By Rev. Heather Blais
Who amongst us is not prone to doubt and worry? In this strange and uncertain time, who amongst us does not long to know when life will resume in all its fullness? We each find ourselves facing an exhaustive list of questions, and there is not a single concrete answer to be found. The agonizing and grief-filled truth is we simply cannot know.
We cannot know how long this will last...how long until we can travel to see our loved ones...how long until we can sing together safely... or how long until we can come together in large gatherings. Particularly for those sacramental moments that keep getting postponed or minimized--from confirmations, to graduations, weddings, funerals, concerts, fairs, and annual trips to crowded beaches. We simply cannot know, and there is no amount of overthinking or wondering that will provide us with any real sense of clarity.
Yet we are not alone in our grief-filled experience with powerlessness. Our siblings who are black and brown, LGBTQIA, and undocumented are well versed in living in a society that tries to strip them of their power. As does anyone who has lived with the doubt, worry, and uncertainty that accompanies the daily struggle of poverty, homelessness, illness, and domestic violence. The human experience at its core is one of unknowing, even as we stand in a posture of curiosity and yearning.
It is this same sense of powerlessness, doubt, and worry which Jesus encounters in the verses immediately prior to today’s gospel lesson. Jesus has been teaching as he traveled from city to city when messengers from John the Baptist approached him to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11:3)
In the gospels, John the Baptist is one of the most faithful servants we witness, whose role as a prophet quite literally helps pave a path in the wilderness for the coming Messiah. Yet even John is unsure if Jesus is THE ONE. Which is a helpful reminder that our yearning to know is not in and of itself wrong. It always comes back to our intentions. Is it about our own need to better understand a situation, and acquire a bit of power in having the answers? Or is it about leaning into God? As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry so often says, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”
In this case, John is trying to live into his calling as faithfully as possible, and his question is asked from a position of discernment. John is basically asking God--am I on the right track here? Jesus responds to John’s messengers in loving affirmation, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Mt 11:4-6).
Today’s gospel lesson picks up immediately after this encounter. Jesus begins teaching the crowd about what it means to follow by lifting up John the Baptist as a model for all of us. Here is a faithful servant. Someone who is more concerned with glorifying God than having all the answers.
Jesus knows that the response to his message, then and now, varies. Even those who had the privilege of witnessing Jesus teaching and healing experienced doubt and wonder. Some will reject Christ altogether. Yet as Rev. Hillary T. West writes in A Journey with Matthew: “Jesus wants us, even with our uncertainty. He hails John as an example for faithful following, despite his doubt. Praising his devotion, Jesus compliments John, saying there has never been anyone "greater than John the Baptist." Innocence, doubt, and bewilderment all seem to qualify as criteria for turning to Christ. Thanks be to God!”
We do not get to know all the answers. Yet if in our heart of hearts our doubt and wonder comes from a place of innocence, and love, we will find some peace and affirmation along the way. Jesus actually gives thanks for our innocence, doubt, and wonder, when he stops to pray: “I thank you...Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” (Mt. 11:25).
This prayer is followed by an invitation from Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).
Just like two oxen yoked together, Jesus is offering to help carry our heavy loads. As frustrating as it may be for us to have no real sense of what it is yet to come, I find it of deep comfort that our God walks beside us and yearns to help us carry the load. As we walk with God, our burdens will be eased and we will find ourselves learning and growing.
I wonder, what leaves you feeling powerless right now? What are your worries and doubts? What heavy burdens consume you? I invite you to find a way to offer them to God--maybe it’s through prayer, music, painting, a walk in the woods, gardening, or journal writing.
One way that I frequently find myself handing God my burdens is in the form of a God box. Which is simply a container, with some scraps of paper and a pen nearby. On a scrap put down that all consuming burden, and place it in the box. Say a prayer asking for God to help carry this load. Leave the scrap of paper in there as long as needed. Eventually, when moved, one can go through their God box, and give thanks for the scraps that are resolved, and return to the ones that are still ongoing. A few years ago I started with a single God box. Now I have them scattered throughout our home and another at my desk. A gentle reminder that God is always beside us. As tempting as it is to carry things on our own, each time we truly offer a burden to God we will experience some relief. For me it comes in the form of my chest physically feeling lighter.
