the side of the road in the rain. He lent out his carpentry skills wherever possible, in the homes of friends and families, and by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity for decades. To the consternation of his children, Grandpa Cy was up on ladders fixing what needed fixing well into his eighties.
On top of all of this, Cyrus literally built a longer table. It’s quite a magical table, actually. It has five handmade leaves that expand a small square table for four out into a stretch of hardwood long enough to seat at least 14, 16 if you really like each other. This table served my mother-in-law and her siblings throughout their childhood and was passed on to Aaron and me at the beginning of our marriage. It’s been a key part of hosting joyful and packed Thanksgivings and Passovers, family dinners, and friend reunions at our apartments. Over the years, it’s become a symbol, a reminder, of the Kano commitment to share the blessings we receive. Our inheritance is more than an object, it is a value. It is the perpetual and everlasting love of a kind man and the good life he inspires us to live.
Today’s parable is told in response to the demand that Jesus arbitrate an inheritance dispute between two disgruntled brothers. So we can hear in this parable, too, the question of what a good life leaves behind in its wake. A good life lived for connection, meaning, and service aims to leave behind strong communities and loving relationships - a legacy built of more than wealth and possessions. That’s why I am grateful for how many funerals this job requires me to attend. Each memorial service, each eulogy serves as a poignant reminder that in the end the people that matter most will remember us best for how we loved - the relationships we built and the blessings we shared.
The fact that we stand here today, gathered around this table, is due to the interwoven legacies of generations of believers who came before us. Folks who shared what blessings they had, folks who invested in relationship, in community, so that we, too, might strive for lives defined by connection, meaning and service.
May we never forget that this table is just a small section of the longest, most welcoming table in the world.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, July 24, 2022 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Luke 11:1-13, Psalm 85, and Colossians 2:6-15.
Early on, my husband and I were advised by wiser and more experienced parents that the key to a successful bedtime is a predictable routine. So for months now, right around 7pm, we read my son a storybook, give him some warm milk, and then we pray. Every night we pray the Our Father and then sing a Jewish prayer in Hebrew, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Most nights, it’s like magic. No matter how hyped up he is before bed, by the time we finish the last sacred song, his eyes are closed, his head is nodding, and his little body is all curled up and ready for sleep.
Routine is key. The persistence of our prayers has made all the difference.
When I lived in Jordan, a Muslim-majority nation, the entire day was broken up by prayer. Five times a day, from sunup to sundown, the call to prayer would echo from minarets of the mosques all across the city. “God is great! God is great! Come to prayer, come to prayer!” Most everyday Muslims I knew didn’t actually pray five times a day, but the devout ones did. You’d see them on the sidewalks or in the back of their stores, bending and straightening, then bending down again, mouthing memorized prayers and scripture.
In Islam, the experience of prayer is a whole body experience, involving bowing and prostration. It’s visually striking and totally engaging to practice. The most intriguing part to me, when I learned to pray from my Muslim friends, was the preparation for prayer. The ritual cleansing, or ablution, is the thorough washing of your hands, your feet, your face, and neck - even your nostrils and ears. By the end, you feel clean, really clean. And you are ready to put your whole self into prayer.
When I teach prayer to children - and I think that’s one of the most important things we can do here for kids - I teach them to pay attention to their bodies first. Get your body ready for prayer! I don’t like telling people what to do with their bodies in worship, so I like to offer options. You can bow your head, you can close your eyes, you can breathe slowly and deeply, you can hold your hands together. Whatever tells your body that this moment, this thing we are doing, is different, sacred, set apart from normal speech and thought. It helps to do the same thing every time. It helps to say the same things every time. The words get inside you, in your heart. Our Father…
Teach us to pray, Lord, they asked him. And Jesus gave them the words that have echoed through generations, in many different languages, by so many different believers, the words we pray every time we gather. They begin “Father…” or in Matthew’s Gospel, “Our Father…” They begin by declaring our closeness to God. It’s like a close friend you can ask anything of, Jesus explains. It’s like a child to a parent.
I love that my son’s first experience of prayer is the experience of his own father’s deep and abiding love. Usually his little body is lifted up close on dad’s shoulder, his favorite place in the world, held and rocked gently. For him, prayer is the experience of feeling completely loved and totally safe. My dream is that when he prays the Lord’s Prayer the rest of his life, his body will remember that feeling. My prayer is that in that moment, in those words, he will know how loved he is, by his father, by his mother, and by God.
Prayers do not have to be calm. They do not even have to have words. They can be filled with rage or desperation or despair. But even in those moments, when our hearts and mouths are filled with venom, if we direct that towards God, who can take it, who can take all of it, we are still opening ourselves up to love.
To pray is to be open to love, to receive love, and to be shaped by it. Sometimes that doesn’t look like how we intend it to look. Sometimes that looks like coming to terms with what our life has become, finding acceptance and forgiveness. Sometimes prayer gives us the strength to get up and go do what needs to be done. Sometimes prayer gives us permission to lay it all down. In prayer, we align ourselves to love. Thy will be done.
I pray because I believe prayer can change the world in many mysterious ways. In a more tangible way, though, prayer, especially persistent prayer, changes us. It changes us in a way that empowers us to change the world, to be the love it needs.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, July 17, 2022 at St. Mark's, East Longmeadow. The texts for this sermon were: Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.
There’s a running joke in my family about Great-Aunt Evie, God rest her soul. Apparently Aunt Evie loved hosting dinners and teatimes for family and friends, but was notorious for never sitting down long enough at the table for the meal to start. She’d be forever popping up to grab utensils or more dishes for her guests, who’d have to laugh and urge her to sit and just be. So whenever my mother would pop up from the table to retrieve something or check on something in the kitchen, especially if it was delaying the start of grace, one of us would laugh and call her Aunt Evie and she’d laugh too and sit back down. What we were asking my mother was to give us the most important thing - more important than the next dish or a clean fork - her attention and her presence. We wanted her to remember the purpose for the work of hosting: the being together.
Martha, it's important to note here, is the one who invited Jesus to her home in the first place. She had a reason for welcoming him in. But Martha lets herself get distracted by the work of hosting, and I don’t blame her. It sounds like she could indeed use more help. Then Martha’s distractions and worries cross a line into frustration. Frustration that turns into resentment directed at her sister and at Jesus himself for allowing it to happen. The work distracts her, then overwhelms her, then becomes not only the thing that gets in the way of her being with her guests - it becomes resentment that sours her relationships with them. The purpose of the work of hosting is forgotten. The love behind the welcome, buried.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Remember why you are doing all this in the first place.
There are so many aspects of life that involve so many extra tasks that pull us further away from the heart of its purpose. Many of our professions, but also parenting, grandparenting, homeownership, and most notoriously, church. Church is ironically particularly susceptible to the sort of busy work that distracts and worries us away from sitting at the feet of Jesus. From just being with God.
