Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Holiness of Humility, the Glory of Grace

Sermon for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation
Oct. 29, 2017

Today, we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The famous date is actually October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against Church practices of his day.  It’s not entirely clear whether he nailed those 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Castle or the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg; or whether he never nailed them to anything but simply sent them to his archbishop in Mainz and published them to others. 
In any event, Luther was protesting the selling of indulgences, which theologically were said to shorten a sinner’s time in purgatory and practically raised a lot of money for the institutional Church.  The deeper issues were about sin, redemption, and religious authority.  For Luther and the later Protestant reformers, we are justified by faith in God’s grace alone, not by good works.  Scripture, rather than Church tradition, is the source of divine revelation.  And all baptized people have direct access to God’s grace because they’re part of the priesthood of all believers.
Luther’s protest focused a movement that had been building for years before and would continue for years after.  What we call the Reformation had been coming since 1378, when the Western Church was torn by schism and three would-be popes claimed the title.  The movement picked up steam in 1414, when Jan Hus was burned at the stake for condemning the sales of indulgences and for arguing the papacy was a human institution – and then, a year later, when John Wycliffe was declared a heretic for translating the Scriptures into English and for criticizing the clergy’s pomp and privilege.  And the movement would grow beyond Luther’s 95 theses to include the work of others, especially John Calvin, from whom would come the Reformed tradition, including what we know as the Presbyterian Church.  Like Jan Huss and John Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin believed in the power of grace alone to bridge the gap between sinful humanity and the righteous God who loves us; and they believed that people must be able to hear and read God’s Word, and offer the gift of worship, in their own languages.  The reformers also took the movement in different and competing directions.  There’s an old joke that “divisiveness was Protestantism’s greatest gift to Christianity,”1 and sadly there’s truth to that.  Certainly, without the Reformation, the religious shopping mall we know as denominations simply wouldn’t exist. 
The Reformation opened a couple of other huge doors to the future, too.  One was the question of authority.  Where do we look for truth, in church matters and in everything else?  If three politically motivated bishops can each claim to be the true pope; and if reforming priests can start pointing out the Church’s corruption; and if printing presses can mass-produce new ideas; and if scientists can observe that the earth actually revolves around the sun, not the other way around; and if different churches can read the same Biblical texts and find different meanings in them – if there is no longer a consensus about who holds the truth, then to whom should we listen?  Where does authority lie?2
The answer came from the other door to the future opened wide by the Reformation:  the power of individualism.  Luther came to see that, just as salvation didn’t come from following Jewish Law, it doesn’t come from following the rules of Church tradition, either.  Salvation comes from recognizing that I “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and only faith in Jesus Christ heals my sinfulness and lets me share in God’s righteousness.  Well, if that’s true – if my salvation depends on my faith in Jesus Christ – and if books can now be produced with machines rather than parchment and pen, then I need a Bible in my home; and my children need to learn to read so they can get right with God, too.  And if Luther was right about the priesthood of all believers, then I don’t need a priest or a church hierarchy to do the work of reconciling me with God.  I can do that myself.  And if there are multiple ways of worshiping God, then I have the power to choose which one is right for me.  With the Reformation, it became the individual’s faith that mattered … and, ultimately, the individual who chose which path of truth to take.3
So, you may be wondering, why are a bunch of Episcopalians celebrating all this?  If you know your Anglican history, you know that we are a tradition of the Reformation, too; but we took a different path that led to a different place.  For us, the break with Rome came first, followed by the theological reflection – and bloodshed – of reform.  It’s important that the name of our vehicle of reformation is the Church of England, rather than the “Henry-ites” or the “Cranmer-ites.”  We’re named for a nation, not an individual, because for us the break with Rome was about power and sovereignty first, theology second.  But reformation did happen in England, too: worship in the people’s language, administration of both bread and wine to the congregation, and an ongoing argument about just how reformed our worship should be.  The vestments we’re wearing today illustrate what Anglican clergy would have been wearing in the mid-1500s – and over the years, there were great arguments about how “popish” our vesture and liturgical practice should be.  The more Protestant among us thought even a white surplice was too much, arguing for no vesture at all and no ornamentation at the altar.  It wasn’t until the Oxford Movement in the 1800s that stoles and chasubles, vesture from the early and medieval Church, began to make a return. 
We Episcopalians and other Anglicans around the world see ourselves as “catholic and reformed.”  We are part of Christ’s universal Church, in succession with centuries of tradition that’s come before us, proclaiming the ancient creeds, centered in sacramental practice.  And at the same time, we’re reformed – reliant on God’s grace alone, knowing God as revealed in Scripture, and living out the priesthood of all believers.  Our Book of Common Prayer unites these paths, focusing us on the sacraments, calling us back to the Creeds, giving us Scripture for daily and weekly hearing, and empowering lay people as the primary ministers of the Church.  The catechism tells us the orders of ministry are lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons (BCP 855); and the order of the orders matters. 
So, there you have it: catholic and reformed, finding our authority in Scripture, and tradition, and reason; reveling in the mystery that “both/and” can be true.  That’s the Anglican via media, the middle way – a good, if messy, path to walk.
So, what do we do with all this history, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest movement?  Here are two primary take-aways from the Reformation for me.  The first is our call to the holiness of humility as broken individuals and as a broken Church, both in need of God’s grace.  “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” said the Son of God, “for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).  Follow my way, says God’s Incarnate Word – made flesh in a dirty stable, living among the poor and oppressed, dying the worst death imaginable.  The way of the cross is the only way Jesus calls his Church to take, in Luther’s day and in our own.  The Church needs humility perhaps more than anything else, especially in an age when people have embraced the gospel of the individual to such a degree that there is no common narrative, just the truth of my own story.  But the real truth is, people need a bigger story, even if they don’t realize it; and the Church has that story to offer, if it can do so with clarity and humility rather than entitlement and judgment.  Good News from a humble heart is the very best news there is.
Here’s the other take-away I see for us in the Reformation.  If humility is our call when we look in the mirror, and when we look at our Church, and when we look at our society, then the other side of Jesus’ call is to acknowledge where power and glory truly lie.  Power and glory abide with the God who stoops down in an act of divine humility to share power and glory with even such as us.  To those who have faith in Jesus and who aspire to the faith of Jesus (Romans 3:26), that divine glory is in sight, if we can get ourselves out of the way long enough to look for it. 
In fact, in just a few minutes, we’ll hear from a mighty apostle of that deep truth, one who certainly could have reveled in his own talent.  Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest composer in Western history; at one point in his life, he was cranking out a cantata a week of the kind of quality we’re about to hear.4  But Bach also attended the same school Martin Luther attended as a boy; Bach served in and composed for Lutheran churches all his life; and he had all of Martin Luther’s writings on his library shelves.  So, it’s no great surprise that, at the end of his magnificent manuscripts, Bach did not simply sign his name or his initials.  He also wrote the initials S.D.G., which stand for Soli Deo Gloria – “to God alone be the glory.”5 
It is perfect, I think, that we celebrate the Protestant Reformation, and our own ongoing need for reform, by hearing Luther’s words set to Bach’s music.  Together, they bring us the complementary truths of the holiness of human humility and the glory of God’s grace.  To bring those truths together, let me leave you with Luther’s words; you’ll have Bach’s tune in your head soon enough:

