Sermon by Phil Catalanotto.
I great you in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit + Amen
In todays Gospel Jesus speaks about being tired and being awake. He tells us to always be alert and awake for one does not know when something unexpected will happen.
Does this mean that we should not sleep -should not rest- no
Jesus wants us to be rested
But what Jesus is asking us to do is prepare ourselves for the unexpected
Well how do you do that?
How can I prepare for something I do not see coming?
The great news is, what we do to prepare is pretty simple. We must invite Jesus to come into our hearts. When we do that, we are ready.
To open the door of our heart and let Jesus in may seem simple; however, to live out what he asks may not be so simple.
Jesus is inviting us to love in a radical manner.
Love of God
Love of Neighbour
Love of Self.
The Love of God might be easy for some or may be hard
and the Love of Self may be easy for others. This also might be very hard.
I find it very hard at times to love myself and to see that I am beloved by others and by God.
For much of my life the idea of self-worth for me was tied to what I do-what I can make-or who I was connected to.
This was a very precarious house of cards that I built myself
They all fell.
I have started the work -of retraining my brain to recognize that my worth is not based on what I do or how much I make-but in the fact that I am a child of God.-That God loves me completely.
The way I can remind myself of this is to recall what a mentor of mine sent in a text -
They texted me and wanted to encourage me that I had belovedness
What came through is -you are a beloved mess
It struck me because one can be both at the same time.
Indeed this is what makes the challenge of loving one's neighbors hard.
They are after all going through their own trials, tribulations, and stuff.
In the parable of the good samaritan (this is in the Gospel of Luke) we learn that our Neighbour is all people -even those who are different then us, those we disagree with, those who have sought our harm, those who drive us nuts.
They can also be those we find commonality with and can agree with on issues of life.
To be one who lives out the radical love of God also requires us to adapt the wisdom of God which to us looks foolish -but is perfect in itself.
God’s wisdom tells us that our love must extend beyond those we like to those we struggle with.
The language we hear in the letter of Paul to the Thesoloneians is of an apocalyptic bent that is shaped by the belief of the christians of that day of when will the Lord return. They believed it was most imminent.
They believed that it would happen in their lifetime.
There are certainly those today who look at the news and say “oh my God we are living in the final days!”
That might be a little bit of a stretch
But the importance that our readings present us with is the challenge to be prepared for when the Lord comes .
We do not know what the kingdom will look like.
St. Paul imagines being caught up to God in the air with the Saints who have gone before us.
This is preceded by the image of the voice of God who spoke all into being -calling us back to Him
What Jesus does in the Gospel is tell us that those who are prepared for the coming of the Son of Man will be wise and alert and ready for His manifestation.
The Light of the lamps of the Wise Virgins would have helped them navigate the path with Him to his place of Honor.
Those who were foolish are the one left in the literal darkness without a way forward.
The image of the wedding - is used in the Gospels multiple times to talk about what the kingdom of heaven will be like.
The use of this trope is because it is something that is relatable and known.
The ones admitted to the wedding are the ones who embody wisdom and love.
The wedding feast that fits the description of the kingdom of heaven is one in which order, wisdom, and love take center stage.
This wedding feast will not have people act foolish
For all will be perfected and made wise in the Kingdom that Christ shall establish.
We coming into that kingdom will see God face to Face and fully understand the mysteries of salvation.
We will have the answers to the questions we wrestled with .
We will be in perfect peace.
The Kingdom of God is not a far away concept but something we can work towards in the here and now.
Today at the 10 Am service we will welcome two more children into the household of God through the sacrament of Baptism. They will be fellow builders with us in the establishment of the kingdom of God in the here and now.
We will witness the Holy Spirit poured out on these Children. We will affirm and renew the vows that awaken us to the responsibility of what it means to be a Christian.
Let us hold them in prayer.
Let us together renew now our own commitment to our Baptismal Vows.
To find texts of more recent sermons (post-May 2023), visit Rev. Mia Kano's sermon blog.
To listen the audio of any recent sermon, visit our audio sermon page.
This sermon was preached for Ascension Sunday, May 21 at St. Mark's, East Longmeadow. The texts for this sermon were: Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11 and Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36.
A couple of months ago, when my son had only just a few words, I was out walking around our cul-de-sac with him. It had just rained and he was stopping to stomp in the big puddles along the curbs of our road. Little blue rain-boots and pure joy. I pulled out my phone to capture the moment, intending to send a video to his grandparents, but then he looked up and said with all the authority of a toddler, “Phone, there,” and pointed to my pocket. Saying as best as he knew how, put your phone away, Mama. Be present here with me. Then he dragged me over to stomp around in the puddle, too. Sneakers be damned.
Today we mark the ascension of Christ into heaven, the moment when Jesus concluded his post-resurrection ministry on earth and rose up to be with God. After commissioning the disciples to be his witnesses in the world, Jesus leaves them standing around presumably with their mouths agape, watching his figure grow smaller and smaller in the sky above them. Then two men dressed in white appear and ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing looking up toward heaven?”
This question from the two men in white - who the text suggests are angels - is meant in part to redirect the disciples' attention, to underline Jesus' last words to them. Jesus has just given the disciples a job - a big one - to tell his story to all the world, testifying to the truth and accounting for the hope that is within them. Their focus from here should not be on the splendor of the heavens or even their grandiose revolutionary dreams for a restored kingdom of Israel the apostles just bugged Jesus about. They are to be focused on the humble here and now, the place and people need the Good News. Men of Galilee, snap out of it and jump in!
What has your attention? Who has your attention?
One of my least favorite phrases when it comes to explaining a child’s behavior is “she or he is just doing it for attention.” Especially when it is said dismissively in the context of a teenager’s mental health crisis. As if attention is not a very real human need. As if attention is not one of our primary ways of expressing and receiving love. Just for attention.
As the parent of an almost two year old, I’m at the beginning of the “Look at me, mom!” stage toddlers are so famous for. Though I think if we are really honest with ourselves that piece inside us that cries out, look at me, look at me, never really goes away - just evolves. You can see one striking example of this in Dr. John Gottman’s research on the psychology of marriage. He’s observed that one of the strongest indicators of a healthy, thriving marriage is the consistency and frequency of each partner’s responsiveness to each other’s tiny, everyday bids for attention - hey look at that bird, hey isn’t this fact interesting, hey how’s my hair. Attention is the currency of love.
And in our economy, it’s also just straight up currency. The rise of advertising over the past seventy years has rapidly shifted a vast segment of our economy to be wholly dependent on the buying and selling of our attention. Trillions of dollars worth of our attention. Billboards, website pop-ups, television, social media, video games and silly little phone games, all clamor over one another - look at this, look at us, look this way. The longer we stay still with our eyes glued to a screen, the more money there is to be made.
In my house, when either my husband or I are stuck on the couch mindlessly scrolling or watching something, one of us will ask the other, “is what you’re doing right now actually what you want to be doing?” Some of the time, the answer is really and truly yes. But a lot of the time, and this is so very very human, the answer is, actually, no. Our attention is not where we meant it, or wanted it, to be.
I imagine that angels wandering around our own hometowns today might say to us these days, “People of Greater Springfield, why are you sitting looking down at your phone?”
The Ascension isn’t the first time angels have appeared to redirect the disciples’ vision away from a place of passivity and observation - and into action God is actually calling them to. The two men in white popped on Easter morning to ask the women standing there staring at the empty tomb, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Why are you looking for God in the wrong place - that’s the question that reminds them that there’s next steps ahead of them. It’s the question that gets them running to tell the Good News.
At the beginning and ending of each new phase of his ministry, Jesus tells the disciples where they’ll find him next. And it’s not by staring up at heaven. I’m leaving this world. and yet, this world is precisely where you will find me still - in the face of other human beings, especially the ones who need you most. Jesus tells them that he is going to be with the Father, and yet, the disciples will carry on his work on earth, accompanied and empowered by the Holy Spirit. They are to serve him still in the last, the lost, and the least.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus tells the disciples.
Witnesses. But not the kind of passive witnesses that just stand there and watch. They are to be the sort of witnesses who jump in to testify to the truth they see in the world about them. Witnesses with a story to tell - because they are continually learning how they are part of the story, too.
Part of living a faithful life is paying attention to where, to what, to whom you pay attention. And paying attention to how. Is your life filled with the sort of looking that keeps you standing there unmoving? How much of your life right now is the active sort of witnessing that draws you in the story, too? I’m not just talking about running around being physically involved, here - I’m talking about all the ways God draws us in at every stage of life - emotional, spiritual, financial, mental, verbal, prayerful participation in God’s work in the world.
When God says, look at me, look at me, it’s not to ask us to stand there and gaze up reverently to heaven or to gather by an empty tomb. When God says, pay attention, it is often in the voice of a child, in the plight of a stranger, in the desperate actions of someone in pain.
Sometimes I worry that this is what people misunderstand about worship and church and prayer, when they are on the outside looking in. That worship appears to be a bunch of people standing around looking up toward heaven at the spot God just was. My prayer is that church functions a lot more like the angels here - at least like their question to the disciples. My hope is that it’s a time each week when we stop and ask ourselves, hey wait a second, is my attention focused where it needs to be? That it’s a time to recalibrate and attend to the words of Jesus with others who are trying to do the same. A time to learn to look for Jesus where he has told us he’ll be next: in the bread and in the wine, in our hearts, and in each other. It’s why our worship is a collaborative effort with plenty of roles to jump in and do - lector, altar guild, choir, crucifer, usher, chalice bearer. It’s why the announcement space is actually an important part of our worship - concrete invitations to be and do the Good News in our neighborhoods and community.
In the high priestly prayer from our Gospel today, Jesus prays to the Father about “the ones you gave to me.” He doesn’t say “the ones I went out and recruited.” Perhaps we, too, are bound to ones God has given us - people we did not get to hand-select. We do not choose who our parents are, nor our siblings, nor, most of the time, our children - and certainly not who they grow up to be. We don’t get a say in who our neighbors are, or the folks in our various communities who drive us batty, or the people who secretly frighten us, or the strangers we pass by every day but have never approached, nor do we choose, most of the time, our colleagues and clients and customers.
The people right in front of us. Our Galilee, Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem.
Maybe these, these ones God has given to us, are our own angels, in a way. Pointing out when we are standing there looking for God in all the wrong places. Pulling us out of our passivity and into relationship. Or in my case, out of my smartphone screen and into a rain puddle.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, May 14 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21, and Psalm 66:7-1
The other day I was talking with one of the folks at the Cathedral’s Drop-In Center for the unhoused community in Springfield. He was telling me all about how degrading the medical system is for addicts, how doctors never believe him and no one treats him like a human being. I listened and nodded, unfortunately unsurprised by his experience. But then he shrugged and said, “The Bible says it all happens the way it’s supposed to.” It took everything for me not to blurt out, “No! No, it doesn’t!” What I said instead was something lame like, “I seem to recall the Bible being full of voices crying out to God, this is NOT the way it’s supposed to be.”
What I really wanted him to know was this, this, what you just told me, this is not the way it is supposed to be at all. Neglect, contempt, despair - that is not what God wants for him. Even if it weren’t for witness of the psalms, the Book of Lamentations, or heck any of the Books of the Minor and Major Prophets, I would know that, deep at the heart of my faith, what God wants for him is to be treated and seen as a human being.
I left that encounter determined to exorcize the phrase “The Bible says…'' from my vocabulary once and for all. The Bible is not one monolithic book with one coherent viewpoint on God. It’s an entire library disguised as a book. It’s a cacophony of voices of all different kinds. It’s poetry and letters and stories and historical records and instructions and aphorisms and songs. It’s a collection of thousands of years of thousands of human encounters with the divine. I do not believe the Bible is meant to limit what we know about God - I believe it is meant to enrich and expand and enliven how we see God at work in our own lives. Yet so often Christians fall into the trap of choosing one primary image or metaphor for God and deciding that about sums up everything scripture has to say. We’re guilty of taking one voice and using it to squash all the rest, even the ones that resonate with the aching cries of our own hearts.
That’s what I love about the book “Mother God.” Each image of God as mother - as the laboring birth-giver, the nursing breastfeeder, grandmother, and mama bear - comes directly from scripture. It also highlights other images of the feminine divine in the Bible that have nothing to do with motherhood - God as baker, seamstress, music teacher, and Sofia Wisdom. Teresa Kim Pecinovsky’s book is a small part of a larger contemporary project to uncover and amplify voices in the Bible that often get crowded out. Don’t get me wrong - this theological project is not about negating or erasing God as Father nor is it trying to cancel the masculine divine. It’s about expanding how we conceive of God, adding back in what’s been left out.
God is more than we can ever imagine, beyond any words we know.
When Paul addresses the Athenians in our Acts reading today, he speaks highly of their religiosity. He sees how they are reaching out for God, searching for the divine truth. The Greeks are endearingly humble about their knowledge of God - one of their altars is “To an Unknown God.” But for Paul, the time has come to set aside that humble stance of self-aware “ignorance.” The time has come to make bold claims about God he has come to know in Christ.
Yet we are to do this with great care and intention. Listen for Paul’s warning about using certain images for God here. “...We ought not to think that the deity is…an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Every image we have of God - whether or not it’s made from stone or paint or poetry, every metaphor - whether it comes from the Bible or not, falls short of encapsulating all of God. As humans, we can come dangerously close to worshiping the image rather than the God it points to. We can start to limit what we imagine is possible for God.
