Friday, September 20, 2019

Changing God's Mind

Sermon for Sept. 15, 2019
Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Don’t you wonder sometimes why God doesn’t just get fed up with people and walk away? 
I mean, think about human behavior.  For thousands of years, people have been judging each other based on meaningless differences, keeping others away from resources God has provided, and treating each other violently.  
And think about our own behavior.  When I offer Morning Prayer each day, and the time comes for the Confession of Sin, I find myself mostly confessing the same things I confessed the day and the week and the month before.  That may mean that I suffer from a failure of imagination, but I don’t think I’m alone.  Try this thought experiment:  How do you take your own path and turn away from what you know God would prefer?  Bring a few examples to mind.  Got some?  OK, now, if I’d asked you that question last week or last month or last year, would you have given very different answers?  I imagine hearing our confessions must be incredibly boring for God, because the story really doesn’t change much as time goes on.
For the first people of the covenant, the people of Israel, their collective category of sin seems to have been idolatry, in the sense of embracing gods other than Yahweh.  Sometimes those gods looked a lot like our own idols: possessions, privilege, power.  But sometimes those idols looked like, well, idols – as in today’s reading from Exodus. 
Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to receive God’s Law, and we know he’ll be gone 40 days.  But the folks back in the camp, at the foot of the mountain, don’t have any idea what’s happened to Moses.  Maybe they’re just looking for a chance to party, but maybe more than a month of silence has made them wonder whether this Yahweh really was the one who’d brought them out of slavery after all.  Maybe it was the local deity – which is how people understood divinity in that day, different gods reigning over particular geographies.  So, they create a representation of a local god, a golden calf.  Maybe it’s celestial fishing, trying to see whether that god would take the bait.  But for whatever reason, they do what people have been doing forever, which is to put the worries of the moment, and their own self-interest, first.
So, God sees this and goes into a rage.  “What, it’s not enough that I inflicted plagues on your enemies, and freed you from enslavement, and gave you water from a rock, and fed you in the wilderness with the bread of angels?  You want to worship something else instead of me?”  God tells Moses to get out of the way while the Lord brings the hammer down.  “Don’t worry,” God says to Moses, “I’ll just start the covenant over with you once I consume all of them.”  
But Moses says to God, “Wait; hold on a minute.”  And he talks the Almighty out of it.
OK, let’s hit the “pause” button on this story.  Here’s Moses – not exactly a guy with a perfect history, a murderer who turned down his call from God multiple times – here’s Moses interceding for these stiff-necked people who are dancing around the golden calf.  Now, put yourself into this scene.  Imagine that God was speaking as directly to you as to Moses.  And imagine that God was about to bring down judgment on everybody but you.  Would you decide to ally yourself with the people God was about to “consume” in righteous anger (Exodus 32:10).  What was Moses thinking? 
I don’t think Moses was on the side of the rebellious people per se; I think Moses was on the side of the relationship with God that they’d broken.  Once Moses got back down the mountain, he was just as angry with the people as God had been.  It’s not exactly a happy little story that follows today’s reading:  Moses and his supporters kill everybody who’d turned against his leadership, and God sends a plague against the ones who remain alive.  Clearly, there are consequences for turning away from a covenant you make with God.  Because keeping the covenant is job one.
So, back to the story.  Up on the mountain, Moses explains to God why the Almighty’s plan is wrong.  And then comes maybe the only thing more surprising than Moses’ response to God.  It’s God’s response to Moses:  God changes God’s mind. 
OK, hit the “pause” button one more time.  Isn’t God supposed to be omniscient?  At least some Christians would say that God wrote the whole script for existence before the Big Bang ever happened, that God knows all and has worked out everything yet to come.  But here, we see God changing God’s mind.  What’s going on? 
Maybe both for Moses and for God, the answer lies in the importance of honoring commitments.  Moses pledged to God that he would bring the people out of slavery – slavery to Pharaoh and, now, slavery to their own temptation to choose the gods they want.  And well before that, God pledged to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to bless them and their descendants with land and abundance.  God and Moses are both fully aware that the people have failed utterly by substituting their own solutions for God’s.  But in a covenant relationship, you’re not simply pledging to observe the stipulations of the deal.  That’s a contract.  In a covenant, you’re pledging yourself to the other party and committing yourself to walk along together. 
We know a little something about covenants.  Every time we celebrate Eucharist, we remember Jesus’ New Covenant with God’s people, eternal life for all who’ll trust and follow him.  Every time we celebrate baptism, we renew our Baptismal Covenant, pledging to trust in God who is Father, Son, and Spirit; and pledging to live our lives following Jesus, in loving commitment to God and the people around us.  When we get married, we stand before God and make a covenant with our beloved to invest ourselves in that relationship as long as we both shall live.  When we’re ordained, we make a covenant with God and God’s people to live out the trust and responsibility of a new order of ministry.  So, covenants seem to be our pattern of commitment, too.
I think it’s interesting that what God asks of us is not just our worship or our tithes or our following of the rules.  Apparently, what God values most is covenant living – investing ourselves in relationships, with God and one another, even when the other covenant partner doesn’t deserve it. 
Think about how crazy it is that the most influential follower of Jesus in all Christian history is the apostle Paul.  At the start, Paul even beats Moses as the most unlikely hero, not just telling God “no” but “Hell, no!”  In the second reading today, Paul describes himself as “formerly a persecutor, a blasphemer, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13), arresting and killing followers of Jesus because they were breaking the religious rules of the day.  For having co-opted God’s role as judge, Paul was the last person to give us a gospel of grace, of divine love freely given – but that’s precisely how God asked Paul to change his mind. 
Paul didn’t deserve a second chance any more than the people of Israel.  The truth is, neither do we – and our redundant confessions confirm it.  So, here’s the good news: that God chooses love over the highest holiness score.  Remember the Gospel reading today:  Where God works the hardest is with the one who’s lost.  Where God works the hardest is in the areas of our lives that are out of alignment with divine purposes.  Sure, God appreciates all the coins that are properly collected and kept neatly where they’re supposed to be.  And God appreciates the 99 sheep who don’t go off on their own paths.  But what makes God rejoice is when the lost one is found and brought back home.
So, in our own lives, what are the relationships that challenge us the most, the ones we might feel justified in letting go?  Where do we need to consider changing our minds?  Maybe it’s sticking with someone we’d sooner leave behind.  Maybe it’s entertaining the possibility that there might be some truth, maybe even some holiness, in the “other side’s” world view.  Maybe it’s remembering that being in relationship is what makes all people grow into the full stature of Christ – both “them” and “us.” 
When we ask ourselves those hard questions, and when we do the work to strengthen the covenants that challenge us most, we gain the last thing we’d expect – peace.  In the upside-down reality of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, we find that committing ourselves to hard relationships brings counterintuitive joy.  We are blessed with being stuck with people we find hard to love.  We are liberated from judgment when we bind ourselves to God’s grace. 
In those moments when we think we know best, when the world tells us we’re completely within our rights to walk away from the people we’re bound to, or even to punish them for their sins, that’s when God says, “Wait.  Grace beats judgment, even when judgment seems deserved, even when judgment seems righteous.  After all,” God says, “even I changed my mind.” 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Trust, Even in the Darkness

