Hallowing Halloween Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Oct. 30, 2011 Full moons and witches’ hats, spider webs and flying bats, goblins, ghouls, and fairy wings, now’s the time we see these things. Did you know Halloween is one of the world’s oldest holidays? We think it began as an ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain (sow-in). The [...]
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Oct. 30, 2011
Full moons and witches’ hats, spider webs and flying bats, goblins, ghouls, and fairy wings, now’s the time we see these things.
Did you know Halloween is one of the world’s oldest holidays?
We think it began as an ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain (sow-in).
The ancient Celts began their new year on November 1, so the night before November 1, Samhain, was their New Year’s Eve (a party day in every culture!). The Celtic New Year marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the cold, dark winter.
Now, Nature in the days before advanced technologies could seem volatile and even cruel. In a pre-scientific age harsh winters along with food shortages and primitive medicine could result in high mortality rates. And so people began to associate the dark, cold winter with fear and with the possibility of death. The beginning of a season that seemed to invite death could be cause for alarm, or at least concern. And so myths and legends developed saying that on the night before the New Year, the night before November first, the night of Samhain, the barrier between the world of the dead and the world of the living was particularly thin. And if the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead was thin, then maybe the dead could return to the world of the living, and try to take some of the living back to their world.
What could we do to prevent death from invading life at this transitional time of the year? We could build bonfires to dispel the darkness (and to invite warmth and light and good luck for the winter months) and we could wear disguises, costumes so that if a dead ancestor or enemy came looking for us, they wouldn’t recognize us and we might be left alone. Seems naïve to our 21st century minds, but when one is desperate, one will try anything. How many pills and potions have we all taken to look younger, or be thinner? I’ve known people who took supplements believing they might make them taller! Oh yes…when we feel helpless and afraid, a dose of snake oil suddenly seems quite reasonable.
By the middle of the first century, the Romans had conquered the Celts and Roman myths and traditions started mingling with those of the natives. The Romans also had a late October observance whereby they honored their loved ones who had died. Also in late October, the Romans would honor the goddess Pomona, the goddess of fruit, whose symbol was an apple. And so, the practice of bobbing for apples developed. Samhain and Roman pagan practices were blended together.
By the 8th century, Pope Gregory III made November 1 a day to honor spiritual heroes and Christian martyrs of the past. The day came to be called All Saints Day and actually incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. As November 1st then was a time to observed hallowed, or holy souls, the night before the Day of All Hallows became known as All Hallows Eve, the very day that Samhain was always observed. All Hallows Eve would eventually be shortened to Halloween.
By the year 1000, the Church made November 2 All Souls Day to honor, well, all souls that had passed from this experience of life to the next. And this feast was probably meant specifically to replace the Roman and Celtic practices of remembering the dead, and in fact, All Souls Day was practiced much as Samhain had been, with bonfires and people dressing up…but instead of dressing up to fool ghosts, Christians would dress up like the exalted or fallen spirit of their mythology…they would dress as saints, angels, and demons.
So, the traditions of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day become sort of blended. They all meant about the same thing and they all happened about the same time. Some people continued to observe Halloween. By the time Europeans had settled (or conquered depending on your point of view) North America, the Puritans decided that Halloween should be avoided because of its pagan beginnings. But over time, as more and more Europeans came to North America, they continued to bring their European traditions with them, and Halloween survived. In fact, it was Irish immigrants who brought tradition of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns.
By the 20th century, Halloween had evolved into a secular (and commercially successful) holiday for children to dress up and collect candy. Here and there fundamentalists have tried to derail the holiday by claiming it was somehow diabolical, but in reality, it started as a defense against the potentially nefarious forces of death, evolved into religious celebrations honoring the beloved dead, and finally became a time for children to have fun and for adults to give gifts of candy to whomever might come asking for a treat. Whatever else the history of Halloween may include, a devotion to evil of any kind is not part of the tradition.
Tomorrow is Halloween. Have candy ready in case little goblins and fairies come ringing your bell; and if you go to parties, be safe. Now, this little history lesson is appropriate to the calendar, but you might wonder what any of this has to do with our scripture readings today! I’m glad you asked.
Halloween, I believe, shares some important points with today’s readings.
1. Those ancient Samhain practices from Celtic Europe showed frightened people facing their fears with ritual and imagination. They couldn’t guarantee the outcome of events, but they didn’t allow that from keeping them from believing that they could do something that might tip the scales toward their survival. Isn’t that what the writer of the book of Joshua is suggesting: “As God was with Moses, so God will be with us.” Moses had hard times. Moses made mistakes. Moses faced overwhelming challenges, but God was with him no matter what. We have that same comfort. And if God is with us, then we are never without hope, we are never beyond the possibility of peace, our joy is never subject to our circumstances. With or without costumes and bonfires, we have the power of hope at our disposal.
2. The ancient Samhain traditions and the Roman celebrations in honor of Pomona and their beloved dead show that honor and humility, as our second reading suggests, are life-long companions. We don’t honor ourselves by seeking privilege; as we embrace humility, we honor the Source of life and our lives are honored as well. As we give, share, serve, we are becoming our best selves and as we become all that we are meant to be, God, in whose image we are created is honored.