A priest told me once about praying with her daughter at bedtime. Each night, they’d go over the day’s joys and worries and lift them up to God together in prayer. A couple nights in a row, the priest noticed her daughter becoming more reluctant to include some of her everyday schoolchild dramas into her prayers. When the priest asked her gently about her reticence, the little girl explained to her mother, “Well, God’s a boy. God doesn’t care about girl problems, Mom.”
There are moments in our faith lives when it is just as important to state what God is not than to offer another an image of what God is. To say to a little girl wondering if God cares about her problems, God’s not a boy. God exists beyond human identity boxes and categories like boy and girl.
And also, it is sometimes very important to say God was a very real human man who lived in a certain time and place. It is sometimes vital, sometimes life-saving, to make bold claims about the God we know. To say to the LGBTQ+ community on our banner in the pride parade: “God delights in you!” To shout from the rooftops “God is love!” to a world that seems more concerned with God is Judge. To whisper at a deathbed “God is here, God is here” when all seems lost. In those moments, hiding behind our humble approach to knowledge of God is not helpful at all.
So how do we know when using a specific image of God - an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals - is proper or not?
C.S. Lewis warns in “The Screwtape Letters” that a great way to lead a Christian astray is by teaching them “...to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.” The ultimate test of a prayer is not how it makes us feel. The true success of a prayer comes down to how it inspires and equips us to live the way of love. Same goes for our images of God. For me at least, the key test is this: Is this image of God liberating or confining? Does this point someone along the way of love or does it lead them astray?
As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, It's all about love. If it's not about love, it's not about God. If it's not about love, it's not about God.
Every image of God has a limit and every image has a danger. No image of God is universally compelling or healing to all people. Take the metaphor of God as Father or God as Mother, for example. Folks who have had a damaging or abusive relationship with their mother or father have told me about how that kind of language shuts down their relationship with God rather than opens it up. Or worse, how those names for God kept them chasing after an unhealthy, insidious version of love-that-is-not-love-at-all. At the same time, those folks with the same sort of experience with their parents have also told me how approaching God as a loving father or nurturing mother has been profoundly healing and has guided them to be better parents to their own children. What’s most important is that question, again: does this image of God expand my capacity for love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor?
So here’s my challenge for you: Try out new images for God this week in your thoughts and in your prayers. See what happens. Where does God the nursing mother lead you? What does God as lurking leopard, generous baker, or skillful seamstress empower you to do in the world? Do those metaphors enrich your ability to love?
Keep my commandment to love your neighbor, yourself, and each other, and you’ll be loving me, says Jesus. Love me and you'll be loving God.
God the Father, God the Mother, God the Not-Parent-At-All, thank you for being more than we can imagine. Keep drawing us into your love. Amen.
This sermon was preached for the fifth Sunday in Easter, May 7, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Acts 7:55-60, John 14:1-14, and Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16.
Today's Gospel passage is a common funeral sermon because it's the words Jesus leaves with his disciples at the Last Supper before his crucifixion, words he knows will be what will carry his friends through what is to come, his death, their grief, the shock of the resurrection. Jesus wants his followers to know that they already have all they need for the journey ahead. You know the way, he reassures the disciples.
I will say, taken out of context, Jesus’ statement, “No one comes to the Father except through me” lands as uncomfortably exclusive. Certainly those words have been used to exclude: “No one…except.” Yet Jesus clearly intends for this whole passage to be reassuring, not threatening. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Don’t worry that you don’t know the way, you already do. Don’t worry that you do not know God, you already do.
What if we hear Jesus’ words as particular rather than exclusive? That is to say, what if we listen for how Jesus offers a specific kind of belonging to God - Jesus’ own relationship to God as a loving Father - rather than claiming that he is the only way to know the divine at all.
For those of us who have prayed the “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer) much of our lives, it can be easy to forget how radical the beginning of the prayer that Jesus taught his followers really was - and is. In Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer is an informal and intimate address, Abba, perhaps more precisely translated as Dad (or even Daddy!) In the holy scriptures familiar to the people of Jesus’ time, a father-son relationship with the Lord God is most often reserved for kings, for heirs of David’s line. Yet here’s Jesus teaching his followers that they should approach God in prayer just as he the Anointed, the Messiah does. Jesus opens up that parent-child relationship with the divine to all of humanity. No longer must you be royal or even of the house of Israel to become a child of God.
In baptism, we are adopted as God’s beloved children right alongside Jesus. If you watched King Charles the Third’s coronation yesterday you may have noticed that the holy anointing is considered so exclusive it’s still done behind a privacy screen, even while the rest of the coronation is televised. Yet that holy anointing with consecrated holy fit for a king - that is what is bestowed on each of us at our baptism. In Christ, we are heirs of the eternal kingdom, we receive a place in God’s household, forever.
|King Charles III is anointed behind a privacy screen at his coronation, Saturday, May 6. Getty Images|
You already know the way, Jesus says. The way is love. Love me and you’ll be loving God. This concept becomes all the more powerful when we remember exactly how Jesus has asked us to love him. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” When you serve the last, when you help the lost, when you welcome in the least, you are loving me, Jesus says to his followers. Love them, and you are loving me, too. Love me and you are loving God, too. This love is not just a feeling, it is a verb: "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do."
Jesus tells us one particular way he will continue to love humankind, even after he ascends to heaven: he goes to prepare a place for each of us. He asks us to do the same for one another, here on earth. To give to one another the strongest form of belonging there is. There is a place for you here.
When I arrived here at St. Mark's just about one year ago, there was already a place prepared for me here; and not just me, my family, too! There were flowers on our new kitchen counter and even a toy for my dog. And snacks. (The snacks were key). There was my name on a sign on my office door and on the sign outside the church. I soon discovered that the people here had also made a place for me in their hearts. I wonder if you have known that wonderful feeling in your life, too. Arriving and finding everything set out and arranged just so, just for you.
When we prepare a place for someone, we anticipate their needs. We imagine what small touches will help them know that they belong. In tiny, thoughtful gestures, we appreciate the quirks of who they are, just as they are. We set out a nametag, a sharpened pencil, a highchair, a freshly made bed.
It is one thing to prepare a place for someone we love and know well; it is another to make a place for the stranger. Yet that is the love that Jesus calls us to enact, here in our spiritual home and out in the world.
My dream for St. Mark’s is that everyone who walks through these doors will feel as particularly welcomed as I did that first Sunday a year ago. My prayer is that folks who come into our building will find we’ve already thought of what they’ll need in order to feel that they belong. They’ll find there's a working elevator if they can’t do stairs. There's large print bulletins and gluten-free wafers. There's a rug to play on and toys your size. There’s a changing table in the all-gender restroom and a comfy armchair in the priest’s office where you can nurse your infant because that's where she does it, too. There’s an option for a blessing if you don’t feel ready to take the bread, there’s a door to escape through if you don’t feel like chatting. And there’s a chair at a table in the Great Hall if you want to linger at coffee hour, too. Most of all, I pray that each person will find that there is room in our hearts.
Jesus told us, here’s how you love me. You love me by loving the least of these, by remembering the forgotten, by bringing in the abandoned, by welcoming the cast aside. By thinking ahead to prepare a place for those who have none.
Later this morning I'm going to go preach this sermon to a group of folks living in the streets and homeless shelters of Springfield. Folks whose daily lives are bombarded with what urban design strategists call hostile architecture. You may not have heard of hostile architecture but you’ve definitely seen it. It’s those sloped seats designed to discourage sitting for a long time and those armrests on benches that mean you can’t lie down. It’s the spikes installed on steps and the tops of walls and it’s doorways arched to make rain drip unpleasantly so that folks won’t hang around. It's all the ways that a city says subtly and not so subtly there is no place for you here, you without a home or safe shelter. I became very aware of this kind of public seating when I was pregnant and no longer able to stand for long periods of time. Turns out this architecture also says to folks with disabilities and chronic illnesses and all sorts of temporary or permanent conditions, there is no place for you here, either.
That is quite surely the opposite of what Jesus would call love.
It’s possible there has been a perfect place prepared ahead of you wherever you’ve gone in your life. But maybe, just maybe there have been times when you’ve walked into a community or a family or a job only to discover that the place prepared for you didn't quite fit your needs. Or that it either intentionally or unintentionally didn't allow you to be yourself. Sometimes the good and right and brave thing to do in those moments is to simply leave. For those other times, when you’ve stuck around and still stayed true to yourself, thank you. Thank you for all the ways you rearranged furniture and adjusted people’s expectations, for the ways you jostled and cajoled and showed up again and again until you carved out a space that served you well. When you had the courage to make that place for yourself, you went ahead and made a place for others like you, too. Thank you.
The truth is that each of us can sit here today because someone somewhere along the way was willing to struggle to make Christianity and the Church a place where they and you and I could truly belong. If church isn’t that place for you or people you love quite yet, thank you for whatever you do to help us get there, too.
Jesus goes on ahead to prepare a place for us. Each of us. All of us. In doing so, he shows us how to be his love for others, right here and now.
There is a place for you at the heavenly wedding banquet. There is therefore a place for you here at this table, too. May we feel it, may we know it, may we help others know it, too.
This sermon was preached for the second Sunday of Easter, April 16, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon was John 20:19-31.
Have you ever wondered why we don’t usually clap for musical performances in church? It’s not because we don’t appreciate our musicians (because we really, really do) or that we aren’t impressed by them (because we really, really are)! We don’t clap for music in church because they aren’t performances, but rather a form of prayer and praise. The music is not for us, it’s for God. Normally, applause is how we show gratitude, but in church the music itself is the expression of gratitude. We, sitting in the pews, are not an audience either, but participants in every aspect of worship. We are drawn up into the music and pray it, too, just by listening.
Reading the ending of today’s Gospel reminded me of another reason we aren’t supposed to clap after musical pieces in church. It’s the same reason the Gospel accounts don’t end with a big cursive “The End.” As we heard today, the writers of the Gospel according to John want us to know, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The Gospel’s final verse echoes today’s ending, too: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The Gospel of John admits that it is an incomplete account - unfinished. It is unfinished because no book can fully capture all of who Jesus was to them, let alone all of who Jesus is and will be for humankind.
I don’t usually like to preach about the origins of words - I find etymology makes for a pretty boring sermon a lot of the time. But there’s one word origin I think about a lot. The word perfect comes from two Latin roots: per meaning complete and facere meaning to do. Perfectus means completed in Latin. To be perfect is to be done. Finished. Dead.
To be imperfect, therefore, is to be alive. To be alive is to be imperfect - still changing, still growing. Imperfection is not sinful or a failure - it simply means we are alive.
The Easter season asks each of us: How does Jesus being alive change our faith? What difference does worshiping and following a living God make?
Part of our answer today is to treat our scriptures as though they are alive: the living word of God. Now it might sound pretty radical for a priest to preach that the Bible isn't perfect. What I mean by that though is what the Biblical accounts themselves claim: they are imperfect because they are incomplete, not done, still alive. Our scriptures are not the be-all-end-all of who God is because the story of God is still being written in each of our lives. Jesus did many other signs - and Jesus is doing so much more in us, still today.
Applause usually indicates the end of a performance. We don’t clap for music in church because the song isn’t over when the choir stops singing. The awed silence after the notes fade is also part of the song. And so are the thoughts we think and the emotions we feel because of having heard it.
A sermon isn’t over when it is preached. A ministry isn’t done when it comes to its natural conclusion. A reading from our scriptures does not wrap up in The Word of the Lord, not really. The work of the sermon continues carried by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who hear it. The work of the ministry lives on as its participants act out the ways they were shaped by it. The dismissal after the last hymn on Sunday does not declare that worship has ended; it charges us with bringing that worship out into the world, into everything we do.
A song sung for the glory of God reverberates through the lives of those who heard it, long after the singer has fallen silent.
Last week I decided to finally try chanting in liturgy, even though I’ve never thought of myself as a singer, even though I knew not all, maybe not even most, of the notes would come out just right. But that’s kind of why I did it. What we do here in church isn’t about us at all, it’s about God. And none of this is meant to be perfect. It’s meant to be alive. An expression of gratitude and praise for our living God.
I wasn’t surprised when my family commented that they had never really heard me sing for that long by myself before, let alone in public. When I realized that my own family hadn’t known what my singing voice sounded like until last week, it made me feel a little sad. Sad because I started to think about all the songs I hadn’t sung because I knew some of the melody would land a bit flat or a bit sharp. Not just me, though. What about all the art that’s been left uncreated across so many other lives: all the paintings left unpainted, all the poems left unwritten, all those songs left unsung and dances left undanced. All those prayers left unprayed, all because someone somewhere was afraid of imperfection.
What matters about our work here on earth is not its state of completion or its nearness to perfection; what matters is the purpose behind our actions. Its impact is beyond our control and beyond our knowing - it is ultimately held by God.
A life lived for God isn’t finished in death. The best funerals are the honest ones that say, this person was imperfect and we loved them. This life was incomplete, and look, it lives on still, in each of us who knew them. The greatest funerals are the ones in which we can authentically say, this person made mistakes, and the life they lived they lived for others, for the glory of God, for a greater purpose than themselves.
The writers of the Gospel knew that their accounts could never be fully complete, and in just that fact alone, never perfect. But they wrote them anyway - and thank God they did! The Gospel writers wrote their stories down because they were focused on the purpose of their writing: to bring others - you and me - into love and relationship with God through Christ.
Sing your songs, however imperfectly. And not just songs. Do art. Dance. Write. Join the choir. Don’t let that voice in your head get in the way of jumping in, trying out new ways to pray and praise the Lord. Express yourself even when it feels a little silly. Embrace never being perfect, celebrate never being complete. Enjoy your unfinishedness - it means you are alive. Alleluia!
