Sunday, January 24, 2021

Not a New Normal but a Heavenly Next

State-of-the-Parish Address
Mark 1:14-20
January 24, 2021

Welcome to an Annual Meeting Sunday like never before.  All through this year’s Annual Report, one ministry after another notes the strangeness, challenges, or difficulties of 2020.  And they’re right.  To me, 2020 seems like the experience of your first heartbreak: We all made it through, and we may be stronger for it; but few of us would choose to go through it again.

I think many of us wish we could rewind the clock and go back to the time before last February, when things were “normal.”  I’ve heard that longing from many of you who are aching to get together with family and friends, to come back to worship in person, to have a parish party … to say nothing of going to see a movie or taking a trip.  We can’t wait for things to get back to “normal.”

By the same token, we’ve heard countless people tell us to get ready for the “new normal” – a phrase many of us will be happy if we never hear again.  Of course, the problem is that we aren’t “there” yet – and once we are “there,” at the new normal, the goalposts will probably keep moving.  That new normal will be out of date a few months later – or less.

Through 2020 at St. Andrew’s, we did the best we could to be present and responsive to the “normal now,” whatever that was in a given moment.  The Annual Report gives us great examples of people’s creativity and heart as they looked around and said, “A pandemic isn’t going to shut down our worship.  A pandemic isn’t going to cut us off from each other.  A pandemic isn’t going to keep us from loving and serving God and the people around us.”

I am overwhelmingly grateful for the resilience, inspiration, sacrifice, and love you’ve shown this year in ministry, in generosity, and simply in showing up.  As hard as it’s been, 2020 has been one of those times St. Andrew’s will remember and say, “You know, God didn’t just bring us through that; God made us stronger.”

Well, part of growing stronger is living out this truth: We aren’t going back to what we knew as normal, and we shouldn’t be satisfied just coping with the “normal now.”  Instead, God is calling us to create the heavenly next. 

How?  A few years ago, I wrote a book called Beating the Boundaries. If you actually read it, you’re part of a very exclusive club, so feel good about that.  It was about nine congregations that were stepping beyond what had been normal for them, combining their inherited approach to being church with new expressions of ministry to the people and the world around them. 

In their own ways, each of those congregations was responding to the call Andrew and Peter heard in today’s Gospel reading: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17).  Andrew and Peter understood their work of fishing in a particular way.  They’d been fishing like that for years, thank you very much; and it had worked for them just fine.  But Jesus came by, in that pesky way he has of upending our conventional wisdom; and he said, “Yes, the fishing you’ve been doing is great.  And … let’s fish differently.”  Jesus was beating a boundary, and it changed Andrew’s and Peter’s lives – not to mention changing the world.

We need to apply this same kind of thinking to the question, “How will we be church after the pandemic?”  The beauty of the congregations I profiled in my book was that they never abandoned who they’d been; they just expressed their DNA in new ways for new times and contexts.  That’s our call now.  It’s time for us to move past responding to the pandemic and start beating the boundaries that separate us from the heavenly next that God wants us to find.

So, what boundaries shall we beat?  Well, there are five that rise to the top for me, priorities for this year that will help us express what’s always made us St. Andrew’s but in a world that will never be the same.

First, we need to beat the boundaries of worship in a post-pandemic world.  Though we wouldn’t have asked for it, we’ve had opportunity this year to learn a lot about making virtual worship meaningful and connective for people at home.  The fact that we had livestreaming capacity, and that we could work on improving it in 2020, meant worship was less of a pandemic boundary for us than it was for many congregations.  But still, we’ve got work to do to provide a worship experience in which people encounter Jesus fully in Word and Sacrament, whether they’re in a pew or on the couch.  For example, think about our worship in the summer and fall, before we had to suspend in-person services a second time.  If you were at home, you got to see visuals on the screen as part of our sermons, but you received Communion only spiritually.  If you were in the nave, you received Jesus’ Body in your hands, but you couldn’t see what people at home were seeing during the sermon.  We need to move toward making the worship experience as complete as we can, regardless of whether you’re sitting on your couch or in a pew.

Second, we need to beat the boundaries of parish life in a post-pandemic world.  In 2020, we learned that people can come together virtually for meaningful fun, fellowship, and learning. Of course, we’re all looking forward to the next Haiti Dinner or Trivia Night or Discovery class where we can actually sit next to someone and enjoy a conversation.  But even once we can come back together, we’ll still need to share parish life with people who can’t or don’t want to return to it in person.  With activities like coffee hour, Sunday school, youth gatherings, newcomer classes, and other learning opportunities, we’ll have to figure out how to bring people together so that physical separation doesn’t stop fellowship. With both worship and parish life, we’ll have to learn how to inhabit a new reality, what a market-research firm calls “phygital reality” – a hybrid of the physical and digital worlds.1

Third, we need to beat the boundaries of pastoral care.  2020 has reminded us how deeply we need connection with God and each other.  It mattered that, twice last year, Vestry members, Parish Care volunteers, clergy, and staff called members just to check in.  It mattered that we brought Christmas Communion to homebound members’ front doors.  It mattered that the Order of St. Luke was praying for people every week.  But 2020 showed us that we need to continue building our capacity to provide the care you need.  We still have work to do to beat the boundary of our expectation that pastoral care is something only “holy” people with clerical collars do.  And we need to beat the boundary that regular checking-in by trained parishioners might seem just too hard for us to pull off.  It can’t be.  So, in 2021, we’ll keep at it: equipping more people to check in and show God’s love, doing a better job of systematizing contacts with you, and continuing to improve our use of data to care for you.

Fourth, we need to beat the boundaries of our church walls.  Before the pandemic, we’d been making solid progress with this.  The church and HJ’s Youth and Community Center were busy nearly all the time, both with St. Andrew’s people and folks from our neighborhoods.  Some of that community use we sponsored as part of our mission, and some of it helped with our bottom line.  We’d realistically planned that event revenue at HJ’s would cover the cost of the building’s operation in 2020 … until March came.  We’d also planned to launch a new worship experience at HJ’s called Trailside, a less-formal service with more accessible music to tap into the spiritual longing of our Brookside and Waldo neighbors we aren’t reaching otherwise.  Now, we have to get Trailside launched this year, once it’s safe and reasonable to have a service in the friendly confines of HJ’s.  I hope that can happen at back-to-school time.  In the ways we offer worship and engage with people around us, we need to help them see that the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement offers grace and hope, even if they aren’t so interested in reading from the Prayer Book among stained-glass windows.