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he.
Lord Sabaoth his name,
From age to age the same.
And he must win the battle.

1.       Tickle, Phyllis.  The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.  46.
2.       Tickle, 45-48, 55-56.
3.       Tickle, 45-46, 50-51.
4.       “Johann Sebastian Bach.”  Available at: http://www.reformationsa.org/index.php/history/90-johann-sebastian-bach.  Accessed Oct. 28, 2017.
5.       Swett, Jonathan.  “Johann Sebastian Bach.”  Available at: https://lutheranreformation.org/history/johann-sebastian-bach/.  Accessed Oct. 28, 2017.


Downward Mobility

Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis, transferred, and pet blessings
Oct. 8, 2017 (posted late)
Matthew 11:25-30

As we gather this morning to celebrate St. Francis and bless our pets, I’m going to confess a sin to you, a sin for which all you good dog owners can hold me in contempt.  I bless my dog, Petey, with cheeseburgers.  Petey seems to have quite a fondness for cheeseburgers, and I have erred and strayed in my ways by getting into the habit of bringing him one when I stop by McDonald’s to get something for myself.  We stand there in our kitchen, and I tell Petey he needs to sit and calm down, which he sort of manages to do; and then I give him his heart’s desire.  We do this bite by bite until that disc of greasy, cheesy goodness is gone.  Forgive me, for I am a bad doggie daddy, blessing Petey with cheeseburgers.
I have a much better example of dog blessing that comes from another member of my family. When we first moved here, we got a Lab–Golden Retriever mix named Jenny.  Jenny was many times Petey’s size but also many times humbler.  Petey, in fact, isn’t here this morning to get a blessing because he doesn’t work and play so well with other dogs.  Jenny, on the other hand, was the ultimate good dog, both among other canines and with us, her pack.  She wanted nothing more than simply to be with you, regardless of whether you had a cheeseburger in your hand.  And so our son, Dan, got into the habit, as a boy, of getting down on the floor with Jenny and lying there with her to watch TV or a movie.  I imagine it was the best thing ever for Jenny, having one of the people of her pack bless her with that kind of presence, stooping down to inhabit her world. 
I don’t know whether St. Francis ever had a dog, but I’ll bet Francis would have understood what my son, Dan, was up to.  Francis of Assisi is maybe the ultimate model in Christian tradition of embracing a life of stooping down.  Some of you know his story.1  Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Italy, born in the late 1100s.  In his early years, he lived into the very worst you might expect from the spoiled child of a wealthy family – entitled, wasteful, drunken, arrogant.  Francis got the chance to play soldier and go off to war against another Italian city-state, so he spent a lot of his father’s money to buy a horse and fine armor.  He was taken prisoner, as it turned out, and spent a year waiting for his father to ransom him.  He went back to his unsavory lifestyle until he got the chance to play soldier again, this time leaving as a knight for the Fourth Crusade. 
But, you know, sometimes – all the time, actually – God chooses the last person you’d expect and inspires that person to change.  A day’s ride out of Assisi, Francis heard God calling him to turn back home.  It must have been quite a persuasive encounter, because the arrogant man-child actually did go back home.  Again, he resumed his old lifestyle, but he also kept listening to God, who apparently also kept knocking.  Francis began to see that his life wasn’t just shallow but contrary to the call he’d heard from Jesus in the Gospels.  And one day, Francis encountered a leper – a broken, impoverished, smelly man with an awful, contagious skin condition.  The leper was the antithesis of everything Francis had valued – fine clothes, fine food, beauty, power, strength, wealth, all that.  But Francis stooped down from his horse and greeted the leper with the kiss of peace.  Contrary to everything he knew, Francis found joy in greeting that leper.  And it sent him even further along his journey. 
Francis then heard God calling to him, saying, “Francis, rebuild my church.”  He thought the instruction was literal – that he was supposed to rebuild a local broken-down chapel.  So Francis took some of his father’s stock of fine cloth and sold it to pay for the repairs.  His father had had enough; he dragged Francis before the local bishop, demanding that Francis return his money and renounce his rights as heir.  Francis took it one step further.  He stripped off his fine clothes, tossed them before his father, and renounced his connection to his family, acknowledging God as his only Father.  Then Francis left with literally nothing to begin a life of wandering service to people he would meet and preaching about following God’s call to love. 
Before long, others saw Francis’ joy in the freedom he’d found, and they joined him.  Francis organized his companions’ life around a simple rule of giving away their possessions, keeping nothing as they proclaimed the kingdom of God, and taking up the cross daily – serving the people they encountered in acts of self-sacrificing love.  Francis and his group lived the Gospel literally.  They had nothing but the joy that comes with the perfect freedom of being bound by nothing but God’s command.  They lived Jesus’ model and his teachings.  The story is told that a thief stole the hood of one of the brothers, and Francis made the brother chase after the thief to offer him his cloak as well.  Against all the world’s expectations, this movement caught on, with thousands following Francis’ model.  Eventually, he had to organize them, and the Franciscan Order was born.
Francis was all about stooping into love – which, after all, is God’s practice with us.  The Psalms say that God “stoops to behold the heavens and the earth,” taking “the weak up out of the dust and lift[ing] the poor from the ashes” (Psalm 113:5-6, BCP).  Jesus lived that out ultimately, God incarnate born among the animals and crying in the dirty straw; the Son of God who, like the birds of the air, had no place to lay his head.  When Jesus identifies who is blessed in God’s eyes, it’s not the people whose lives seem to reveal blessing.  It’s the poor who receive the kingdom of heaven, the meek who inherit the earth.  All of what we seek and value is window dressing at best.
There seems to be a pattern here.  To practice love, both God and Francis stooped down, renouncing power and possession, status and privilege.  If that was true for God and Francis, it’s probably true for us: We have things we need to lose in order to love as Christ loves us.
Like what?  Well, there are the usual targets, of course, things Francis certainly would witness against:  Consumerism, waste, and pollution that harm God’s creation.  The love of money, which “is a root of all kinds of evil and … many pains,” as the apostle Paul wrote (1 Timothy 6:10).  But this week, as we reel from the news of yet another mass shooting, it’s violence that weighs on my heart. 
In our society, violence is a commodity, whether it’s real or entertainment.  And as long as violence is profitable, we’ll keep pursuing it.  Here’s my second confession for the morning: I choose to watch violent movies sometimes; there is something in them that seems real and raw and exciting.  And at the movie theaters, I see people there with small children … because, you know, the violence isn’t real, not like a mass shooting – it’s only a movie.  Well, I don’t think you have to be a social scientist to see a connection: If violence seems normal, then violence becomes normalized.  Whether you’re talking about movies or firearms, the government isn’t going to ban something that’s both a freedom in this nation and a source of immense profit.  We have to exercise our freedom to renounce violence, and its instruments, for ourselves.  And we have to pray that God will make use of our small examples to transform other hearts, too, working with our witness as we live and narrate the choices we make.  That’s how love happens – from the bottom up.  Love is an insurgency, not a legislative mandate.
So, as God’s insurgent of love, what do you need to lose?  What binds you and keeps you from stooping low, into the experience of another?  Like my son’s example, as he got down on the floor with our old dog Jenny, it’s the stooping low that blesses those whom God places in the intersecting points of our lives.  So, here’s my prayer for us this St. Francis’ Sunday:  May we be the people our dogs think we are, and may we practice the holy downward mobility of stooping low into the kingdom of God.

1.        St. Francis’ story is taken from “St. Francis of Assisi.”  Catholic Online.  Available at: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50.  Accessed Oct. 6, 2017.


