Sermon for Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sermon preached on Sunday, April 9, 2017
Rockefeller Chapel
The Rev. Stacy Alan

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been able to look at what’s been happening in Syria. It’s not just that I haven’t seen any of the videos. Beyond glancing at comments in social media and reading headlines, until last night, after I wrote these words, I hadn’t read an article, I hadn’t looked at photographs. I changed the radio when the story came up. I can’t. I won’t. A little of both. I also haven’t been able to look at the U.S. response, our launching of missiles: didn’t read an article, didn’t listen to an analysis.

Until this morning, I didn’t know that 18 people had been killed last week in Chicago, or dozens of worshippers in two churches in Egypt. I know it’s happening, but I’d rather not look.

I’m not proud of this. Neither am I proud of how little I understand of the situation. I have been supportive of Syrian refugees and would like us to receive more families. I would love for us to find a just solution to the violence suffered disproportionately be young people of color in our city. But it’s in the abstract, at a distance. I can’t look. I don’t have to look. I can close my eyes.

So I read that long narrative from Matthew, and I got to the part about Gethsemane, where Jesus takes Peter and James and John and is grieved and agitated—even to death. I read

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said . . . , “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? . . . [T]he spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”

And I felt like Jesus was looking straight through Peter at me. “Can you not stay with me?” he said. “Can you not look?” “I needed you.” No, Jesus, I said. I can’t. Like Peter, I can’t sit here and know that you are in pain, see your grief and your struggle and not know what to do. He just looked at me and turned back to his prayer.

It’s hard to look. So hard. Jesus wrestling with God when he’s the one who is supposed to be in charge, he’s the one who knows what we’re supposed to do.  So hard to know of children suffering, and not to know what to do. So hard to know the gunshots fly a short bus ride from where I stand.

And it’s hard, not just because, as human beings, we are supposed to feel compassion. It’s hard because I, like the disciples, have already made a commitment. I already told Jesus I’d follow him. At this point neutrality and ignorance and apathy are not options. Jesus has already told me that he is to be found in those who suffer. But all I can do is close my eyes.

But, as usual, Jesus has shown me that there is grace, even as he invites us into the really hard stuff. At the end of the three exchanges Jesus has with Peter and James and John, he says this, “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

“See,” Jesus says. “Look now,” he says. “Look there,” he says. “Yes, I know you couldn’t stay with me back there, but stay with me now.” And so I do. And somehow it’s different. Somehow I can keep my eyes open.

This is why we read these hard things, why we tell this awful, beautiful story. This is why we gather here, in this beautiful building, so far from the poisonous gas, but not so far from the bullets. This is why we went from Hosanna to Crucify him! It’s because it’s hard for me to look, because I want to close my eyes. Because I need Jesus to say, “See, it is time” and “Look, I am betrayed.”

We tell this story, this confusing and painful story to be reminded, not only that we need to look, but that we do not need to see it all alone. I need him to call my name and break my heart so that I can wake up and love.

I don’t know what we do about Syria. I don’t know what we do about Chicago. I don’t know what to do about the myriad struggles and griefs contained in this very space. Not doing is not an option.

But to do, I need first to look. I need Jesus to wake me from my escape of sleep and to say, “The time is now. See. Let us be going.”

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Advocacy and Action: Spring Quarter 2017

There is so much going on in the world right now, and it can be hard even just to decide what to do about it. This spring, why not consider joining one of these opportunities?

Unholy Trinity: The Intersection of Racism, Poverty, and Gun Violence

From their website: Unholy Trinity is sponsored by Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a group of nearly 70 Episcopal bishops working to curtail the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. The conference is open to everyone who is committed to exploring the intersection of racism, poverty and gun violence as people of faith. Registration will be capped at 250 people.

The conference will be held at the Lutheran School of Theology in Hyde Park. Registration is open.

Bending Towards Justice – Bexley Seabury Seminary’s Convocation

Bexley-Seabury Seminary’s convocation is April 26, 2-7 PM at St. James Commons, and is open to all. It will include presentations from three social justice ministry leaders.

  • The Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, a former Washington DC police captain and founder of the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice at Calvary Episcopal Church, will give the convocation’s keynote address.
  • The Rev. Canon John Floberg will speak about his ministry with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and receive an honorary doctoral degree.
  • Kenji Kuramitsu, a student at McCormick Theological Seminary, will discuss his work with the Movement for Black Lives and the Japanese and LGBTQ communities.