Finally, we need to beat the boundaries of difference and learn to love people who aren’t like us.  COVID certainly wasn’t the only challenge our country faced in 2020.  Protests in our streets and a divided election have shown clearly how much we struggle to listen to each other and to hear godly intent in people with whom we differ.  In 2020, we began trying to listen to our neighbors of color.  We prayed with neighbors on Troost.  We gathered folks from St. Andrew’s and folks from St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on the east side to experience art together and talk about what they saw.  We had plans for more gatherings like that, until COVID got in the way.  Once the pandemic allows, we’ll start that up again, as well as offering opportunities for book and film discussions here.  At the same time, we learned how differently people in our own parish view the world and how hard it can be for us to talk about our passions, hopes, and dreams for ourselves and our nation.  And, with our baptismal promises to love all people, respect all people’s dignity, and strive for justice and peace, we heard calls from parishioners for the church to proclaim more publicly what we stand for as Episcopalians.  All these situations point to the reality that, whoever we are, we need to grow in loving our neighbors who aren’t like us.  So, we’ll try to understand each other better by beating the boundaries of race and worldview, learning how to hear each other’s passions, hopes, and dreams for God’s world.

Clearly, we’ve got our work cut out for us.  But you know, we serve a Savior who’s already beat the ultimate boundary.  It was the boundary of death, with three crosses as its fenceposts and a tomb as its guardhouse.  On Good Friday afternoon, it looked like death had won.  On Holy Saturday, experience showed that sin held even the best of us bound.  But then came Easter morning, and the ultimate boundary was beat. 

Jesus has already done the hard work of resurrection for us.  All he’s asking us to do is this: to look at fishing differently and then hit the road, loving one another and the people we meet along the way.  We can do that.  What we can’t do is say that journey is too hard.  What we can’t do is say we’ve never fished like that before.  Instead, we’ve got to follow Jesus and beat our boundaries: the boundaries of worship, the boundaries of parish life, the boundaries of pastoral care, the boundaries of our church walls, and the boundaries of our differences.  If we’re faithful in that, I believe Jesus will be there helping us clear the path, leading us not simply to endure a new normal but to move down the road toward the heavenly next.

1.      “Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2021.” Euromonitor International. January 2021. Available at: https://www.euromonitor.com/top-10-global-consumer-trends-2021/report. Accessed Jan. 20, 2021.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Hitting Bottom

Sermon for Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021

Mark 1:4-11

Last Monday, I went to see my mother in Jefferson City.  She’s in a senior living community there, just down the street from the state capitol building.  Many of you know I used to work in Jefferson City; I was speech writer and deputy press secretary for Gov. John Ashcroft in the late 1980s.  I worked in the capitol, in an office the size of a closet.  It may have been small, but it sure had a view, looking out over the Missouri River.  The view wasn’t just beautiful; it was inspiring, as was the view inside the building.  Every day, I got to see the stunning architecture and paintings and stained glass in that shrine of democracy.  Every day, I also walked by an inscription in the rotunda, a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18).  And every day, I saw the Great Seal of the State of Missouri, which of course is everywhere in that building, even on the doorknobs.  On that seal is the state motto: “Salus populi suprema lex esto”; let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.  It was an inspiring place to serve.  So, on Monday, after I saw my mother, I took a few minutes to go to the capitol, and park there in the circle drive, and look up to my old office window. 

All kinds of memories came back.  I remembered late nights at the end of the legislative session and the pasta feast from Rigazzi’s in St. Louis, served in the House Lounge among the Thomas Hart Benton murals.  I remembered friends I worked with, people kind enough not to dismiss me for how young I was and how little I knew.  I remembered working hard to dig up positive stories and deflect negative ones.  I remembered a meeting about the governor’s reelection campaign in which a brilliant senior staff member talked about the possibility that our opponent, Betty Hearnes, might capitalize on one particularly negative story about the governor, and the staffer vowed that we’d “tear her to shreds” if she did.  It was one of many less-than-holy moments of working in that office, and it helped me discern that doing press and speeches for a political leader probably wasn’t my calling.  I remembered looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, “I can’t go on like this.”  But thankfully, as I sat in the car last Monday and looked up at my old office window, what stayed with me was the beauty and the aspiration that Missouri’s stunning capitol building embodies.

I can’t imagine what it was like then, on Wednesday, for the staffers in our nation’s capitol in Washington as they looked out their windows and saw a mob tearing down the fences and climbing the walls.  I can’t imagine how they felt as they went out into the halls to see what was happening and heard glass shattering and breathed teargas.  There they were, watching the cathedral of democracy being desecrated and fearing for their lives.  They must have wondered, where are all the police we saw at the protests this summer?  How can it be that a mob has breached democracy’s cathedral?

At this point, we know the story of Wednesday, so I won’t retell it – other than to note that the mob didn’t win.  Violence didn’t win.  Our representatives and their staff did what they needed to do, risking themselves to ensure democracy won instead.  

Let me also say this.  I think there’s a connection between Wednesday’s events and today’s Gospel story, and here’s the connection I see: Sometimes, it’s good to hit bottom.  Sometimes, we need to hit bottom.  Sometimes, until we hit bottom, we can’t see our sin.

Now, you’re thinking, “Uh-oh.  Just how judgy is he going to get?”  Well, when I put Wednesday’s insurrection in the category of sin, let me be clear what I mean.  Sin is separation from God, turning away from God’s purposes and desires for us.  I believe God has purposes and desires in mind for each of us, and I believe God has purposes and desires in mind for our nation, too.  We say as much when we offer the collect “For the Nation” every Independence Day.  We ask God to “give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will” (BCP 258).  That’s absolutely an aspirational prayer.  We aspire to justice, and we aspire to forbearance.  But we struggle to reach our holy aspirations.  We fall short.  We fail, sometimes by what we do and sometimes by what we don’t do.  That’s sin.

But over the course of the past several years – certainly more than just four of them, I might add – we’ve been aspiring less and sinning more.  We’ve been forgetting what’s in God’s heart and mind for ourselves, our country, and our world.  Our sins have been of the most pernicious type: slow in their growth, hidden in plain sight.  We’ve allowed ourselves to think we don’t need people who aren’t like us.  If the insurrection at the capitol embodied nothing else, it embodied this lie: “Because I know I’m right, I don’t have to honor people I think are wrong.”  That represents our fundamental sin, our original sin: the sin of self-idolatry, the sin of placing ourselves ahead of God and ahead of God’s other children.