Sermon for Aug. 11, 2019
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

My guess is that, in nearly every church in our nation today, people are preaching and praying about the same things: the two mass shootings we endured last weekend, the violent obsessions and racial hatred motivating the shooters, and the violence that pervades our culture. 
At this point, you know the stories too well.  What stands out to me is the Dayton shooter’s sick fascination with murder and killing police, as well as the El Paso shooter’s horrifying white supremacy.  That man traveled more than 10 hours simply to shoot Latinx people, whom he saw as invaders in his United States.  Of course, we find the murders appalling and sinful, but so are the shooters’ points of view appalling and sinful.  No one is more fully human than anyone else, as we affirmed last week when we promised to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).  To deny the truth that every person is a child of God is to rebel against the God who created us all.
What are we supposed to do with these mass shootings, and the scores that have preceded them?  What are we supposed to do with the shootings and other acts of violence in our own community, acts so common they barely seem newsworthy?  As you’ve probably heard more than once this week, far more people die in one-on-one shootings than in incidents like Dayton or El Paso or the shooting in our own Power & Light District last weekend.  In fact, in our metro area, 129 children of God have been killed just this year,1 most of them in parts of our city that many of us don’t see much.  We bemoan the statistics, but we barely even notice when the story of the next victim appears on the 10 o’clock news – the story of another person “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) but cut down before he or she became whom God intended that divine child to be.
Meanwhile, the Church’s lectionary gives us readings this morning that don’t really seem related to violence and hatred.  Maybe that’s OK, though, because – instead of pointing us toward the problems – I think they point us toward responses.
Specifically, they point us toward the example of Abraham.  In addition to being the common father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abraham is remembered as the paragon of faith.  And by “faith,” I don’t mean intellectual assent to ideas about God; I mean radical trust in God and willingness to follow God’s ways despite the evidence life can give us. 
God first calls Abraham three chapters before the reading we heard today, asking Abram (as he’s known in this part of the story) to set out on a journey whose destination he can’t see.  God simply tells him to leave his homeland and go to a place God will show him, promising to “make of [him] a great nation,” to “bless [him] and make [his] name great.” (12:1-3)  Astonishingly, Abram says yes.  Then, once he and his household arrive in the land of Canaan, God adds to the promise:  “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7); and later, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth” (13:16).  Abram and his wife are in their 80s, so he’s thinking, “Offspring?  Really?”  But, after some adventuring against the local kings, Abram again hears the word of the Lord, which we heard in this morning’s reading, with God again promising him great reward. 
But for the first time, Abram pushes back, asking, “What will you give me, for I continue childless.” (15:2).  I know you’re there, Lord, Abram says, and we’ve come this far together; but help me out here.  So, again, God assures him of the impossible, given the couple’s ages.  God says, “Count the stars, if you are able to count them.…  So shall your descendants be.” (15:5)  And again, Abram believes, and God reckons that trust to him as righteousness.  Now, this doesn’t mean Abram didn’t keep doubting.  In fact, only two verses after today’s reading, Abram needs reassurance once again.  But he ends up finding what the writer of Hebrews named:  “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).
In the face of this week’s news, we may well find ourselves right there with Abraham, right there with the uncertain father who asked Jesus to heal his son, if Jesus was able.  “I believe,” that desperate father said; “help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  We believe in your way of love, Lord.  We believe that that the kingdom of love is your desire and your promise.  And yet, week after week, we see violence explode.  We want to trust.  We believe, Lord; but help our unbelief.
As Abraham’s example shows us, trust is a choice – a deeply countercultural choice.  You know, the world tells us violence reigns supreme.  The world tells us our only option for response is to side with one point of view or the other in the gun debate, and whoever yells loudest wins.  The world tells us that the only likely outcome is more of the same, the path of despair.
We are not people of despair.  Despair is fear all dressed up with no place to go, and we are not people of fear.  We trust in the way of love, for Jesus’ perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).  Even amid recurrent violence, darkened hearts, and unproductive debates, we are not called to despair.  We are called to faithful love.  We are called to pray and to act.
Of course, we could pray and act in many different ways.  But I believe our society will be blessed if we reframe our responses to gun violence, seeing it less as an issue of politics and more as an issue affecting people.  We would do well not simply to argue about policy but to focus on the people harmed by gun violence.  For if we reimagined an abstract “culture of violence” instead as an existential threat to actual human beings, people who have names and stories, perhaps we could recast the debate from “whose policy framework is right?” to “which interventions actually bring healing to God’s children?”  We take this perspective in business and in medicine all the time:  Don’t follow doctrine; follow best practice.
We have a promise from Jesus, which is the healing power of love.  We have to trust in it – the power of love for actual people, which defeats hate for disembodied groups.  We have to trust that love finds a way to heal even in the darkness, if we love with purpose and intention.  This includes calling out that which is not love, a practice that requires really just a few, simple, holy questions.  About anyone’s assessment of a problem, and about any proposed intervention, ask first:  Where is love in this?  How does this response foster people’s dignity?  How does this response bless people at risk?  How does this response heal people who are broken?  How does this response represent God’s loving rule and reign?  The Christlike healing of our nation’s deepest wounds, like gun violence, does involve constitutional interpretation and legislative change.  But it also asks us, as people of faith, to shine the light of love on real, live human beings through prayer and through action.
Even at the very local level of St. Andrew’s, here are a couple of trusting steps we can take, two outward and visible signs of the grace that always puts people first.
As you know, each Sunday we offer Prayers of the People, commending all our lives to God – the concerns of our hearts, our homes, our cities, our nation, and our world.  In those prayers, when we intercede for people who have died, we’ll remember those who have died violently in our metro area that week, as well as the perpetrators of that violence.  This begins today, with Zavier Mendoza, who was murdered on Thursday; Michael F. McLin and Kevin E. Waters, who were murdered on Tuesday; and two unknown men who was murdered on Monday and Friday.2  Maybe this will help us turn our hearts a little more directly toward those whose stories risk becoming just more ugly noise to ignore on the evening news.
Second, we’re going to be conducting an experiment in speaking and listening lovingly about our society’s hardest issues while learning to see each other fully as children of God.  About 15 parishioners are bravely giving their time to this risky enterprise, parishioners from across the political and theological spectrum.  They will gather monthly, knowing that they disagree on many things but committed to learning and practicing the art of Christlike disagreement – dialogue that begins and ends in love, gathered around a lunch table one day and the Eucharistic table the next.  My hope and prayer is that, through its joys and its stumbles, this group will help show us how to do this work so we can create more groups of people learning to practice holy and loving disagreement.  I hope you’ll keep this experiment in your prayers because it has the potential to be a game-changer.
I believe we’re called to pray and live out love because, in this moment, the stakes are high for our city and our nation.  But, you know, the stakes are also high for each of us.  I think if Jesus were here – and, of course, Jesus is here – he might refer us to the Gospel reading this morning.  We are called to be faithful servants of the kingdom of God, despite the world’s messages of hate or futility or despair.  We’re called to set aside worldly attachments and affiliations, even though the voices around us say, “Strive for position and power.”  We’re called to worry less about whether we’re right, whether we win the argument, and to worry more about protecting and healing real people.  We’re called to be ready to serve as our master serves, not just because our world is dying for it (which it is) but because our own future rewards depend on our present vigilance in following the way of love.  The master wants to bring us to the kingdom, and the time to act is now because the moment that matters is now.  “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit,” Jesus says.  “Blessed are the servants whom the master finds alert when he comes….  For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12:35,37,40)  And it would be good if we were ready.

