Thursday, December 25, 2014

Boundary Crossing

[Sermon from Christmas Eve 2014]
To me, Christmas is a time for stories – maybe the best time for stories.  I remember, as a little boy, sitting in my family room on Christmas Eve.  The grown-ups were waiting to go to Midnight Mass, having a few drinks and telling stories – some old, some new, all filled with joy.  In my memory, those loud, cascading stories were followed by my mother standing up and reading the story, that grand story we just heard, the story of Mary and Joseph crossing Judea to reach a stable, and angels crossing heaven and earth to reach the shepherds.  For all I know, it was a one-time thing, my mother deciding one year that the revelers needed a little reminding of what the holiday was all about.  But in the memory of my heart, we did it that way every year.
So, since Christmas is a time for stories, I want to tell you three stories tonight.  Two of them may not seem to have much to do with Christmas, but hang with me for a few minutes.
Here’s story #1.  A couple of weeks ago, two parishioners, a married couple, were driving south on Holmes on a dark December night.  They had come to about 75th Street when suddenly they saw something in front of them and had to swerve to miss it – a figure walking in the street.  The person was dressed in dark clothes and wearing a hood, and the couple had nearly hit her.  Recovering from the shock, the wife remembered that in the back seat, she had a reflective sash like nighttime joggers use.  So the couple circled back around to meet the person one more time and offer the reflector. 
Getting out, the wife greeted the person, a middle-aged African American woman, and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but we nearly hit you as we came by.  We’d like you to have this,” she said, handing her the reflective sash.  “Why were you walking in the street, anyway?” 
The woman replied, “I just got off work, and I’m walking to the bus stop.  The sidewalk is so broken up, it’s not safe in the dark.  But neither is the street, I suppose.” 
The wife offered to drive her to the bus stop, but the woman said it was only a couple of blocks away.  Then the husband said, “Well, where do you live?” 
“39th and Woodland,” the woman said, “but you don’t need to do that.” 
“What are cars for?” the husband asked, with a smile. 
Now, behind his smile, the man was a little worried.  Working as a hospice nurse, he’d gone to see patients in the Ivanhoe neighborhood several times, and he remembered someone advising him it was best to come in the early morning “because then the junkies are still asleep.”  But the man and his wife drove the woman home anyway. 
Things were quiet for a while, but as they crossed Troost, the boundary of Kansas City’s racial divide, the woman started narrating the journey.  She told about how she and her husband had lived in their neighborhood 15 years and how pleased she was to see it making a recovery now.  She talked about raising their kids there and how their next-door neighbor is her husband’s best friend.  She talked about the storefront community center on the corner and how proud of it she was – how it had become the center of the neighborhood’s life.  Dropping off the woman at her home, the couple found their perception had changed.  No longer did they feel they’d crossed a boundary into a foreign and foreboding place.  They’d simply crossed into a different neighborhood – and began a relationship along the way.
*   *   *
Here’s story #2.  On Monday, I was blessed to join literally scores of St. Andrew’s people serving at the Free Store downtown.  As you know, this was much more than a meal and a clothing distribution for poor people.  The guests were welcomed into the cathedral for live music and a chance to get warm.  They were brought into the large parish hall for lunch, where volunteers took their orders and brought them plates filled with ham, turkey, potatoes, dressing, corn on the cob, green beans, and other delights.  Sitting at each table were members of our Order of St. Luke, there simply for the ministry of pastoral listening and presence.  After lunch, the guests came downstairs to shop at the Free Store for coats, hoodies, socks, gloves, and a host of other items. 
Among the volunteers at the store were a few of us there just to hang out and talk with people.  It was in one of those conversations that I met Kevin.  Kevin could be my brother – about my age, about my height, about the same amount of gray in his hair.  Where the similarities stopped was with his hands.  I shook Kevin’s hand, and it didn’t feel right.  His fingers were red and swollen, and the skin was cracked and peeling.  He said he’d felt embarrassed at lunch because the volunteer sitting at the table had been looking at his hands – dirty as well as damaged.  I asked what had happened, and he explained it was frostbite.  He’d gotten frostbite, Kevin said, because he lives in the woods. 
