Monday, December 28, 2015

Fear Nothing

[Sermon from Christmas Eve, 2015; Luke 2:1-20]
You know, there’s a moment we often pass by in this beautiful, lyrical account of Jesus’ birth.  It’s the moment when the scene shifts from Mary and Joseph and the baby, and the spotlight shines on the shepherds instead.  They’re just out there minding their own business, guys working the night shift.  Then suddenly, the darkness turns to day as an angel of the Lord appears before them. 
Now, when we hear the word “angel,” we might picture cutesy cartoons or lovely tree toppers with wings and flowing dresses.  Instead, picture General Norman Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell.  Angels are messengers sent from God, and this one’s leading “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13), which was God’s army – the cosmic legion that fought the forces of evil just as God’s people waged battles with their enemies, military and otherwise.  Face to face with the army of God, no wonder the shepherds were terrified.  And no wonder the first thing out of the angel’s mouth is, “Do not fear” (Luke 2:10).  Do not fear, for the mission this night is peace.
Well, here we are in this beautiful space.  Christmas is all around us, as we gather at home by the fireplace and here before God’s altar.  “Fear” doesn’t seem where our focus should be.  But there it is, in the shepherds’ hearts and on the angel’s lips. The heavenly messenger in Luke’s story knows what he’s flying into, and he’s willing to name it.  When God enters into our reality, God enters into fear.
It was true 2,000 years ago.  God’s people were an oppressed minority in Caesar’s empire, people the emperor cared to count only so he could tax the life out of them.  The Jewish people had no allies.  They didn’t even have a country.  They faced poverty and political terror – not to mention their own religious leaders, who cared more for position and power than “the weightier matters of the law,” like justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).  Two thousand years ago, God’s people lived in fear.
And 2,000 years later, what do the angels find when they come to visit us and our culture?  As I listen to the voices of friends and talking heads alike, I don’t hear a lot of Christmas love all around us.  What I hear is fear.
So now perhaps you’re thinking, “Uh-oh.  What’s he going to name?  What side will he take?  What’s Fr. John going to tell us we should fear?”  Well, hang on for the answer to that question.  But here’s some of the fear that I sense all around us this Christmas.  Maybe you’ll find yourself somewhere in this litany:  Some fear Donald Trump, and some fear Bernie Sanders.  Some fear the government can’t cooperate to solve a single problem, and some fear the government when it tries to solve a single problem.  Some fear that they’ll never have enough, and some fear that government will take away what they have.  Some fear police officers, and some fear the people they pursue.  Some fear the guns on our streets; and some fear the government will take their guns away.  Some fear Islam, and some fear becoming a nation that excludes.  Some fear that racism and sexism silence voices that have been silenced too long; and some fear that, if they disagree with that statement, their voices aren’t welcome in the conversation. 
That’s a lot of fear. 
And to be honest, I have some fears of my own.  I fear for the Church.  I’m not afraid because of some external threat, not because of some “war on Christmas,” but because of our own hearts – our own sinful hearts.  I’m afraid particularly for churches like ours that try to live into the vision of community that transcends doctrine, the vision of the big tent where all are welcomed and all are formed through interaction with each other, even as we disagree, maybe especially as we disagree.  We navigated those waters fairly well when the doctrine was mostly theological – no need in this church to sign on the dotted line about the nature of God or the efficacy of the sacraments.  Now our challenges of belief are messier:  What does God think about the social and political issues of the day?  How should the Church engage them?  And how do we talk about them as people of faith without walking away from each other?
So, back to the question:  Fr. John, whom or what should we fear? 
Here’s my answer:  Fear nothing.  Fear nothing.  Not even our own sinful hearts.  Because I have some news for you tonight:  We’ve been saved.  That Good News won’t be on any of the TV reports tonight, but it’s true.  We’ve been saved, and from something very specific:  We’ve been saved from our sins.  Matthew’s Gospel makes the connection crystal clear:  In that version of the Christmas story, the angel tells Joseph, “You are to name [the child] Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  It’s what his holy name means:  Jesus – “he saves.”  He saves his people from the sinful oppression of the Roman Empire and all loveless regimes.  He saves his people day by day from the sinful selfishness of our own hearts.  He saves his Church from our sinful need to be right at someone else’s expense.  Jesus, the savior whose birth we herald this night, has already won the victory.  He has “taken flesh and moved into [our] neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message); he’s stared down Satan and sin and death; he’s taken the worst they can dish out; and he’s redeemed death itself, turning the grave into the gate of eternal life.  The victory’s been won.  That’s why the angels are crying out, “Do not fear!”
So if we’ve been saved from the worst we can imagine, from the power of death itself – then what?  Well, then forget your fear and follow the Savior – all of us, together.  And define “together” as broadly as your heart can muster. 
Those of you who were here in the spring and summer will remember that we had two moments of glimpsing God’s kingdom along with the people of United Missionary Baptist Church this year.  In May, we went to their church at 27th and Campbell for a Wednesday-night service; and in August, they came here for a Sunday-morning Eucharist.  Well, mark your calendar for Sunday, Jan. 17.  That morning, we’ll go to United Missionary Baptist again, with our choir singing and me trying not to put people to sleep from the pulpit.  And yes, we will have worship here at St. Andrew’s that morning, too.
When we go to United Missionary Baptist, I believe with all my heart, we will be sent by Jesus, who will himself be leading us there.  Jesus is the ultimate missionary.  Jesus is God as missionary.  On this holy night, Jesus the missionary enters into the extreme difference of human life, taking on our experience and bringing us together into God’s beloved community.  So we will follow him to United Missionary Baptist as missionaries ourselves, sent into human difference to embody the healing of the Prince of Peace. 
