Reconnecting by Disconnecting (Youth Sunday Sermon)

Sunday, June 7, 2020 marked our annual Youth Sunday, in which we celebrate our high school graduates. We had six this year, and they all helped with the service! One of the, Finn Koehler, offered the following sermon. You can watch it on YouTube by clicking the video or read it below. Thanks Finn!

As many of you may know, in the summer of 2018, I along with four other youth members of our parish travelled to Maine on a pilgrimage. Despite it now being 2020, I still remember this experience as vividly as I did two years. Most surprisingly to myself, my strongest memories are not the fun times with my friends. Instead, they are the spiritual experiences. 

I know that it might seem silly that I am surprised that the religious aspects of a religious trip are what I remember most, but I have to admit that I didn’t really expect them to stand out before I left for the pilgrimage. At the time, I was fifteen years old, and I valued a fun vacation over any potential religious experiences. On top of that, I was certain that the pilgrimage would be nothing more than a rebranded vacation where you happened to do morning prayer and compline every day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Over the course of that week in late June, my relationship with God became far closer than it ever had been before. Each day, I uncovered more of what God meant to me, and each night, I turned this lesson into a small prayer in my pilgrimage journal. When I was writing these small prayers, I only thought that I was summarizing my pilgrimage, but over time, these prayers have become a framework for my personal faith. As I read these prayers again in the present, I realize that the pilgrimage brought me closer to God than I had ever been before, and I can pinpoint the main reason why I had such a great experience… We weren’t allowed to use our cellphones.

Although I am a proud member of Generation Z, I am willing to admit that our relationship with technology is co-dependent at best. For our entire lives, we have always been exposed to screens. The iPhone was invented when I was five years old, and by the time I reached adolescence smart technology was fully integrated into the world. It is hard for me to remember a time where I didn’t use a device at some point during the day. However, I can locate one glaring exception: the pilgrimage.

For one week, we were gifted with the opportunity to disconnect from the outside world. Instead of being tethered to technology, we actively rejected it. It was a culture shock at first for sure, but after a brief adjustment period, we embraced a new world of nature and person-to-person connection. Over the course of that week, the world became much simpler. We talked to the people around us. We looked at the world around us. We lived in reality as it is, not as it is presented to us on a 3×5 inch screen. As I disconnected from the world I knew, I reconnected with God.

The goal of the pilgrimage was always to find God in nature, and it became very easy to do that when we could actually experience nature as it is. Instead of looking at every wonderful moment as an opportunity to take a picture for Instagram, we chose to live in that moment and cherish it. When we weren’t experiencing the world through a screen, the wonders of the natural world, and thus, the wonders of creation were evident everywhere we looked. When we allowed ourselves to disconnect and allowed our lives to slow down, the simple beauties of God’s creation were overpowering. The bright blue sky, the vibrant sunsets, the towering mountains and the placid lakes that we can easily ignore in day to day life were transformed into powerful reminders that God created a world of natural splendor that is full of life. We were given the opportunity to grow closer to God simply by letting ourselves notice that God’s wonder is all around us. By slowing down our lives and separating ourselves from the technology driven modern world, we were able to realize just how close God comes to us everyday. Who knew that Glenbrook North High School’s resident slacker Ferris Bueller could be saying something so profoundly spiritual, when he reminded us that “Life moves pretty fast if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

All of these memories of the pilgrimage were pulled back to the surface during this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. The creation story serves to remind us that the world we know is the product of God’s work. However, it more importantly reminds a simple fact that creation is “very good.” The pilgrimage reminded me of this very truth every day. We live in a world full of natural beauty and God’s love, yet we never truly give ourselves the chance to live in it.

Instead of experiencing the beauty of nature with our own eyes, we view it on our screen saver. Instead of connecting with God, we connect to the internet. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, but there are consequences of living a life that is always plugged in. When we view the world through a screen, we don’t get to experience the power of nature; we miss out on the very things that make creation “very good.”

However, in our current situation, disconnecting probably seems like a distant impossibility. The pandemic has left us in a world where the virtual world is inescapable. For some of us, our current days are filled with more screen time than ever before. For that reason, the act of disconnecting will likely feel more powerful than ever before. Right now, the majesty of creation is not just a sign of God’s love, it is an escape from the doldrums of the “new normal.” The dichotomy between our new virtual lives and the natural world will be more powerful than ever before, and as a result, God’s presence will be more evident than ever before.

God built us a beautiful world that is full of His essence, but very rarely do we take the opportunity to disconnect from the world in order to reconnect with God. The natural world is full of God’s love, and if we take the time to deliberately experience nature, we can allow ourselves to become closer to God. Back before I left for the pilgrimage, I would have never thought I would find a way to become closer to God during that week. However, as I look back on my experiences now, I realize that all it takes to reach out to God is to stop and look around in His creation, for if we don’t, we could miss it.

Amen.

“My Story” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from August 4, 2019

My Story
Proper 13C
August 4, 2019

Sermon video available on YouTube

I’ve wondered a lot about this sermon, the last I will preach as your Curate here at St. Mark’s. Today isn’t my last Sunday, I’ll still be here next week to bid you all farewell, but Adam has returned from his sabbatical. Next week he’ll return to this pulpit and I’ll go back to my normal chair.

But I have today. I have these few minutes with all of you and I’ve wondered, what should I say?

