The Realm of Heaven

On July 31, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

The Realm of Heaven Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins July 30, 2017 Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s words be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says seek first the Realm […]

The Realm of Heaven
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
July 30, 2017

Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s words be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says seek first the Realm of God. While all of the gospels talk about the Realm of God, or the kin-dom of God, God’s anti-empire or counter kingdom, Matthew uses Realm of God and Realm of Heaven interchangeably.

In literary imagination, where does God live? In heaven. Indeed, also in the sermon on the mount, Jesus prays, “Abba who are in heaven.” But in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, that doesn’t mean God far off in a sky realm…it mean, God who is throughout the universe. In other words, there’s not a spot where God is not. God in heaven means God everywhere fully present.

The gospel of Jesus is the good news of God’s kindom, that is to say, of God’s presence which is everywhere all the time and all lives are part of it. That being true, we are then called to care for one another, to be merciful to refugees, the sick, the hurting, the oppressed, the marginalized.

If God is everywhere, then we who call ourselves the people of God are to see God everywhere we look, and if we see God in refugees, we won’t abandon them…how could we abandon God?

If we see God in people of all religions and no religion, we won’t use religion as an excuse to abuse or vilify those who have different religious vocabularies than we do.

If we see God in the sick, we will not rest until every person has adequate medical care.

If we see God in same-gender loving people, in transgender and gender non-conforming people, then we will not remain silent when they are demonized and dehumanized.

God’s heaven is God’s home, and God lives in us, with us, among us, all of us, no matter who we are. We then serve God by being God’s hands of mercy in the world.

So, there’s not a spot where God is not. God’s realm, God’s heaven is at hand, in our hands. But when we really believe that, what should that look like in our lives? It turns out that Jesus has a lot to say about that.
In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus tells a series of parables, fictional stories to drive home a profound truth, describing the Realm of heaven.

Jesus says:
The Realm of Heaven is like a field with both wheat and weeds. The farmer of the field decided to let the wheat and weeds grow together and separate the weeds from the wheat at harvest time.

Jesus says:
The Realm of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that is planted and becomes a big plant that can actually become a home to birds.

Jesus says:
The Realm of Heaven is like a woman baking bread who just keeps adding yeast until her entire loaf rises.

Jesus says:
The Realm of Heaven is like a field with a hidden treasure in it.

Jesus says:
The Realm of Heaven is like a net that was cast into the sea that caught all kinds of fish. The fishers waited until they got to shore before discarding the bad fish and keeping the good.

Jesus just keeps reaching for metaphors, similes, and symbols to help describe what it should look like when we accept that our lives are part of God’s life.

When we live as if we are in God’s presence, we let wheat and weeds grow together…live and let live. We don’t need to keep people from voting, marrying, accessing education or healthcare…later, the farmer, God, can decide who is and who isn’t worthy of God’s best (and I believe God ultimately will decide that we’re all keepers), but our job is to let everything grow and thrive.

When we live as if we are in God’s presence, we may feel like our resources are small, like a mustard seed. We may have little faith, a little talent, a little money, a few friends, a small community…but the truth remains that within us is great potential. Small as we may feel, we can provide shelter, respite, hope, community to those who are in flight, those who are flying through life looking for a place to land. A mustard seed can grow to house the birds of the air.

When we live as if we are in God’s presence, we keep adding ingredients, programs, messages, music, food, outreach, education…we keep adding yeast until the whole loaf rises, giving everyone a chance to thrive and be part of abundant living.

When we live as if we are in God’s presence, our lives may seem like a big, empty field, but know that within that field is rich treasure, even if we haven’t uncovered it yet.

When we live as if we are in God’s presence, we cast a wide net, bringing in every kind of person to affirm their sacred value. Some will stay and some will not, but the net was cast for everyone.

The Realm of Heaven, the kin-dom of God, the presence of God is where everyone is given a chance. Everyone is to be fed…not only if they deserve it or believe certain things or live up to our standards…the only requirement for being fed is hunger. In the Realm of heaven, everyone deserves shelter, everyone has sacred value, every life is a field with hidden treasure in it.

Robert and I have a new dog; her name is Bella. Bella has already learned one of our favorite affirmations. With her actions, staring at kitchen counter tops, sniffing the refrigerator door, going to her food and water bowls, performing her tricks that are rewarded with treats…Bella is saying over and over, “There is good for me and I ought to have it!”