My first semester at seminary I signed up to be a student sacristan - one of the seminarians who would do the behind the scenes work of keeping the chapel running. Sort of like Altar Guild for a parish, plus making bulletins and worship planning. I loved the work and I was learning a ton, but I began to notice that I very rarely ever sat in the pews for a chapel service. There was always something to be done - wafers to fetch, candles to relight, doors to close. When I started the livestream project, there was even more.
My spiritual director is the one who started ringing the alarm bells for me as it all became too much, as I wondered aloud about why my spiritual life was shriveling up. Like a good spiritual director he asked me the hard questions - why was it so difficult for me to simply be present in the pews at the chapel? What was so attractive about feeling busy and important and needed? What was I afraid of if I just lay it all down and let myself remember to be? I was afraid of a lot of things - of not being needed, that others would do it wrong, that the whole operation would fall apart. But the truth was, I was falling apart. I was losing my way. I was forgetting the purpose of the work. I need to find a way to just worship, just be again in the presence of God. I needed to remember the why of it all.
There is need of only one thing.
Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Don’t get me wrong, you do not need to love every aspect of what you do every day. God knows I don’t love all the minutiae of parenting or priesting for that matter. I doubt anyone does, and yet it still needs to be done. What Paul is saying, what Jesus is reminding Martha, is that we need enough that reminds us of the why of the work we do. Love can enable us to endure the most grueling jobs, the most annoying tasks, the grossest parts of caring for one another. But when we have lost the why, the purpose, when this work and its worries and burdens get in the way of loving others, when they build into resentment and crash inwards and outwards, then we have lost our way. Then it is time to return to the feet of Jesus, to listen and remember who we are.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to a lot of folks about why they go to church, why they give and volunteer. Again and again all sorts of people - from true believers to questioning seekers - will tell me that church is what they need to get them through the week. Something about what we do here reminds them of the why of all the rest of their lives. Something about the words we say here, the outreach work we give here, the prayers we pray here, restores their purpose. Something about just being here, in the presence of God, centers them back on love.
Do this in remembrance of me. Putting Jesus at the center of our lives makes all the work we do that springs from him, holy. It sanctifies our life with meaning. Even the ordinary bits, the stressful bits, the unglamorous nature of keeping our church and households and businesses running.
Over the years working in ministry, I have also encountered folks showing up on Sunday morning for the first time in a long time. Returning to church, sometimes after decades. When I get the chance to ask them, what made them come, what drew them here, it’s often something in their life, some challenge or change, that made them realize that the why of their life had begun to unravel, or no longer felt like enough. They came seeking a truer center of being, one that they had known once, or their parents had known, or their grandparents had known: Jesus Christ.
What is that thing or person or ritual or practice that recenters you to your purpose? What reminds you why?
Sitting in a church service for an hour each Sunday doesn’t have to be that for you - or the only thing you need. It could be something else. It could be sitting down at the end of a long day for a meal with the ones you love. It could be stepping back every so often to reflect on the impact of your labor. It could be kneeling at your bedside for evening prayer. It could be that sweet giggle of a one-year-old who’s just spotted your face in the mirror. It’s whatever brings meaning again to the necessary work of life when you feel yourself getting pulled away and pulled apart.
Whatever that is for you, do it and keep doing it until it doesn’t work anymore. Hold onto it, protect it. Make time for it.
If you’re realizing you don't have something like that right now, find it. Get a time to meet with me to figure out what it could be.
Or lay down that work. Your life, really living your life, depends on it.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 10, 2022 by the Rev. Mia Kano for the baptism of Olivia Marie. The texts for this sermon were: Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, and Luke 10:25-37.
As you may know in the Episcopal Church, the readings for each Sunday are predetermined by our lectionary. That said, today's Gospel Passage is pretty perfect for a baptism celebration. You can't get a better encapsulation of the essence of the faith we are inviting little Olivia into today than this: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Or as our Presiding Bishop puts it, "Love God, love your neighbor, and while you're at it, love yourself.”
It's such a great summary, in fact, that it can be easy to overlook that the lawyer was actually trying to test and challenge Jesus. Jesus's response to the lawyer's second question is likewise intended to test and challenge the lawyer and us, the listeners. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself is not as easy as it sounds. That's why we spend years cultivating these values and what they mean in our children and in ourselves. And why we do so in community and in conversation with scripture and the wisdom of past generations.
This week, I turned to the powerful witness and words of the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's as I approached Jesus’ parable. In his sermon that's often referred to as the “I have been to the Mountaintop” sermon, King reminds us that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho the four men traveled is a dangerous one. Its curves and terrain make it ideal for exactly the kind of ambush the victim of our story had fallen prey to. King suggests that it's perfectly possible that the priest and the Levite didn't stop to help the man because they were afraid of getting ambushed, too. Or they suspected that the man was faking his injuries and actually part of a trap himself. In other words, King preached that the first question that came to the mind of the priest and the Levite when they saw this suffering man was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Samaritan, the foreigner, the one who decided to be a neighbor, the first question he thought when he saw this man’s suffering was, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” For King, it is this question that lies at the heart of love of neighbor. “If I do not stop to help this fellow suffering person, what will happen to them?” This question guides what it means to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
What do we do in a world where every road seems dangerous?
On Monday, my little family and I gathered with our neighbors and hundreds of other East Longmeadow folks to enjoy our town's famous fourth of July parade. We had great weather and so much fun celebrating a bit of patriotic and hometown pride. At the same time, just under a thousand miles away in Illinois, other families gathered in another suburban town just like our to watch their local parade, to celebrate their neighbors and our nation. But as we now know and grieve, their sunny day was ripped apart by violence and tragedy when a gunman opened fire on parade spectators. That should have been a safe and happy road for families to park their lawn chairs and wave their flags; every road in every town and city should be. But the threat of gun violence lingers, over our schools, our public gatherings, and our churches. How can we live, how can we gather, without this terror paralyzing or overwhelming us?
In videos from the Highland Park shooting, a police officer runs toward the sound of gunfire. A father places his kids in a dumpster and turns back to the pain. Strangers rescue and pull an orphaned two year old close.
King’s answer is that we are still called to ask the Samaritan’s question first, in the face of all that danger. Like Jesus, he did not just preach this message. Like Jesus, he lived by it and died by it. Martin Luther King ended his Good Samaritan sermon reflecting on his recent near fatal stabbing and constant death threats he received throughout his ministry. In his last few sentences, King made peace with the risks he was taking because of his clear sense of purpose and his faith that God would bring us, all of us, to a time of true justice and freedom for all. The next day after giving this exact sermon, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a gunman’s bullet. His words and example live on, challenging us to ask ourselves, “If I do not stop to help my fellow suffering human being, what will happen to them?”
Professor Matthew Skinner of Lutheran University adds one more question to King’s. He asks the question, “If I do not stop to help my fellow suffering human being, what will happen to me?” What are the spiritual consequences of teaching ourselves to ignore the plight of the poor, the outcast, and the alone? What does it do to our souls when we only consider protecting our own wealth or reputation or time? When we draw lines around who is worthy of compassion? What is the spiritual harm of miserliness, shutting ourselves off from others, leaning into distrust and apathy?