Join the Faith Contingent in the People’s Climate March

The People’s Climate March is April 29. Their listserv and Facebook page provide updates, and they gather for webinars every Monday from 5:30-6:30 EST to share updates as faith leaders organizing their communities.


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Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: Statement in support of the advocacy of the people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

A word from our Presiding  Bishop about the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation:

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Sermon by the Rev. Stacy Alan at Rockefeller Chapel, July 31, 2016

Proper 13C – July 31, 2016
Rockefeller Chapel

Scripture Text: Hosea 11:1-11

To be human is to have your heart broken. To be human is to long for things that I cannot attain, and to lose things that I’ve become attached to. Most of us spend our conscious lives trying to avoid that heartbreak. Those of us who are parents spend much of our time trying to save our children from that heartbreak.

What do we do to avoid having our hearts broken? We live half-heartedly, we spend our years revealing only part of ourselves, or offering what we think others want. We build strongholds around us—hard work, competence, independence, control, distraction, keeping the rules, being “good,” being “safe,” having enough (whatever that is)—hoping that those will be enough to be in relationship with the people around us, with ourselves, with our God.

The poet and philosopher David Whyte, in an interview with Krista Tippett says this:

And if you have a really fierce loss, the loss of someone who’s close to you, the loss of a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, God forbid a child — then human beings have every right to say, “Listen, God. If this is how you play the game, I’m not playing the game. I’m not playing by your rules. I’m going to manufacture my own little game, and I’m not going to come out of it. I’m going to make my own little bubble. And I’m going to draw up the rules. And I’m not coming out to this frontier again. I don’t want to. I want to create insulation. I want to create distance.”

This is what lies behind the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel: the rich man builds more storehouses to avoid having his heart broken, building insulating walls to keep out want and fear and loss, only to find that they do him no good.

And yet, our hearts will always break. At some point someone will die, I will be betrayed, someone will change, something is lost. I will die, I will betray someone, I will change, I will be the loss. The suffering of the world will have made its way under the surface, like ice in a Chicago street, and with first storm, the tiny cracks in our heart will open into a giant pothole, and I will fear falling in and being lost forever.

This is why the text we heard today from Hosea haunts me. I struggle with the book of Hosea. It begins with a difficult, problematic story of Hosea acting out Israel’s faithlessness in his family life that is distressingly similar to the dynamic of an abusive relationship. It’s hard and harsh and troubling, particularly as a description of how God works with us.

Then we get this text, which has its issues, but which offers a vision of God that I find both challenging and comforting. Here we are given the image of God as the parent of a small child, with touchingly intimate details any parent would recognize: teaching a child to walk, carrying her, offering healing, the lifting of a baby to bury one’s nose in his neck, savoring that baby smell, bending down to offer a tasty morsel, anticipating the delight in the child’s eyes.

The language of God as father is familiar, perhaps too familiar in the Christian tradition. Many prayers begin with “Heavenly Father” and “Almighty Father,” or include “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus himself offered that language to us when he taught his disciples to pray. But we often attend to the authority and power of the father, acknowledging the love, yes, but it’s a dispassionate love, a distant love, a love that exists in the abstract.

We leave out the fact that parenting is hard and is guaranteed to break your heart. Even with the happiest of childhoods, the most functional of dynamics, the healthiest of bodies, your heart will break. David Whyte says this in the same interview:

[Y]ou think about the path of parenting, there’s never been a mother or father since the beginning of time who hasn’t had their heart broken by their children. And nothing traumatic has to happen. All they have to do is grow up.

This is, stunningly, the cry of God in Hosea: “The more I called them, the more they went away from me.” God, the author of all that is, the one whom philosophers and theologians have called omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, the Unmoved Mover, unchanging, this God calls after a wayward people, her voice echoing in the hills and they run recklessly away. How can I give you up? God cries. How can I hand you over? Anyone who has struggled with a recalcitrant teenager, or the reactive “no” of a toddler, or the pain of one’s adult child making her own way in the world (different from mine) will recognize that cry.

Whyte, in another place, writes this:

Parental love can be bewildering because the love that is returned does not necessarily have anything at all to do with the overwhelming forces we might feel for a child when they are but one day old; the delight we have when they celebrate their third birthday or the sudden distance at thirteen, fourteen or fifteen. The child’s affection for us, even at times, seems to submerge and disappear in that fog of war called adolescence, becoming at times, a beautifully constructed repulsion that still includes us in a strange backward form of connection.

In the unrequited love of parenthood, the parent often feels stranded by the way a child has moved on, taken by the tide of an unstoppable maturation. files/Readers_Circle/Unrequited.pdf

This is not a dispassionate, all-powerful God. This is a God whose heart breaks over and over again, who cannot do other than love this wayward and stubborn people.