Bella already knows what I hope to always remember, and what I hope you will at least consider…in God’s presence, there is good for us and we ought to have it. And if that’s true for us, it’s true for everyone. And if its true for everyone, part of how we worship is by being the conduits through which God’s good can flow.

The Apostle Paul tells us this morning that even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit is praying in and for us. Our groanings become God’s own prayer wishing us peace, comfort, strength, and joy. In other words, there is good for us and we ought to have it, and even when we forget that, God is still knowing that for us and whispering that truth in our hearts.

The Realm of Heaven is like knowing without fail that there is good for us and we ought to have it; there is good for all people and all people ought to have it. And when we live as if we believe we are part of God’s heaven, then we will choose to be God’s helpers whereby the good is joyously shared so that every need can be met.

We can be the answer to God’s own prayers, and in partnership with God’s will, we can help more people experience the good they deserve to have. And this is the good news. Amen.

There is good for me and I ought to have it.
This is true for all people.
And so it is.

Three Things You Need to Know About God

On July 24, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Three Things You Need to Know About God Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins July 23, 2017 Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s words be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen. In the prayer red today from the 139th […]

Three Things You Need to Know About God
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
July 23, 2017

Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s words be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

In the prayer red today from the 139th psalm, we find three important verities.
1. God is omnipresent.
2. God is able and willing to help us feel better.
3. God knows our innate goodness.

1. Omnipresence

There’s not a spot where God is not!

“There is no time, no place, no state where God is absent.” ACIM

“No matter how dark things become, someone is always with you – and that someone is God.” Norman Vincent Peale

There’s a story about two fish that were in a heated argument one day. One believed in this mysterious thing called an ocean. The other didn’t. The doubtful fish asked, “Have you ever seen the ocean? Have you ever met anyone who encountered it and came back to tell of it?” But the believing fish couldn’t accept that there was no ocean. The believer had no more evidence than the doubter did, but somehow, the believing fish intuited that there was an ocean, and somehow, the believing fish felt very close it. Both fish were in the ocean, of course. They were born in the ocean. The ocean was part of them. They breathed the ocean. Swam in the ocean. Lived every moment of their lives in and part of the ocean. Believing or not believing didn’t make the ocean more favorable to one or less accepting of the other; but the one who was able to perceive the ocean got to enjoy its benefits more, and trusting in its abundance gave the believing fish great hope and comfort.

Of course, God is the ocean in which we live, and move, and have our being.

2. God is willing to help

My grandmother said grace at every meal, read a portion of the Bible every day, went to church most weeks that her health allowed, and knelt on the hard floor to pray every night before bed. Her theology wasn’t very similar to mine, but her devotion was inspiring. She loved God, and she believed that God heard her prayers. She didn’t always receive the answer she wanted, but she received enough to make her believe her prayers made a difference. And in any case, the practice of prayer helped her feel close to God in good times and in difficult times.

I once heard of a woman who was experiencing a challenge, and so she took the matter into prayer. She pulled up a chair and said, “Dear God, have a seat; we need to talk.”
She then knelt in front of the chair and continued her prayer. She really felt as if God was with her, and by the end of her prayer, she was very much relieved. She trusted that God was present with her, and acted as if that were true, and immediately, she felt better.

If we had a pain in our side, we’d immediately hold it, hoping that doing so would provide relief.
If we had achy fingers or a stiff neck, we’d massage them, again, trying to provide relief. If something in us were hurting, we’d try to ease the pain.

We are in God, part of God, and our prayers for help are like nerve endings sending signals for aid. And, God immediately holds the pain, massages the ache, tries to soothe the discomfort.

Rather than thinking of God as an authority beyond us that sometimes deigns to show up and offer a hand, the psalmist shows us we can think of God as the home in which we live, and since we are at home in God, God’s comfort is always available to us, like a child’s laugh, a spouse’s kiss, or the smell of grandma’s apple pie.

3. God knows our innate goodness.

In the New Testament, we read in the book of Ephesians that there is
“One God who is the Source of all, through all, and in you all.”

God could no more abandon us than we could rip out our own hearts.
We are that integrated into the Reality of God…that’s what omnipresence means…everywhere, fully present. If God is, and we are, then we are in and part of God. God is the ground of our being, the source and substance of our lives, and when God sees us God is seeing the best of us, the spark of divinity within us, a reflection of God’s own goodness.

Our mistakes, our personalities, our fears, our shortcomings…those things aren’t us. When God sees us, God sees the truth, and the truth is we are made of God-stuff, created by God, filled with God’s light, part of the universal body of God which is very good.

