Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Thankful

Sermon from Sunday, Oct. 9
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Luke 17:11-19

This has been a week of sadness for many of us in the St. Andrew’s family.  We gathered here yesterday to celebrate the life of our friend Deacon Peg Ruth, who’d been part of this parish for more than 62 years as a member, staff deacon, source of wisdom, and bearer of love.  As we proclaimed our faith, and her faith, in the power of resurrection, we also shed several tears.
In addition, this week brought us news of Hurricane Matthew and its devastating effect on southwestern Haiti, home of our ministry partners in Maniche and Les Cayes.  We don’t know the full scope of the damage, but it’s no stretch to say our friends there have lost more than we can imagine, their fragile homes, their crops, and their possessions literally scattered to the winds.   
When I prayed about Haiti this week, the image that came to mind was the offertory at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Episcopal parish in Les Cayes.  As you may remember, when we returned from Haiti in the spring, I talked about this amazing offertory procession, with people dancing their way down the aisle to bring their first fruits to God’s altar:  bananas, mangoes, and corn; beans, rice, and peppers; even goats and chickens – all of it brought as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord who had provided it in the first place.  At this point, our friends in Haiti have precious little to bring to God’s altar, and their struggles will only intensify with the disease and deprivation we know will come in the storm’s wake. 
But Haiti is one of those thin places between heaven and earth, a place where our lives and the kingdom of God intersect in surprising ways.  Our friends in Haiti need our prayers and our ongoing support, but I have absolutely no doubt that before long, they will once again be bringing their first fruits to God’s altar.  It’s just what they do, because they know God will call new life into being there.  And they’re right.  That’s just what God does.
Offering first fruits to God is a pretty good description of Peg Ruth’s life, too.  Peg gave her loving presence here so generously – one of those parishioners who does nearly everything there is to do at church and does it with a servant’s heart.  Whether you’d known Peg for 60 years or, like me, only a decade or so, you couldn’t help but be moved by the generosity of her spirit.
A few months ago, Peg was interviewed in the Messenger about why she put God first in her life – why she offered her first fruits.  She said, “I simply wanted others to have the faith I knew to be very real.”  So she packed up neighborhood kids in her car and brought them to church along with her family.  She served on a million committees, including the Vestry.  She led the Altar Guild.  She said “yes” to God’s call and pioneered the way for other women to serve in ordained ministry.  She supported St. Andrew’s and its ministries financially.  She visited you in the hospital; and whether you were a friend and neighbor or a patient with AIDS, she would take off her sterile glove, and hold your hand in hers, and pray that you would know Christ’s healing love.
Each of those gifts Peg shared with us was a first fruit.  It’s a concept with a long history, one deep in our DNA.  Our spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel, would come to the Temple in Jerusalem every year to offer the sacrifice of their first fruits, the produce they’d inherited when they came into the Promised Land:  wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates, wine, and olive oil.  It sounds like that offertory procession in Haiti.  Those gifts supported the Temple’s operation; but more important, they were an antidote to amnesia.  They helped people remember that the land and its produce was God’s gift, not something of their own doing.  And those offerings helped the people remember their side of the Covenant, too:  As God provided land and blessing, the people offered fidelity and thanksgiving.
Here at St. Andrew’s, we’re beginning our season of stewardship this morning.  For the next five weeks, you’ll be hearing from clergy and parishioners about what it means to put God first, to honor God through the offering of your first fruits.
But in another sense, this season has been underway for months already.  Think about the stories you’ve read in the Messenger and the bulletin about members of this church family putting God first – Morgan Olander, Dr. Stan Shaffer, Audrey Langworthy, Bob West, George and Carolyn Kroh … and Deacon Peg Ruth.  Each has his or her own story of what it looks like to live a generous life in terms of time, talent, and treasure.  All of them are pledgers to St. Andrew’s, but that certainly isn’t the only mark of their faithfulness.  For Morgan, generosity has looked like mentoring Boy Scouts.  For Stan, it’s looked like building partnerships in Haiti.  For Audrey, it’s looked like years of public service in the legislature.  For Bob, it’s looked like civic leadership in universities, libraries, and health care.  For George and Carolyn, it’s looked like ministry in education, community gardening, and Haiti.  And for Deacon Peg Ruth, it’s looked like a life of servant ministry and servant leadership.  As Peg said, “Being a Christian is sometimes a tough road to travel, but choosing the easier path is not what the Christian life is about.  Jesus said, ‘Take up the cross and follow me.’  I can’t say, ‘No, wait, it’s too heavy.’”