What a terrifying gift Hosea has offered us! If God has his heart broken, then what of us? This is, actually, the most profound invitation God makes. This is what Jesus came, in part, to teach us through his life and death: it is only through our broken hearts that we can come to new life, to new birth, to wholeness and holiness.

Again, David Whyte:

Alternatively, in a generous giving away, the parent can let their love for their child find a different form inside themselves, a lifting and a letting go that grants the father or mother a new emancipation of their own. The giving away of the child is the giving away of being a certain kind of parent which becomes the invitation to be parented ourselves, by the unknown; by a future we have to get to know again. We emancipate to be emancipated ourselves. files/Readers_Circle/Unrequited.pdf

God models for us that path to life: the allowing our hearts to be broken, the living and loving in such a way as to risk loss and betrayal and death, the inevitable stuff of our lives. If God loves in this way, then not only are we called to imitate that love, we will find God most profoundly in that love.

Amarelis and Lawrence, I was aware that there would be a baptism today, and I wondered whether it would be a good idea to center my sermon on the heartbreak of parenthood. I didn’t want to frighten or discourage you unduly. But I suspect you already know all of this. One of the reasons we baptize our children is to remind ourselves that our children are ours and simultaneously that we must let go of them, to prepare ourselves for heartbreak—AND to do that reminding in the context of a community that promises to support and aid us in that process.

I’m also aware that not all of you are parents, perhaps by choice, perhaps by circumstance, and this may be a source of pain or of freedom—or both. All of us have had parents, and there, too, the relationship may have been life-giving or destructive, strengthening or hobbling—and likely some of both. Whether or not you are a parent, whether or not your own parents were able to offer you what you needed, what we are offered here in Hosea’s poignant language for God is an invitation to a surrender like that of holy parenthood, of being willing to experience the irrational giving of oneself to a new life that will challenge you, and delight you, frustrate you, and yes, in all of the best ways, break your heart.

I’ll end with a Hasidic story and a little bit of Leonard Cohen:

A young man asked his rabbi why in Deuteronomy it says that the words of God were to be written “on” the heart and not “in” the heart.

“Because we are not ready for them to be written in our hearts,” the rabbi replied.  “But if they are placed carefully on the heart, then when it breaks, they will fall in.”  (Source unknown.)

And Cohen:

We asked for signs
The signs were sent:
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood of every government
Signs for all to see.

. . . .

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)


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Sermon for the Ordination of Nadia Stefko to the Diaconate

Sermon for the Ordination of Nadia Stefko to the Diaconate
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Grace Episcopal Church, Oak Park, IL
The Rev. Stacy Alan

A theologian who spoke at Brent House once said this: “You can’t speak about the Trinity without committing heresy. You just have to decide which heresies you can live with and what is not negotiable.” I feel like preaching at an ordination to the transition diaconate is similar: Nadia and the Church have discerned that she is called to the priesthood, and yet, as happens with all priests in our tradition, we ordain her first to the diaconate, which raises all kinds of questions—will she still be a deacon when she is priested? Are all priests also called to the diaconate, and if so, what does that say about those who are called to what we unofficially call the vocational diaconate? I can’t win.

So let me start by offering my own understanding of the orders of ministry of the church. I have found that the metaphors of vision and seeing are a great frame on which to hang this on.

All Christians are called to see in a special way: we are called to see Christ in each other, in our neighbor, in our enemy, and in ourselves. We are called to see the Spirit of God working in the very longing of creation, to see the wisdom of God working where the world sees foolishness.

When we ordain brothers and sisters as deacons, priests, and bishops, one could say that we are setting them aside to focus on and pay attention to a certain kind of vision. A bishop’s view is the big picture: attending to the past, looking for the Spirit of God working in the church through history, peering toward the future, discerning how God would have us work “for the reconciliation of the world,” and broadly looking at the overall wellbeing and mission of the Church as lived out in his or her diocese in the present.

A priest’s vision is generally focused, if you will, on the ground, or more immediate surroundings: on the life of a particular community, the care of its members, its growth in faith and service, the day to day administration of the sacraments. There’s some glancing to the past, too, since priests are supposed to pass on the tradition of the Church, and some looking to the future as God’s call is discerned locally.

