Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How Far Can a Little Kindness Go?

 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Proper 9 / Year C

There are few things in life I enjoy more than travelling, especially to places I have not been before.  Paradoxically, there are few things I enjoy less than packing in order to go away, especially if it involves a suitcase and an airplane. 

My friend Dale, in his sermon at a service to bless our backpacks prior to walking the Camino, described how he approaches packing and how it differs from his wife’s.  She, at least a month or two before a trip, converts the guest room into a staging area.  The bed becomes a platform for various items to be laid out, folded, arranged, and rearranged.  There are several trial packings to see if everything fits, to determine what might have to be left behind, and/or what might be added if there is extra room.  With our Camino trip, even the dining room became a staging area because the guest room ran out of space.  Dale, on the other hand, throws things together at the last minute without much forethought and certainly without a plan.  In today’s gospel reading, we learn, at least for this particular trip, Jesus instructs his followers to pack like Dale… no purse, no bag, no sandals.  Just hit the road and get going.

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading?  It provides context for this week.  Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem.”  He and his followers are planning to be there for the Passover.  No doubt Jesus suspects it will not go well for him.  He knows this will be the final time he passes through the various towns and villages along the way as he travels.  It will be the last opportunity he has to teach and to heal and to bring the Kingdom of God to the people he encounters.  We can surmise he wants to maximize his impact as he moves grimly toward the holy city.

And do you remember how, in last week’s reading, a Samaritan village would not welcome Jesus?  He doesn’t want a repeat of that wasted opportunity.  So, Jesus sends his disciples in groups of two ahead of him to prepare folks along the way for his visit.  This is what we today would call a “short-term mission trip” and there is a real sense of urgency about it.

Masses of people made their way to Jerusalem for major festivals and unlike our world, there are no large and lavish hotels along the way.  Bethlehem famously had an inn in which there was no room for Mary and Joseph.  Most likely, it was more like a small hostel than what we think of as an inn.  And there are no restaurants along the way either.  Pilgrims depend on the hospitality of locals for food and lodging on their journey.  No doubt, the teams of disciples are sent to scout out the road ahead for people and places who will welcome Jesus and his followers.

I don’t know, but suspect, if you make the journey to Jerusalem at least once a year and if you only take one or two different routes to get there, chances are good you meet various locals you come to expect will host you whenever you are passing through.  Jesus staying at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany is an example of this.  Perhaps two of his missionaries make their way to the sisters’ home to let them know Jesus is coming.

I am sure these visits, like the hosting we did last week, are joyous occasions when people get to connect or reconnect with folks from different places.  News is shared, opinions offered, insights gained, stories told.  In a sleepy little village, visits like these must bring welcome relief to everyday drudgery.  Jesus tells his followers to bless each home they enter by saying “Peace to this house.”  Those of us who hosted Chanco staffers last weekend experienced first-hand how God’s Spirit falls afresh upon a place through the presence of guests.  And we sensed for ourselves what Jesus instructs his followers to say upon their departure, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

I wish we had more opportunities to do something like this – short-term mission which opens our world to a world beyond our own and invites God’s presence to be with us. 

There is a dark side to Jesus’ instruction, specifically how to respond when you are not welcomed.  “Go out into the street and wipe the dust off your feet.”  In other words, leave behind the bad experiences.  Forget about it and move on.  Life is too short and the opportunities ahead are too plentiful for you to linger on a negative encounter.  This is really sound, healthy advice, but often it is easier to offer than to do.

When Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and the people do not welcome you…”, the verb he uses is typically rendered as “reject.”  It can also be translated as “to disregard,” “to set aside”, “to nullify,” “to refuse”, or “to slight” with the potential of doing hard.  If you have ever been rejected, disregarded, set aside, nullified, refused, or slighted you know how deeply it can cut.  It hurts if it comes from a person you value.  It hurts if it happens because of some trait you bear; your gender, your ethnicity, your societal position, your sexual orientation, and your political persuasion being common targets.  And it hurts if it impedes your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It may surprise you to learn I am not a huge fan of what is known as the “woke” movement.  I am, however committed with all my mind, body, heart, and soul to our church’s Baptismal Covenant.  Oftentimes, the objectives of the two are much the same.  The difference is our covenant is grounded in God’s dream for all people.  The “woke” movement lacks this essential understanding.  The same difference can be said of the movement led by Martin Luther King verses what we see emanating out of the Black Lives Matter effort.  Grounded in God, a movement can change hearts and change the world.  Ungrounded in God, a crusade only seeks to shift power from the ones who hold it to the ones who don’t. 