This sermon was preached for Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, and John 20:1-18.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Love wins! Alleluia! The love that has triumphed this Easter day is about God’s love for all of us. And it is about God’s love for you, in particular.
Thus says the Lord; I have loved you with an everlasting love.
Every Easter Sunday growing up, my sisters and I would wake up in my grandmother’s house to chocolate bunnies placed lovingly at the end of our beds. My sisters’ bunnies were chocolatey brown but mine, mine was a delicious, creamy white. White, because each year without fail my mother remembered that I was one of those strange people who actually prefers white chocolate. One Easter morning, one of those first early years I started to get really into my faith, it was a white chocolate cross instead.
It may sound silly that I still cherish the memory of receiving white chocolate instead of milk chocolate, a cross rather than a bunny, but for little Mia it was everything. I felt seen and known, and, best of all, encouraged to continue being my weird little self.
To be loved particularly, to be seen fully, is no small thing at all.
In the Episcopal Church, we are fond of saying: God loves everyone. No exceptions. We also love to say: All are welcome. These are beautiful sayings people need to hear, today and every day. When I first came to St. Mark’s last year, I encountered a twist on those sayings that I like even better. It’s not unusual for an Episcopal priest to invite folks up to receive communion by saying, Christ welcomed all. But here at St. Mark’s, there’s a congregational response. Every person in the pews says, We welcome you. Not we welcome everyone, not we welcome all, we welcome YOU.
The authors of the parenting advice book my mom swears by, “Siblings without Rivalry,” argue that a parent’s job is not to pretend to love each child equally, but rather to love each child uniquely for who they are - and to let them know it. To illustrate their point, they tell a parable of a young husband whose wife asks him one day, Who do you love more? Your mother or me?
“Had he answered, ‘I love you both the same,’ he would have been in big trouble. But instead he said, ‘My mother is my mother. You’re the fascinating, [beautiful] woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.’”
“To be loved equally,” they write, “is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely - for one’s own special self - is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.”
Perhaps you have known what it feels like to be loved for being you. Perhaps you haven’t ever been loved as you’ve needed to be loved. Perhaps you’ve encountered that sort of particular-to-you love here and there or maybe even your whole life, and still, at times, you find it hard to believe. And if you have ever thought for even a second in some small secret way, well sure, God loves everyone but not me, not really, not like that, then this sermon is for you, in particular.
We see today that Jesus knows how to give us what we need to believe the most unbelievable thing of all.
When Mary discovers that the stone that covered Jesus’ tomb was rolled away that first Easter morning, she doesn’t know what to believe - but she knows what she fears. So she runs and tells Simon Peter and another disciple what she has seen. They race where Jesus’ body had been laid. As soon as the other disciple sees the abandoned linens in the empty tomb, he knows that Jesus has risen from the dead. But Mary, outside the tomb, is weeping, she’s still afraid. Even when the resurrected Lord speaks to her himself, she does not know what to think. But then Jesus says her name. He says her name and she sees him. Then, then, the joy of Easter is hers. She runs to tell the others, too.
Each disciple comes to the truth and joy of Easter at their own moment, in their own way. The disciple whom Jesus loved just needed to glimpse the abandoned linens to know what they meant. Later on in John’s Gospel, the disciple Thomas will need to physically touch Jesus’ wounds to believe. For Mary Magdalene, it was when she heard her name, spoken with great love by her beloved teacher, that she knew. And she believed.
The triumph of Easter is simply this: nothing, nothing on heaven or on earth, no word or deed, not even death, can separate you from God’s love. On Good Friday, the religious authorities, the governmental forces, and the crowds tried to remove God’s love from the world in the most violent, most permanent way they knew how. Love had demanded too much of them.
There is still so much that attempts to get between you and God’s love. And there are moments when it looks like all that hate, all that injustice, all that cruelty and violence, all that loneliness and neglect will prevail - in our world, in our neighborhoods and churches, in our schools, and within ourselves. And yet the resurrection declares, once and for all, that love wins, in the end. Love over all. And God’s love for you, specifically.
This is my prayer: that sometime, somehow the joy of Easter will come to you today. That there will be a clear moment when you will know, in your heart, in some deep way, that God loves you, wholly and completely, no matter what. That the cross, the tomb, the descent into hell, it was all for you. My prayer is that this truth will come to you in a way that you can hear it, as clearly as if Jesus has said your name.
Thus says the Lord; I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. May God bring you today whatever you need to believe it. It’ll be different from what I need, or your neighbor needs, or even what you needed last year or next year. And that’s okay.
The twofold power of our faith is that it is both all about our individual relationships with God through Christ and it is all about deepening those relationships together, in community. It is about believing this good news for ourselves, and helping others believe it, too.
Each disciple had their own discovery of Easter’s good news but they depended on each other, too. Mary needed someone to run to when she was still unsure and afraid. Peter and the other disciple needed somebody to race to the tomb, someone to enter first ahead and someone to hang behind. And all three turned around to share the unbelievable joy with someone else, who in turn shared it with someone else, all the way down through history until that joy came to be shared to each of us.
Baptism makes this twofold power of faith, the individual and the communal, even clearer. This morning we celebrate God’s particular love for one special individual. In doing so together, we renew our own unique relationships with God. We promise to resist all that threatens love and to uphold all that love demands of us.
Little Teddy, who will baptize this morning, is loved particularly. He is loved by his mothers, by his godmother, Laura, by his godfather, Larry, and his wife, Cindy, who are practically another set of grandparents. He is loved by people who have gone before, like the father who baptized his mother, Michelle, and by people who are here in spirit. He is loved by St. Mark’s.
Today, we declare together, once and for all: God loves Tadeusz Jozef Stallworth, fully, completely, with an everlasting love. Today, we celebrate the community that will remind him of that love as he grows into his own unique self.
Today, as a symbol of that particular love, we give Teddy his baptismal name. And as we do, we remember that years ago, someone gave each of us a name that God has held in God’s heart to this day. A name that Jesus says with love, even now, if only we stop to hear it.
Tadeusz Jozef Stallworth is loved particularly by God. And so are you.
This sermon was preached for the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 8, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation], Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood], Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea], Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit], Romans 6:3-11, and Matthew 28:1-10.
When I was young and got upset or mopey about one thing or another, my mother would often say to me, it will all be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
I have come to believe that these were not just simple words of comfort, but are actually a profound theological statement. This moment we are in right now, whatever moment that is for you in your life, it is only a small part of a larger story. The story of your life, yes, but even bigger than that, the whole, huge entire story of creation. Tonight is the night we zoom out to the largest, longest view we have: the arc of salvation history. And we know the ending of the story already.
We start at the very beginning. We see that God created everything as goodness and for goodness. And God saw that it was very good. Then we remember the covenant God made to every living thing, of which the rainbow is a sign: never again will God wipe life off the face of the earth. There will always be another chance with God.
If we really wanted to be here all night, we’d do all the readings for each successive covenant: God’s covenant with Abraham and with his descendants, with God’s people with Moses and with the Israelites on Mount Sinai, and God’s promise to King David that one of his descendants would be the Messiah, savior of his and every nation. God’s final covenant through Jesus Christ is offered to every person for all time. Every one of God’s promises still stand. Each covenant is not a redo or an abrogation of the previous but rather God underlining God’s faithfulness over and over in the way God’s people can hear it best in each particular moment in time. It will all be okay in the end. This is not the end. Not until love wins, not until love is all in all.
Each covenant offers a way to help people know and experience God’s love. In turn, each covenant asks us to be God’s love to the world: to be fruitful and tend the earth, to be resilient and hopeful, to live ethically, to govern justly. To be Christian is to hear God’s message of love through the words of Jesus Christ, through the symbols and rituals of the Christian tradition, and to experience and practice God’s love through the work of Christian community.
When we say yes to God in our baptism, we commit to loving our neighbor as ourselves and to strive for justice and peace among all peoples. In doing so, we recall that we are not just characters in a play. We are authors right alongside God, co-writers of our small part of the larger story.
We also know the ending of our and every story. And it is not death. Our death is not the end of our story.
Jesus’ resurrection declares, once and for all time, that death will never be the final word for any story. The empty tomb points to God’s final promise: that just as we were created in goodness in the beginning, we will be raised into goodness on the last day. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
When a young man named Daniel died tragically, suddenly, at age 28, his family knew that his death could and would not be the end of his story. A few months later, they received a letter with definite proof that it hadn’t been. Daniel’s heart saved the life of another young man, a 32 year old. His liver was given to a 54 year old mother who had been waiting for a liver for more than a dozen years but could now expect a full recovery; the rest of his liver went to a one year old boy. Daniel’s pancreas and left kidney saved the life of a 36 year old man; his right kidney saved a 6 year old boy. Daniel should not have died; and yet death would not be the final word in his story. There was still so much of his story yet to be written; now it would be written through the lives of five others who live and breathe because of him.
This is my body, given for you.
I can’t tell you how many times people have shared with me about the moment they knew death was not the end of their loved one’s story. A rainbow. A butterfly. The words of a song on the radio. Or simply just a feeling one day of a mysterious presence still operating in the world. Sometimes people are a bit sheepish about sharing these moments with me, as if I’ll think it preposterous or cliché. But I believe them every single time.
It will all be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. We don’t know much for sure about the details of the end of this huge, epic, collective story. We don’t know how exactly God will accomplish it and certainly we don’t know when it will be. But we know its essence will be goodness, through and through.
Our Bishop reminded all of his clergy this past Tuesday that what we say with ashes on Ash Wednesday is only half of the story. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Today we proclaim with the water of baptism: Remember you were created in love and to love you shall return.
This sermon was preached for Good Friday, April 7, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: John 18:1-19:42 and Psalm 22.
|Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Berkeley, California|
The rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California told me once that there is an unusual noise ordinance in the city of Berkeley restricting the use of church bells. Not long ago, the parish had elected to ring their bells each time the State of California put someone to death. But the bell ringing was so frequent and so annoying that the church’s neighbors banded together to do something about it once and for all. They worked together to silence the bells.
For Good Shepherd Parish, the ringing of the bells was their witness to the sorrowful truth that Good Friday is happening all around us, still. Terrible deaths, cruel deaths, state-sanctioned deaths, homicides, casualties of war, overdoses and suicide are happening each and every day.
Our hymn tonight asks us, “Were you there? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
The bells of Good Shepherd Berkeley answer yes. Yes, we are there right now because we are still putting each other to death. Human beings made in the image of God are still dying at the hands of other human beings.
We rang the bells at my first Episcopal church Grace Church in Medford for every school shooting and mass shooting that made the news. Setting up the bells to ring, one toll for every death, was part of my job as an intern. But then came the Las Vegas massacre and we knew, we knew we could not bear to ring that bell 61 times for the 60 victims and the shooter. It was all too much.
John Donne, the great English poet, wrote:
"Each person's death diminishes me, For I am involved in humankind. Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee."
Every untimely death is a tragedy. Every violent death is an echo of the cross.
When we gather on Ash Wednesday, we look death, all death, in the face.
When we gather on Good Friday, we face the harsh truth that we, collectively, are the reason for unjust deaths, deaths from brutality, neglect, ignorance, and complacency.
When we gather on Good Friday, we face the harsh trust that we, humanity - when we were confronted with God's love, God incarnate - we put him to death. We could not bear what love asked of us. So we silenced him.
On Good Friday, we listen for the bells and we do not look away.
And, and. In the midst of the sorrow, in the silence and darkness, God still has something left to say. When it is all too much for us Jesus says, Give it to me, I can bear it all.
Jesus takes it all onto himself. All this pain.
Jesus, pain-bearer, we will not look away.
This sermon was preached for Maundy Thursday, April 6, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The readings for this sermon were: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, and Psalm 116:1, 10-17.
In the last few months, there’s been a great leap forward in a technology called artificial intelligence, also known as AI. One of the ways AI can be used is to generate images that look just like real photographs at first glance. They aren’t actually photographs of anything in reality, though. They’re just patterns of pixels put together by computers who have learned from a vast amount of real photographs what certain objects or scenarios are supposed to look like.
It’s actually quite easy to be fooled into thinking AI images are real so people have coming up with tell-tale signs for whether an image is real or AI. One way to judge whether a photo might be computer-generated is to look for any hands. At this stage of AI development, computers are quite bad at generating images of human hands. Look closely and you’ll see the wrong number of fingers, joints in wonky places, missing knuckles.
There's a reason for this. Computers learn from two dimensional, flat images, so they’re really good at surfaces - at the superficial. But artificial intelligence image models are not trained on the underlying structure of things, like the bones and the ligaments of a human body. They have no concept of how hands move, what they feel like, what they are for. Only how hands seem. So they get them really quite comically wrong.
You do not need to be an expert on human anatomy to know that something is off about a hand with twenty fingers and three knuckles. All you need to know is what it’s like to have a palm, a pinky, a wrist. All you need is to know the deep experience of being human. Computers have gotten really quite good at certain things. But this sort of knowing, your innate, embodied intelligence will beat out artificial intelligence every time. This is the kind of knowledge and intelligence that holy week is about.
We worship an incarnate God, a living God who chose to know the intricacies of the human experience in the deepest way, through the life and death of a particular human named Jesus. Jesus knew hands, and what hands were for. He reached out his hands to comfort and heal, to draw in fishing nets and flip over tables and pull people up on their feet. Tonight we remember how he used those hands to wash his friends’ feet and break their bread. Tomorrow we remember how they drove nails through his palms.
