The Feast of Life


Pentecost +7
Rev. Connor Searle

Good morning! It’s good to be here with you. It’s good to see so many familiar faces and so many new faces. For those of you I don’t know, my name is Connor Searle. I’m a deacon with a ministry in the Lutheran tradition affectionately tagged “Hope for all Sinners and Saints.” My primary work is as a chaplain at Knox Area Rescue Ministries. I work with the frontline team there, and I also work with the outreach team. Basically what ends up happening is that on Wednesdays and Sunday nights we have a bit of a street church. We open up the courtyard outside from 9:00 to midnight, and we invite folks to come in from under the bridge.

If you’re familiar with what’s going on in Knoxville right now, you might know this: there is a community of about 90 people that has built up under the bridge. It is not a pretty sight. Most of the people under there are so crushed by their addictions–so dominated by them–that they can’t think straight, they can’t see straight. It’s a place of great violence; it’s a place of great fear… It’s a very dark place. To borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann, what we’ve tried to do with CityNights is create an alternate community.

The people gather there for protection. They share this common bond–their cycle of addiction. We want to create a different space. A space that tells a different story from that dominant narrative of violence and fear. A space where the unconditional love of God is revealed and made tangibly manifest in simple things like sitting down and having a conversation with someone most people avert their eyes from, or handing out a cup of coffee with a smile or a bowl of soup in a manner that doesn’t make you feel like you’re standing in line for a soup kitchen. Simple things like handing the bread, which is the body of Christ, and the wine, which is the blood of Christ, to someone who has not felt welcome within the walls of a church in years.

It is a good and a beautiful thing, and I feel privileged beyond belief to be a part of this ministry.

It’s a very nontraditional environment. We open up the courtyard gates and blast loud metalcore. Our liturgy is fairly traditional, but–for example–I’m wearing the suit coat right now not because I want to be fancy, but because my clergy shirt has no sleeves. My bishop and I walk around in sleeveless clergy shirts and have conversations. It’s wonderful.

Let’s have a word of prayer. Father, it is so good to be here. Thank you for the space; I can feel the peace here. It’s good to be able to feel the peace in a place. It’s good to be able to feel your presence. God, have mercy on me: I am not worthy to speak your word, but you have appointed me and so I guess I will. May the words of my mouth and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

The texts today are kind of tough… I would like to blame Doug–thanks, Doug–but I can’t. I have to blame the lectionary–thanks, lectionary–but they’re good texts and so we’ll dwell on them a bit. There is a common theme that runs through them, if you notice. That theme is rejection, which is depressing, but that’s okay.

In the first text in Ezekiel–this is the call of Ezekiel, at the very beginning of the book–and he’s told to go to Israel. He’s told that Israel is a stubborn and rebellious generation. In fact, God reverses the language of election that he usually uses! He usually calls Israel his chosen people. Instead, he functionally calls them a bunch of pagans. That’s how it works in the Hebrew. He’s saying, “They’ve rejected me, so I’m rejecting them, and they’re going to reject you.” That’s what he says to Ezekiel. That’s a great call to ministry. Lovely. “Thank you for that, God. Okay.”

He says, “You’re going to go and they’re not going to listen to you. But whether they listen to you or not, they’re going to know for sure that there is a prophet among them.” Okay. That calls to mind for me some of the opening words of John’s gospel:

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children not born of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

It’s a beautiful thing how God takes rejection and turns it around.

There are two things that the bishop and I talk about more than anything else in the community that we serve: grace and shame. Grace and shame. Because this community of people that is gathered under this bridge, this community that we serve, the reason they’re there is not because they woke up one day and said, “Gee whiz, I think I just want to be a homeless person today. Man, I think I want to get hopelessly addicted to drugs and go live in my own feces under a bridge.” Nobody wakes up and says that. Rather, it builds up over time, stemming from this deep sense of shame, which often stems from a deep sense of rejection.