That’s the background not just for the events of last Wednesday but for our Gospel reading today.  The story’s spotlight shines on John the Baptist, but behind that is the reality John saw – a great need among the people to acknowledge their sin and choose to turn from it.  The reading doesn’t name specific sins, but it does indicate that the problem, like the Jordan River, ran deep and wide:  “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John], and were baptized by him…, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).  Jesus joins in with the people as they seek to get right with God – not because Jesus needed it but because he wanted to be in it with them.  And as he enters into this experience with the people he came to save, the fullness of God’s glory shines forth.  The heavens are torn open, and the Spirit descends on Jesus, and God’s voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (1:11). 

It’s no accident that the revelation of the Father’s great love for Jesus, and for each one of us, comes in the context of people turning from their sins.  When people recognize how they’ve missed the mark, how they’ve denied God’s purposes and desires for them, that’s when the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit come together to sanctify our longing to get right with God.  When we come to the river and confess our sins, God joins us there, wading into the water with us and empowering us to turn in a new direction.

So, here’s a question Scripture never answers: What led all those people to go down to the river for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4)?  Although each one had his or her own story, I’ll bet you most of the people in that crowd were going through the same thing.  Something had happened, and they’d hit bottom.  Many of us can point to a similar moment in our lives, a time when we looked ourselves in the mirror and said, “I can’t go on like this.”  That’s what leads us to the water’s edge, where God shows up to meet us.

I believe Wednesday’s insurrection was our national moment of hitting bottom.  Ugly strains of self-idolatry have been festering within us and among us for a long time now.  More and more, it’s become acceptable to turn sisters and brothers into others, puffing ourselves up by talking someone else down.  After a while, the power of evil takes that negativity and turns it into toxicity.  And eventually, some of us, at least, decide it’s OK to break the law and destroy property and threaten others … because, after all, I’m right, and they’re not.  We’ve been in that downward spiral for a while now, and finally the capitol was breached.  So, I would say we’ve hit bottom.  We’ve come to our national moment of looking in the mirror and saying, “We can’t go on like this.”

What can the Church do about that?  What’s Jesus’ call to us as we come to the river separated from God and one another?

Well, the Church is about healing and reconciliation.  The prayer book tells us the Church’s mission “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 855).  And the only way to do that is to start with ourselves and the people around us.

This Lent at St. Andrew’s, we’ll be offering an opportunity to get better at civil discourse.  The new Advocacy Discernment Committee has been talking about this over the past month, well before Wednesday’s insurrection, but we certainly see the need for it now.  Here in our congregation, we are blessed with a rich diversity in point of view on just about any topic you can name.  Our shorthand for this is “the Big Tent” – that just as the Episcopal tradition has prayed for all sorts and conditions of people, it holds in tension all sorts and conditions of perspectives.  What we haven’t done so well is to deal with that tension.  Here in Kansas City, we’re very good at “Midwest nice.”  That’s great, in that we don’t have to worry about people storming the church to replace the rector.  But it’s not so great in that we don’t know how to deal with our differences and divisions beyond politely ignoring them.  So, this Lent, as we take the opportunity to get right with God and each other, I hope you’ll consider wading in the water of civil discourse as a way to see how people you disagree with are beloved in God’s eyes.

But our national moment of hitting bottom is about more than needing civil discourse.  It’s about our identity, too.  What this week reminds us is that we always have to hold in living memory who we are.  As a nation, we like to think of ourselves as a people of special purpose, a people who choose to live in the creative tension of democracy because it’s what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.”1  But as followers of Jesus, gathered under this Big Tent, we are more than inheritors of democracy.  We are apostles of love.  We are God’s beloved children, empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow in Jesus’ resurrected footsteps.  We are people who strive to resist evil and who come to the river to confess it when we come up short.  We are people who live Good News in word and deed.  We are people who seek and serve Jesus in all people, loving those who disagree with us as much as we love ourselves.  We are people who strive for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of everyone – no exceptions, even the folks we understand least. 

As we walk that path, sometimes we hit bottom.  But Jesus is there, reaching out his hand, pulling us up, reminding us who we are, and empowering us to try again.

1.      Lincoln, Abraham. “Annual Message to Congress – Concluding Remarks.”  Abraham Lincoln Online.  Available at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.  Accessed Jan. 8, 2021.

 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A Better Country, That Is, a Heavenly One

Sermon for Independence Day, transferred
Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48