3. Whether we are taking about Samhain, Halloween, All Saints or All Souls Day, we are obviously acknowledging the experience of death; and we are acknowledging the significance of life beyond death. When Jesus says the greatest among you must serve, as he says elsewhere the last shall be first and the first shall be last, just as St. Paul said that in the blessed community we call the body of Christ all parts of the body are of equal importance, we are reminded that no matter how important we think we are, no matter how fortunate or troubled our lives seem to be, in actuality we all are born, we all must die, between birth and death there are opportunities and challenges, and beyond death, the energy of life somehow continues…beyond our titles and resumes, we are part of the never-ending process of life. We are all equally part of that process and within that process, there is no great and small, no first and last, there is just life manifesting as each one of us…all equally a part of the ultimate reality we call God.
4. Finally, as we examine Halloween, we see that it is silly to demonize the day…a day on a calendar can’t be evil, and children dressing up and enjoying candy is only fun, and people wanting to make children happy by giving them treats is generous and loving and kind. It’s silly to lay superstitions and unreasonable fears onto Halloween. Halloween is and always has been a time to confront our fears, to honor the entire life cycle which includes the experience of death and life beyond death, to remember with love those who have passed onto the next experience of life, and to celebrate this life with hope and joy and generosity. And just as it is silly to demonize Halloween, it is silly to demonize same-gender loving people, or anyone for that matter. We are all children of God, God is always with us, the least among us has great potential and the greatest among us have weaknesses…but ultimately, we are all one. There are no monsters, just children of God, some who have and some who haven’t yet recognized and celebrated their sacred value. And that’s why we’re here…to remind all people that they are in God and of God and are eternally loved by God. Halloween is as good a time as any to share and celebrate that message. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
I give thanks for life.
I honor all lives that have blessed my life.
I acknowledge that my life has sacred value.
I affirm blessings for my life.
And I know that just as I Am, God is with me.
And so it is!
Every Time We Touch Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Dt. 34.5, 7; Ps. 90.1-2, 17; Mt. 22.34-40 That doesn’t seem like any library I’ve ever been to; but it does remind me an awful lot of church…well, our church anyway! Isn’t it amazing how good romance and good worship share so much in common! The gathering [...]
Every Time We Touch
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Dt. 34.5, 7; Ps. 90.1-2, 17; Mt. 22.34-40
That doesn’t seem like any library I’ve ever been to; but it does remind me an awful lot of church…well, our church anyway! Isn’t it amazing how good romance and good worship share so much in common!
The gathering of people in that video were isolated, fixed on their own tasks, needs, desires, concerns. But when someone started talking about the power of love, things began to change.
At first, they are annoyed by her enthusiasm and joy about love, but as she remains committed to her witness, one by one they all catch the fire and unfettered joy takes over their lives…at least for as long as they will allow it. That is exactly what spirituality is…we come together, we share, we get uplifted, and we let our lives express joy. And then, the miracles start to occur.
“Every time we touch I get this feeling and every time we kiss I swear I could fly. Can’t you feel my heart beat fast, I want this to last. I need you by my side.”
In moments of intimate communion, I feel empowered. I want this sense of oneness to last; I need to be aware of you always with me. What profoundly good theology, and from a dance song! Of course, songs and poems and dramas and fictional tales are all through our scriptures. Maybe the wise ones have always known that love and joy and sharing are the true sources of powerful living.
And then, a line that almost perfectly sums up the message Christians call good news:
“You are my castle, your heart is my sky, they wipe away tears that I cry; the good and the bad times, we’ve been through them all, you make me rise when I fall.”
The power of love is the power of Resurrection. There may be difficult times, but if I know I am loved, I can navigate them. Even if life seems to knock me down, love can lift me back up. This could be my Easter sermon!
Now, when we talk about love, that seems sort of airy-fairy and not very tangible. I mean, who is loving all the time? And how can we really love our enemies? And how can we express love for those who are trying to hurt us and at the same time show ourselves the love we need and deserve? This love business has too many practical applications to work out…let’s just focus instead on sin and judgment and divine wrath…hate and fear are easy! This love business requires some work…and maybe that’s the point.
The first reading today tells us that Moses was a servant of God, and he had a full, meaningful life until the end. Moses touched people with his courage, and his generosity, and his commitment to justice. He touched people by offering service, and that gave Moses strength and purpose. Moses shows us that the richest life isn’t necessarily the life with the most possessions, but the life that has evolved beyond selfishness. The life that touches others lives with generosity and goodwill is a life that will be filled with joy.
Then the psalmist prays this morning, “God, you have always been our dwelling place.”
God isn’t limited to traditions, institutions, texts, or even any particular time. The universal power and presence that we call God is the Substance of all that is…our truest Reality is divine. God, as the Psalmist says, is our dwelling place. We don’t need to find God or be rescued by God from our sinfulness…
You may have noticed I don’t refer to us as sinners. Oh, God knows we make our share of mistakes. And, we all carry some old baggage that weighs us down and gets in our way from time to time. Most of us have developed habits that don’t add much joy to our lives. And in our insecurity, we may lash out at others because we are afraid that we are so insignificant our only hope of mattering is to tear down someone else so that we can at least be better than THEM.