There are a thousand different ways to accept the invitation to be yoked to Christ. All that matters is that we understand Christ has offered to be yoked to us and is yearning to help carry our burdens. Amen.
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear from Jesus at his most demanding. Jesus says “To follow me in the true way of love, to go all the way with me, you will be uncomfortable, confused, and even sometimes frightened. Jesus says: If you wish to walk the way of love with me, expect to be upset and confused, even cut off in a way from those you love. And through thick and thin you have to forget about yourself. This forgetting is freeing and it opens you up to find God.
There are times of life when I appreciate expert, no-nonsense advice. For me, this is one of those times. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crisis of injustice in our country, some straight from the hip advice gives me comfort. As a member of the leadership team here at James and Andrew I have been reassured by the expert advice from the CDC, the World Health Organization, state and local public health experts and our clergy and church leaders. Our data is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.
Jesus gives pretty straight forward advice about justice, he says that everything eventually will be out in the open, everyone will understand how things really are, so don’t hesitate to go public about God’s love…even if you are uncomfortable or confused. Don’t let anyone (even you), bully you into silence. Nothing can hurt you, the real you of body and soul, if you are motivated by God’s way of love. This love belongs to everyone: student/teacher, laborer/boss, those who are strong and healthy and those with weak immune systems, those who have, and those who have not.
We are instructed to stand up for love against world opinion, or anyone’s opinion, in spite of our discomfort. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and an uprising for justice, can we set aside our comforts? Can we remember the “greater good” and set our hearts on the hope that another, better world is possible?
The expert advice we hear from Jesus is that living out this love might cut like a sword.
Jesus did not come to make life cozy. Being comfortable is nice, but I recognize that it doesn’t always help us to get anywhere. If we stay inside a cozy domestic relationship with the world, or with a church institution, there’s no forward movement, no growth, no life.
My boys suffered from what we called growing pains in their preteen years, those years of rapid physical and emotional growth; they complained frequently of achy legs that bothered them mostly at night. Scientists will say that there’s no evidence that growth hurts, but I believe there’s much about the body/mind connection we do not understand. A broken heart surely hurts, and we now know that it can lead to changes in the heart muscle similar to a heart attack. We also know that the damage can heal.
The pain of lost comfort is real, but maybe that pain is a sign that we’re on the threshold of something new. Our EFM book group is reading Esther de Waal’s book “To Pause at the Threshold” She has wonderful things to say about how a threshold can be a sacred place, a place of openness and receptivity. The threshold leads to something new, something of greater fullness. It is good to remember that God is always with us, at our center and our comfort and also (as Heather says), at our raw and growing edges. Rachel Held Evans, in her book about Loving the Bible (for which Dan Carew will lead us in a Zoom discussion today at 11:30), Rachel says that scripture should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
So, even if we are dwelling in a place of discomfort or confusion, I hope we are dwelling in a threshold place, and that we can equip ourselves for change and growth. Jesus says it plainly: don’t be intimidated, don’t be bluffed into silence, stand up for me, forget about yourself and look to me, learn from me. So here is my plan: I will accept my discomfort, I will accept my growing pains, I will read and seek the truth, I will listen and talk it over, I will walk forward and I will try not to be afraid.
And I will pray for your plan too. Amen
By Rev. Heather J. Blais--
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the most beautiful, terrifying, and complicated texts within our holy scriptures. It is known as the akedah, or the binding of Isaac. In the story we witness our God asking the unimaginable of Abraham. God instructs Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering, the same son that Sarah and Abraham had longed and waited for until their old age.
This particular year I find it difficult to hear a text about human sacrifice and not connect the dots to George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY; Eric Garner in New York City; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, and Emmett Till in Money, MS.
As our church engages in the work of taking off our lens of white privilege, I thought it might be helpful to consider this text in three different ways, starting off with some common interpretation within our own tradition.
