Embracing belovedness - Sunday,May 15, 2022

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.

Amen. 

May 8, 2022

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,

Amen.