We sometimes experience brokenness and in our brokenness we can even do things that could be called evil…but that is human evil, the result of brokenness, woundedness. It is an illusion, without any real substance. And we can overcome the illusion of evil and begin to contact the better angles of our nature. We may not live into or even be aware of our divinity, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t in and of God. God has always been our dwelling place. It is in God that we live and move and have our being. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
You may sin, that is, you may miss the mark…we all do and will. Mistakes will be made, others will be blamed. But a person who makes a mistake, even someone who is in the habit of making the same terrible mistake over and over is not herself or himself a mistake. We are part of the creation that God calls very good. We aren’t sinners, even though we miss the mark. There’s an old saying where I come from: “You can put your boots in the oven but that don’t make’em biscuits.” Just because we aren’t done growing, healing, and learning doesn’t mean that we are innately evil. I reject as vehemently as a fundamentalist rejects science any notion of original sin. I don’t know if God ever makes mistakes, but if God does, I refuse to believe that humanity is one of them! We didn’t fall from perfection; we are still evolving toward it! Or better stated, we are learning, however slowly, to recognize and express the perfection that is our true state. We are the children of God. God is our dwelling place.
The Deuteronomy reading shows us that a life lived in service is a full life. The Psalm reminds us that Perfect Love, Eternal Love, God is our true home. Then the gospel ties together trusting the God in us and serving the God in others.
Jesus says the greatest commandments are simply to love God and love others. What a non-dogmatic view. If you love God then you will love yourself and others because we are in God and God is in us. We can’t love God but not God’s dwelling place. It’s easier to bash the Mormons or the Mennonites, the Buddhists or the Baptists, the Sikhs or the Seventh Day Adventists, the Agnostics or the Anglicans, the Jews or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Wiccans or the Wesleyans…it’s easier to fear queers than to delight in diversity…it’s easier to worship a book than to wrestle with it, to worship the sacraments than to allow them to reveal the holiness within us…it’s easier to complain than to sustain, to resist change instead of resisting injustice…it’s easier to be dogmatic, doctrinal, religious, even zealous than it is to embrace the simple words of Jesus…love God and your neighbor. Jesus will go on in the parable of the good Samaritan to say, PS – EVERYONE is our neighbor. Self-righteousness is so much easier than self-realization. And so religion has too often taken the easy path rather than doing the work of spirituality which is simply the work of learning to love ourselves and then loving others as we love ourselves.
God is love, so the more we love, the more of God we express. As we love and give and share with wasteful abandon, we are becoming more and more like God, which is, more and more like the truth of our infinite potential. To know God isn’t to call her this name or to call him that name…to know God isn’t to beg for divine favors or forgiveness…to know God is simply to allow God to become manifest in our experience which happens every time we offer love without condition or expectation of anything in return…every time we touch our world with love.
This kind of love take practice, especially if we were not shown it by our parents or caregivers in our formative years. But we can practice, and the more we practice the better we’ll get at it.
With our coming together to encourage one another to express the better angels of our nature, to challenge one another when we become too gossipy, too complaining, or too fearful, to comfort the despondent, and to practice acts of compassion, justice, generosity, and kindness…by coming together, learning together, and working together we will evolve and more and more of God will express through us and more and more love will flow out of us to help and heal the world around us.
Right relationship with the divine Reality isn’t about belief, tradition, or ritual…some very self-righteous, so-called orthodox people deny love or even human kindness to gays and lesbians, to people of other religions, and they often care little for the environment, for equal opportunity, and they sometimes seem much more supportive of war than peace.
They claim to believe in God, but they don’t seem to value much of what God most truly represents…peace, hope, love, compassion, generosity, justice, healing. If they had fewer beliefs and more love, what a different world we’d have. If we all had few beliefs and more love, what a different world we would have. There is a saying which I hope every person of faith will embrace as they grow and mature, and it is: “the older i get the more i believe, AND the fewer beliefs I have.”
God has always been our home. Our job isn’t to find God, please God, flatter God, cower before God, or even to believe much about God. Our job is to come home…to be more at home in God and to let the Love that God is express more fully through us. We are to touch the divine Reality of our lives, and touch the divinity of others, and thereby bring healing and wholeness to more and more people. And every time we touch the divinity within and among us, we express a bit more of the goodness that is our natural and true state. It isn’t always easy, and we won’t always get it right, and yet we can begin the process that leads to healing and fulfillment. We can begin the process in this God-filled moment. We start by loving…we learn to love ourselves and then to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Just begin. If you’re not good at it right off, who cares? Just try and try again. It takes a life time but it starts in just an instant; why not this instant? As we touch the world with more love, we will be loving God, in fact we will be living the love that God is; and this is the good news.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
My true essence is loving.
My true nature is love.
I will love myself today.
I will begin to love my neighbor as myself.
I will be God’s love in action.
And so it is.