That, I believe, is holy work.  And – not but, but and – it’s every bit as holy, and every bit as necessary, to embody that healing among ourselves – to listen to those we don’t understand, and to heal the fears we perpetuate both by polite silence and by raging rant.  Just as God invites us to come along on Jesus’ mission across the divide of Troost Avenue, God invites us to come along on Jesus’ mission across all divides – in our churches, in our public squares, and in our own hearts.   For as the herald angels tell us, he’s “risen with healing in his wings; light and life to all he brings.”  Listen up, those herald angels sing:  Your Savior has come!  Do not fear! 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sin in the Stars

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015
Luke 3:7-18
One of the best things about taking an early-morning walk this time of year is the chance to see the stars.  For millennia now, humanity has navigated by the stars.  They’re always there, always reliable, always true.  And we don’t always pay attention to them, or at least I don’t.  But recently on my walks, I’ve received the gift of seeing the stars once again in their stunning brightness, piercing through the nearly-winter sky.
The stars this Advent have reminded me what needs my attention.  It’s sin.  As a Church, we’ve moved away from attending to our sins during Advent, these days preferring the blue of Mary, the blue of expectancy, to the purple of past years.  But Advent used to be a time we thought about sin, almost a mini-Lent.
The readings both last week and this week remind us why.  In Advent, we hear about John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord.  John the Baptist stands in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, voices from the outside reminding God’s people what they already knew, deep down.  Whether it’s Isaiah or Jeremiah, Amos or Hosea, the prophets speak for God – not in the sense of predicting the future, like a fortune teller, but in the sense of holding up a moral compass for people set aside as God’s missionary presence to the world.  That was the call of the people of Israel, to show everyone else what it looks like to live out God’s holiness and love.  That’s our call, too, by the way.
So, John the Baptist tells the crowds, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4).  The messiah, God’s anointed king, is coming; and the time to get ready is now.  John doesn’t pull any punches, especially in Luke’s telling:  “You brood of vipers,” he says, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:7-8) – and don’t you dare rely on belonging to the right group of people as the source of your salvation.  It’s about your own choices, John says.  Repent – turn in a God-ward direction.
The crowds are dumbfounded by his directness.  They stammer, “What then should we do?” (3:10).  It’s not rocket science, John says.  If you have two coats, share with someone who doesn’t.  If you have enough food, share with someone who doesn’t.  Even reviled outsiders come and ask John for the basics of moral living.  He makes it clear:  Tax collectors – don’t gouge people for more than they owe.  Roman soldiers – don’t demand protection money. 
I can’t imagine that people found this very surprising.  Even the tax collectors and soldiers probably knew they shouldn’t extort money from people.  The Jewish people in the crowd certainly knew God’s call to care for the poor – that’s a longstanding message from the Hebrew Scriptures.  John’s offering little here that’s new.  He’s just saying it out loud.
On second thought, maybe there is something new here.  We have to remember the setting:  God’s people in Judea and Galilee were living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  They were a subjugated people, allowed to practice their religion because the Romans found it convenient but with little other freedom or power.  On the ground, Rome’s reach took the form of oppressive taxation and military occupation.  And the people who did Rome’s bidding weren’t exactly beloved.  Tax collectors and soldiers were hated and feared, and for good reason. 
So, back to the reading:  There they are, tax collectors and soldiers, among the crowd listening to John the Baptist.  John could well have drawn lines between faithful Jews and hated outsiders.  Instead, he turns the tables.  It’s the good guys he threatens with being chopped off at the root and thrown into the fire.  And the hated outsiders?  John welcomes them as simply more people who need to repent.  That seems crazy.  God’s people were afraid of tax collectors and soldiers.  God’s people hated tax collectors and soldiers.  God’s people were sure the tax collectors and soldiers wished them harm.  But John the Baptist doesn’t write off the outsiders.  He recognizes they, too, are God’s creations, different only by being broken in different ways.
I say all this because we still, today, find it easy to hate those whom we fear wish us harm.  And just as troubling, we find it easy to demonize those with whom we disagree, letting our language do violence we’d never sanction otherwise.  John the Baptist’s prophetic witness reminds us of the truth about pointing a finger at anyone, even someone you find reprehensible:  the other fingers always point back at you.
John the Baptist is a bright star in the cold, dark sky.  Those stars following me on my morning walk remind me of the ways I miss God’s mark, which is what “sin” means.  One bright star says to me, “Don’t judge or reject people with whom you disagree.”  Another bright star says, “Take time to love the people around you, not just get work done.”  The brightest star simply says, “Trust God more than yourself.”  I don’t know what sins of yours the stars might be illuminating this Advent, but those are some of mine.
And to each of us, John the Baptist says, “You know the repentance you need.  You know the ways your heart misses the mark instead of finding the heart of God.”  If we each sat here for a few minutes, I’ll bet a few sins might just come to mind.
You know, that’s not a bad idea.  Today, you get the gift of a short homily, but it comes with the price of a little congregational participation.  I invite you to take out one of the blue-and-white cards in front of you and write down a few ways you know you miss the mark.  Names aren’t necessary.  When you’re done, you can either offer the card in the alms basin as a prayer request, or you can fold it up and take it with you for your own prayers at home.  But let’s take a couple of minutes of Advent stillness, and offer to God the chaff of sin you need the Holy Spirit to burn away. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Apostles, Interrupted

Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, celebrating the feast of St. Andrew
Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Romans 108b-18; Matthew 4:18-22

Given that we’re celebrating the feast of St. Andrew this morning, that Gospel reading we heard doesn’t seem to tell much of a story about our patron saint.  Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee, where he sees Peter and his brother, Andrew – playing second fiddle from the very start, at least in Matthew’s telling.  They’re busy trying to make a living, doing what commercial fishermen do, casting nets into the sea.  And Jesus yells out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19).  And that’s it, at least as this story goes.  They leave their nets and their boat and follow him.  The reading goes on to say the same thing about James and John. They’re working hard; Jesus calls them; and they take off.  End of story.