1.       Homicide total includes Kansas City, MO (89); Kansas City, KS (16); Overland Park, KS (2); Olathe, KS (3); Independence, MO (4); Belton, MO (2); Raytown, MO (6); Grandview, MO (3); Jackson County, MO (1); Liberty, MO (1); Shawnee, KS (1); and Greenwood, MO (1). See “List of Kansas City area homicides in 2019.” Kansas City Star.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article223986505.html.  Accessed Aug. 8, 2019.  See also “Police release name of 14-year-old boy killed in Olathe; teen suspect arrested.” Kansas City Star. Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article233668707.html. Accessed Aug. 9, 2019.
2.       At the time of the sermon, I didn’t know about the most recent murder – an 8-year-old boy killed late the night before when his home was riddled with bullets.  See ‘It’s heartbreaking’: Child killed, mother injured in KC house sprayed with bullets.”  Kansas City Star.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article233761797.html.  Accessed Aug. 11, 2019.  Apparently, I’ll have to check the local paper’s website just before worship to ensure the accuracy of our Prayers of the People….


Sunday, August 4, 2019

Transfiguration Happens

Sermon for Aug. 4, 2019
Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred
Luke 9:28-36

This morning, we’re marking the feast of the Transfiguration, which is Tuesday; and we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  At first glance, these two aspects of our celebration may not seem to have much to do with each other.  But, as is so often true about our sacred stories and our sacred rites, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
So, about our Gospel reading this morning – what’s going on there?  Honestly, the story of the Transfiguration has always been a little bewildering to me, as I think it must have been for the disciples.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray.  That should get us ready for something significant to happen because, in our tradition, both prayer and mountains are settings where God shows up.  It was as Jesus prayed, following his baptism, that the Holy Spirit descended on him and God’s voice boomed from the clouds, affirming Jesus as God’s own Son (Luke 3:21-22).  It was as Jesus prayed, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he gave himself fully to the journey to the cross to save us (Luke 22:39-46).  And mountains are important, too.  It was on Mt. Sinai that God called to Moses from the burning bush, sending him to free the people from Pharaoh (Exodus 3:1-12).  It was on Mt. Sinai that God empowered Elijah to defeat an unfaithful Israelite king and raise up faithful kings and prophets instead (1 Kings 19:1-18).  So, combine prayer and a mountain, and you’ve got a recipe for powerful experience.
Well, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John pray, something powerful does happen.  The appearance of Jesus’ face changes, as had the face of Moses when he went to meet God on the mountain; and Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white.  Then, as their plane of reality intersects with God’s own space and time, Moses and Elijah show up, though they’ve both been dead for centuries.  They talk with Jesus about something they all understand: sacrifice, putting yourself at risk for others.  For Jesus, it’s his departure – in Greek, his exodus – that he’ll accomplish on that cross outside Jerusalem.  But the storyline is familiar to his historic companions.  Moses had put his life on the line to save God’s people by the Exodus through the Red Sea.  Elijah had put his life on the line to show Yahweh’s kingship and bring the people back into relationship with the one true God.  So often, God gives us an experience of divine glory to prepare us to give ourselves away.
Now, Peter, James, and John had been in a prayerful trance, but they rouse and find themselves in this intersection of their reality and God’s reality.  They see Jesus’ face glowing and his clothes shining like sunlight.  Even they get it that Jesus is not just their teacher and friend; he’s on a par with the two superstars of Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets in the flesh.  So, Peter says they should honor all three by setting up booths or tents or dwellings, as Jewish people did when they celebrated the Exodus each year.  Peter wants to make this incredible moment concrete – to help the disciples remember and hold onto their intersection with heaven itself.
But God gives them even more, something to guarantee this will be a moment they’ll never forget.  The cloud of God’s presence overshadows them, as it had come down on Mt. Sinai when God gave Moses the Law.  And these three regular guys, along with the three divine spokesmen, get to hear the voice of God itself.  If you think that sounds terrifying, you’re right.  What’s about to come?  Proclamation?  Judgment?  Destruction?  No.  Instead, what comes is clarity.  “This is my Son, my Chosen,” God exclaims.  “Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
I’ve always loved the fact that, in this story that climaxes with God ordering people to listen to Jesus, Jesus has precisely nothing to say.  As Elijah discovered in his mountaintop experience, and as Rita Kendagor reminded us last Sunday, we often don’t find God in the drama or in the yelling.  We often find God in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12), in those moments when there are no words.  Lives change more by experience than by command.
We’ll have one of those experiences this morning, as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  There will certainly be words involved, and those words matter: promises to support tiny people as they grow into the full stature of Christ; promises to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord; a covenant to trust in God and follow God’s ways through prayer, repentance, proclaiming Good News, loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity of everyone, no matter how different they might seem.  There will be many words in that baptismal rite.  But what completes the encounter with the living God, what makes our plane of reality intersect with God’s own space and time, is the power of divine presence, this time come to us in sanctified water.  There will be words for me to say; but even if I couldn’t speak, God would still wash away sin, raise the candidates into new life, and welcome them into the family.  That’s the action of God, not the one who pours the water.  And in that moment of divine encounter, lives will change.
I want to share with you another experience of encounter and transfiguration I was blessed to witness last week.  Now, this has been a week of deeply sacramental moments, significant stops along our journey of a lifelong relationship with God.  Today, we’re baptizing babies.  Yesterday, two young adults committed themselves, to God and to each other, in the covenant of holy matrimony.  And Thursday, we commended a faithful disciple to God’s eternal care.  All these are moments of deep encounter – but so was a moment I wasn’t supposed to see. 
I came into the nave one afternoon this week, and I noticed a figure over in the columbarium, a staff member, actually.  She was alone, kneeling at the votive candles, praying.  I have no idea what she was saying to God, or whether she was saying anything at all.  She may have been listening.  She may have been remembering.  She may have been experiencing the beauty of holiness in this stunning space.  Or she may have been experiencing the presence of Jesus Christ in the sound of sheer silence, assuring her that she is beloved; that she is empowered; and that she is called, by virtue of her baptism, to be part of God’s project of loving the world into submission.  I don’t know exactly what was happening as she knelt there, but I do know this:  She was journeying up the mountain, making herself available, seeking an intersection with God’s own space and time. 
Transfiguration happens – in baptismal water, in marriage vows, in incense rising beside a casket, in Bread and Wine bringing Jesus’ real presence into our real lives.  And, transfiguration happens in the simple act of simple prayer.  Open yourself to that possibility.  Look for it.  Listen for it.  Ask for it.  Then, be still; and let God work.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Law of Nice