“God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them.” 1 John 4.16
Always More Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral October 16, 2011 The gospel lesson this morning is very familiar and really doesn’t need a lot of commentary. In the simplest reading of the text, Jesus seems to be saying that paying both tithes and taxes is good. Of course his opponents are trying to trap [...]
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
October 16, 2011
The gospel lesson this morning is very familiar and really doesn’t need a lot of commentary. In the simplest reading of the text, Jesus seems to be saying that paying both tithes and taxes is good. Of course his opponents are trying to trap him. If they can get them to say people shouldn’t worship with their generous giving, then they can accuse of him not being a true prophet. Consistent and joyful generosity is absolutely sacramental in scripture; so, if Jesus doesn’t seem to know that, they’ve got him!
But, if Jesus says that people shouldn’t pay their taxes, then they can accuse of him of trying to get people to cheat the government. That makes him an enemy of the state, and for that he could get in a lot of trouble. But Jesus is smart enough to see through his opponents’ trap. And he says, “Be a good citizen…pay your taxes, AND, be a good worshipper…pay your tithes.” It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. God’s people aren’t looking for loopholes; the people of God want to do more, not less. The people of God volunteer, they share, they support the government and demand the government to then support its people. The people of God support their house of worship and other good causes and they lend aid to their friends. The people of God simply do all they can whenever they can. That’s the proper way to show the world what it means to be the people of God.
As John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can to all the people you can for as long as you ever can.” God, Infinite Good, the Spirit of Life, the Mystery of the Universe, the Web of All Existence, the Source and Substance of all that is, must be so much more than we could ever imagine. We can know more and more of God, and yet, no matter how much we know there must still be more to discover. So, since God is always more, how we worship is by doing and being and becoming always more ourselves. As we do and become more, we experience more of God, which is always more than we could imagine. There’s always more to do, more to learn, more to share, more to experience, more to discover, always more.
The point that God is more than we have imagined, and even more than we sometimes want to imagine, is demonstrated in the lesson from Exodus today. In that reading we see Moses struggling with the temptation that we all have known. He wants to see God. He wants to see infinity from his finite vantage point. It can’t be done. The writer imagines God saying, “you can’t see me and live.” And that makes sense…to see the infinite, one would have to be beyond the constraints of mortal physicality.
And yet, time and again, we find ourselves wanting to trap God inside a box, a container, an image, a name, a religious tradition, a political ideology…we want to say, “Here is where God is and this is what God is…See, we have God; we know God; we own the rights to divinity!” But when we believe that we have locked God in the box of our own understanding, we simply have fooled ourselves. Trying to trap God in the boxes of our own comfort will fail as surely as Jesus’ opponents failed to trap him with the false dichotomy they presented to him.
The Ten Commandments contain a strict and clear prohibition against idolatry: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in the sky, or on the earth, or in the water” (Deuteronomy 5.8). The problem with an image is that it can too easily become a crutch. We see the image and we forget that image is not essence. We forget that images are symbols that point beyond themselves, never to themselves. And all too soon we allow the image to become magical, sacred, a substitute for a real relationship with the power and presence we call God. Whenever we whittle the mystery of life down to an image, no matter how familiar or comfortable that image maybe, we have made God too small and have thereby stunted our own spiritual growth.
We can never be bigger or better than our understanding of God. And so, if our God can be carved, painted, baked, photographed, molded, contained in a book or otherwise limited by any finite condition such as nationality, gender, or religious tradition, then we have made God too small, and we who are made in God’s image then will also remain much too small.
In Exodus 32, we see a story about the hazards of idolatry.
Moses has gone up a mountain to commune with God. Mountain tops often represent the divine presence in ancient mythology and in our own scriptures. While Moses is away, the people get impatient and fear that without Moses to speak for God, they will have no experience of God. So they persuade Aaron to let them build a golden calf (probably representing Apis, the bull-god of Egypt).
When Moses comes down he sees this tribute to the past, this longing for the system that had oppressed them, and he goes berserk. Aaron tries to tell him that it all just mysteriously happened…people just randomly started throwing their gold jewelry into a camp fire and eventually out rolled this golden calf! Moses doesn’t buy it and he unleashes sheer terror on his own people. He’s angry that they want to “see” God, that they want God to be so small that God can be seen, known, understood, owned. And he’s especially angry that what they are worshiping is the past, and at that, a past that dehumanized them and from which they have escaped. Why would they ever want to go back to that?
However, Moses now, just one chapter later, is caught in the same temptation. He too wants to “see” God…not as a tribute to Egyptian oppression, not as a monument to the past, not as a golden calf, but still…he wants God to be manageable. He wants God to fit nicely into an image. He wants to see God’s face…he wants God to be small enough to fit into a single experience. And God says, “Never gonna happen!”
God reminds Moses that God’s Name is Un-Namable! For our own convenience we call God this and that—Elohim (Masc./Fem./plural)…El Shaddai (Almighty Breasted One)…Adonai (My Lord, or sovereign, or protector)…Spirit…Father…Mother…even “God” and all of these names and many more are found in our scriptures, which shows that no one name is good enough, big enough, sufficient enough. And there is another name for God that says just that…Yahweh. It’s a word we have to guess how to pronounce because it doesn’t contain vowels. It’s more a verb than a noun, and a to be verb at that. It means I Am what I am, or I will be what I will be, or I Am the One Who Is, or the Ground of Being. It’s similar in some ways to the Chinese Tao, the principle of life, un-namable, itself no-thing and yet the underlying reality of everything.