We Are What We Do

Sermon for Oct. 1, 2017 (posted late)
Matthew 21:23-32

I imagine each of us has a few stories we could share about how things are done, or were done, in our families growing up.  Families have norms and expectations, some spoken and some unspoken; some flexible and some not so much.  I remember in my family, especially at holidays when my grandparents would be visiting, the norm was that everyone was there for dinner and for conversation before and after.  If you were around, and you were more than about 12 years old, you were expected to be part of the circle. 
So I remember once, after my sisters and I had long since left home but were back for Christmas, I was talking with one of them about the two of us going out and doing something else after family dinner one night.  My sister got this shocked look on her face and said, “Do you think Mom will let us?”  I was 25 years old, and she was 30.  Of course, I don’t think my mother would have kicked us out of the house if we’d gone off to do something on our own.  But my sister and I also knew that wasn’t what our family did.  That kind of thing might be fine for other families, but it wasn’t what happened in our house.  For us, being in right relationship with each other carried certain expectations.  We didn’t have to earn our way into each other’s good graces, but being with each other was part of the family’s identity.  It helped us remember who we were, deep down.
Our Gospel reading today gives us a chance to reflect on the norms and expectations of our larger family, the family of God that gathers around this table each week.  In that reading, living out the ways of God’s family is called “righteousness.”  It’s one of those words preachers like to throw around as if everybody in the room understood it the same way, which I imagine we don’t.  All “righteousness” means is this: action that reflects right relationship with God.  And because God has the priorities we know God has, righteousness extends to actions that reflect right relationship with other people, too – especially those on the margins or those at the bottom of the social scale.
But I think when many of us hear that word, “righteousness,” we might hear it in terms of self-righteousness – considering yourself holier than the person next to you, or the person down the road, or the person on the other side of some issue.  That self-righteousness is also what the religious leaders are living out in today’s reading.  They come to Jesus clothed in authority though not in leadership, and they confront him about what he’s been doing.  Just before this story, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, and he’s overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, condemning them as thieves for gouging the poor peasants trying to buy sacrificial animals.  If you literally turn the tables on the religious establishment, you can expect some push-back.  So, the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus, saying, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21:23).  Who appointed you to tell us where we’re falling short? 
So Jesus responds not by claiming authority but by shining the light of hard truth.  He confronts the leaders’ self-righteousness by asking them what they thought about John the Baptist’s teaching.  Now, that may seem to come out of nowhere; but if you remember, John’s teaching was all about action that reflects right relationship with God and neighbor.  When the religious leaders came out to see John, joining the crowds wanting to be baptized, John had yelled at the scribes and Pharisees, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Matthew 3:7-8)  If you’ve got an extra cloak, give it to someone who doesn’t; and if you’ve got extra food, do the same (Luke 3:11).  John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance toward righteousness – turning away from self-centered behavior and turning toward right relationship with God and others.  So, Jesus holds the religious leaders accountable for the fact that they didn’t follow John’s lead and didn’t offer him their stamp of approval.  Instead of the path of righteousness, the religious leaders chose the path of self-righteousness.
The other reason we may turn away from a call to righteousness is that we often think that word applies only to special, holy people – people with better wiring than what we’ve got.  Mother Theresa – now there’s a righteous person.  I can’t measure up to that, right?  Righteousness sounds like a losing proposition because the deck is stacked against normal sinners like us.
Well, Jesus might confront us on that just a bit.  Righteousness isn’t perfection; righteousness is the choice you make today.  Jesus illustrates that in the parable he tells the religious leaders.  A father has two sons.  He tells the first son to go work in the vineyard.  Now, who knows what the son had planned for that day, but he clearly didn’t have it in mind to go work in the vineyard because he refuses to go.  Maybe he’s lazy, or maybe he’s bull-headed, or maybe he simply has other work that’s required of him – for whatever reason, he declines.  But then he thinks better of it, and goes out into the vineyard, and fulfills his father’s wishes.  Meanwhile, the father gives the same command to his second son.  This one says to his father, “I go, sir” – definitely the right answer.  And maybe he even has the right intention, planning to go just as soon as … whatever.  But he doesn’t follow through.  “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asks (Matthew 21:31).  The answer is easy … but it’s also really hard because it strikes pretty close to home.
Every day, we sinners get up and have to decide what path we’ll take.  Or, I should say, we get to decide which path we’ll take.  Yesterday’s success or failure is yesterday’s success or failure.  Every day, we’re offered the grace to start again.  Every day.  That’s why Jesus says to the supposedly holy religious leaders that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are coming into God’s kingdom ahead of them – because those tax collectors and prostitutes who’d become part of Jesus’ community were making the choice for right relationship with God and neighbor each day.  That’s what being part of a beloved community means:  Choosing to act out the values and norms of that community, that family, with each new day.  Righteousness isn’t an account we build up that eventually tips the scales and opens up the pearly gates to us; it’s making the choice to live as part of Jesus’ family today, and tomorrow, and the next day.  Righteousness isn’t what earns us a ticket to our heavenly home.  Righteousness reminds us where our home already is. 
So, what does that mean for you and me, here and now?  What I hear Jesus saying is this: Remember whose family you belong to.  Be clear about the values that guide you, and be sure your actions align with those values.  In this family, Jesus’ family, the primary value is love – love of God and love of neighbor.  And we believe that the model for practicing love is following the way of the cross.  As Paul writes in the second reading today, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)  That’s love that gives itself away for the sake of the other.  And for members of Jesus’ family, every choice we make must spring from that value of self-giving love. 
It doesn’t matter whether the question of the moment is personal or public because Jesus expects us to be the same person in both settings.  That value of self-giving love needs to inform everything – how much time I spend with my wife and kids, or how much of my income I give away, or how deeply I listen to someone, or how our nation treats immigrants and refugees, or what steps we take to bring people out of poverty, or how we respond to people who kneel, or don’t kneel, during the national anthem.  Love has something to say about how we deal with each of those situations … and a thousand more.
Thankfully, love is also a work in progress.  Righteousness doesn’t require of us that we come before God with an unblemished record.  Righteousness doesn’t require of us that we get every answer right.  What righteousness requires of us is that, on this day, we choose to do what we can to live in right relationship with God and neighbor.  That’s who we are because, after all, we are what we do.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Throwing Rocks

Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 17
Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after last week’s reading from Matthew, which was about disciplining members of Jesus’ community who harm each other.  In that case, the teaching was about confronting the offender in a progressively public manner – first alone, then with another one or two, and then before the whole assembly.  It’s a way to resolve conflict for the good of the order.
But the next question, of course, is the one Peter raises in today’s reading.  What about the personal side?  What about the harm someone’s done to me?  How am I supposed to deal with someone hurting me personally, not just disrupting things in the church?  What’s the scope of forgiveness, Jesus?  And how are disciples like us supposed to do it?
Even asking the question, Peter understands that the bar will be uncomfortably high.  He asks, how often must I forgive?  Seven times?  Jesus, of course, sets the bar much higher – unattainably high, it’s always felt to me.  We must forgive seventy-seven times?  Or, as the verse also could be translated, seventy times seven times?  Really?
So then, in classic Jesus style, he illustrates this hard teaching with a parable.  Now, of course, parables are notoriously bad for explaining things because they’re really not intended to explain things.  That takes a different kind of illustration – a diagram or a flow chart maybe.  But that’s not where Jesus is going.  Instead, he’s telling a parable, and parables invite the person hearing them to interpret their meaning.  Parables aren’t cut and dried; you’re supposed to wrestle with them.  So, how I interpret today’s story may not be just the way you’d interpret it.  And I think Jesus would say, that’s OK.  Struggling to understand God’s intentions and purposes – well, I think that’s the point, at least in this chapter of eternal life.  We’ll have an eternity to find the clearer answers.
Anyway, Jesus tells this parable of the king and the unforgiving servant.  I’d like to title it, the parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant, but I think the story is a little muddier than that. 
So, this king is settling up accounts with his slaves who owe him money.  One slave owes him 10,000 talents.  Now, that amount doesn’t mean anything to us; but you have to know that one talent was the equivalent of about 15 years’ wages for a laborer.  So, owing 10,000 talents is a debt you couldn’t even conceive of paying.  But the slave wants to try to make things right, and the king has mercy on him for his good intention.  Then, the slave gets the opportunity to show similar mercy to another slave who owes him 100 denarii, basically three months’ wages.  It’s a lot of money, but it’s a debt that a worker might be able to pay.  But the forgiven slave fails to return the favor of grace, and he throws his debtor into prison.  The king gets wind of it and confronts the forgiven slave for his failure to forgive.  So, the story concludes, “his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay the entire debt” – which, of course, he could never pay.  And then Jesus adds the bitter icing on the cake:  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
I was good with this story right up until those last two sentences.  I think I can understand the first part of the parable: God wants us to forgive just as we’ve been forgiven, to show grace that mirrors God’s amazing grace.  And the other side of the coin is also true, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:  We will be forgiven as we forgive those who hurt us.  But I have trouble with the conclusion Jesus offers, that if we fail to forgive as our heavenly Father forgives, then God will hand us over to be tortured until we pay the debts we owe. 
So here’s where the wrestling with the parable begins.  I guess I’d ask this:  Is that torture at God’s hands, or at our own?  At least in my experience, refusing to forgive someone is its own torture, because refusing to forgive is choosing to bear a burden that eventually will crush us.  Hanging onto righteous indignation over someone else’s failure doesn’t hurt the offender.  It hurts the victim.    
But, of course, the huge challenge from this reading is that it sounds like we’re supposed to forgive people over and over again as we endure the consequences of others’ sinful choices.  That might sound like we’re supposed to be doormats, forgiving someone’s selfish acts seventy times seven times, not counting the cost but letting it go.