Or to put it in a more positive light, what growth is possible when we open ourselves to generosity, in spite of risk? What potential do we unlock in ourselves when we reach out a hand, even when it means interrupting our all-important journeys along the road to Jericho? How are we transformed by our own acts of compassion? Who do we become when we make kindness our primary way of being in the world? Loving ourselves means not allowing selfishness or fear to lead us away from our calling to be a beacon for Christ’s love and hope to the world.
We are not all called to martyrdom, thank God. We do not often face circumstances that demand extraordinary heroism. But I do know that each and every day each of us has the power to make small choices of faith over fear, generosity over avarice, neighbor over self. We give a bit more than we planned, we push past judgmental thoughts, we make time for a stranger, we demand courage from our representatives, we carry our children to the font. We take the brave steps, large and small, needed to make this world a safer, more loving place. And each of those prepare us for the unexpected moments that require greatness.
In a moment, Andrew and Mariana, Kaylin and Edward will be asked to renounce evil on behalf of their child and godchild. Our faith names and recognizes the dangers of the roads ahead of us. We reject their power over us. We say an even more powerful yes to following Jesus’ example of love in the face of all of that would tear it down.
Let us join with Olivia and the Gettis family and affirm the covenant that binds us to love, God and one another.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, July 3 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Psalm 30, Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16, and Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.
Recently the podcast and NPR show, “On Being” with Krista Tippett replayed an older interview with Jewish mystic and physician Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. In it, Dr. Remen draws an intriguing distinction between curing and healing. One of the problems of the medical profession, according to Dr. Remen, is that medical students are taught to be focused on curing; that is fixing whatever ails the person before you. Curing is highly specialized work involving research and diagnoses, medication and treatments - scientific skills. Through that framework, death is always the failure of medicine. Healing, on the other hand, is the work of becoming whole, restoring well-being and peace. To heal, one draws on the spiritual skills of compassion, service, a reverence for life, courage and love. Healing involves touch and presence, music and prayer, forgiveness and patience. Healing can come even at the point of death.
You can be cured without being healed, healed without being cured. I believe this because I have seen healing in the absence of a cure. I have seen how the presence of a loved one can bring wholeness to a deathbed. I have witnessed how the reminder of God’s presence can bring peace to the terminally unwell. But we have more than just anecdotes - the medical profession has long known that the touch of a mother can make all the difference in the health of a newborn baby; the presence of a loved one can measurably ease pain.
Dr. Remen believes that every human being is called to receive and give healing, even and especially those who are wounded themselves. She tells Tippett, “And I began to realize how I had been healed by these people with cancer; how I had moved from a person focused on curing, and truly coming to understand that we are all healers of one another, that people have been healing each other since the beginning, and that my power to cure was a small part of my power to help people.”
Each time Jesus himself cures the sick or demon-possessed, he also does the work of healing. Jesus heals not only that individual before him but the community around the wounded person. He restores them to reconciled relationships in the social network from which they have been separated or cast out. This is perhaps clearest in the case of the Gerasene demoniac. Once the man is cured of his demon, he asks to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells him to remain. He must be present there to continue his healing, repairing his relationship with the neighbors who had chained him up on the outskirts of town.
When Jesus appoints the seventy to go out before him, he tells them they do not need any belongings or provisions - they are already equipped with all they need. Their primary task is to bring their peace to others and remind the people of the presence of God among them, the kingdom of God come near. Curing the sick is only a small part of the work they are commissioned to do. They are to heal through a ministry of presence, sharing food, accepting welcome, bringing peace.
When the seventy return to Jesus, they return rejoicing, filled with stories of success, giddy with power. They are amazed at their own ability to cure and command. Jesus’ response here is so fascinating. Be careful that you do not rejoice in the wrong thing, Jesus warns. Don’t rejoice in all the power you have been given. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
In other words, do not ground your joy in your accomplishments or results. Ground your joy in your identity with God, your participation in this great movement. It is enough to simply know and be known by God. Root your joy not in your new found curative or demon-defying powers. The source of your joy should instead spring from the truth of your belonging to God and to God's wider movement in the world.
God’s wider movement of healing to which all people are called has a Hebrew name in Jewish theology: tikkun olam, or the healing or restoration of the world. Dr. Remen names tikkun olam as the center of her spiritual worldview. Tikkun olam will always have a special place in my heart, too. It was one of the themes our wedding preacher highlighted in his sermon to us, much to the delight of Aaron's Jewish grandfather. He preached that our marriage is and was to be a small part of the healing of the world. And, later in the ceremony, our officiant had us stop to look around to take in all the faces smiling back at us, to see all that our love has already done in bringing so many together. It was such a sacred moment that I include it in every wedding I officiate.
Perhaps we should have a moment like that in every service we do here, perhaps that’s what the sharing of the peace is. That’s when we do what the seventy were called to do. A moment to recognize and be grateful for one another’s presence. A brief time to celebrate that us coming here, coming together, is part of the healing of the world.
There was a moment as the world began to open up after COVID, a brief one, and even then I was surprised at how fleeting it was, when being able to simply be with one another felt like a miracle. There was wisdom in that moment, and it’s wisdom we need still. We may not have governmental guidelines against gathering in the same way now, but getting together is still difficult. Many people have admitted to me that they are surprised by how hard it is now to get up and go and get out to church, whether that is because of residual fear of infection, declines in their health, or simply getting out of the habit. The thing is you never know what it took someone to get here this morning, everyone you see here has overcome something to arrive. You never know who walked for 15 minutes in the sun or took three buses to be here, who overcame depression to drag themselves out of bed, who wrestled through a toddler tantrum or two to get out the door. Each of you being present here today is no small thing; I do not take it for granted when people walk through our doors.
In the early days of COVID, when all we had was phone and Zoom, I noticed one of my friends had developed a habit of saying, “It is good to hear your voice,” each time we talked. Then later it became, “It is good to see your face.” In that one line, sincerely spoken and sincerely meant, I learned to hear this: whatever happens here, whatever we say and do and accomplish together, I choose to ground my joy in the simple fact that we are together, and that that being together, sharing a sacred meal, spreading each other’s peace, is healing. I rejoice that our names are written on each other’s hearts.
The good news that the seventy bring to the people they meet is the good news of presence. The kingdom of God has come near to you this day. Yes, they are sent to cure the sick. Yes, they command demons in God’s name. But the essence of the joy they have to spread is the simple truth of God’s presence among us when we come together.
So if you remember one thing from today - know this. I take joy in your presence here today with us. And so does God.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, June 26 by the Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5:1,13-25, and Luke 9:51-62.
