June 18th 2017
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15, Matthew 9:9-13
I have a good friend Athena, who can make friends anywhere, and usually does. My first memory of her was from the first day of college, freshman year at our dorm orientation. I had traveled all the way across the country from northwest Washington, to Philadelphia, knowing only a few people and starting off by myself in this new adventure. My roommate and I, both on the shy and reserved side, were literally sitting in a corner, watching everything going on around us, when this beautiful tall young woman in overalls bounded over and said, “Hi! I’m Athena, what’s your name?!”
That was the beginning of a life-long friendship Athena, and I’ve had the privilege of watching how she makes friends and connections, literally around the world. And I’ve learned a lot from her approach to other people and to life. Her passions and work continue to take her around the world, and I’ve watched how she’s able to serve in various cultures—not as an outside colonizing force, but because she goes into the community and makes friends first. She gets to know the people and the needs and the strengths. She asks about the family and the stories and the history. She connects and gives of herself and receives what they offer. And she sees each person as a potential friend. I’ve seen this skill get us out of dicey situations, such as a late-night machine-gun armed checkpoint late at night in Conakry, Guinea. I’ve seen it introduce me to community I wouldn’t have known otherwise, like the retired Catholic women in Longmont, Colorado who she went and did centering prayer with. This talent has helped Athena get to know the withered hard-core conservative owner of the eclectic corner store down the road from her farm. She has taught me over and over, to approach people as potential friends, to look for the humanity in all kinds of people, and to see the joy, connection, and even self-preservation, that come from approaching the world with a wise and open heart.
I thought of Athena when I read this story of Abraham this week. This story of how Abraham leaps out of his sleepy afternoon nap to greet these unknown guests and give them a welcome, and then learns he was greeting “the Lord.”
Retrospect is everything isn’t it? We read this ancient story of Abraham, with the frame, with the context. The scene starts off with these words, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Marme, as he sat by his tent in the heat of the day.” The text we read says, “the Lord appeared,” and then that, “He, Abraham, looked up and saw three men standing near him, and he ran from his tent entrance, to meet them and bowed to the ground.”
Well, to us, reading this story now, that seems to make sense—right?—because we were just told that the Lord was going to visit Abraham and then three men show up. And maybe that’s a little odd, but then Abraham confirms to us that it must be something special like the Lord, because he ran out and greeted them and bowed to them.
But context is everything, isn’t it? I’d like to posit, to imagine, how this story might have gone down in real-time with Abraham.
Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, the scorching afternoon heat was intense and he was taking a much-needed break in the shade. He was just dozing off when he saw figures in the distance, three of them. Visitors were not necessarily very common out in the desert by the oaks of Marme, and it could have as easily been lost travelers, conniving bandits, friends, or foes. Of course we don’t know what went through Abraham’s head, but I am imagining myself in that situation and it seems to me that he demonstrated a philosophy that he had chosen, over and over again to respond to visitors, and that he immediately put it into action in this story. It reminds me of Athena, making friends wherever she goes. It doesn’t say Abraham ran into his house and hid, or sent a servant out to check them out, or lazily sat and waited for them to approach him. No, he ran out to them, greeted them, bowed down. He treated these unknown people who approached him as honored guests, as welcomed friends, as the Lord, in whom it appears they were.
We’re entering a time in our liturgical calendar called “Ordinary Time.” We’ve been in the season of event after event, from Advent, to Lent, Holy Week and Easter, through Pentecost. Here at the Garden Church, we’ve added in Earth Day expos and two-year birthdays with Membership Sundays. I admit, there’s a part of me that thrives on that—the adrenaline, the hustle, the coming together, and the community that’s built when we all pitch in. This is a gift for a season. But today as we enter into it, I give thanks for ordinary time, because leaning into that right now, friends, is exactly what I believe we need.
Author and wise teacher Sister Joan Chittister wrote this about ordinary time: She says, “It’s what we do routinely, not what we do rarely, that delineates the character of a person. It is what we believe in the heart of us that determines what we do daily. It is what we bring to the nourishment of the soul that predicts the kind of soul we nurture. It’s what we do ordinarily, day by day, that gives an imitation of what we will do under stress. It is our daily actions—the way we act ordinarily, not rarely—that defines us as either kind, or angry, or faithful, or constant. No doubt about it: the daily, the normal, the regular, the common is what gives clarity to the essence of the real self.”
It’s in the ordinary time, that we focus on establishing these patterns, these practices, these ways of life that help us to respond to, and approach the world from a place of faith, of God, of love.
As we go out from communion here at the Garden Church, we pray these words, “Seeing the face of God in all we meet and engaging your love in all we do.” We pray those words after coming around this table, with people who we might otherwise have not sat with, shared with, prayed with, or eaten with. Each week, one of my favorite parts of being in this community is the honor of walking around this circle and looking into each of your eyes. Without this time, I might not have the honor of seeing that Divine Light shining out of faces, looking at the deep tanned lines or crumbling teeth, or looking deeply at the face that is usually up on stage or testifying at city council. When we gather around this table, when we greet each other in this space, I feel the truth of that thing that Abraham does, that thing that my friend does, when we approach the world with belief that the people we meet have the potential to be friends, that we have our humanity in common. Language, or culture, or class, or race, or ideology may divide us, but that there is something we share together in our shared humanity that is beyond that.