Sermon for July 14, 2019
Luke 10:25-37

This morning’s Gospel reading, the parable of the good Samaritan, is one of those stories we probably know too well, as a friend of mine likes to say.  We think we know it, but there’s a lot going on here.  So, let’s take a minute to unpack it.
The reading opens with “a lawyer,” an expert in Jewish law, throwing a question at Jesus to test him and put him in his place.  The question and answer are simple:  How do I inherit eternal life?  You love God and neighbor.  There are no other commandments greater than these, as Jesus says elsewhere. 
But the religious expert pushes back, asking, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).  He’s trying to justify his own practice of faithfulness.  He wants to make it clear that he’s checking the boxes on God’s commandments just fine, thank you very much.  “Sure, the commandment is to love … but that doesn’t mean everybody, right?”
So, Jesus begins his parable.  First, we’ve got a man traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho who’s been attacked, robbed, and left for dead.  Other than that, we know nothing about this man; I’ll come back to that later. 
Then we’ve got the priest and the Levite, both of whom served specific roles in Temple worship.  To do their jobs, the priest and the Levite were obligated to follow the Jewish purity codes, which you can find in the books of Leviticus and Numbers – a wonderful glimpse into the history of Jewish piety and a great cure for insomnia.  
Here’s a little background.  You had to be ritually pure in order to participate in Temple worship, and out-of-the-ordinary life events would leave you ritually unclean – things like contact with certain dead animals, or childbirth, or skin diseases, or a woman having her period.  And there were special purity requirements for those leading or supporting worship – complicated and time-consuming practices to remove ritual impurity and prepare you for service in the Lord’s Temple.  
Well, one sure-fire way to lose your ritual purity was to have contact with a dead body.  Simply that action would take you out of the game for seven days (Numbers 19:11).  And if you failed to go through the rites of purification before coming back to lead worship, you would defile the Lord’s tabernacle for everyone and put yourself at risk of ostracism and possibly death (Numbers 9:13).  So, avoiding contact with a dead body was a higher-stakes situation than we might think.  And it helps explain why the priest and the Levite in the parable not only fail to help the half-dead man but go clear to the other side of the road to avoid him.
Then we have the Samaritan.  Now, you probably know that the people of Israel held the Samaritans in contempt – the kind of contempt reserved for family feuds.  The Samaritans were descended from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had split from the Southern Kingdom after the death of King Solomon.  The Jews, the descendants of the Southern Kingdom, saw the Samaritans as neither Jews nor Gentiles exactly – the branch of the family you avoid at all costs.   There’s no one quite so impure or unclean as someone who’s related but definitely not one of “us.”
Of course, the crux of Jesus’ story is that it’s this alien, this Samaritan of all people, who stops and cares for the half-dead man at the side of the road.  And he does that because the Samaritan sees not a problem there but a person.  Moved with compassion – which means, literally, to suffer with someone – the Samaritan treats the man’s wounds, lets him ride on his donkey, takes him to an inn, gives the innkeeper two days’ wages to pay for the man’s lodging, and promises to pay for whatever else the man’s care requires. 
So, what’s going on with this parable?  First, we might notice that Jesus very carefully doesn’t answer the religious expert’s question.  Instead, Jesus raises a much larger question:  What makes you righteous?  Is it keeping obligations? 
We might think about it in our own context, both in terms of secular law and religious observance.  Let’s say we pay our taxes, and we observe the speed limit, and we keep the trash container neatly behind the fence in our yard.  And, let’s say we’re actively part of a church community, and we pray for our own needs and the needs of others, and we give to God 10 percent of what God gives us.  How’s that, Jesus?  How are we doing at inheriting eternal life?
Now, Jesus would never have said to the religious expert, or to us, “You don’t need to bother with the requirements of the law.”  That’s what defined being part of God’s covenant community back in the day.  But Jesus certainly would have said to the expert, and to us, something like, “It’s necessary, but not sufficient.”  Following the law, keeping our obligations – that’s not what puts us in right relationship with God.  Behaving righteously is what puts us in right relationship – doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).  And that requires not just knowing who counts as your neighbor but acting as a neighbor. 