And then the events of the last 24 hours unfolded—two mass shootings, one in El Paso and one in Dayton. Twenty-nine people dead and at least forty-two injured as of this morning.

I awoke to the news of the second shooting this morning and wondered—do I toss the sermon I had prepared; shift gears and address the issue head on?

And then I realized, what I had planned on sharing with you all this morning is still a critical response to the violence, hatred, and oppression that seem to be exploding in our world.

Today, I’m going to tell you a story—my story—because stories transform us.

When we listen to the stories of others and contemplate how their story intersects with ours, our empathy and compassion for people “not like us” grows, because we realize they are, in fact, “people, like us.”

So. As you listen I hope it will inspire you to both consider your own story and to stop and take the time to listen to other people’s stories. Because, our stories matter.

 

I was born in St. Louis, Missouri into a family with deep roots in the evangelical church. My parents and grandparents had all attended the same Southern Baptist church for decades and my earliest memories center around that church, playing hide-and-go-seek in the pews after church and making popsicle-stick creations in Sunday School.

But, time passed and, as is true for so many churches today, attendance shrank and eventually the church closed. After some searching we found a new church—another Southern Baptist church, which became my second home. If the doors of the church were open, I was there. I served in children’s ministry, took on roles in the annual Christmas and Easter pageants, I participated in, and eventually became a leader in the youth group.

And yet, despite my passion, enthusiasm, and, in hindsight, pretty obvious calling to ministry, my future in the evangelical church was limited. Women cannot be ordained in the Southern Baptist denomination, or in many other evangelical denominations. With the door to ministry seemingly shut, I headed off to college and began a wandering journey through five majors in five years, trying to find my place. After a short misadventure in Denver, working with a failing church plant, I finally managed to graduate college with a degree in history and landed a well-paying job as a graphic artist at the University. And yet, God’s call to ministry still whispered in my heart and mind.

While in college, I had begun attending an unusual church that described itself as “seeker-focused”. Through the use of popular music, the visual arts, movies, theater, and cutting-edge technology, the church sought to reach out to people and invite them to encounter God in a new way.

I started out as a volunteer in the children and youth ministries, however I was quickly snatched up by the Creative Arts Team and eventually offered a full-time position as a technical assistant.

That began almost ten years of ministry with a team that encouraged my gifts and my calling and showed me what it was to love the lost and the hurting deeply. There, I tapped into my artistic side and created huge sets and elaborate lighting displays for the weekend services; all designed to help people encounter God and experience God’s deep love.

It was during my time at this church that I met and fell in love with Zach. We got married, bought a little house in a Missouri river town, and settled in, or so we thought, for the “long haul.” Except God has different plans. We both were uneasy—unhappy in our jobs and unsettled in our life as it was. We talked and prayed, and realized God was calling us both to something new.

So after only a year in our little house by the river, we packed up and moved to Minnesota. There I began seminary, with the spoken goal of becoming a professor of the Hebrew Bible.

Our time in Minnesota was one of the most painful and growth-inducing experiences I’ve ever had. My world as I had known it, one viewed through the lens of the conservative, evangelical church, was crumbling. I was introduced to new ideas and new ways to encounter God and Scripture, and I met a group of women, each called by God to serve as pastors and priests, who inspired me—and honestly, frightened me. I was scared, because somewhere, deep inside, I must have known God was calling me to be a pastor too.

As I struggled with God and with myself in Minnesota, an image formed in my mind and heart—the image of the church I sensed would be home. The image was crystal clear, and one tear-filled evening in Minnesota I described to Zach what I was so desperately looking for, but just couldn’t seem to find. Here is what I saw…

The building is small, nothing like the massive mega-churches I had spent most of my adult life serving in. It’s wood-shingled exterior is painted white and yet still showed its age in places. It didn’t look “old”, but lived in, or better yet, prayed in. There were simple stained glass windows and wooden pews. The white-washed interior was bright and welcoming, inviting you to sit and breathe in the presence of God. The doors stood open wide, welcoming anyone who passed by into the sunlight space and a holy calm spread over the church like a cool breeze on a hot day.

It was five years before I set foot into that church—in the meantime we moved to Connecticut, and I spent much of my time wrestling with God about my calling, before being brought to my knees by Zach, who asked, “Are you sure God isn’t calling you to be a priest and you’re just not listening?”

And then came the day, when, as a postulant seeking a church to intern at four years ago, I set foot into St. Mark’s wood-shingled building, with its white-washed interior, simple stained glass, and wooden pews.

And I knew, I’d found a home again.

Amen.

“Listening From the Margins” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from July 28, 2019

Listening from the Margins
Proper 12C
July 28, 2019
Hosea 1:2-10

Sermon video available on YouTube

Today’s prophet Hosea, the last that we’ll be exploring in our summer prophet’s series, is perhaps the most troubling and challenging of all the prophets.

Hosea is active at the same time as our prophet from last week, Amos. Like Amos, he too is speaking largely to the northern kingdom of Israel which, at this point, is enjoying a time of relative peace and prosperity. Hosea, like Amos, is also full of warnings of the impending doom of the people if they do not cease abusing those whom God cares for deeply—the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed.

But Hosea takes this imagery a step further. He engages in “performance prophecy” as he marries a woman the text describes as “a wife of whoredom” and has “children of whoredom.” Hosea’s marriage, and even the names of his children, are presented as a metaphor for the crumbling relationship between God and the people. A relationship which is then described in violent and abusive language in the following chapters.

