Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so too may we walk in Newness of Life. AMEN.
This morning, Paul challenges us to live life anew in Jesus Christ. Sounds wonderful, right? Except, why can it be so hard? Paul, in his Greco-Roman style, uses logic to connect to his previous chapter and make a case that, even though Jesus’ grace makes us right with God, we should not go on sinning. Makes sense, right? Yet, often we do not make a “logical” decision about our behaviors, nor can we find the courage to change them. The way we act is affected by our culture.
When we talk about “culture”, our thoughts go to . . . food, and clothing, music, the ways that we express our ethnic preferences. But on a subtler level, our “culture” also includes the way we think, the way we talk to one another, how we make decisions, and the ways we habitually behave. There can be a culture in a group, a family, and in an individual. We each have habits and preferences that feel most comfortable for us – using our left or right hand, being introverted or extraverted –making other behaviors not impossible, just uncomfortable.
Sometimes changing our cultural habits is clearly what is good for us, and we welcome the change (mostly). Joining a weight loss program, or starting regular exercise, those are positive, right? Learning new ways to solve problems in groups, or to come to decisions, a little harder, but doable.
One cultural practice that appears in both our reading from Genesis and in Matthew’s Gospel is the practice of slavery. We can all agree – today – that this is not a good, just or healthy practice, right? We would even call it “sinful”. But at certain places and times in history, it was a sad fact of culture. In our country, slavery was outlawed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. Is that when it ended? Last week, many people celebrated a day we call “Juneteenth”. On this day, we celebrate the END of slavery, extending at last to the more remote state of Texas on June 19, 1865, two years after the proclamation. Changes in culture take time, even those that we know must happen.
I’m going to step out here now, and say something true and vulnerable. If it is your first Sunday here with us, I ask for your forgiveness; some things must be said. In November of 2015, you called me — a progressive, creative, outgoing woman from the Bay Area — to be your Rector. As a parish, you discerned that you wanted to grow and change, and you called me as the person to lead you in that process, because of my gifts and skills and personality. And I said yes! My family and I committed our lives to you and this community. I learned about your story, and I made a mutual agreement to love you and to lead you. Now, this has not always been comfortable, for either of us! We’ve had conflicts, and I’ve asked you to try things that have stretched you. You’ve asked the same of me! We’ve made some improvements, and some mistakes. We are all human.
Well some folks, they got so uncomfortable that they left us, and that makes us all very sad. Me included; I grieve the loss of those whose path led them away from St. James and I pray for them. But I am not afraid. Because I believe in you; I trust in your call to me and in my ability, with God’s help, to bring what you asked for. And for us to move forward, I need your trust in me as well.
Jesus tells us that “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”. Jesus was such a wise leader! He knew that, to really develop change, we need to have the courage to look at what’s “below the water line”, at those histories and habits that we’d rather not acknowledge, but that are deeply ingrained into our culture. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Let’s love one another enough, and have enough maturity, to talk openly about our stories and feelings and admit to those unhealthy habits we’d like to change.
Do not be afraid! You are of great value, to God, to one another and to me. We’ve known one another long enough now to develop real trust together, and love that speaks the truth and appreciates both our strengths and our growing edges. It can be so tempting at times to either “cut and run” or to just return to “the way things used to be”, whether consciously or unthinkingly. And. Jesus calls us to new life together. New Life that is something we have not dreamed or imagined. God does not waste anyone, or any experience. God delivers the needy.
God made a new nation from Hagar and her son, Ishmael, out of the bonds of slavery. God raised Jesus from the death he suffered at the hands of Roman persecution and transformed all of our lives through Christ’s resurrection. God raises us from pain and conflict and loss to “walk in new life”. Together, we can look at the ways in which we gather together, our experiences of transformation, and how we are sent out into the world.
One example of this cycle of renewal in the life of St. James Parish is through our Outreach Office, which is funded by our New Life Fund. In this ministry, people are gathered from both our congregation and our greater community, and all of us are transformed, not just in acts of “charity”, but by sharing stories and resources, and each of us becoming different than we were before. And we are all “sent out” from there: back to the world, back into our congregation, with a new perspective, walking in newness of life.
We can do this! We have the love, the faith, the good intentions we need to change our culture, to discuss what is hidden, to heal what is hurting. Together, we can partner with our strengths and our gifts, as well as our challenges and our blind spots, we can live in new ways, create new a culture of health and light. Together, with God’s help. And all God’s people said, AMEN!.