The story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham.” ‘These things’ include: Abraham sacrificing his family and native culture to follow God to a distant land; God’s promise that Abraham would be the parent of a great nation; fathering two sons, Ishmael and Isaac; and the painful decision to cast Ishmael out into the wilderness. Abraham has already sacrificed so much, and now God is asking him to make yet another sacrifice:
Even stranger than God’s request is Abraham’s lack of response. He doesn’t show any internal struggle with the command. This is in stark contrast with Genesis 21, where Abraham is distressed at the idea of driving his eldest son Ishmael into the wilderness. Instead, this time we witness how faithful Abraham is to God.
When Abraham, Isaac, and two male servants arrive at the base of the mountain, Abraham instructs his servants: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” This promise of return tells us that Abraham believed God would work out an alternative sacrifice, as does his assurance to Isaac that God would provide an answer when they head up the mountain without a lamb to sacrifice.
Abraham builds an altar; laying down the wood, and binding his son Isaac to the altar, apparently without any resistance. Just as Abraham reaches for his knife, an angel calls out: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” In that moment, Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns, and offered it in lieu of his son.
Now, there’s a lot to take in with this passage, but let’s consider a couple of things. First—God does not command Abraham to murder his son, he commands him to present him on the altar as a burnt offering. Child sacrifice might be horrific to us, but it was a normative practice in many of the cultures that surrounded Israel.
It’s important to remember that up until Abraham encountered God—most cultures believed in many different gods. Humans, often children, were sacrificed to appease those gods, who were easily upset. The relationship born out of the covenant between God and Abraham is one of the first instances of monotheism—the belief in one God. Let alone a loving, caring God. Many scholars understand the purpose of this passage as a shift away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. This story is making a bold statement to its original audience. It is a story of a God who doesn’t require child sacrifice in a world that did.
The second aspect of this passage is that Abraham shared an intimate, trusting relationship with God. One reason we don’t see a distressed Abraham is because he trusts that God will act to save Isaac. Somehow, even though it hardly makes any sense to those of us looking on, Abraham understood that it was always God's intention to save Isaac. Otherwise he never would have been able to bind his son to the altar. It was a lesson in trust.
There are two other interpretations that I think we need to sit with, however uncomfortable they may make us. Both interpretations are taken from sermons given by rabbis on Rosh Hashanah.
In 2016, Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein offered insight by reminding us of longstanding Jewish interpretations of this text.
First, many believe Isaac is not a child, but rather a strong young man.
Second, the section where the angel calls out, staying Abraham’s hand, and offering a ram, is a later addition to the original text. This means many believe Abraham actually did cause harm or even that Abraham killed Isaac. This particular interpretation is aided by v.19, which is left out of the revised common lectionary, where Abraham returns to his servants alone. Maybe Isaac was killed, maybe he went blind, maybe he went to a far away land to study--explanations for his absence at the base of the mountain have run the gauntlet. What we do know is that the Isaac who appears in the rest of the biblical narrative, rarely speaks again. He lives a life with PTSD.
Third, and most important, there is a long standing history of grappling with this text, by asking questions like:
“How are we putting our children, like Isaac, on the altar?” and “Who are the Isaac’s of each generation?” Becker-Klein suggests that today it is our black and brown siblings, “who are the Isaacs on the altar”.
This leaves us with a host of questions to consider:
In 2015, Rabbi Tamara Cohen suggested something radically different after becoming a mother and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. The book describes the very particular kind of protective love all black parents must suffer and endure while fearfully raising their children in a country who will not think twice about their children’s deaths. This book changed Rabbi Cohen’s understanding of her privilege, and she invites us into a different understanding of the binding of Isaac as a result.
She wrote, “For me this year the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is [so] terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him[,] that he almost kills him himself. This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.”
We have the privilege to hear the story of the binding of Isaac as caregivers, who for the most part, have not needed to fear our society might kill our children. While each of us has experienced harrowing life events, this story reminds us of an entire set of societal problems we can choose whether to worry about or not. Yet as a people of faith, there is no choice. We are called to strive for justice and peace; we are called to the work of recognizing our privilege and addressing society’s deep rooted racism every way we can, including allowing different interpretations of scripture to potentially rattle us.