When we trust that God is omnipresent, and that God is good, then we can also trust that we are inheritors of God’s goodness, and that truth is what God knows about us.

In this life or the next, we can’t be separate from God.
In this life and the next, because God is with us, God is able to comfort us.
And because God is with us and able to comfort us, we can also know that God is willing to do so because God sees the part of us that even we don’t see sometimes…the part that is, always has been, and always will be perfect. Even the places we might call dark, God sees as light. Because we are in and of God, and God is light, and in light, there can be no darkness.

I grew up afraid of God, wondering if God knew about my sufferings, cared about them, or perhaps was even the one causing my pain. I never want anyone to have such an anguished understanding of God, and, if anyone is burdened by oppressive theologies, I want to offer them a more liberating understanding of the divine, a more healing experience of the One who is the Source of all, through all, and in us all.

I want all of us to trust that God is with us, God always wishes to comfort us when we are troubled, and God always sees our innate goodness, since, after all, we are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.

Let the psalmist’s prayer be ours today:
“Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night’, darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”

And this is the good news. Amen.

Dear God, you are omnipresent.
I trust you are willing and able to help me.
And I am glad that you see goodness within me.
And so it is.

 

Spilling God’s Seeds

On July 16, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s word be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen. Spilling God’s Seeds Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins The reading from Isaiah today tells us that God’s word of hope and encouragement must produce […]

Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s word be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

Spilling God’s Seeds
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins

The reading from Isaiah today tells us that God’s word of hope and encouragement must produce something good. That reading has uplifted people for millennia – during times of exile, war, famine, oppression, and hardship, people have heard the prophet’s words declaring that God’s love and goodwill flow like rain, fall like snow, and will achieve something good in due season.

God’s word, God’s will, God’s wish is for us to go out with joy and return with peace, and for our lives to be filled with happiness and fulfillment, singing and rejoicing.

And if there are thorns in life, what’s to sing about? That the thorns will be replaced by beautiful trees and bushes and God’s goodness will never end. Thorns happen, but they aren’t the whole story. Things will get better, and trusting that, we can go ahead and rejoice right now!

Even when things are not going well, we can remind ourselves and one another that God is cheering for us!

God wants YOU to be happy.
God wants YOU to love who you are.
God wants YOU to see and seize wonderful possibilities.
God wants YOU to trust that nothing can separate you from the love that God is.

That’s God’s encouraging word and in the fullness of time it must achieve something good. Something good is on the way for you! If you’re ready to receive it say AMEN.

But wait! What about those who say God tests us, punishes us, only accepts some of us, those of us who hold certain opinions or belong to certain groups or who love or pray in prescribed ways? How does this good God of infinite goodness square with that harsh, finger wagging, wrist slapping, limited occupancy God? Well, to be sure, they are too very different visions, understandings, and experiences of God. And some of us have been conditioned to believe that the God of unconditional love, joy, abundance, hope, and peace is just too good to be true. We seem to want God to draw a line somewhere. We want grace to be free but we also want to insist that we have to do something to get it, which would keep it from really being free.

Do we really believe in GOOD News? Are we willing to believe that God is love?

God the punisher may appeal to some, but I can’t be bothered with the concept. God is good or God couldn’t be my god.

If goodness, kindness, and love scare you, may I suggest that you have some inner work to do. Start right now telling yourself that you deserve Good in your life.

“There is good for me and I ought to have it.”

“God is love and WHOEVER lives in love lives in God and God lives in them.”

“NOTHING can separate me from the love of God.”

“Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better and better.”

“There’s not a spot where God is not.”

“Wherever I am, God is, and all is well.”

“I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.”

“The past is past and the future has infinite possibilities.”

“All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

You see, faith comes by hearing, and the one sure way to hear something good is to say it.

Faith is trust…Trust God’s goodness and unconditional love. Build that trust by saying uplifting things all the time. Faith comes by hearing.

Jesus told a story about a Gardner who went out to sow some seeds. She tossed seeds everywhere, not taking aim at just some areas but just slinging them every place.
Some seeds feel on a foot path and were eaten by birds, some seeds fell on hard ground and never really took root, some seeds fell among thorns when they sprouted the thorns choked them out, and some seeds fell on rich, fertile soil and produced a huge crop.