Brené Brown has written a whole ton about shame, which is good, because shame is uncomfortable and we don’t like to talk about it; somebody has to. Here’s what she says: She says, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of [love and] connection.” So many of the stories that I hear on a daily basis detail exactly that. “I’ve done something, and I’m guilty…”

One of the things I love about the work we do is that there’s no judgment there; people feel like they can come to the bishop and I and say the craziest stuff. They know that we’re going to love them anyway. Disclaimer–in case you hadn’t figured it out yet–this is kind of an uncomfortable sermon. Some things will be said that are kind of dark. You are warned, but that’s the nature of it. The world is dark. I minister in a dark place, but there’s light and there’s hope within it.

So A guy came to me a month or so ago, and he said he found his old lady–which is the way street people talk about their long-term partners; “Old Lady, Old Man.” He found his old lady sleeping with another man, so he beat the guy up and then went on a killing spree until he made his way to Tennessee.

Dark, I know. But It’s pretty normal stuff for us to hear believe it or not.

And yet I know this man. I have a long standing friendship with him and I know that in reality he is a really sweet man with a tender heart and some deep brokenness. How does a man like that, who I know to be so sweet and tender–and yet so profoundly broken–how does that even happen? He feels the guilt of that. He carries it around with him day by day. He knows it was wrong. He knows that it was blasphemous. And it haunts him.

I should point out: There’s a distinction between guilt and shame. Do you know this?

Guilt is I know that I’ve done something wrong, therefore, I should probably fix that and not do it again, right? All of us experience guilt, perhaps not to the extent of the man in the story I just told, but we say things like: “ I stayed up all night looking at porn on my phone.. shouldn’t have done that. Yelled at my kids last week… shouldn’t have done that. Cheated on my taxes… Shouldn’t have done that.” Okay. That’s guilt. Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing. Guilt can be a good thing because it can lead us to repentance and it can cause us to throw ourselves upon the grace and mercy of God.

Shame, however, comes when we take that guilt and not only do we say anymore, “I’ve done something wrong,” but we say, “I’ve done something wrong and therefore I am wrong. Not only did I stay up all night looking at stuff I shouldn’t have on my phone, but I’m the kind of person who dehumanizes myself and others in so doing. Not only did I yell at my kids, but I’m the kind of person who takes out his anger and frustrations on his kids.” You can see the trend.

Guilt can be good, but shame ultimately cripples us. It’s like a poison. It gets in our blood. It’s like an open wound. It festers and if left untreated, it destroys our relationships with one another, it destroys our relationships with God, and it kills our souls. Left untreated, it is a fatal disease.

Shame is something that’s been with us since the beginning, if you think about it. I had a pastor friend point this out, and I never thought about it this way. If you look back, all the way back to Genesis 3… God has made the world. The world is very good. It’s beautiful. Men and women are made in the image of God. We have this perfect unbroken fellowship with God. We have this communion with God. He walks with them in the cool of the day. It’s perfect.

Now, we tend to think that it was pride that caused Adam and Eve to go and eat from the garden. “Well, I want to be like God, so I’m going to take this and I’m going to eat it and I’m going to be like God.” But how did they get from “I’m made in the image of God” to “I want to be God?” This friend of mine pointed out that we could say that it was shame that got them there.

The serpent, this foreign element, is introduced into the garden. How he got there, if it was really a snake, I don’t know. He goes and he talks to them and what does he say to them? He says, “God knows that if you eat of this fruit, you’ll become like him, knowing good and evil. Functionally what he’s saying to them is, “You’re not sufficient. You’re not like God. You’re not enough as you are. You should be more.”

They go and they eat and then that shame is made fully manifest. They hide from one another, and they hide from God, and they’re exiled from the garden.

None of us are immune from the reality of shame that’s followed. It’s been in our blood ever since. We experience shame ourselves. We shame others. Not intentionally, but it happens. When I was in college, I had a counseling professor who like to tell me that hurt people hurt people. You’ve heard that before. It’s true. Each and every one of us are deeply wounded, and the reality is is that deeply wounded people inflict wounds, and wounds–unless we invite the healing presence of the spirit into them–produce shame.