Letting it go….  Now, that’s where forgiveness gets interesting.  Is Jesus really asking us to let ourselves soak up other people’s sinful behavior, over and over again?  Is that letting it go?  Not at all.  Real forgiveness requires the offender to own the harm.  You know it’s true on a personal level; if someone cheats you but doesn’t own it, it’s awfully hard to forgive.  It’s also true on a broader scale:  In South Africa, after apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu didn’t just call his flock to forgive their oppressors; he put together the truth-and-reconciliation process, which allowed those who benefited from apartheid and those who suffered from apartheid to hear each other’s experience.  Full forgiveness is about love and justice.  It’s about grace as well as contrition and repentance and action to amend your life.
But even when the offender does own the harm, forgiving is hard.  For some of us, at least, we want to hang onto the hurt.  Righteous indignation sometimes feels a little too good.  Or, even if we want to let it go, we don’t know how.  The hurt just won’t go away; and every time we hurt, we remember what caused it.  Even though Jesus asks us to, we just can’t shake it.  And we end up living in that torture the parable spoke about – the torture that comes from being unwilling, or unable, to let the offense go. 
It probably won’t surprise you to know I don’t have a quick-and-easy prescription for forgiveness.  But let’s play a game.  Let’s create a parable of our own.  Just for a moment, remember some harm you’ve endured.  Don’t remember it too deeply, but just remind yourself of it.  Now imagine that harm against you as a backpack full of rocks – a hundred pounds of rocks that you’re consigned to carry, day in and day out.  So, here’s the parable of the backpack full of rocks.
*     *     *
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – something like that; not in our world, at least – there was a woman who’d been hurt by someone close to her.  In her world, people carried that kind of pain in the form of a backpack full of rocks, a backpack that you couldn’t take off.  Carrying that load felt like a sentence, ultimately unfair.  The woman would sometimes get down on her hands and knees and try to shake the rocks out all at once; but try as she might, she couldn’t because the opening was so small.  And the longer she carried her backpack full of rocks, the heavier they seemed.  What she really wanted – and what she felt was her due – was for the person who’d hurt her to take her backpack and carry those rocks instead.  It was his fault, after all.  He should bear the weight, not her.  So she waited and hoped and prayed that he would come to his senses, and see his obligation, and take the rocks off her back. 
Now, this person who’d hurt her was pained by what he’d done.  So, he came to her and poured out his heart; and he promised to walk the path with her in a new way from there on.  But he couldn’t figure out how to take the backpack of rocks off her shoulders. 
Finally, as they walked sadly together, with the woman laboring under the weight, a stranger approached and began to walk with them.  They came to the edge of a cliff – and frankly, by this point, the woman was done; she was miserable enough she just wanted to jump off, into the ravine.  But the stranger said to her, “Why don’t you reach around, and throw a few rocks off the cliff instead, and lighten your load.”  The woman could only reach a few because her shoulders were stiff, but she threw them over the edge, into the ravine.  She felt a little better, so she turned to the stranger and asked, “OK, now what?”  The stranger said, “Come back to the ravine tomorrow and the next day and the next, and I think you’ll be able to reach a few more each time as your shoulders loosen up with practice.”
And day after day, for what seemed a stupidly long time, the woman came to the ravine each morning.  She struggled to reach back and grab as many rocks as her loosening shoulders would allow.  Each day, she could reach back just a little further.  Each day, she could throw the rocks just a little farther into the ravine.  And each day, the backpack felt just that much lighter … until one morning, she forgot it was there.  Every now and then, one of the few rocks at the bottom of the backpack would poke her uncomfortably, and she’d remember the time she’d been hurt so badly.  She’d have to struggle to reach way back, and dig down deep in the backpack, and pull out that offending rock; and she’d have to go to the ravine that day to throw it in.  But afterward, she’d forget about the backpack again.  And she and the person who’d hurt her could keep making their way, along with the stranger … who, by this point, had become a companion.
Here endeth the parable.
*     *     *
So, here’s the truth I know about forgiveness:  It can’t be a one-time thing.  It’s a seventy-times-seven-times thing.  We’ve got to throw rock after rock into the ravine, each time we’re able to put our hands on one.  Because the torture would be to keep carrying them.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Don't Go to Church; Be the Church