            Can we follow those models of faithfulness?  Can we follow the lead of the people of Haiti who bring their first fruits to God’s altar despite the risk that their homes might be destroyed in a few minutes’ wind and rain?  Can we follow the lead of Deacon Peg and the others we’ve been profiling?  Can we live a generous life despite the temptation to see scarcity everywhere we turn?  
            I believe the answer is simple and yet simply astounding, and here it is:  I will, with God’s help.  It’s our answer to the five questions God asks us in the Baptismal Covenant:  Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers?  Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  As Stan Shaffer said in his interview, those promises of the Baptismal Covenant capture the Christian life in microcosm:  Sacrifice.  Forgiveness.  Celebration.  Service.  Respect.  That’s our job description as followers of Jesus, and we can’t let his call scare us away.  After all, if we’re followers, that means we’re on a journey.  We can’t expect to walk it as faithfully today as we will tomorrow.  But still, each day, we can take a good next step, following his lead.
            How?  I think the key is the practice of thankfulness – the active, outward, concrete, sacramental practice of thankfulness.  Not just being thankful, but doing thankful.  Now, this may not exactly come naturally to us.  Think of the examples in our readings today.  Naaman, the Syrian leader with leprosy, was angry that he didn’t get enough personal attention while God miraculously healed him.  In the Gospel, the nine Jewish lepers didn’t bother to say thank-you to Jesus for their healing; only the outsider, the Samaritan, lived out his thankfulness by coming to the place of blessing at Jesus’ feet.  We’re not so good at “doing thankful.”  We need God’s help, and we need practice.
That practice of thankfulness happens across the scope of our lives, as we’ve seen in those profiles in the Messenger.  It’s about time and talent and treasure because God blesses us with all three.  God asks for our first fruits not as transactions of blessing but as tokens of blessedness.  The Israelites gave God their first fruits not to purchase good fortune but to help them remember where their Promised Land had come from and what faithfulness God expected in return.  We need the same memory aid to remind us that we cannot live for ourselves alone but for him who died for us, and rose again, and now uses our hands to hold the world in love. 
In the next few days, you’ll be receiving information on how to “do thankful” here at St. Andrew’s through pledges of time, talent, and treasure.  All three are equally important – prayer, and service, and financial gifts – because God doesn’t just want the first fruits from your wallet.  God wants first place in your life, as Peg Ruth modeled.  As she said in her interview, “I’m trying to live the message, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” 
She could say that because Peg knew who she was and whose she was.  She knew God’s claim on her life.  She knew the costs that faithful living brings.  But she also knew the joy that comes in the morning, the joy that comes when the storms clear, the joy that comes from putting God first.
            So do you.  So do I.  But we need help, sometimes, to remember.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Finding Jesus, Part 2

Feast of Holy Cross, transferred, and the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks
Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:31-36a

Last week, I told you that today I’d give you Part 2 of my contribution to this sermon series on Finding Jesus.  I will do that, but this day has a very different tone from last Sunday.  Last week was Labor Day weekend, our final taste of summer relaxation.  Today, we’re remembering the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 
There is no official feast of 9/11 on the Church calendar, so we’re moving the feast of Holy Cross from Sept. 14 to today.  9/11 and the feast of Holy Cross share some resonances, particularly about the place of suffering in this world God loves, as well as where and how we find God in that suffering.  So on this day, as we honor the anniversary of 9/11 and honor the mystery of the Cross, we remember a theological truth so deep that it defies logic, one you have to experience to know.  That truth is this:  Jesus redeems our suffering, healing the brokenness of human life and rolling away the stone from our tombs, by entering into our suffering directly.  Jesus comes to us in our most grievous moments, takes flesh, and dwells in the midst of pain and sorrow we thought we could never bear.  And through his stunning compassion, contrary to all human logic, Jesus conquers our pain and sorrow and the brokenness from which it comes, leading us out of the grave and into new life.  I don’t expect that to make perfect sense, laying it out there that way.  It’s like trying to explain love.  In fact, it is trying to explain love.  With content like this, logical explanations can only go so far.  At some point, we have to enter into the deep truth that only story and memory can hold. 