These next days at church are all about that human way of knowing and being known. Holy week invites us to go beyond the superficial, beyond images, beyond words. Holy week beckons us to embody the story of Jesus' journey to the cross. You do not need to be an expert in biblical studies to understand the heart of this story. You just need to let yourself know what it is to be human.
These next few days, we come to know Jesus through our hands, our feet, our hearts, even our tongues. We walk, we kneel, we eat, we drink, we sing. We feel, wholeheartedly. We let the symbols of our faith’s ancient tradition speak to us where images and words fall short. Water, bread, silence, darkness, oil, flame.
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to do something strange. Something weird and uncomfortable. I’m going to ask you to allow another person to wash your feet and then wash someone else’s feet. That squeamishness you might be feeling when you think about doing that? That squeamishness is part of the point. Lean into it. It’s what the disciples were feeling. It was awkward and confusing to have their teacher serve them in such a bodily way. Their discomfort is just as much a part of the story for us to experience as their confusion at Judas’ betrayal in the garden or their sorrow at the foot of the cross.
Now if washing someone’s feet, or having your feet washed, is a step too far for you, if your toes are already curling up in your feet in embarrassment and protest, if you’ve never done this before and you don’t know if you are ready, we have a hand washing station, too. If your choice is between feet or staying in your seat, I invite you to come forward to wash someone’s hands, and to have someone else wash yours. We offer this option tonight as well because this practice is not just about doing something out of our comfort zone - it's also about service. It's about caring for each other's bodies with our bodies.
At Jesus’ last supper before his death, he commanded his friends to love one another. And he showed them what that love meant with his hands, in the most human way he could - by caring for their bodies. He washed their dirty, sore feet. He fed them. We are to do the same. Tonight, and every day. We are to see the needs of the people around us - people we know and people we don’t - and we are to care for them with all that we have. We, too, know what feels like to be tired and dirty, we know what it is to be hungry.
You have to be paying attention at an odd part of the mass to see it but part of the priestly preparation at the altar is a little hand-washing ritual. The altar server ceremoniously washes the priest’s hands with a cruet and silver basin, while the priest prays quietly. That’s the tradition at least. A dear mentor priest taught me her own twist. She turns around and washes the hands of each other at the altar - the server, the deacon, any assistants. So now I do it, too, so that every Sunday as an echo of this night. I do it as a reminder of Jesus’ commandment to allow ourselves to be served and then turn and serve one another every chance we get.
I hope you’ll take this chance tonight. I hope the physical act of washing and being washed whether hands or feet reminds you that God's love for us goes beyond the superficial, the intellectual, beyond images and words. It is a love carried out through hands and bodies. Jesus' and ours.
This sermon was preached for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Sunday, March 26, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45, and Psalm 130.
“Lord, if you had been here…”
If only, Martha of Bethany says to Jesus. If only, says her sister Mary. If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.
The sisters had sent a message to Jesus - he had had enough time to come to heal their brother. The world in which Jesus had come in time, the world in which their brother had not died, was so close the sisters could almost taste it.
There’s a scene from one of my guilty pleasure romance films, 500 Days of Summer, in which the protagonist sets out to reconnect with the girl he loves. Tom walked to her apartment, the narrator intones, intoxicated by the promise of the evening. He believed that this time his expectations would align with reality. The screen suddenly splits - on one half we see a scene labeled “Expectations.” In it, Tom walks up to the girl’s apartment, she warmly welcomes him in. She is deeply touched by his gift for her, they are absorbed in deep conversation just the two of them all dinner, they sneak off to kiss. At the same time, simultaneously on the other half of the screen, we watch the scene labeled “Reality.” In “reality,” the girl gives him a perfunctory hug at the door. In reality, he gets stuck in a humiliating conversation with others. In reality, he ends up staring off into the distance by himself at the edge of the party and then he looks back and he sees it, the ring on her finger, she’s engaged to someone else. The “expectations” half of the scene fades away.
Two separate timelines: 1) If only. 2) And what actually happened.
Of all the emotions that are liable to keep one up at night, “if only” can be one of the most painful, the most gut wrenching. The imagined timeline of what could have been - what I could have done, what I should have done, what God should have done - gets a hold of us and won’t let us go. For some of us, there’s even a particular moment or event or choice at which our lives bifurcate, the screen splits in two and we can see the other life, perhaps even the life we expected, continuing on: better, happier, fuller. The one where we kept the job, the one where he survived, the one where she didn’t leave.
If only, the crowd mutters. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Notably, Mary of Bethany does not ask Jesus, Why didn’t you. I want her to ask him. Because I want to ask that of God all the time. Why didn’t you.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer the sisters’ unasked question, why didn’t you. He doesn’t defend his reasons for delaying to Mary or Martha directly, even though he offers cryptic explanations for his decision to the disciples and the crowd. This is Jesus’ direct response to the sisters: Your brother will rise again. This is his immediate response to the grieving, weeping women: Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus wept.
Jesus doesn’t let either his conviction that he did the right thing or his divine knowledge of what’s to come get in the way of deeply empathizing with the human before him. Jesus allows himself to be moved by his friends’ grief. He enters into their pain.
And yet, Jesus does not go back in time and change what he did, although he's God so I suppose he could have. Jesus does not pick everyone up and place them over there in that “if only” world, the one where Lazarus is still alive, although that’s probably what would have happened in a science fiction novel. Instead, Jesus continues the story before him. This story. This timeline. Lazarus ends up alive, yes, but he still dies first. That matters to the sisters' story. It matters to ours.
When Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” I imagine that her response, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” is said a bit…sarcastically. A bit huffily. Yes, yes, Jesus, I know that the story isn’t over. I know God has promised more. I can hear her thinking silently to herself, but he’s still dead right now. He’s still gone.
Here’s what else I hear from the way the rest of the dialogue goes: Jesus asks Martha if she trusts that he can still surprise her - if she can trust that this timeline has even more hope to offer her than she can imagine right now. Do you trust me? And she says, yes.
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.
Martha has a choice about where to place her hope, how to use her imagination. She can spend it imagining the world in which Jesus had done what she had wanted him to do - had expected him to do. She can get stuck in the if only. Or Martha can open her imagination to the unseen possibilities of this timeline, this story that still lies in front of her. She can place her hope in God.
Even as they hope, Martha and Mary are still given space to grieve. And not only given space, Jesus grieves with them. Fully and wholeheartedly. Both grief and hope can exist in the same body.
When Jesus resurrects Lazarus, he is not resetting the timeline. He is not undoing a death or unwinding time. This is no CNTRL + Z. That is so crucial for us to understand, especially as we head into Holy Week, and Good Friday, and Easter. Easter doesn’t undo what happened on the cross. It doesn’t make it all better. It doesn’t erase the pain and horror of the crucifixion, or any other death. It does something more powerful than that. It declares that there is always hope, a greater hope. There is always redemption, a greater ending to come, not by going backwards, but by going through.
Here’s what I’m not going to do: I’m not going to stand up here and tell you to stop lying awake at night wondering about what could have been. I am not going to tell you to stop yelling at God, why weren’t you there? I am not going to tell you to stop feeling disappointed when expectations crash down into reality. How can I when I have not for the life of me figured out how to stop doing those things myself? I’m not sure that’s what Jesus would focus on anyhow.
So here’s what I will do: I will point us to what Jesus says. Jesus says, trust me, for I am the resurrection and the life. Trust that this story, your story, holds more surprises ahead for you than you can imagine right now.
The bones that lie in the valley in the Book of Ezekiel - they were very many and they were very dry. Even after they are put back together, bone to bone, sinew on sinew, God’s people cry out, “Our hope is lost.” O my people, responds the Lord. O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.
There is more that is still possible in this timeline, more than our imaginations may allow us to see.
Our hope lies ahead, in this life, in this world, and beyond.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, March 19, 2023 for the fourth Sunday in Lent by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon are: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-41, and Psalm 23. The sermon retells the children's book "The Rabbit Listened" by Cori Doerrfeld.
|The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld|
Through it all the rabbit never left. And when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor's plan to build again.
Jesus is walking along with his disciples when they encounter a man who was born blind. The disciples’ reaction is to see the man as an opportunity to discuss a complex theological issue. They want to know from Jesus: What's the connection between sin and illness? Why has someone who has clearly done nothing wrong - a tiny little baby - been punished with a difficult physical condition?
Jesus rejects the notion that the man’s condition is because he deserves any sort of punishment for either his sins or the sins of his parents. And as Professor Joy J. Moore puts it, where the disciples see a scandal, Jesus sees a person. Jesus doesn't just stand back and debate about the man’s condition and what it says about God and the state of the world. He steps forward and heals. And it's a deeply visceral healing - with spit and mud and touch. Jesus gets all up in there. The man is healed.
But even after his healing, the man becomes a scandal once again. A whole other theological debate for another set of religious folks. He gets stuck in the middle of the religious leaders’ arguments about who Jesus is and what he is doing.
The religious leaders call the man forward to tell his story - but they don't really listen to his answers. They don't just let him know what he knows: that he was blind but now he can see. Then they drag out his parents, who say, rightly I think, let him tell his own story in his own words. Actually listen to him.
So they call him forward again. And the healed man has the courage to say to these religious experts, “I have told you already and you would not listen.”
Now I love many things about Jesus. What I love most about Jesus’ healing stories are how particular and individual they are. Jesus sees, truly sees the person in front of him for who they are and what they need right then at that moment. As the Samaritan woman at the well proclaimed joyfully in our Gospel last week, Jesus knew her, knew everything about her. She was heard and she was loved, and she was known more fully than ever before. And here, too, Jesus listens and attends to the whole person before him, better and more fully than any of the other folks in the story.
When Taylor, the child in the storybook “The Rabbit Listened,” is upset and curled up in the ruins of the something amazing that had all come crashing down, many different animals come along and immediately jump into help. They think they know what Taylor needs to fix it, to feel better, to move on. But they don’t really see Taylor. They don’t really know Taylor’s story. They only see what they would need or what they can offer. And they are all in a huge rush.
This story is so real to both adults and kids because we still do this to each other. We religious leaders. We church. We parents and we spouses and we friends. We want to draw big conclusions about What Should Be Done Here. We want to help but only on our timeline. We want to fit the person in front of us into the solutions we know best.
But the rabbit, the rabbit inched closer, the rabbit sat in silence, the rabbit listened. Of course, Taylor did need to do all of those things the animals had suggested: talking and shouting, remembering and laughing, hiding and cleaning and plotting. But Taylor had to do them on Taylor’s timeline, no one else’s. In Taylor’s own words, no one else’s. What Taylor needed most of all was the rabbit’s patience and the rabbit’s presence. Only then could Taylor see again. See a new vision of hope.
There are many kinds of griefs that you and I have known that need time. And patience. And presence. And listening. Griefs that don’t fit into the solutions and timelines and stories everyone else wants to tell.
There is, too, a particular sort of pain when you see someone you love sad and frustrated, lost and alone, and you think you might know what should be done. I have known this pain. I see it so often, too, in folks around church. I know many parents who worry for their adult children, who hope that their son or daughter can find a church to join or that they learn how to reach for God throughout their life. I have sat with spouses who yearn for the day that their partner will finally be able to walk through the doors of a church and find it a place of peace and comfort, once again, or for the first time. Perhaps you have felt this, too, a longing that someone you love could find healing and strength from the same deep source that you have. That longing is love.
We love best, we love the way Jesus loves, when we trust in the person before us. When we hear their story in their own words, at their own pace. When we listen deeply and patiently. When we stay through it all.
The rabbit never left. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.
Another thing about Jesus’ healing. It doesn’t just happen instantly when Jesus rubs mud in the man’s eyes. The man born blind must participate in his own healing. In order to gain his sight, the man must take his own journey down to the well of Siloam and wash his face. He takes steps toward his own wholeness. And later, when Jesus hears that the healed man is kicked out of his own community for not fitting into the story they want to tell, Jesus finds him again. Jesus goes out and finds him and reminds him that what the man knew and experienced was true and was real and so is the man’s new hope and faith.
He’s got a whole new life ahead of him. It’s going to be amazing.
Perhaps you are here because someone you love sat with you, waited with you, and listened until it was the right time for you to find your way to God. Perhaps you are listening to me now because you realized that God was there, all along, seeing you and knowing you and loving you into hope once again. Perhaps you are still talking and shouting, remembering and laughing, hiding and cleaning and plotting, and you aren’t ready yet to rebuild.
Perhaps you are here because you want to learn to be more like the rabbit and it is so hard.
Can we trust that God can be our rabbit, in whatever moment we are in? Can we trust our loved ones to heal in their own way, in their own time? Can we trust ourselves?
Trusting love, faithful love, does not feel like distance or absence. It does not look like rushing in and demanding a solution, it does not look like staying away because things are awkward and we do not know to do or say. Trusting love, faithful love is the continuous and abiding offer of a gentle, warm presence.
We do not offer that presence alone. God is in it with us.
Together, we wait. We listen. We love.
And finally, we see. It’s going to be amazing. Amen.
This sermon was preached for the second Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were Psalm 121 and John 3:1-17.
I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
During my internship with an intentional community a few years ago, we did some contemplative exercises that really stretched me spiritually. In one, we all sat across from a partner, facing each other. The exercise was very simple. Your partner asked you the question, “What do you want?” The first time I was asked it I had a pretty sophisticated answer, probably about my various goals for the future. But then our partners asked us again, “What do you want?” This time I dug a little deeper. The third and fourth times I was asked the same question, “What do you want?” something broke open inside me - and not just me. When we looked around the room, we saw that by the fifth time of being asked what we wanted, what we really wanted - and being earnestly heard - many of us had tears in our eyes. It was that rare chance to express the deep and true longings of our heart, without them being dismissed, downplayed, or problem-solved. What I found - what a lot of us found - was that by the 5th and 6th times actually exploring what we wanted our answers boiled down to just one or two words. Safety. Love. Trust. Hope.