Isn’t this what we need in the world today?
There’s another story that has been very present with me this week— agitating and disturbing me—it’s a hard story, and a painful story, it’s a story that I believe needs to be told alongside the story of Abraham, and our stories here.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer, after being pulled over in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile was driving a car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter as passengers when he was pulled over by Yanez and another officer. According to Reynolds, after being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was licensed to carry a weapon, and had one in his pants pocket. Reynolds said Castile was shot while reaching for his ID after telling Yanez he had a gun permit and was armed. The officer shot at Castile seven times.
Diamond Reynolds live-streamed a video on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. It shows her interacting with the armed officer as a mortally injured Castile lies slumped over, moaning slightly and his left arm and side bloody. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office ruled Castile’s death a homicide and said he had sustained multiple gunshot wounds. The office reported that Castile died at 9:37 p.m. CDT in the emergency room of the Hennepin County Medical Center, about 20 minutes after being shot.
On November 16, 2016, John Choi, the Ramsey County Attorney, announced that Yanez was being charged with three felonies: one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Choi said, “I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.”
Yanez was acquitted of all charges on June 16, 2017. The same day, he was offered a voluntary separation agreement by the City of St. Anthony.
I have been struggling with these two stories, the story of Abraham and the story of Philando Castile and Jeronimo Yanez, the past few days. And I’ve been replaying both of them in my head. It was yesterday morning as I was lying in bed feeling so agitated that yet another police officer, after murdering an innocent black man, was let free, that I began to see the parallel with our text for today.
There are so many things that need to change in our justice system, in the way that laws and sentencing happen, with who we elect, etc.—that is overwhelming in itself. We see this locally, we see this nationally, we see this globally. And alongside the intertwined work that needs to happen, there is also a deeper layer that is true—our hearts and minds need to change. The way each of us have been formed in ways of and prejudice—be it white supremacy or against immigrants or Muslims, all those who are “other” than who we are, of fear of what we don’t know and assumption about the hearts and motivations of others before seeing them as a precious human being—need to change.
What if Officer Yanez had approached Philando Castile as our ancestor Abraham approached his unknown guests? What if we all saw the face of God first and foremost in others?
I know, I know, this is tricky, because yes, in each of us humans there is both the face of God and the potential for evil and harm. And please hear me, I am not suggesting that we stop being wise and discerning, trusting our gut when we feel something might be dangerous to ourselves or our loved-ones. But don’t you think, don’t you think the world would be a better place if we could move our minds and hearts from a primary place of suspicion, and fear and defense to a place of offering wise and open-hearted trust? To move our hearts from the place where our first reaction is to differentiate ourselves from other people—sorting in our heads how we are not like them—to a place where we first look for how they too are beloved children of God?
This is deep work, friends, and work that we are each called to over and over and over again. It’s one of the reasons I believe it is so crucial that we keep coming around this table, because we keep getting changed as we share the sacrament and the meal with each other, with people that maybe in the past we would be quick to classify. That guy in a suit who walks quickly by the corner, that woman who clutches her purse when she walks by me in the alley, that rich person who drives the fancy car, that conservative with the Trump sign in their front yard, that homeless person, that black person, that Hispanic person, that white person, that straight white male, that big black man, you finish this list for yourself.
Ordinary time is the spiritual invitation to cultivate in ourselves and in our community not just the big exciting things, but the deeper things, the everyday things, the things that sustain us and keep us strong and together. To notice and cultivate as Sister Joan invites us to, “the kind of soul we nurture.” How is it that we are nurturing our souls, individually and collectively, to be people that respond to the world around us with compassion and justice and the good of all people in mind?
It’s a time to consider your prayer practice, a time to explore what it means to pray together as a family. It’s a time to commit to going on that daily walk, or getting a spiritual director, or finally going to therapy to give yourself space to sort through the things you need to sort through. It’s a time for us to consider how we nurture one another in this spiritual community, to notice how our practices and our time together is spent, to pay attention to how God is at work through us together and how we are fed as we feed each other.
Ordinary time is a time to see, and feel, and believe, that this is actually exactly where we find God, in the ordinary, in the every day, in the face of the people we interact with and meet. The thing about the ordinary is, that within it we find the most sacred. The bread, the cup. The faces around this circle, the interaction on the sidewalk. In our deep breaths, in our prayers too deep to utter.
We focus and remember in ordinary time how these simple acts are deeply profound. Sabine and Avila serving communion. The grubby hands reaching out for a blessing. The depth of pain in those who are experiencing loss. The inner churning as we yearn for justice. The tender look between parent and child, or between lovers. The simple touch. God is in the ordinary. God is in the day to day. God is here. And so, in this ordinary time, may we practice our faith, seeing God’s face in each we meet, and engaging God’s love in all we do. Amen.