And what does that take, to act as a neighbor?  I think it requires not just legal observance, and not just politeness, but love – the action of love.  If you’ve ever loved someone for real – if you’ve had a spouse or a child or a deep soul friend – you know that love involves not just action but costly action.  In Jesus’ parable, love for the half-dead man would have cost the priest or the Levite not just time but some exclusion, distance from their official roles and from the community life that gave them status.  And regardless of who stopped to help, once that investment was made, the cost just would have kept piling up – time, and supplies, and use of your vehicle, and cash to cover expenses – all for someone you don’t even know.  Is a half-dead person at the side of the road worth the investment?  On the world’s terms, Jesus would say, you’ll never know.  Love ’em anyway.
And that brings us to the person at the side of the road.  As I said, Jesus tells us nothing about him.  In the story, he’s literally no one.  So, actually, the first act of costly love in this story isn’t bandaging wounds.  It isn’t even stopping and interrupting your journey.  The first act of costly love is seeing – really seeing this person.  The priest and the Levite notice there’s a half-dead man at the side of the road.  The Samaritan sees the man with the eyes of compassion, the eyes of suffering with others.  Maybe the Samaritan knows a thing or two about being ignored.  Maybe he’s felt the slap of silence or watched others’ eyes look away.  His eyes of compassion lead the Samaritan to mercy, to love that costs him something.  That’s fulfilling God’s commandments.
I’m going to take a risk here and ask us to look at a purity code of our own, one we usually don’t think about.  It’s not the Law of Moses.  Instead, it’s the Law of Nice.  And I feel like I’m the perfect person to talk about it, because I am the apostle of nice.  Ever since seminary, people have been saying, “Oh, that John Spicer, he’s so … nice.”  Sometimes that’s a compliment; sometimes, not so much.  It’s not something I work at; it’s just how I’m wired and how I was raised.  And, you know, I think I have a lot of fellow apostles of nice sitting here this morning.  Here in Kansas City, here at St. Andrew’s … we’re really good at Midwest nice.  After all, it’s nice to be nice to the nice.
But something interesting happened here last Sunday, showing the limits of the Law of Nice.  I preached last week about Independence Day, how the vision of this nation honors human dignity and how Christian discipleship intersects with that.  Then, at the end of the sermon, it happened, at least at the 10:15 service:  People clapped.  Not everyone, of course, but enough to make it feel like a statement. 
That applause broke our purity code, the Law of Nice.  We’re not supposed to clap in church.  We probably know that; but, as with many old customs, we may not know why.  Theologically, we don’t clap because not clapping helps us remember whom we’re here to honor.  Our choir may sing an amazing piece of music and offer it with heavenly beauty; but we’re not supposed to clap because that anthem is not a performance.  It’s their offering to the God who’s worthy of all our praise and who provided the gifts that make their music possible in the first place. 
Now, what I intended with that sermon was to offer dignity as the intersecting point between Christian ethics and the American vision.  I raised up the crisis of overwhelming numbers of immigrants at the Southern border, and I said we all believe the people involved in that crisis are worthy of being treated with dignity, regardless of our political perspective.  When people applauded, I hoped that meant they were embracing that notion of dignity being at the core of our identity as Americans and as followers of Jesus.
Now, the good thing about this violation of the Law of Nice was that it encouraged several others, later, to violate it, too, by telling me a truth I might not have heard otherwise.  They said the applause made them feel excluded because they heard it as support for a political agenda they disagree with, related to immigration and other issues.  It didn’t matter what I intended about the sermon’s message; that’s how they heard the applause.  And it made them feel like the outsiders in this room, where we’re supposed to come together as family.
The truth is, I don’t know why people clapped.  What I do know is that we each brought our own meaning to the applause, and we can’t control what meaning others brought.  So, in addition to its theological merit, that purity code about not clapping for sermons has a lot of pastoral value, too, especially in divided times.
But still, like I said, there was an unintended benefit in our violation of the Law of Nice.  Just as Jesus asked the legal expert to go beyond checking the boxes of salvation and to risk even violating the Law of Moses for the sake of loving a neighbor, I think it’s good for us to go beyond the Law of Nice, and here’s how: by asking for the perspective of someone with whom we know we’ll disagree.  And then, really listen.  Really try to see that person as a neighbor.  It’s not about changing points of view, our own or the other’s.  It’s about seeing the other with the eyes of love and choosing engagement and relationship over avoidance. 
So, in these complicated times, we might each ask ourselves:  Who is the other to me?  What boundary do I need to cross?  Whom do I need to hear so I can know them in the fullness of their dignity?  That’s costly love – the love that turns “me” and “them” into “us.”