Reading Hosea leaves me chilled. From the degrading picture it paints of women to the cycle of domestic violence it seems to perpetuate, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to make sense of a book that, quite frankly, I’d far rather ignore.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have that luxury. While I may wish I could toss Hosea and his violent and degrading language overboard, the reality is, if I take Scripture and the canons of the Church seriously (which I do) I’m forced to wrestle with Hosea in all his ugliness.

So what do we do when we find ourselves in this position? While Hosea is one of the most overt examples of the violent, degrading, and demeaning texts that dwell within the canon of Scripture, it is far from the only one. Too often these texts are used to either perpetuate cycles of violence and oppression or they are “explained away” utilizing interpretive gymnastics that leave us twisted into pretzels.

Clearly neither of these are good options but what are we to do when we find ourselves faced with texts that make our skin crawl.

I would suggest we invite other voices into the conversation—specifically the voices of those historically silenced and oppressed.

The voices of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and a myriad of other historically oppressed voices have so much to share with us as we engage with Scripture. There are many learned biblical scholars and theologians whose research and writing grows from their experiences as part of these historically oppressed groups. When we listen to and engage in conversation with these scholars, teachers, and preachers, Scripture opens up to us in new and surprising ways.

When I post this sermon online tomorrow, I will be including a list of some of these scholars and theologians.* I encourage you, as you encounter Scripture, both the “easy” texts and the “hard” ones, to include these voices in your journey.

So in the vein of practicing what I preach, I would like to introduce you to one of these scholars and share with you some of her words on the difficult text of Hosea we read today.

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas. She has written numerous texts on the Hebrew Bible and has contributed to many publications. Dr. Gafney, is also an Episcopal priest, and is a member of the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the first Episcopal church in the U.S. founded by and for African Americans.

What follows are excerpts from a sermon Dr. Gafney offered on Hosea at a conference in September 2018. I will link to the full sermon online, (full text: http://www.wilgafney.com/2018/09/24/when-gomer-looks-more-like-god/) but for now, let’s join Dr. Gafney in her search for God in Hosea, and within the life of Hosea’s wife, Gomer.

 

“…there is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: When Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah. My friend Mark Brummitt points out that the baby, then toddler, at Gomer’s breast named She Will Be Devoid of Mother-Love: “has been so, so loved and nourished all along” at her mother’s breast. And there it is, the place where I see God’s promiscuously extravagant love in the text, not in Hosea’s words or even God’s, but in Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through world of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.

It is there in Gomer’s mother-love that the love of God so often couched as mother-love in the Scriptures but translated as mercy, pity, or compassion shines. That is why translation matters and who translates matters. Gomer is a representation of God to me. She shamelessly mother-loves her children no matter how their names are rightly or wrongly tarnished. She loves those who others say don’t matter. She loves the folk some preachers count out as dirty, soiled, ruined. And she loves promiscuously.

…I see God in Gomer’s love and in God I see a love that has no equal. And I see Gomer in God’s scandalous, flagrant, and promiscuous love…They called her a whore but nevertheless Gomer persisted in loving a child called Loveless and (in) her love we see God’s love.”

Amen.

 

*Below is a small selection of biblical scholars and theologians from groups who have historically been under-represented in these disciples. I have chosen to include people, by and large, who blog which makes it easier to get to access their work, or whose books I have found helpful. Thus this is a very small sampling of “who’s out there.” There are many, many more to explore!

One resource that can be helpful in hearing different voices is workingpreacher.org. This site, designed for those who preach each Sunday, offers short commentaries on each of the readings. Many of the authors are women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/biography-most-rev-michael-curry

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.: http://www.wilgafney.com/

Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D.: https://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/people/bio/amy-jill-levine

Justo Gonzalez, Ph.D.: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/27313.Justo_L_Gonz_lez

Nadia Bolz-Weber: http://www.nadiabolzweber.com/

Karen Gonzalez: https://www.karen-gonzalez.com/

The Rev. Canon Broderick Greer: http://www.broderickgreer.com/

Rachel Held Evans: https://rachelheldevans.com/

 

“Words Matter” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from July 21, 2019

Words Matter
Proper 11C
July 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-12

Due to technical difficulties, no video of the sermon is available this week.

Whenever I do a “summer wedding” in our lovely, but un-air-conditioned church, I make the couple a promise, (one I honestly stole from Adam) that my sermon will be inversely proportional to the temperature in the room. So the hotter the room, the shorter the sermon.

It’s pretty hot in here today, so my sermon will be short and, hopefully, to the point. Here it is…are you ready?

Words matter.

Words matter.

I would guess that this isn’t an earth-shattering message to anyone. We’ve all experienced words that have inspired us, elevated us. And we’ve been subjected to words that have denigrated us, wounded us. Words have the power to inspire hope or fear; to encourage us to be our “best selves” or persuade us to give in to our “worst selves.” Words can convince us we can do anything, or nothing. Words can fall on our ears like water, soothing and life-giving, or they can assault us, like a slap in the face or a punch to the gut. All because words matter.

We often talk about the importance of actions and I’m not denying how critical it is for us to live out our faith though our actions. And, our words matter just as much as our actions. It’s not enough to only take action against injustice, oppression, racism, or the mistreatment of those most in need, we must use our words as well.