One of my favorite Christian authors, Anne Lamott writes that there are really only three prayers we ever pray: Help. Thanks. Wow. In fact, she wrote an entire book entitled just that: Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers. All our prayers boil down to that.
Help - we ask for assistance from a power greater than ourselves. Thanks - we appreciate the goodness in ourselves, our lives, and each other. Wow - we stand in awe of the beauty of creation.
The part of me that’s been teaching the basics of the Episcopal faith and practice to children and adults for years wants to add a fourth essential prayer to that list: Sorry. Our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer teaches that there are four types of prayer - which it turns out can helpfully be memorized with the acronym ACTS. A-C-T-S. A is for adoration - the “wow” prayers of praise and awe. The T is for Thanksgiving - the “thanks” prayers of gratitude. S is for Supplication - the “help” prayers for divine intervention. That leaves C, for contrition. These are the prayers we pray when we confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness. Sorry.
Why do we confess, anyway? When we confess in prayer, we are practicing the work of reconciliation. Apologizing and really meaning it is essential to our spiritual well-being as well as the health of our communities. Apologizing and really meaning is a key part of the work of reconciliation, which is at the heart of the mission of the church.
Our Book of Common Prayer has a section called the “Outline of the Faith'' (page 845) where it asserts exactly that: reconciliation is our vital work as Christians. The prayer book asks itself: What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death? Its answer is: “in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God.” It instructs us that the mission of the church “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” and the ministry of God’s people is “to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation to the world.” That is our sacred task. It all boils down to that.
There are some folks who like to point to John 3:16 - one of the verses we read from our Gospel today - as the essential summary of our faith. For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only son, so that everyone who believed in God may not perish but have eternal life.
If you ask me to summarize my Christian faith, I would point to the words of Jesus from the very beginning of the service. "Jesus said, "The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these."
Both these passages point us toward reconciliation: the reconciling work of Jesus Christ in his life and death and the reconciling work we continue on with him as the church. Reconciliation is love when it's difficult. Reconciliation is love wherever there's been pain or brokenness or isolation. Reconciliation is recommitting to love whenever it has broken down.
Maybe Anne Lammot is right, though, in a way. Perhaps we don’t need a “sorry” prayer category because a “sorry” prayer is actually just a “help” prayer and a “thank you” prayer wrapped up together. When we confess, we acknowledge that we need help to do better, to love better. When we confess, we gratefully trust that we can and will be forgiven.
In teaching my children to say sorry, I want to make sure they move beyond the automatic “sorry” because that’s what an adult makes you say when you do something bad. I want to make sure that I move beyond the automatic recitation of the prayer of confession because that’s just what we do each week. What I want to be really saying to God is this: help me learn from my mistakes. Thank you for another chance to repair my most essential relationships with my neighbor, myself, and you.
Like a lot of young women professionals my age, I’ve been told that I say sorry too much, too reflexively. Of course, every time my response to someone telling me this is to say… “Sorry!!” Lately, I've been trying to follow the advice a friend gave to me. Every time I find myself automatically saying “Sorry!” especially for things that aren't particularly my fault, I’m trying saying thank you instead, or maybe in addition to sorry. So instead of “I'm soooo sorry I was late!,” saying “Thank you for waiting.” Instead of “Sorry, I'm so confused about this,” saying “Thank you for your patience with me as I try to work to understand this.” Thank you is a step toward repairing the relationship, moving you and the other person on from being stuck in the past that you are apologizing for. Thank you for helping me become more of the person I want to be.
On the other hand, there are also folks who find it really hard to say sorry. Sometimes it’s because apologizing makes us feel weak or incompetent. Sometimes we worry that admitting fault will erode people’s trust in us or even that it will expose us to liability. The reasons we have difficulty saying or praying sorry are very similar to the ones that make it hard to ask for help. Perhaps you were taught that asking for help is shameful. Maybe it makes you feel like a burden or gives other people power over you. Or worse, it could be hard for you to ask for help because that time you did, that time you really really needed it, no one came.
I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Here is what I know: It is never shameful to ask God for help. Neither is it shameful to accept the help God provides in all the strange and unexpected ways it comes.
Help is one of the most essential prayers we pray. The psalms teach us that. The psalms are basically a collection of overheard prayers by ancient people after all. Like a lot of scripture, they are filled to the brim with help, thanks, and wow. So if you're wondering how to pray, turn to the psalms. They start on page 585 of the Book of Common Prayer or if you’ve got a Bible handy, let it fall open at its center - chances are that will land you somewhere in the Book of Psalms.
Here is my challenge for you this week: If it is too easy and reflexive for you to say sorry, pray “sorry” anyway and pray “thank you,” too. If it is really hard and unnatural for you to say sorry, pray “sorry” anyway and pray “help me,” too.
Help us, God; we and the whole world are trapped in this tangled up web of hurt, cruelty, and indifference called sin. Thank you, God, for empowering us to try and try again.
As a priest, it is my honor and privilege to respond to you each week with God's reply. I get to put words to what God's reply to you will always and forever be: you are forgiven. You are loved.
This sermon was preached for the first Sunday in Lent by Rev. Mia Kano. The text for this sermon is Matthew 4:1-11.
I’ve discovered recently that my life is plagued with almost constant background noise - the low hum of heating systems, the buzz of baby monitors, the thrum of the stovetop fan. It’s only once the artificial noises have stilled that I realize how grating they are to me. There’s an immediate sense of relief in the temporary silence. I find I’m continually surprised by that relief, as if I’m constantly forgetting how loud my life is until I catch glimpses of the gift of quiet here and there.
Step foot in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, or really any large stone church in any city, let the large doors close behind you, and you’ll notice it - the sudden absence of noise. The background barrage of traffic, the hustle and bustle of the city are muffled by the huge stone walls of the nave of the church. The cathedral is designed to create a sanctuary of sacred space where the distractions and anxieties of everyday life fall away. In the stillness, the presence of God, who is always with us, fills the foreground. The peace of God, which is always available to us, feels more within reach.
Rabbi Abraham Herschel wrote in his seminal book on Sabbath that for Judaism "the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals." This kind of cathedral can't be burned or torn down, it comes with God's people everywhere they go. This Cathedral is built and rebuilt each week, constructed out of the rules that clear away the day to be for rest, for community, for God. A time when the volume of everything else in a person’s life - the anxiety, the traffic, the stress, and pressure - the volume of all that noise is turned way down so that stillness and silence emerge. Sabbath is designed to create a sanctuary of sacred time where God’s voice, God’s presence, and God’s restfulness can be felt, heard, and cherished.
In our chapter this week from our Lenten study book on Sabbath as resistance, Walter Brueggemann writes that the heart of God is rest. Unlike other gods the Hebrews had known, like the insatiable slaver-driver Pharaoh, who demanded bigger, better, more, the God of Israel seeks connection to creation through rest and joy. When God created, God declared that it was good. It was very good. And God rested. God is continually inviting us into that rest - commanding it, even.
Right before Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, the verse directly before the beginning of our Gospel today, and a voice from heaven declares, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ At this point, Jesus has done nothing more than grow up in Nazareth into a young man. He hasn’t started his ministry yet. Jesus’ beloved-ness and enough-ness is not earned, they are where he begins. And God saw that it was very good.
It is from this sense of belovedness that Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and pray. His ministry starts with stepping outside of the city to listen closely to God, to the voice of beloved-ness, in solitude. After forty days, Jesus encounters another voice, the tempter. The tempter shows Jesus what kind of Messiah he could be, his full potential: he could be free from ordinary human struggles of hunger and safety. He could have power over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus turns down every one of the devil’s deals. He trusts in his own belovedness. He trusts in God. He is enough. There is nothing he has to prove.
I find oftentimes that folks, including myself, tend to misunderstand Lent as a time to punish ourselves for all the ways we are not enough. Some sort of big forty day push to perfect and fix all our flaws. Perhaps even slip into using Lent as a time to prove to ourselves or to God that we can be better, more, perfect. Those impulses toward perfectionism align so well with the voice of the tempter in the wilderness: strive for more. When we approach Lent in this way, we are turning up the volume on the anxieties that drive so much of our culture: the underlying refrain that we are not smart enough, rich enough, skinny enough, accomplished enough. The messaging of not-enough-ness is so constant, so insidious, in every advertisement and every type of media that we consume, that it can become easy not to notice we are even hearing it - that it has begun to define us.
Lent is not about examining how we are not enough. Lent is about letting go and giving up that which keeps us from believing we are enough. It is a time to turn away from all that distorts our sense of ourself, our neighbor, and God and leads us away from love, kindness, and, also, rest. This season we will confess that we have denied God’s goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world God created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, all the false deals and promises that keep us on the anxious treadmill of bigger, better, more.
When the devil says look at all you could be, Jesus chooses to hold back. In a society that demands to be our best 100% of the time, that glorifies pushing for maximum effort and full capacity until we collapse, God asks us to leave one seventh of our life on the table. This table. God intends a whole day a week for us to rest in our enough-ness. Crucially, the rest is not in service of the work; we don't rest so we can become better workers the remainder of the week. Instead, the rest is what helps us resist allowing the anxiety of the majority of the week to define us. When we begin from our belovedness, when we start from a place of enoughness centered in the restfulness of God, we can move out into the world with Jesus’ confidence and trust. We can resist the voice of the tempter.
When and where in your life is the volume turned down enough for you to find your way into the restful heart of God? Where and when can you return and begin again from a true sense of your own beloved-ness? Where is your cathedral in space? When is your cathedral in time?
Whether you have one or not, it takes practice to build cathedrals of time and space strong enough to hold the anxious voices of our tempters at bay. It takes deliberately stepping outside of our patterns and habits. It takes turning off devices and closing doors. It takes community and it takes accountability.
When God’s people gave God the chance to say how God wanted us to be in relationship with ourselves and our neighbor, God said, “Love.” When we gave God the chance to say how God wanted to be in relationship with us, God said, “Rest with me.”
This sermon was preached for Sunday, February 5 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12] and Matthew 5:13-20.
If you want to raise your children with wholesome values through acoustic children’s music, Tom Chapin’s your guy. At least he was in the 90s when I was growing up. This past week I was dancing in the kitchen with my toddler to one his tunes. It goes like this (and no, I’m not going to sing it):
They call my town a melting pot, like a stew or a casserole. But we are not a melting pot, my town is a salad bowl…
We’re so imported and so assorted, There’s no way of melting us down. But different scenes for different greens, Our differences strengthen our town.
A salad of course gets tossed, but none of the tastes get lost. My town is a salad bowl…
Tom's child-friendly message of course is that being in community does not mean losing what's essential to your identity. It doesn't mean melting yourself down so that everyone fades into a homogeneous sludge. Good community means collaboration that allows you to still be yourself.
Jesus is not above using food metaphors to help his followers connect with their sense of self. You are the salt of the earth, he preaches in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Your distinctive taste is essential to who you are - don't lose that!
We are most valuable when we stay true to ourselves, our saltiness. And yet, salt is a flavor that does not work on its own. It can’t stand as the only flavor in a food stuff. Salt is at its best when it complicates and compliments other flavors. Everyone who's ever enjoyed sea salt sprinkled on caramel knows that.
As much as we talk about how visibly diverse our nation is now, when I think of a salad bowl community, I think of my grandmother’s childhood - or Bob Gurney’s similar tales of North Adams. My grandmother grew up in Bellingham, Massachusetts in the 1920s and 1930s. She speaks with pride of the neighborhoods that made up her town: the Irish Catholics, the Polish Catholics, the Italian Catholics, the French Canadians, and other Protestants, and even the handful of Jewish families sprinkled here and there. Each neighborhood gathered in their own distinctive places of worship and had their own distinctive cuisine. The languages and accents of the Old World were woven into everyday conversations. Diversity looked different than it does today, but it behaved much the same - sparking conflict and debate, yes, but also a source of strength and pride. As my grandmother tells it, the distinctiveness helped you understand who you were. At the same time, my Irish Catholic grandmother married into an old American Protestant family - no small thing at the time. She found a way to stay true to her heritage and faith within her marriage and to this day.
If we pay attention to the Gospels, Jesus' Jerusalem was filled with the intermingling of cultures, languages, currencies, and religions, including multiple factions within Judaism. Jesus crosses cultural borders to speak with Samaritans and Greeks and Romans all over the Gospels. It’s not all harmony and rainbows, of course - Jesus dies on a cross, riots are suppressed, and the temple destroyed. But Jesus’ world, and God’s vision for humanity, reflects the diverse and multicultural and very, very human time and place into which Jesus was born. When given the chance to ride in as a conquering hero, Jesus entered on a humble donkey. He neither bowed down to the imperial forces of his day nor became an overpowering dictator himself. Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ rhetoric, his encouragement to his followers, fully expects that they will be a small, brave group with a unique voice: A bit of yeast in a mess of dough. Salt in the recipe. A lamp in a darkened home.
For a good chunk of Christian history, the church operated as a persecuted minority that provided sanctuary for the socially outcast and equality for the downtrodden. The early Christian martyrs were killed for refusing to bow down to the rulers of the world about them. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, Paul writes in Romans, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Even well after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, even after Christianity became the religion of conquering European kings and queens, there were other places around the globe where Christianity persisted in small, ostracized communities - India, the Middle East, and Africa. As the Bhutanese refugee congregation who uses our sanctuary can tell you, small Christian populations are still persecuted for being themselves across the globe today.