Sermon from Aug. 27, 2017
Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8

I think you could see today’s Gospel reading as the end of a long series of stories leading up to it.  In the chapters before this reading, Jesus has walked on the water and called his friend Peter to do the same.  He’s redefined Jewish law about what truly defiles a person.  He’s come to acknowledge a non-Jew as a person of faith, redefining the rules of inclusion and exclusion in God’s eyes.  By curing many people, he’s fulfilled the prophet Isaiah’s vision about the blind regaining their sight and the lame walking (Isaiah 35:6ff).  He’s fed thousands of people from a few loaves and fish, not once but twice.  And he’s stood up to the religious authorities, calling them out for protecting their own power at the people’s expense.  All these scenes beg the question: Just who does this guy think he is?
I imagine the disciples are asking themselves the same question.  But Jesus turns it around and asks them first.  He sort of eases into it: Who do people say that I am?  So the disciples report what they’ve heard people saying – that Jesus is one of the prophets sent to get people ready for the coming of the king.  But then Jesus pushes his friends just a little harder: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).  
The Gospel story doesn’t tell us how long it took before anyone said anything, but I imagine there might have been some awkward silence.  It’s not an answer they wanted to get wrong, especially with the teacher right there, staring them down.  So finally Simon, the brother of Andrew, dares to say what he’s thinking: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  Jesus himself is the anointed king sent to inaugurate God’s rule on earth and build God’s beloved community.  Jesus isn’t just getting people ready for God’s decisive action in the world; Jesus is God’s decisive action in the world.  Simon nails it, despite the fact he often stumbles and blunders his way through his relationship with Jesus.  And as a result, Simon the dunderhead gets a new name, one that recognizes both his greatest liability and his greatest asset: “You are Peter,” Jesus says – a name we would translate as “Rocky” because the Greek word for rock is petra.  It implies just what you might think – that this guy’s maybe not the brightest light in the room, maybe not the guy who knows which fork to use at the club.  But Jesus hears Peter’s solid proclamation as a sign that he’ll be solid for the long term, at least eventually.  “You are Peter,” Jesus says, “and on this rock I will build my church, and [even] the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (16:18)
You may find it interesting that this is one of only two times in the Gospels that the word “church” shows up.  What did it mean then?  And what do we think it means now?
The word in Greek is ecclesia, and it means “assembly.”  Initially, that meant an assembly of citizens come together for public deliberation.  In the context of Christianity, it came to describe followers of Jesus on both the micro and macro levels: the assembly of his followers in a particular place, the whole body of Christians in the world, and the assembly of the faithful gathered in heaven from across time and space.  Regardless of the level where it’s applied, the word “church” means people following Jesus Christ. 
That may seem obvious, but I would say it’s important to remember this meaning very explicitly – especially for us in our time and place.  Because when we say “church,” we’re often not thinking about people first.  For us, “church” may mean a denominational brand, as in, “I attend the Episcopal Church.”  Or “church” may mean the spiritual aspect of public discourse, as in the “separation of church and state.”  Or “church” may mean an institution, as in, “The church’s membership is declining.”  Or “church” may mean a building, as in, “The church is full of water.”  All these aspects of the word “church” matter.  But none of them is what Jesus the Messiah had in mind when he commissioned his friend Rocky to be the foundation of the holy community he was creating.
This likely isn’t news to you either, that the church is about people – not a building, or an institution, or a brand.  We know that, intellectually at least.  But what do we do with it?  How does it affect us?  If “church” means the beloved community of Jesus’ followers, how does that affect how I act and who I am?
What we think something is drives our expectations about what that thing should do.  If “church” means a brand, we expect it to attract customers.  And for decades in our culture, that sort of worked.  If you wanted fiery preaching based on Scripture, you looked for the Baptist brand.  If you wanted a strong salvation message but with a little less heat, you looked for the Methodist or Presbyterian brand.  If you wanted tradition, Sacraments, and central authority, you looked for the Roman Catholic brand.  If you wanted a nice mix of Word and Sacrament, Protestant and Catholic – and really good manners to boot – well, you looked for the Episcopal brand.  And so long as nearly everybody felt the social expectation to go to some church, the denominational-brand approach worked.  Anymore?  Not so much.