First, about 9/11:  I imagine every one of us in this room over a certain age can remember where we were and what we were doing 15 years ago this morning, when airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.  I was in seminary.  We were beginning the first week of classes for that semester, the senior year for Ann and me.  That morning, I was excited about the semester but worried about Ann.  Her health hadn’t been good for a few weeks; she was having pain in her lungs, and shortness of breath, and general exhaustion.  And we didn’t know what was wrong. 
That morning, the whole seminary community was gathering in the auditorium for orientation to the first week of classes.  Before we got there, some of us had heard that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center; the initial reporting said the pilot of a private plane must have made a tragic mistake.  As the academic dean was speaking, a voice came from the back of the room, the ethics professor shouting out, “Oh, my God, a plane has hit the second tower, too!”  Class was over.  We turned on the TV news coverage and sat there, the whole seminary community, paralyzed.
After a couple of hours of shock and fear, one of the professors realized we should be praying.  So we filed out of the auditorium and into the chapel to offer the Supplication, a rarely used rite in the Book of Common Prayer intended for “times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster” (154).
From that brief time of prayer in the chapel, the image that comes to mind for me is the seminary cross.  When you enter the chapel at Seminary of the Southwest, the first thing you notice is that there is no cross inside.  There’s an altar, and a pulpit, and a pipe organ, and rows of chairs – but no cross.  Looking for it, your eye goes to the wall behind the altar, a wall of clear, leaded glass revealing the grounds outside.  And among the huge Texas live oaks in the yard stands a bronze cross, probably 15 feet high, weathered green over the years.  That is the chapel cross – but significantly, it’s not in the chapel.  It’s in the world.  That cross shows where Jesus was, and where Jesus is – in the world that he gave himself to redeem.  One could argue that’s where the cross most belongs.
It is perhaps an accident of physics that, on that day, the ruins of the World Trade Center also left a bare metal cross, standing in the dust – amid the sacrifice of the first responders, amid the joy of the rescuers, amid the broken hearts of families left alone.  It’s pictured on the cover of today’s bulletin.  Like Good Friday, like the crucifixion itself, that cross is a stunningly powerful proclamation of the horror of humanity’s sinfulness – our willingness to turn our backs on the peace and love God intends.  But it also proclaims the power of God to redeem that sinfulness by being lifted up in an act of deadly healing that sets the world to rights.  The cross represents Jesus’ victory over sin and death, his being raised up “to draw all people” to himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:32).  God has highly exalted him, as Paul writes in Philippians, so that at the name of the crucified Jesus, “every knee should bend … and every tongue confess” that he is the true emperor, the true king, replacing all human pretenders to the throne.  (Philippians 2:10-11).  That’s the message of this feast of Holy Cross we’re marking today. 
