Monday, August 8, 2016

Get on the Train

Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 7
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

This week, my wife, Ann, and I will celebrate our 26th anniversary.  It is an immense blessing I’ve been given, the best thing ever in my life.  We’ve had our problems over the years, as all couples do, as well as crisis points along the way – moments we weren’t sure whether or how we would go on.  Some of those have been health-related.  As most of you know, Ann struggles with lupus, and that long-term illness has threatened to take her life twice.  And yet, we are blessed with a life we could never have scripted for ourselves.
A few days after our 26th anniversary, my parents will mark their 64th.  I can’t even comprehend that.  And standing at the altar 64 years ago, they couldn’t have comprehended it either.  In a moment like that, we can’t know what’s coming; we just have to get on the train and begin the journey. 

I use that image intentionally because of a photo of my parents that sits innocuously on an end table in our living room.  It’s a snapshot taken just a few months after their wedding.  They’re standing together next to a passenger train in southern California, about to board.  My mother is 19, dressed in a ladies’ traveling suit and heels; my father is 24, the experienced ex-Navy man grinning as he clenches a pipe in his teeth.  The best thing is, they’re looking at each other, apparently unaware of anyone else’s presence.  I don’t know whether the photographer, my grandfather, intended the shot this way, but it’s perfect because the 1950s, jet-age design on the side of the train happens to be in the shape of a letter S.  It’s the Spicers’ train to the future.
At that point, they knew no more than Ann and I did when we got married, or any of the couples with whom I meet for premarital counseling.  I love that part of my job, trying to help couples imagine a future together, anticipate the pitfalls to come, and – above all – make the intentional choice for covenant over convenience “as long as you both shall live.”  Those couples – like my parents, like Ann and me – those couples are doing something that seems absolutely crazy, if we step back from it.  They’re investing everything in a future they can’t begin to see.
Our readings today from Genesis and Hebrews are all about a future we can’t see.  Even more difficult, the Genesis reading starts in a present no one wants to see – a moment of barrenness, a moment when one more empty promise is the last thing anyone needs.  Abram has taken the unbelievable risk to follow a call he hears from God and leave his homeland in Mesopotamia, along with his wife, Sarai, and their household.  They’ve traveled to Canaan, modern-day Israel and Palestine, where God promised him, “To your offspring, I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).  They sojourn in Egypt and eventually come back to Canaan.  Abram defeats several tribes, and God establishes him as a respected chieftain, giving him all the land around him he can see (Genesis 13:14-17). 
But Abram lacks the most important thing.  Land is no good if you have no children to inherit it; and at this point, Sarai is well past child-bearing age.  God knows the pain, emptiness, and fear in Abram’s heart; so in the reading we heard today, God visits Abram to renew the promise:  “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1).  But Abram names the tragic disconnect he sees:  Thanks for the land, Lord, but where are the children who will make it more than a one-generation gift? 
So into Abram’s desolation, God speaks a word of hope.  It’s not an argument for hope, with God supporting a claim with evidence of the blessings Abram’s received.  Instead, it’s a scandalous promise with no evidence to back it up.  God takes Abram outside and shows him the stars – the stars on the darkest night you can imagine, the Milky Way stretching across the sky.  And God says, “Count the stars, if you are able to count them. … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). 
At then comes one of the greatest turning points in salvation history.  If it were a TV series, this is where the episode would end, the cliffhanger pulling you in to watch what happens next.  Because Abram has a choice to make.  It’s the hinge of history for those who will later call themselves Jews and Christians and Muslims.  In this moment of truth, Abram makes the choice to believe the Lord.  He steps on the train to God’s future.  And God credits that choice to him as righteousness – ultimate righteousness, surpassing acts of worship, even acts of mercy.  It’s the righteousness without which a relationship with God is simply not possible.  It’s the righteousness of trust.
That trust is what enables us to risk ourselves for the future, to head out on journeys whose destinations we can’t see.  The deepest commitments we make – marriage, children, ordination, all the “’til death do us part” commitments of our lives – those commitments make no sense according to everything the world tells us about good decision-making.  Who would invest in a venture where the evidence for success is strong feelings and passionate promises?  We want proof.  We want guarantees.  We want contracts with escape clauses.  And God just chuckles and says, “You know, that’s not exactly how this faith thing works….” 
The reading from Genesis and the Gospel reading today both start out with God’s invitation to choose a reality in contrast to the world’s expectations:  God says to Abram, “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1).  Jesus says to his friends, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).  What I’m going to tell you won’t make rational sense, but do it anyway.  Living in trust is nothing less than the choice for God’s reality, for God’s kingdom – the choice not to be afraid.  It’s the choice for love across the long term.  It’s the choice for covenant fidelity, not contract renegotiation.  It’s the choice not simply to agree, intellectually, that God can bring new life into our places of barrenness; it’s the choice to live our lives completely rooted in that assurance – not because objective evidence points toward that conclusion but simply because God has said so.  Choosing to live in trust is choosing to live in hope: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
That hope is not delusion, something that helps us make it through sleepless nights.  That hope changes the future.  That hope has led powerless people to topple oppressive regimes.  That hope has led broken bodies and broken hearts to find healing.  That hope has led selfish people to repent and wronged people to forgive.  That hope is God’s train to the kingdom of heaven.
And almost never does that train take the track we’d choose.  Abram wanted heirs, and he got them; but he had to deal with the complications of fathering both Ishmael and Isaac – as well as fathering generations of hostility down the ages among Arabs and Jews, the antipathy that only angry brothers and sisters can know.  By the same token, the reward for our trust almost never comes the way we’d script it.  Jesus offers us the kingdom of heaven, but at the price of devoting ourselves to heavenly treasure rather than our own possessions and agendas.  God gives us our richest blessings from the covenants that vex and stretch and break our hearts.  I could never have imagined how deep love can be in chronic illness, and I’d certainly never have chosen that path to find it.  But still, God’s promise has been true:  “Look to heaven and count the stars; so shall your blessings be.”
A couple of weeks ago, Ann and I went to a concert by Marc Cohn – the two of us and maybe a couple of hundred other people with graying hair.  He was performing to mark the 25th anniversary of his first album, a CD that Ann and I have played so much we know each track by heart.  That album, and Marc Cohn’s concert, ended with the song “True Companion,” which contrasts a couple’s love on their wedding day with their love decades later.  The song includes this fabulous line:  “When the years have done irreparable harm, I can see us walking slowly arm in arm.”  I get to see that in my parents, after their 64 years – still the couple standing by the side of the train to the future adorned with that giant letter S.  I wonder what photo our kids will look to one day – what image, for Kathryn and Dan, will be the shot of Ann and me starting our journey into God’s future.  That’s for them to choose.  But for the two of us, perhaps closer now to “irreparable harm” than to our wedding day, I give great thanks – thanks for God’s call to trust beyond evidence, thanks for God’s promise of a future that beats my script, thanks for “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Practicing Enough