He didn’t often explain his parables, but he explained this one. He said:
1. The seeds that the birds eat right away represent those of us who hear the good news but don’t quite get it. It’s like it’s just gobbled up and we don’t benefit from it.
2. The seeds that fall on hard ground represent people who like the message but they don’t hold onto to it for long. They don’t put down roots in spiritual practice and spiritual community. They like it at xmas and Easter or whenever they happen to expose themselves to a positive message, but they don’t make it part of their daily lives and practice, and so it doesn’t really stick with them and isn’t there for them in their times of great need.
3. The seeds that fall in the thorn bushes represent people to hear the word of hope and encouragement and may even like it, but they focus more on their fears, their regrets, on what’s not yet perfect or on what could go wrong…their attention is on the thorns of life, and where attention goes, energy flows. And so the fears that they feed stay strong and choke out the message of hope.
4. But the seeds that fall on rich, fertile ground…that represents the progressive, positive, practical community of faith. They hear the word of hope. They love it. They live it. They share it. They support it with time, talent, and treasure. They pray it. They study. They worship. They praise. And the word grows within them, exponentially, to lift them up whenever they need it.

God is spreading seed everywhere. God is lavish, wasteful with the word of hope. God is tossing it everywhere it might land. On hard ground, hard heads, hard hearts where it may not penetrate too deeply, on busy lives where it may get brushed aside, on brier patches, on thorny people and prickly attitudes, on people we might consider to be mean or bitter or selfish or afraid or cruel or miserable, and God is tossing the word of hope on those who receive it, nurture it, celebrate it, practice it, allowing it to flourish in their lives. God is tossing the seed everywhere, spilling the seed of grace on every single human soul. On shallow spiritualities and hard hearts and thorny attitudes, as well as on the eager and devoted…God is tossing the seed everywhere. You may not be ready for it yet, but God never stops offering it.

The seed is love. The seed is hope. The seed is peace. The seed is empowerment. The seed is fulfillment. The seed is compassion. And God is spilling it everywhere, in abundance, all the time.

That’s because, as Isaiah says, God wants all people to have hope and peace and joy…that’s God’s word and God’s wish and God’s will, and it will not return to God void but will eventually take root in every soul, in this life experience or another.

Thorns will be plowed under and replaced with beautiful trees and bushes, hard ground will be tilled, all ground, all souls, will be receptive to the good news that God’s love will never exclude anyone for any reason and that is reason to rejoice.

Whether the poetry of Isaiah the parable of Jesus, the message is the same…God wants us to be happy, and God will never give up until God’s wish is fulfilled. And since God will never give up on us, we need never give up on ourselves. And this is the good news. Amen.

(c) Durrell Watkins 2017

Thank you, God, for your all-inclusive love.
You will never give up on me.
So I will never give up on myself.
Alleluia!
Amen.

Welcome

On July 3, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Welcome Rev. Ty Bradley, Minister of Social Justice July 2, 2017 In the chapter that ends with our Gospel text this morning Jesus and his followers are in the midst a whirlwind missionary trip to many of the seaside towns of the Galilee region. Midway through their travels, Jesus is emotionally overcome by the large […]

Welcome
Rev. Ty Bradley, Minister of Social Justice
July 2, 2017

In the chapter that ends with our Gospel text this morning Jesus and his followers are in the midst a whirlwind missionary trip to many of the seaside towns of the Galilee region. Midway through their travels, Jesus is emotionally overcome by the large crowds of people who show up everywhere they go, even as he realizes the job is too big for one person.

So, he gathers his disciples and shares his plan to split them up into smaller groups that are each empowered to travel to different towns in the area to continue the work on their own. He gives them what amounts to a sobering yet encouraging pep talk. They are going to do all the great things they have seen Jesus doing, but they are also going to run into a lot of the same resistance that Jesus has faced. They are to take heart, be bold and trust that as they go out, God’s spirit goes with them.

Whatever the actual origin of this particular Jesus tradition, the author’s larger purpose in including it in the story is to serve as an encouragement to the community of Christians who were the first readers of this Gospel. It is as though Jesus is reaching across the years through the written page and is speaking directly to the experience and concerns of the early Church community struggling to live out its purpose in challenging contexts.

Thus, it would seem to make sense that Christian communities today look to Jesus’ words here to both guide and interpret their own experience living out their purpose in a challenging world. However, we must be careful, here as elsewhere with Scripture, to not abandon our appreciation of the text as reflecting a particular writer speaking to a particular audience at a particular time and place. We should not, as too many Christian communities do, conceive of the words on the page as something God supernaturally caused to be written down millennia ago just so you and I would read it today. Far too often, the result of this faulty and ego-centric thinking is that Christian movements hijack scripture to give divine legitimacy to their own sense of entitlement and privilege as the so-called special people of God.