But we can’t jump to the triumphal end of the story just yet.  Jesus’ victory, the victory in which we share – it comes at a cost.  For the reason why Jesus can defeat sin and death is because he has been there.  He has faced down Satan and endured the worst that humanity could dish out.  He has suffered along with the powerless, along with political prisoners, along with those who have no country, along with those who can’t fight back.  He has suffered with the sick, with the hungry, with the naked, with the abandoned.  Jesus has hung on that cross in the world; and from that cross, he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
We know that story from 2,000 years ago.  What makes it true is that it’s still our story, too.  As the first responders rushed into the ashes 15 years ago, Jesus rushed in with them.  As thousands bled and died in the rubble, Jesus waited with them.  As family members tearfully posted photos of the missing, Jesus cried with them.  As passengers on a plane over Pennsylvania decided to sacrifice themselves to save people below, Jesus crashed along with them.  And as innocent people now endure discrimination born of fear and hate, Jesus stands with them.  What makes the story of the cross our truth is this:  that Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he empties himself; and being found in human form, he humbles himself in the ultimate act of love: compassion, which literally means “suffering with” someone.  And what Jesus bears, Jesus heals – no matter what life dishes out, no matter how fearsome the world becomes, no matter how clearly death appears to be the victor.  Jesus heals us by entering into our suffering, taking it on himself, and reminding us how the story truly ends.
So I told you last week that today I’d finish my story of finding Jesus.  It’s this compassionate Jesus I had in mind, and I met him in a hospital.  It was about a month and a half after 9/11.  I mentioned earlier that Ann had been having health challenges, though we didn’t know the cause.  She entered the hospital just after 9/11, and it wasn’t long before we had our answer.  She had lupus.  Now, lupus presents in lots of different ways – sometimes being mildly disruptive, sometimes threatening your life.  It was the latter kind that attacked Ann.  Her lung capacity began vanishing, and her heart rate rose to a consistent 160 beats per minute.  The doctors tried all kinds of things, but nothing made much difference.  She just kept losing lung capacity, and her heart kept up its killing pace. 
Then, one afternoon – on Halloween, actually – her heart started slowing, but not in a good way.  Suddenly, her blood pressure was down to 80/40.  The nurses tried to seem calm as they whisked her off to surgery, as her heart rate kept dropping.  There wasn’t time for much conversation before surgery began, and Ann didn’t know what was happening anyway.
The nurse led me to the surgery waiting area and into one of those little rooms they reserve for “private consultations.”  Now, I had done my chaplaincy training in this same hospital several months earlier, and I knew what those little rooms were for.  I’d used them with patients.  That’s where the chaplain takes you when the news isn’t likely to be good.  Ironically, though, there was no chaplain, and I didn’t really want to talk with a stranger anyway.  So I called Ann’s parents and mine, to let them know what was happening. 
And then I called my friends.  There were six of us in my seminary class who’d become especially close over the previous two years: Amy and Kathy and Faith and Wes and Cal and me.  We called ourselves the Six Pack.  So I talked with one of them – Faith, I think – and she rallied the other four.  Within minutes, they were walking into the waiting room.
Of course, nothing they could say would change the fact that Ann was having emergency surgery to drain a quart of fluid from around her heart.  There were no explanations or rationalizations they could offer.  But the presence of my friends was the presence of Jesus Christ, the one who calls us “friends” (John 15:15).  In my fear, Jesus was there.  In my suffering, Jesus was there.  Now, if you’d asked me, I might have been able to make that connection intellectually.  But here’s how I felt it: When they arrived in that scary little waiting room, one by one they each hugged me.  Hugs are always good, but it’s the last hug I remember particularly.  It was Cal.  Cal was an athlete, a swimmer; and even in seminary he had kept up his regimen.  So Cal came to me, and put his arms out like a cross.  And he wrapped me in the strongest hug I’ve ever known. 
It wasn’t Cal.  It was Jesus.  In the worst moment, as life literally seemed to be draining away, Jesus came and stood before me and wrapped me in his love.  He knew what I was experiencing.  He’d been there before, after all.  He’d been through the worst that human life dishes out. 
The God who suffered on the cross suffers with us still – and eventually walks with us, out of that scary little waiting room, out of the tomb, and into the victory of life made new.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Finding Jesus, part 1

Sept. 4, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33

Here we are, three weeks into this sermon series on Finding Jesus.  So far, we’ve heard from Mtr. Anne and Dr. Tom Vozzella, sharing their stories of God coming and taking flesh and changing their lives.  It may seem miraculous – and it is miraculous – but it’s also part of the deal for followers of Jesus.  Much of the point of this sermon series is to encourage us to expand our sense of where and how Jesus might show up in our lives.  Sometimes, it’s dramatic.  Sometimes, it’s everyday.  And sometimes, it’s both.  But whenever and however we find him, he comes with an offer – an offer of relationship.  The question is, what do we do with the offer?