Over vacation, I watched a Netflix documentary on a break-away polygamist sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the devastating impact of their two so-called prophets, Rulon Jeffs and son, Warren Jeffs. The last scene of the four part series is one of those voiceover reenactments, retold by one of the dozens of young wives of the elderly prophet, Alicia Rohbock. In it, Alicia describes how she finally decided to escape from the religious society that controlled her body, kidnapped her children, and dictated every aspect of her life, down to her underwear and the style of her hair. Her mother and her brother helped her pack up all her belongings in a trailer truck. As she drove away behind the truck, she watched as the trailer doors flew open and all her belongings - the dresses, the long underwear, all the teachings of the prophet - were scattered across the highway and run over by passing trucks and cars. In that moment she thought, I have to start all over. Brand new. Brand-spanking new. And that's the last scene, her driving on, free, in control of her own body, her children, her destiny.
The title of the documentary, "Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey," draws from the motto of the elder prophet, Rulon. It describes what he taught a woman’s relationship with her husband should always be - sweet and submissive. But the women who escaped the cult would tell you that the patience, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control they cultivated were not the fruit of the spirit. They were the fruit of fear and control, and a distinct absence of joy and peace. They were born out of submission to a cruel and abusive yoke.
True fruit of the Spirit comes from freedom. Including love, especially love. It must be freely chosen by the self, within the self. From an authentic, unforced yes to Christ. My mentor's favorite motto summarizes it this way: Let your no’s be no’s and your yes’s be yes’s.
In our Gospel passage, we see how Jesus responds to choices made by people and communities, to no's and yes's and choices halfway in between.
Jesus' face is set toward Jerusalem. Because of this, Luke records, he was turned away by a village of Samaritans on his way. Despite their rejection, Jesus refuses to condemn them, punish them, or waste anymore time on them, even at the coaxing of his disciples. He lets their no be a no and moves on - because he is clear about his goal and destiny. He continues forward toward hope, undeterred.
It is for the halfway yes’s that Jesus reserves harsh words. Yes, but first let me bury my father; yes, but first let me say farewell. These are good reasons, noble reasons to delay leaving everything behind. I don't think Jesus is condemning grief or closure. These sayings instead highlight that the hardest choices in our lives are sometimes those between two good and beautiful things.
Furthermore, when we make our choice but still remain caught, looking back, wondering what if, straining to see what the other choice would have brought us, our yes is likewise a halfway yes. We are stuck between two realities, as if we are driving away from an abusive life with a truck packed full of all that life’s trappings. "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Jesus’ response may be less about one's inherent worthiness and more about the simple fact that one's presence in the kingdom is not yet complete until it is freely and fully chosen. Until we let go of what could have been. Until we choose to keep driving after the truck doors fly open, until we abandon our baggage on the side of the highway, until we choose to free ourselves, we may not be ready for what the kingdom asks of us.
Over the past three years, I have had many conversations with parishioners who feel torn between two good and noble values. The stakes felt particularly high for the parents discerning what is best for their children and their family, conscious that they were at the same time modeling how to make good choices in front of their kids. They pondered questions like: should I teach my kids to follow through on their commitments to their sports teams or should I teach them to prioritize making time for church and their faith? What's more important: risks to community health or my child's spiritual and social development? At the heart of all these things was the question, how am I to love, and love well?
Jesus shows us that love, especially sacrificial love, must be freely chosen. When Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, he is freely choosing to give of himself for us, to break his body for us. Jesus’ sacrifice is love because it is freely done. He does not waver from his choice.
As a chaplain to the gynecological and labor and delivery units of a hospital in Sacramento, I also accompanied parents and would-be parents and about-to-be parents caught between two horrific outcomes, trying to discern what was best for their children and their family. My role was to advocate for their right to rely on their spiritual resources and their faith in the face of life-threatening circumstances with no good options, sometimes in opposition to their medical team. These were heart-breaking, terrible choices, ranging from the termination of pregnancy to the halting of NICU life support. They were choices that deserved to be fully informed and freely made, grounded in the true convictions of the people who came to me for guidance, support, and prayer. Grounded in love.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. For freedom is the heart of love.
What does it look like to offer Christ’s freedom to ourselves and those around us? First, it looks like finding a way to let our yes's be yes's and our no's be no's, freely and fully chosen. Second, it looks like continuous invitation into a life of deep meaning to those around us, even those who are likely to say no. We respect rejection because in doing so we are ultimately respecting the freedom Christ has given to each of us. Even when others make different choices, we remain faced toward Jerusalem, toward hope and our deeply held goals. Third, it looks like continuous support for people to live out their truest values whole-heartedly and authentically, even, and especially, when the choices are difficult or confusing. Reminding one another that love springs from a whole-hearted, freely chosen yes.
Standing for Christ's freedom looks like reaching out a hand to those who are still not free. People like the cult leader's wife, Alicia, yearning to break from years of mental, spiritual, and emotional prisons. Victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse, those trapped by poverty and addiction, unwanted and cast aside children, every person denied the ability to love or worship or express themselves or care for their bodies as they would freely choose. Standing for Christ's freedom looks like risking for them, fighting for them, even, and especially, when those injustices are being justified by fellow Christians and Christian scriptures.
We set our faces toward hope, life, and the freedom that has been promised to us in Christ. We let the truck doors fly open and we drive on.
This sermon was preached for Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022 by the Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15, and Psalm 8.
A couple of years ago a teen riding an old rusted bike with no brakes crashed into an older gentlemen’s car and dented it. A few days later, the owner of the car returned and presented the teen with a brand new bike with brakes. A photo of the presentation of the gift was passed around the internet - in it, the boy is clearly extremely touched by the older man’s gift, hiding his teary face in his hands. The photo made the rounds again in 2021 and popped up again on thousands of people’s feeds this week. I suspect the reason this picture keeps getting shared is not just that it is an uplifting moment in a time of stress and strife between generations. It may also be because so many of us can recognize ourselves in the two people: in the young kid who made a mistake, limited by the inadequate tools he had available to him, and in the old man, who is extending forgiveness and generosity out of experience and understanding. Offering another chance, this one with better tools and perhaps a little more wisdom.
There’s this one theme that’s come up a lot in my conversations with parents of adult children recently. It’s the hard-won wisdom that your children must learn things on their own in their own time. Lessons you learned the hard way, they must learn the hard way, too. Things must be told and taught and advised at the right time for them to be truly heard and absorbed. I have great admiration for parents who know this well, because it’s often a lesson learned the hard way in itself, sometimes born out of dented cars and not quite developed frontal lobes.
Giving grace to others’ mistakes isn’t unique to parent-child relationships, of course. Sometimes each of us needs to step back and recognize when the other person is careening through life without a full set of brakes. Here’s to everyone who’s ever bitten a tongue back when a friend has fumbled into yet another mistake. Here’s to all of you who’ve ever graciously swallowed the phrase, “I told you so.”
If we are called to be like that with one another, how much more must God be like that with us? Lovingly guiding, perhaps sighing and chuckling, as each of our lives imperfectly unfold.
And what might it look like to be that grace to ourselves?
“...we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans can be read as an admonishment to be grateful for the trials and tribulations of one’s life, for how they teach and shape us. Sometimes, especially in the midst of suffering, I don’t find that sentiment particularly helpful, although I see why others might. What I have learned to hear in that instead is an invitation toward grace. A reminder to give oneself the time and space to learn. There are stages to growth that sometimes can’t be sped up or skipped over. There are things we cannot grasp, or see clearly now, or even bear, not until we get to the other side of this particular challenge.