Some of us grew up in households where shouting matches between our parents were a normal thing. One would shout at the other and the child would be the subject of the conversation. We remember hearing the phrase “it’s him or me” or “it’s her or me,” the “him” or “her” being us. It leaves us feeling dirty, unwanted, unloved, unvalued. Some of us have been rejected by a spouse or a boyfriend or a girlfriend for the sake of another man or another woman. It leaves us feeling dirty, unwanted, unloved, unvalued. Some of us have strived so hard our entire lives to live up to the standard of perfection that’s been set in front of us. “If I could just be like this, then I would be good enough.” We fight and claw our way through academia or through the business world until we reach the top only to find ourselves horribly, finally, brutally alone. And it leaves us feeling unworthy, unloved, unwanted. We cry out to God in the words of the Psalmist, “God have mercy on me. I’ve had more than enough of this contempt!” That’s a phrase that’s very familiar to the folks that I serve. “God have mercy on me. I’ve had more than enough of this contempt.”

You see, shame drives us to places that we would never want to go. Having been rejected by others for so long we begin to reject ourselves.

One of my biggest struggles… I’m not a good person. If I was a good person, Jesus would not have died for me. That’s my running joke. One of my biggest struggles is playing back in my head–I say it’s my film reel, “Connor’s Greatest Mistakes and Regrets.” Put that up on a theater sign. Come see it everybody. It plays in my head when I’m still, especially when I’m lying down to go to sleep… and it doesn’t let me sleep. Every mistake I’ve ever made, every person I’ve ever hurt, every wrong word, every harsh word… it doesn’t let me sleep. Sometimes I find myself looking in the mirror and my lip curls: I look at myself with such disgust.

We all talk to ourselves. Do you know that? We talk to ourselves. We have this internal dialogue. It’s called self-talk. If you’re familiar at all with the counseling world, you’ve probably heard that term before. Most of us think of ourselves and speak of ourselves very negatively. Very negatively. Think for a minute about the things you say to yourself on a regular basis. Now think: Would you ever say that to someone you loved? Would you ever say that to someone you love? In my experience, the things that I say to myself, I would never say to my wife, I would never say to a close friend, because I know it would hurt them. I know it would cause irreparable damage in our relationship, and yet I’m happy to say them about myself and to myself.

Henri Nouwen writes this about self-rejection:

”Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

The folks I serve have that same experience of self-rejection, that same experience of shame… They try to numb it. Most of them do it with drugs, alcohol, or sex. Most of us do it with a pursuit of success, with entertainment, with relationships, but functionally we’re doing the same things. See, shame—like sin—is the great equalizer. It transcends race, class, ethnicity, tribe. All of us are in the same boat: deeply wounded people in need of something to reach down and touch us, and bring healing and life and peace. That’s one of the beautiful things about the gospel: In Christ, God does just that.

We read in Mark today about Jesus going home. Do you ever think about Jesus’ home life? It’s no cakewalk. He’s born into an impoverished family, an illegitimate child… Think of all the whispers and pointed fingers behind his back. He’s forced to flee as a political refugee to Egypt and then he grows up in this little town, making everybody’s tables and recliners and TVs… Well, maybe they didn’t have recliners. What do I know? Still the whispers, the pointed fingers. Then he goes off. He just disappears when he’s 30! Culturally, he should have been taking over his dad’s shop. Where’s he going? He just goes off, leaving his mother—his single mother, presumably, at this point—in the care of his younger brothers and sisters. Wow. Huh.

Then he comes back and he’s saying all these marvelous things. When he says them elsewhere, people say, “My gosh. No one ever spoke like this man. This is amazing! He must be the Messiah.” He goes home and they say, “Who the heck is this guy? Who does he think he is? Isn’t this the carpenter?” You’ll pardon the harsh language… “Isn’t this Mary’s bastard kid?” That’s the stigma that followed him around.

Rejected from birth and rejected every day of his life. Rejected even by the religious establishment that should have got it.