Which interpretation of this story troubles you the most? Why?
I invite each of us to take this discomfort into our prayer and into our actions this week. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson we witness the apostles’ transition from students to interns. They have abandoned their former lives as fisherfolk and tax collectors to learn from Jesus as he engages in the work of proclaiming the good news of God’s love across the region. In what may have been one of the most terrifying moments of their lives, Jesus commissioned these twelve apostles to the work of preaching, teaching, and healing.
Jesus gives the apostles some parting instructions:
Today’s gospel lesson is a stark reminder. Much like these twelves apostles, we too have critical work Christ is calling us to do. What if at this very peculiar moment in human history, the Church has finally heard Christ’s call to take the deep dive into the work of dismantling racism?
How does that idea sit in your body? Maybe you find yourself leaning into the possibility or completely unsure what that even means. Maybe you find yourself pulling back, sorting through a list of ten other things that seem more important. Maybe this work seems downright uncomfortable, and you’d prefer to discuss when exactly our buildings will be reopening.
Yet our choice to engage or not engage in this critical work, is one only afforded to those with the privilege of being born with white skin. A privilege that even Jesus of Nazareth was not privy to. When we put on our glasses to take a closer look at the deep rooted systemic effects of racism, we start to see how systemic racism touches every outreach ministry and social justice issue the Church seeks to address.
Studies have shown that racism and inequality have a disproportionate impact on people of color when it comes to education, health care, gun violence, climate change, and much more.
Some might suggest that we only need to be kinder and more inclusive--this idea that All Lives Matter, and we need to do a better job at making sure we are actually valuing all. As Linda Oppenheim suggests in a message to parents trying to engage in the work of teaching their children to be anti-racist says:
“The problem with strategies based solely on inclusivity and diversity is that they assume a level playing field for all. Anti-racism recognizes that racist beliefs have permeated our culture and created systemic problems. Rather than just talking about it, anti-racism asks that we actively work against it.”
Much like those early apostles, we have been called to do some work that may be downright terrifying. Engaging in the work of learning how to be anti-racist is a seismic shift, and we will need to take it one day at a time. We have to begin this holy work by looking within ourselves and examining our privilege; of listening closely to our black and brown siblings, while also amplifying their voices instead of our own.
Like those early apostles, it would be best if we did not carry our own baggage into this movement. We have to recognize that we will meet resistance--within ourselves and with our neighbors. Doing the work of addressing systemic racism could result in conflict within our families and circle of friends.Yet Jesus was clear with the apostles, and remains clear with us--the Holy Spirit will be with us as we take this deep dive. Guiding us, giving us the words, and making the journey with us.
This work is overwhelming. Yet it is the work we have been commissioned to do in our baptism. This work is at the core of our calling to spread the good news of God’s love, and we cannot have one without the other. It is imperative to the good news of Christ that we take the time to do this work.
To that end, we are going to make some shifts in our liturgy during Ordinary Time. Today, we are going to remind ourselves of what it means to follow Christ by renewing our baptismal vows. Next week, we will pray a Litany of Repentance and other weeks with Spiritual Communion we will share in Prayers of the People with Confession--all of which address systemic racism. On weeks with Morning Prayer or on Healing Sundays, we have incorporated a collect Molly has written to ask for God’s guidance and strength as we do the work.
We know that praying shapes our believing. Our hope is that by shifting our prayers to address systemic racism, we will find the courage, strength, and wisdom given by the Holy Spirit to do the work Christ is calling us to dive into. You’ll hear more about this in a newsletter article Molly has written that will come out on Thursday, and I will post links of anti-racism resources with this sermon.
Let’s begin this work, right now, by renewing our promises to Christ and one another in the baptismal covenant. Amen.
Read a letter from Rev. Heather (June 4) with a lengthy list of resources we can use in doing the work of anti-racism.
Join the new group Western Mass for Black Lives--Solidarity & Action.
Meet our preachers
Lay Preacher, Faith Community Nurse
The Rev. Jane R. Dunning, Priest Associate
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.