Henri Nouwen wrote this:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

I think this is the kind of dust Jesus hopes will dirty the feet of his emissaries.  He hopes to create opportunities for peace to visit and for the Kingdom of God to come near.  

Let me finish by sharing this simple, but alarming thought offered by Rachel Joy Scott:

I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same.  People will never know how far a little kindness can go.  

People will never know how far a little kindness can go!  You may not know Rachel, but, tragically, you know her story, which provides incredible inspiration to her ideals.  Rachel was the first student to be killed in the Columbine school shotting.  I wonder, what for her, if she could share with us, does it look like to welcome a stranger and to shake off the dust of those who reject you.  I, for one, am willing to put her theory to the test.  How far can a little kindness go?


Monday, June 27, 2022

Fire or Fruit?

 


Luke 9:51-62

Proper 8 / Year C

“Do you want us to call down fire?”

The people of a Samaritan village will not welcome Jesus because “he has his face set toward Jerusalem” – in other words, he is in a somber, serious, and perhaps surly mood as he begins the grim task of journeying toward his crucifixion.  James and John, brothers with the nickname “the Sons of Thunder”, are indignant and want to smoke the entire region.  “Let’s just keep walking,” Jesus says to them.  “There is no time to waste being sore.”

Righteous indignation is what we suppose to be God’s anger manifested in and through us.  And there is plenty in our world that makes God angry, to be sure.  Simon Longstaff, the Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, observes how people who act out of righteous indignation often begin with a virtuous response to an injustice, but drift into excessive behavior.  He states it can lead good people with good motives in the service of a good cause to abominable things. 

C.S. Lewis was even more skeptical of those who rail from an ethical high ground:

“It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.  They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

There have been a handful of times in my life when I have called down fire.  Some of you witnessed one of them several years ago right in very this room.    Two of our Food Pantry clients, waiting at a table, erupted in a loud, profanity-laced verbal argument.  Without even thinking, I moved toward them.  “What is going on here!  You,” I thundered at one person, “Sit down and be quiet.”  My voice boomed throughout the Parish Hall.  “You,” I said to the other, “Grab your things and come with me.  We are going to get you your food and then you are going to leave.”  Everyone in the room was stunned by my display, especially our volunteers.  But it worked.  Order was restored and from that point forward people knew not to act out for fear of eliciting what became known as the “The Godman Voice.”

The other times I called down fire did not go as well.  Two times I lost it over how a person was treating my daughters.  Once, when I lived in a community of townhouses, the person in the unit next to mine lit into my girls for having their play spill over into what he deemed to be his yard, but was in fact common property.  I told him in no uncertain terms he was not to speak to my daughters again and if he had a problem with something they were doing he should knock on my front door, talk to me, and I would handle it.  A heated exchange ensued and our relationship was irrevocably damaged.  This, in my experience at least, is the most likely outcome of calling down fire, even if your indignation is justified. 

In today’s New Testament reading, St. Paul offers a different approach.  Rather than calling down fire, he suggests we manifest fruit; the byproduct of allowing God’s Spirit to dwell within us.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  These virtues, these qualities are to reign in us rather than what we think to be God’s wrath. 

Fire or fruit?  I sometimes ponder the instances when I called down fire and wonder what might have happened if I had allowed God’s fruit to reign in me rather than reacted out of what I thought to be God’s wrath.  One thing I know for sure, God’s fruit will never take us by force.  Always we must cultivate it in order for it to grow and flourish.

Fire or fruit?  Certainly, one of the most consequential things to happen this past week (and for some time) is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade.  Even though we have had some time to prepare ourselves for it, the decision handed down was joyous for some and jarring for others.  I image some of you are unhappy enough with it to call down fire.  If so, I invite you to pray over what it might look like to respond with the fruit of God’s presence in your life instead.

You may have noticed when Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – there is not an “and” between gentleness and self-control; something you typically find at the end of a list such at this.  I once heard sermon where the preacher explained the reason is because each the fruits of the Spirit are to be present in each of us.  When Paul describes the gifts of the Spirit – things like teaching, evangelism, healing, and speaking in tongues, he includes an “and” before the last gift.  Here, he expects each of us will manifest only one or two or perhaps three of the gifts, but not all.  But with the fruit it is different.

This being said, I think for those of us unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision, as well as how it has signaled an intention to revisit other rights we have come to expect, I think it is critical for us to cultivate the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, especially patience, gentleness, and self-control.  As I understand it, the rights communicated through Roe vs. Wade are not banished from our land.  They now fall to individual states to impart or to deny.  Those who have worked to overturn Roe have exhibited incredible faithfulness to their convictions.  I never thought we would see this day, but they have worked for it for five decades. 