So, what if “church” means the spiritual side of public life, in contrast to “state”?  Well, then, it’s tempting to see church being divorced from the “real world” of politics and government and business, relegated to the sidelines and brought to mind only one part of one day of the week – if we’re lucky.  Or, looking at the other side of the same coin, we might see this meaning of “church” as something in conflict with the real world, with its leaders constantly calling us to change our ways and follow their particular version of the Good News more faithfully.
So, what if “church” means an institution?  Well, then, we expect it, first and foremost, to run well and to meet its constituents’ needs.  And, of course, there’s truth in that – a church absolutely needs to run well and meet its constituents’ needs, just like a school or a hospital or a club.  But I think there’s more to our call than that.
So, what if “church” means a building?  Well, then, our focus is on maintaining, protecting, and improving that physical structure as best we can.  Again, we certainly need to steward this beautiful “house of prayer for all people,” but I think there’s more to our call than that, too.
But what if the church is the beloved community of the followers of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who embodies God’s decisive action in the world?  How would that change how we see ourselves and how we hear Jesus calling us to live?
I think Jesus is calling us not just to go to church but to be the church.  You’ll be hearing that idea a lot through this fall, the theme that will bind together all that we do.  Don’t just go to church; be the church. 
So, what does that look like?  I think it’s three primary actions.
First, the church remembers.  That’s what we do here every week – remembering the stories and teachings of Jesus, remembering through prayer our call to love God and love neighbor, and actively re-membering Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  To be the church is to remember who God has made us to be and how God asks us to live, now and through eternity.  So first, the church remembers. 
Second, the church practices.  We practice love for God and neighbor in hundreds of ways, each of which forms us as followers of Jesus.  We learn to pray daily, to make prayer not an appointment with God but a way of life.  We steward the gifts God gives us, gifts of time and talent and treasure, to direct God’s resources toward accomplishing God’s purposes.  We explore questions and dive deeper into our relationship with God, looking for divine fingerprints on our lives and responding to the Holy Spirit’s nudges.  And we build relationships with the members of our family here, loving and caring for each other just as God loves and cares for each of us.  So second, the church practices. 
And third, the church serves.  We serve each other in worship, and pastoral care, and maintenance, and event planning, and committee work, and a hundred other ministries that our common life requires.  We serve “the least” of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, going into the world to feed people, or read to children, or grow vegetables in a school’s garden, or help children learn in Haiti, or empower a mother for a living-wage job, or advocate for the strangers our culture tends to demonize or forget.  And we serve the people God puts in our own paths by inviting them into this beloved community, telling them our stories about how life is better when you have a relationship with God and asking them to come along this journey with us.
As Jesus’ followers, we remember, we practice, and we serve.  And as we do, we change the world, one life at a time – nothing less.  That’s what it means not just to go to church but to be the church – changing the world, one life at a time. 
And you know, through that faithful work, Jesus keeps on building his church, a work in progress for thousands of years now.  It isn’t yet what he dreams for it to be, just as none of us has mastered this whole discipleship thing quite yet.  But our Lord has literally all the time in the world … and time beyond that, too.  And he is patiently persistent and insistent that this work-in-progress of the church can be more than it has yet been.  We have what it takes to be whom Jesus needs us to be, if we are willing to “present ourselves as [the] living sacrifice” he desires (Romans 12:1).  As the one body of the church, “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to [each of] us” (Romans 12:6).  So what that means is this:  Every last one of us is essential.  Every last one of us has a part of play in the well-being of this body of St. Andrew’s.  Every last one of you is a rock on which Jesus is still building his church.  And despite all the reports of the church’s coming demise, even the gates of hell will not prevail against it. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Video links for Beating the Boundaries congregations

I had the pleasure of presenting at the Diocese of West Missouri’s Summer Church Summit about my book, Beating the Boundaries: The Church God is Calling Us to Be.  If you’d like to know more about the parishes I visited while researching the book, here are links to videos about each:


