On December 10, 2018, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Courage (Esther 4) Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Let us dwell together in peace; 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. The Bhagavad Gita has God saying, “I am the Self that dwells in the heart of […]

Courage (Esther 4)
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins

Let us dwell together in peace; 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.

The Bhagavad Gita has God saying, “I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature…I am the beginning, the middle, and the end in creation…I am the divine seed of all lives. In this world nothing animate or inanimate exists without me. I am the strength of the strong. I am the purity of the good. I am the knowledge of the knower. There is no limit to my manifestations.”
This ancient, holy scripture from Hinduism tells us that God is everywhere. That everything is part of God. That we all have sacred value. That hope and peace and joy are always possible. That there’s not a spot where God is not. Why am I absolutely obsessed with the idea of omnipresence? Why do I remind you constantly that God is a loving presence that will never and could never let you go?
There are two reasons, really.

1. If it is true that God is omnipresent…and both reason and experience tell me that is the case, then we are never alone. We never have to face anything alone. We can never face anything alone. And so comfort, and peace, and assurance, and courage are available to us in every moment, because there’s not a spot where God is not.

2. If God is an omnipresent power, then we are never truly powerless. Even if we seem powerless over a particular problem, we nevertheless ask a Higher Power to restore us to sanity, and the power works. It is always available to us.

God’s will must be for God’s creation to flourish, and so when we pray, “Thy will be done” we are praying, “help us to experience peace and joy and fulfillment and hope and courage and wisdom and health and love and even miracles.”

I so want everyone, no matter what they are facing, to know they are not alone, and that miracles are possible. I know that fear keeps us from giving miracles a chance.

We don’t want to be disappointed if the magic doesn’t work. We don’t want to look foolish by being seen to hope for what other said was hopeless.

Early in my ministerial training, I was in the middle of the AIDS crisis, we all were. And we were praying for new meds, for people to beat individual opportunistic infections, for people to face their challenges with courage, for people who had been abandoned by families to feel loved all the same.

But one of my mentors prayed every Sunday…EVERY Sunday, “And God we continue to pray for a cure for AIDS.”
How naïve, I thought. We haven’t cured baldness or the common cold. How are they going to cure AIDS? Praise Jesus and Mary and a dozen other reliable souls that my self-insulating pessimism didn’t impact her. She prayed week after week for a cure.
There’s still no cure, but there are treatments and prophylaxis meds and people are living long, healthy lives with what was once considered a death sentence. She didn’t manifest a cure for AIDS, but she generated hope that I believe was life-saving for some people, and life changing for others. And so, now, a quarter of a century later, I am praying for a cure for AIDS. And I won’t stop until it happens.

In the fictional story of Esther a Jewish person who wasn’t out about her Jewishness was encouraged to come out to help rescue her own people.

How could she make a difference?
What if she got in trouble?
What if her courageous, faithful act failed?
But in the end, she fasted, she prayed, and risked everything to make a difference.
There were no guarantees, but she realized, If I try, it may or may not work; if I don’t try, nothing good will happen. So, better to try.

Was it foolish? Some would say so. Was it dangerous? Absolutely. But was it worth it to pray through, and give the miracle a chance? The author would have us believe the answer is yes.

In the story, there is a eunuch is also courageous. He is a messenger for Esther and Mordecai, and in an earlier chapter he’s Esther’s personal makeup artist. He risked getting some notes snatched or overdoing the Queen’s makeup and being scorned by the other eunuch cosmetologists. But Esther risked so much more. She risked her faith.

She risked it not working. She risked it not saving the day. She risked feeling like a failure if it didn’t pay off. And, in very real ways, she risked her life for her faith. It took courage to give miracles a chance.

I have prayed for people whose circumstances gradually improved. I have prayed for people whose circumstances got dramatically, incredibly, and almost instantly better. I have prayed for people who found strength to endure their trials, and blessings in spite of their trials, but who otherwise weren’t freed from their difficulties.

And I have prayed for people who didn’t seem to get anything other than the goodwill it took for me to utter the prayer.
We detach from the outcomes, but even not knowing how it will work out, we dare to give prayer a chance, trusting that something good will come of it.

We focus not so much on the trouble or dire predictions, but on the omnipresence of divine love…and we ask that presence to do something good.