If you are unhappy with the result of their effort you have two choices.  Either you can rant and rave and essentially call down fire.  Or, you can a nurture the Spirit’s presence and thus it’s fruit in your life.  I invite you to mull this over because conversations with family members, with friends, and with associates are going to happen.  I would hate for them to create irrevocable damage when God’s Spirit within us attempts to provide a way forward into mutual understanding, respect, and unity in the midst of diversity. 

As I said, I have spent a great deal of time considering how I might have reacted differently when I acted out of what I thought to be righteous indignation and, as a result, ruptured forever a precious relationship.  What will it be for you?  Fire or fruit?

 


Monday, June 20, 2022

Legion

 

Luke 8:26-39

Proper 7 / Year C

Allow me to set today’s gospel reading in context.  Jesus has been travelling on foot with a small entourage, going from town to town and village to village teaching and healing.  He is ready for a respite and suggests they get into a boat and set sail for the other side of the lake – gentile territory where they can be alone for a while.  Once under way, Jesus falls into a deep sleep while a storm is brewing.  His disciples, some of whom are skilled mariners, grow into a panic as the vessel takes on more water than they can bail.  They wake Jesus.  To their amazement, he commands the storm to be still and it abates.  His leisurely vacation is not off to a good start and it is about to get worse.

The moment Jesus sets foot on land he encounters the most bizarre figure in the entire New Testament – a man possessed by a multitude… a legion… of demons.  This dude is violent, tormented, and a danger to himself and others.  The folks from the nearby town are so disturbed by him they take him to a cemetery and chain him to a tomb.  But even this cannot contain him.  He breaks free of his restraints and haunts his creepy domain.  Here, naked, crazed, bruised, bloodied, and covered in his own filth, he and his demons confront Jesus. 

Think about this poor soul.  Mentally, he literally is out of his mind.  Spiritually, he is possessed and tormented.  Physically, he is beaten and battered.  Socially, he is a complete outcast.  If you or I were to encounter such a person not only would we cross the street in order to avoid him, most likely we would take off running in the opposite direction.  But not Jesus.  Even though he is seeking relief from the rigors of his ministry, Jesus is able to look deep into is person, to perceive his humanity, to affirm his dignity, and to restore him to health and fullness of life.  The conversation Jesus has with his demons is brief, but intense.  He orders them to leave the man and Legion is made whole.

Now, once the villagers learn Jesus has healed the demonic, you might expect them to bring all their sick and infirmed to him.  This is what happens almost everywhere else Jesus goes.  But Legion’s healing comes at a great expense to the local economy.  Jesus gives permission for the demons to possess a herd of swine and as a result the creatures drive off a cliff and drown in the sea.  Their herders suffer a severe financial loss and it likely creates food insecurity for the entire village.  At the very least, the cost of bacon is going to skyrocket and there is no doubt who is responsible. 

So, far from being overjoyed, the townsfolk continue to reject the man.  They want nothing to do with him and they want nothing to do with Jesus, who they unceremoniously invite to leave the region.  It is at this point the man makes a request of Jesus, “Let me follow you, let me get away from this place and these people as quickly as possible.”  The ‘follow you’ is code language in the gospels.  It means the man wants to become a disciple.  This story unique in that it is the only time Jesus tells a person who wants to follow him to stay put.  “I want you here, in this place, to do the work of ministry among your people.”

Why do you suppose Jesus wants him to stay with the very people who have treated him so badly?  I think the answer is fairly straightforward.  Jesus wants the man’s presence (his face, his body, his very being) to confront the community’s prejudices and to challenge its conventions.  Everything about how the man will go about living out the Good News is going to grate against the fabric of his society.  Jesus knows it and Jesus wants it to happen.  Legion’s very being will witness to the dignity of every human being.  He will be an embodiment of God’s kingdom breaking forth in our world. 

I think about the people I have known whose life fits into this ministry niche.  They are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, cancer survivors, people who have managed to find their way forward after a devasting loss, and people who have found the strength and courage to live with, embrace, and (in some cases) find a way to thrive in the midst of a personal or family challenges which will never go away.  I think of people who have risen above rejection, humiliation, blaming, and shaming.  Each demonstrates for us what today’s psalmist means when he or she writes, “O, God of my strength.”  Some of you who have inspired me are right here in this place this morning.   

And I think about the countless people I have been blessed to know and serve who, like Jesus, have the ability to look past what on the surface, apparent to all, in order to see what God sees… a beloved creation worthy of respect, dignity, and love.  Again, some of you who do this are here with me now.