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Still the Storm

Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 13
Matthew 14:22-33

That’s quite a story we just heard, Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in the storm.  For Jesus’ followers after his resurrection, hearing this story back in the day, it would have reminded them of ancient Jewish tradition about God reining in the uncontrollable forces of the natural world.  The psalms frequently tell of God subduing the primordial chaos, defeating sea monsters and setting the oceans’ boundaries.  When the great flood came, the people saw it as God’s fearsome judgment, using the power of nature against them.  And when the people were delivered from oppression in Egypt, God used the Red Sea as a path of liberation for them but a path of destruction for the Egyptian army.  As we’ve come to remember more vividly than we’d like in the past month or so at St. Andrew's, water is certainly life-giving, but it’s also a serious threat – a force we’re still trying to manage and tame.  So when Jesus comes to us walking over the water, it’s not simply an amazing feat but a sign of his divine mastery over the destructive power of chaos.
To get a sense of the disciples’ mindset entering into this story, it’s always good to go back and see what happened just before it.  Today’s story follows another astonishing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000 – a miracle not just of divine provision but of overwhelming abundance, showing that what God gives us, through Jesus Christ, is astonishingly more than we can ask or imagine.  Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us not just the bounty of our daily bread but the promise of eternal life, which we experience at this altar each week as bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given.  I think it’s also significant that this feeding miracle isn’t Jesus’ work alone.  He carries it out with the participation of his friends.  When the crowds are hungry and his friends come to him looking for help, Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16).  And thousands are fed through the partnership of God’s abundance and human hands. 
But then, as we’re still reveling in the wonder of that miracle, the scene shifts and the mood darkens.  Jesus sends his followers out on the Sea of Galilee, telling them to cross over to the other side while he goes off to pray.  And suddenly, they’re face to face with the chaos that’s always lurking in creation, as the storm batters their small boat, a storm serious enough to frighten professional fisherman.  As if that’s not enough, the disciples then see something even scarier – what they think is a ghost coming toward them, a symbol of the power of death itself heading their way.  Jesus sees and hears their fear, and he assures them that he’s no ghost.  “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  If you hear it in Greek, what he says is even more assuring:  The same phrase given here as “It is I” can also be translated as “I am” – as in, the great I AM, echoing the voice of God to Moses from the burning bush.  This is no ghost.  This is the same One who subdues the sea monsters and sets the boundaries of the wild waters.  This is the One who tramples down the power of the storm.
 So then the scene shifts to Peter.  He’s just as scared as any of the other disciples, but what counts is how Peter responds – with totally unselfconscious faith.  Maybe he’s still in awe from Jesus feeding thousands of people from five loaves and two fish.  But for whatever reason, Peter’s response to Jesus reveals deeper faith than he probably even realizes:  “Lord, if it is you,” he says, “command me to come to you on the water” (14:28).  The question for Peter isn’t whether a person might actually be able to walk on the water; the question for Peter is simply whether he’s seeing whom he thinks he’s seeing.  Because for Peter, if that’s really Jesus out there, there’s no question whether he can walk on the water and overcome the storm.  Why not, having just fed thousands of hungry people from five loaves and two fish?  Why not, having cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and healed withered limbs, and restored sight to the blind, and brought the dead to life?  
Peter sees no reason why he couldn’t be a partner in God’s work to overcome chaos and still the storm – right up until he thinks about it too much.  He notices the wind and the water, and he gets scared again both by the strength of the storm and by the weakness of his own capacity.  So he begins to sink.  But that very human moment shouldn’t diminish the power of the example of Peter’s faith.  As long as he taps into the depth of his trust, Peter is able to join Jesus in defeating the powers of chaos simply by naming a power that’s greater than they are.
We’ve seen something of the power of chaos this weekend, in the news from Charlottesville, Virginia.  A crowd of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered there, ostensibly to protest the removal of statue honoring Robert E. Lee but really there to advocate for taking “their country” back.  The protest was met with counter-protest, and the two sides fought each other with clubs and sticks, bottles and chemicals.  All of that would have been horrifying enough, but then a man drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 more.  In all, three people are dead and 35 injured from this weekend’s chaos.
I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that Jesus stands against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Klan – despite the appalling fact that probably most of those protesters would claim to honor and serve Jesus as their Lord and Savior, too.  But if Jesus isn’t standing with the Klan, where is he in this storm?  And how does he call us to follow him?
I see Jesus out there on the waters of the chaos, standing tall in the storm and inviting us to step out on the water to join him in stilling it.  Our Lord seems to have this odd preference for finding partners in working miracles, just as he did when he fed the crowds, just as he did in inviting Peter to join him on the water.  So what does it look like for us to take our place next to our risen Lord and Savior and work with him to counter violence, racism, and hate?
For us, in our particular context, maybe it’s a matter of naming truths that we might well have thought were self-evident – the truth that God loves all people, no exceptions; the truth that following Jesus allows no place for discrimination; and the truth that we are called to help bring God’s kingdom to life in the world God shares with us.  Now, that may seem like advocating for the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow or that we should brush our teeth before we go to bed.  And we might be tempted – especially those of us of a certain age – to look back a few decades and argue that we once enjoyed a social consensus that rejected hate and consigned neo-Nazis and the Klan to the lunatic fringe; and we might lament what’s become of our world today.  But you know, not so many years ago, we had Klansmen and white supremacists in the halls of power, calling on Jesus just as we do.  So, sometimes it is a holy act simply to proclaim God’s truth, because God’s truth is probably not as self-evident as we nice Episcopalians would like to think.  Sometimes, it is a holy act simply to say that Jesus calls us to practice love, not hate; to practice reconciliation, not conflict; to practice engagement, not vilification of “the Jews” or “the blacks” or “the Muslims.”  Sometimes it is a holy act simply to say that we stand with Jesus Christ, whose power brings people together and unites us as one, just as he and the Father are one.  Sometimes it is a holy act to say out loud that we stand with Jesus on the water despite the storm, confident of his power to make the demons flee.  It’s a holy act because words change things when influential people speak them with courage.  Words change hearts, and changed hearts change the world.
That may be a stretch for us nice Episcopalians.  It may put us uncomfortably close to linking faith with politics, though I would argue vigorously that if racism and supremacy are part of your politics, faith should stand against it.  But it’s our call as followers of Jesus not to let even obviously holy truths lie silent when they’re under assault.  When we’re at the grocery store, or the coffee shop, or the club, it’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against hate.  It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against racism.  It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against anyone’s efforts to consign others to second-class status.  It’s even right to say out loud that Jesus judges such things as contrary to God’s purposes and therefore as sinful. 
We may think all that’s self-evident.  But we are in a time when such truths need our voices.  For when we proclaim them, we take our place next to Jesus out there on the water, proving his power and stilling the storm.