Just from this 10th chapter of Matthew, Christians have been emboldened to reach all manner of worrisome conclusions: “Jesus says whoever doesn’t accept what we have to say will suffer fiery judgment;” “Jesus says when we are standing up to those who oppose us, anything we say is really God speaking through us.” “Jesus says if anybody says bad things about us it’s because they actually hate him.” “Jesus says, even if our behavior hurts people in our own families, we must ignore their pleas if we want to be worthy of Jesus.”

And so on and so forth… until all manner of bad behavior is given spiritual sanction, every plea to elevate love falls on closed ears, and every effort to protect the innocent becomes an assault on their so-called religious liberty…just like Jesus said. And the heart-wrenching irony is that this corruption of the Gospel of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of so much of the oppression, violence, and degradation that has been and continues to be perpetrated in the name of Christianity.

And so, we must not make the mistake of concluding that Jesus is encouraging Christians to see themselves as part of some sort of special group that can act with divinely sanctioned impunity. But, that is not to say that Jesus words here do not have something to say to us today. When we resist the temptation to see Jesus’ words as a celebration of Christian privilege, we are free to recognize that Jesus is in truth speaking about the special purpose of the church not its special position. Specifically, as we listen in on Matthew’s Jesus telling his followers what being “sent out” as gospel-bearers really means, we are inspired by the idea that both begins and, with our text, concludes his speech. It is the idea that the gospel is advanced, that God shows up, when strangers welcome one another into their respective worlds.

Again, we do not take the text literally here, rather we step back and see the broader principle Jesus is articulating. In a world where we so often close ourselves off from what is strange to us, what is unfamiliar, what is discomforting, so often what we are really closing ourselves off from are the opportunities to connect with others; opportunities that may very well reveal God’s love in surprising and powerful ways.

In so many areas of our lives we resist what is foreign to us; different ideas and ideologies. It is not enough that we stake out a position, an attitude or a preference that works for us and that we are happy with. We find it necessary to completely shut out competing ideas and notions. Once we make up our minds about something, we so often refuse to believe there is any value whatsoever in even taking time to consider alternatives that may subsequently cross our paths with an open mind. And our consumption-based culture reinforces this predilection. Our food, our music, our entertainment, all customized to our precise tastes. We don’t even consume news anymore without filtering out perspectives different from our own. So much of our life experiences can be dialed in to our exact specifications like building a burrito at Chipotle.

It has spilled over into how we form relationships. Look at where we’ve gotten with these dating apps that so many of us use now. They allow you to filter out and not even have to see people based on age, race, height, weight, health, hair color, hair amount, hair location. You can basically avoid the awareness that people outside of your limited preferences even exist. What’s next, a dating app that allows me to simply accept or reject someone in the blink of an eye based upon my gut reaction to their picture. No, No, No, Yes, No. Right, left, right, left. Oh, wait, they’ve got that now too. Or…so I’ve been told.

All joking and dating apps aside, we probably miss out on the opportunity to welcome in and be welcomed into one another’s space more often than we’d like to admit. And it’s because of the discomfort we feel, the sense of “otherness” we experience with so many people who are not like us, who are not part of our same groups, who think about and value and experience life very differently than we do. There are so many distinctions between us as people that naturally dictate who we are more or less likely to welcome in. If we are being honest that often includes things we wish or would like to believe it didn’t. Things like race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, class, nationality, language, criminal history, political and religious differences.

This is not new to our time and context. It has always been part of the human condition. It certainly was in Jesus day, and I imagine he thought a lot about this. I suspect he was a realist enough to know that the way the world worked only reinforced people’s tendency to “other-ize” difference and to reserve radical welcome only for the familiar and the safe. But I also think Jesus dared to imagine something different. I think he recognized that what was truly a threat to people’s welfare and quality of life was not the discomfort of difference or strangeness, but the systems of oppression and dehumanization fueled by the reality of empire.

We have heard plenty from this pulpit about how Jesus’ message of the Kin-dom of God, the Gospel itself, was a counter-kingdom alternative to empire. And I believe Jesus’ missional instructions to his followers that day as he prepared to send them out on their own reflect that message. He says in our passage this morning, you want to see God show up in surprising places, where only injustice, oppression and lack seems to have been present before? Welcome the prophet. Welcome the holy ones. Welcome the stranger-in-need with compassion.

