Friday, September 21, 2012

A Hard Week to Be a Christian

[Sermon from Sept. 16, 2012]

This is a week when it’s harder than usual for us to be followers of Jesus Christ.

We’ve watched in outrage and grief as media reports have brought us images of a burning American consulate in Libya, as well as angry protestors at our embassies in Egypt and more than 20 other countries.  The images evoke all kinds of pain:  The abomination of an attack on the anniversary of Sept. 11; the fear of more violence against Americans around the globe; and, for those of us of a certain age, the memory of an attack on the American embassy in Iran, 33 years ago, as well as the deaths and hostage-taking that came from it.  At the same time, we find ourselves appalled by the epic foolishness of a dark-hearted filmmaker whose ugly movie about the Prophet Mohammad has spurred much of this violence.  As we see the reports about attacks on our citizens and embassies this week, and as we see the damage done by a hatemonger’s recklessness, it’s hard not to want the vengeance that deep pain always demands.

Our pain and outrage are made all the deeper by the fact that the deaths included an American statesman, Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya.  Not that his life was inherently more valuable than the other three who died.  But there is special meaning to the killing of the embodiment of the United States in a foreign nation.

And in this case, that pain and outrage are even deeper because Chris Stevens was clearly someone who should not have been killed by deluded zealots wanting to punish America.  Chris Stevens was just the opposite, the kind of diplomat even our enemies respected.  I’m sure you’ve read much of this already, but I think it’s worth repeating some of Chris Stevens’ story because it ties into our Gospel reading today.  After graduating from a prestigious university, seemingly set for a powerful career, he joined the Peace Corps instead.  He worked in an isolated mountain town in Morocco, teaching English.  When he returned to the U.S., he became a lawyer and eventually a diplomat, but he wasn’t seeking a pathway to power.  He took postings in tough spots, dangerous capitals in the Middle East and North Africa.  Eventually he became deputy chief of mission in Libya; and when the Libyan people rose up against Gadhafi, it was Chris Stevens who served as envoy to the rebels, coaching them in building a government as they toppled a dictator.  As Stevens’ stepfather said, “He wasn’t looking for a ... cushy ambassador’s spot.  He loved the Libyan people and was passionate about helping” them.1  As a friend remembered, Chris really was that American you always hope exists somewhere.”2 In a nutshell, Chris Stevens managed to take a position of power and use it as a position of self-giving instead. 

Now, I have no idea what kind of religious faith Chris Stevens held, if any.  But I do think his life and death give us a window into the divine reality Jesus was proclaiming in the Gospel reading we just heard – interestingly, a reading not selected for this particular day but simply what came next in the Sunday lectionary.

Jesus begins with a little Q and A with the disciples, bringing them along to glimpse his identity in a way no one had seen so clearly before.  “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.  “Peter answered him, ‘You are the messiah,’” God’s anointed ruler sent to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth. (Mark 8:29)  Clearly, Jesus is the authority.  The disciples can bank on what he has to say.

So here’s Jesus, standing before his followers as God’s ultimate ambassador.  And what might the royal proclamation be?  He’s set up to make a pronouncement about heavenly power toppling evil worldly authorities.  But that’s not at all where Jesus goes with his power.  Instead, the messiah announces that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  The evil powers of sinful self-interest will have their way with him.  They will even appear victorious.  But on the third day, the suffering messiah will rise.

That message is reassuring for us Christians to hear this week.  Sin will not have the last word.  The kingdom of God will rise.  The good guys will win in the last act.  That’s the story we want to hear.

What’s harder to hear is Jesus’ next comment.  Peter tries to convince Jesus that he doesn’t have to undergo all this suffering.  You’re the messiah, after all, Peter must have said.  You can dish out suffering rather than having to take it.  But Jesus “rebukes” Peter, telling him the easy way is not the holy way (8:33).  And then he takes this hard Good News up a notch.  Calling together the disciples and the crowd, Jesus says this path of self-emptying, this call to offer himself for others – it isn’t just his path alone.  It’s the path of discipleship, the one we’re all called to walk.  “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) 

So what does that mean for us, in this bitter and bloody week?  What does Jesus’ call say to us about American foreign policy and the response our nation should make to the killings in Libya?  I don’t presume to say.  I learned in eighth grade that, for us, “the supreme law of the land” is the Constitution, not the Bible; and it will be the Constitution that will govern our nation’s actions.  We all have our opinions about that – opinions formed by our faith, I hope.  But you don’t want your priests making foreign policy any more than you want your diplomats preaching your sermons. 