Fr. Jeff likes to note how he often assigns himself to preach when we have really tough readings, and that’s true.  Just for the record, I want to note that not only did I get the sacrifice of Isaac last week, but I’m also now preaching about Independence Day, and therefore American history, at a moment when people across the country are demanding that statues of national figures be taken down.  In fact, right here in Kansas City, we hear calls to remove the statues of President Andrew Jackson from the county courthouses,1 and the K.C. Parks and Recreation Commissioners last week voted to remove the name of J.C. Nichols from his fountain and street on the Plaza.2  I think all that should earn me some points on the tough-assignment scoreboard back in the office.
So – let’s start with our first reading for the Feast of Independence Day, from the Letter to the Hebrews.  “By faith, by faith, by faith,” it says, part of a longer section of Hebrews that traces the faithfulness of Israel’s heroes:  Abel, Noah, and Abraham, whose journey of faith we’ve been tracing for a few weeks now; and then later on to Moses, Gideon, Sampson, David, Samuel; as well as those who brought down “the walls of Jericho after [surrounding them] for seven days” (11:30).  More on that in a minute.
The writer of Hebrews looks to these heroes of Israelite history not just because of what they did but, even more, because of what they sought.  The letter says, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”  They were “seeking a homeland … a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (11:13-16)
So, here we are this Independence Day weekend, celebrating our history, and our heroes, and our hope.  As I said, this year it comes amid conflict over taking down monuments to men once lauded but now despised by some for their policies and beliefs about people they saw as less than human. That’s the critique of President Andrew Jackson.  Jackson did a lot to democratize our politics, but he also helped destroy Native people’s civilizations … and, by the way, held African people in slavery, as did so many of our leaders. 
So … removing statues, or renaming streets and fountains – that’s probably not what you tuned in for this morning as we celebrate the United States and pray for guidance to “use our liberty in accordance with [God’s] gracious will” (BCP 258).  I’d be happy to go have a beer with you and hear what you think, as well as sharing what I think, about the specifics of honoring Andrew Jackson, or J.C. Nichols, or Robert E. Lee.  But maybe the Church’s celebration of our country could be an opportunity to step back and see this controversy in a different light.
Among the heroes mentioned, at least indirectly, in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews are those who brought down the walls of Jericho after surrounding that city for seven days.  You may remember the story from Sunday School or from the old spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”  It’s from the Book of Joshua, which tells of the conquest of the Promised Land by the people of Israel. 
Here’s a quick recap:  Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and then into the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, where they wandered for a couple of generations.  God let Moses see the land of Canaan, the land God had promised to the Israelites; but Moses died just before they crossed the Jordan River.  With Moses’ death, his assistant, Joshua, takes command – literally.  This band of wilderness wanderers has now become an army.  As God parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt, so God stops the flow of the Jordan River to let them move into the Promised Land on dry ground.  And God directs them to conquer that land, giving very specific instructions how and where to fight and testing their faithfulness along the way.  The Israelite army is sometimes faithful to God’s directions, like when they surround Jericho and bring down its walls with just a trumpet blast.  But they sometimes ignore God’s directions, which eventually keeps the Israelites from taking all of Canaan as promised (Judges 2:1-5).  That’s the version of the Book of Joshua many of us have heard before.
And … if you step back from this story of a people striving to be faithful to God’s promises, you also have a story of a nation seeking to wipe out indigenous people and take their land.  And this is even more problematic than it sounds because, according to the Book of Joshua, they’re doing that because God tells them to.  “Proceed to cross the Jordan…,” God says.  “Every place that the sole of your feet will tread upon, I have given to you. …  No one shall be able to stand against you….” (1:2-3,5)  And Scripture doesn’t spare the gruesome details.  At Jericho, the story says, “they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” and “burned down the city and everything in it” (6:21,24).   That’s not exactly the picture of loving your neighbor we usually like to hold up.  Even if the land was promised to the Israelites – Lord, was there really no way to put them there other than killing the people who were there first? 
This is not just a question of Biblical interpretation, though that’s significant enough.  The story of the Israelites doing God’s will by invading another country – that story was used as a paradigm for Manifest Destiny here, as our nation took over the lands of the Native peoples.  Preachers and politicians alike pointed to the Book of Joshua specifically to justify why it was OK to take the land of the people who were there first and kill them in the process.3
It probably won’t surprise you that the Book of Joshua is not my favorite in the Biblical canon.  I read those stories of conquest, and think about how they’ve been used in American history, and remember a mission trip to the Rosebud Sioux reservation we took here a few years ago, and think about the devastation of Native life – and I don’t really much want to read the Book of Joshua.  In fact, I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t in the Bible at all.
So, should I start a movement to drop Joshua from the Biblical canon?  (It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened.  Martin Luther wanted to remove four books from the core of the Bible and turn them into an appendix.4)  Dropping the Book of Joshua might feel satisfying.  It might even be healing for the faithful people we met living on the Rosebud, and millions like them.
But then, I think about what we’d lose without the Book of Joshua.  It’s a cautionary tale that, even when we’re doing what we believe is God’s will, we can’t just do it any way we want.  Part of faithfulness is self-limitation, following God’s ways even when it’s inconvenient – and you find that in Joshua, as God limits the invading army’s right to pillage, for example.  Joshua is also a tale of courage, of trusting God even when the numbers are against you or when you’ve wandered in the wilderness and your trust is pretty well spent.  We need to hear those divine words when our backs are against the wall – as God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (1:9).  And, the Book of Joshua is a tale of commitment to God, with Joshua challenging the people to step up:  He says, serve the Lord “in sincerity and faithfulness….  [C]hoose this day whom you shall serve, whether the gods your ancestors served … or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (24:14-15).  That’s inspiring stuff.  So, if I don’t like the conquest of the Canaanites, and if I could take the Book of Joshua out of the Bible, what might I lose in the process?
Well, instead, we could deal with the Book of Joshua in all its messiness.  We could let ourselves be inspired by this study in faithfulness and make ourselves ask hard questions of a text that’s justified the taking of lands and extermination of peoples.  We could embrace the complexity of this story, and the complexity of our national story, and the complexity of our own stories – the need to look our own sinfulness in the eye and give thanks that God sees more to us than that.
Dealing with complexity … that doesn’t seem to be among our greatest strengths as a nation right now.  Too often, we want answers that boil down to slogans on signs or ballcaps, and we’d really prefer to hear from people who already carry the same sign or wear the same ballcap as we do. 
But I hear a different call from Jesus in today’s second reading – a call to harder and better work.  He tells us, “[L]ove your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Now, loving our enemies might take many shapes, but I think listening to our enemies might be the essential start to whatever would come next.  You cannot love a person whose heart and mind you will not hear.  Now, that’s hard work.  But it’s also the work I think our nation needs most right now.
And, it’s work that will lead us one step closer to the seemingly impossible call Jesus gives us at the end of today’s Gospel reading.  If we only love those who love us – if we only listen to the points of view that reinforce our existing narrative and pillory those who think differently – “what reward do you have?” Jesus asks.  “Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”  Instead, he says, “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) 
Well, perfection may not sound like a goal we can achieve, but we can’t hide behind the apparent impossibility of that call.  Jesus isn’t telling us we can’t make any mistakes.  That word in Greek we translate as “perfect” is about something more complex – it’s about becoming whole, becoming complete, becoming mature.5  It’s about a journey toward the mystery and complexity of God – a God, our stories say, who says and does things we just don’t get: testing the most faithful person ever, giving a land to one people but at devastating cost to another, asking us to give up all our possessions and rely on God alone.  That’s not a faithfulness of sound bites.  It’s a faithfulness of deep and prayerful engagement with points of view we only begin to understand.  It’s a faithfulness that leads us toward what we all want this Independence Day, whatever sign we carry or ballcap we wear – the faithfulness that strives for us to be “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).

1.      Schwers, Kaitlyn. “Frank White calls for removal of Andrew Jackson statues in front of county courthouses.”  Kansas City Star.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article243809567.html.  Accessed July 3, 2020.
2.      Adler, Eric.  “Kansas City parks board strikes J.C. Nichols’ name from Plaza fountain and street.”  Kansas City Star.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article243882737.html.  Accessed July 3, 2020.
3.      For more information, see Hawk, L. Daniel. Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny.  Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Joshua-3-D-Commentary-Biblical-Conquest/dp/160608819X.
4.      Barton, John.  A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.  New York: Viking, 2019.  395.
5.      HarperCollins Study Bible,  p. 1868 (note).