The prophets, with whom we have been walking these past few weeks, knew this well. And our prophet today, Amos, speaks powerful words that indict the people for their mistreatment of the poor and the hungry. Amos calls the people out for abandoning God’s mission of love and reconciliation and instead privileging their own desire for wealth and power over their fellow human beings, and over God.

In a time of relative peace and great prosperity, many have become greedy and selfish. They amass wealth beyond measure at the expense of those most in need. They offer and take bribes, all to increase their own wealth or power. They ignore the poor, eating sumptuous meals while those most in need sell themselves for “the price of a pair of sandals,” just to survive. And, in the midst of their rejection of those whom God has privileged, the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, a grand show of their purported faith is made—prayers are spoken aloud for all to hear, Scriptures are quoted, and holy days are celebrated with gusto.

Into this world of wealth, privilege, and power, Amos’ gives voice to God’s words.

God is fed up. God has called the people to be a holy nation—one defined by love and generosity. A nation where the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, the refugee finds safe haven, and the immigrant is welcomed into the community. And the people have ignored God’s calling.

Amos’ words burn with righteous anger and echo with a clarion call for the people to return to God and to who God has called them to be—a people whose every action is defined by love.

Amos’ words matter…and so do ours.

When we find ourselves face to face with oppression, racism, unjust systems, or the mistreatment of those most in need, it is not enough to act—we must also speak.

In one-on-one conversations or in groups; at home or at work; to family, friends, neighbors, and those in power, and yes, on social media, we speak. We give voice to God’s words of love, because it is that same love that defines our actions.

We speak because, in the end, words matter.

Amen.

“God’s Spokepeople” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from July 14, 2019

God’s Spokespeople
Proper 10C
July 14, 2019

Sermon video available on YouTube

Today marks a transition point in our journey with the prophets. Over the last few weeks we’ve been hearing from the prophets Elijah and Elisha, two people often termed “pre-classical prophets.” Today we begin our journey with those termed the “classical prophets” with the prophet Amos. This distinction, and the fact that we get to hear from Amos for two Sundays in a row, got me thinking, perhaps it’s time to step back and talk a bit more broadly about the people we call prophets.

So instead of focusing on Amos this week, we’re going to explore the broader realm of prophets. Now don’t worry, we won’t forget about Amos we’ll return to him next Sunday, but I thought it was important at this point in our series to get a bit more shape around this sometimes confusing and often misunderstood realm of biblical prophecy.

Let’s begin with this idea of the “pre-classical” versus the “classical” prophets that I mentioned earlier.  This terminology is generally used within academic circles and generally divides the prophets into two categories—those whose words were recorded in books and were generally serving from around the 8th to the 6th century B.C. (think Isaiah and Jeremiah) from those who served in earlier time periods and who didn’t get a book of their own (think Samuel or Nathan). This, of course, is largely an academic division, and one that in general isn’t really important as we listen to the messages of the prophets. However, it can help us to realize something I think we’re often unaware of—there are far more prophets than just those fortune enough to get a book named after them!

According to the Jewish tradition there were hundreds of thousands of prophets, up to one million, two hundred thousand, during the biblical period.

We met two of these prophets during the last two Sundays—Elijah and Elisha. And we encounter prophets in the Hebrew Bible dating all the way back to Genesis. Abraham is a prophet as is his wife Sarah. Moses, his brother Aaron and his sister, Miriam are all prophets.

Which bring us to another fact I think we’re often unaware of—not all prophets are men! There are many female prophets whose work is recorded in the Bible, including an incredible woman from the book of Judges named Deborah. Deborah is a charismatic military leader, a poet, and a prophet—if you’re interested in learning more about her story it’s found in the book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5, and I assure you, it’s an exciting read!

Deborah, Sarah, and Miriam are far from the only female prophets. Queen Esther, who helped save her people from annihilation is a prophet, and within Christianity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, also carries the title of prophet.

Now you may be wondering at this point why some of these people are classified as “prophets.” After all, I don’t remember Mary, the mother of Jesus ever delivering a message like we heard today from Amos.

This question often comes from a misunderstanding about what a prophet does and how they function in the world. This misunderstanding grows from several places, one of which is related to the very name we use to describe these holy people—prophet.

The term prophet is actually a Greek word, translated it means something along the lines of “forth teller” or “teller in advance.” While not the intent in Greek, unfortunately this idea of “forth teller” has left us with the impression that prophets are in fact “fortune tellers” or “predictors of the future.” This, of course, creates a significant problem in our understanding of prophets and prophecy. Because, “predictor of the future” is actually a pretty terrible description of the role of a prophet in the world.

A better word to describe the work of a prophet comes from their Hebrew name, nevi’im. Nevi’im are spokespersons, they are God’s voice on earth. They are empowered by God to deliver a message to humanity. These messages, particularly those recorded in the prophetic books, like Amos, can feel strange and somewhat cryptic to our modern ears—however that doesn’t make them oracles of the future. The prophetic words of these women and men aren’t necessarily complex puzzles left for future generations to unlock. That would negate the entire purpose of a prophet as “God’s spokesperson.” Instead, their messages are clear and clarion calls to action to their original audience.

What makes engaging with the prophets often difficult is that we aren’t their original audience! I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time working with plump lines like the one described today in Amos. Analogies and visual imagery like these can leave me a bit bumfuzzled. And things get even more complicated when we begin to encounter people whose prophetic work can best be described as “performance art,” like Jeremiah who smashes jars in front of an audience.