I don’t know what today’s Gospel will say to the president or his advisers if they’re in church this morning, hearing the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used in so many denominations.  But I know what I hear this Gospel saying for me, and maybe for you, too. 

When I see our consulate being attacked or our embassies being threatened; when I see black flags being hoisted in opposition our nation’s flag; when I see the body of a good, good man lying dead from unprovoked attack – when I see these images, I want retribution.  I want revenge.  I want to know when the president is going to strike back and who the target will be.  But then – amid memories of the twin towers falling 11 years ago and the fear that we might be attacked again, amid the desire for vengeance from this week’s attack – along comes the memory of Jesus Christ and the hard path he calls us to take. 

The cross we bear looks different, one day to the next.  Sometimes it’s serving others when we’re completely tapped out.  Sometimes it’s loving someone who’s lied to us.  Sometimes it’s just continuing down a dark path facing one assault after another, when we can’t see any Easter sunrise on the horizon.  But taking up that cross is always about turning away from the smallness of my own heart and turning toward the fullness of the heart of God.  It’s always about emptying my heart of sin and self, and opening my heart to the people Jesus loves enough to die for – which is everybody.   Taking up the cross is always about the fact that those who want to save their lives must give them up, despite how hard that is.

I can’t do anything about sinful extremists killing innocent people.  I can’t do anything directly to influence my country’s response.  The only thing I can influence is the response of my own heart.  As Jesus says elsewhere in Scripture, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But 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.” (Matthew 5:43-44) 

That’s why this is a hard week to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

So may our hearts be open to his hard, good news.  And may what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” lift us, with Jesus, to a place where we can truly pray, “Father, forgive them….” (Luke 23:34)

1.        Pearson, Michael.  “Slain ambassador died ‘trying to help build a better Libya.’”  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 14, 2012.

2.        Tarnopolsky, Noga.  Remembering Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.”  Globalpost.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 14, 2012.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Hurricanes and Neighbors

[Sermon from Sept. 2, 2012]

This week, we’ve once again held our collective breath as we watched a hurricane threaten people we care about, in our own country and beyond.  As a powerful tropical storm, Isaac passed over southwestern Haiti last Saturday.  In the storm’s path was Maniche, the home of our partner school; but from what we’ve heard, there was no significant damage there.  Elsewhere in Haiti, 24 people lost their lives.  A few days later, we held our breath as Isaac grew into a hurricane and stalked the Gulf Coast, landing near New Orleans seven years almost to the day after Hurricane Katrina.  It was “only” a Category 1 storm, so the damage was certainly less than seven years ago.  But still, thousands are suffering; and we hold them in our prayers today, along with the people of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. 

There are always stories of heroism and love in situations like these – people in small boats, picking up neighbors on rooftops; first responders saving lives despite the elements; churches and hospitals rallying to meet overwhelming need.  We take such heroism almost for granted, knowing that people will step up and amaze us with their care for one another. 

Among all the media coverage of the storm, I was struck by a TV news story about Faith Bible Church near Dallas, Texas.  The hurricane “news” there wasn’t about the storm directly.  The news was the church’s preparation for people expected to come from far away.  As you’ll remember, when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, thousands of displaced persons needed to be resettled temporarily, going even as far as Dallas looking for help.  Well, this congregation in DeSoto, Texas, had turned its worship space into a dormitory, with hundreds of cots set up in careful rows, bedding neatly in place – each one ready to welcome someone in need.  But at the time the story aired, of course, not a soul had come; and the reporter seemed almost apologetic that he didn’t have any drama yet to show the folks at home.  (See

But seeing the church’s set-up on TV made me realize how much work that congregation must have put into planning for this contingency.  They must have spent years preparing to love and serve people they didn’t even know.  They’d developed a relationship with the Red Cross and built a detailed plan for caring for whoever came their way.  It’s a great example of faithful people who discerned a calling to very specific work:  the job of being available, ready to serve others in need.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, so we might have work on our minds as we come to worship this morning.  Interestingly, so does God, at least if today’s readings are any indication.  These readings have no official relationship to Labor Day; they’re just what the Sunday lectionary calls for.  But I hear them being all about the work God calls us to do, both as individual disciples and as St. Andrew’s parish. 

In the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses calls the people to demonstrate their faithfulness to God as they begin their lives in the Promised Land.  And what’s the most important way to do that?  It’s not so much about believing specific doctrine.  It’s not even so much about worshipping just the right way, as important as that is in the Law.  Instead, God cares deeply about the day-to-day, mundane aspects of life – preparing food, relating to family and neighbors, working with livestock, resting on the Sabbath.  So to honor God, the people must focus on the primary work involved in keeping the Law: bringing God’s holiness and justice alive in the world around them.