Offering Isaac

Sermon for June 20, 2020
Genesis 22:1-14
This morning, we’re continuing our summer sermon series: “What the Heck, Lord?  God’s Presence in Tough Times.”  Today’s reading may be the ultimate “what the heck, Lord?” story, one of the most challenging there is: God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham’s promise for the future.
Even with the story’s straightforward style, you can’t miss the pathos and grief.  For no apparent reason, God tests Abraham, telling him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love … and offer him … as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2).  So, Abraham does – just as obediently as he left his home and his tribe years before and set out for an unknown land.  Abraham and Isaac travel three days to get to the place God has in mind – which means Abraham has three days with his son to think about what God’s asking him to do.  Isaac himself carries the wood for the sacrifice, prefiguring Jesus bearing his cross.  And Isaac, in the innocence of childhood, asks the heart-rending question: Dad, we’ve brought wood, torches, and a knife; but where’s “the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7).  Abraham must be sobbing as he tries to explain what he can’t begin to understand, saying, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (22:8).  Then Abraham prepares the altar and the wood, and binds Isaac, and takes up the knife to kill him.  But at the last minute, God intervenes and stops Abraham.  God now trusts Abraham’s trust, knowing that he will withhold nothing of his heart.  And God does provide what Abraham needs, trapping a sacrificial animal in a nearby thicket and ensuring that Isaac will continue the promised line of Abraham’s descendants.
Honestly, this story will strike many of us as horrifying.  How tortured must Abraham have felt?  How traumatized must Isaac have been?  We don’t get to hear God’s side of the story, but God must have been uncertain about the depth of Abraham’s trust and needed to test it.  In addition, maybe Abraham didn’t know the depth of Abraham’s trust, and God needed to show it to him.  But whatever the divine motivation, we’re left knowing God is God, and we are not; and God doesn’t owe an explanation to Abraham or to us.  Though we may not like it, the story argues that God does use life to test people and see how faithfully we’ll respond.
I believe these past three and a half months have been a time of testing for us.  The coronavirus pandemic has kept us unnaturally isolated, anxious, and afraid as we’ve heard about illness, death, bankruptcy, unemployment – and no end in sight.  In this same time, our nation’s open wound of racism has continued to bleed; and we’re seeing more and more clearly just how wide the gap is between White and Black narratives of our nation.  All that may make us indignant, even angry.  But I think it also makes us afraid.  Maybe we’re afraid our nation will never be the same.  Maybe we’re afraid our nation will never heal its wounds.  Maybe we’re afraid of what others may seek from us in the name of justice.  Maybe we’re afraid that the promise of freedom for all people will simply be denied again.  Whatever our take on these past weeks and months, fear is a common denominator – and maybe an indicator that a test is underway.
I think we’re in a time of testing as a congregation, too.  At our June Vestry meeting, reflecting on the movement for racial justice, I asked the Vestry members to discuss a broader question:  How can St. Andrew’s embody a Big Tent approach to faith while also articulating the values of our Episcopal Church, like affirming that Black lives matter to God and that LGBTQ people are made in God’s image and likeness?  I wanted the group to reflect on that broader question because we’re going to find it in issue after issue.  But some Vestry members wanted to move from that general discussion to specific action, though it wasn’t part of the agenda.  One member offered a resolution that we should proclaim publicly, by raising a flag, that St. Andrew’s supports Pride Month, standing as an ally of LGBTQ people. 
I can only speak directly to the last 15 years or so, but I would say St. Andrew’s has taken a relatively quick journey toward LGBTQ inclusion.  Of course, we’ve had gay and lesbian members for a very long time, probably from the start; but it wasn’t long ago that the prospect of two men or two women getting married here would have been a non-starter.  It wasn’t long ago that our diocese didn’t ordain partnered or married LGBTQ people.  That journey has been way too slow for some of us and way too fast for others.  Now, at our June meeting, several Vestry members were asking to continue the journey, moving St. Andrew’s from inclusion to public alliance – hence, the proposal to put up a flag for Pride Month. 
This unplanned conversation was fraught, but it also was respectful and rich.  Wisely, we ended up tabling the resolution to allow more time for conversation, thought, and prayer.  We’ll return to the topic next month, but – at the end of the day, the decision about a Pride flag falls to me.  In the Church canons, our governing laws, ultimate responsibility for church property, including signs and flags, rests with a parish’s rector.  So, in the Vestry meeting, I could have simply called the resolution out of order and proceeded with the agenda.  Some of you might be thinking that’s exactly what I should have done, and maybe you’re right.  But if you know me, you know I typically don’t lead that way.  From the beginning of my time with you, I’ve been preaching Jesus’ call to love one another, manifested in a leadership culture of collaboration.  Still, the canons make it clear that, ultimately, the decision to put up a flag for Pride Month would be mine. 
So, if I were following the model of the rector as king, what would I do?  I would put a Pride Month sign in the churchyard.  It probably doesn’t surprise you that my theology takes me there.  Eight years ago, as priest-in-charge, I stood here and told you I would preside at the marriages of LGBTQ people, if the Church and the state gave me authority to do that.  They both did, and we have.  I’ve always said we will hire the most qualified applicants for jobs here, and we have.  We’ve been blessed by the ministry and leadership of faithful LGBTQ people, lay and ordained.  I’m grateful for the journey we’ve taken to live into our Episcopal value that “all means all.”  So, if I were acting as king, we would communicate that value of “all means all” beyond the awareness of our St. Andrew’s family.