Esther knew that her plan could get her in deep trouble, but she prayed up the courage and took the risk to come out, to use whatever influence or privilege she had to save others from peril.

The risk paid off in the fictional story, but that’s not even the point. The story could have ended with tears, and there still would have been a beautiful lesson about a woman who risked everything to give a miracle one more chance. That’s the prize…not that it worked out to her delight, but that she dared to try at all.

A woman with AIDS came to me one day (c. 1998), depressed. She had been fighting for her life for a long time, and she was discouraged.
She asked what was the point of keeping up the fight; I answered that the fight wasn’t over, so the winner hadn’t been declared yet. It could still be her. And, I added, even if she lost the fight, she could spend her final hours knowing she did everything she could for as long as she could, and she could take comfort in knowing that her courageous example surely inspired others to keep pushing forward. She did keep fighting and lived another dozen years.

And she was a hero to many. Don’t give up on miracles. My mother grew up believing nothing was worse than being gay. In 2015 she attended my wedding and next month is going on the Sunshine Cathedral cruise. Don’t give up on miracles.

12 years ago, this church was about $300k in the hole; today we own this property outright, have a world class staff, beautiful windows, live saving programs, and we end almost every year in the Black (be it ever so barely).

Don’t give up on miracles. I’ve experienced and offered forgiveness in the wake of behavior that was clearly unforgivable and found love and healing and restoration as a result. Don’t give up on miracles.

Summon the courage to hope for better days. I can’t promise you a miracle today…but I will promise you that it’s okay to hope for one, and I’ll promise you one more thing…I’ll hope with you.

Let’s have the courage to hope. Let’s hope together, and come what may, the hope itself will prove to be a great blessing. And this is the good news. Amen.

Deciding to Keep Our Eyes Open

On December 3, 2018, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Deciding to Keep Our Eyes Open Sunshine Cathedral First Sunday of Advent Habakkuk What a joy to be back at Sunshine Cathedral and see many familiar faces, and many new faces—including the wonderful windows in the sanctuary! It is especially lovely to be with you on this first Sunday of Advent—the beginning of the Christian […]

Deciding to Keep Our Eyes Open
Sunshine Cathedral
First Sunday of Advent

What a joy to be back at Sunshine Cathedral and see many familiar faces, and many new faces—including the wonderful windows in the sanctuary! It is especially lovely to be with you on this first Sunday of Advent—the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.
I grew up Southern Baptist in Louisiana and we didn’t do Advent. We did do Vacation Bible School in the summer. [slide 1] And I am proud to say that I am a Vacation Bible School graduate! Are there other folks here today who went to Vacation Bible School (VBS)? I have to confess, I almost did not graduate. We had to memorize the books of the Bible to pass. I didn’t have a lot of trouble with the New Testament, but when it came to the Old Testament, those twelve little books at the end with all those names you can’t pronounce or spell, almost did me in.

In the Hebrew Bible these books are lumped together and called The Twelve. I wished I had known that back then. It would have saved me a lot of time and anxiety. Instead of memorizing the list: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. [slide 2] I could have just said, “and The Twelve.”

Habakkuk is one of The Twelve. He was a prophet during a very tumultuous time in Israel’s history. We heard it described in the reading from chapter 1: Destruction and Violence! Strife and contention! The law becomes slack and justice never prevails! Sounds like today’s headlines, doesn’t it? Habakkuk also asks, where is God in all this? How do we as God’s people, live in this tumultuous time? The answer comes in the second installment we heard from Habakkuk today: “the righteous live by their faith.”

What does it mean to live by faith in the face of injustice, violence, and anarchy? What is faith? [slide 3]
Some might say faith is what we believe about God. Churches and denominations often formulate their beliefs into a “statement of faith.” Others might say faith is about trust in God. Rather than trusting in a set of statements about God, one trusts in God. But as Habakkuk has asked, what do we do with our trust, when it is uncertain that God is listening?

Novelist Doris Betts [slide 4]claims that faith is not synonymous with certainty, rather it is a “decision to keep your eyes open.” Faith is a way of seeing. Did you notice it in Habakkuk? He asks, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” He decides to keep his eyes open by saying, “I will keep watch to see what God will say to me….There is still a vision for the appointed time.”
Faithful living in tumultuous times requires being present to what is. Too often we want to numb out, ignore or deny the destruction, violence and injustice in the world. Faith as a way of seeing doesn’t avoid harsh reality.