Well, maybe there was a little more backstory than that.  The section before today’s reading describes Jesus beginning his public ministry in Galilee.  “From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  My hunch is that Andrew and Peter and James and John had heard Jesus teach and preach.  They must have had some idea what he was proclaiming before they signed on.  But still, I do think there’s something important in the way Matthew tells the story of their call.  Andrew and Peter and James and John are hard at work.  They’re doing what they’re supposed to do.  And Jesus just interrupts them – probably pretty rudely, from the perspective of James and John’s father, who’s left holding the fishing nets.  Jesus’ call is anything but convenient.
If we look at Andrew’s experience in the rest of Scripture, this story of interruption continues.  The way John’s Gospel describes Andrew’s call, he’s a disciple of John the Baptist first – but when Jesus comes on the scene, his presence pulls Andrew away.  Later on, in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, Andrew sees a huge crowd about to descend on Jesus, so he stops to try to solve the problem.  Andrew finds a boy with five loaves and two fish – at least a start for the banquet Jesus eventually sets. (John 6:8-9)  And later still, on Palm Sunday, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem in triumph, Andrew hears from some Greeks, outsiders in the crowd.  They, too, want to see Jesus – and Andrew makes it happen. (John 12:22)  Interestingly, we never hear about a normal day for Andrew, or the other disciples.  The stories come when life gets in the way.
Well, after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered Andrew and the rest to be apostles sent in mission beyond Jerusalem, we don’t know exactly what became of Andrew.  Some traditions tell of him going to Ethiopia.  Others have him traveling to what’s now Ukraine and Russia – and Andrew is the patron saint of Russia for that reason.  Most traditions say he ministered in what’s now Greece and was martyred there, crucified on an X-shaped cross.  (No, he never went to Scotland, but his remains did, centuries later.)  Wherever Andrew was, I imagine he kept looking for interruption, because that’s how it works, being an apostle:  Ministry comes when life gets in the way.
In fact, I’d even take it one step further.  God comes when life gets in the way.  I believe we find Christ, the Word made flesh, most vividly in the interruptions that come into our productive, predictable, well-ordered lives – both the interruptions we create and the interruptions we allow.
One of the great hymns about St. Andrew says, “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea.”  I suppose that’s true, but I think, even more often, Jesus calls us in the tumult – not shouting over the demands of our work and our lives to get our attention, but talking to us directly through the demands of our work and our lives.  Andrew didn’t have to set off on a special spiritual quest to find an encounter with God.  God came to work to find him
Our day-to-day, crazy, boring, draining lives are the dwelling place of the Most High God.  So what you, and I, and all of us need to do is to listen for the interrupting, inconvenient voice of Jesus in the midst of the plans we make and the work we do.  I’m not necessarily very good at that.  Too often, I’m looking for the finish line – or at least the rest stop at the end of the day – rather than looking to see who’s calling out from the sideline.  I have to be intentional to let myself be interrupted.  Maybe you do, too.
Let me tell you about some people who are doing a good job of that, in the category of interruptions we create.  Joe Kessinger and I were having a drink a few weeks ago, and the conversation went to a place we both knew well: being a middle-aged guy.  One of the challenges for lots of middle-aged guys is that we’ve gotten pretty good over the years at mapping out our days and weeks.  There’s a lot to be done – not all of it work, but most of it scheduled.  So Joe said something to the effect of, “We need an opportunity for middle-aged guys to stop and let God get a word in edgewise.”  I agreed wholeheartedly.  So, long story short:  Joe contacted several guys he knows, and I looked for some study resources, and voilĂ  – we have a group of guys choosing to interrupt their schedules every couple of weeks to reflect on what God’s up to in their lives.  It’s MAGIC – Middle-Aged Guys Inspired by Christ.  If you want to find out more, talk to Joe or me.
Here’s what’s magical about conversations like this, conversations that happen in the interruptions:  Jesus comes to take part.  I believe that with everything I’ve got.  Jesus is there in the interruptions – those we create, like this men’s group, and in those we allow.  Here’s an example of one of those.
I was talking with a parishioner on the phone the other day; and at the end of the conversation, he said, “Have you got a minute for something else?”  I was driving somewhere, but I did have a few minutes to get there, so on we went.  He said, “Help me know what to think about the Syrian refugees.”  As you know, following the attack on Paris, there had been news stories about proposals to exclude Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or to allow in only Christian Syrians (as if no self-professed Christian ever shot down defenseless people).  So, my conversation partner said, “Help me know what to think about the Syrian refugees.  How do we love people but keep ourselves safe?  What would Jesus do?  I don’t think Jesus wants us to get ourselves killed.  But that’s basically what he did, the way he loved people…..”  That conversation was probably the best 10 minutes of my week. 
So in those holy interruptions we create or interruptions we allow – what the heck are we supposed to say?  I can hear people thinking, “I don’t know enough about the Bible to be in a discussion group.  What am I supposed to say?”  And, I can hear people thinking, “I don’t know the right answer about the Syrian refugees, and I’d probably get in trouble for saying what’s on my mind.  What am I supposed to say?”