In order to engage with these prophets, we first have to take the time to understand their world and how their sometimes strange or disturbing acts would have been understood in their own time.

When we take the time to hear the message of the prophets in this way, we discover something surprising. The same themes we talk about week in and week out here at St. Mark’s, themes of justice, mercy, and love, form the core of the prophet’s message.

Prophets call us back into relationship with God and with others. They remind us that God cares deeply for all of creation, and so should we. And they remind us that we are not to remain silent in the face of injustice. We are to stand up and proclaim the love of God for the immigrant, the poor, the refugee, and those whose voices have been historically silenced.

The message of the prophets is not bound in time, it is not meant solely for those living in ancient Israel four thousand years ago, or even those held captive in Babylon three thousand years ago. The clarion call of the prophets to action for the sake of those most in need echoes into today. We are all prophets, “spokespersons of God.” We are all empowered to deliver God’s message of love and justice to a world sorely in need of both. So arise, go forth, and proclaim the love of God to the world.

Amen.

“The Power of a Simple Act” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from July 7, 2019

The Power of a Simple Act
Proper 9C
July 7, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-14

Sermon video available on YouTube

Simple acts have the power to transform us.

Lately I’ve been participating in a master’s class that has driven this point home. The class is being taught by my 17-month old little boy and the location has been checkout lanes across Groton and New London—Home Depot, Stop and Shop, Aldi, Target—each location my little boy has taught me again and again about the power of simple acts.

Here’s how the lesson goes: As we pull up to the checkout lane, our cart laden with the day’s purchases, I begin to hastily unload the cart. I’m generally a bit frazzled by this point, a situation generally not helped by grabby toddler hands and a plethora of tempting treats within arm’s reach in the checkout lane. By the time we arrive at the front of the line, all I’m usually thinking about is getting our purchases, and said wiggly toddler into the car and home before anyone melts down.

And then the lesson begins. As I fiddle with my bag searching for my wallet or blindly hand over my keychain with the store’s reward card attached, I hear a small voice from the cart seat, “hi.” This sweet greeting is accompanied by a large, toothy grin. The “hi” isn’t meant for me. As I look, I see my little boy smiling and repeating, “hi” over and over at the cashier checking us out.

The initial responses vary a bit. Sometimes they notice right away, sometimes it takes a few “hi’s” before their attention is captured. But the end result is always the same. The cashier’s face breaks into a wide smile. They grin at this smiling, “hi’ing” toddler and repeat, “hi,” and are rewarded with an immense grin, often followed by a conversation about said toddler’s hat or shoes, or perhaps the bananas or juice we’re purchasing.

As we finish our purchase and roll away, I’ve started glancing back, and regularly notice something incredible. Not only is the cashier smiling, but often the people within ear shot are smiling too. And so am I.

A simple act has transformed us all.

The power of a simple act is reiterated in the story we read today of Elisha and Naaman from the Book of 2nd Kings.

We first met Elisha last week, when we heard the story of Elijah’s being taken up into heaven. Elisha is Elijah’s student and anointed successor.

Unlike Elijah, we do know a bit more about Elisha’s history. He is likely the son of a wealthy landowner as we meet him while he is plowing his family’s fields with a team of 12 oxen—a likely indication of his family’s wealth. As Elisha is plowing, Elijah approaches him and throws his mantle over the younger man’s shoulders, announcing that Elisha is his heir apparent.

Elisha sacrifices the oxen on an altar he builds from the plow, kisses his family goodbye, and departs to follow after Elijah.

We don’t hear from Elisha again until quite a bit later, in the Book of 2nd Kings—when he joins Elijah on a journey that ultimately ends with Elijah being taken up into heaven and the mantle of authority falling to Elisha. As a final request, Elisha asks that he be granted a “double-share” of Elijah’s spirit. This is granted to him, and Elisha goes on to perform twice as many miracles as Elijah.

He largely serves in the same places as Elijah, in the northern kingdom of Israel, but spends far more time in public than did his predecessor. He leads a group of holy people known as the “Sons of the Prophets,” about which not much is known other than that it seems to have been a school or guild for prophets. He assists the kings of Israel in defending the people, and is crucial in several key battles that allow the people of Israel to keep invading armies at bay.

Elisha’s miracles are numerous. Including feeding a hundred people with twenty loaves of barley and ears of grain, multiplying the oil of a widow to defend her from her unscrupulous creditors, feeding the Sons of the Prophets during a famine with a stew that, while made with poisonous gourds, did no harm to any, and even raising two people from the dead—one of whom was resurrected by simply touching Elisha’s bones after his death!

Today’s reading from the Book of 2nd Kings tells the story of another of these miracles—the healing of a Aramean military commander, Naaman. And it is in Naaman’s story that we are reminded of the transformative power of simple acts.

Naaman, suffering from leprosy, is directed to a prophet in Israel who has the power to heal him by a young girl held captive by the Arameans. Naaman collects up his wealth and seeks out Elisha, desperate for a cure. Elisha ignores the man’s wealth and instead instructs him to engage in a simple act—dip yourself seven times in the Jordan River. After initially balking, and even leaving in a huff, Naaman eventually follows Elisha’s instructions and douses himself seven times in the Jordan, and emerges healed. After he is cured, he returns to his own country worshipping God. For he has encountered a loving God who heals generously, welcomes warmly, and loves extravagantly.