In ancient Israel, the prophet was someone who spoke discomforting, disrupting truths to power. And, “the holy ones” in our translation is actually the greek word that means both righteousness and justice, they are interchangeable. So, really Jesus is telling us to welcome one another’s truth, even when it disrupts or discomforts our own assumptions and privilege. He is telling us to embrace the claim others have for justice regardless of whether we see the connection to our own need for justice. He is telling us to welcome the one to whom we owe nothing by sharing ourselves to meet their need.

This is much easier said than done, today as it was then. It is so much easier to dismiss what we don’t understand or agree with than to be open to being changed by someone else’s truth and experience. I think about what has been going on this past Pride season. I hear about someone adding stripes to the Pride flag or disrupting Pride parades and my first reaction is to dismiss it as ridiculous, to get agitated by it. It is so much easier for me to just reiterate my own logic and arguments on it whenever the subject comes up.

But how does that result in anything other than me being divided from people in my own community, from having animosity toward those I with whom I should be in solidarity with against the structural wrongs that affect us all? How much more might be gained if instead of digging in and reacting solely from my own truth, I began by intentionally hearing the voices of those who have a different truth to tell from their own experience about the inclusivity of Pride and the LGBTQIA+ community? Maybe it changes my opinion to hear them, maybe it doesn’t. But by making room within myself to fully welcome someone’s differing, discomforting truth, it changes me, and it changes them, and most importantly it changes who we are to one another. And with that kind of change, no matter how subtle, the God of liberation and love always shows up.

Anytime we offer or receive welcome in unexpected places where the result is that we have become more human to and with one another, God has shown up.

I want to share a final story from my own life that for me illustrates the truth of this perfectly. When I was about 13 my mother came to visit my younger brother and I at our dad’s house just 1 day after she had been released from prison. For reasons I won’t get into, my mom ended up having to take my brother and I with her that day…like permanently, along with our clothes and my dog, Silver. This was unexpected. I am not sure where my mom had been planning on staying that night, but now she had us and new plans had to be made. She had a car she had gotten, but the windows didn’t roll up and so we couldn’t sleep in it even if just for that first night. We went to straight the welfare office. They got my mom signed up for assistance, but all they could do for housing was give us a list of shelters to try.

The only shelter that had space was an old church in Venice Beach. There were no beds and people were sleeping on and underneath the pews. There were three spaces available under the pews but they weren’t together and the entire church smelled badly of booze and urine. My brother and I cried openly insisting that we could not stay there, unconcerned about how much more difficult our insistence made the situation for our mom. With no one, including my grandparents, willing or able to give us a place, at some point my mom had no choice other than to call the one person with a house and the heart to possibly help us. His name was Nate, but everyone called him Nation Wide. Nation Wide was a crack dealer, and his home was a crack house. Nation Wide’s house had no electricity and no water service. This was the days before the batter ram where cops could just tear through front wall of a suspected crack house. So, what they did to discourage drug activity was have the city cut off power and water.

We got to Nation Wide’s house and he had his candles all over the house and a makeshift bed of sheets and pillows on the floor for us, and even had food and water for Silver. He had kicked out all of his customers so that we would feel safer and for the next week Nation Wide went with little to no income while we stayed in his home until my mom was able to get us into a motel. This was the 80’s and I had been flooded with negative stereotypes of what a crack dealer was. How they were violent, crazed, how they preyed on children and were the scourge of civilized society. But I experienced someone totally different than that.

Nationwide was no saint, but he was to me and my brother and my mom and my dog. I have no idea if his act of welcoming us in with radical compassion when we had nowhere else to go changed him in any way. But it absolutely changed me in a permanent way. I cannot just write people off as bad or no good because of what society or other people have to say about them. Not since that day when God showed up for me and it turned out he was black, and old, and almost toothless. He lived by candlelight and his bathroom was a hole in the back yard, he survived by selling crack cocaine and his name was Nation Wide.

When we welcome the stranger into our lives in meaningful ways, when we allow their truth to penetrate our sense of what’s what in the world, when we take up their cries for justice and compassion as if they were our own, then we also welcome God. Spaces that once seemed to be filled only with struggle and lack and the domination of empire suddenly become fountains of hope and promise, of liberation and love.

The cultivation of such spaces whenever and wherever we are able is indeed both the purpose and the privilege of the church. It is it the great work of the kin-dom of God. And it is the good news.