A good argument can be made that Christianity is at its best and stays truest to its origins when it is not watered down to be the cultural milieu. When our faith stands in opposition to the corruptive forces of society, calling us to our better angels. When sanctuaries are exactly that, sanctuaries, protecting us from the pressures of cruelty, indifference, and greed in our wider culture. When we are not the dominant flavor, but instead the salt that enlivens the whole, the missing ingredient that makes the dish worth savoring. Bringing out the sweet and preserving the good.
When Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, he does not ask us to be a floodlight. Too much light can be just as blinding as too much dark. We are to be a lamp that draws others into its warm glow. We shine best when we illuminate an alternate way of being. The stars shine only at night.
The Episcopal Church is at its best and most influential when we speak alongside representatives of other faiths to address those forces that are hurting our communities and our neighbors, when we act as "repairers of the breach, restorer of the streets to live in." This past Tuesday, St. Mark’s vestry voted to renew our membership in the Interfaith Council of Greater Springfield so that we can do exactly that. The council includes local rabbis, Bahai’ practitioners, Catholic nuns, Protestant ministers, professors of religion, librarians, imams, and secular humanists. Like other interfaith groups I’ve been a part of, we are at our best when we give room for each member to be fully themselves, rather than watering one another down to the lowest common denominator. When we listen for points of connection and celebrate how our differences can teach us more about what we do and do not believe. In fact, on this particular council us Episcopalians are limited to three votes so that no one faith community overpowers another. A salad bowl, not a melting pot.
The smallness of our church can be our strength, our daring contrast with others, a virtue. We draw people in not by being like everyone else, but by being ourselves.
Our challenge as individual Christians is to find those places in our lives, personal and public, where we are called to shine in a way that draws others into the good. We are also called to greater self-awareness of those times and places we are too overpowering.
It is not a question of being too salty in ourselves. Salt can't and shouldn't change its essence. It is instead a question of whether we overwhelm others in a way that degrades and impoverishes our community. Whether we don't give enough space for difference to thrive as a strength. A salad of only lettuce is no salad at all.
Perhaps there has been a time in your life where you were shamed, or teased, or punished for being your flavor, for setting out to be yourself, for taking your own stand. Maybe it happened in your family of origin, or at school. Or when you were a teenager. Maybe it happened at church, this one or another. Perhaps it is happening to you, now. It is possible that you were told at some point in your life your saltiness was not welcome, that unless you melted yourself down to be like the rest, you were worthless.
If you have heard that, if you have ever believed that, listen to me now: Your saltiness is what makes you precious. Your flavor is the missing ingredient God sprinkled into the world, into this community, to make it thrive, to bring out its goodness. Do not lose your saltiness. Do not allow or encourage someone else to give up theirs. Even if it means letting them go their own way for a while.
In your life right now, have you found a place there you can shine warmly so as to draw others in? Where is the world missing out on you? Where can you step forward and shine?
Is there a place where you might to pull back so as to better allow other flavors to come through? Where are you overpowering? Where can you step back and listen more?
Neither are about betraying your essence. They are about being wise and kind in how you show up in relationship with others.
We have a sign out on the front of our church that says: Love your neighbor who doesn’t look like you, think like you, love like you, speak like you, pray like you, vote like you. My prayer is that we mean it.
We also have a sign out front that says: We welcome you. We mean that, too.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, January 29 for Annual Meeting Sunday at St. Mark's Episcopal in East Longmeadow. The texts for this sermon were Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12.
Picture this: you’re driving along and the car in front of you does something rather ill-advised. For instance, they slow down suddenly for no reason or change lanes abruptly. But just when you start to feel irritation and annoyance bubble up inside you, maybe even some choice words spring to your mind, you notice there’s a sticker on the bumper that says… “Student driver.” How do you feel now?
I often notice that when I spot one of those stickers, my attitude shifts. I’m brought back to when I was a student driver at 17, unsure and anxious, when all the parts of driving that come so automatically now - checking mirrors, turn signals, changing lanes - were conscious, stressful maneuvers. I suddenly have a whole lot more compassion for the driver of the car in front of me. I slow down and give them space. I try to be a bit more helpful as a fellow driver on the road. I drive a bit more kindly, a bit more humbly.
We call the folks who followed Jesus around back in the day disciples. Disciple, of course, literally means learner. We are disciples, too. And we don’t ever stop being learners.
I wish we could all walk around with “Student Christian” buttons on. Myself included. Or maybe even “Student Human Being.” Maybe we’d walk a little more humbly. Maybe we’d give each other a bit more space and grace.
What does the Lord require of you? Not perfection. Not expertise. The Lord requires that you walk humbly with God.
What makes us a church is not that we have it all figured out. What makes us a church is that we are a people committed to walking humbly, loving kindness, and doing justice as best we can figure out - together.
My husband and I had an expression we'd say to each other all the time in the first months of my son's life: New day, new baby. Just when we thought we knew how to take care of him and had this little person figured out, he'd enter a new stage of development and baffle us once again. As he was growing as a child, we were growing as parents. So much change happens in the first months of life - over and over we had to let go of what we thought we knew and embrace curiosity for what he was becoming. Over the years my oldest parishioners have taught me, too, that even nearing the end of life, there's still new things to learn: how to adjust to a weakening body and mind, how to walk with a cane, how to say goodbye to dear friends. We never stop learning.
If church is a school, then there are an infinite number of grade levels. There is no terminal degree in Christianity. There are no expert Christians, no matter what some clergy may try to claim. In fact, in the priestly vow itself, we pledge to be life-long students of the scriptures and tradition. Life-long learners.
As any teacher will tell you, learning takes humility. It takes embracing change. It takes being curious rather than anxious about who we are becoming. It requires stepping out of a comfort zone, bit by bit, so that we can grow. It takes adopting a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset so that when we find ourselves thinking, well, that's not me or I can't do that, we think instead: that's not me right now, I can't do that yet. But with God's help, by walking humbly with God, I can learn.
St. Mark’s has endured a phenomenal amount of change these past few years. Change none of us could see coming, change some of us longed for, and change that was already in the works but became super accelerated by loss, pandemic, priestly transition - by so many things, some of them extraordinarily painful. St. Mark's rose to the challenge. St. Mark's adapted and reinvented church in a radically new context. This community revealed not only its incredible resilience, but its ability, your ability, to grow and learn.
It’s possible there’s a piece of you that longs for church to be the place where everything stays the same, where you know all the words by heart and every face in every pew. That’s not how God works on us. God gets to be both the eternal changelessness that is our steadfast foundation - and the agent of the kind of change that pushes us to learn, to grow.
Here is what I see in St Mark's now, in the year ahead: This time in St. Mark’s life as a community is all about each of us learning and re-learning how to be church together in a changed world full of changed people.
We never stop being learners because neither we nor the world ever stop changing.
We are all learners and we all have something to teach. Every one of us. Even my four month old has things to teach me. She could offer a whole master class in how to delight in one’s toes, for example. More seriously though, my daughter has taught me the importance of being curious, that curiosity is the driver of healthy development. I'm proposing that we approach this year at St. Mark's humbly and with a willingness to learn and teach. Put those two together and I think you've got curiosity. Curiosity stands in contrast to fear, distrust, and rigidity. Curiosity is openness, playfulness, and confident interest in what God has in store for us.
The moments that have given me the most hope in the future of St. Mark’s, that make my heart swoon for God’s people, are the moments when I have seen people teach and learn together with curiosity, humility, and grace. Like when I see our older elementary school kids be so, so patient with our toddlers. When I glimpse a toddler sticking a curious hand into our font. Or when I hear an experienced lay leader walk a newer leader through a complicated computer system or an altar guild member teach a newer member; step by step, with plenty of reassurance, kindness, and grace. Or when I overhear grandparents offer words of solidarity to new parents, or long-married couples joke encouragingly with the relatively newly-wed. When I got to hear our deacon instruct our lay Eucharistic ministers about offering pastoral care. Or when I was blessed with Bishop Beckwith and Father Jim’s words of wisdom and guidance to me at the end of their time with us. In those moments, I catch a glimpse of all that is possible ahead of us. I can see that the wisdom, the skills, and gifts we need are all already in the room with us, already growing inside of us. Let's be curious about what comes next.
Today we read Matthew's version of the beatitudes. I want us to notice that in this series of blessings, Jesus sees and loves the people as they are, right where they are. Then he invites them to be hopeful about what is coming next.
Blessed are you, he says.
Blessed are you as you reach for joy, even in your grief. Blessed are you as you reach for spiritual richness, even in your spiritual poverty. Blessed are you as you hunger and thirst for a better world. Blessed are you, right now.
It’s not Blessed are you who have it all figured out. It’s not You will be blessed eventually. It’s Blessed are you now.
Blessed are the works in progress. Blessed are the learners. Blessed are we, right now.
In a few moments, we'll have our annual meeting. We'll share about all we've done and all that lies ahead, the ways we've changed and are changing. I'll be asking each of us as well to think and share about what we are ready to learn this year and what we are ready to teach. So if you aren't planning to stick around, that's my challenge to you. Think of one thing that you will come here to St Mark's to learn this year and one thing you will come to teach others.
When we get stuck in only asking ourselves: What can I do here? What can I give? when it comes to church, we can fall into the trap of assuming we need to already know things in order to be useful, that we already need to have things in order to be helpful. That we are to arrive already figured out. Seeing ourselves as curious, humble learners reminds us that we are here to grow and develop and become together. Works in progress.
What does the Lord require of us? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
Walking humbly with God means walking humbly with one another. It means being curious. Giving one another and ourselves the space and grace to be learner Christians, student human beings.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, January 22, 2023 by Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were: Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23, and Psalm 27:1, 5-13.
Back when my husband and I lived in Berkeley, very soon after we had adopted our dog, Remy, we received some devastating news. It knocked the wind out of us on the way home from a party and we had no idea what to say to one another. I just remember being so filled with dread and grief that all we could do was lie on the floor in silence. We didn’t even turn on the lights or take off our shoes, just lay down on the carpet. Our dog, our new addition to our family, a rescue who was still learning to trust us, got up and lay down right between us. I remember being so surprised by how comforting her warm, furry body was. She was a light in the darkness to us in that moment. She didn’t need to understand why we were in shock. She didn’t need to say anything, in fact it was even better that she couldn’t. She had no idea what her presence meant to us in that moment. She was just dog. And that was all we needed her to be.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.
Every life of faith has moments of darkness, distance, and despair. Even the lives of giants like C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian apologists of the last century. His writings on faith have been a beacon for so many, as well as his children's series, like the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis himself went through a period of atheism as a young man. He only returned to Christianity in his thirties, persuaded by his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings. He wrote that at the moment of his surrender to God and faith, he was "the most dejected and reluctant convert in England." Lewis writes about faith by writing about grief, about struggle, about doubt and temptation. His work is all the stronger, all the more compelling because he had known the absence of faith and because he walked in the darkness of grief after the loss of his wife.
The quote that I think about a lot from C.S. Lewis, the one that was carved into his gravesite, goes like this: "I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
Christ is the light that illuminates everything worth seeing. When we look for God's love, through God's love, when we view the world in the light of the risen son, we can see kindness and hope where it might otherwise escape our gaze.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined. Our Gospel today draws from Isaiah's promises. The passage begins right after John the Baptist's arrest. In the midst of that disappointment, confusion, and fear, Jesus enters the community of Capernaum, a land currently under foreign occupation. It is into that darkness that the light comes to shine.
One of my favorite podcasts, Heavyweight, is all about helping people reconcile with their pasts. One of their shorter episodes recently was about a man named Cody. He asked the show's producers to help him find the person who gave him a single hug many years ago - a hug he says changed his life.
Cody lost his mother suddenly when he was just 17. His family fell apart in the wake of her death. He was lonely and isolated in his grief, just numbly going through the motions, when his new football coach took him aside. Coach Walling said nothing, just gave Cody a hug, a real hug, like the hugs only his mom had ever given him, warm and full of care. Hugging with all his heart. It was exactly what Cody had needed without knowing it. Coach Walling changed jobs shortly after and Cody never heard from him again. But ever since that hug, Cody says he became a guy who hugs. Hugs became central to how Cody loves and he wanted Coach Walling to know what it had meant to him.
Turned out Coach Walling remembered that hug, too. Turns out Walling had just lost his mom that year as well. He hadn't known what to say to the kid who just lost his mom in the midst of his own grief, so that's what he did, just hugged the kid. And after that day, Coach Walling said something changed inside him as well. It was easier from then on for him to share raw emotion with other men. To hug.
Turns out they both found each other in similar darkness and in a moment became each other's light, a light that would illuminate the rest of their lives and the way they loved.
An atheist can bring a word of faith even when they do not believe. A depressed person can spark joy even if they can't feel it themselves. Someone can be light to others even when they can't see their own light themselves.
When my grandfather was dying, my family gathered around his deathbed. My cousins brought their toddlers and my sister brought her son who has just started to walk. Those little kids were a light to our family as we grieved. Even as our patriarch was leaving us, the messy chaos of those little kids helped us have faith that our family was continuing on.
You have been a light to someone sometime, even when you did not know it. You were the hands and feet of God to someone, even when you could not find faith within yourself. You were a reason someone smiled, even before you knew how to smile yourself.
My question for you today is this: Who was a light to you in a dark moment? Take a moment now to think and remember.
