John Williams, outgoing co-warden, preaching.
Picture it… Chicago. November 2016. A contented guy in his mid-30s was thrown into crisis trying to make sense of a world in which the Cubs could win their first World Series in 100 years one minute and Donald Trump could be elected president the next. He felt as if the world had been turned upside down. Like many, he was confused, disillusioned, and anxious about what the coming days and weeks would bring. While he hadn’t been a regular churchgoer in years, a thought occurred to him: “Maybe it’s time to pray???”. That Sunday he found his way to an intriguing-looking wooden church a few blocks away from where he and his partner lived. The service resonated so deeply that he was moved to tears and called his Mom afterward to tell her about the experience, finding himself saying “I think I might have found a church?” Over weeks and months, he returned relatively regularly, meeting new people, joining the Episcopal 101 class, participating in anti-racism programming, and eventually, at the strong encouragement of the Rector and WAY before he thought it was the right time, he was elected to the Vestry. And now, six or so years after walking through those doors and four years after joining the Vestry, here I am. For virtually all of us, but especially here at All Saints’, these past four years have felt like a seemingly endless series of challenges, transitions, pivots. (PAUSE) A deadly pandemic swept the world, throwing us into isolation again and again. A Rectory renovation suffered an unprecedented supply chain crisis. The worst of humanity showed up in continued oppression and brutality against black people and people of color, constant gun violence, and widespread attacks on facts, truth, and democracy. And deeply personal moments of loss, depression, and grief made us all feel like the world had turned upside down. But in the most difficult and disorienting times, sometimes things can unexpectedly flip again for the better. Today’s readings are all about turning expectations, traditions, and dominant thinking on their head. In the first reading, the Prophet Micah relates a difficult conversation between God and Israel. We can tell that God desires nothing more than to be in deep, abiding, and loving relationship with His people, but something has gone awry: “What have I done to weary you?” God says. “I have freed you from slavery, sent you visionary and wise leaders, and been with you through your most difficult trials.” God is not angry as we might expect. Instead, God feels hurt, sad, and rejected. Israel tries to express contrition and repair the covenant with God in the manner of their ancestors, offering all kinds of gifts and sacrifices. But their offer seems a little gimmicky, like they are trying to buy their way back in with a big show. Then, Micah rocks Israel’s world. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good,” Micah says. (SLOW) “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” God is not interested in thousands of rams, rivers of oil, or ritual sacrifices - God desires nothing more than to be in deep and abiding relationship with his people, with us. As we know here at All Saints’, this call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God is not a set of “to do”’s that can be checked off; it must be a new way of life. As one commentator notes, “Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life. We cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking transformational racial justic We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles.” Truly transformational change will turn our world upside down. In the face of oppressive systems, unjust policies, and the neverending desire for “more” in our world, we trust and believe that it will be for the better. Today’s Gospel is our first real glimpse of Jesus as an authoritative preacher as he begins the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a preview of the way His interpretation of the law and His ministry will be shocking and fundamentally different than what has come before. The people who Jesus refers to as “Blessed” or “Most honored” are not the ones his audience would have expected. They aren’t the ones today’s culture would see as deserving of the gifts and grace Jesus describes either. The Beatitudes are nonsensical to the privileged, the rich, and the comfortable, and if we are honest, that includes many of us who live in the wealthiest country in the world. I vividly remember hearing this Gospel as a 7 or 8 year old kid, wondering how I could be meek enough, poor enough in spirit, or enough of a peacemaker to be counted among the blessed. What I came to understand much later, only after walking through these doors, was that Jesus’s message is not about romanticizing the plight of the persecuted in a world bent towards destruction instead of resurrection. The life of a disciple of Jesus is about radical reimagination and transformation, turning our world upside down, flipping the tables on its prevailing values and power. I could never have anticipated how thoroughly my world would be turned upside down when I first came to All Saints’ six years ago. To say my faith had gone dormant over the previous 15 or so years was an understatement - to be honest, I thought it was pretty much gone. But something happened to me here. The beauty of the Liturgy shook me out of my sleep. The humor, joy, and faith of all of you made me feel comfortable being curious and vulnerable. The courage and support of the leaders of our anti-racist work helped me face my own internal racism. All Saints’ High Holy Days had me doing things like being an auctioneer and preaching a sermon of all things. And, believe it or not, serving on Vestry actually taught me how to pray. It has been an incredible privilege to walk alongside each of you here as we dig into the long-term work of justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. Those ideas motivate and permeate everything we are and everything we do: our worship, our ministries, from RCS to United Power to Greenlining to the Bake Auction and so many more. And yes, they are even embedded in the management of our financial and administrative matters. The work is nowhere close to done, but we will journey together finding new ways to strengthen the beloved community in our world. When I started putting this sermon together, I have to admit I was pretty anxious and intimidated. Maybe it was because the previous Wardens had set the bar so high, especially the inimitable Scottie Caldwell last year. Maybe it was because my uncles are both priests and I felt some weird obligation to do the “family business” proud. But then I remembered something that I’ve learned (and re-learned, and re-learned) as a member of this community: when it comes to the work of the Church, none of us is in control and none of us is alone. We have but to call out to God and reach out to one another and God will hear us, comfort us, and inspire us to do the work of justice and to share loving kindness among all his people. All Saints’ has turned my world upside down and I couldn’t be more grateful. In this year’s Oscar contender “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant played by the amazing Michelle Yeoh, is barely keeping her business running, struggling with her daughter’s sexuality, and trying to withstand the criticisms of her judgmental father. As she is swept up in an unbelievable adventure and told she alone can save existence, Evelyn digs in and resists having her world completely blown up and transformed. But over the course of the film she begins to realize that having her world turned upside down just might be an incredible gift.