Thus a simple act transformed Naaman. And simple acts can transform us.

Perhaps it is a simple act of kindness, like a “hi” and a smile at the checkout lane, or allowing one more car to pull in front of you in the height of Mystic summer traffic. Or perhaps it is a simple act in the fight for justice, like writing a letter to your elected representative encouraging them to prioritize the needs of those in greatest peril today. Or perhaps a simple act of reconciliation, as you seek out the voices of those who have been oppressed or marginalized and just listen. Or perhaps a simple act of love, as you offer a warm embrace to someone who is hurting.

Simple acts have the power to transform us, because at the heart of each simple act of kindness, justice, reconciliation, or love is God, who heals generously, welcomes warmly, and loves extravagantly.

Amen.

“Getting to Know You: Elijah” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from June 30, 2019

Getting to Know You: Elijah
Proper 8C
June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2

Sermon video available on YouTube

The Bible is chockful of fascinating people. So many, in fact, that it’s easy to miss out on some—particularly those who dwell in portions of Scripture where we tend to spend less time.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce, or perhaps just re-acquaint you with some of these fascinating holy people—the people known collectively as “the prophets.”

I suspect that many of us don’t know a lot about these prophets of old. Sadly, we only get to hear from most of them on Sundays once every three years, during the last year of our three-year lectionary cycle—which, as you may have guessed, we’re currently in.

A few, like the prophet Isaiah, speak to us every year during Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent. However, for most of the others, they remain largely strangers or, at best, acquaintances who we vaguely recall once in a blue moon. This is a most unfortunate circumstance because these fascinating personalities actually have a lot to share with.

So I think it’s time we get to know these important people a bit better. We’ll be spending the next several weeks getting to know these prophets a bit better and listening for how their ancient message is still applicable to us today.

This week we begin with Elijah.

We heard a bit of Elijah’s story last week, dwelling with him under the broom tree as he rested and was fed after his stunning victory over the prophets of Baal. We journeyed with him to Mt. Horeb and stood by his side as the winds blew, the earth shook, and fire burned around him, and then listened with him in hushed silence as God came to him in a still, small voice in the wind.

Today we heard the end of Elijah’s story, as he hands off the mantle of authority to Elisha and is caught up into heaven. But who was he and how did he end up here?

The truth is, we don’t really know. Elijah bursts onto the scene at a troubling time for ancient Israel. King David, remembered by his people as a man after God’s own heart, and his equally faithful and equally flawed son and heir King Solomon have come and gone. After their deaths, the nation of Israel dissolved into chaos and civil war. It split and at this point in history exists as two kingdoms, one in the north, Israel, and one in the south, Judah.

Our story takes place in the northern kingdom of Israel. The kings of Israel don’t have the best reputation in Scripture. 1 and 2 Kings is largely about how awful these kings are…one of the most common refrains in describing these rulers is  “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” And according to 1 Kings, “Ahab, son of Omri,” who ruled during Elijah’s time “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”

In the midst of this chaotic landscape Elijah arrives on the scene. He is introduced in 1 Kings 17 with these words, ”Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.””

Quite the introduction, right! No family history, no credentials, no origin story, nothing to tell us who this man is other than his hometown, Tishbe. And the first act of this strange man is to proclaim that it’s not going to rain for years—and it doesn’t, for over three years.

During this time Elijah is directed by God to flee into the hills, where he is fed first by ravens, and then enters the home of a widow and her son, who also feeds him. When the widow’s son dies, Elijah miraculously raises him from the dead.

After this comes the stories we’ve already mentioned—the defeat of the prophets of Baal, his time in the wilderness and encounter with God. He continues prophesizing against Ahab and Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, for their mistreatment of their people and turning away from God until, finally, his time on earth is complete and he is caught up into heaven in a fiery chariot.

Elijah’s story is exciting; full of huge victories and unexpected twists. It’s also full of sadness, as Elijah struggles, often alone, to call the people of Israel back into relationship with God.

While there is much we can learn from this holy prophet, one of the most striking moments comes as he is preparing to challenge the prophets of Baal. As the entire nation of Israel is called together to observe this battle royale, Elijah addresses the crowd.

“Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God; but if Baal, then follow him.”

If the Lord is God, follow God. It’s such a simple statement, but one that holds a huge import, for the expectation here is not simply acknowledgement. Elijah isn’t just asking the people to recognize one God over another, but to commit their entire self to following after their chosen god.

Which means, if the choice is the Lord God, then they must love the Lord their God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind and love their neighbor as themselves. And they must not simply pay lip service to this commitment. No, they must live it, with every fiber of their being!

And so must we.

Amen.

“Beyond Our Expecations” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from June 23, 2019

Beyond Our Expectations
Proper 7C
June 23, 2019
1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Sermon video available on YouTube

The following is an edited transcription of the video as the sermon was preached without a text.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations this week. We all have them, right? We expect our lives to go a certain way, we expect society to behave in a certain way, we expect our families to behave a certain way, we expect the world to function in a certain way. And we expect God to interact with us in a certain way, whether we admit it or not.

But our readings today from 1 Kings, Galatians, and from Luke all fly in the face of these expectations. Our expectations are turned on their heads in all three of these passages.