My challenge for you today is to let them know. Tell them about it. Maybe they remember, maybe they don't. Tell them. Maybe they never knew how much it mattered to you. Tell them. Maybe they have already left this life. Tell them anyway, however you know how.
We are each given the light of Christ at our baptism. Of course for infant baptism we hand the lit candle to the parents not the baby. So there's always this little awkward moment when the parents aren't sure whether to blow the candle out. I want to tell them in that moment that what they've just promised, to raise their children in Christian community and in the life of faith, it doesn't mean their candle won't ever get blown out. Because it will sometimes. There will be darkness. I want them to know that. I want them to know, too, that behind me, by the ambry, right there, there's a candle that stays lit, day and night. Even when no one is here to see it, it still stays lit. The altar guild makes sure of it. That candle tells us that we can find the light of Christ again, here, at the altar and in one another. Coming together, in community, that's the best chance we have to be relit. It's where we learn to relight others, too.
The light will shine again.
It may already be shining from you onto others in a way you cannot see.
And I meant it about telling that person - even if they're actually a dog. Even if it's just a quick text during the offertory. Or a hug at the Peace.
“What are you looking for?”
These are the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. A question directed to John the Baptist’s disciples. “What are you looking for?”
It’s also a question I wish I could ask every person who walks through our doors or tunes into our livestream. It’s a question to ask ourselves, whether we are newcomers and decades-long members. What are we looking for? What is drawing us here, together, today? The answer to that question might change from year to year or even Sunday to Sunday. It might not even be entirely clear to you, either.
What are you looking for? is an essential starting question for any search, whether that be for a job, a partner, a church, a new home, a spouse. Author Dan Savage, who writes about sex and relationships and who I never quite imagined myself ever quoting in a sermon, often advises that we need to rid ourselves of the notion of “the one” before we even begin dating. There is no “the one.” There is no such thing as two people who are absolutely perfect for each other. There is no 100% compatibility. Savage argues that the key is instead looking for a .7 and rounding them up to 1. The beauty of love is as I am rounding you up and I trust that you are rounding me up, too. Of course, it's not just our spouse or partner we round up - it's our family and our friends and our parish community, too. There is grace in that rounding up, grace given and received.
We may not find everything we are looking for here or in each other - but there's another piece of the puzzle to consider, too. Even as we are looking for God, or community, or companionship, or something else, something we can’t put into words, God’s been looking for us.
Maybe you are here today because you are looking for something. What if you are here today because you are what God is looking for? What if this right here, and this life you are living with all its ups and downs, what if this is how God is making you into who God needs you to be?
Back when I was first discerning the priesthood, I remember being overwhelmed with a responsibility that pastoring and leadership entails. I doubted I could ever be what the church and God's people needed me to be. I shared with my mentor that I was struggling to trust God in all this and struggling to trust myself. How could I ever think I could do this? He then asked me a question that completely shifted my perspective. "What if God trusts you?"
I had a moment like that again in the hospital, when they handed me my son for the first time, and again when they handed me my daughter. When I took this job, here with you. Every single time I’ve made a vow in a church. What if God trusts me? What if all this is God trusting me, forming me, rounding me up to be the mother, the pastor, the priest, the wife, God needs me to be in this moment?
So I offer you that question now. One to keep in your mind whenever you face a daunting challenge: parenthood, marriage, a new job, a life-changing decision, a new leadership position. A question to consider when you can’t imagine how you’ll ever live up being the one you think you need to be. What if God trusts you? What if you are what God is looking for?
There's a quote that hangs in a frame in my office. It's from the book of Esther. Queen Esther, who found herself in a position to intervene on behalf of her people. The quote on my wall is a paraphrase of the wisdom Esther's mentor offers her at that crucial moment. Perhaps you were made a queen so that you could save the Jewish people, Mordecai wonders out loud. "Perhaps you were born for such a time as this."
In our reading today, the prophet Isaiah admits that he gets stuck in his own self-doubt sometimes, too. When he looks around at all his efforts, he sees only disappointment and falling short. "But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity."
Listen to how God responds.
“And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant… ““It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Perhaps you were born for such a time as this. Perhaps God formed you in the womb, for this moment. Perhaps God is right now forming you for a moment that is still yet to come.
This weekend our nation honors a man who rose to meet his moment. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out for the freedom not just of black Americans, but for the salvation of all Americans. He proclaimed the greater dream God offers us is possible: beloved community with liberty and justice for all people, of every shade and creed. King has been compared with Jesus - he lived a life for the cause of radical love and was killed for it. He's also been compared to Moses - a prophet leading us toward a promised land he would never live to see. In doing so, we take a .7 leader - a human being with well-documented flaws - and round him up. We lionize him in a way that King himself rejected throughout his life.
I first encountered Martin Luther King as a great historical figure and political leader in public school around this time each year. It wasn’t until seminary that I really fully understood how King was first and foremost a follower of Christ. King believed that his life was ultimately lived to point toward Jesus. His message was deeply grounded in Christian theology, Christ’s Gospel of love. King understood that he was neither the beginning of the story, nor its end. It was never King’s dream, but God’s.
King lived his life for Jesus, lived a life inspired by Jesus, but never claimed to be a perfect savior himself - sort of like John the Baptist. Even as John the Baptist’s disciples pushed him to claim Messiahship for himself, John was clear about his role. “‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” The story of Jesus, the long arc of salvation, began long before John and will continue on beyond him.
In this way, the greatness God is drawing forth in each of us is also balanced with humility. Our moments as individuals and communities may not be as grandiose or consequential as Esther's or Isaiah's or King's. But that does not make them any less blessed or chosen by God. Humility does not mean shying away from our moment. It does not mean doubting that we could ever have a significant part to play in God’s greatest story. Humility means that when our moment comes we can each honestly pray, “God has become my strength.” We embrace the role before us, even through our short-comings. We trust that God can take our .7 and round us up to be the one we need to be. We can even offer one another than grace as well.
This sermon was preached for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 8, 2023 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in East Longmeadow, MA. The texts for this sermon were: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, and Psalm 72:1-7,10-14.
Today we are going to create the sermon together.
As my husband was unwrapping my Christmas present to him this year, he arched a skeptical eyebrow and asked, “Is this a task gift?” I laughed a little guiltily.
See, in an attempt to appeal to my spouse’s practical and efficient nature, some of my gifts to him have a tendency to be…let’s say aspirational. You know, the kind of gifts that are intended to help someone along the way of where they’ve been hoping to go. They often come with an implicit associated chore or task, hence my husband’s nickname of them. Like an organizer, for instance. But a nice personalized, hand-carved one!
There’s two ways a “task gift” can land. It can make you feel seen and supported on whatever journey you are on. But…it can also feel like maybe you’re not enough just yet, the way you are right now. If you received or given a task gift recently I hope that it landed that first way - as thoughtful and loving.
We talk a lot about gifts in church. Gifts are a central piece of our liturgy. As we prepare the table, we collect offerings from those gathered and together with gifts of homemade bread and handmade wine we process them up the altar. A bit of a shorter journey than the wisemen took but a procession returning what is precious to the divine all the same. All things come of thee, Oh Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
We talk a lot about gifts because they are one of the most ancient and most human ways we express love and connect with one another and with God. The free and grateful giving and receiving of gifts is a primary act of faith and worship.
There’s another way we talk about gifts in Christianity. Paul writes about spiritual gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit, charismata: gifts like teaching, and preaching. In every Anglican confirmation the Bishop invokes the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit from Isaiah: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe of the divine. These gifts are given by God to individuals for a purpose. When we learn to see our own spiritual gifts, we can learn to use them for God’s will. They become gifts we ourselves give to bring love and reconciliation to the world.
In my childhood church, my pastor chose three adjectives and one unique spiritual gift she saw in eighth grader she confirmed. As a thirteen year old, being seen - and really feeling seen - in that way meant a heck of a lot. But I remember, too, worrying that I wasn’t so good as all that. That I didn’t actually fully have the gift she named for me. That reaction to the naming of a spiritual gift is deeply familiar and I’ve recognized it again and again in the people I’ve pastored. It’s a peculiar mix of feeling loved and special and inspired, and secretly worrying that you don’t live up to the hype.
Coaching people to recognize their spiritual gifts is a central part of spiritual accompaniment, whether by a pastor or spiritual director or just a good friend. It can also be a tricky balance. On the one hand, it’s about helping someone to discover the full potential of everything God is calling forth inside them. A gift is that growing and becoming. On the other hand, sometimes what’s much more important is realizing the preciousness of who you are right now; that your gifts are full and enough and exactly what God loves about you. Regardless of whichever emphasis you choose, each practice of recognition is a step we need to take before we can offer that gift back to God.
I wonder if you’ve seen the old joke about the wisewomen. That after the wisemen came to Mary and her newborn, the wisewomen showed up, bearing diapers, casseroles, and formula. They are wise enough to bring good, practical gifts that meet baby Jesus where he is right now: a hungry, stinky, demanding infant. In comparison, the original magis’ gifts are much more symbolic. They point to the baby’s holy destiny: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, myrrh for his martyrdom. Those gifts pointed to how Jesus will become God’s greatest gift to the world. Two kinds of gifts: full and enough gifts for right now, and aspirational gifts that point to where we are headed.
In a moment I’m going to ask you to finish this sermon yourself. Each of you have received a star, and hopefully can find a writing implement, too. Here is your task:
I want you to take a moment to think about a spiritual gift you have that you’d like to offer back to God in some way this year. This could be a gift you have known about yourself, one that others have identified in you, one you are actively learning to cultivate. Or it could be a gift that you are still reaching for, a gift you hope that God will strengthen in you, even if you don’t quite feel like you have it yet. This gift might be patience, or enthusiasm, or a willingness to work hard. I’ve certainly seen those gifts around this parish in spades! Or maybe you’d like to write down a gift that’s a bit more like a skill - like singing or writing or building repair. Whatever that gift is, I’d like you to write it down on your star. During our offertory, our children will come around to collect your stars. They will be processed up the altar with all our other gifts and placed on our creche, an offering to God.
In doing this spiritual act together, we are thanking God for the gifts we’ve received. We are also promising to use them for God’s purpose this year - offering them back to God in service.
Before you start hemming and hawing about which gift to choose and offer, I want to leave you with one more thought. Two actually:
1.If this practice is hard for you, if you are sitting here thinking, I don’t have any gifts or all my gifts feel used up, come talk to me.
2. In a moment we will sing together one of my favorite Christmas carols based on a Christina Rossetti poem from 1872. At the end of the poem, the poet looks around and worries about what she has to offer the baby Jesus in comparison to everyone else:
“What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.”
What matters most is not that the gift we give is better or worse than what others can give. What matters most is that the gift is precious to us. Because it will be precious to God.
This sermon was preached for Christmas Day on Sunday, December 25, 2022 by Rev. Mia Kano. The text for this sermon were: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20, and Psalm 96.
Last year, my son August, then about six months old, played the baby Jesus in my previous parish’s pageant. It had been years since St. Andrew’s Church had had a real live baby in the Christmas pageant - the parish had long ago opted for the simpler, more peaceful doll Jesus, which had worked just fine. But after almost two full years of pandemic isolation and the painful segregation of the young and old, the impact of a squirming, breathing, actual infant at the pageant was tangible and profound. Several parishioners wanted me to know that my son’s presence there in the arms of the teenage Mary brought the Christmas story home to them in a way they hadn’t known they had been missing. A couple folks said having a real infant this time, with tiny little toes and wide curious eyes, it brought them to tears. My son’s first act of ministry. Yesterday it was my daughter’s turn.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with using a doll for the Christmas pageant, especially if there are no handy babies around. Our parish has been particularly blessed with a small cohort of beautiful babies this past year! At the same time, there is something truly profound about adoring God embodied in a real, live infant.
God is much more like a newborn baby than a doll. God, at least in my experience, has the tendency to demand I pay attention in loud and forceful ways. God is inconvenient and messy. God doesn’t stay put, doesn’t keep quiet. Sometimes spending time with God in prayer brings the incomparable, angelic peace of a sleeping babe; sometimes God’s voice is that kind of terrible wail that turns on all the alarms in your body. Oftentimes, our relationship with God is not in our control. Oftentimes, allowing God to rearrange our life is inconvenient and makes our life harder! Like when following God means giving of our time, talent, and treasure in challenging ways. Or when it means forgiving ourselves and others, or taking a different moral stand than those around us. Other times, God surprises us with joy and grace - reconnection, reconciliation, or an unexpected blessing. Our living, breathing God is unpredictable like that.
The Bible has a lot of harsh things to say about idols. Some of the warnings about worshiping a wooden or stone God ring as old-fashioned; some of the judgments land as uncomfortably xenophobic. And yet, there is a truth in confronting the dangers of idolizing a neat, containable faith. When God is an object we can tuck away whenever we’d like, when faith is merely convenient, we can miss out God’s call on our lives. When we yearn for our faith to be simple and calm rather than complicated and mystifying, we can exclude the possibility of being radically transformed.
The shepherds in the fields weren’t just hanging out with sheep because they enjoyed it. Guarding the sheep would have been their job, their livelihood. Abandoning the sheep to go into the city to seek the child would have been risky. Alternatively, herding all the animals along with them (as many of our creches and pageants depict) would have been quite the hassle, too. But go they did. They responded to God’s good news showing up in their everyday lives with fear, astonishment, and joy. And then they got themselves to the manager.