One of the greatest honors of being a priest is the privilege of walking with people toward the end of their lives, when they reflect over all they have done and learned, their regrets and their gratitudes. I have borne witness to folks choosing to overcome the minor and major sufferings of old age not through denial or secrecy, but through openness and faith. I have seen how the wisest few develop a new kind of quiet strength in the end, even as their bodies and minds weaken. It takes strength to give over one’s independence with dignity, true humility to gratefully accept help from one’s children and friends, and holy, holy grace to let go of the abilities and gifts that used to define your identity and worth. And forgiving oneself in the end? Well, that takes all three: strength, humility, and grace.
One of the wisest Christians I have ever known served as a teacher for many years - both in her secular life and at church. Ruth viewed everyone around her as constantly learning, and would remind them of that fact - even, and perhaps especially, her priest. We are all students of life, she was fond of saying in Sunday School classrooms and vestry meetings alike. But the true secret to her wisdom was that she regarded herself as a student in all things, even right to the end. She spent her whole life giving herself that grace to be always learning, room for her vision to expand even in her last days in hospice care, which was when I had the great privilege of meeting her.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says at the end at the table with his friends. There is so much more to come, so much more to be revealed and learned. Our Christian faith is not a closed book, it is also a work in progress.
Jesus wanted his followers to understand that God would still be speaking to them, in new times and new places. Even today, I believe we are still learning new ways of loving and believing and relating to God: ways, methods, and practices inconceivable, and yes, perhaps even unbearable for our ancestors. God is still speaking, as my favorite United Church of Christ slogan declares. Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." Soon it will be the Spirit’s turn to speak them to the Church. When my former boss explains how he first began to wrap his head around the evolving position of the church on queer rights issues, this is the verse he cites. It's the one I think of every time I encounter someone who is incredulous that I, a woman, am allowed to be a priest. And it's the one that comes to me when I contemplate all the surprising ways the Spirit may be asking the church to change and grow to meet the new challenges of our time and place.
I’ll never forget standing on the floor of the House of Delegates at the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church when the final ballots electing the first African-American Presiding Bishop were tallied and announced. Standing near me was an older member of the Union of Black Episcopalians. Shaking her head in bewilderment, tears in her eyes, she told me she never thought that she would live to see the day. Just then the Church spontaneously broke out into a hymn of praise, hundreds of delegates and spectators singing and crying, and in four-part harmony, too. You’d better believe the Spirit was there in our midst.
We are all flawed students of life, whose progress and process is never fully complete. We must, each of us, travel this road at our own imperfect pace. Our choice is in trusting that the lessons will unfold when and how we need to hear them. We cannot speed up so much of life, but we can choose to be patient in the “I don’t know…yet.” We can move ourselves from the unforgiving paralysis of "I should have known" to the grace-filled kindness in "Thank God I know now." We can learn to approach the unfolding with faith, with grace, and more than a little self-forgiveness.
On a communal scale, collectively, the Church both moves too fast and too slow, all at once. And yet we worship a God who meets us where we are and loves us too much to leave us there. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us from challenge into endurance, into character, and onto hope.
When I lived in the Middle East for the first time, I was part of an immersive language program. We took a pledge to only speak, read, and write in Arabic for four months. So during that time of no English, I got to know a Jordanian university student purely in his native tongue. He was extraordinarily patient with my bumbling Arabic and taught me a great deal about his city, his culture, and most importantly to both of us, his Islamic faith. My new friend was a caring guide to a foreign world with strange perspectives that stretched my mind and heart. I knew him as intelligent, hilarious, and exceedingly chivalrous.
Then, on that last day in Amman, after our final ceremony releasing us from the pledge, I turned to my friend to have my first conversation with him in English. As soon as he began attempting to form words in my native language, my perception of this guy that I gotten to know so well over the course of months, instantly shifted. Suddenly, it was he who was bumbling, ignorant, devoid of humor. It was as if a switched had been flipped. He seemed an entirely different person in a different language.
I realized in that instant if I had only known him in English, I would have missed out on so much of what he had to say and teach me. It hurt to admit to myself that with his heavy accent and halting speech, I would probably have simply dismissed him. How much do I lose out on when I let barriers to understanding hide the fullness of another person? Or when I insist they only communicate in a way with which I am most comfortable?
A key part of the original story of our branch of the Jesus movement, the Episcopal Church, is the right of the people to get to know God and God’s story, to worship, pray, and read scripture in their native language. Martin Luther insisted that the Bible be translated into the common tongue so that the clergy would no longer hold a monopoly over the meaning of scripture. Thomas Cranmer gave the Church of England its first book of liturgy, psalms, and prayer in English meant for the common people. Even now, we are constantly listening for how our language, prayers, and theology can be updated and refreshed so as to speak to the world and times we live in. This desire to hear and know God in our mother tongues sets us apart from our sister faiths, Islam and Judaism, who have carefully guarded the original Arabic and Hebrew of their scriptures and prayers for generations. We can trace this Christian impulse of translation back to this moment, here, in the story of Acts, back to the birth of the church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, all the people gathered around the disciples heard Good News in their own language, came to know the story of God in a way that spoke to them.
The Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs did not have to change who they were in order to access God. They didn’t need to study a whole ancient language to belong and understand. The Holy Spirit came to them, met them as they were, where they were.
This June, Episcopal clergy all across this country will be marching in pride parades in rainbow stoles, posting on social media, and preaching sermon after sermon hoping to spread the Good News that so many people still have never been told: you can be true to yourself and be Christian. You can embrace the uniqueness of your gender and sexual identity while following Jesus. In fact, for you, following God’s call on your life might look exactly like loving yourself and others the way that is most true to who you are. God may ask you to grow as you journey in the faith - you may be challenged and stretched and convicted - but you should never be asked to betray what love authentically means to you or who God has created you to be. If the church is ever a place you are required to artificially conform and curtail who you are, we all miss out. We’re all deprived of the preciousness that is your gifts, your self. We lose out on all the church could be, is meant to be.
This conviction is grounded in the sacrament we are all about to take part in and renew for ourselves: baptism. Charlie and Molly don’t have to do anything to be embraced by God, this church, and the wider Christian family. Baptism proclaims they are loved right now and always, wholly and completely, just the way they are and as they will become. This ritual affirms that their belovedness is permanent and irrefutable. Nothing, no one, can take away their identity in God’s love.
As their aunt, it’s been such a delight to watch Charlie and Molly learn to speak English. At the same time, my sister and brother-in-law - and everyone who loves them - have been learning to speak Charlie and Molly. We are learning who they are, at their core, their gifts and quirks, who God created them to be.
Their belovedness does not depend on fitting themselves into what’s most comfortable or convenient to the rest of us. And thank God! Because we would really be missing out.