Sermon from Sunday, July 31, 2016
Luke 12:13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

I won’t ask you to say it out loud, but I do want you to think about how you might answer this question:  What do you always want to have more of?  Where do you struggle with understanding how much is enough? 
For me, it’s French fries.  It’s hard for me to get a good handle on how many French fries is enough.  And sometimes – when I’m finally leaving church at the end of one of those days, when I haven’t had anything to eat but some nuts at my desk, after another meeting that drags into the middle of the evening, when I’m tired and frustrated and feel like George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life – sometimes, when I’m finally leaving church, I go by McDonald’s on the way home.  I get a Quarter Pounder, and I get fries.  And not just some fries.  A large order of fries.  If they’re spilling out the top of the carton and falling to the bottom of the bag, that’s about right.  The more, the better.  Then once I get home, I drown my sorrows in salty, greasy goodness. 
Or at least I think that’s what I’m doing.  But what if my attitude toward French fries actually says something about my relationship with God?  I mean, I am hungry as I wait in line at the drive-thru; but it’s not really hunger that’s motivating my order.  I could just eat food I have at home.  Instead, at that moment, those French fries don’t really represent a source of nutrition, good or bad.  Those French fries represent greed, as well as gluttony.  I get those fries simply because I want them – and lots of them.
So what’s wrong with that?  Well, maybe nothing’s wrong with that, other than raising my cholesterol.  But maybe those French fries represent a little rebellion.  Maybe those French fries are a way for me to say, “I’m going to have what I want.”  And that’s where greed begins.
The Gospel reading we heard today starts with someone trying to get what he wants – and asking Jesus to justify it.  The man’s asking for a share of the family inheritance, but Jesus sees into the man’s heart.  So Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who’s struggling with a problem most of us would envy.  He’s got more wealth than he can store.  He’s been blessed with the abundance of God’s creation, and now he’s struggling to find a place just to keep all he has.  There’s nothing obviously wrong with this man’s wealth or how he came by it.  We’re given no reason to believe he oppressed his workers or cheated his customers.  He may well have followed Jewish Law and left some crops in the field after the harvest so poor people and strangers could come and take the gleanings.  Nothing in this story leads us to judge the man’s business practices.  But it’s his heart that God’s concerned about.
The man’s heart problem is its orientation.  In his day-to-day practice of worship, this man is looking in the mirror a lot more than he’s looking to an altar of sacrifice.  He sees all that he’s produced, and he thinks, “What should I do, for I have no place to story my crops?”  Then he says, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store my grain and my goods.  And I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many goods laid up for many years.  Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” (Luke 12:17-19)  Now, in that quotation, you may have noticed a lot of personal pronouns – “I” and “my,” specifically.  That might be a clue that something’s out of kilter.  This man has placed his hope and his trust in himself – his own work, his own wisdom, his own giftedness.  He’s filled his barns with the fruits of his own capacity.  He is a case study of wanting to be in control.
Except, of course, God has the last word.  Unfortunately for the man in the story, it’s literally the last word he’ll hear.  “You fool,” God says, “this very night, your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20).
There’s a big difference between stewardship and control.  In a sense, we might see the man in the story as a paragon of stewardship:  He takes what he has and manages it very carefully.  But that’s only half the recipe.  Stewardship is not simply careful control.  In fact, it’s the opposite of control.  Stewardship is managing the abundance God shares with us in ways that foster God’s purposes and honor God’s sovereignty.  The steward says, I’m here to take care of my master’s estate.  The steward says, I’m here to carry out my master’s plan.  The steward says, God is God, and I am not.
This is why Jesus says what he says about greed at the beginning of the parable.  Listen to his language – it’s not about judgment but about loving protection.  To the man in the crowd who wants to make sure he gets a share of the family inheritance, Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15).  He isn’t looking at the man and saying, “Bad boy!”  He’s saying, “Be careful, because greed will hurt you.”  
So, Jesus says, be careful to protect yourself from … what is it exactly?  How does greed hurt us? 
The reading we heard from Colossians names the risk out loud: idolatry.  Idolatry – now, that’s an interesting word.  We may hear that word idolatry and think about little statues of fertility goddesses or calves made of gold.  But idolatry doesn’t mean pagan worship; idolatry simply means the worship of that which is not God.  Idolatry is ascribing power and ultimate value to a creation rather than the Creator.  And I believe it’s the root of every other sin.  Everything that breaks the heart of God, everything that imperils our salvation, all of it is rooted in idolatry – in honoring something else in the place of the One who creates us and redeems us and sustains us.
So, most of us are probably thinking, “OK.  I don’t worship money, or my house, or my car, or my job.”  Probably not; and that’s good, because the neighbors might talk if you were out in the driveway, saying prayers to your Mercedes.  But you know, the stuff is not the real temptation.  It’s not the golden calves that attract us.  It’s not the idols themselves; it’s the source of power to which the idols point, which is … us.  The people of Israel made the golden calf, after all.  It was the work of their own hands.  The man in the story raised his crops and built his barns; they were the work of his own hands.  Our houses or cars or professional success – we can look at those and say, “I did that.  That’s the work of my hands.”  We may not be worshiping the car, but we may be worshiping the one who bought the car.  At the least, we’re tempted to see ourselves as the ones in control.
Jesus warns us to be on our guard against the threat of greed in order to save us from the sin of idolatry, the delusion of control.  So if that’s the poison that threatens us, what’s the antidote?  Well, we heard it in the Gospel reading last week and in Fr. Marcus’ sermon; and we’ll hear it again when we pray the Lord’s Prayer this morning.  The antidote to idolatry is daily bread.  “Lord, give us today our bread for tomorrow.”  Give us enough.  That’s it, really.  The treatment for greed is the practice of enough.
Now, your temptation may not be French fries, but I’ll bet we’ve each got a place or two in our lives where we never quite feel like what we have is enough.  Maybe it’s shoes in the closet.  Maybe it’s cash in the bank.  Maybe it’s time.  Maybe it’s certainty that we’re right.  Maybe it’s affirmation of our value.  For each of us, there’s probably some bucket we just can’t quite seem to fill, so we pour in more and more, not seeing how much less of it we need as it spills out over the top.
The practice of enough says this:  Seek less to find more.  Having fewer fries on my plate might encourage me actually to taste them and revel in that salty, greasy goodness – and to be thankful.  Thankful that I have the cash to buy them.  Thankful that I have an hour to turn on the TV and enjoy them.  Thankful that I never go hungry.  Thankful enough, in fact, to share that salty, greasy goodness with the person next to me on the couch.
That’s not a bad working definition of enough: having what you need, plus some to share.  If we have that, where’s the value in having more?  And beyond that, remember the risk in having more – the risk of forgetting who’s in charge.  The practice of enough is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the fundamental truth of our lives, the first sentence of all theology, and the first beat of a peaceful heart – that God is God, and I am not.
             There’s really nothing wrong with French fries.  I just have to be careful why I’m eating them and remember that more is not better.  I can have a few in gratitude for the blessings of that long, hard day – maybe simply in gratitude that the long, hard day is finally over.  Or I can have a lot in the momentary fantasy that I’m the one in control.  The right choice reveals the holy irony of God’s abundance:  We may well need to part with some of what we have in order to have enough.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Neighbors on the Road