And … here’s where the testing comes.  “All means all” isn’t the only Episcopal value I hold dear or that we strive to practice here.  I also treasure the Big Tent – the vision that faithful people can disagree in their theology, politics, and social positions and still know they share something deeper.  This is part of our denominational DNA from the days of Queen Elizabeth I, who “settled” the bloody Protestant and Catholic disagreements in the 1500s by saying English people would worship in a common way, regardless of whether they agreed.  Common prayer is a big part of what it’s meant to be Episcopalian.  And because praying shapes believing, our history of common prayer has shaped us to be Christians who now choose to gather in difference, whether that’s gathering at this altar for Eucharist or gathering around a table for summertime BLTs. 
Well, I’ll tell you what:  Not gathering like that hasn’t done us any favors.  Part of the test we’re facing in this moment – one so obvious that we may miss it – has been our inability to gather around an altar or a table.  As Scripture says, “It is not good for humans to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  We haven’t gathered as the Body of Christ since March 15.  And, of course, our disconnection doesn’t stop with the life of the church.  We’ve been stumbling through how to keep distance from each other for months now; and though some restrictions have eased, life just isn’t what it was.  Nor will it be, at least not until we find the Holy Grail of a coronavirus vaccine. 
So, I think this time is a test for us, and here’s the question I hear God asking:  How deeply will we trust that God will provide the wherewithal for us to hold onto our core values when the world wants to tear us apart?
In this period of testing, maybe we each have an “Isaac” that God is asking us to lay on the altar of sacrifice.  Maybe we each have something with which God has blessed us, nurtured us, inspired us – and now, we fear that forces beyond our control could take that blessing away.  Maybe it’s a son who’s at risk in a traffic stop.  Maybe it’s the sense of your full humanity that a single Supreme Court reversal could take down.  Maybe it’s the identity of our nation as a force for good.  Maybe it’s the safety of a polite church culture that’s protected us from disagreements.  Maybe it’s freedom you thought the Constitution guaranteed but now you sense is eroding.  What’s your Isaac?  Whether it’s about safety, or identity, or freedom, what do you fear may be taken away from you?  What would be the hardest thing for you to bring to the altar of sacrifice and trust that God will provide what you need anyway?     
I’ll tell you what I fear losing most, in terms of my life as your rector.  I fear losing this community as I’ve known it.  I fear losing people from both ends of the political and social spectrum because I love the people at both ends of the political and social spectrum.  I fear losing the Big Tent.  The Big Tent is my Isaac.  And now, I think God’s asking me to bind up the Big Tent, place it on the the altar, and allow God to do with it what God will.
The Big Tent is not an easy thing for me to offer up.  That approach to church has been a true blessing for centuries and one I’ve loved all my life; and God would not lightly ask for it back.  But I have to bind up and offer my Isaac to show whether I truly trust that God will provide.  And I’ll tell you, that’s frightening.    
Practically, what does that mean to put the Big Tent on the altar and see what God does with it?  Well, about the proposal to raise a Pride flag, I’m going to ask the Vestry to consider the broader question first: How can we live as the Big Tent in a day of deeper and deeper division?  I don’t mean that as an intellectual exercise but as a question to answer practically.  How do we proclaim the values of inclusion we embrace as The Episcopal Church, and pray together even when we disagree, and all the while follow this imperative: “First, love the person in front of you”?  What steps, what process, might that take, regardless of the presenting question?  As we journey in this boat that is St. Andrew’s Church, what will it look like when we see someone swimming toward us, looking for a hand to help him into the boat, and then see on his shirt whatever offends you most – maybe a Confederate flag or maybe an Antifa symbol?  Can we learn to extend a hand, and bring that person into the boat, and sit next to him anyway, and journey together toward heaven’s shore?
So, we’re going to build a process for being the Big Tent in a day when the world needs to know what our church does stand for.  Again, regardless of what process we create, a decision to take a public stance on something ultimately will be mine because the canons say so.  But I think, given the world in which we find ourselves, and the range of passion and giftedness among the people of this church, we’ll do a better job following Jesus if we have more opportunity to listen deeply to each other, not less, and if we do that through a process that’s dependable, fair, and clear. 
So, I ask your prayers as we move forward in that work.  The truth is, I don’t know exactly what the Big Tent will look like once we’ve trusted God enough to offer it up.  But I do know this: God makes good on divine promises.  Even when we’re frightened, even when we’re tested, even when God asks us to offer what we thought would root us forever – God keeps God’s word.  When we offer in sacrifice what we most hold dear, God doesn’t let the fire be lit.  Instead, we see blessing we couldn’t have seen otherwise in the midst of the crisis: What we treasure is strengthened for God’s purposes, and our trust just grows deeper as we see God does provide precisely what we need.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