In this ritual of baptism, don’t be fooled by all of us speaking in unison and answering yes and no together. Pay attention instead to the promises. Baptism is the commitment to discovering what each of them mean for you in your life. In just a moment, we will promise to strive to love our neighbors, ourselves, and God, to respect the dignity of every human being. We will reject the lies and evil that try to convince us of our and others’ worthlessness, or that we need to betray who we are in order to belong. We will pledge to find Jesus in our own lives in the language that meets us where we are now - and invites us to grow into what we are called to be. We will commit to the journey of discovering what following God means for each of us in our lives, in our own bodies and languages and vocations.
What makes us a community is not that we are all the same or even that we believe the exact same things. What makes us a community is that we all commit to the same promises.
Whenever we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in my seminary’s chapel, we were invited to pray the prayer “in the language of our heart.” I came to love that chaotic cacophony of each person praying the same prayer in the version they first learned - in Spanish and Portuguese and Mandarin and Lakota, King James English and contemporary English. That piece of the liturgy brought us back to the beginning: to baptism and Pentecostal birth of the church.
Unity in diversity, one from many. Striving toward the same commandment of love in so many different ways.
Next to the entrance for fourth and fifth graders at my elementary school, there was a small memorial garden filled with pretty flowers and colorful pinwheels, planted by the parents of a young boy who had died. It might seem a little strange to have small children walk past a reminder of the mortality of children at the start of each day. But here I have to remind you that I grew up as an American schoolchild in the 90s and early 2000s. I was in fourth grade when the shooting at Columbine high school happened; the garden sat right outside the doors we were trained to lock and the desks we learned to huddle behind in active shooter lockdown drills. By the time I was 10 years old, I was already being asked to confront the reality that going to school meant I could be in danger of dying by a gun wielded by a fellow child. So in the face of that, the memorial garden was instead a poignant lesson of the endurance and depth of a particular kind of grief, a grief no person should ever know, that of a parent burying a child. The garden stood to say: this love never ends, even when little lives do. Grief, Jamie Anderson once wrote, Grief is love with no place to go. Here, this small, beautiful sanctuary of carefully tended, budding life, was somewhere for a small part of all that love to go.
This weekend is a time we as a nation have agreed to set aside to think about how we memorialize our dead. This Monday is all about remembering lives ended too soon, daughters and sons - so many sons - lost to the cruelty and callousness of war. We have a tendency in this country to set up huge stone markers to immortalize our war dead: plaques and statutes and lists of names made of metal and stone. Their permanence is meant to underscore our vow to always remember their sacrifice. These markers are built to withstand the elements, erected once and for all time. There is something a bit disingenuous about great stone monuments, however, something that memorial gardens capture much better.
Memories are fragile. Memories, like gardens, need to be tended to. Stories need to be retold, seeds replanted. Grief goes through cycles - seasons - of relevance and poignancy. Throughout it all, remembering and honoring loss asks something of us year after year. Memorial gardens make that ongoing commitment tangible.
The choice to plant a garden in response to a tragedy is the defiant choice to create a space of natural beauty in the face of the world’s ugliness, life in the aftermath of death. Confronted by the brokenness of the world as it is, the memorial garden dares to define the world as we know it should be: tender, fruitful, filled with peace. Its seedlings and buds demand our return, season after season. We kneel to spread mulch over its soil, bow to water its roots, lean in to sniff its blossoms, we trim and weed and prune. We pray with our hands and our feet and noses, our spades and shears and hoses. Those rituals change and reorient us. They teach us to see one another as life to be tended to, protected, and appreciated.
Of course, I am preaching to a parish who knows gardens. St. Mark’s beautiful memorial garden was a key part of my first tour here. Many of you have been generous in telling me the stories behind its blossoms and branches that are so beautiful this time of year. And of course, there’s our rainbow garden, which just this week is being resown by our Bhutanese neighbor church once again.
This is a place and a community that understands faith needs to be tended to, year after year, actively reinvested in with time, talent, and treasure, season after season. This church is not a big stone memorial. This church is an Easter garden, bursting with life.
You know, they tried to put Jesus in a great stone tomb. They rolled a huge boulder over the entrance of hewn rock. But that’s not when our story ended; that’s not how our God works. Our God broke open the tomb and transformed the world through human hearts and hands. Resurrection required a response from all who witnessed it. One violent tragedy on the cross rippled out into a powerful movement for love.
The central act of our faith is a memorial feast, a returning to the table to listen again for Jesus’ farewell words to his friends and to take to heart what they ask of us. In today’s Gospel, we overhear Jesus’ final prayer at that table in the Gospel of John, in which he lays out God’s dream: the world brought together as one through the love and witness of Jesus’ followers. Times like this past week remind us of how far we have yet to go and the work before us. Preventing the next school shooting, the next violent war, the next unspeakable tragedy, requires more than standing before a stone in prayer. It demands that we recommit to tending to the most fragile and vulnerable buds in our communities. To remember the dead properly is to remain vigilant to the insidious ideologies and idolatries that threaten our peace; it is to act and vote and march, plant and weed and water.
And so I’ll end with a piece of one of our Eucharistic Prayers, the one where we pray,
“Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”
This sermon was preached for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 22, 2022 by the Rev. Mia Kano. The readings for this sermon were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, and John 14:23-29.
In the early 1950s, a down and out kid named Gary kept showing up at a small library in Chicago. His parents were absent and neglectful, swallowed up by alcoholism, and so for this young teen, the library became a sanctuary. Years later, Gary reminisced about the library in an interview with NPR,
“The librarian - she watched me for a while. I was kind of this urchin, you know, a street urchin. Then she finally said, you want something? I said, nah I'm OK. And she gave me a card and - hard to talk about it. It was a card with my name on it. And, God, nobody had given me a - anything like that. Nobody gave me anything.”
The librarian also gave him books, starting out with one book a month and then one book a week. In turn, he would tell her his own imaginative stories, which he called thought pictures. Then one day, the librarian pulled him aside and gave him a Scripto notebook and a new number-two pencil, for writing down some of his own thought pictures. Gary was skeptical. “For who?” He asked. “For me,” she said.
In the end, it would be for more than just her, of course. Gary, Gary Paulsen, would go on to author hundreds of books. You may have read some of them. One, Hatchet, was required reading when I was in school. Another, “Dog Song,” won Gary a Newbery Honor. His books stood out for their raw honesty and struck a chord with young readers turned off by other fiction, especially young boys. In his memoir, “Gone into the Woods,” and his interviews, Paulsen credited the librarian’s kindness as the turning point that changed his life, saying, “None of this would have happened except for that.” Except for that librarian, that notebook, that moment of open-heartedness.
In Acts, we are primed to think about how Paul changes Lydia’s life - how God changes Lydia through Paul. God opens Lydia’s heart so that she listens to the truth of the Gospel and she is moved not only to receive baptism herself, but also to baptize her whole household. God opens her heart and in response, Lydia opens her home, hosting the weary apostles.