So, what’s your relationship with Jesus like?  One way to assess it might be to picture who’s there at the other end of your prayers.  Who are you praying to – and maybe more to the point, who are you comfortable praying to?  Are you connecting with the creator of the universe, a cosmic parent who wants the best for you, who fervently hopes you’ll to make the right choices, and who sometimes intervenes (inexplicably) to show you the way?  Or maybe you’re connecting with a Spirit you can’t quite identify or picture but who calms you, or comforts you, or empowers you to do what you could never do on your own?  Or maybe you’re connecting with the One who calls you “friend” (John 15:15) – someone who has walked the path you’re walking, and who guides you along it, and who stunningly sacrificed himself to give you the gift of life that never ends?
It’s that last One I’ve had trouble with.  Even early on, I could identify with God as the cosmic parent.  I could even identify with God as a spirit I couldn’t picture but knew was there – everywhere, in everything.  But who exactly was this Jesus everybody talked about?  The hero, the superstar of our faith; I get that.  But also the one who “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” as we proclaim in the Creed every Sunday.  Talk about a long-distance relationship.
It didn’t help that I grew up as an Episcopalian in Springfield, Missouri, the buckle on the Bible Belt.  In Springfield, it seemed, everybody knew Jesus.  On every corner was a Baptist church or an Assemblies of God church.  In those traditions, not only did they know Jesus, they could even talk about him.  A lot.  And they could talk about him in those wise and mysterious ways that said they knew things I didn’t.  A great example was a billboard for a Baptist church on the north side of town.  “Jesus is the answer,” it proclaimed.  OK, fair enough.  But what was the question?  If I don’t know enough to ask the right question, I’m probably not going to be able to understand your answer.
Although I went to church every week growing up, I actually heard very little about Jesus – at least very little about the risen Jesus present in the here and now.  That was just as true at church as at home.  Most of what I knew about Jesus came from sacred music because I sang in church choirs from the second grade on.  And the church music we sang wasn’t praise songs or old Protestant classics.  Other Christians I knew sang those songs, about having a relationship with Jesus.  Think about the titles:  “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”  “I’m Gonna Have a Little Talk With Jesus.”  “I Come to the Garden Alone,” where “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  We tended to make fun of music like that, as I was growing up.  What we sang in the Episcopal Church was instructive and poetic but much less personal or experiential.  Think about these Hymnal classics: “Joyful, joyful we adore thee.”  “There is a green hill far away.”  “O Word of God incarnate, O wisdom from on high.”  “In Christ, there is no east or west.”  “Lift high the cross.”   Even the old militaristic hymns, like “Onward, Christian soldiers.”  The songs we offered all proclaimed Jesus with power or beauty or theological depth.  But few of them had me singing about someone I love and who loves me back.
Actually, I envied my Baptist and Assemblies friends, the people who sang the other kinds of Jesus songs.  I envied the folks who had an authentic answer when the proselytizers came knocking on their doors.  In my family, we came up with smart responses we could use when they stopped by.  “Have you been born again?”  Why, yes, when I was baptized at 1 month of age.  “Have you ever come up for an altar call and given your life to Jesus?”  Why, yes, every Sunday when I receive Communion.  The answers were right, of course; and I’ve offered them myself to people struggling to understand how Episcopalians see those beliefs and practices.  But those answers don’t describe a relationship.  If you don’t know what it means to say, “I love Jesus” or “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior,” then you think your way into the same truth.