One final thought.  When Hollywood delivers a blockbuster, it loves nothing more than a sequel.  Very little frustrates me more about the gospels than how they provide little or no follow up on the lives of the people whom Jesus touches.  Case in point… Legion.  What happens to him?  Is he ever welcomed and embraced by his townsfolk?  Does his witness open them to receive the post-resurrection preaching of the early church?  Heck, does his name “Legion”, which was a reference to his many demons, revert back to his birth name (perhaps Herald)?  While in this life we will never know for sure, I am confident his witness – like the witness of so many of you – deeply affected many people.

Thanks be to God for seeing in each of us, given our many challenges and weaknesses, something which the world does not and cannot see.  Oh, if we could be blessed with the eyes of Jesus to see in each person we meet what God sees.  


Monday, June 13, 2022

Being Raised in the Christian Faith and Life

 

Trinity Sunday / Year C

We gather today in a place where we come to make solemn vows to one another in the presence of God.  “Will you take this person to be your husband/wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage?”  Other than “Who do you say Jesus is?”, this is perhaps the weightiest and most consequential question any of us answers over the course of our lives. 

In a few moments we will witness two parents and two of their most trusted friends answer another seminal question: “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”  Again, this is one of the most important vows any of us ever takes.  And, once they respond, I will ask all of you here, “Will… you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”  Don’t underestimate the sacred nature of the question put to you and the responsibility you are taking on.

Raising a child in the Christian faith and life is not easy and it is not a given. 

Are you familiar with what is known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or A.C.E.?  These are a variety of traumatic events that can occur in a person’s life before reaching the age of 18.  Let’s take a little ten question quiz.  I apologize beforehand because this will not be pleasant for some.  Still, it is important.  Count how many of these you can answer ‘yes’ to about your own childhood: 

1.   Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt?

2.   Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or ever hit you so hard as to leave marks or injuries?

3.   Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or attempt to or actually have sexual relations with you?

4.   Did you often or very often feel that… no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

5.   Did you often or very often feel that… you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, or had no one to protect you? or your parents were too drunk or too high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?

6.   Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

7.   Was your mother or stepmother often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or sometimes, often, or very often, kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

8.   Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker, an alcoholic, or who used street drugs?

9.   Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or attempted suicide?

10.   Did a household member ever go to prison?

61% of all adults can answer yes to at least one of these questions.  16% experienced four or more.  These traumas in childhood create a “toxic stress” which can actually negatively influence the brain’s development and can lead to physical and emotional problems in adulthood.  While not always the case, these behaviors tend to get passed from one generation to the next.  And while not every person with a high A.C.E. score commits violence, many of the people who carry out mass shootings experienced a significant number of adverse experiences in childhood. 

Not every adult who had a difficult childhood becomes incapacitated from it.  A key factor in overcoming A.C.E. is having significant adult role models in your life: a coach, a scout leader, a teacher, and guidance counselor, a youth minister, a neighbor, a grandparent, a parishioner. 

When sponsors commit at baptism to raise a child in the Christian faith and life, they are, in part, promising to do their best to create a stable and safe home environment where the child can thrive by growing into his or her full, God-given potential.  When, at his or her baptism, all of us promise to support the child, we enlist ourselves to be connected, affirming adults in his or her life.  And it doesn’t have to be a heroic effort.

I often tell the story of a time when I was an assistant at a church in a quiet, small town where a high school freshmen took her life.  As you would imagine, it sent shock waves through the community.  Because I led the youth group, I was tasked to discover what tangible things young people needed adults to provide in order for them to know folks cared.  I spoke with Jim, a very intelligent young man with whom I had a pretty open and honest relationship.  I will never forget what he told me.  “Keith, honestly, what matters most to me is when I am walking downtown [it was a community with a town square and lots of activity around it] and I pass someone from the church and they say, ‘Hi Jim, how are you today?’, that is what I really need.  It means a lot to me that they know my name.”  What does this tell you about the value relationships hold for our young people? 

I collect stories like this from church life; stories where an adult makes a connection with a child or young person; stories about the beginning of a relationship which makes a child excited to come to church to see a friend – even if this friend is 65 years older than him or her.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, Bishop Susan makes the observation most mass shooters are disenfranchised and lack a father-figure in their life.  Flip the coin and I believe you will discover every happy, successful adult was brought up in a community of people who cared about him or her. 

So, when I ask Theo’s sponsors if they will raise him in the Christian faith and life, I am asking if they will do their best.  Of course life happens.  Some adverse experiences are beyond our control.  Others are completing within our sphere of influence.  In their answering I expect they will do all in their power, with God’s help, to keep these things far from Theo’s life.  When I ask all of you if you will do all in your power to support Theo, I am asking if you are willing to be a part of a welcoming, affirming, encouraging community marked by relational bonds which cross generations.