Then, while Paul goes off on his adventures and missions, Lydia stays to found a key early church, the church in Philippi. She does the hard work of building and holding together a fledgling community, grounded in that first act of open-heartedness and hospitality. We get hints of that community in Paul’s letters back to them, collected into our Bibles as the Epistle to the Philippians. Lydia’s remembered in all sorts of denominations as a saint; the Orthodox Church gives her the title, “Equal to the Apostles.”
In all this, I can’t help but pause to wonder how Lydia might have changed Paul. We can see that Paul is perhaps a bit lost - remember he’s not following some clearly laid out plan with guaranteed success. He’s relying on strange visions to guide his next steps, he’s ending up on the outskirts of strange cities. What would it have felt like for Paul to be met with this open-hearted woman? What would it have been like to be welcomed into her home after his long travels? How might an encounter with one open-hearted, generous soul have reinvigorated Paul? I wonder what she taught him.
Perhaps you, too, have encountered an open-hearted person at just the right moment in your life, when you were weary or alone or lost. A teacher, a coach, a friend, a stranger. Someone who opened their heart to you when yours was troubled. For me, there was the military chaplain I met in the deserts of Jordan. Working for international NGOs on a Fulbright grant, I was two years into giving up on God, on my faith, and on my childhood dream of becoming a minister. But this one chaplain - who wasn’t even Christian himself - took the time to encourage me, dared to suggest that there were gifts still inside me to be used in the spiritual service of others. None of this would have happened except for that.
We risk so much being open-hearted in this world. It took barely a week and a half for the scammers to start sending out solicitation emails to parishioners in my name! When you’ve been hurt, and when you are grieving, it can feel foolish to approach your life with an open heart. After disappointment and betrayals, open-heartedness can feel difficult even within a marriage, a family, or close-knit community. When we are relentlessly bombarded with reminders of the violence and cruelty of the world, the virality of hateful rhetoric and racism, as we have been this week, open-heartedness can feel downright naive. That’s why I think it is important to notice that it is God who opens Lydia’s heart to the strange band of missionaries and the truth they had to say. She does not do it on her own - God is right there with her.
Jesus says to his followers in a dark and frightening hour, on the eve of his brutal execution, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus says to us, You are not alone. I will not leave you to figure this out on your own. Yet his invitation is clear: choose peace over fear. Let your heart be opened.
There’s a chance this week - or the next week or maybe years from now, that you will have the chance to be that open-hearted person in someone else’s life. There’s a chance that you will meet a troubled heart, lost and afraid. It might be a stranger, but it could be your own relative, or friend, or child. I believe that one of the reasons we come here, to this place, week after week, one of the reasons we pray and practice finding Christ’s peace in our hearts, is so that we might be ready to be open-hearted in moments when it feels most impossible, foolish, and naive. We seek the nourishment, refreshment, and rest that enables us to recognize God opening of our hearts at the moment we are needed most.
Gary Paulsen has said that the librarian who changed his life probably never knew he went on to become a successful author. He never knew her name. Plus, his first books weren’t even published under his. It’s quite possible that she never learned how God used her gesture of open-heartedness to touch so many young readers. It’s possible that we may never know how our own open-heartedness has changed the world, years later, lives later.
Jesus invites us to open our hearts, our lives and our homes, anyway. Jesus invites us to look for the troubled hearts among us and to be the peace he gives.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, May 15, 2022 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church by the Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.
A couple weekends ago, I took my previous parish’s youth group on a local service trip called CityReach. The program connects teens and adult volunteers with the work of common cathedral, an outdoor church community for the unhoused in Boston - very similar to everything I’ve heard about your work here with Church Without Walls. The power of CityReach is that the program is led by folks who either currently live or have lived on the streets of downtown Boston. For that weekend, they are our teachers. Our guide led us on a tour of the streets of Boston through the eyes of someone who had grown up sleeping in its alleyways, busking on its street corners, and shuffling in and out of prison. On Saturday, volunteers give out clothing donations and food to guests - “family members we haven’t met yet” as our priest Rev. Mary told us to think of them. Over and over again, our leaders stressed that it wasn’t about the items we were giving but rather the relationships we were forming, however fleeting. We were there to provide life-saving sleeping bags and coats, yes, but also dignity and compassion. Our task was to remember a face, a name. We were to leave from that weekend knowing people as people, not just a statistic or societal blight.
In our reflection after the event, one of the chaperones spoke about assisting a woman with selecting a coat. He admitted he was focused on form and function - could this coat or that coat be a practical choice for her in this weather. But when the woman tried on a coat she turned and asked him simply, “Does this look good on me?” In that moment, the volunteer remembered the stories our leaders had told us about being turned away on the basis of smell and appearance, being judged as unclean and unworthy because they looked like they had no housing. A coat that could help this woman blend into normal society, take a seat at a coffee shop or sit in a library unharassed, that was just as vital as warmth or rainproofing. She wanted and deserved to feel beautiful. This was the gift we were here in that downtown church to give. So he smiled and said, yes. Yes, you look great in that one.
Our leaders explained to us that no matter how much self-worth and confidence you begin with, when you spend day in and day out being told you are worthless by glares and scoffs, cruel words and neglect, it is impossible not to have all those lies worm their way inside of you. When the world treats you as unclean, you begin to believe you are.
But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'
Peter had just spent his days witnessing God’s incredible miracles, chief among them the bestowing of the Holy Spirit upon those he had long been taught were outside of the covenant, beyond God’s love. And yet when the new leaders of the budding church called him back to Jerusalem, their first question to him was not of praise and to awe at how he had brought in so many new believers. Instead their first question carried a critique - why was he mingling with all the wrong people? Peter responds the only way he can. He tells a story of what he has seen and known. He has witnessed the Holy Spirit falling on the uncircumsized, non-Jewish Gentiles, just as it had fallen on each of them. This distinction that they had thought was so important for so long, the Spirit told him clearly did not matter any longer. “Who was I to hinder God?” Peter asked. Isn’t this what Jesus was doing when he went around eating with the prostitutes and the sinners? Isn’t this what he meant by the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Have we not been told all along that God’s vision for the world is greater and more expansive than we can possibly imagine?
The plight of unhoused people is perhaps the clearest example of how social and wealth divides trick us into treating what God has made clean profane, who God loves as unlovable and undeserving of dignity. But our traditions and twisted theology can do that, too. In ancient times, God gave humankind sacred and beautiful laws meant to guide us toward the way of love. Then God sent us prophets to remind us that those laws were all about love whenever we forgot. But again and again, we turn around and misuse them to divide people into clean and unclean, worthy and unworthy. We even turn around and divide up our own sense of ourselves.
Right now on borders all over the world, some people are allowed to cross over to safety while others are left to languish - simply because where they were born renders them unclean according to national policy. Right now, in group homes and orphanages, some children are being taken in and others are passed over - simply because their age or disability or trauma classifies them as too damaged to be loved. There are moments in our lives when we permit a policy or social rule or codified law to lead us away from the brave choice to love the one in front of us as they deserve to be loved. Without Peter’s openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, he could have fallen into that trap, just as the Jerusalem apostles had done. He could have missed seeing how God’s dream for the world was fuller and grander than he had ever guessed.