“In the woods?” I asked, thinking I’d misunderstood. 
“Yes.”  He said he camps under a rickety lean-to with a few other guys – not nice guys, guys who steal your stuff and, in Kevin’s words, “abuse” you if you fight back.  He said he had everything he needed to stay warm – a new thermal sleeping bag and plenty of blankets.  But, he said, “It’s only good if you can stay dry.  That’s how I got frostbite.” 
I asked him what he needed, and he said, “I need a tent – and I need to get away from the guys in the camp.  I don’t pretend my problems are anybody’s fault but my own,” he continued.  “I have screwed up over and over again.  But I can’t make any better choices where I am.  I need to get free.” 
Now, I was there to listen, and offer pastoral presence, and refer people to the human-services agencies that were there to help.  I was just supposed to let Kevin know that God loves him, that people at the Free Store value him as a human being, and that someone from ReStart or the United Way could help him find a place to stay.  But Kevin is a loner; he wasn’t going to avail himself of that help, and I knew it.  So I arranged to meet him later that afternoon, just the two of us; and I went to go buy him a tent. 
Now, I have no delusions that the tent is anything but a short-term solution to a web of problems I can’t begin to untangle.  It may or may not have been the “right” thing to do; but because I crossed that boundary, at least Kevin was dry as it rained that night.  Maybe the next night, too.
*   *   *
Here’s story #3.  Two thousand years ago, an unmarried couple on the move came into a city where they didn’t know anyone.  Because of the crowds, they camped in a cave next to someone else’s animals, in hay that no doubt hadn’t been mucked out anytime recently.  She was very pregnant; and as bad luck would have it, the baby came that night.  Nine months earlier, the young woman had been visited by an angel who’d crossed a boundary between heaven and earth to let her know the boundary-crossing had only just begun.  This was not just an inconvenient pregnancy with the worst-timed delivery ever.  This was the ultimate in boundary-crossing:  This was God-With-Us, divinity in the flesh. 
God had looked at that young woman, and the millions of other nobodies like her; and God said “yes” before Mary ever got her chance. 
God said, “Yes, I will do what I’ve never done before.” 
God said, “Yes, I will take the risk to become one of you.” 
God said, “Yes, I will put myself into the drama of salvation, and propel the story in a way that Israel’s kings and prophets could never have imagined.”  
God said, “Yes, I will heal the separation between you and me, between you dear, unruly, broken people and I who formed you in love; and I will forgive whatever awfulness you decide to perpetrate on me.” 
God said, “Yes, I will cross the boundary between the common and the holy, and I will redeem even the dirtiest straw, and the vilest cross, into a throne fit for a king.” 
God said, “Yes!  I will be made flesh, and I will move into the neighborhood, and I will save you from the inside out.”
*   *   *
There are no guarantees when you go and cross a boundary.  Once you’ve committed the trespass, you can’t step back and undo it.  You don’t know what’s coming when you drive into a distant neighborhood or promise to meet someone whose behavior you can’t predict.  But with everything I have, I believe Jesus would say, “Yes, cross the boundary anyway.”
And on Christmas, when angels break into the shepherds’ silent night and the entire heavenly army resounds with God’s praise – on Christmas, I believe Jesus would say, “Begin that boundary-crossing with the boundaries of your own heart.” 
If this service tonight is just an obligation, a nod to tradition or the family’s demands, then Jesus would say to you, “Surprise!  In prayer and song, in bread and wine, I am here.” 
If this night feels empty, the joy of Christmas buried deep under layers of pain and heartache, then Jesus would say to you, “I know that pain, and still – I am here.” 
If the angels’ news feels old and tired; if faith feels like nothing but a nice ritual with nice people in a nice building, then Jesus would say to you, “Let me rock your world – let me rule your world – because I am here.” 