What’s a deacon’s special vision, then? I think it’s a kind of peripheral vision. This is the vision that sees what’s on the edges, what we have chosen not to focus on, the places we don’t want to look, the things that call us to repentance and action. The work of the deacon is, in words we will hear shortly, “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the

This is all very nice. It’s lovely set of metaphors, clear and organized, an exercise in the theoretical. But this past Wednesday nine people were killed when a gunman, after sitting with them for an hour as they studied Scripture and prayed, opened fire. They were black; he is white. The church where the attack happened is the oldest Black congregation south of Baltimore, and for almost 200 years has been part of the struggle of African Americans for freedom. Some of our national leaders have so far been unable to say, clearly and outright, that the shooting was racially motivated. Even fewer are pointing out that we white folks are all complicit in the systems and habits of racism, born in the justification of slavery, reinforced by law and through fear and in the comfort of those whom it has benefited, and whitewashed in the lifting up of token successes even as black people are shot and imprisoned and marginalized.

The comedian Jon Stewart, in his show on Thursday night, expressed his sadness “that we have to peer once again into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other, at the nexus of a . . . gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” A bit later he said, “I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do [jack shit].”

What does that mean, in my nice, neat categories of Christian vision and orders of ministry? There it is: the abyss—or, rather, one of the abysses that are the consequence of a fallen world—right in front of us, so obvious, I hope, that we don’t need a deacon’s peripheral vision to see it. There’s the history—both of our culture and of our church—of not doing squat about it.

What does it mean as we prepare for the bishop to lay hands on Nadia and make her a deacon? What did it mean as we prayed just now to be delivered from discouragement, ignorance, apathy, and complacency? What will it mean as we share in the Eucharist, remembering, yes, God’s invitation to the wedding feast, but also the sacrifice of one who was executed as a threat to the established order?

Nadia and the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have discerned that she is called to the priesthood. Why, then, are we ordaining her (as we do with all priests) to the diaconate?

Being a priest can be hard. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world. But someone else will be preaching on that, I assume, when you’re ordained to the priesthood, Nadia. The trick is that the priesthood has a certain crutch to it. Priests are the conservative order in the church. We are charged with bearing the tradition, holding it in trust, and sharing it with our communities and, by extension, the world. We have the authority to bless and to celebrate the sacraments. We are called to denounce injustice and actively to work for righting of wrongs, as are all Christians, but we do that from the center, from positions of conferred (and earned) sacramental authority—which isn’t a bad thing, but the institution provides a certain shield, a tether than tends to keep us from getting too close to the edge.

The deacon, though also ordained by the Church and bearing its authority, is meant to stand at the edges: the edges of the church, the edges of society, the edges of the abysses of human evil. Without the shield of sacramental authority, bearing the naked moral authority that Jesus wielded, deacons call us to look to the edges, to look deep into the abysses of racism and sexism and homophobia and classism and nationalism and, you know, the endless list of the creativity of human evil, and they call us to reflect, and repent, and respond.

And as my husband John also pointed out, the deacons don’t simply stand and point at what we’d rather not see, like merciless scolds. They stand with us as we look into the abyss, arm around our shoulders so we don’t fall in.

I think one could argue that by ordaining future priests first to the diaconate, we give them some practice in that exposed and vulnerable place of being, not the only ones to call out injustice, but certainly designated ones. Whether Nadia’s time as a deacon is simply an extension of her baptismal ministry, whether it is permanent or will be replaced by her priesthood, as of today she is called to stand with other deacons at the edges of what we fear and avoid and willingly ignore. She is called to look fearlessly into them, trusting that the God of Jeremiah will also give her the words to speak and will send her where she needs to go to speak them. She is called to prod and encourage us to repentance and action.

Which brings me to one last thing: our first reading was from Jeremiah. For all that the diaconate is a prophetic order, Nadia is about as unlike Jeremiah as anyone I know. Jeremiah was an awkward, difficult man, who said provocative, disturbing things, and who made people really uncomfortable and got thrown into a well.

What might Nadia’s particular prophetic ministry look like? It is, perhaps, the most fundamental prophetic charge of all: as she said in her nomination essay, “mine is a ministry of proclaiming in word and deed the legacy of the incarnation—of asserting that it matters that the God we worship is one who took on human flesh and died as one of us; who walked upon and was sustained by this good earth; and who lived and died as one of us.” From this, Nadia can look into any of our abysses, proclaiming that the dignity of every human being includes the dignity of their bodies, and that the goodness of all creation means being appropriate and farsighted stewards thereof. As of today, she will stand at the edge, fingers grubby from working the earth, a heart shaped by love, and eyes already practiced at looking to the edges and into the abysses. And as of today, we will have another person to invite us to do that same.

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