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Who's on the Boat?

Sermon for Independence Day, transferred
July 7, 2019
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

Today, we’re celebrating the feast of Independence Day, transferred from July 4.  That probably sounds strange, “the feast of Independence Day,” unless we’re talking about lots of hamburgers and frankfurters sizzling on the grill.  But Independence Day is one of only two secular holidays that have made it onto the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar (the other is Thanksgiving Day).  So, it’s good to think about why July 4 might be there:  What is it about our nation’s birthday that makes it count as a feast day in Jesus Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?
Well, I believe there is much that is good, even godly, in the dream and vision of the American nation.  In fact, there’s so much that’s good – despite all the ways our country feels broken right now – there’s so much that’s good that thousands of people still come seeking it, hoping to share in the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  In theological terms, I might even say those thousands of people still come here because the dream and vision of America is a nation that helps people grow into the full measure of who we’re created to be – each of us made in the image and likeness of the God who is Love.
That’s all well and good.  What’s hard, of course, is putting that vision into practice, especially in a culture where the separation of church and state is one of our founding tenants.  Now, that “wall of separation” has served us well; but I think we’re tempted to extend it too far, applying it not just to our government but to our own lives.  We’re tempted to think that our faith, and our Church, should have plenty to say about our individual behavior but little or nothing to say about our collective behavior. 
To be more specific:  I hear people say all the time that they don’t want preaching to be political.  I get that.  Many of you know more about government, economics, social issues, and international relations than I do.  Plus, like many of you, on the Sabbath day I also enjoy thinking about something other than our less-than-perfect Union.  So, I get it that you don’t want me telling you what to say in your letters to your representatives any more than I want you telling me what to say in mine. 
And, that being said:  How we live our lives is not just a private endeavor.  We are bound together in community – as Americans, as Midwesterners, as Kansas Citians, as the St. Andrew’s family.  And, more deeply, we are bound together through our primary identity – as beloved children of the one God who is Love.
So, as we celebrate the Church’s feast of America’s Independence Day, what might both our nation’s history and our commitment to Jesus Christ tell us about how to go about this hard work of living not just individually but in community? 
As I said maybe a couple of months ago when I stood up here and talked about abortion, I believe we have a key that helps us turn the lock of ethical living, as individuals and as a nation; and we find it in our Baptismal Covenant.  There, in the last two promises, we say that we’ll seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and that we’ll strive for justice and peace.  Specifically, I believe the key that turns the lock to ethical living comes at the end of that final baptismal promise, when we pledge to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).
To flesh this out, I want to share with you a journey I was blessed to take on vacation a couple of weeks ago.  Ann and I went to New York to see Dan and Kathryn, both of whom now live there.  Plus, you know, it’s New York, so we did some sightseeing, too.
One of our stops was the Museum of Jewish Heritage, overlooking New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.  We were there to see a special exhibit on the experience of Jews and other persecuted groups at Auschwitz during World War II.  The exhibit told the story of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany – posters and films telling lies that turned neighbors into subhumans; the bankrupt science of eugenics, which sought to “prove” concocted differences among people based on race; the destruction of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses.  Maps, charts, and graphs told of millions of people taken away in cattle cars to work as slaves or to be killed immediately in the camps.
But the exhibition also personalized the Holocaust, telling the stories of victims and letting survivors speak for themselves.  And at the end, in the last room, was a montage of home movies, moments from the lives of German and Polish Jews before the war, people just doing what we all do on a beautiful summer day – playing with their kids, or going swimming, or picnicking in the park.  It was a powerful way to remember that every one of these murdered millions was a child of God, nothing more and nothing less; and that the Holocaust is what happens when people let the inherent dignity of others slip away.
The other powerful visit Ann and I made was to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.  The museum includes two buildings on Orchard Street that housed immigrants from all over the world from the 1840s through the 1980s – saloon owners, shop keepers, factory workers, garment workers, clothing retailers, airline pilots, a cross-section of working life.  The spaces told the stories of specific families living and working in those buildings across the decades, how they built new lives in a new land. 
What really sticks with me is the story of Kalman and Rivka Epstein – two Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.1  Either one of them could have been in the home movies I’d seen the day before.  Rivka was held at Bergen-Belsen, and Kalman was held at Auschwitz.  After the liberation, they met at a refugee camp in occupied Germany, where they got married.  They made their way to America in 1947, at a time when the United States was expanding refugee immigration so more people could come from devasted Europe.2  Kalman worked in the garment industry and eventually owned his uncle’s dress shop. 
The Epsteins came to the Lower East Side because of the rich Jewish community there, but they also built relationships with neighbors from many countries – especially because Kalman and Rivka owned the first TV in their building. 
They also had two daughters, Bella and Bluma.  In the daughters’ room was a record player and a 45 that Bella had played over and over – a doo-wop number by Paul Anka, whose photo hung over the record player.  Bella wanted badly to be a “real” American, and listening to Paul Anka made her feel that way.  She probably didn’t know Paul Anka was Canadian; nor did she know that he was the child of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon.  To the teenager Bella, Paul Anka’s haircut and his music were what America looked and sounded like.
Of course, as Ann and I were on our trip to New York, we all started to see news reports about immigrant children at the Southern border and the conditions in which they’re being housed.  Now, we can talk about immigration policy all day, and I’m happy to go have coffee with anybody who’d like to look at those hard questions through a theological lens.  But I imagine I’m safe in figuring that all of us think kids caught up in systems they can’t control or understand should have diapers and toothbrushes and basic medical care, no matter where they come from.  Right?  I really don’t see us disputing that, regardless of how open we believe America’s golden doors should be.
We believe people deserve the dignity of basic cleanliness and care for the same reasons that the story of the Epstein family in New York is so compelling.  First, as Americans, we believe our nation is a place of aspiration and hope for people in countries where aspiration and hope are reserved for the elite.  And second, as followers of Jesus, we believe that all people are children of God; that all people are made in God’s image and likeness; that all people are worthy of love and justice; and that each one of us, in our own way, is called to promote the dignity of others – especially when their dignity is threatened. 
Acting for the dignity of others can look many ways.  First, our most powerful act is to pray.  Beyond that, maybe it’s choosing to hire people who have a story like Kalman and Rivka Epstein.  Maybe it’s mentoring a child at one of our partner schools.  Maybe it’s giving toward the work of organizations, including Episcopal ministries, that are caring for people seeking asylum and resettlement.3  Maybe it’s working with people preparing for American citizenship, helping them learn what they need to know.  Maybe it’s writing your congressional representative, advocating for dignity as God’s starting point for all public policy, regardless of how the legislative sausage ends up. 
This is the nation we imagine as we celebrate the Fourth of July.  As the writer of Hebrews says about eternal life, so we believe about our nation’s life:  We always “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16).  And getting there requires us to act, however that looks for you.  As Jesus calls us this morning, strive “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
On the front of the bulletin is a photo I wanted to share with you.  This is what you see as you exit the Auschwitz exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.  The view is of New York Harbor, and the little figure on the right is the Statue of Liberty.  Passing through the frame is a boat filled with passengers, which seems fitting for a harbor that holds the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  I’m sure it’s a sightseeing boat, filled with people like you and me, taking in our nation’s history on a beautiful afternoon.  But I think it’s worth asking:  What if this were a different kind of boat?  What if the people on it came from places very different from ours?  Would their dignity matter any less?
I believe this is why we celebrate Independence Day as a feast of the Church and not simply a chance to feast on tasty grilled delights from the German cities of Hamburg and Frankfurt.  Despite the separation of church and state, we celebrate our nation’s birthday in the church because it helps us remember who we are.  For, as Americans, we are at our best when we remember that out of many, we are one; and that as one, we are called to help many grow into the fullness of whom they’re created to be – each a beloved child, made in the image and likeness of God.

1.      For more of their story, see the museum’s website, https://www.tenement.org/explore/103-orchard-street/.
2.      Beginning with an executive order by President Truman in December 1945 and continuing with the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the U.S. government fostered the immigration of more than 400,000 “displaced persons” into the United States through 1952.  Of these, about 16 percent (about 64,000 people) were recorded as being Jewish.  See Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. 103-112.
3.      Episcopal examples at the Southern border include Team Brownsville – Humanitarian Assistance for Asylum Seekers (https://www.teambrownsville.org/); the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande (https://www.dioceserg.org/Ministries/asylum-seekers); and the Diocese of Texas’ partnership with Catholic Charities’ Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen (https://bit.ly/2YecUND).


Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Family of God

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019
Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; John 16:12-15

As we celebrate Father’s Day today, the Church calendar tells us something different – that it’s Trinity Sunday.  Trinity Sunday is the only principal feast of the Church year that marks not an event (like Easter) or the example of holy people (like All Saints’ Day) but a doctrine – or, maybe I should say, the doctrine. 
On Trinity Sunday, we honor nothing less than the nature of God – and as soon as we do, we start stumbling all over ourselves to make sense of it without being heretical.  Because, of course, the nature of God is ultimately impossible for us to grasp.  Just listen to this snippet from the Creed of St. Athanasius, in the Historical Documents section of the prayer book:  “[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.  For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.” (BCP 864).  Well, that clears it up, right?
So, why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter?  For me, there are two basic reasons, one theological and the other more practical.  First, theologically, this idea of one God in three persons sets us apart as Christians.  Despite all we share with other religions, especially the other Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam, no other religion sees God as this delicate dance of unity in diversity.  Second, more practically, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is important because of this:  We follow the God we come to know.  How we see God’s nature determines what we understand about our nature and how we are to live, given that we’re made in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26).  As God is, and as God acts, so we should be and so we should act as we relate to ourselves, and each other, and our world.
So, what does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us about God’s most fundamental attributes?  And what divine attributes might not take the spotlight?  Well, we could continue down the rocky road of abstract theology, but I think I caught some glimpses of God’s nature last week, in the house where I grew up.   
My mother is getting ready to move out of her house after living there almost 54 years.  I was there on Monday helping her clear out closets and pack things up, and I want to share with you two things I found there. 
First was a photo of my father and me playing catch in the backyard when I was about 10.  In this photo, the sun is setting, and the shadows have grown long.  I’m in the shade, with my back to the camera; and my father is in the bright evening sunlight with his glove open, his eyes tracking the baseball that’s about to hit the pocket.  He’s wearing slacks and a white button-up shirt, so I know he’s just come home from work.  And I wondered, as I looked at that photo – what had he been thinking just before we went outside?  My father was an academic dean at what’s now Missouri State University, and God only knows what stupid drama he’d been dealing with that day, administering the College of Arts and Humanities.  What burdens was he carrying as we put on our gloves and went out the back door?
Now, my father wasn’t great at hiding his frustration.  You knew when he was stuck somewhere he didn’t want to be or stuck doing something he didn’t want to do.  But I never remember that look on his face when we went out to play catch.  He may have been completely worn out, and worried about budgets, and stressed out by prima-donna professors, and behind on projects around the house.  But there he was, playing catch in the backyard, putting me first.  And I kind of think he loved it.
Now, that’s a great memory for a Father’s Day sermon.  But the truth is, this could just as easily be a Mother’s Day sermon.  As we heard in the reading from Proverbs, God is represented as a female figure in our Scripture and tradition, too, along with the Father from today’s Gospel reading and the Creed.  And cleaning out closets with my mother last week, I found something else to take home with me – a red mixing bowl.
This was the go-to mixing bowl in my mother’s kitchen as we kids grew up.  It seemed to me she used it making every dinner we had.  But it was also the bowl she and I would use to make chocolate-chip cookies.  It won’t surprise you to know that the pudgy little boy playing baseball in the backyard loved chocolate-chip cookies.  Even when I was small enough that I needed to stand on a chair, she would let me stir the flour and sugar and baking soda, and add the eggs and vanilla and butter, and combine it all with the electric hand mixer, a wondrous toy with which I sprayed cookie dough all over the counter.  We’d eat maybe half the dough raw and bake the rest, filling the house with the scent of heaven. 
Now, my mother had a home to manage.  She had three other kids to worry about, too.  She worked toward a master’s degree, and taught, and for a time served as the Episcopal chaplain at Missouri State.  And patience is not exactly my mother’s greatest gift.  When my family would be walking somewhere, what we kids and my father saw was my mother’s back, 20 feet in front of us, because we never could walk fast enough for her.  But there she was, in the kitchen when she didn’t have to be, helping me make cookies, putting me first.  And I kind of think she loved it.
So, all that sounds perfect.  Based on what I’ve told you, my childhood was a Norman Rockwell painting.  Of course, it wasn’t.  There was a lot of dysfunction, too; and like all of us, the baggage I carry is filled mostly with the sadnesses and failures of childhood.
But here’s why I’m sharing all this with you on Trinity Sunday.  I think in our best times – when we’re most fully alive, when we know joy that leaves us aching for more – in our best times, that’s when we most closely reflect the image and likeness of the God who creates us, and redeems us, and sustains us.  Because those best times are our times of relationship.
“God is love,” Scripture tells us (1 John 4:8).  And love, by definition, means sharing in relationship.  You can’t love without there being someone to love.  And people in a deep relationship create something greater than either of them, a power of nurture and creativity and joy that changes the world they touch.  Centuries ago, St. Augustine saw this, describing the Triune God as being like one who loves, and that person’s beloved, and the love that flows between and beyond them.  We stumble around with words to try to capture this loving reality, describing God as Father and Son and Holy Spirit; or as Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer; or maybe as two dancers and the dance that together they create.  Well, maybe a family is a good model, too – a family of any size or configuration or location; a family of biology or a family of choice.  Even a church family, on its best days.  Maybe God is family.  At least that’s one way to see it.
It matters how we see God because, like I said, we follow the God we come to know.  For many people, unfortunately, the God they grew up knowing was a God of rules.  God was the lawgiver who made the rules.  God was the sheriff who enforced the rules, and who deputized special people to help him knock heads theologically.  Now, this God of rules could be gracious if he desired, a judge dismissing our well-deserved sentence and sending us out on parole.  And, in the fullness of time, this God of rules even took our place as the prisoner in the cell, standing in for us when we violated our parole and taking the punishment we deserved.  And now, this God of rules runs the halfway house, continuing to monitor us and asking us to teach good behavior to other offenders, while we wait for him to impose law and order over all creation.  I was blessed because that’s not the God I grew up knowing.  Though I didn’t have words for it, the God I grew up knowing wasn’t the God of rules but the God of relationship.
Of course, it’s not that God has no rules.  All families, all households, all relationships have rules.  It’s just that the rules aren’t the point.  Instead, the rules are love’s operating manual, the steps that make the dance of relationship work without us tripping over each other’s feet.
I think the God of relationship is what Trinity Sunday is asking us to see.  If the Holy Trinity is, first and foremost, a relationship, then we who are made in God’s image and likeness ought to put our energy into living that way.  Because, it turns out, not only is relationship God’s M.O., it’s also the source of our joy.  As C.S. Lewis said, joy is “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any … satisfaction.”1  It’s connection with God and others that makes us long for deeper connection, a virtuous cycle of giving and receiving and giving again, an embrace that always draws you closer in.  The gift of the God who is relationship is not just the love you’ve known but love you keep yearning for – the batch of cookies or game of catch that never has to end.