One final story I also like to tell.  When my girls were young we took a weekend off and went to visit some friends in Roanoke.  On Sunday, we went with them to their trendy megachurch.  Task number one was finding the appropriate age room for our girls to attend Sunday School.  We passed a very friendly gentleman dressed as a pirate, whose classroom in an atrium was a huge pirate ship.  The room for my girls were destined to attend sported a TV mounted inside some kind of faux tree trunk.  It was playing a glitzy Christian video called ‘Veggie Tales’ and my girls seemed interested enough to give it a try.  At announcement time, the minister announced the passing of a church member who most didn’t know, but for years had dressed up as a clown and taught the second grade glass.  It occurred to me the people helping to raise their children in the Christian faith and life were a pirate, a tree, and a clown. 

Not here.  Here, we are counting on you.  Each and every one of you.  And God has given each of you something very special and absolutely essential to pass on to the infants who come here to be baptized.  It is the gift of your self.  Are you ready to make a solemn vow?


Monday, June 6, 2022

Conversation as Pentecost

 


Genesis 11:1-9 / Acts 2:1-21

The Day of Pentecost / Year C

In settings with clergy colleagues, I have a knack for asking questions in a way which fosters conversation.  It is a skill born both of curiosity and fear.  Curiosity, because I always want to know about the motivations behind a person’s thoughts, the process leading to a decision, or potential paths forward (as examples).  Fear, because I don’t want to come off looking like an antagonist, a naysayer, or an idiot. 

Examples.  Years ago, at a clergy conference back in the Diocese of Virginia, the bishops were being peppered with question after question about national church issues.  It was an important conversation, but it had reached a contentious point and I sensed it was time to rehumanize the moment.  Knowing each of the three bishops delighted in their role as grandfathers, I asked this question, “Can you tell us about your grandchildren and the time you have been able to spend with them recently?”  It changed the entire tone of the gathering.  At one meeting of the diocesan deans I asked Bishop Holly if there has been any conversation about changing the name of our annual diocesan gathering from council to convention.  His response, “I have been wondering when someone would raise this question” (look me up after church if you are interested in the story behind this issue).  At another meeting of deans, when Bishop Jay was leading a discussion on our role in the diocese, I said, “I am happy to serve as a dean for our next bishop, but how do I signal I am also willing to step aside if the bishop wants someone else in this position?”  His response: “This is an important question.”  And now, with Bishop Susan, not that anyone other than me is keeping count, I believe I lead my colleagues in getting her to response, “That is a good question”, which is infinitely better than the thing of my nightmares… “What kind of question is that!” 

Given your experience, what makes for good conversation and what typically do you contribute to it? 

From its root origins, the word ‘conversation’ means “a living together,” “a manner of behaving,” “a keeping company.”  It involves people with differing backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives coming together in a way which enriches their common life.  It is one way we manifest what I talked about last Sunday – being one, but not the same.

And when it comes to conversation, being one, but not the same is a challenge.  I once read of retreat where people were exploring the church’s history.  At one point each participant was asked to visualize an image they associated with the word ‘tradition’.  The responses were varied and surprising.  One person had an image of confronting an immovable fortress, threatening and ominous.  Another image was of an ocean liner moving carefully but persistently through a turbulent sea.  Someone else described encountering a compassionate sage, withered and wise.  Another participant described tradition as being like wandering in a graveyard.  Still another visualized climbing on the limbs of a giant tree that is alive, strong, and protective.  Each person on the retreat had a very different association for the exact same word. 

What does this tell you?  It tells me saying what I mean and having another person take it to mean something entirely different from anything I intended or anticipated is a real possibility.  It highlights for me the importance of listening in a manner which is open and engaged.  It tells me responding in a way which seeks clarification and understanding is essential if we are going to participate in authentic, healthy conversation.

Biblical stories pick up on this theme of conversational challenge and offer interpretations for it.

The Tower of Babel story offers an explanation as to why there are so many different cultures and languages.  It ponders why conversation – living with and keeping company – is so fraught with peril.  Through the story, the ancient Hebrews derived several powerful theological assertions.  Perhaps the most forceful is the notion God wills cultural and ethnic differences.  Chief among these differences is language.  God institutes this divide specifically to keep peoples apart and distinct.  The story asserts attempting to bridge these differences is a kind of dangerous overreaching; a laying hold of a territory reserved only for God.  The story paints the picture of a God who actively works to frustrate conversation among members of the human family; who desires a keeping apart and dividing of company.

It is a theology which makes sense for a time when a small tribe of people is concerned with maintaining its distinctive culture, heritage, and religious beliefs.  As this people blends into the multi-cultural environment they call the Promised Land they need a strong theological framework to keep their identity intact.  The belief God creates the differences among peoples and actively frustrates tribes from coming together serves such a purpose.