To each of us with longing hearts, Jesus says, “I have crossed the boundary; I have come to stay; I have said the words you can’t take back – I love you.” 
So what do you say?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Let's Get Busy

[Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014]
I have news to announce this morning:  Jesus is coming to Kansas City. 
What – you don’t believe me? 
Maybe you’re thinking something like this.  “OK, Fr. John, we get it that this is Advent, and we’re preparing ourselves for the coming of the baby in the manger.  ‘Let every heart prepare him room,’ and all that.”
Well, let me ask you for a little willing suspension of disbelief this morning.  If it were true that Jesus is coming to Kansas City, what would you do?  I’m reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers of all time:  “Jesus is coming.  Look busy.”  I have a hunch that might not be a sufficient response.  So, if you knew that Jesus had booked a flight to arrive at KCI and was planning to drive up under the porte-cochere just before your favorite service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, what would you do?  What should we do to get ready?
Let’s see what kind of preparation our readings today might suggest.  In that beautiful passage from Isaiah, we hear the prophet proclaiming comfort to God’s people.  And they needed a little comfort at that point.  They’d been in exile in Babylon for decades, after a long period of national decay ending in conquest.  Up to this point in the Book of Isaiah, the prophet has been proclaiming God’s judgment on Israel and Judah – especially judgment on the religious and political leaders – for failing to honor God, failing to care for the poor and powerless, failing to practice the fundamental commands to love God and neighbor.  As a result, the prophets have said, the nation will be lost, for “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).  But now, the prophet writing from Babylon hears God’s call of comfort instead: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2).  We can take comfort in God’s promise of comfort, but we have to remember the brokenness and judgment that came before it.
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist helps us put things in order.  John speaks as one of the Old Testament prophets and brings their message to completion.  He stands as the fulcrum between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, the tipping point moving salvation history from promise to fulfillment.  He reminds his audience of that beautiful promise from Isaiah – that God is working toward delivering us into a new habitation, God’s own kingdom.  But John also offers the first part of the prophet’s message – the call to turn our hearts back toward what God desires for us.  Divine comfort doesn’t just come like a candy bar from a vending machine – hit the right button, and there it is.  Divine comfort comes from having moved through our own hard stuff first – the times we miss the mark, the times we put ourselves first, the times we play small and fail to live into the amazing personhood God has in mind for every last one of us. 
Echoing the prophets, John the Baptist reminds us what God’s path truly looks like.  In Mark’s Gospel, the account ends just after John tells what he knows about this coming savior.  But if we continue the story in Luke’s account, we hear people asking the kinds of questions we might ask John, if he were standing here in his animal skins, his fingers dripping with wild honey.  What exactly are we supposed to do to get ready?  Well, John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11).  Government officials must not abuse their power.  In other words, love the people around us – whether we like them or not. 
So as we’re getting ready for Christmas Day, loving people intentionally might be a good plan.  It’s all about those guiding principles of Christianity:  love God, love neighbor, love one another.  Think about the Confession we’ll offer in a few minutes.  Now, in the past week, we’ve each done a hundred things, or not done a hundred things, that we probably should confess to God, asking forgiveness.  But when we come to the General Confession (which many of us have said so many times we barely hear it anymore), what sins do we actually confess?  Only two:  “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”  Discipleship comes down to practicing love.  Not feeling love – that’s a whole different thing, a wonderful blessing that comes from following Christ and living in love, but hardly a guarantee. 
Getting ready to meet Jesus means loving people, and loving people means constantly repenting.  Now, by “repenting,” I don’t mean saying, “I’m sorry.”  I mean what the word means in Greek: metanoia -- changing our heart, changing our mind, changing our path always toward the true north of God’s purposes and desires for us.
That change is a constant process; it is the journey of discipleship, and it takes a lifetime, by definition.  One way we do it is by looking for ways God might be asking us to help prepare the way of the Lord, ways we might help level the uneven ground and make the rough places a plain.  We can do that as individuals and as a congregation.  First, let me tell you an individual’s story – an “Andrew moment” one of you shared with me. 