Sermon from July 10, 2016
Luke 10:25-37

You may have noticed in Scripture that people often come to Jesus looking for a judge’s ruling.  Not surprisingly, they usually also look for the answer that best serves their own interests.  We are humans, after all – deeply beloved and deeply flawed.  So we come to Jesus, the face of God among us, and ask:  Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  And what do I have to do to make sure I’m in the right?
You also may have noticed that Jesus usually takes that kind of conversation in a different direction.  We look for a judge’s ruling, and he transforms our hearts instead.
Take, for example, the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading.  We focus on the story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan, but I think this reading is just as much about the lawyer who asks the question in the first place.  He’s an expert in religious law, and he wants to justify himself to prove he’s on the path to eternal life. 
So, in this conversation between two religious experts, the answer is never in doubt.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks (Luke 10:25).  Jesus gives him the answer he already knows:  “Love God and love neighbor.”  “Well, then,” the lawyer asks, ready to score his debating point, “who is my neighbor?”  Everybody knows we’re supposed to love people, the lawyer is thinking – but how far does that love have to go?
Well, Jesus isn’t about to start drawing lines in the sand about who’s comparatively more or less worthy of love.  Instead, he tells a story that spurs a deeper question.  This story of the Good Samaritan is one many of us have heard before, and here’s the short version we may already have in our heads:  A man gets beaten up on the road; two religious types can’t be bothered to help him; somebody at the losing end of the holiness scale, a Samaritan, does the right thing, going above and beyond to help the injured man.  Presumably, the lesson – the expected answer to the lawyer’s question – is that anyone you come across is your neighbor.  Everybody is worthy of your love.  Badda bing; end of sermon.
Well, I think Jesus would agree that everyone is worthy of your love.  But that’s not what he’s asking the lawyer to wrestle with.  At the end of the story, the question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus’ question to the lawyer is, to what degree are you a neighbor?
And that’s a much harder question.  I find it pretty easy to understand that every human being is a child of God and therefore worthy of love.  Great.  But am I loving them as best I can?  Am I being a neighbor? 
So, back to the Gospel reading and this lawyer who’s trying to justify himself into the kingdom of heaven.  I wonder what the next line in the conversation might have been – what Jesus might have had in mind when he told the lawyer to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)?  We don’t know; as usual, Jesus isn’t nearly as directive as we might like.  We’re left to wonder what real-world concerns the people in that moment were thinking about.  But here are some things we know were true for the Jews of Jesus’ time:  They wrestled with how to relate to the Roman occupying forces.  They wrestled with how to relate to all the different kinds of people who came through their land, traders and travelers on the international highway of the day, some of whom came and brought their strange ways … and stayed. 
And the Jews of Jesus’ time wrestled with how to relate to maybe the most challenging people, the Samaritans – which just means the people who lived in neighboring Samaria.  The Samaritans were very much like the Jews, religiously and culturally.  They once were the same people, before the Kingdom of Israel divided, and the two nations were exiled under different circumstances, and the Samaritans came to worship the one God differently than the Jews did.  That’s why Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the virtuous character in this story.  The Jews hated the Samaritans because they were so similar, and shared so much history, but didn’t see things the same way.
So, when Jesus told the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” following the Samaritan’s example, what did he have in mind?  Well, one really obvious thing about this story is that the Samaritan was out there.  For whatever reason, he was out on the road, encountering people; and he allowed himself to be drawn into an extremely inconvenient relationship with someone he probably disdained.  The Samaritan wouldn’t have been any happier about dealing with a Jew than a Jew would have been happy to deal with the Samaritan.  On top of that, this Jew was injured, needing time and care.  But the Samaritan stopped.  He engaged.  We don’t know what went through his mind at that moment, but something happened.  He saw the common humanity of this person he would have preferred to avoid, and he acted on it.
*  *  *  *
As you know, this week has brought us great sadness in our national life – more black men tragically dying in confrontations with police; police officers in Dallas tragically dying at the hands of a black man.  Predictably, we’ll hear voices dividing into camps as they reflect on five hundred years of racial oppression and division in this land.  But ironically, in the moment of tragedy, victims find common ground.  In his news conference Friday morning, the Dallas police chief said officers felt “under siege,” and he pleaded for support and prayer from his community and the nation.  I imagine those protesting the deaths of two more black men could have said precisely the same thing – that they feel under siege, in need of support and prayer from their community and their nation.  It is tragically human that what unites us is our brokenness and our need to be healed. 
So, as we hear this story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ call to “go and do likewise,” what are we supposed to do to help our culture heal?  I truly believe the vast majority of us want reconciliation and healing.  We’re even willing to be reconcilers and healers, if we can figure out what to do to help.  Sadly, tragedy like we’ve seen this week isn’t something any of us can fix.
Well, we may not be able to fix it, but there are a few things we can go and do.  Our presiding bishop has asked Episcopalians to pray with special intention for healing in our nation – a request I also heard on Friday from one of our own faithful pray-ers at the Noon Eucharist.  So, as part of the prayers of the people, we will do just that.  And I hope you will do it every other day of the week, too.  Prayer changes things, not the least of which is our own hearts.  May we, like the Good Samaritan, open our hearts to the other.
Here’s the other thing I think Jesus would like to see us “go and do.”  Go out, and be a neighbor.  That will look different for each of us.  For me, it might mean spending more time writing sermons at the Roasterie rather than tucked away at home, watching the rabbits and squirrels in the back yard.  I’m more comfortable writing at home, and probably more productive, too.  But to be a neighbor, I have to put myself out there, on the road, and be present to the people I encounter along the way. 
Then, once we’re out there, however that looks in our lives, we need to engage the other.  That “other” might be someone who looks different or comes from a different social background – or simply someone who sees things differently than we do.  In this part of the country, we put a very high value on being polite – meaning that avoiding conflict sometimes becomes the prime directive.  Well, building relationships with people who see the world differently than we do means taking the risk to speak our broken and conflicted hearts, and to hear the broken and conflicted heart of someone else.  For example:  You know we’ve worshiped a few times with our friends from United Missionary Baptist Church.  Well, a few of our members share Bible study with people at UMBC.  From what I hear about that, there’s a lot of honest conversation about areas where they disagree.  But they keep coming back, putting themselves out on the road, engaging the difference rather than pretending it’s not there.
 Now, I have no delusions that if we put ourselves out there and engage with people more intentionally, it will magically heal our social divisions.  But I do believe that every act of being a neighbor, and every act of prayer for our neighbors, matters – no matter how small.  None of us can heal our nation’s brokenness or our sinful turns toward violence.  But each of us can connect with people we might have avoided otherwise.  The more we get outside ourselves, then the more we see that we are one with “those people” we don’t know.  We are like them and they are like us, deeply beloved and deeply flawed, feeling “under siege” and pleading for healing.  They may be Samaritans and we may be Jews, or vice versa; but what matters is the holy fact that relationship builds peace.  So, as we sang last Sunday, may we carry this song in our hearts:

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Carl P. Daw, Jr. (Hymnal 1982, #597)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day, Love, and Dignity

Sermon from Sunday, July 3, 2016.
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48

Happy Independence Day weekend, complete with flags and patriotic hymns here in church.  I imagine some of us today will think it’s completely natural to have a church service celebrating our nation; and some of us likely will feel it goes too far, violating the spirit of the separation of church and state.  I think this is a good time to wrestle with that a bit and ask what Jesus might have to say about church and state, faith and politics.
If I asked how many of you think politics and religion should mix, my hunch is that very few hands would go up.  We’re wary of it, and for good reason.  One of the forces drawing Europeans to the New World was a desire for freedom from established churches (which was us, by the way, in England).  We still reject being told what to believe or having a religion’s practices enshrined in law.  Though when they’re “our” practices, sometimes it’s harder to see the problem.  When I was growing up in Springfield, Missouri, the Sunday “blue laws” were still in force, ensuring that shoppers observed the Christian Sabbath whether they wanted to or not.  But over time, we came to see the law probably shouldn’t tell us whose holy day merits special protection.
So religion and politics typically don’t mix so well.  But what about faith and politics?  Senator and priest Jack Danforth wrote a book by that name several years ago, a book that resonates just as powerfully in our present political season – maybe even more so.  Danforth argues that faith must inform our politics, both its content and its practice.  He calls Christians to claim our high calling as reconcilers, not dividers, as we govern our nation.  He calls us to use God’s command to love as “the standard by which we measure everything we do” in politics and government.  And he cautions us not to baptize specific positions but humbly recognize that God’s truth is bigger than human policies.1
So what does it mean to be people of faith who are also called to the ministry of self-government?  Every week here, we confess the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives and the sovereignty of God over every other power and principality.  If that is true, I think it’s impossible to say that our faith and our politics can’t mix.  Our faith must mix with every element of our lives, from how we spend our money, to what we watch on TV, to how we pay our employees, to whether we recycle.  If the lordship of Jesus Christ has something to say about what I do with my trash, it probably has something to say about what I do with my vote.  So especially in an election year, when the one thing everyone can agree is that the stakes are incredibly high, how are we called to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and engaged, passionate citizens of these United States?
For me, the intersecting point between Christian faith and American democracy is love.  If you boil down the Old and New Testaments, as well as 2,000 years of theological reflection on them, you find discipleship captured in three imperative statements:  Love God, love neighbor, love one another.  Everything else is commentary.    
By the same token, I believe love is also the fulfillment of America’s best self.  I believe love is our highest national aspiration, even though neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution includes that word.  We use other words for love in political life:  Equality.  Self-determination.  Justice.  Freedom.  Each of those values is a facet of the diamond of love.  When we treat all people as having been created equal – that’s an act of love.  When we maximize opportunity for life, liberty, and happiness, especially for those who lack it – that’s an act of love.  When we hold all people to the same standard under the law, regardless of race or ethnicity or class or sexual identity, or anything else – that’s an act of love.  When we expand the boundaries of freedom … now that’s certainly an act of love, as well as being the American story in microcosm.  Starting with white, male landowners, our boundaries of freedom have been expanding for 240 years now, to poorer people, and to people of color, and to women, and to LGBT people.  Pushing back those boundaries of freedom is an act of love.  In fact, as Mtr. Anne Hutcherson preached last week, St. Paul says that the point of freedom is to build love:  “[D]o not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” Paul says, “but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:1,13-14)
So both our Christian and American identities call us to love.  But how do we put that into effect in politics and policy?  You can’t pass a bill requiring people to treat each other with kindness and mercy.  You can’t amend the Constitution to outlaw original sin.  So where do Christian love, and good government, intersect?
This is probably not the only answer, but I think it’s a good one:  The intersection is the practice of dignity.  In our Baptismal Covenant – our job description for loving God, loving neighbor, and loving one another – we promise to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).  Practicing dignity looks like advancing people’s God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – no matter how vigorously we might disagree with those people.  Practicing dignity looks like respecting the wisdom and insights we gain from people whose experience is vastly different from ours.  Practicing dignity looks like governing based on the truth that every person is made in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions.
Of course, practicing dignity is most challenging – and therefore most clearly a mark of Christian love – when the person in front of you is a stranger, or even worse, an enemy.  It’s no accident that the readings for the Church’s feast of Independence Day speak to us about the darker corners of our hearts that most keep us from being our best selves. 
As the people of Israel are about to come into the promised land, Moses reminds them what it will take to live out their covenant with God in the land the Lord is giving them.  Moses says, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, mighty and awesome, who … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You also shall love the stranger, for you were strangers” once yourselves in the land from which God has delivered you (Deut 10:17-19).  It’s a good message for a nation of immigrants to remember.
And as if loving the stranger isn’t hard enough, Jesus ratchets up the call, commanding – not suggesting but commanding – that we love the most unlovable: those who wish us harm.  “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45).  That is practicing dignity to the Nth degree; but at least in God’s eyes, it’s not an option.  Strangers and enemies are facts of life.  Love them anyway.  You don’t have to admire them, God says, but you must treat them with dignity.
So as I stand here precariously in the pulpit in this election year, I would argue that the practice of dignity is where the wall between faith and politics melts away.  As we evaluate candidates for public office, and as we consider their policy proposals, I pray we’ll ask this question:  Do they enhance dignity?  We can bemoan incivility in public discourse (and rightly so), and we can challenge leaders who grandstand and demagogue, riding the hobby horse of divisiveness.  But you and I are the American democracy, and we bear the burden to make the choice for dignity.  We bear the obligation to keep pushing back the boundaries of love.  We bear the responsibility to raise up leaders like St. Andrew's own Audrey Langworthy, who was profiled in last week’s Messenger as an example of someone who has lived out the Baptismal Covenant in her life of public service.  I want to leave you today with her words, a great example of the intersection of faith and politics.  Audrey said, “[Growing up,] contributing to the community was our way of life. As a legislator, the opportunity to help hundreds of people who toiled with state bureaucracies became a great challenge and a rewarding motivation.”  She continued, “My faith, though quiet, has been the bedrock of my life.  I believe that the teachings of our faith demand, if we are able and with God's help, that we serve others as we travel life’s road.” 
There is dignity, the place where faith and politics meet.