Living by faith in this season of Advent will have an apocalyptic dimension to it. That doesn’t mean we see harsh reality as signs of the end of the world. The work apocalypse means, “unveiling or lifting the veil.” Movements such as [slide 5] # BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, Time’s Up, and the Migrant Caravans challenge the faithful to make a decision to keep our eyes open. They are a “lifting of the veil,” an exposing, of the heresy of domination. Habakkuk said, “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me.” Faith is a way of seeing that looks for God in the ebb and flow of life. The faithful and apocalyptic message of Advent is that Jesus has “unveiled God” and the possibility for our participation in the divine life.

Habakkuk continues, “there is still a vision for the appointed time…if it seems to tarry, wait for it.” According to theologian Marcus Borg,[slide 6] faith is seeing the whole, and our response to it. Have you ever noticed in the New Testament when a healing encounter happened with Jesus, he often said to the person who was healed, “your faith has made you well.” Jesus saw something in them and responded—faith was that act of opening which released a flow of divine energy that made the healing possible. What I am suggesting here is that faith is not so much something we have, as something in which we participate. It has a generative quality about it. Jesus’ statement, “your faith has made you well” is an acknowledgement of the power of a transaction that occurred between him and the person being healed. A mutual recognition took place. The Hebrew word used for faith in Habakkuk is emunah which means “firm action.” When we can behold others with compassion and respond, we participate in a flow of divine energy that can bring a different kind of world into being.

Borg says faith is not a matter of the head but a way of the heart. This heart space is in the deep level of the self—deeper than our conscious self, below our thinking, feeling, willing, intellect, emotions or volition.

So how do we participate in this kind of faith? How do we cultivate a seeing of the whole with our heart? How do we stay mindful, present to reality with a compassion that releases divine energy into the world?

The best way I have found to do that is through contemplative practices and I want to talk about two of them this morning. The first one is, Pray the News. [slide7] Everyday we are bombarded with headlines from the news. They bling from our smart phones, ticker across our television screens and blare out from our radios. Praying the News is a way to cultivate faithful living by being present to what is. The way we do this is to make time everyday, to be present to the news. After viewing, hearing or reading the news, spend a moment of quiet reflection, letting your heart absorb the news stories you experienced. Let your heart direct you to a particular story. Spend some time praying for the people, circumstances and events of the story. Your prayers could certainly include people, nations, and nature involved in the events. Pray also for the “principalities and powers” the systems and structures that perpetuate violence, fear and injustice. Rather than praying to God about these events, be with God in these events. This kind of praying according to Walter Wink, believes a new world into being.

The second practice I want to mention is meditation. There are many ways to engage this practice. What is most important is that you spend time everyday dwelling in the heart space of your deeper self–deeper than your conscious self, (as Borg says) below thinking, feeling, willing, intellect, emotions or volition. Centering Prayer [slide 8] is one way to enter into that space. Find a quiet place to sit for 20-30 minutes everyday (twice if you can find the time). While you sit, choose a sacred word to focus your attention. The word might be “love,” “peace,” “grace.” As you settle into the quietness let your word be a symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within. If you find your mind wandering, gently return to your sacred word without any kind of judgment. You might want to imagine yourself at the bottom of a lake and wandering thoughts are like boats drifting by on the surface of the lake above you. Simply let them go by, do not attach yourself to them. Over time, this practice will expand your heart space for fuller communion with God and open compassionate seeing within you.

Habukkuk’s words about faith have had powerful influence over the centuries. The apostle Paul quotes them in his epistle to the Romans and when Martin Luther read them 1500 years later the Protestant Reformation was born. The writer of Hebrews quotes Habakkuk and lists the names of that great cloud of witnesses who have demonstrated such a faith, and I am sure we can add the names of those we remembered on World AIDS Day [slide 9]who lived such a life of faith. On this first Sunday of Advent, the “New Year’s Day” of the liturgical year, let us join our lives to their memory and say with Habakkuk, “I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; God makes my feet like the feet of a deer and makes me tread upon the heights.”

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