I imagine being here, getting here, was not particularly convenient for you. Especially if it meant dealing with a walker or cane, wrangling children or arranging childcare, or intruding on the schedules of visiting relatives. Add on to that it is super, horrifyingly cold! But you did it anyway. Something drew you here (or someone dragged you here). Whatever that was, whomever that was, I hope you take a moment to sit in wonder and gratitude for that sacred impulse that draws us to experience the transcendent together. In a time and place that squashes out magic, mystery, and anything that can’t be explained or controlled, here we are setting aside time to kneel with shepherds and sheep at the makeshift crib of a tiny babe. That’s a beautiful thing. Our world could use a bit more of it.
Here’s what a bunch of loved ones in my life were reminded of recently. Despite all the hymns about baby Jesus smiling sweetly and “no crying he makes,” sometimes when you arrive to visit a newborn and his parents, he’s screaming his head off. Sometimes she’s asleep the whole time and you don’t get a chance to see what her eyes look like. Sometimes he’s noisily feeding away. Newborns don’t follow schedules. Babies don’t show up on time to rehearsals and leave when the clock dictates. Neither does God.
When my son was baptized last year, he fussed and cried pretty much the whole service. It made me so anxious and frankly a bit embarrassed. But the moment the Bishop took Auggie into his arms to sprinkle him with water, my child settled. So did my heart. Taken off-guard by his sudden change in demeanor, we were all drawn into that sacred moment with the water and the prayers. Several people told me that was the moment they’d remember and carry with them and you know what? It wouldn’t have meant the same without all the wailing beforehand. The mess and the chaos are what drew us into God’s presence.
So my prayer for you is that the baby Jesus will also make his presence known in your life outside of your best-laid plans. I pray that you’ll keep an ear and open heart out for his voice, even when he’s unexpectedly asking a lot of you or keeping you up at night. Forget tidy, perfect Hallmark Christmases, where everything goes right and all the presents are neatly wrapped and everyone arrives and leaves when they are supposed to. I want to wish you a messy Christmas, an inconvenient Christmas. One in which the things that sideways cause you to marvel and wonder and be surprised at God’s playfulness. The kind of mishaps that make for great stories, years from now.
Whether you have an infant in your life this year or not, I hope that this baby, the baby Jesus, invites you to allow your faith to be a bit messier this next year. I wish you a louder faith, a more chaotic faith, maybe even a bit more demanding faith. And I ask God to bless this mess. This mess that is our world, our church, us.
God, bless us and keep us by your side. Amen.
This sermon was preached for Christmas Eve on Saturday, December 24, 2022 by Rev. Mia Kano. The text for this sermon were: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20, and Psalm 96.
Have you ever looked at a Madonna and Child painting from the Medieval or Renaissance era and thought that baby Jesus looked a little…odd. Like an infant with old man jowls and wise eyes…looking closer to newly retired than newly born. In one depiction by the Italian artist Duccio from 1300, Jesus has the full-on proportions and clothing of a miniature adult man plopped on Mary’s lap. Author John Greene poked fun of this Christian art quirk with his art rating game, “Has this artist ever even seen a baby?”
Turns out this was a thing though, what art historians call “Homunculus” - Latin for tiny man. Rather than bad art, these artists were making the theological statement that baby Jesus was always 100% God - all-knowing and wise from the start - both a baby and God all at once. Even in Islam, where Jesus is considered to be a prophet and the Messiah but not the incarnation of the divine, Jesus is portrayed as an exceptionally mature infant. One story from the Qur’an recounts the infant Jesus speaking in full sentences out of his cradle in defense of his mother’s chastity.
This story and art pieces underscore how unsettling it can be for us to think of Jesus as a newborn, the way we know newborns to be. Infants are the weakest, most vulnerable form a human being can take, needier and more helpless at birth than pretty much every other creature in the animal kingdom.
Caring for my own newborn these past three months has reminded me how scary it must be to be a baby. Things just happen to you. One minute you’re in your mother’s arms, and the next you’re strapped into some carseat contraption. You can’t even control your own limbs and you have no idea why you're upset. Babies are completely dependent on those around them. No wonder they cry so much.
For me, the incarnation, God-in-the-flesh, is all the more miraculous, all the more powerful when we consider that God deliberately chose to enter the world as a baby. Rather than descend with the full powers of a human adult, God elected to start from the beginning of every human’s experience, with all the fear and helplessness and confusion that involves. God agreed to be loved by Mary and Joseph, by all of us, the way a newborn is loved. What a profound act of trust in humankind.
When the angels proclaim that this baby is here to save the world, it's often interpreted to be a prophecy referring to the salvific power of Jesus’ death. After all, the predominant strain of generations of Western Christian theology has emphasized that it is Christ’s final act on the cross that brings us salvation.
But another perfectly valid school of Christian school emphasizes the salvific power of the incarnation instead. That is to say, God saves humankind by entering into and sanctifying every aspect of the human experience from birth until death. The suffering Jesus takes on for us includes the cross, but also the everyday struggles of being alive. In this view, the cross is the inevitable consequence of living a life wholly and fully for love. Jesus takes on and lives out all the scariest parts of loving and being loved, of needing and being needed from day one.
Jesus himself will say to his followers, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Our greatest heroes sacrifice their lives for their country, their children, a stranger in need.
Choosing to die for another can be a great act of love and courage, but so can choosing to live. So can taking on a life that asks an incredible amount of your heart and mind and body for the sake of another. Whether that's working a demanding job in order to provide for one’s family, or going without proper sleep for years to care for one’s children, or spending your free time at drop-in centers and soup kitchens and parish halls and prison to feed, clothe, and heal one’s neighbor.
The flip side of this, of course, is what I learned again and again during my time as a hospital chaplain: It can also be an act of great courage to be loved and cared for by others. I'd frequently be called to the bedside of a patient who had gone through a major surgery or some debilitating health event. It’d take a while but once they felt brave enough, the patient would lean in toward me and quietly admit how terrified they were of becoming a burden on others. They'd hesitantly reveal how distressed their new weakness and helplessness had made them. Illness, injury and old age were forcibly returning them in some small part to the experience of the newborn, with its powerlessness and dependence, with that total lack of control. It took courage, so much courage for my patients to ask for help and to accept it from others - especially from the very people they had raised as newborns so many decades ago.
The incarnation declares that it is an act of salvific love to live for others. It is an act of courage to accept and trust another’s love as well. This is why it is so important for us to speak of the incarnation just as much as we talk about the crucifixion and the resurrection. Why it is so powerful to know that God did this, too. God did not skip any part of the human experience of weakness and vulnerability. God sanctified it, lifted it up, made it holy.
Baby Jesus - in some ways all babies - remind us today that at our weakest and at our most vulnerable, we are still profoundly worthy of love…perhaps even adoration. This next year might ask you to live for others in challenging ways; it also might ask you to trust others’ love and care for you. My prayer is that you find in yourself the courage you need to embrace both acts of love with grace. Throughout this year, I hope you'll remember the promise and joy of Christmas: God is with you, right here in all of it.
This sermon was preached for Sunday, December 18, 2022, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, by the Rev. Mia Kano. The texts for this sermon were Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, and Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.
This is my first Sunday back with you after the birth of my daughter. As my leave ended on Wednesday, twelve weeks from her arrival, my husband’s parental leave from his job began. He was chatting with one of his colleagues (who doesn’t have kids) about the next three months when she asked him whether he was planning any trips or fun adventures now that he didn’t have work. He just laughed and laughed. Having been through a parental leave before and having just supported me through another with a newborn and a toddler, Aaron knows perfectly well that leave is not a time of expanded horizons, opportunities to travel, or any free time to speak of.
If anything, parental leave is, in our experience, a shrinking down of one’s world to the simple, mundane tasks of keeping small human beings healthy, loved, and alive. It’s an opportunity so many working American fathers and mothers don’t get a chance to have. Yet it’s hard not to experience it as a shrinking down of oneself, too. A time to put so many of the things that make you you on hold. We both found ourselves asking the question: who am I when I no longer have the kind of purpose and productivity I receive from my job? Who am I when my life needs me to be mom first above all else?
Today we get the story of another parent readjusting the path of his life. We don’t know a lot about Joseph from the scriptures themselves. We don’t know whether he’d been married or been a father before, as would have been common at the time. We do know that Mary’s surprise pregnancy derailed the couple’s plans. We do know Joseph has a choice to make. In fact, he'd already made the choice to end their engagement when God burst in to tell him he needs to change his mind. From here on out, Joseph’s life is no longer about him. It’s going to be about being a father to the small life growing inside his fiancée. It's going to be about being her partner, too.
Now he’s not the first person to be redirected by a divine dream - he’s not even the first Biblical Joseph! Joseph of the Hebrew Bible, Joseph of the technicolor dream coat, was also told marvelous things in dreams from God. But that Joseph’s dreams were much more grandiose. They told him that he, Joseph, was destined for great things, much greater than his older brothers. The dreams told him that one day he, Joseph, number 11 out of 12, would rule over his father and brothers, become fabulously wealthy, and save his people.
When Americans talk about dreaming big dreams, that first Joseph’s dreams are often what we mean. We mean dreaming of fame and fortune, success in art or acting or our chosen passions. We mean believing fervently, despite the naysayers, that we are destined for more than our current life. When we tell one another to dream big, we often envision future presidencies, blockbuster movies, sold-out concerts, prestigious professorships and Nobel prizes.
This Joseph’s, Mary’s Joseph’s, dreams are much more humble. While he, too, dreams of the salvation of his people, the angel proclaims that it is the child who “will save his people from their sins.” This Joseph is called to the sacred work of caring for a newborn and his mother. He is being asked to shoulder the responsibilities of fatherhood for a child that is not his own. I’m fairly certain Joseph wasn’t running around changing diapers but still, this dream is pushing him toward the mundane and sacred work of loving a fragile new human being and a brand-new teen mom. And he’ll do it - he’ll go to ordinary and extraordinary lengths to raise that child in a dangerous and unjust world. But he won’t be doing it as the main character. God asks Joseph to be a supporting character in every sense of that word. There’s a larger story at work.
This past month, Netflix released a documentary all about Harry and Meghan - that is the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the King of England’s second son and daughter-in-law. When the two married in 2018, the world imagined a modern family tale for them: a handsome prince and an American actress living happily forever after. But in 2020, shortly after the birth of their son, Prince Harry and Meghan dramatically split from the royal family and that story was turned on its head. This series is their chance to set the record straight about why their lives were so abruptly derailed. It’s a complex plot involving race relations, tabloid culture, and colonial history, but at the end of the day the couple really just wants the viewer to believe that their story is a Joseph story, all about one man’s willingness to disrupt the plan of his life for love.
If you watch the series, you'll hear story of a prince who gave up many of his royal privileges, his titles, inheritance, palaces, and his home country to become a husband and a father first and above all else. For Harry, loving his wife meant standing up to the entangled institutions of British media and royal family to protect her from the same threats and harassment that led to his mother’s tragic death. Loving his two young children meant moving miles away to give them the childhood he never had, one filled with freedom and privacy, away from the pressures of royal life. It’s clear it’s not the life he and others envisioned, but in the end, in the last episode, the prince insists he is certain this is where he is meant to be, doing what he was meant to do.
If you had told me this time last year that I would be a mother of two before the year was out, I would have been flabbergasted and maybe a bit terrified. I’d have worried that another baby so soon would wreak havoc on my career, my marriage, and in my body. I think a small part of me would have asked, but what about me? What about my plans?
I know I’m not alone in the experience of this sort of fear and shock in the face of the unexpected - I’ve heard your own stories. For many of you, the toughest and most sacred derailings of your lives have been all about caring for a loved one in ways you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. I’ve heard all about how you moved to care for an elderly parent who has taken a turn for the worse or how you’re raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How you’ve readjusted the patterns of your life to protect an immunocompromised spouse. How you’ve had to let go of what you thought parenthood would be.
So much of what I admire about each of you are the ways you have stepped up and stepped back to support others, to make your life all about folks going through a rougher time than you are.
As self-reliant as I like to imagine myself to be, these last three months have driven home for me how much we all depend on people like that from time to time. My husband and I would not have made it through the last three months if it weren’t for two sets of grandparents willing to drop everything to come help us out last minute. I don’t know what we would have done if it weren’t for family able and willing to let go of their plans to pick up the pieces we’d been forced to drop by illness, hospitalization, and cancellations - you name it. And here at St. Mark’s, many of you took on additional responsibilities and tasks to ensure the last three rector-less months went smoothly, just as you have at many other uncertain times in our community’s life.
Indeed, St. Mark’s has had to weather plenty of unplanned-for storms. In each of these derailings, the success and survival of this community depended on each person’s understanding that they are not the main character of this story. Jesus is.
Joseph’s story - Joseph’s dreams - remind us that the supporting character roles are also callings from God. The everyday tasks that make up caring for family, friends, and community members are the humble vocations that change, and yes, save the world.
This sermon is less of a call to action than a much-needed thank you. A thank you from me, but also gratitude from God. A thank you for all the ways you’ve been a supporting character in the lives of strangers, friends, and family who’ve needed it. Now I know you didn’t do it for the credit. Yet I believe the practice of faith is both about saying thank you to God and about receiving and truly feeling God’s gratitude for you.
So please, really take a moment to hear this thank you as if it is coming from God.
Thank you for all the ways you are or have been Joseph. Thank you for all the times you’ve allowed love to change who you thought you were or what you thought your life would be. Thank you for all the moments your sacrifice and hard work has not been fully recognized or appreciated by those it’s helped. For when you’ve put your dreams on hold to listen instead for God’s humble dream for your life.
Thank you for everything only God knows you’ve done.
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,