 1.  Danforth, John.  Faith and Politics: How the ‘Moral Values’ Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.  New York: Viking, 2006.  14-21, 31.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

Blessing Beyond the Boundaries

[Sermon from May 29, 2016. 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Luke 7:1-10]
On the secular calendar, this is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we honor those who’ve given their lives in service to the nation.  On the church calendar, we’ve begun a different marking of time, the “long green season” of ordinary time, the Sundays after Pentecost.  For the next few months – until Advent, in fact – we’ll hear stories from Jesus’ ministry, as well as their Old Testament roots, fleshing out for us the never-ending journey of Christian discipleship.  So in this odd juxtaposition of a national holiday and the Church’s ordinary time, how do we make sense of our need to remember those who’ve died in our nation’s conflicts, as well as our need to worship the God who commands us to beat our swords into plowshares and follow the Prince of Peace?
Though war is certainly “all hell,”1 as William Tecumseh Sherman said, God also lifts from its blood and ashes what Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.”2  On Memorial Day, I think we’d say it’s not simply millions of deaths that we honor but the purposes we imagine those deaths sought to realize.  After all, simply honoring death is not a particularly Christian thing to do.  But we also believe, deep in our national soul, that a war must mean more than death, more than raw assertion of power, if it is to be just.  So we focus on the good we believe the war intends, as well as the virtues war can raise up in otherwise unremarkable people.
As it happens, I think an event in town last weekend, as well as our readings here this morning, help us glimpse some of those better angels of our nature rising from the hell of war.  The event last weekend was a concert by the Kansas City Symphony that included the world premiere of a work to mark the centennial of World War I.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this in Kansas City, home of the national World War I Museum.  The new symphony reflected on the war not just instrumentally but through the words of two Americans who served in it.  As it happens, one of those voices belongs to the father and uncle of two members of our parish family.  That soldier is 1st Lieutenant Burnham “Burnie” Hockaday, uncle of Irv Hockaday and father of Laura Rollins Hockaday.
In his letter home, you can hear Burnie’s pride and hope as he writes to his mother from England, on the threshold of six months literally in the trenches, suffering he surely can’t yet imagine.  On that innocent side of the bloodshed, Burnie readies himself for what I’m sure he sees as a noble conflict, a war the U.S. entered intending to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy.  A hundred years later, we hear those words and cringe at their naiveté, for we know about the failure of the League of Nations; the unspeakable carnage of the next, even greater war; and the sinful acts that have been perpetrated in freedom’s name.  But Burnie and his comrades believed in the nobility of what they were doing – making the world safe for democracy, fighting to inaugurate an era of peace.  That was the good those young men intended, for no one wants lasting peace more than the 18-year-old who’s heading into the trench.  They saw their mission not simply as winning a war but as extending liberty to those outside the boundaries of that blessing.
And there in England, as he made his way to the front, Burnie Hockaday noticed a virtue arising among the people, a virtue that enabled the mission he and they were striving to achieve.  Riding a train through the English countryside, Burnie Hockaday was surprised by the first fighters he saw in action – the women of England who literally were making the war possible.  He wrote to his mother about the example they set:  “One of the things that impressed me most was the women in the big factories and plants. … [In] every factory, whether it [is] an iron foundry or a chemical plant or what[ever] we passed, … [i]t is the English women who are winning the war today, in my opinion.  The sacrifices which they are undergoing ha[ve] won from all of us [soldiers] the highest admiration.”3
But even more than the women’s work ethic, Burnie noticed the last thing he expected to see in a society strictly divided by class.  Here’s how he described it to his mother:  “[T]he servants are working side by side with the mistresses, all in [overalls] and cheerfully doing any unpleasant work assigned to them, all the way from making shells, [to] running a steam engine … to delicate tasks in a chemical factory.”3  Now, anyone who’s watched Downton Abbey knows social class was an unbridgeable gap in Edwardian England, and the Conservative and Labor parties are still fighting that battle in English politics today.  But the fire of war can fashion noble virtues.  Among those British women, that virtue was unity – setting aside longstanding and intractable division, setting aside a deep and sinful presumption of difference, all for the common good.
And what, you may be asking, does any this have to do with our discipleship, as we follow Jesus with stumbling steps through this long, green season as he teaches and heals and brings the commonwealth of God to life?  Here’s the connection I see:  In our best moments – certainly as Christians but also as Americans – in our best moments, we transcend our temptation to make life all about “us” and “them.”  In our best moments, we seek to reach across human boundaries and bless those we find on the other side. 
Think about the reading we heard from 1 Kings, part of the great history of the people of Israel as they moved from scattered tribes, to a unified nation, to grievous division, and finally to destruction and exile.  Today we pick up that long history at its Camelot moment, at least from the historian’s perspective, with the great Temple of Solomon just completed.  Solomon is Israel’s most powerful king; he has taken what his father, King David, left him and built Israel into a regional power.  As his crowning achievement, Solomon builds a great Temple to the Lord – a magnificent structure to reflect the glory of the one true King, Yahweh, whose palace the Temple would be.  And in this moment of national triumph, with the people gathered around this symbol of the exceptionalism Israel claimed – in this moment, as Solomon prays to dedicate this symbol of divine nationhood, Solomon also prays for the outsiders.  He asks God, “When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven … and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name…” (1 Kings 8:42-43). 
Even in Israel’s greatest national moment, Solomon knows his nation’s existence is not about itself.  Israel is there as a missionary presence.  As the prophet Isaiah says, speaking for God, “I have given [Israel] as … a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6-7).  “You shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 55:5).  And about that glorious structure Solomon built, Isaiah makes its intention clear:  The Lord will bring outsiders to join themselves to the Lord’s family.  “[T]hese I will bring to my holy mountain,” God proclaims, “and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7). 
Then, in the Gospel reading, God keeps pushing back the boundaries that our world and our hearts erect.  Jesus gets a plea for healing from probably the last person he would have expected – a Roman centurion.  Roman army officers were more likely to kill Jewish leaders for sport than to seek a blessing in respect.  But this company commander is what they called a “God fearer” – not a Jew, because Roman army officers were forbidden from professing allegiance to anyone but the emperor, but someone who honored the God of Israel nonetheless.  This centurion stands for the nations that Solomon and Isaiah described, those who would come to Israel’s God to share in the blessings of healing providence.  And Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the Jewish elders around him that God welcomes this outsider with open arms.  “I tell you,” Jesus says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” as his (Luke 7:9).
At our national best, we know we’re called to serve the outsider, too.  We’re called to light “the torch of freedom for nations [yet] unborn,” as the collect for Independence Day puts it (BCP 242).  But before we can reach across our boundaries to bless those on the other side, we must first join together ourselves, like the English women of all classes whom Burnie Hockaday saw laboring in the iron works.  In our best national moments, we have found ways to join hands so that we might reach out in blessing to those beyond us. 
But more often now, we hear the discourse of division and the rhetoric of retrenchment.  We vilify those who disagree with us, and we fan the flames of fear of the outsider – especially those who look “different” somehow.  Yes, the world can be a dangerous and ugly place; but God’s call to people of faith is to proclaim a contrast reality, not to buy into a narrative of negativity.  As Lincoln noted, “the Almighty has his own purposes”;4 and nothing frustrates those holy purposes quite like dividing ourselves from one another and walling ourselves off from those we’re called to bless.
This weekend, as we honor those who have given their lives hoping to bring blessing to people they didn’t know, and as we worship our God who always looks to push back the boundaries of the circle of blessing, we might do well to ask ourselves, “How are we measuring up?”  Are we answering the call to become “out of many, one”?  Are we adding chairs to the welcome table?  Are we following Jesus’ lead and looking for the next person to bring into the family? 
As a people, our greatest generations were those that came together, and gave themselves away, to bless those they didn’t even know.  Are we among those greatest?  We can be, if we spread out our hands to heaven and pray for our hearts to be changed.