Well, we heard it twice in our readings this morning:  “The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:14; Romans 10:8b).  And that Word boils down to this, what we remind ourselves every week in the 8:00 Rite I service:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all they soul and with all they mind … and … thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (BCP 324; Matthew 22:37-40).  Love God and love neighbor – even if that neighbor is thousands of miles away.  Love God and love neighbor – even if you don’t know the right answers to the hardest questions.  Love God and love neighbor.  If that’s your paradigm, Jesus is right there in the conversation with you, on your lips and in your heart.
Those conversations matter, and here’s at least one reason why:  In this chaotic, uncertain, isolating world of real life in 2015, people need Good News like never before.  And maybe the good news they need most is the good news of relationship – the good news that someone takes them seriously.  Because when we take people seriously – when we have a real conversation, when we can speak a word of hope, when we can just show up and listen – when we take people seriously, Jesus dwells in that relationship.  The Word becomes very near you, in your heart and on your lips and sitting right beside you over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  When we take each other seriously, we come to see that we are not alone.  We come to see that God shows up when we show up.  It’s in relationships that we get to see the face of God. 
So my challenge to you today is very simple.  Look for a way, each day, to interrupt the tyranny of what you have to do by loving God and the person in front of you.  Look for a chance to listen to someone.  Look for a chance to reflect out loud on what Jesus would do or say about the morning’s headlines.  Look for a chance to speak hope and blessing.  And look for a chance to name the presence of God in that process.  As simple, maybe even simplistic, as it sounds, naming faith brings faith alive.  When I believe out loud, it gives someone else permission to try on the notion that this God stuff is more than kids’ bedtime stories.  And when I believe out loud, it makes me believe all the more. 
So let Jesus interrupt your day.  Offer to pray for someone.  Mention something life-giving the church has to offer.  Relate a story of God opening some door for you in the midst of tough times.  Share a word that’s helped you move from fear to hope.  Remember that the Word is very near you – at your office or at Starbucks, at your book club or your gym, in a phone call or a Facebook post.  For the Word takes flesh and dwells among us every time we take each other seriously enough to stop, and listen, and love.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Center Holds

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015]
It is a bitter irony that we find ourselves this morning honoring Veterans’ Day and the armistice that ended the Great War, while Europe reels in the wake of Friday’s attack on France, the nation where World War I finally came to an end.  The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for what France yesterday called an act of war.  As voices clamor for retaliation, our call as followers of the Prince of Peace is to pray for peace, as well as the justice true peace demands.  Those who’ve perpetrated horror must answer for their actions.  And the other 99 percent of the followers of Islam must be loved as they follow their way of peaceful surrender to God.
It’s been a tough week.  Closer to home, we’ve seen the fraying of our state’s social fabric on the national news once again this week, as the University of Missouri became the latest flashpoint of our nation’s racial conflict.  We’ve seen reports of racial slurs hurled at students, vandalism of dorms, a hunger strike, threats posted on social media, and the removal of the university’s president and chancellor – all in the space of a little more than a week.  It was hard even to keep up with the story’s unlikely twists and turns as the days passed.
Amid the chaos and heartbreak of the past week’s news, I found myself remembering a poem composed a year after the Great War ended.  It’s “The Second Coming,” by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  As Yeats wrote almost a hundred years ago, so it seems to be today: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”1
We could see that breakdown of the center in the coverage of the protests at Mizzou.  I was struck by a poignant video posted on social media and reported by The Kansas City Star.2  It shows former university President Tim Wolfe being confronted on the street by a group of black students.  It’s especially sad to me because the president knows the conversation is going to fail before it even begins.  A student asks him, “What do you think systematic oppression is?”  Wolfe says, “I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.”  He may not understand systematic oppression, but he does understand that he and the students inhabit very different realities.  So he says it a second time:  “I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.  Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe you have equal opportunity for success….”  And that’s all you can hear of his response, because the students shout him down, demanding, “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression?!”  And then Wolfe turns and walks away.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” 
So what about the content of the students’ question?  Does the controversy at Mizzou reflect racism at a systemic level?  To me, that’s the real question underlying the racial discord our nation has been experiencing, especially in the past year.  We’ve seen a pattern:  Something happens that spurs the anger of black citizens, whether it’s conflict with the police, or black people being shot at church, or university administrators ignoring protests.  Whatever it is, something happens – and two competing narratives arise.  One narrative says these are specific, tragic incidents caused by broken individuals in a confluence of momentary circumstances.  The other narrative says these tragic incidents reflect a systemic power differential combined with prejudice – in other words, racism.  The chasm between these two narratives is vast.  It is so vast that, as multiple protests have sprung up in the past year, I’ve heard people say, in complete sincerity, “I just don’t understand what they’re protesting about.”  With the news from Mizzou this week, I think the chasm remains about as wide as it was a year ago, when protests in Ferguson, Mo., dominated the news.  Twelve months later, we’re really no better at entering into someone else’s narrative.  Things are still falling apart, and the center seems barely to be holding.
Uncertainty and chaos are nothing new, of course.  This morning, the lectionary happens to give us readings that speak to the uncertainty and chaos of two other significant moments in the life of God’s people.  The reading from Daniel is the end of a prophetic vision in which the writer describes how he hopes God will deliver the Jewish people from the reign of an oppressive Syrian ruler in the mid-160s BC.  Even though God’s people will be delivered from their suffering, the prophet says, the process won’t be pretty:  “There shall be a time of anguish such as has never existed,” the prophet writes (12:1).  But the outcome will bring life to those presently suffering and resurrection to the faithful departed; it’s a glimpse of the end of the age. 