Our first reading from 1 Kings, is the story of Elijah. Elijah, just before this moment, has defeated the prophets of Baal in the most epic, block-buster movie finale fashion. If you’ve never read it, go back to XXX. It is an event that displays the power of God in the world. So you would expect Elijah to on top of the world. To be celebrating, shouting from the mountain-tops, “Do you see what God has done!”

But that’s not what happens. Our expectations are turned on their head and Elijah finds himself in the midst of a deep depression. He wanders off to the wilderness, eventually finds himself alone, and curls up under a tree and goes to sleep.

When the angel arrives to waken Elijah, I think we would expect a very different moment than what we get. We would expect a cheerleader angel, “C’mon Elijah! Get up, let’s go! You’ve had a great victory—it’s time to be celebrating, not sleeping.”

Instead the angel comes and offers Elijah food, and drink, and allows him to rest.

Once Elijah has rested, he heads for the mountain at Horeb where again our expectations are turned on their head. Because we expect God to show up in the midst of the fire, of the earthquake, of the noise. We expect God to show up in a way that its impossible for us to miss!

But God, instead, shows up in the silence.

God turns our expectations on their heads.

In our reading from Luke’s Gospel today, God does the same thing. We learn that Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee and has gone to the land of the Gerasenes. For us, today, this bit of geographical information doesn’t mean much—but for those in Jesus time, it was incredibly important.

Because the land of the Gerasenes, across the Sea of Galilee, was the land of the immigrant, the foreigner. They are not Jews, they are different.

There he encounters a man possessed by demons and he heals him—just what we would expect.

But then the man asks to join Jesus, and we would expect Jesus to agree and invite him along. But that’s not what happens. Instead he sends him to minister in the midst of his own people.

In our reading from Galatians today, we hear how God continues to turn our expectations on their heads.

Because we expect our world to continue on much as it always has. We expect the divisions that have grown up in our world, racial, religious, socio-economic—to continue on, because that’s just the way it is.

But God says different. Paul reminds us there is no division between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. All are loved by God. All are the same before God. All are beloved children of God.

God turns our expectations about how the world should work on their head.

And God calls us to help show that transformation. To help turn the expectations of others on their heads. To show such beyond expectation love for the stranger, the immigrant, the lost, the lonely, for those who have been cast out by society. To love and to welcome beyond expectation.

Amen.

“Bad Analogies” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from June 16, 2019

Bad Analogies
Trinity Sunday—Year C
June 16, 2019

Sermon video available on YouTube

How do we talk about the Trinity? It’s a valid question on all Sundays, not just on “Trinity Sunday.” But since it is Trinity Sunday, the topic seems a good one to tackle.

One of my favorite examples of just how challenging it can be to describe or explain the Trinity has been making its rounds again this week. It’s a cartoon video created by a group called Lutheran Satire entitled “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.”* It features to Irishmen, Donall and Conall, dressed in simple peasant garb. They approach St. Patrick and ask him to tell them more about the Trinity. They also remind him that they’re simple people who are learning about the Trinity for the first time and they want a simple answer.

Patrick responds that there are “Three persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; yet there is only one God.”

As you can imagine, Donall and Conall are a bit bumfuzzled by this answer and ask for an analogy.

And this is where the wheels come off the wagon for poor Patrick.

He first attempt to explain the Trinity as being like water, which can be found in three forms—liquid, ice, and vapor is called out by Donall and Conall as the ancient heresy of modalism.

Patrick goes back to the drawing board and attempts to the explain the Trinity as being like the sun in the sky—the star itself, light, and heat. Once again he is called out by Donall and Conall, this time for the heresy of Arianism.

So Patrick tries again, “The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover.” But he doesn’t get much farther than that as he’s called out again, this time for the heresy of partialism.

Patrick keeps trying different analogies, but each one leads him back into another heresy.

And therein lies the problem with trying to explain the Trinity, even with something as seemingly innocuous as an analogy—because the Trinity isn’t explainable, not really. We can try to put some shape around it with things like the Athanasian Creed

“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.”

We can also use visuals to help define it, like our Trinity window at the back of the church. But at the end of the day, The Trinity is a mystery, as Patrick finally concedes, which can only be comprehended within the realm of faith.

Except none of these really get us there. And to be honest, trying to explain the Trinity ends with me feeling a bit like St. Patrick at the end of the Donall and Conall video—any explanation I could give is going to fall short, and likely land me in the middle of heresy! So what is a priest to do on Trinity Sunday when we’re expected to “talk about the Trinity.”

For me, I’m left with only one real option—to live it. We are Trinitarian Christians, and if that’s true, then I have to live my Trinitarian faith, and to live it means to live fully into its most essential characteristic—and that characteristic is love. Love that is beyond comprehension. Love that is known not by the words that define it, but the actions that live it.

I saw a story this week that drove home what it looks like to live this kind of love. The story has added meaning, I think, because as today is not just Trinity Sunday, but Father’s Day as well.

It’s a story out of Philadelphia, one you may have stumbled across this week because the story, which started out as a simple post on social media, has gone viral.

It’s the story of a straight man in a T-shirt at a Pride parade

Scott Dittman, who goes by Howie, is a straight man, married to a woman, with two kids. A female friend who is part of an LGBTQ-ally organization called “Free Mom Hugs” shared that she was headed to Philly’s Pride Parade to, what else, offer free hugs.

Howie decided to tag along. He donned his own “Free Dad Hugs” t-shirt and headed out, completely unprepared for what he was about to experience, and how he was about to impact the people gathered in Philly, and around the world.