1.       Military Quotes.  “William Tecumseh Sherman Quotes.” Available at:  http://www.military-quotes.com/william-sherman.htm.  Accessed May 28, 2016.
2.       Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.”  Available at:  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.  Accessed May 28, 2016.
3.       Hockaday, Burnham, to Clara Hockaday.  Personal correspondence, June 23, 1918.  Archives of the National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.  For more information on Burnie Hockaday, see https://kcsymphony.wordpress.com/tag/kansas-city-symphony.  For information about the Kansas City Symphony commission involving his letter, see http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/music-news-reviews/classical-music-dance/article77235677.html and http://www.kcjc.com/index.php/current-news/latest-news/3745-jewish-mystical-thought-inspires-leshnoff-s-symphony-no-3.
4.       Lincoln, Abraham.  “Second Inaugural Address.”  Available at:  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp.  Accessed May 28, 2016.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Prince and the Nature of God

[Sermon from May 22, 2016; Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; John 16:12-15]
So, this is Trinity Sunday, and it’s about the worst card a preacher can draw.  There are at least two reasons why:  First, God is inexplicable mystery, and the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially trying to explain something inexplicable.  I might as well try to explain love … which is what I am trying to do, isn’t it?  The second challenge is that people tend to tune out after about three sentences of theological sermons.  Soon, I risk becoming Charlie Brown’s teacher – wah, wah, wah, wha – and leaving you scribbling in your bulletin.
So, here’s a special surprise to listen for in today’s sermon, like the toy at the bottom of the box of Cracker Jacks.  As you know, the musician Prince died recently.  Prince’s death tells us something about Trinitarian theology.  What is it?  You’ll have to hang on to find out.
So, what does Scripture say about the Trinity?  Not much directly, and very much mysteriously.  The Holy Trinity dances through Scripture, tripping the light fantastic but never lingering too long.  Like us, the writers of Scripture received glimpses of God’s nature and struggled with how to frame it.  Think about the creation account in Genesis.  God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26) – explicitly plural, male and female, expressing life and relationship fully.  Then we have our readings this morning.  The reading from Proverbs casts divine Wisdom as a feminine presence, with the Creator from the beginning, delighting in the earth, its creatures, and its people.  In the reading from John’s Gospel, we get a description of God in interrelated partnership, with Jesus representing the Father, and the Holy Spirit coming as the ongoing guide thereafter, taking what is Christ’s – and, therefore, what is the Father’s – and declaring it to us. 
Got all that?
And to make it even more complicated, we also have 2,000 years of theological reflection on the mystery of God’s nature.  It’s good to keep in mind that what we might see as the basics – the Nicene Creed, sort of the Holy Trinity for Dummies – that didn’t take shape until more than 200 years after the Gospels were written.  And that creed is a direct result of conflicting interpretations of God’s nature.  Followers of a priest named Arius believed Jesus had a different nature than the Father, having been created – the first among creatures, but still a creature, not God.  Others believed something more like what we would say today.  And the Church – newly the official religion of the Roman Empire, under Constantine – the Church needed an answer.  So the bishops who came together at the Council of Nicaea argued it out, eventually taking the stance we know as the Nicene Creed.  But the conflict continued, and it was more than a century later before what we “know” as the nature of God and the nature of Christ was set down as orthodoxy.  And along the way, literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of people died in rioting and official violence brought about by people who thought they knew the truth about God’s nature.
The Nicene Creed is the basic structure of Christian belief, the grammar that supports our theological conversations.  But the Creed doesn’t try to explain how Jesus might be both human and divine; nor does it get into how the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer interrelate.  That’s a real hotbed of heresy because it seems that every time we try to explain how God works, we get it wrong, one way or another.  If we focus on defining which person of the Trinity does what, imagining that God just adopts different roles as Father, Son, and Spirit, then we’re into modalism.  If we focus too much on the oneness of God, and see Jesus and the Holy Spirit as something less than divine, then we’re into unitarianism.  If we focus on the relative authority of the persons of the Trinity, with the Father as the guy in charge, then we’re into subordinationism.  If we combine those perspectives, with Jesus as a subordinate creation, then we’re into Arianism, named after Arius.  And if we imagine Jesus wasn’t really human at all and didn’t actually experience the pain and suffering of life, then we’re into Docetism. 
So, now that your mind is beginning to numb, it’s time for your surprise in the box of Cracker Jacks.  How does the musician Prince come into all this?  Well, as we learned from the news reports of his funeral, Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness,1 and Witness theology includes Arianism and unitarianism.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God is a single monarch, not a trinity.  They see the Holy Spirit as Jehovah’s active force in the world, not a separate person of the Godhead; and they see Jesus as Jehovah’s first creation, not of the same substance as the Father.2  That doesn’t mean Jehovah’s Witnesses are bad people.  But it does mean that, even today, Trinitarian theology differentiates Christians from quasi-Christians.
So why does it matter what we believe?   Why does it matter that we worship God as three persons of a common substance?  What we believe doesn’t have any effect on God’s nature, of course.  But I’d say it does have an effect on us.
In the same way that praying shapes believing, so believing shapes living – and often in ways we’d never say “out loud.”  But think about some of the heresies I mentioned and what effect those beliefs might have on the way we live:
·        What if you follow subordinationism, seeing the Father as the monarch who lords it over the Son, the Spirit, and the world?  Well, then you might think that godly behavior looks that way, and you might try to lord your authority over others, too.
·        What if you follow Arianism, seeing Jesus as the first among creatures rather than seeing Jesus as God in the flesh?  Well, we’re taught to see Jesus in the people around us.  But we might treat those people differently depending on whether we think they’re just reflections of a good man or whether we think they’re truly reflections of the face of God.
·        What if you follow Docetism, seeing Jesus as God pretending to be human?  Well, if God didn’t take truly human form in Jesus, we might imagine God keeps that distance still, not really caring all that much about the suffering we face and the suffering of all those people with whom we share the world.
But what if you see God as Three in One and One in Three, eternal partners in a dance of love, valuing relationship above everything, and always, always seeking to take relationship one step further across creation?  Well, if we see God like that, then we know deep in our bones that we’re wired the same way.  Now, those wires may get crossed sometimes.  Sin certainly trips us up.  But deep down, we humans are all about loving relationship, too.  Deep down, we share Trinitarian DNA.  Deep down, we know that unity trumps division and collaboration trumps self-interest – despite the fact that it’s the harder path: the way of self-giving, the way of healing, the way of the cross. 
Our mission, as the Church, is precisely this: to restore all people to unity with God, and each other, in Christ.  That’s our mission because it was God’s mission first.  Unity in relationship – that’s just what God does.  The Holy Trinity always keeps dancing, and we are the Trinity’s feet – each of us sent to reach others and invite them into the dance, as well.

1.        Lah, Kyung, and Jack Hannah.  “Inside Prince’s private faith.”  CNN.  April 25, 2016.  Available at:  http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/25/entertainment/prince-religion-jehovahs-witness/.  Accessed May 20, 2016.
2.        Mead, Frank S., and Samuel S. Hill.  Handbook of Denominations in the United States.  11th ed.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.  178-181. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

What Do You Know?