Similarly, in the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus is warning the disciples about serious challenges for the Jewish people coming down the line in that time and place.  He tells them the Temple will be destroyed amid “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7) – a reality Jerusalem experienced when the Romans crushed a rebellion in 70 AD.  But here’s the point, Jesus says:  Don’t mistake passing chaos for the coming of the Kingdom at the end of the age.  All “this must take place,” he says, “but the end is still to come” (13:7).  Uncertainty and chaos may reign in the moment, but they’re not the end of the story.
So what is the end of the story?  Well, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ll be celebrating the feast of St. Andrew next Sunday, we would hear about the end of the story in the readings next week.  For the rest of the Church, next week is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate what the author of the Book of Daniel was also celebrating: that the Kingdom of God, and the kingship of the messiah, supersedes all other claims of authority.  In the fullness of time, Christ will come in ultimate power, healing things that fall apart, holding all peoples together, gathering the nations before the glory of the heavenly throne.  Clearly that process is neither quick nor easy nor free of suffering along the way.  But it is the arc of history, the arc of reconciliation, the arc of the kingship of God.
So, in times of uncertainty and chaos, our call as followers of Christ the King is to be harbingers of his rule and reign.  That means two things:  First, we must consciously, intentionally, insistently refuse to lose hope, even when things fall apart and the center seems not to hold.  And second, as a sacramental proclamation of that hope in the power of our risen Lord and reigning king, we must bring our king’s rule to life in the here and now. 
I wrote about one example of that in the newsletter and bulletin this week.  At Diocesan Convention, Fr. Marcus and Cheryl Cementina led a session helping people talk about racism out loud.  People shared their fears of even addressing the topic.  We spoke about prejudices.  We struggled with the difference between political correctness and beloved community.  We raised the awkward question of whether black people should modify culturally conditioned behaviors to fit white culture, or whether white culture should flex to accommodate them.  It was a glimpse of the kingdom, I believe – a glimpse of what it looks like when the center does hold and community is knit together.
We’ve seen that here at St. Andrew’s, too, during this year of discord and division on our nation’s streets and campuses.  In May, we went to United Missionary Baptist Church on the east side to worship with our black brothers and sisters.  Our choir sang, and I preached, and we all raised our prayers together.  Then in August, the people of United Missionary Baptist came here and shared Eucharist with us, with Pastor Mike Patton preaching and their choir bringing down the house.  Well, in the coming year, we’ll keep moving down this road of reconciliation.  We’ll worship at United Missionary Baptist again on Sunday, Jan. 17 (and there will be worship here that morning, too).  For Lent, we’re putting together a series of shared Bible study, so we can learn firsthand how our brothers and sisters hear the Good News in a different context.  And we’ll be collaborating in mission, too, serving together as agents of healing and new life.  You’ve heard about the social-entrepreneurial start-up we’ve been supporting, Empower the Parent to Empower the Child, which trains moms for solid parenting and living-wage jobs.  Well, I spoke with Pastor Mike this week, and United Missionary Baptist is interested in getting involved, too, with some of its members serving as mentors for women in the program. 
We’re doing this because we worship a common king.  We’re doing this because Jesus is Lord over St. Andrew’s and United Missionary Baptist.  We’re doing this because Jesus is Lord over the protesters at Mizzou and the university’s administrative team.  We’re doing this because the Church, at its best, is the center that can and will hold, a sacred space we can inhabit together, where we can learn from each other and enter into each other’s narrative, without feeling the need to tear the other narrative down.  We worship a common king who longs to deliver us from both interpersonal and systemic harm.  We worship a common king who lovingly, peacefully, powerfully demands that we turn away from turning away from each other.  In fact, we worship a common king who will soon take William Butler Yeats’ poem full circle, though Yeats wouldn’t have seen it this way.  Advent is coming, when our common king will take off his crown, and bend down low, and enter into the muck and the mire of this blessed creation that always seems to teeter on the brink of despair.  Our king is coming, not in the regalia of power but emptied of power as he asks us to be, “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.”1

  1. Yeats, William Butler.  “The Second Coming.”  Available at:
  2. Williams, Mara Rose, and Tod Palmer.  “Tensions over racial issues at University of Missouri smolder amid calls for ouster of president.”  Kansas City Star, Nov. 8, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Nov. 12, 2015.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Making Space for Daily Bread

[Homily from Ascend liturgy, Nov. 8, 2015]
In tonight’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Elijah is living on borrowed time.  He’s challenged the authority of an evil king, so he lit out for the country to hide.  He’s been relying on food brought by the birds, and now his water source has dried up.  It’s not exactly a sustainable model.
            So God, who’s pretty good at providing daily bread, tells Elijah to go ask a poor widow for food in the midst of a drought.  It’s kind of like passing the plate at the soup kitchen.  This widow is down to her last handful of the meal she uses to make bread.  But the prophet asks her to give up the last little bit she has, all she has to live on, even in the face of famine.  Elijah tells her not to be afraid – in fact, to feed him first and then bake some bread for herself and her child.  To our ears, it sounds appalling.  But Elijah brings God’s word of abundance into this world of scarcity:  The meal and the oil will hold out until the rains come, Elijah says.  And they do.  Elijah, the widow, and her child – they all eat happily ever after.