OK, fast-forward to when I was 24.  I’d returned to college to earn teaching certifications, and I was back in Springfield, living with my parents and going to Christ Episcopal Church once again.  I was grateful for the place to live while I took classes for a year, but I have to say that identifying with my parents wasn’t really what I wanted at that point in my life.  After all, I was a little older than most of the other students in the program; I’d had a couple years’ experience in the real world, writing for the governor of Missouri; I was teaching a freshman composition class.  I had delusions of coolness.  Looking back at myself a quarter century later, I recognize that I’ve never had any hope of being cool, whether or not I was living with my parents.  But at that point, the last thing I wanted was to see myself as being part of my nuclear family at 24 years old.
Among other things, it’s hard to find a girl when you’re in that situation.  Now, Ann and I knew each other at that point, from having a class together; but we weren’t dating.  Part of the reason why was because it’s not exactly the height of “cool” to take a girl back to your parents’ living room after a date and sit there while they watch TV.  I wanted to be cool, but instead I was stuck being a family guy.  And I kind of resented it.
One Sunday morning, the Old Testament reading was the one we heard this morning, from Deuteronomy.  I don’t remember exactly where the priest went with the sermon, but I can still hear him, in his high, reedy voice, repeating those words over and over again:  Choose life, choose life, choose life that you may live (30:19).  Even without a strong personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, I could take a hint.  It was time to recognize that being my parents’ son was a pretty good gig.  It was time to embrace the life God was giving me rather than wishing I had a different one.  And it was time to stop worrying about how I measured up in other people’s eyes.
Well, long story short, it turned out that Ann was looking for a family guy rather than a cool dude.  Praise God for that – and not just because I got the pretty girl but because that pretty girl helped me find Jesus.  I don’t know that she knew that before this week, but it’s true.
I’d love to be able to say that I found Jesus in some lightning-bolt moment.  Many of us with clerical collars think we’re supposed to have stories like that, some moment when the scales fell from our eyes.  Tom Vozzella shared a moment kind of like that last Sunday, about hearing a church organ for the first time and knowing he was called to serve God through music.  Must be nice.  In my case, a miraculous vision during Eucharist would have been great, given how things worked out professionally.  But I didn’t get any of that.
Instead, I got a wife.  And what does that have to do with finding Jesus?  It’s about God offering me life, the life of God’s love in the flesh, and me being aware enough of the blessing to choose it. 
As we heard in that reading from Deuteronomy, God holds out to us the offer of astonishing blessings, the chance to live in the Promised Land that God prepares for us.  For me, that Promised Land has been the land of relationship.  In the love I’ve found in our marriage, I have experienced the love of God incarnate, which is precisely who Jesus is.  That kind of love is not abstraction or explanation.  It’s not an agreement in principle between two parties to tender and accept the offer of eternal life.  The love of God is Jesus – love with the abstractions removed.  It’s love that takes flesh, and commits to you, and stands by you, and affirms your inherent value even when your actions don’t merit it.  I came to know that love, divine love, from Ann.  
It may be odd to hear that on a Sunday when Jesus tells us, in the Gospel reading, that we have to “hate” our families to follow him (Luke 14:26).  I think that hyperbole is his way of saying we can’t put anything in the place of God.  But I would say the love we know in relationships doesn’t have to compete with God’s love.  Instead, the love we know in relationships can point us toward God’s love, helping us believe it’s true.
That worked for me.  I chose to believe God’s love was true even though my own wiring would have left me skeptical of it forever.  I used to be the guy waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him, waiting for Lucy to yank the football away just as Charlie Brown runs up to kick it.  In the love of my wife, I came to know a different definition of me.  I came to know that, in God’s eyes, I was worthy of the Promised Land.  I came to see that I was worthy of being saved.  I came to know the love of Jesus – the love of someone who hangs in there with you, and gives himself for you, despite the fact you’ll never be good enough to earn it.  So I decided to say, “Yes” – to choose life, to enter the Promised Land, to accept God’s love with flesh and bones on it, and to accept the fact that, yes, I could, actually have a little talk with Jesus.  Because God loves me – flesh and bones, warts and all.
So, there’s part 1. You’ll have to come back next week to hear how the story goes in part 2.

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.