Dear God,
Wherever I am sent out in the world
Let me be welcoming,
Let me be a sharer and receiver of truth
Let me be a creator of justice
Let me always show compassion
Amen

 

Random Acts of Kindness

On July 3, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Random Acts of Kindness Rev Walt Weiss For the last ten years, I have driven an older car that has served me well, however, recently, I have needed to call for a tow truck on three separate occasions. The particular road side assistance company I use, has a standard practice which I thought about when […]

Random Acts of Kindness
Rev Walt Weiss

For the last ten years, I have driven an older car that has served me well, however, recently, I have needed to call for a tow truck on three separate occasions. The particular road side assistance company I use, has a standard practice which I thought about when I looked at today’s gospel reading. Upon arrival, the driver gets out of the truck, and without even asking if you are thirsty, immediately hands you a bottle of ice cold water. After waiting in a hot car, for sometimes up to an hour, I have always appreciated this simple act of kindness. Throughout the ages, the impact of offering someone “a cup of water” has gone beyond the basic need of quenching someone’s thirst, to being a symbol of hospitality and caring. And though our reading seems to be directed primarily to the twelve disciples, I believe that this concept of hospitality and caring, is one which is relevant to us today, as modern day disciples or seekers and students of Truth.

Before we look at these verses at the end of Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, I think it is important for us to understand what has gone on just prior to this. At the end of chapter 9, Jesus looked upon the multitudes that were following him, and he was “moved with compassion” and he instructed his disciples to pray for laborers to bring in the harvest, or rather to bring his message to those he saw as sheep without a shepherd.

Then at the beginning of chapter 10, it seems that Jesus is calling his disciples to be the very answer to that prayer. The scriptures tell us he gave them power to cast out unclean spirits and to heal every manner of sickness and disease, cleanse the lepers, and raise the dead. Wow! That sounds like what we would call “super heroes” today, and I am sure that made them excited. That was the hook he used to draw them in, but them in the rest of the chapter, he explains the reality of what it will cost them to carry this out. He tells them not to carry any money with them, but rather to depend on the hospitality of others to provide for their needs. He warns that they are being sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves, where they will be persecuted and hated; their families will turn against them, and in the end, they may even lose their lives. I am sure at this point, they are looking at one another and wondering what did we just sign up for? Being a follower of Jesus is not always going to be easy, not then, not now. So Jesus closes his little recruitment speech, with these words of assurance we read this morning and in them outlines one very important requirement for discipleship.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous person; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these littler ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Now, I have to admit, that when I first began reading these verses, I felt like Jesus was speaking in circles and could not make much sense out of it. But upon further reflection, I began to understand that Jesus is talking about the importance of welcoming one another, and holds out the promise of a reward to those who practice this very basic ingredient of hospitality. Welcoming the stranger and offering hospitality was a cultural and religious requirement for the Hebrew people, taught in the Torah, and the means by which the Hebrew community showed their faithfulness to God, so the audience to whom Matthew writes this, well understood its importance. When travelers came into a town, they went to the well in the center of the town, and the townspeople would offer them food and lodging. These travelers were not their family, they were people who often had different foods, different clothes, different languages, and different gods.

In this 10th chapter, the author also has Jesus underscoring the importance of hospitality, and referencing Sodom and Gomorrha, not with any connection to homosexuality as is often preached in other churches, but rather as a place that did not show hospitality to travelers or strangers.

For us today, though we may make our lodging arrangements well in advance on a website, or have no shortage of places to eat, the human need for hospitality, or feeling welcome, is constant. Yet, so is the fear of strangers. In the Greek, the word for stranger is xenos, from which we get the word xenophobia, fear of the stranger, which unfortunately can lead to nationalism and racism. When we offer hospitality, sometimes doing just a simple thing as paying attention to someone, we are bringing who we are, what we have, where we are, to the situation. To be truly welcoming we must set aside our discomfort for how one may be different or strange to us, and meet him or her as they are. As to the reward referenced in these verses, there are some who would try to make us believe that the reward Jesus is talking about is some kind of heavenly reward after we die, reserved for those who do the right things when they are alive. But once you put aside this concept of a judging God giving special treatment to some, and punishing others, and realize that we are all equally and eternally loved by God, then it allows us to look at other possible interpretations. I believe that the reward is in the gesture itself, it comes as we do whatever it is that the situation requires, and our lives are blessed as a result of the interaction or connection we have with one another.