            Trusting God’s abundance….  We see the same dynamic in the Gospel story of the poor widow’s offering to the Temple treasury.  Jesus and his followers are watching people put their money in the offering plate, so to speak.  Jesus sees wealthy people giving large sums while the poor widow – the lowest and the least in society, someone with no visible means of support – the poor widow puts in small change, just a fraction of a worker’s daily wage.  For us, think of it as a dollar.  But Jesus recognizes value others don’t see.  He says to his followers that she put in “everything she had, all she had to live on” – which, translated literally, actually says, “She put in her whole life.”
            Giving your life.  That’s what both widows did.  How scary is that?
            I don’t know about you, but I’m not so willing to give my life away.  Sure, there are things I manage to turn over to God, and that makes me feel good for a while … right up until I see the next part of my life that I want to hang onto and control.  Whatever their motivations may have been, these two widows trusted, in an astonishing way, that God was going to take care of them.  In such a situation, our worldly wisdom says, “Great – but be sure you have a backup plan, too.”  Jesus says, no – there is no backup plan.  It’s not, “Trust and verify.”  It’s not, “Trust and plan wisely.”  It’s just, “Trust.”
            Now, I don’t think Jesus is saying to us, literally, that we should put “all [we] have to live on” into anybody’s offering plate.  He’s actually asking something harder.  Put your whole life into the offering plate.  Whatever you want to hold onto most, that’s the offering he’s asking for.
            We name that kind of deep trust every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, even if we may not realize it.  “Give us this day our daily bread,” we say.  Give us today our bread for tomorrow.  Teach us to rely on you, Lord.  And whatever we need to part with, in order to learn to trust … help us to let go of that.
            In your life, how is God asking you to trust?  What’s God asking you to give away to make room for your daily bread?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Heavenly Courage

[Sermon from All Saints' Day, Nov. 1, 2015]
In this strange and wonderful line of work, you find yourself at deathbeds.  And I'm blessed to say that I’ve never seen a death wrapped in fear.  Maybe I’ve just been fortunate, but my experience of being with people as they die is that they’re not afraid.  Nearly to a person, they seem to find peace and freedom.
Instead, where I see fear of death is among the living.  It expresses itself lots of ways:  We deny our age, being perpetually 39.  We have mid-life crises, making choices more like teenagers than 55-year-olds.  We build up possessions until we find ourselves possessed by them.  We invest ourselves in overwork, trying to hang our portrait on the office wall rather than build relationships at home.  We become chronically ill and seek a third or fourth or fifth opinion, unable to step into a new normal of decline.  And at the end of the line, we find ourselves prolonging life for the sake of postponing death.
Well, on this All Saints’ Day, as we come to the end of our sermon series on “The Generous God,” let me share with you what I believe to be God’s greatest blessing to us, the most astonishing act of generosity we’ll ever receive.  Here it is:  We need not fear death.  Let me say that again:  We need not fear death.  This truth is so central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ that we may miss it, like the fish that doesn’t notice the water in which it swims.  When we enter the waters of baptism, as Charlotte Cynthia Murray will do in a few minutes, we are buried with Christ in his death.  Enlivened by that water, we share in his resurrection.  Rising from that water, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  The battle with death is a battle we simply need not fight because it’s a battle Jesus has already won. 
We hear that story every Holy Week and Easter, and we heard it foreshadowed in this Gospel reading for All Saints’, too.  Though Jesus has healed many people before this crucial turn in the story, he chooses not to heal his dying friend.  He’s told that Lazarus is sick, but he waits two days to come see him.  By that time, it’s too late.  Lazarus’ sisters meet him on the road and rail at Jesus in their grief; and Jesus himself breaks down, sharing and bearing the sorrow of all.  But he’s done this to accomplish a larger purpose: that the crowd might believe Jesus is the Son of God, the one who brings eternal life into the here and now, the one whose restoration of Lazarus will cost him his own life at the hands of church and state.  Jesus tells them to roll away the stone, roll away the power of death; and then he commands, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43).  And “the dead man came out” (11:44), Scripture says, still bound in his shroud, still struggling, like us, with the remnants of death.  Unbind him, Jesus says, from the body of decay.  Unbind him from the human expectation of finitude.  Unbind his friends and family from their grief.  Unbind them and the disciples from their fear of what might come when the powers of the world do their worst.  Unbind them from their fear, Jesus says, and let them go.
For as we remind ourselves when we commend a saint to God’s care and pray the burial rite: To God’s faithful people, “life is changed, not ended” when we die (BCP 382).  Life is changed, not ended.  That means two things.  First, of course, it means death is not the end of our stories, no matter how final or fatal transitions may feel.  As baptized people who commit ourselves to follow Jesus as Lord and to live in the light of his sovereignty, we are assured that “neither death, nor life, not angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39) – much less the death of our physical bodies.  We know this, even though we may forget sometimes, in our worry and anxiety.  We know this promise for all the saints, the promise of life in God’s presence, the promise of heavenly life that never ends.
What we may not know so well is the other stunning implication of that statement that “life is changed, not ended” when we die.  If it’s true that life is all of a piece, from birth to heavenly life, then we must be living in eternal life right now, not merely waiting for it later, in the sweet by and by.  Of course, we don’t experience it as fully now as we will.  For now, we still know “mourning and crying and pain” (Revelation 21:4).  We still suffer the brokenness of creation and the smallness of our own hearts.  But that is not the whole story because, just as the divine Word once spoke forth creation, the One now seated on the throne has spoken forth new creation:  “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).  God has given us the most astonishing gift of all, the gift of Christ’s resurrection.  And with it, we are set free from death now, even as we wait for life to be changed into its fullness.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says – present tense.  Welcome to the kingdom of heaven, every day you rise from sleep.