His first hug of the day was with a young woman. Here’s how Howie described what happened next.

“I turned around and she’s just standing there in front of me with tears in her eyes. She just threw her arms around me and just thanked me over and over and over again.”

This began two and a half hours filled with over 700 hugs. Some were happy, filled with joy. Some had tears; tears of grief and loss. And then there was the young man, only nineteen when his parents kicked him out.

In Howie’s words,

“They haven’t spoken to him since. He cried on my shoulder. Sobbed. Squeezed me with everything he had. I felt a tiny bit of that pain that he carries with him every minute of every day. He was abandoned because of who he loves. And on June 9th, 2019, he was participating in a celebration of love when he was brought to his emotional knees by a shirt that said “FREE DAD HUGS” on a complete stranger.”

The photo that accompanied Howie’s description shows a young man with an iron grip around Howie’s neck. And Howie is holding on just as tight.

That is Trinitarian love; the essence of our faith. Now go, and do likewise

 

*Watch the full “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” video here.

“Two Days to Celebrate” The Rev. Stacey Kohl’s Sermon from June 9, 2019

Two Days to Celebrate
The Day of Pentecost—Year C
June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21

Sermon video available on YouTube

As many of you know, I’m a bit of a history nerd. And while all history is fascinating to me, today’s reading from the book of Acts is right in my sweet spot. This point in Israel’s history is known as the Second Temple period—and while that may be a daunting name, it really just describes the time period after the people of Israel returned from exile and built the second temple, until its destruction in 70 A.D.  But our reading today is about far more than just a history lesson. It’s also about God’s continuing revelation to God’s people. Today’s story begins with an ancient celebration, one you perhaps have never heard of, but one that is integral to the story of Pentecost.

Today’s story begins with Shavuot.

Shavuot, as you likely have guessed by now, is a Jewish holiday. It’s one of the major holidays right alongside Yom Kippur and Passover and is historically one of the pilgrimage holidays—meaning if you could get to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple you would. Shavuot is also a biblical holiday; it was instituted as a harvest celebration in the book of Numbers. However, the celebration quickly took on deeper meaning.

Shavuot has become a day to celebrate the giving of Torah to the Jewish people. Torah is a Hebrew word often translated as “law,” however Torah is so much more than our understanding of “law.” It is better translated as instruction or teaching and that is what is being celebrated on Shavuot—God’s gift of instruction to the people of God. Instruction that helped them learn how to live in relationship with God and others. On Shavuot, knowledge of the divine was given to the people of God and they were welcomed into relationship with a holy and loving God.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with Pentecost. A good question—and one I will answer with a couple of questions of my own.

First, can anyone tell me the name of the last Jewish holiday before this one? Passover

Exactly, Passover—a day which for Christians has taken on additional meaning as the day Jesus, our Paschal (Latin for Passover, by the way) Lamb, rose from the dead. So Passover and Easter are linked. Our understanding of Easter is dependent upon the Jewish celebration of Passover, and without it this most central of Jewish celebrations, our own central celebration starts to lose its meaning.

Second, how many days ago was Easter? Fifty.

So Pentecost takes place fifty days after Easter. Would it surprise you if I told you that today, fifty days after Passover, is Shavuot. Hmmm…if that’s true, it seems like this holy day may be more important to our story in Acts than we realize.

Let’s read again the first few lines of Acts, “When the day of Pentecost had come…”

Wait a minute, what does the author mean “When the day of Pentecost had come…” This is the story of the first Pentecost, how could Pentecost have already come? Maybe Pentecost here, doesn’t mean what we think it does.

Pentecost is a Greek word and it simply means “fiftieth.” Pentecost, in this context, was how the Greeks and Romans referred to the Jewish festival that was celebrated fifty days after Passover, aka Shavuot.

So our first line from our Acts reading actually says, “When Shavuot had come, the disciples were all together in one place.”

The disciples hadn’t gathered for no reason—they were gathered to celebrate Shavuot, to remember when God revealed Godself to God’s people and gave to them a roadmap for how to live in relationship with God, humanity, and all of creation.

And then it happens—the sound of a violent wind, just like the winds that blew across Mt. Sinai as Torah was given. Tongues of fire come to rest on the heads of the disciples, fiery reminders of the lighting that shattered the night sky on top of the mountain. And the disciples begin to speak in other languages and, as Acts tells us, “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

This portion about the gathering of the people all hearing the word of God in their own language is particularly interesting. There is a traditional belief within Judaism that the Torah, when first given, was heard by each person in their own native language.

So let’s see if we have this straight. It begins with a group of faithful people gathered together. Suddenly, God shows up. Thunder echoes and lightning flashes, and these faithful are gifted with divine knowledge. These faithful ones stand in an elevated place and a crowd gathers below them. Each person in the crowd is shocked to hear their own language from the lips of the faithful. These faithful ones proceed to deliver a message about God’s presence in the world. The divine knowledge given to them will help the faithful and all who join with them to navigate their world. It empowers them to live more deeply into God’s mission of love, justice, and reconciliation in the world.

So you tell me, which holy day is this? Is it Shavuot or Pentecost? Or, do these words describe both holy days?

Today is a day to celebrate. We celebrate that God isn’t done speaking. God is still gifting us with God’s divine knowledge, still revealing to us how to live in relationship with God, others, and all of creation. God is still speaking…are you still listening?