You might remember, a couple of weeks ago, I asked you to tell me your stories of people putting flesh and bones on love, like Andrew bringing his brother Peter to meet Jesus – small moments that can change lives.  Well, here you go.  A parishioner was trying to sell something on Craig’s List, a wheelchair lift that goes on a van.  Surprisingly, there was a response very quickly.  The person selling the lift was suspicious because honestly you never know who you’re dealing with on Craig’s List or what they really want.  So the parishioner sent a text to learn more about the buyer. 
“Are you a car dealer?” 
“Are you planning to resell it yourself?” 
“Tell me about your situation.” 
“Well,” texted they buyer, “it’s for my daughter.  She can’t walk.” 
And the parishioner saw an open door.  He called the buyer and shared with her that someone in his family had also been disabled and couldn’t walk.  They talked and talked … and, in the end, the parishioner gave the woman the wheelchair lift, free – with the “stipulation” that she pay it forward with an act of love to another stranger.
So that’s one example of the kind of thing John the Baptist might encourage us to do on an individual level.  When the Holy Spirit comes knocking on your door, open it up and take the risk to walk through to meet someone … and love him or her.
Here’s an example on a broader scale – another way we can do our part in leveling the uneven ground and making the rough places a plain so the glory of the Lord might be revealed.  Since August 9, and especially vividly in the past few weeks, we’ve seen our society’s brokenness and separation related to race.  That chasm has been present all along, of course, but the death of Michael Brown and all that’s followed, including the death of Eric Garner in New York, has made that chasm harder than usual to ignore.  There are so many manifestations of the racial divide in our society, from economics to politics to religion.  Thankfully, there are also many efforts underway in cities across the country to bring people together to work for healing.  In our city, Fr. Marcus is involved in a project to bring together civic leaders, clergy, educators, police officials, and others to talk openly about how we can heal racial divisions in our own context.  Those leaders will gather this Tuesday at 6 p.m. for a public conversation; you’ll find information in the bulletin on that. 
But there’s one manifestation of our racial brokenness that we can confront even at the micro level of our own parish.  I believe it’s actually among the deepest roots of the racial thicket.  It’s communication – or, more precisely, the failure of communication.  Deep down, most of us don’t have any idea how to talk about race. 
I’ve had some fascinating conversations over the past few weeks as people shared their frustrations and fears about race.  Here are some snippets of what I’ve heard.  One person said, “I understand people are angry about Ferguson and the grand jury’s decision – but I don’t understand what the protesters really want.”  Another said, “I don’t think I’m a racist, but I’m afraid if I say the African American community needs to own some of its problems, then someone will see me as a racist.”  And another said, “I don’t know how I’m even supposed to talk about race with a black person without offending them.”  Those are hard statements, but they’re real.  And we don’t do ourselves, or Jesus, any favors by sweeping them under the Jewell Room rug.
So I’m working with a few parishioners to put together an opportunity for us to hear difficult questions about race and discrimination, asked and answered in love.  I don’t know yet exactly how this will look, but I’m imagining something like listening in on a private conversation between a couple of parishioners, one black and one white.  The questions might include:  Why has Ferguson sparked the fire it’s sparked?  What do the protesters really want?  Why can’t white people see the injustice that people of color see?  What’s it like to be pulled over for “driving while black” in the wrong neighborhood? 
And more fundamentally:  How can we name race as an issue, and confront it honestly, without fearing we’ll offend someone?  How can we “speak the truth in love” and thereby “grow to become in every respect the mature body … of Christ” (Ephesians 4:15)?  How can we go beyond being careful not to offend anyone and actually deepen love through conversation?  How can we be God’s partners in preparing the way of the Lord – lifting up the valleys and lowering the mountains, leveling the uneven ground and smoothing the rough places that divide us, so that the glory of the Lord might be revealed?
Jesus is coming.  Let’s not just look busy.  Let’s get busy.