Some days, we’re blessed to see it more clearly than others.  I remember seeing it right here one morning, three years ago, when someone else stood in this pulpit.  It was Connie Smart.  One of the great sadnessses of my time here is that I was on sabbatical last fall, when Connie joined the company of saints gathered around the heavenly throne.  A couple of years before that, Connie had received the news of her cancer diagnosis; and all of us were fearful for her – fearful of the pain of treatment, fearful of the disease’s course, fearful of the likely outcome.  Well, Connie stood here in this pulpit one Sunday morning, and she proclaimed eternal life in the here and now.  She proclaimed the love of her family, and the love of her church family, and the love of God she’d known through her life.  And then, she said,
“This cancer has turned my prayer life in a different direction.…  In my daily prayers, I [once] held up others in need [and] expressed my thankfulness for my many blessings….  However, now I really want to have more one-on-one [with God] by asking questions and hearing his answers.…  I have been blessed with an amazing life, and I have no fear of dying.…  It’s up to us to learn and be trusting, through our ears and our hearts, and to know, no matter what, that [God is] always there for us.”1
With the power of death set aside, Christ invites us to embrace what Connie embraced: courage.  Heavenly courage.  If we truly don’t fear death, imagine what that freedom empowers us to do.  It empowers us to live as new creations.  It empowers us be the people we talk ourselves out of being – people who love unreservedly, people who speak the truth, people who give generously from abundance, people who risk – not for our own gain but to accomplish God’s purposes.  If we truly don’t fear death, we can be living sacraments of the generosity of God – icons of the Creator who gives us all we see and hold, icons of the Son who gives himself to redeem us, icons of the Spirit who gives us life day by day. 
So free us, generous God, from the boundaries the world sets around us.  Free us from the fear of death that keeps us small and still.  Unbind your saints, Lord, and let us go.

  1. Smart, Connie.  Address to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Feb. 23, 2012.  St. Andrew’s Archives.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Gift of Sacrifice

[Sermon from Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015]
This is the second installment of our sermon series, “The Generous God,” and the theme we’d planned to explore today was sacrifice.  As it happened, some tragic news this week brought the “gift of sacrifice” to newscasts and front pages, too.  The city mourned the loss of two firefighters in the line of duty, Larry Leggio and John Mesh, two men who put their lives on the line every day they went to work.  Their sacrifice makes us grieve, but I think sacrifice also makes us uncomfortable – at least it does me.  Did it have to happen; could the suffering have been avoided?  And deeper, there’s the question of whether the rest of us deserved it.  I often think of the scene at the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan, when the now-older private tearfully asks his wife, “Have I been a good man?”  Decades after the battle, he still doesn’t feel worthy of the suffering and loss it took to save his life.
I remember, in the years before seminary, driving from Kansas City to Springfield.  There was a billboard for a Baptist Church just outside Springfield that read, “Jesus Saves – the Sacrifice for Your Sins.”  That’s not exactly a new idea, especially in Southwest Missouri.  But I was wrestling with God at that point about this whole priesthood thing, and one of my big struggles was Jesus being sacrificed on the cross.  I hated that idea.  Why did the Son of God have to come to earth and die?  Well, the standard answer would be, “To save us from our sins.”  OK.  So, I thought, are my sins really that bad that I needed Jesus to be sacrificed to take them away?  I mean, come on, God:  I don’t smoke; I don’t drink that much; I don’t sleep around; I basically try to be a good person and put others first most of the time.  Am I really wallowing so deep in moral depravity that I needed God’s Son to die to take that stain away?  That’s not really the “me” I like to see.
Well, God won the wrestling match and I went to seminary; but seminary didn’t get me much further with all this.  I did get a handy label for this doctrine I didn’t like: substitutionary atonement.  So, “atonement” is a fine thing.  It actually means just what the pieces of the word say: “at-one-ment.”  It’s the idea that God’s mission involves restoring the broken relationship between God and people, making us “at one.”  Cool.  But that billboard near Springfield reflected a particular way of understanding the atonement – a substitutionary model.  It’s actually a medieval notion rooted in the social relationships between serfs and the lord of their manor.  Here it is, in a nutshell:  By turning away from God through original sin, humanity had inflicted an outrageous moral insult against God; and God, the divine lord of the manor, had to receive satisfaction from his offending serfs.  But here’s the problem:  No sinful human could ever pay what was owed to balance the scales.  Only a human who didn’t share in the offense could make satisfaction.  And the only human who would meet that criterion would be God’s own Son.  So, the blood of his sacrifice washed away the offenses of all sinful humanity. 
Well, several of my classmates and I really balked at that view of atonement.  We came from spiritual backgrounds where sin wasn’t emphasized nearly as much as humanity’s creation in God’s image and potential for good.   And we liked it that way.  I mean, who wants to see yourself as inherently broken, with no hope of solving your own problems?  Especially in American culture, we’re all about solving our own problems, right?  Plus, all that “washed in the blood of the Lamb” stuff felt more than a little creepy.  And honestly, we didn’t have any idea what our classmates meant when they said it.
I may not be the only Episcopalian who’s been uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus had to be sacrificed to pay the debt of my sins.  But yet, there it is – a theological truth we have to wrestle with, like Jacob wrestling with the angel.  I mean, Jesus’ sacrifice runs all though the Prayer Book.  In just a few minutes, we’ll remember that he “stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP 362)
Running into that language is like a walk I took at Conception Abbey in north Missouri this past week.  The place has a lovely walking path through the beauty of creation, taking you around a peaceful pond, over rolling hills, through an apple orchard, into a stand of trees – and then, face to face with a life-sized man hanging on a cross.  That sacrifice just won’t go away, no matter how much I may not want to see myself in need of it.