[Sermon from Sunday, April 24, 2016.  Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6.]
Well, here we go again.  Like last week, our readings this Sunday tell us of visions – both the reading from Revelation, which itself is one gigantic vision, and the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  I can almost hear your incredulity.  We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, enlightened people who make solid decisions based on evidence and reason.  Visions of giant sheets filled with wild animals seem a little premodern for people like us.
Let’s look at what’s happening in this vision Peter describes in Acts.  I like to think of this story as an extended exercise in God asking us – all of us – “What do you know?”  What do you really know?
We meet Peter trying to explain himself to the “apostles and believers” in Jerusalem (11:1).  He’s getting flak from the church because he’s been hanging out with the wrong people.  In the previous chapter of Acts, we hear about Peter not just eating with uncircumcised men.  He saw the Holy Spirit come upon them, and then he baptized them, accepting them fully into the community of God’s people – all without their having gone through the process of becoming Jewish. 
Now, we can see this at a surface level and critique the Jewish followers of Christ for being exclusive or small-minded, for wanting to keep the doors to “the club” closed.  But that’s really not fair.  Their concern wasn’t about ritual rigor; their concern was about the survival of their faith.  Except for a few blinks of the eye of history, Jewish people have always been a minority presence in other cultures that would have been happy to see their way of life evaporate.  The Roman Empire was no different.  So, from a Jewish perspective, keeping the Law – keeping themselves set aside as God’s own people – that was the only way to ensure they’d still be there in the next generation. 
But Peter had this vision, as he told his new church gathered to grill him.  He was minding his own business, praying, when he saw “something like a sheet coming down from heaven” (Acts 11:5).  And on that sheet was the passenger list from Noah’s Ark – every kind of animal he could imagine.  And God said to him – very clearly, and three times for emphasis – that all these animals were now to be featured on the Jewish dinner menu.  That made no sense to Peter, and it may be hard for us to imagine just how little sense it made.  It ran contrary to everything they knew.  It would have been like God telling the Southern Baptist Convention they should serve mixed drinks and play cards. 
And then, Peter received a visit from non-Jewish strangers who asked him to follow them to a different city and share whatever God gave him to say with a Roman army officer named Cornelius.  Now earlier, Cornelius had had his own vision, with God telling him to summon Peter and listen to what he would tell him.  So, based on the vision of the animals, Peter told Cornelius and his household that God shows no partiality; they were welcome in God’s beloved community just as they were, and that they too should follow the risen Christ.  And as Peter said all this, he witnessed the Holy Spirit come upon them just as it had come upon the apostles themselves.  Being a keen student of the obvious, Peter suggested it might be a good idea to baptize these people and make it official.  As Peter told his church meeting, “If … God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)  For Peter, the truth had changed.  What he now knew with all his heart wasn’t the same as the truth he’d “always known” just a few days before.
Blessed with hindsight, we can see Peter was right.  But in the moment, Peter was asking the faithful to let go of something they had “known” all their lives.  The stumbling block here wasn’t the challenge of God’s new mission to show all people how deeply God loves them.  The stumbling block here was the people God had chosen in the first place, people none too happy to have Peter rock their theological worlds.  The truth of this story about the “conversion of the Gentiles” is that God’s chosen people were being called to just as much conversion as anybody else.  For God’s mission to go forward, both “clean” and “unclean” people need to change how they think, need to turn in a new direction, which is what the word “repent” really means and what we’re all called to do.  As Will Willimon writes, repentance is the “joyful … necessary … turn of a life which is the recipient of God’s gracious turning toward us.”1
That change of heart and mind, that turning in a new direction – that’s something God has been asking of faithful followers of Christ for a long time now.  Think about some of the things the Church has “known” to be true at various points in its history.  Once, we knew it was a sin to lend money at interest.  Once, we knew that God had given the Pope authority over the Western Church wherever faithful people lived, even in England.  Once, we knew Americans couldn’t have bishops of their own.  Once, we knew that black people weren’t fully human like white people and certainly couldn’t be in church leadership.  Once, we knew women couldn’t be priests or bishops.  Similarly, once we knew that the sacraments of holy orders and marriage couldn’t apply to gay and lesbian people.  Once, we knew people who were divorced and remarried couldn’t receive Communion.  And now, we know (at least officially) that only baptized people can receive Communion – but I wonder how long we will insist on “knowing” that.