God in this story reminds Moses, “My goodness will be all around you, and I will announce my name…The One Who Is…but you can’t see me…I’m beyond images, things, finite perceptions…I am no-thing, the source and substance of all things…I don’t exist, I am existence…I’m not powerful, I am power…I’m not present, I am presence; omnipresence…I am all that is and the whole is even then more than the sum of its parts! I am eternity. I am infinity. Finite life can’t possibly see infinity. You can experience me, trust me, depend on me, but you will never see me, own me, limit me, fully know me.”
It calls to mind that old story about the blindfolded people who are led to an elephant and asked to describe it. The one touching the trunk describes the elephant as long, bending, strong but still flexible, wider at the top and narrower near the end. The one touching a tusk describes the elephant as hard, inflexible, strong, with a dangerous feeling point at the end. The one touching a leg describes the elephant as hard, round, unmovable until it moves itself, and heavy enough to crush you if you got in its way. Another person touching the tail describes the elephant at thin, frail, and smelly. What each person describes is their own experience of a much larger reality. With their blindfolds on they can’t experience the whole elephant, and even if they were to remove the blindfolds, they still would only see one side or maybe two…not the front, back, top, bottom, outside, and inside all at once. There’s just too much elephant to see from any one vantage point.
God must be infinitely more complex than an elephant.
When people say that only Christians can know God, or that God favors our country, or our allies, or that God wants men to be dominant over women, or that only opposite gender attraction can be holy and life-giving…when people say that God shares their prejudices, they are saying they have seen the face of God; but that isn’t possible. So what they’ve done is make their prejudices into an idol; they’ve made their god too small, and have kept themselves too small as a result.
The writer of the New Testament Letter to Timothy says that God is immortal and invisible (1 Tim. 1.17). Beyond sight. Or as we pray so often here, “God of many names, mystery beyond our naming”…which is to say, mystery beyond any single understanding or experience, beyond any name or image. Our God has no face, or, perhaps God has as many faces as are in the room, and billions more as well.
And the Apostle Paul said, “We live by faith, not by sight…” (2 Corinthians 5.7). People of faith don’t need to limit God to a text, a tradition, or ritual, a symbol, a name, or any other idol or graven image. We don’t have to see God as completely as one might see a snow globe or a lucky charm.
We can trust God, but not figure God out.
We can experience God, but never fully know God.
We can see something of God in nature, in art, in our loved ones, in ourselves, in our community, in our aspirations, in our dreams, even in our enemies, but whatever of God we think we see or know, God is still much more.
And if God is more, then we can still be more. We can grow more and more into the Truth of our being. We are of God and in God; we may can only see God from one side or one angle, like Moses, but also like Moses, we can experience God’s light and presence and develop an intimate trust in the one that cannot be named, seen, or defined. If we can let God be more, then we will discover that life can be more…filled with infinite possibilities, even miracles. God is more than we have believed, and so are we. This is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
AffirmationsI am more than I have believed.
I am more than I have expressed so far.
There are more blessings for me.
There are more miracles for my life.
There is more of God for me to discover.
There is also more of me.
“Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: if you are alive, it isn’t.” Richard Bach
So Many Guests, So Many Meanings Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral Philippians 4.4-9; Matthew 22.1-14 (Oct. 9, 2011) Oscar Wilde once said, “Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” And while it may not be obvious at first, I think happiness, or at least joy, is what our readings this [...]
So Many Guests, So Many Meanings
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
Philippians 4.4-9; Matthew 22.1-14 (Oct. 9, 2011)
Oscar Wilde once said, “Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” And while it may not be obvious at first, I think happiness, or at least joy, is what our readings this morning are encouraging within us. The Apostle Paul encourages us to find reasons to rejoice even when situations are difficult, and Matthew gives an image of a life celebration. Both writers shared these missives during difficult times in their own lives.
Patricia is a woman in Kenya. She’s a church goer, and she always assumed that AIDS was a divine punishment on people who somehow deserved it. She thought God would protect good people and allow or even cause the unrighteous to contract it. That’s how she thought until she tested HIV positive. Then, she became one of the people she had always judged to be somehow beyond the reach of God’s love.
As a result of her diagnosis, she lost her job. She was depressed to learn that many people felt toward her the way she had always felt toward people living with HIV. But, she turned to God in prayer asking for comfort and strength and wisdom, and she says that her heart was changed as a result. Instead of judging others who have HIV, and instead of feeling like a helpless victim, she realized that she could actually be part of a solution to the AIDS crisis.