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts functions as a bookend to the story of the Tower of Babel and a new theology emerges from it.  The Gospel event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is so central to all people in all places and times that God enables the Church to converse about it in every language.  God, who had been the author of language confusion, is now the source for overcoming it.  No longer is God to be associated with just one specific ethnic group and heritage.  God is now to be associated with the Church and the Church is to be broad and diverse, gathering together under the banner of Jesus Christ.  Our new guiding theology holds God fosters conversation amongst all peoples through the work of the Church.

For the Church this means we are in the business of helping people to understand one another.  Listening carefully, being attentive to one’s own unique perspective, and speaking clearly are holy acts for which we seek God’s help.  A collect we use in Morning Prayer asks God to guide us so that the Gospel may be truly preached, and truly heard.  This prayer taps into God’s deep desire to foster conversation – a living together, a keeping company. 

As someone who engages in the act of public speaking on a weekly basis and who participates in multiple conversations each and every day, I am aware of how easy it is to misunderstand and to be misunderstood.  I have been involved in numerous conversations where it seemed like the participants simply were not hearing what each other was saying.  I have witnessed more than one conversation where the speaker did not understand what he himself was saying. 

But I think about those glorious times when a group of people, fogged in by their inability to understand different points of view, suddenly and miraculously are able to hear and comprehend the diverse perspectives of others in the group.  Perhaps you have never thought of it in this way, but this is the work of Holy Spirit.  It is always a Pentecostal moment when true conversation occurs, when people keep company and live with one another.  

 


Sunday, May 29, 2022

One, but Not the Same

 

John 17:20-26

Easter 7 / Year C

Jesus prayed, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they [us who follow Jesus] also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” 

It is sobering to ponder the responsibility Jesus places on us.  Our actions – not just as individuals, but as a community – are to be a witness to the world leading all to faith.  This includes how we treat each other in this place.  It includes how we relate to other churches in our area.  It includes how we participate in the common life of our diocese, our denomination, and the Anglican Communion.  It includes how various expressions of the Christian faith – Evangelical, Pentecostal, Anglo-Catholic, Socially Progressive, to name a few – express a sense of unity amidst our obvious differences.  When the world looks at us and how we are in relationship with each other in Christ, what does it see?

The late Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, wrote about asking his unchurched university students to turn in a short essay describing their impressions of Christians.  He states they consistently used five adjectives: literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.  Not exactly what Jesus was hoping for, is it.  Of course, impressions are just that – impressions.  They are both true and not true at the same time.  While it is easy to see how someone might come to think of Christians in this way, it certainly is not descriptive of every Christian or every Christian community.  Still, it suggests we have a tough row to hoe if we want our faith to be a positive witness to the world.

The oneness Jesus prays for isn’t just about playing nice with each other.  It is a relationship rooted in God’s very nature.  I describe the Holy Trinity as being perfect Relational Harmony – the Three in One and One in Three.  Desiring to share the essence of its relationship beyond itself, this Relational Harmony brought forth creation and humankind to enjoy what lies at the heart of its very Being.  We live into this purpose (to use a wonderful phrase from the prayer book) though “ever widening circles of fellowship.”  In a very real sense then, our oneness is a manifestation of God’s very nature. 

Oneness does not mean sameness.  We don’t all like the same food.  We don’t all root for the same team.  We don’t all vote for the same candidate.  We can be different, yet still be one. 

Our country desperately needs this kind of witness.  On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause to ponder the sacrifices made by so many to protect our great American experiment.  The soldiers who fell on D-Day, for example, did not storm the beaches of Normandy as Republicans and as Democrats.  They acted as Americans and as Allies.  They were not the same, but they were one. 

Today we treat citizens with opinions different from our own as dangerous enemies who want to destroy our country; at least this is the message I hear trumpeted by polarizing talk shows at the extreme edges of our political discourse.  America is looking less United and more tribal every day.  We are squandering an important aspect of our national heritage – e pulibus unum, out of many one; a principle many gave their lives to defend and to protect.

The Christian Church has always struggled to express its unity.  In fact, if God was a professor we’d be given a D- for our efforts, and this would be generous.  But since God is God and God is merciful, our grade is an Incomplete.  We still have time to finish the assignment.

When the church has been at its best it has loved the people unloved by our society.  The Christian Way took root and endured persecution, in part, because the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely found they were loved by those who adhered to Jesus’ teachings.  We desperately need this kind of church in our country today.