So after understanding that a basic requirement of discipleship is to be welcoming, I also began to see that in order to accomplish this we must recognize the Divine presence in each person we encounter. These verses are consistent with the very core message that Jesus taught, and the very same message that is proclaimed week after week here at Sunshine Cathedral – our unity with the Divine and with one another. That is the whole basis for why we need to welcome each other and welcome the stranger, because on a spiritual plane, we are all connected.

It is this interconnectedness of our lives that was expressed so eloquently in our second reading by Wendell Berry. In order to recognize the Divine within each individual, it requires that we first understand our own relationship to the Divine, then we can attempt to translate this to others. This is something which Jesus understood completely. He said, If you have seen me, you have seen God. He knew that he was one with God. Although we are each intensely aware of being flesh and blood, we are more than that. The body is Spirit become visible. There is an essential being in each of us. We may call ourselves by any name, but each of us has a more basic name, “I” or “I Am”. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I Am”. Each of us is an individualized expression of the Divine. We are forever one with God life. This life permeates our entire being.

Emerson put it this way, “There is no ceiling between myself and my Source, there is no point in time or space where God, the Cause, begins and I, the effect, ends”. This was such a hard concept for me to grasp at first, having been brought up in a tradition that basically put God way up in Heaven, wherever that is, and the separation from God was more than just a physical distance, it was a spiritual divide that could not be crossed because of my supposed sin or depravity. But once you begin to understand that there is not a spot where God is not, since God fill all, there is no place for anything adverse to God, there is no place in God’s presence even for the concept of sin. When we can begin to get a handle on this core teaching of Jesus, God living in, and through, and as us; that in God we live and move and have our being, then we can begin to see the Divine in others.

The Hindu/Indian greeting “Namaste” embodies this concept, with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upward, thumbs close to the chest, the person says softly, “Namaste” – I bow to the divine in you or more fully the god in me bows to the god in you. I will be the first to tell you that this is not an easy spiritual exercise, especially when we encounter those who do not seem to be expressing that internal divinity themselves, but at least, as we begin to practice this in all our encounters, this can begin to have an impact in our lives and in the world.

So, a requirement of discipleship is to offer hospitality and be welcoming. To do this it is essential that we recognize the Divine in each other, but then there is also our responsibility to do something – The essence of spirituality and holiness is not a matter of following religious rules – if we think that, we have missed the mark. For Jesus, a truly spiritual way of living is about being willing to give someone a cup of water on a hot day. It is really no more complicated than that. Jesus’ example was to offer a cup of water – but it could have been something else.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia). There is so much that can be done if we allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities.

I have always the loved the bumper sticker inspired by something that Ann Herbert scribbled on a placemat in Sacramento, California in 1982, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Princess Diana had her own take on this.

There are so many avenues here at Sunshine Cathedral to do just that. I truly believe that the reason I came back to Sunshine Cathedral after my first visit was because of the warm welcome I received from the greeters and ushers, but that is something that each of us can do – seek out the first time visitor or someone who has been coming for a while, but you have never introduced yourself to. You can assist with the Brown Bag lunch program, or bring in food for the Pantry of Broward on our monthly collections. But hospitality and kindness are not just things you practice here in church – it is probably much more impactful, outside of the church, where people do not expect it. We are God’s hands and feet as we go out in to the world each day. When we look around, sometimes it can seem that the needs of others are so overwhelming – how can we begin to make a difference? At most every traffic light or entrance to the highway, there are those asking for a handout. The appeals on television to assist with caring for the starving or for orphans can make us feel that since we can’t fix it all, why bother?

I am reminded of the story by Loren Eisley, “The Star Thrower” – A man was walking along the beach in the early morning hours, and he sees a young boy who appears to be dancing – he is bending down, then standing up and throwing his arms in to the air. As the man gets closer, he sees the boy bending down and picking up a starfish, then throwing it in to the ocean. “What are you doing?” the man asks the boy. “I am throwing the starfish back in to the sea. The tide is going out and if they don’t make it back in to the water, when the sun comes up, they will die”. The man looks out at the expanse of beach and sees that the tide has brought in thousands of starfish that are strewn upon the shore and says to the boy, “There are so many. You can’t possibly hope to make any difference!” In response, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean and said, “To the ones I throw back, it makes all the difference in the world.”

As followers of Jesus, we can make a difference in the world. One act of kindness at a time. And this is the Good news.

 

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