I was reading in John this week and over and over again Jesus says, “Guys, it’s Moses that’s accusing you. He wrote all about me and you guys just don’t get it. You think by studying the Scriptures you have life. You just don’t get it because you’re missing me.” Rejected by the religious establishment. Rejected by his closest friends. Betrayed by Judas—someone who ate at the same table with him. Betrayed by Peter… Denied three times! He said, “I’ll never leave your side, Jesus.” He denied him three times. Crucified by the government. Then on the cross, the Father himself turns his face away…Jesus rejected in our place that we might find ourselves accepted by God.

Truly “he was despised and rejected. A man of sorrows and well-acquainted with grief… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

On the cross, Jesus takes our guilt, our very real guilt, because every single one of us is a hot mess. We confess in the common confession of sin we share: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; we have done those things which we ought not to have done; there is no health in us…” and yet Jesus takes all our guilt.

Every time we’ve ever yelled at our kids or yelled at our parents, every time we’ve ever lied, cheated, or stolen, every time we’ve lusted, every time we’ve been filled with greed, every time we’ve harbored bitterness in our hearts against someone, those things that when we think about them, we think, “God, I just wish I could die,” Jesus dies for those. He takes all of our guilt upon himself, and he takes all of our shame upon himself, he’s wounded for our wounds and when he dies, he drags it down with him.

There’s this lovely story in The Ragamuffin Gospel, a book by former Catholic priest Brennan Manning, in which he tells the story about this bishop who gets word that there’s a lady claiming to have mystical visions of Jesus.
it goes like this:

“[Some time ago] in a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check her out. There is always a fine line between the authentic mystic and the lunatic fringe. “Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” asked the cleric. “Yes,” the woman replied simply. “Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession.” The woman was stunned. “Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?” “Exactly. Please call me if anything happens.” Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. “Please come,” she said. Within the hour the archbishop arrived. He trusted eye-to-eye contact. “You just told me on the telephone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?” “Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession.” The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed. “What did Jesus say?” She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. “Bishop,” she said, “these are his exact words: I CAN’T REMEMBER.’””

What good news! What great grace! All of our sin, past, present and future, is gone. It’s forgiven so deeply it’s forgotten. In Christ, we are completely loved.

In his book Souls in the Hands of a Tender God… little play on words there, Craig Rennebohm–mister unpronounceable last name–writes: “In the hands of God, every one of us is infinitely worthy. In the mind and heart of God, each of us is of eternal value. No matter what the odds, no matter what influence, illness, or evil threatens, God struggles for our healing and salvation.”

This is one of the beautiful things about infant baptism, by the way. Do you know that we baptize infants not only for their sake but for ours? Because we need to remember the meaning of our own baptism… that before this little screaming child who doesn’t want to get wet in your arms has done anything good or anything bad, before they can contribute in any way to the life of the church, before they can be a productive member of society or become an addict, God marks them as his own. The same words spoken over Jesus at his baptism are spoken over each one of us, “This is my beloved child and I am fully pleased in you!”

That’s what you need to know. That is the antidote to the poison of shame. That is what gives life and freedom. That’s what breaks addicts free from their chains. That’s what takes murderers like Saul of Tarsus and turn them into zealous disciples: The word of God spoken boldly and with compassion and tenderness, to the heart, saying “you are mine and I love you and nothing can take you from me.” Neither height, nor depth, nor, angels, nor demons, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. You are sealed with the cross of Christ and marked as God’s forever, and you can’t screw that up. That, to me, is the best news of all.

In our ministry, we provide a space for people to experience the unconditional love of God, and it looks kind of like this. The table is set. God is the host. Himself is the feast, the feast of life. Not the feast of death. The table is the place where Christ pours himself out for us once again. An illustration of the gospel that is the definitive answer to our shame. You are worthy; Jesus’ love makes you worthy. You are welcome; the master of the feast has given you a personal invitation written in his own blood. You belong; Jesus welcomes not only you, but every weary soul in need of rest.

To paraphrase Brennan Manning, this table is for: “the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for the poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents. It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.”

It is for people like you and me who are, as Luther might say, 100% Saint and 100% sinner, 100% of the time.” “It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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