Trust Anyway

Sermon from May 10, 2020 (Mother's Day)
John 14:1-14

It’s Mother’s Day, so it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve had my mother on my mind.  She’s living in Jefferson City, in a senior living community.  And, like so many other people right now, she’s basically stuck in her apartment.  She goes to the store from time to time, or goes to see my sister who also lives in Jeff City; but she can’t interact with other people at her complex, and none of us can go inside to see her.  We talk on the phone, and she’s fine … at least as “fine” as anybody can be, in this situation.
But thinking about your mother also takes you back in time.  Yes, that tired and grumpy little boy is me, and the date stamp on the photo tells me I’m 20 months old.  At various points in her life, my mother was a teacher of English and speech, even travel geography later on; teaching is absolutely her passion.  But when my sisters and I were little, she spent most of her time working at home, raising us.  My memories of childhood are largely memories of my mother being there, guiding us, narrating life day by day.
I don’t know whether your parents used catch phrases as they raised you, but my mother certainly had one.  Whenever we kids would leave the house to go do something, my mother would smile and say, “Learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”  That may seem precious as you hear it now, but for an impatient little boy, trying to get himself out of the house, it wasn’t precious; it was mostly annoying.  I couldn’t see what her phrase had to do with going to baseball practice.  Of course, she sent us out with that advice in other, harder times, too – when we’d leave to take a big test, or sing a solo, or sit on the bench at the basketball game … again.  Growing up, I didn’t always see how it applied or why it mattered.  But my mother was saying, “Trust in this.  Commit yourself to this.  In everything life brings, no matter how rough things seem, you will come out better if you use the situation to learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”  
Fast-forward a few years, and Ann and I had our own kids.  I know I didn’t use my mother’s words exactly, but I think I passed on the same call to Kathryn and Daniel, inviting them to see everything as an chance to learn, to love, and to find the blessing in the moment.  So, I guess I’ve ended up practicing my mother’s mission statement.  Turns out, she was right even if I didn’t always understand why she said what she said.
Trusting even when we don’t understand – that’s a good way to capture what it means to be a follower of Jesus, too.  I hear that message in the Gospel reading this morning, even though the word “trust” never appears.  Instead, the word we hear is “believe.”  You know, like the word “love,” the Greek word for “believe” has a range of meanings in Scripture.  Sometimes, it just means affirming something to be true.  But more often, it means to trust – placing deep, abiding trust in a reality that guides your life, the thing you give yourself up to.
Today, we hear Jesus using “believe” that way at the Last Supper, his parting shot to his friends.  He’s trying to remind his friends of deep truths they’ve known and lived for years, and then commission them to carry on once he returns to the Father.  But first, he has to stop for a little remedial teaching along the way.
He starts off saying, don’t be afraid: “Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1).  Trust this path we’ve been taking together.  Even though I’m about to leave, I’m leaving to prepare a place for you, with me, in my Father’s house.  I’ll bring you there, too, he says, because, after all, you know where we’re going and you know the way. 
The room falls silent until Thomas says what the rest of them are thinking:  Um … “we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” (14:5).  And Jesus assures him, yes, Thomas, you do know.  I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you know my Father also.” (14:6-7)  And Jesus is probably expecting some collective sighs of, “Oh, yeah, of course, that’s right.” 
But then Philip takes the risk to say what the others are thinking:  Look, he says, just “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8).  And Jesus puts his farewell on hold again to go back to the basics:  He asks Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”  Where is your trust?  “Have I been with you all this time …, and you still do not know me? …  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? … Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me….  [Because, in fact,] the one who believes in me” – the one who trusts in me with everything he’s got, the one who gives herself up to follow this path – they “will also do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these….” (14:9-12)
I imagine the disciples sitting there, dumbfounded.  Even after following him three years – even after watching him restore sight to the blind and raise the dead – even after all this, they’re still trying to understand what he’s talking about.
To me, here’s the importance of that word we translate as “believe,” the word that means staking your life on something:  You don’t have to understand truth completely in order to trust in it.  At some point, trust takes us beyond understanding – in fact, it gives us “the peace that surpasses all understanding,” as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 4:7).  Rather than answering every question to our satisfaction, Jesus plots our course and guides our hearts, showing us the way even when we wonder what it has to do with the life we’re living now.  When my mother would tell me to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time” as I left the house for a baseball game, I thought she was crazy.  I was going off to hit a baseball and win a game.  But of course, with those words, she was guiding me wherever I was going – to the ballpark, or to school, or to my first job, or on a date, or to my first apartment, or to my wedding.  I didn’t have to understand the fullness of what she was saying in order for it to be true – or for it to guide the way I lived my life.
Now, hang with me a minute because I think there’s a connection here to the part of this morning’s reading that some of us may struggle with the most.  It’s John 14:6 – Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That verse was my greatest stumbling block as I discerned a call to the priesthood.  Growing up, I’d heard too many folks use it to judge and exclude other people.  There was so much I loved about 99 percent of Jesus’ message, and I hoped seminary would explain how this particular verse fit with God’s call to love everyone.  Guess what?  Seminary didn’t help much.
Now, you can find all kinds of commentary to clarify and expand on what Jesus is saying here.  I particularly like reading this verse as poetry, where words mean what they say but also more than what they say.  When Jesus says, “I am” the way, he’s echoing God from Exodus, and the disciples are in the role of Moses before the burning bush.  Moses spoke to God directly, and asked God’s name, and learned it was, “I AM.”  So, Jesus is saying, I am “I AM,” and of course no one comes to I AM except through I AM.  He and the Father are one, so he is the way to God.
Cool.  But still, the verse says what it says about no one coming to the Father but through Jesus.  So … what about good, faithful non-Christians?  Where do they end up in eternal life?  It’s the question we always want to ask: Who’s in, and who’s out?
Here’s what I believe: Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God for humanity.  Full stop.  No other revelation of God is as full, as complete, as God’s manifestation in Jesus Christ.  That’s what I believe to be true. 
And here’s what I trust: that Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, asks me to follow along the path he marks out.  So, I try to do that, living in eternal life now as a warm-up for the rest of eternal life to come.  That’s what I trust, what I stake my life on. 
And, here’s what I don’t know: the answer to nearly every question that flows from that trust.  Will I get a mansion in heaven?  I don’t know.  Will I get to sit at the table with all my family and eat my mother’s boeuf bourguignon again?  I don’t know.  Will I experience “heaven” as soon as I die, or do I have to wait for Jesus to come again, or has that already happened and we just don’t see it yet?  I don’t know.  Will non-Christians eventually come to see what I see and trust in God the way I do, or does a different eternity await them?  I don’t know.  Instead, I trust that God is love and so God will act in love.  And I feel like that leaves room for God to be God and to work out the details as God sees fit.
Sometimes, our parents know more than we do.  Sometimes they say things that are hard to hear, or that seem inappropriate, or that don’t make any sense – but still, they know more than we do.  I didn’t know what my mother had in mind when she sent me off to the baseball game telling me to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time” – but I tried to live that way anyhow.  Turns out, it wasn’t bad advice for the rest of life, too. 
By the same token, like the disciples, we won’t understand everything Jesus is trying to tell us.  And I think God’s OK with that, as long as we keep our hand on the plow, as the old spiritual says, and hold on to the words Jesus gives us every time we stop and listen.  It’s the divine version of my mother at the back door as I left the house – not so much giving advice as issuing a call: a call to remember, a call to trust, and a call to live that trust day to day.  For my mother, the call was to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”  For Jesus, standing at the back door and calling to us as we head out each day, it’s this:  Love God, love neighbor, and love one another.  You may not be able to explain it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Just trust it, and it will lead you home.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Choosing the New Normal