On last Tuesday’s zoom call with diocesan clergy, Bishop Susan talked about the need for us to mentor today’s youth.  She noted the typical profile of a mass shooter is a young, white male who is disenfranchised and lacks a father-figure in his life.  She noted it is easy to scream for gun legislation, but more difficult to give of yourselves by being a mentor, a coach, a neighbor to young isolated people. 

USA TODAY interviewed Reid Meloy, a board-certified forensic psychologist, who, after researching behaviors of individuals prior to their committing acts of violence, has identified eight warning signals of potential mass shooters.  While I don’t want to elaborate on them in this sermon, here is what is striking about them: either the person who commits these heinous, unfathomable acts is so isolated no one is paying attention to his troubling changes in behavior, or those who are close to him simply don’t recognize the significance of the changes they are seeing or, maybe, they are troubled but what they are seeing, but don’t know where to turn. 

Is it time for the church to filter out into the community not as literalists, anti-intellectuals, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted peddlers of some soft-soap, foul smelling religion, but as people blessed to dwell at the heart of the Holy Trinity and willing to share what we experience from this?  Is it time for us, here at St. Paul’s, to pray and dream and discuss how we might extend our oneness to the people of our community – our schools, our playgrounds, our neighborhoods?  Do we believe our common life in Christ is of value to our world? 


Monday, May 23, 2022

...Passing All Understanding

 

John 14:23-29

Easter 6 / Year C

Sixty-three times.  Seven at a school or college.  Four at backyard parties.  Five in places of worship.  Four at entertainment venues.  Three at a military base or installation.  Twelve at a workplace.  Another twelve at a store or mall.  The rest at various locations.  Sixty-three times, and this is just since November 2018.  Sixty-three mass shootings in our country, each one is listed in A Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting on a website hosted by Episcopal Bishops Against Gun Violence.  The list is staggering, sobering. 

One line of the litany reads:

Thirteen dead at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Give to the departed eternal rest.

Let light perpetual shine upon them.


It falls just after a shooting in Solon Township, Michigan and just before a shooting at a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.  The latest addition – ten dead at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. 


It is truly difficult to make sense of things so senseless.  Some of these acts of violence are rooted in mental health issues, some in hatred, some in pure evil, and some in a combination of the three.  When Jesus says, “Not as the world gives do I give,” I feel a sense of relief because what the world gives is pretty overwhelming at times. 


“Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you.”  Writing on his blogsite In the Meantime, David Lose, a Lutheran pastor and former Seminary professor, notes this:


Too often… we think of peace as simply the cessation of conflict.  And clearly an end to violence is a good thing…  But I think the peace Jesus offers is more than the absence of something negative.  Indeed, I think it has its own presence and gravity. 


That Jesus gives us peace tells us it is a gift.  That he tells his followers not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid suggests we receive the gift of peace even when the world around us is doing everything it can to upset us.  Jesus’ peace helps us to feel settled when things are unsettled, to feel whole when life is fragmented, to feel contentment when discord is the norm.


I suspect most of us come to church hoping to find a sense of peace, to reconnect with Jesus’ gift to us.  Often we end the service with the blessing “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We don’t come here to assess the current status of the world, weigh the consequences, and make a rational, reasonable decision to be at peace.  God’s peace, as Lose says, has its own presence and gravity.  It finds us.  We do not find it.  And most of us find God’s peace often finds us when we are here in this place. 


As with any gift, the recipient must accept it.  Just because Jesus offers us his peace doesn’t mean we are going to take it.  We elect to take matters into our own hands; attempting to micromanage the world around us and fretting at our ineffectiveness.  The more you try to control things, the less at peace you will be.  This is why literally millions of people have found Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer to be life changing:


God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

When we let go and let God by accepting the peace offered by the Holy One an interesting thing begins to happen.  We find ourselves enabled to act in the world in a new way by, as Niebuhr says, taking the world as it is, not as we would have it be.  The goal of God’s peace is not to numb us to the reality of mass shootings, for example.  Rather it invites us to respond with courage and determination by bringing to bear the Gospel’s message of God’s love for all people.

I have known about the notion of Replacement Theory for some time, but came across it with more clarity by reading an op-ed a few weeks ago.  It came to the forefront last Sunday when a young man attempted to solidify his control of the world by killing those he deemed to weaken his hold.  For the past few weeks our readings from the Book of Acts have highlighted what the early Church could have viewed as Replacement Theory.  First the gospel spreads from Jesus’ initial followers to thousands and then to Gentiles and then (today) into Europe.  Each movement created conflict within the Church, which eventually was resolved as the faithful recognize this is the will and work of God.  They embrace the changes and challenges brought on by diversity as something God desires.