She learned about HIV and started talking about it in her church. She shared from her personal experience that judging people with HIV wasn’t helping the people living with the virus and it wasn’t helping the mission of the church. She got treatment, and she’s done very well. She is a living example of how medicine and hope combined can be a powerful and healing force in response to HIV/AIDS. Not only did she come out about her diagnosis and advocate for others, she also gave what she could of her personal resources to make a difference. In addition to raising her own five children, she took in five more children who had lost their parents to AIDS. She went from judging others to feeling like a victim to becoming a survivor, a teacher, an advocate, and a care giver for 10 children. She became a person of power who used her personal power to help and heal others. She now loves life and works for an AIDS education organization. She hasn’t single handedly changed everyone’s attitudes about HIV, nor has she discovered a cure for AIDS, but she has experienced healing even with HIV and she has found purpose and peace, hope and healing in her life and she has learned the joy of sharing those gifts with others.
Patricia discovered that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and as we embrace the power of that truth, we find happiness that we never had before.
The Gospel reading this morning may have a similar message for us.
In Matthew’s story, some Aristocrats throw a big party. Some aren’t interested in it, others are. And at least one person who shows up for it doesn’t stay. Matthew suggests the guest is thrown out for not being dressed properly. How did we go to begging anyone who would to show up to throwing someone out for not following a dress code?
Perhaps lost in translation, distanced from its historical and cultural context, there is a message of hope and grace. I will offer today 5 possible interpretations of the parable Matthew attributes to Jesus. You will need to choose which one appeals most to you.
#1 – The Non-Engaged Guest: Perhaps the royal party givers represent God and the ongoing invitations and the mixture of all kinds of people is meant to show that God is always calling all people to come into community, to share resources, and to experience life as a celebration. Just because we may not be ready at a certain moment to respond to the call to come into mutual community doesn’t mean that God ever stops offering it. Someone will hear the call, and respond with a whole life commitment. And so the call is repeated over and over and over. It never ends.
Maybe the person who is tossed out for not wearing wedding clothes symbolizes people who don’t allow themselves to experience joy; they don’t enjoy the blessings of the community because they’ve never fully engaged it.
They show up but don’t participate, or they participate with the expectation of getting a place of honor or privilege…they don’t “get” what the party is about so they don’t stay, or if they stay, they don’t have the same experience as those who are there to learn, share, and experience life in a more abundant way. People can be in the room, but not really be present. They are holding onto their grudges rather than the possibilities of healing and growth. They are holding onto their fears rather than embracing hope. They are trying to control others rather than trying to improve themselves. They are at the party, but not enjoying it, not participating in it, not sharing in the celebration. They aren’t tossed out by the host; they simply remain on the outside of things by their own choosing.
Is the story telling us that happiness within a faith community comes from being fully engaged? Participating with time, talent, treasure, prayer, worship, positive speech, goodwill, and faithfulness beyond personal issues, disappointments, and grievances?
#2 – The Marginalized God: Maybe it’s a misreading to see the Royals as God and the person tossed out as some kind of malcontent. Maybe the Royals are the privileged elite and it is their sense of self-importance and entitlement that excludes the marginalized, different person (the sort of person for whom God would have a preferential option, according to Liberation theologians). God may be the victim of cruelty in the story, not the perpetrator of it.
Is the story telling us that the person most unlike us, the one who seems most out of place, is the very person in whom we might have the most life-changing experience of God if we were only open to it?
#3 – Let the Host Be the Host: Maybe the story is simply telling us to not judge others. God will decide who is worthy and who isn’t. We just need to show up and realize that others are showing up too, and some of them may be very different from us. But we are guests, as are they, and it isn’t our job to decide which guests are “good” guests. We’re all beneficiaries of a feast we didn’t ask for, work for, or purchase. Maybe we should be fully present, and let others reap the harvest of their own planting. We don’t need to pass a lot of judgment; it isn’t our party. We just need to enjoy the hospitality and show our own gratitude.
Is the story telling us that we waste too much time with our judgments, finger pointing, accusations, and complaining; and while we are misusing our time and energy, we’re actually missing the party?!
#4 – Not Tossed Out but Coming Out?: We could view the story through the lens of our spiritual heroes this week. Thinking of National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) and the remembrance of Matthew Shepard (Oct. 12), we might see the story as an allegory for our own lives. The party is the celebration of who we are and the affirmation of our sacred value. The marriage feast is a celebration of our union with the divine, all-loving Presence. The person dressed commonly is the one who doesn’t need to pretend to be anything other than she is, and because she is self-aware and Self-Realized, she is then sent out into the world of fear and hatred and loneliness to share the gifts she has received at the party. She knows who she is and she is now sent out to help others learn of their sacred value, and perhaps to bring them into the on-going feast as well. She isn’t tossed out, she has embraced the power of coming out and now she must live a life of fearless honesty as a model for others to follow.
Is the story telling us coming out as progressives, as friends of justice, as a community that recognizes the presence of God in heterosexuals and bisexuals and homosexuals and transgender people, indeed, in all people…that coming out strong with our empowering message of hope and healing is the path to happiness and wholeness?
#5 – The Castle & the Banquet Are Within: We could view the story through the lens of St. Teresa of Avila, another spiritual hero this week. St. Teresa compared the soul to an interior castle. Perhaps the Royal Party takes place within our own interior castle. The Spark of divinity within us calls out to every part of our being: our body-selves, our emotions, our sexuality, our intellect, our aspirations, our talents, our whole Selves to show up and to live integrated lives where we honor and celebrate all of who we are without needing to hide any part of us or deny the truth of our sacred value. The castle and the banquet are within us, and not until we find them there will we find them at all; we will forever feel excluded from the feast, unaware that it was for us and within us the whole time.