1.      Lewis, C.S.  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.  1955.  Posted Oct. 4, 2015.  Available at: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy-01-h.html.  Accessed June 13, 2019.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Jesus the CEO

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension, transferred
June 2, 2019
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Today, we’re celebrating the feast of the ascension, which may just be the most baffling celebration of the entire church year.  Ascension Day actually was Thursday, 40 days after Easter, because, as the reading from Acts tells us, it was 40 days after the resurrection when Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of [the disciples’] sight” (1:9).
There’s so much that’s weird about the ascension that it’s hard to know where to start.  The story comes from a world view in which heaven is up, and earth is down, and hell is really, really down.  But, of course, we understand now that the earth is round, and that space is infinite, and that if Jesus rose “up” to heaven in Palestine, he would have been dropping “down” to heaven relative to the folks in South America. 
But more than getting hung up on God’s geography, we might struggle a lot with the fundamental claim that the ascension makes: that Jesus – the resurrected, embodied Jesus who is just as much human as he is divine – that Jesus took off and went to rejoin the other two persons of the Trinity, leaving us hanging as we wait for his return.  And along with that, we might wonder what it really means when we say, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus now “is seated at the right hand of the Father” and that “his kingdom will have no end” (BCP 358-359).  What the ascension claims is that Jesus is nothing less than the supreme Lord of the universe – as the reading from Ephesians says, he is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21).
Well, here on this Sunday morning – as we dive into summer and worry how many tornado warnings we’ll have this week – what difference does any of this make for you and me?
I mean, most of the time, we’re standing right there with the disciples.  As they were enjoying their moment of connection with their risen Lord, they wanted answers to practical questions:  OK, Jesus, “is this time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  You defeated sin and death; surely toppling Caesar must be next on the list, right?  But Jesus says what must have been the last thing they expected to hear:  Nope.  The next act is yours, he says, not mine.  You will receive power from the Holy Spirit that will equip you to be my witnesses, to change people’s hearts and lives everywhere from here “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). 
And then, he was gone.  If we’d been there, I think we’d have been looking around like fools, too, wanting to know where the heck he went and why he hadn’t solved the problems that still made their lives so hard.
How can we stand here, now, and proclaim that Jesus is in charge?  I mean, if he is, he kind of seems to be making a mess of it, right?  It’s tempting to downplay Jesus’ sovereignty over creation and over our lives because, not only is there a lot wrong on any given day, but it only seems to get worse as time goes on.  You can fill in the blank here with your favorite example of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket: mass shootings, politics, the environment, personal responsibility, ethics and morals – the list goes on.  If Jesus is the king, much of the realm seems to be under somebody else’s not-so-benevolent control.
You know, there are lots of models for understanding the exercise of sovereignty or authority.  Our English translations of scripture come out of a social context of monarchy, so we read a lot about the “kingdom” of heaven or the “kingdom” of God.  That might make us imagine a monarch on a throne – and, more specifically, a male monarch, given the gender implied by the word “king.”  But the word in Greek that we translate as “kingdom” doesn’t mean a geographic location governed by a man wearing a crown.  That Greek word, basileia, means “reign,” or “rule,” or “realm” of God – the state of being in which God’s sovereignty is supreme.1  That’s what Jesus is promising when he invites us to look for the kingdom of God among us or within us (Luke 17:21).  That’s what we’re actually asking for, in the Lord’s Prayer, when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  It’s our eternal hope, too, at the end of the story, when we look for Jesus to “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (BCP 359).  What we’re looking for is life as we know it transformed and lived under the sovereignty of the God who is love.
If the image of kings and queens in castles doesn’t really work to capture the basileia of God, here’s another model of Jesus’ sovereign authority.  It comes from the English bishop and theologian N.T. Wright.  He explains that what we call heaven and earth aren’t two separate physical locations but “two different dimensions of God’s good creation.”  In this event we call the ascension, the embodied, risen Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, returned to that heavenly dimension of God’s creation.  Now, the really amazing thing about this isn’t the transport mechanism, or finding the door to the heavenly elevator, or figuring out which way is “up” on a sphere.  What’s really amazing about the ascended Jesus is this:  From the heavenly realm, he can also be present to anyone, anywhere in earthly time and space, returning into the mix from a dimension different from ours but still connected to it.2 
Now, if that sounds more like The Matrix than real life, you’re beginning to see what I’m talking about.  We have trouble wrapping our minds around this, in much the same way that a two-dimensional cartoon character, living in a flat world, would have trouble with one of us trying to explain the concept of “up.”  But in that heavenly dimension tangential to earthly time and space, N.T. Wright sees Jesus functioning not as a king sitting on a throne but as a chief executive officer sitting in a corner suite.  Heaven is earth’s “control room,” Wright argues.  “It is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given.”2
I like that model.  Not only can we imagine a CEO’s office better than we can imagine an ancient throne room, but maybe we can also imagine how Jesus exercises power a little more clearly this way.  Ancient kings ruled by fiat, promoting their own self-interest first and foremost; and when people disobeyed, the king simply had them killed.  I don’t know about you, but to me that seems a little out of character for the Prince of Peace – the one whose mission statement was “love God, love neighbor, love one another”; the one who cast a vision of servanthood, asking all who worked for him to take up their crosses and follow in his footsteps.
Here’s another reason I like that model of heaven as the earth’s control room and Jesus as the CEO.  It helps make sense of judgment from a God who is love.  Hang with me for a minute:  In my years here at St. Andrew’s, I’ve had several savvy businesspeople try to help me with the hard work of terminating employees.  It won’t surprise you to know that I’m not really wired to be good at that, given how much I love confrontation and conflict.  Well, these folks – HR people and executives alike – suggested that I look at termination differently.  The advice went like this:  When someone’s being terminated, nine times out of ten it’s a direct result of choices that person made.  So, when you have the hard conversation, the bad news you’re breaking isn’t that you’re firing that staff member.  You say to the staff member, “You’ve fired yourself, and here’s why.”  To me, that’s Jesus at the Last Judgment, in a nutshell. 
Theology is mystery, but our CEO’s directions are pretty clear.  He equips us with the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, to turn, and transform, and grow our hearts to follow his agenda.  He sends us on a mission to love, across every aspect of our lives.  He casts a vision of servant leadership, taking up the cross for us and asking us to do the same.  And he deploys us precisely where he needs us:  “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed … to all…,” he says (Luke 24:47); and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,” and in crazy places like Kansas City, and Mission Hills, and Prairie Village, and Leawood, “and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 
Jesus isn’t asking you to do anything for which you aren’t already equipped and deployed.  In your workplace, in your home, in your club, in your civic group, in your giving of time and talent and treasure, you are duly qualified and empowered to represent your CEO and to execute his mission.  You’ve got your assignment, and you’ve got what it takes.
So, when he calls you “up” to the executive suite someday, just a little advice:  Be ready for the performance review.

1.       Reid, Barbara E.  “Excursus: The Kingdom of God.”  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 203. 1955.
2.       Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  111.