One of my favorite prayers in our prayer book is found on page 840:

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world.  Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

This prayer, and living into its vision, is one way I accept the peace Jesus offers to me and it is one way I am responding the sixty-three heinous acts, not just in my prayers, but also through my actions.  I invite you to allow the peace which passes all understanding to rule in your heart and to ponder what the presence of this peace might enable you to do.


Monday, May 16, 2022

A New Commandment

 

John 13:31-35

Easter 5 / Year C

Reflecting on the passage we just heard, Debie Thomas, a writer and Christian educator, asks “If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love?  What cherished hope or dream would you share?  What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?”  I suspect it is a question for which most of us do not have an answer and this is probably OK.  But based on this reading, clearly it is something Jesus pondered for some time. 

The lesson takes us back to Holy Week, to Maundy Thursday.  Jesus is sharing his last meal with his followers.  He has washed their feet.  He has shared bread and wine and identified it with his Body and Blood.  Judas has departed.  Jesus is only hours away from being arrested.  What does he want to say to those he has journeyed with and taught for the last three years?

“I have a new commandment for you,” he tells them (the word Maundy is derived from the Latin word for commandment).  How weighty will it be?  Will it become the 11th Commandment?  Will it be added to the summery of the Law – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself?  Will it be merely ceremonial; perhaps a new way to say grace before a meal?

The command is this: In the manner in which Jesus has loved us, we are to love one another.  It is simple enough for a child to remember, but it is incredibly difficult to put into practice, isn’t it.  It is aspirational by nature, something you aim for but don’t always achieve.  Had Jesus commanded us not to eat chocolate it would be difficult, but measurable.  Either you snuck a piece of candy or you didn’t.  But this is different.  It requires us to discern how Jesus would act in any given situation and then to act in this way ourselves. 

In a recent interview, Marjorie Taylor Greene, congresswoman from Georgia, asserted Satan is controlling the church because Christian groups are providing aid to undocumented immigrants.  “Yes, we are supposed to love one another,” she said, “but their definition of what love one another means, it means destroying our laws.”  So, if we are going to love as Jesus loves us, we must decide which Jesus values more – human compassion or good citizenship.  We are not always going to agree on the answer. 

A month ago I loaned my lawnmower to Kevin, one of the people who comes to my front door and asks for money.  This is maybe the fourth time he has asked to borrow it because someone has offered to pay him to cut their grass.  The other times he brought the mower back within an hour or so.  Not this time.  I have seen him twice around town since then and confronted him both times.  Each time he told me he would go get my mower and bring it back right away.  He followed through neither time.  On Friday I gave up and bought a new mower.

I wonder what it looks like for me to love Kevin the way Jesus loves me.  Should I hold him accountable and file a police report?  Should I forgive him and tell him to keep the mower (assuming he didn’t sell it or wreck it)?  Would loving as Jesus loves me require me to lend my new mower to Kevin should he ask to borrow it?  Should I pat myself on the back for loaning it to him in the first place and tell myself I have already done what Jesus asks me to do?  Again, the answers are not easy because Jesus’ command is more aspirational than achievable.

Surely Jesus said a lot and did a lot to help us determine what his love looks like.  The parable of the Good Samaritan who crosses cultural boundaries and defies accepted norms to assist a stranger in need has something to say about churches offering aid to undocumented immigrants.  Jesus told his followers if someone takes your coat, offer him your shirt; a teaching I would rather not ponder too much when it comes to my mower.

Just after Jesus issues his new commandment he provides an important qualifier.  We are to love each other in such a way that all people will know we are his disciples.  This means, compared to a typical person, something should look and feel different about how we treat other people.  People should look at us and how we act and be able to say, “There is a Godly man.  There is a Godly woman.”

Earlier this year I was tasked with writing a courtesy resolution for Sam Webster who was stepping down from the position of Diocesan Chancellor after years of service.  I talked with a colleague to get some background information and she said, “If Sam said it, you knew it was right.  If Sam did it, you knew it was ethical.”  She could just as easily have said Sam went about his work as a lawyer in a way everyone knew he was a follower of Jesus. 

It is not about wearing a Jesus t-shirt or ball cap.  It has everything with how you conduct yourself and how you treat other people.  If a person cannot look at you and your actions and know you are one of Jesus’ followers, then you are not keeping his command to love as he loves.  It like the old joke about the state trooper who pulls over an angry, aggressive driver.  “Based on all the Jesus bumper stickers on your car,” the trooper says to the driver, “I assumed the car was stolen.”

So this morning we hear the final words Jesus shares with his followers.  This alone should get our attention.  It is a ‘Whatever you do, don’t sell the farm’ moment.  This is the thing which matters most to Jesus: Love one another as I have loved you.