Is the story telling us that the presence of God and the Sacramental Feast of unconditional Love are always within us, and nothing outside of such an inward experience will bring us peace and joy?
Maybe each of these interpretations are appropriate for different ones of us at different times, depending on where we might be on our life journey? In any case, I am convinced that the story does not suggest that God rejects anyone for any reason.
Matthew imagines Jesus telling this story to make the point that the banquet of divine Love is open to all people. The Apostle Paul states it a bit more directly in his letter to the Philippians. Paul says, “rejoice always” and “keep your mind on [good things]” while he himself is sitting in a Roman prison cell! This shows that having a positive attitude doesn’t always control the situation, but it can keep the situation from controlling us.
I’m sure Paul would rather not be in prison; and I’m sure he actually hopes to get out of the jam he’s in. But right where he is, even if it isn’t the situation he would choose for himself, he chooses to believe that God is present to comfort, strengthen, and uplift. Paul trusts that a divine peace (“beyond understanding” – beyond what circumstances seem to justify) is available to him even in prison. The authorities can incarcerate his body, but nothing can hold his thoughts and attitudes prisoner without his consent. He doesn’t let circumstances dictate what he believes about himself or his relationship with God. And so, even in prison, a peace that passes understanding is available to him.
Paul isn’t rejoicing that he is in prison. He isn’t even rejoicing because he knows for certain when and how he’ll be released. He rejoices because even in the worst of circumstances, God is with him; and if God is with him, peace and even moments of joy are possible.
Life isn’t always easy; but for people of faith, it doesn’t have to be in order for us to experience peace, joy, and a sense of being at home in the universe. The world is always changing; sometimes to our liking and sometimes not. But when we know that nothing can separate us from divine love, then we can celebrate the good times and navigate the difficult times, and enjoy communion with God all the while. And this is the good news. Amen. © Durrell Watkins 2011
I choose joy today. I embrace peace today. I focus on what is good. And I trust God to sustain me. Thanks be to God! Amen.
“Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” Marianne Williamson
Now What? Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Sunshine Cathedral, Oct. 2, 2011 Gypsy Rose Lee famously said, “God is love; but get it in writing!” Spirituality that a faith community is meant to foster, is the guarantee written on our lives that God is love, and that loving presence has a home and that heavenly dwelling [...]
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Sunshine Cathedral, Oct. 2, 2011
Gypsy Rose Lee famously said, “God is love; but get it in writing!”
Spirituality that a faith community is meant to foster, is the guarantee written on our lives that God is love, and that loving presence has a home and that heavenly dwelling place is none other than the human heart.
That message would ring clear as never before beginning in 1968.
Once again a new moment was called forth to enliven the Christian community, to loosen the imagined restraints on divine Love. 43 years ago, on October 6th, 1968, a gay defrocked Pentecostal minister had a worship service with 12 people in his living room. That minister was Troy Perry and the church he started on that divinely appointed day was Metropolitan Community Church, known affectionately as MCC, and Metropolitan Community Churches can now be found all over the world.
In the beginning, the mission and message of MCC was very simple…God loves gay people too. Such a simple message scandalized the larger Church. Whenever the prophetic voice calls out that God loves what society said was unlovable, it is a scandal, a divine, sacred, miraculous, world changing scandal. And that simple, positive, inclusive message was so uplifting and literally life saving for so many people, that MCCs started popping all over.
The message grew, expanded; you see, if we were marginalized, then integrity would demand that we seek not only our own liberation, but the liberation of all who had been marginalized. And so MCC started advocating for women’s issues, for a better understanding of transgender issues, and when AIDS broke out MCC was among the first to offer hope and compassion to people living with the virus, as well as comfort to those who were mourning losses from the viral onslaught.
By 1972 MCC had a woman pastor in Sacramento, and in 1973 Freda Smith was elected to the governing Board of Elders. Freda, an unapologetic feminist, challenged MCC to include women in every area of leadership and in the language used in worship and governance. Once again the world was shocked to learn that God is not a boy’s name. In addition to being an activist and a minister, Freda Smith is also a therapist and she would use sermons to offer emotional healing. For a problem in life, she would say, “Find it, face it, fix it, finish it, and forget about it.” When there is a challenge, a disappointment, and we’re tempted to say Now What? Remember Freda’s wisdom: Find it, face it, fix it, finish it, and forget it. In other words, move on, move forward. Release the past to the past and begin to embrace the infinite possibilities of the future. MCC had powerful leaders in the beginning, to be sure. And we still do…I think of the former Vice Moderator of MCC, Rev. Elder Don Eastman who is a member of this church and is a mentor to pastors all over the denomination. I think of public theologian Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, our Presiding Elder and Moderator. And I think of the Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin who is not only one of our pastors he is also the Vice-Chair of MCC’s Governing Board…he is constantly encouraging us as a congregation and as a denomination to look forward, to move ahead, and to believe that we can be more than we’ve ever been before.