We Episcopalians are Christians of the Big Tent, and that’s a complicated way of being church.  It’s messy.  It means we bump up against people who don’t see the world the same way we do, as each of us grows more and more into the “measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).  But as we struggle sometimes in asking, “Whom do we welcome?” – “Whom do we include?” – we’d probably do well to remember to ask ourselves this question:  Who wouldn’t Jesus include?
Just as the Church has had to un-know several things across the ages in its ongoing process of conversion, so does each of us.  I’m only 51 years old, but there are lots and lots of things I’ve been blessed to un-know.  I once knew that church was a scam.  I once knew that I would never have children.  I once knew that I hated standing up in front of people and talking to them.  I once knew that my marriage wouldn’t last.  I once knew that I could never be a priest.  Even after the whole ordination thing happened, I once knew that I would never be called to serve in a church “like St. Andrew’s,” whatever that means.  I once knew that I could never get a book published.  A hundred times along the journey, God has asked me to change my thinking away from what I “knew.”  As Will Willimon says, repentance is “the divine gift of being able to be turned toward truth”2 as God continues to reveal it – the truth about God, the truth about the other, the truth about ourselves.
So, Peter received a vision.  And I would dare say we receive visions, too.  It does happen, especially when we’re paying attention, that God asks us to make changes we wouldn’t have seen coming.  But how do you know that it’s the Holy Spirit talking to you and not the chili you had the night before, as friend of mine likes to say?
I think we get some hints in this story about the conversion of Peter and Cornelius and the early Church.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when we hear the same message of change multiple times.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is affirmed by multiple sources.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is so great that it would seem to take the action of God to pull it off.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is affirmed by our hearing of God’s Word – in Scripture, in proclamation, in worship.  And when we know it’s the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves right there with Peter: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter asked.  Even the dim disciples could see it: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).  Who’d have thought?
So … what do you know?  And what might God be asking you to un-know?  What repentance – what change of thinking, what turn of direction – is God inviting you to take?
The thing is, our pesky deity calls us to change all the time.  I believe that’s not so much because our brokenness is so deep; I believe that’s because God’s M.O. is to make things new.  We can read it in Scripture; we can see it in the resurrection of springtime; and we can hear it from surprising sources sometimes.  I want to play you a snippet from one of the most deeply theological pieces of popular music ever, a song from Paul Simon.

God and His only Son
Paid a courtesy call on Earth
One Sunday morning
Orange blossoms opened their fragrant lips
Songbirds sang from the tips of Cottonwoods
Old folks wept for His love in these hard times

“Well, we got to get going,” said the restless Lord to the Son
“There are galaxies yet to be born
Creation is never done….”3

“Creation is never done.”  Well, I guess that’s not precisely right.  Eventually it is done, in the sense of God bringing to fulfillment the work of reconciliation on a cosmic scale, bringing heaven and earth back into the unity God intended “in the beginning.”  At the final restoration of that unity between heaven and earth, as we heard in today’s vision from Revelation, when the home of God comes to be fully among mortals and the restless Lord no longer has “got to get going” – that’s when God proclaims, “It is done!” (21:6). 
But my hunch is that, even at that moment, God’s sense of “done” will be a lot more fluid than we can imagine.  Even on that day when earth and heaven are one, even when “the home of God is among mortals” (21:3), even when “death will be no more” (21:4) – even then, I believe, we will still be works in progress, along with all creation.  For “see,” God says, even at the story’s end – “See, I am making all things new!” (21:5).

1.       Willimon, William H.  Acts.  A volume in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.  100.
2.       Ibid.
3.       Simon, Paul.  “Love and Hard Times.”  So Beautiful or So What.  2010.  Lyrics available at: http://www.paulsimon.com/track/love-and-hard-times-3/