There are moments in our lives when we allow some external expectation to convince us that we are less than, unclean, unworthy. And when we do, we miss out on the Holy Spirit’s movement before us, within us. We stumble into getting in the way of God’s wide and boundless dream for all of humankind.
In our efforts to make sense of right and wrong in the world, we have so easily forgotten what Jesus attempted to make so simple here in his parting words in the Gospel of John: it’s all about love. Or as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God. If a rule or a law or custom or habit turns us away from love of another, if it results in more poverty, more brokenness, more suffering and neglect for any child of God - it’s not of God. Jesus did not say, they will know you are my followers by the rules you enforce or the sins you avoid. Jesus said, they will know you are mine because of how you let yourself be loved by me and in turn, how you share that love one with another.
For me, the person who's name I remembered, whose story I agreed to tell, was Leigh. Leigh told me in a quiet, heartbreaking moment about a church that had turned him away because of his homelessness. But there, in his common cathedral church, Leigh is a vital, strong, and respected leader, whose spirit has made an impact on hundreds of young people over the course of two decades. He lets himself be loved, he shares the love he’s known. At the end of our day of service at CityReach, Leigh made an offhand comment that stuck with me. “Sometimes I think that the people on the street are the closest to God of everyone.” Leigh knew in his heart that the Holy Spirit was moving in his life, even when so much had told him otherwise. His claiming of his belovedness became a gift to his community, his church, to each of us.
Every day I serve here, I hear another story from one of you about how St. Mark’s has been that place for you - a place to be loved and share love - and I am so grateful. Your claiming of your belovedness here in this community - that is a gift to us.
This sermon was preached for Good Shepherd Sunday, May 8, 2022 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, East Longmeadow by the Rev. Mia Kano. The readings for this day were: Acts 9:36-43, John 10:22-30, and Psalm 23.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
At one of my learning parishes, the rector came into my office a bit baffled. He had just been meeting with a family loosely connected with our parish whose relative had died. They had been selecting hymns and readings, and doing all the preparation work required for the upcoming funeral. Knowing the family was relatively unchurched, my priest pulled out the old funeral standby, Psalm 23. But the family balked. The Psalm, you see, included the word death in it. Too depressing, the family decided. Who wants to dwell on death?
My rector at the time was never one to tell someone how they should, or shouldn’t grieve. But he was, understandably, wondering a bit about how to get through a funeral without touching on the subject of death. How can we claim the power and hope of the resurrection without acknowledging, naming, grieving death?
I have recited Psalm 23 many, many times. At nursing homes and funeral homes, gravesides and hospital rooms, whispered it into my grandfather’s ear on his deathbed. It is this line, “Yea though I walk…”--it is that line that never fails to choke in the throat or bring a tear to the eye. But not, I think, just because it is sad. No, this psalm is more than that - it is defiant. Even though I am in the midst of death, even though I am surrounded by the forces of decay and decline, fear and foreboding, I will refuse to be afraid. Because you are with me. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…” This psalm is infused with defiance and courage. We say it together in the face of death because it gives us the courage to name death and claim hope in the same breath.
Peter’s healing miracle from our Acts passage today echoes an earlier miracle by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. A man named Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come save his dying daughter. But while Jesus is still on his way to her, someone comes from Jairus’s house to tell him, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” Don't bother. But bother he does. When Jesus reaches the house, he finds it filled with weeping mourners so convinced that the child has died that they reportedly laugh in his face when he proclaims she is merely sleeping, and that her story isn't over yet. Jesus takes the girl by the hand, but Jesus commands her, “Child, get up!” Her spirit returns, she gets up at once.
Our story from Acts has so many striking parallels - it’s clear that Peter knows what to do and say because he has seen Jesus do the same. He knows to clear the room, he knows to call her name, to reach out his hand to help her up. But there’s a major difference here between these two stories, too. The people who surround Tabitha, the widows she has lovingly supported and served in a lifetime of good work, they call on Peter after she has died, after they have washed her body, laid her out on her bed. Unlike the person from Jairus’ household, these friends refuse to say, don’t bother, she is gone, but instead, come quickly without delay. They face death, they hold and handle death. They weep and feel and mourn. And yet, they claim hope anyways. They insist that Tabitha and her works be known and celebrated by the apostle. Her community chooses to reach for a future with their friend beside them, a future in which her ministries continue to thrive.
Here’s another important difference between the two healing miracles. Peter stops to pray. Peter stops to listen to and call upon God. This simple act reminds us that this miracle is God’s doing, not Peter’s. So it's also not the only way this story could have gone, not the only miracle God could have chosen. The church that Tabitha built through her ministry and good works was alive and real even after she had died. Gathering to remember and weep together - that’s church. Gathering to hope together - that’s church, too. God chose the miracle of bringing the center of their community back to life, and through it, brough many in Joppa to Christ. I can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like for those widows and saints to have carried on Tabitha’s church in a new way themselves, serving and giving to those in need through her example. I think that would be another kind of resurrection miracle, too. Perhaps just as powerful.
I am standing before you today because I have seen in you a deep belief in the truth of resurrection. It drew me in, irresistibly. When I came to visit here, your vestry representatives told me all about the ministries and activities they've loved here, just like Tabitha's community showed Peter her textile work and the impact of her donations. And they spoke bravely and honestly of death, of the dark valleys you have walked through, of the tough times your community has known together. You named isolation, fear and loss, boldly. You did not pretend that everything’s been okay. You showed me that you are in the middle of asking the hard, courageous questions we all need to be asking in these days. In doing so, in the same breath, I heard you claim hope. I saw you weep tears of grief and tears of defiance. I heard you begin to imagine this community in new forms, honoring the essence of your identity, looking toward serving God’s people as they need now. That is faith. That is the faith that built the church then, and builds the church now.
Our Easter faith is not about ignoring death, or grief. It is not about refusing to weep,it is not about pretending that Good Friday never happened. Resurrection is neither the denial of death nor its erasure. It is its transformation. Easter is about how faith transforms both death and grief. This moment in our church year asks us to stop and listen for where and how our shepherd is calling us to get up and go and do.
We have walked, this community, this nation, this world of ours, through the valley of the shadow of death. We are walking this way still, in so many ways. The enemies that sit at our table are hatred and violence, ignorance and apathy. But we take our place anyway. We say Alleluia anyhow. We stop and pray. Then we reach out our hands to one another and help each other to our feet.
Let us pray.
Mothering God, you are with us. Thank you for bringing us together to sing and praise you, to weep and rejoice, and to tell your story. Bless St. Mark’s in this new time in our community life.
Shepherding God, guide this community along right pathways. Restore our souls. Teach us to be like Tabitha, serving and giving the needs of God’s people. Remind us to stop to listen for your call in our lives.
And always, strengthen our faith and hearts that we may see the power of the resurrection in all its mystery, active in the life and works of St. Mark’s.
We pray all this in the name of our one true pastor, Jesus the Christ,