And MCC has touched countless lives for decades now with a simple gesture every week…the open invitation to share Communion. No matter what you believe about communion, no matter if you are a member of any church at all, MCC has stated without apology that if you dare to bring all of who you are to the Communion table God is big enough to make the ritual feast be whatever you need it to be! Months before the Stonewall Riots and half a decade before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders, MCC was saying God doesn’t have step-children…We are ALL made in the image and likeness of God.
Years before there were medications to help manage HIV, MCC was saying, God is bigger than AIDS.
And even still, while churches argue over who can and can’t get married and who can and can’t receive Communion, and how much water it takes to make Baptism work, or how many times one can be baptized, MCC simply says as Jesus did, “Whosoever will, may come!”
MCC has forever changed the conversation of the global Christian family. In, through, and as MCC, God has done it again. Once again, a mighty wind has rushed through the upper room of human hearts, and new tongues are being spoken declaring in new ways that God’s love is all-inclusive and unconditional, never excluding anyone for any reason.
Four years after the birth of MCC, one of the first few MCC churches helped to start a new one in Broward County. The MCC in Miami helped pioneer a new church in Fort Lauderdale. The new parish would be called first, Church of the Holy Spirit, and then, Sunshine Cathedral. And 39 years later, we’re still here…reaching more people than ever before, still changing lives and offering hope and healing.
I’m so proud of MCC. I’m proud of what we’ve done. And I’m proud that Sunshine Cathedral is part of that great and noble story. But my question is, “Now What?”
We cannot rest on the achievements of the past. We cannot get stuck in the regrets of the past. We cannot fool ourselves into believing everything was accomplished in the past. We aren’t building a museum of history; we are building a highway to the future! There is always more to do. No matter how great yesterday was, today is calling us to new action and what we do today will create tomorrow’s world. So, now what?
The Apostle Paul had success as a Pharisee, a lay scholar. He then became part of the Christian movement, and then a leader of the movement. But he could not rest on his previous accomplishments; his resume would not take him into the future. He had been busy and successful in the past, and yet he says, “I consider myself to have taken hold of this…Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” In other words, “Now What?!”
Jesus tells us in the gospel today that the kin-dom of God will be given to those who produce the proper fruits. Well guess what, WE are the proper fruits! We are the ones to move forward not into the familiar, but into the divine unknown. We are the ones to include new people and new kinds of people. We are the ones to do what has not yet been done; and to do what has been done even better and in new ways for new generations.
Guess what…our message is good for gay men.
Our message is good for lesbians.
Our message is good for people who don’t even know what they are yet because they never knew it was OK to ask the questions.
Our message is good for transgender men and women.
Our message is good for heterosexual people who are looking for a spirituality of unfettered joy and self-empowerment.
Our message is good for people struggling with meth addiction, and alcoholism.
Our message is good for people ready to heal from the abuse of the past.
Our message is good for people who want to come out of their closets of shame and into the light of self-acceptance.
Our message is good for people who are grieving significant losses.
Our message is good for people who need to know that they are the apple of God’s eye and not God’s mistake.
Our message is good for people who are tired from carrying around hate and fear and are ready to be set free.
Our message is good for single parents.
Our message is good for people who have been struggling with a call to ministry.
Our message is good for a world that needs to be reminded that God looks at everything that has been created and calls it all very good!
Thank God for MCC.
Thank God for Sunshine Cathedral.
Thank God for those who first dared to dream the dream of what could be.
Thank God for those who have added new dreams, knowing there is always more to be done.
Thank God for every person who loves this church, and who loves herself or himself a little more after finding this church.
And thank God for every person who prays for this ministry.
Thank God for every volunteer.
Thank God for every person who gives generously and consistently because they love this church and they believe in its mission and they want to reach more and more people with the good news that God doesn’t have one person to waste!
Men and women, queer and straight, there’s not a soul that God will hate!
Thank God for the time, talent, and treasure you give to make sure that more people will know that truth for themselves.
We have the history. We have the calling. We have the people. We have the talent. Now What?!
Now we pray for justice, for peace, for healing, we even pray for our enemies; because even if we can’t love them yet, we know God does.
Now we give with more joy and enthusiasm than ever before.
Now we recommit to reaching more people with truly good news.
Now we invite more people to share this miraculous experience that has added so much to our lives.
Now we say, “the past was pretty amazing, but you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Now we strain toward what is ahead, determined to produce good fruit, affirming that the future has infinite possibilities and we allow ourselves to be the hands of God working miracles in our world.
Now we say – I’m ready to be all that God created me to be…my body is good, my sexuality is perfect, my gender identity is right for me, I value my mind, and I trust that God’s love leaves no one out.
And now we commit to sharing that good news with more people. Somebody still needs that message; will you help them hear it?
God is love, but get it in writing. Guess what? We are the writing! WE are the good news. And so it is!
© Durrell Watkins 2011
AffirmationsGod’s love can heal every heartache.
God’s love can renew every soul.
God’s love can mend what is broken.
God’s love is making me whole.
And so it is!
Final Word“You cannot uneducated the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” Caesar Chavez