The theme continues with the psalm.  It asks, “What qualifies someone for admission to God’s holy temple for worship?”  Is that based on getting the doctrine right or doing worship just right?  No.  It’s about the work of faith, just “do[ing] what is right” (Psalm 15:2):  treating neighbors honorably, telling the truth, keeping promises, refusing to profit from other people’s poverty.  Faithfulness is in how we live and what we do.

Then the theme continues in the reading from James: God “implants” the Word in our hearts with “the power to save [our] souls” (1:21).  And what should be our response to this gift?  James says, “True religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” (1:27).  Do the Word; don’t just hear it.

And finally, in the reading from Mark, Jesus puts a fine point on the kind of labor God’s looking for.  The religious leaders give Jesus trouble because his disciples don’t always keep the ritualistic aspects of the Law.  So Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter: Keeping God’s law isn’t about maintaining ritual purity, he says; it’s about enacting God’s purposes through the way we live in the world, day in and day out.

But bringing God’s purposes to life always happens in a specific context and by specific people – you and me, this parish.  We have to know our gifts and strengths, know how God has wired us, know ourselves well enough to be able to say, “Here’s the job I can do to bring my faith to bear in the world.”  At that church near Dallas, clearly they discerned gifts for organization, logistics, and coordination with community agencies.  The storm wasn’t even in their city, and they’d gone to work, getting ready to care for “orphans and widows” from a distant storm.

As we’ve discerned the work God asks of us, we’ve also found ourselves called to care for people battered by distant storms.  We may not have many people in our congregation who are hungry and homeless, but we go downtown each week to serve hungry people there.  We may not have many children here lacking educational opportunity, but we fund a school for 150 kids in rural Haiti, and we work to support the teachers and students at three schools in our own city.  We may not have many people coming to our church seeking food each day, but we’re taking a step in that direction, too.  Our Outreach Commission and our children’s ministry are joining forces to collect food regularly for the pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 40th and Main.  In fact, the first Sunday of the month, we’ll bless a token of the food we’ve gathered – you’ll see it in front of the altar this morning when you come up for Communion.  St. Paul’s pantry is serving more hungry people than ever before.  They don’t have enough food to meet the need or enough volunteers to help give it away.  Well, service is one of our core values here, and our mission includes “sharing God’s love” with the world.  So we’re going to become “Pantry Partners” with St. Paul’s.  We’re going to serve people whose lives are battered by hunger’s distant storm. 

And at the same time, fulfilling our mission to share God’s love with the world means discerning what work God wants us to do here in our own neighborhood.  As the Hodges and Murrays described at the parish meeting last Sunday, we’re listening to you and to our neighbors to hear what needs, in Brookside, God’s asking us to step up and work on.  Last Sunday, after the meeting, several parishioners went out and did surveys in our neighborhood, standing in the sun at Price Chopper and going door-to-door, talking to people who live here.  We’re also listening to urban-studies experts, and Brookside business leaders, and people in homes associations, and educators, and city council members – the list goes on.  The point is to see where our calling to share God’s love might take us in our own backyard.  Maybe we can help meet the needs of lonely seniors.  Maybe we can help families whose kids and teens need a safe place for recreation.  Maybe we can help kids and teens who need mentoring and tutoring.  Maybe we can help social entrepreneurs get a start on their own work to build our community and heal its divisions.  Months ago, we talked about the idea of e = mc2:  that our church’s mission in our second century (“mc2”) involves several “E” words, such as education and the essentials of life.  Maybe social “entrepreneurship” is another “E” for that list.  We don’t know yet, but I do think we’re asking the right questions.

Now, if a tornado were to cut through Kansas City, I have no doubt we’d be all over it.  But day to day, our call is to use the gifts and skills God’s given us in the context where God’s put us.  That certainly looks like serving people afflicted by distant storms.  But it also looks like sharing God’s love with the people of our neighborhood. 

In both contexts, the message is the same, as we heard in our readings today.  The measure of our faithfulness isn’t so much about getting all the answers right or doing worship perfectly (thank God).  The measure of our faithfulness is how we live, day in and day out.  As we begin our second century and discern what it looks like to share God’s love with people near and far, we have a pretty good handle on the “far” part of the equation.  How we share God’s love with our neighborhood?  That’s still a work in progress.  It might not end up being what many people would expect a church’s “neighborhood ministry” to look like.  It might not necessarily make for good TV.  But it will be authentic to us.  And it’ll be the job that God will have given us to do – the labor that best uses the body of Christ in this time and place to share God’s love with the world.