Sermon for April 26, 2020
1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

In the news recently, we’ve seen and heard a lot about “flattening the curve” of COVID-19, with diagrams showing the rise and eventual fall of the disease’s incidence.  This morning, I’d like to share a different curve with you.  This one comes from Episcopal Relief and Development, the church’s disaster-response agency, and it gives us a picture of a disaster’s emotional lifecycle – whether it’s from a hurricane, or an earthquake … or a pandemic. 
So, what does a disaster’s emotional lifecycle look like? You begin with the “predisaster” period, of course, when life is normal.  Then, the event happens.  Right after that, emotionally, things are pretty good.  There’s a heroic period when people go above and beyond the call.  This heroism and sacrifice bring us to a point of community cohesion, a honeymoon time when we find our emotional footing again, and we cheer each other on as we rise up against the common threat.  You might notice that this stage of a disaster’s emotional lifecycle is pretty short. 
Then, the curve heads south.  That’s the stage of disillusionment, and I would say it’s  where we’re heading now in the coronavirus pandemic.  Thousands have died, and millions have lost their jobs, and the economy is tanking.  And in that pain and fear, old conflicts manifest in new ways.  Bitterness poisons the sweetness of honeymoon.  It’s a long journey to the bottom of that curve.  But eventually, we work through our grief, coming to terms with what’s happened.  And finally, a new normal arises.
 As I said in this week’s newsletter, more and more I’ve been getting the question, “When do you think church will return to normal?”  If that means, “When do you think we’ll worship together again,” I don’t know.  But if we ask the deeper question – “What will our new normal be?” – I think the answer is, “We get to choose.”  This crisis is an opportunity for us to choose to live in resurrection. 
That choice is where we find two of Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel reading.  We hear this story two weeks after Easter, which makes it seem like it must be two episodes later in a Netflix series.  But the Emmaus story happens on Easter day, just a little while after the women tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised, which the guys write off as just “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). 
So, these two disciples are walking to a nearby village later on Easter day when they meet a stranger.  The stranger asks them what they’ve been talking about – what’s their story; what’s their narrative of the events they’ve witnessed.  Well, the narrative they’ve chosen is a narrative of death: hopes raised but dashed; powers challenged but finally having their way.  Even though the women have seen angels who say Jesus is alive, that’s just an idle tale.  For these disciples, it seems pretty clear that death wins in the end.
And I imagine Jesus doing a head smack.  The Gospel writer probably cleans up his response, too, having him say, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe…!” (24:25).  For years, Jesus has been teaching them how their tradition points to God coming to save them not through political victory or military might but through suffering and sacrifice.  Plus, at least three times in the Gospel story Jesus looked his friends in the eye and predicted precisely what would happen: that he’d be betrayed, and delivered to the authorities, and be killed – and then be raised.  And, by the way, that prediction was confirmed by angels standing by an empty tomb.
As the stranger gives them this new narrative, this narrative of life, the two disciples find their “hearts burning within” them (24:32).  But they don’t make the jump to actionable belief, belief that turns you in a new direction – and that’s what Jesus is looking for.  He’s shown them resurrected life in the flesh, but he wants them to want it, too.  Faith isn’t about divine spoon-feeding; it’s about God filling our deepest desires.  So, once the disciples and the stranger get to Emmaus, at the end of Easter day, Jesus says good-bye and heads off toward the next village.  But the two disciples do want more.  They’ve had their hearts strangely warmed, as John Wesley would have said.  So, they ask the stranger to stay – and that desire gives Jesus enough longing, enough hope, to work with. 
So, as they sit at dinner together, Jesus brings them an intervention – a moment of loving reality so vivid they can’t miss it.  He takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them.  
Now, hit the pause button and take a moment to remember, because that’s precisely what Jesus is asking these two disciples, and all of us, to do – to remember.  When have we seen Jesus take bread, and bless it, and break it, and give it to people?  In two different but deeply related settings.  First, this is the storyline for his feeding miracles.  With thousands of people who have no food, Jesus takes some bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it – enough to feed everybody and leave 12 baskets of leftovers.  Second, this is the storyline for the Last Supper.  With his closest friends, Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it – a small amount in their hands but enough to feed them with life that never ends. 
There at the table in Emmaus, I believe Jesus is showing us eternal life in all its fullness:  life we live now, as God satisfies our hunger with overflowing blessing; and life we live forever, as God feeds us for eternity with divine love.  Don’t forget this, Jesus is saying to these two friends.  Don’t forget that eternal life is yours, now and forever.  The word for this in Greek is a word we usually define as “active remembering” – anamnesis, the way the Eucharist brings Jesus actively into our midst, and that’s exactly right.  But the word in Greek is more of an imperative than a description.  Anamnesis means “not amnesia” – not forgetting.  In the midst of “normal” life, be sure not to forget what our new normal is: resurrection, a new birth to life that never ends.
So, go back to that emotional-response curve I showed you a few minutes ago. In the time of initial response, we band together and rally to meet the challenge.  We honor healthcare workers, and first responders, and people keeping grocery stores stocked.  We reach out to each other, and think creatively, and take risks to try new things.  But once the crisis begins to subside, disillusionment sets in.  We long for what was normal because it’s comfortable and comforting.  But the curve shows us we’ve left the old normal behind.  And as we long to return to it, we also risk returning to our divisions.  We’re tempted to buy into those divisions because they’re comfortable, too.  But if we do, we’ll let uncertainty, exhaustion, and fear deepen wounds that already divide us.  Is that what we want to choose?  Is that the life of resurrection, the life Jesus tells us we must not forget?
Here’s another choice.  We could choose a new normal – the new normal of loving one another.  We heard it in the first reading this morning, from 1 Peter.  Jesus dying and rising for us gives us nothing less than a “new birth into a living hope” (1:3).  Because Christ was raised, we can trust that God wants to give us that same reality of new life, both now and eternally.  If that’s true – if life really is eternal, as we claim – we’d better be figuring out now how to live it for the long term.  And how do we learn to do that?  The reading gives us a simple answer:  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds … [if] your faith and hope are set on God … love one another deeply from the heart” (1:17,21,22).  Choosing to love the people around us now, in the practice round for eternity – this is what trains us to live with them forever.  Forever is a long time, after all; so, it’d be good if we got ready for it.
Here’s a case study from our descent into disillusionment on the disaster-response curve.  Not surprisingly, now that we’re in this stage, we’re disagreeing with each other about how and when to open our lives back up for business and social interaction.  Just yesterday, it seems, we were watching people take to the streets to cheer on healthcare workers.  Now, we’re watching people take to the streets to protest for and against getting the country back to work.  And – no surprise – here come the media, highlighting the conflict to serve their own agendas.  Welcome back to our old normal. 
Or, not.  I think this a time for anamnesis, a time for some intentional not-forgetting what eternal, resurrected life looks and feels like.  In our lives before COVID-19, where did we see people loving one another deeply from the heart?  Well, we came together to share bread and wine in restaurants, and in our homes, and at this altar.  We served people in need and tried to build relationships with people we didn’t know.  Some of us were learning to listen to people we disagree with, seeking to understand problems rather than yelling about them.  So, remember that, raise it up, and build on it. 
And now, in our lives with COVID-19, where do we see people loving one another deeply from the heart?  We see news reports of people serenading each other from their balconies.  We wave to neighbors we’ve always ignored.  We thank people for the work they do.  We wear masks to put others’ well-being ahead of our own inconvenience.  We drive by and honk in front of people’s homes to wish them happy birthday or happy graduation.  We see restaurateurs serving people who can’t afford food.  We see companies making hand sanitizer instead of whisky (only temporarily, thank God).  Think about it: What has left your heart strangely warmed in this peculiar time?  Remember that, raise it up, and build on it. 
It’s been said this is our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.  Maybe it has been.  But now, we’re moving toward a different moment – perhaps our Marshall Plan moment.  Because out of the death and chaos of World War II, we chose not to return to the old normal.  We chose a new normal, one that both rebuilt Europeans’ lives and built up Western economies.  So now, in a time of disillusionment, we have the chance to think about which “normal” we will choose.  How will we answer Jesus’ call to love one another deeply from the heart? 
Like the disciples on Easter afternoon, we can either choose a narrative of isolation, fear, division, and death – or we can remember a different narrative, the story of resurrection.  We can live as though we actually believe life is eternal and already begun among us.  If the Easter story tells us nothing else, it makes us remember that God can take isolation, fear, division, and death, and use it to heal a world aching for hope and common purpose.  We must choose not to forget it.