Well, here’s the truth, as best as I can see it now.  I am absolutely in need of redemption.  And I use that word, “redemption,” on purpose.  It’s what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel reading this morning.  Now, “redemption” is one of those church words, like salvation and justification, words that get all blended together like theological granola; and it’s hard to sort out the mix.  Well, in biblical times – and, actually, in America’s history, too – redemption meant something very specific: buying someone out of captivity or slavery.  If you were a prisoner or a slave, and someone paid your captor a certain price, that person “redeemed” you and literally set you free.
So what does that have to do with you and me?  Well, let me speak for myself.  I am bound in slavery to powers far greater than my poor power to withstand.  Left to my own devices, I am bound to sin.  That works in both senses of the word “bound”:  I will sin; and I am held captive by the inclination to sin.  I’m not killing anybody or sleeping around.  But every blessed day, I distance myself from love so much more to be desired than what I find myself wanting instead.  And what’s that?  I want to be free from mistakes.  I want to accomplish a lot – more than other people, in fact.  And I want to be recognized for it, to get a little credit for what I’m able to do.  In a word, the sin is pride. 
We heard about that sin in today’s Gospel reading, too.  James and John have heard Jesus talking about how he’ll soon suffer and die but then be raised into glory – and they’re looking to secure their spots in the kingdom land.  They say to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37).  We all have our moments there with James and John – moments when we try to get what we can, usually at the expense of someone else.  It happens even when we don’t think of it – when we consume resources while others go hungry, when we get out of a traffic ticket that would land someone else in jail.  I do that kind of thing, taking the advantages I can take – and I don’t even realize it.  Because I am bound to sin, shackled to separation from God, and I cannot free myself from it.  I am enslaved to powers I cannot overcome on my own.
So were the Jewish people held in exile by the Babylonians.  They were the ones to whom the prophet Isaiah wrote about a suffering servant whose sacrifice would free God’s people and leave the rulers of the nations in slack-jawed astonishment.  Also enslaved were the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, held under the thumb of their oppressors, the Romans and the Pharisees alike, beating down regular folks with the weapons of empire and religion.  Those rulers “lord it over” their subjects, Jesus says, and “their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you.” (Mark 10:42-43)
It is not so among you, for I have come to free you, Jesus says.  I have come to give my life as your “ransom” and liberate you from captivity, Jesus says.  In Christ, God has not sacrificed a son in an act of cosmic child abuse.  In Christ, God has entered into the ultimate battle with sin and death in the most unthinkable but mighty way – by pouring out God’s own self.  By sacrificing God’s own self.  That is not simply a good man hanging on the cross.  That is the second person of the Trinity, paradoxically battling the power of sin by letting whips strip flesh, battling the power of death by letting his broken body die.  But then, with the dread foe lulled into complacency, God in Christ arises; and death’s grip on life is broken forever.  No longer can sin and death claim the last word, because now the last word is, “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).
And to that, what can I say?  Thank you?  Jesus, you’ve fought and died to win a battle I didn’t even want to admit I faced.  “Thank you” hardly seems enough.
Well, then – what?  How does the ransomed hostage repay his liberator?  By taking up the liberator’s mission, costly though it may be.  Jesus says to James and John, “You will drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39).  We follow the one who sets the prisoners free, who breaks the captives’ chains, who pays the price required to prove that love’s worth more than power or prestige.  We follow the God who came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. 
And so, I think the only way we can say “thank you” is by walking Christ’s path just as he walked ours.  We say “thank you” by giving of ourselves for those still bound in darkness and the shadow of death.  We say “thank you” by being the Church and going into this world not to be served but to serve.  We say “thank you” by giving ourselves away.
And when we do that – as every giver knows – when we do that, we find ourselves made new.  That path of sacrifice leads straight to Easter morning.  You’re never more alive than when you’re bringing life to someone else – in gifts of time, in gifts of talent, in gifts of treasure.  For broken people like us, struggling always against the power of our own disordered desire and the power of a world turned sour – when broken people like us follow the path of sacrifice, that’s when we know the deepest joy.  That path leads us back to the Garden, back to the wholeness God intended for each of us in the beginning.  That joy you know when you dig down deep and give yourself away – that’s nothing less than the Trinity’s dance of creation, the joy of being the image and likeness of God, the joy of pouring divine love straight from your own broken heart.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Gratefully Giving Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies

[Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015.]
In the midst of the day-to-day pressures and craziness of our lives, it’s good sometimes to step back and really notice how richly we’ve been blessed – actively call to mind what God has given us.  I’ve been struck by this recently in my own prayer life, both how God has blessed me and my need to live that blessing out loud.  So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you some of what’s been on my heart.
This year, Ann and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary, a milestone that, for the past 14 years of her illness, I seriously doubted we’d ever reach.  Our daughter, Kathryn, is safely in London, starting a graduate program.  Our son, Dan, is working, living on his own, and happy – more consistently happy than I’ve ever known him to be.  I get to serve an amazing parish, some of the most gifted and faithful people I’ve ever known.  I get to serve with richly talented clergy and staff who deeply love God and the people around them.  I get to write a book – I have a contract with Church Publishing for a book based on my sabbatical project last year.  I get to live in a country where, in a single election, we’re free to entertain the possibility of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as candidates for the highest office in the land.  And on Friday, I got to be here with Janet Smith and Lynn Kellen, and many of you, as we blessed their civil marriage using the same rite we’d use for anyone else.
I am deeply, richly, astoundingly blessed.  And you know what?  I don’t always feel it.  I sometimes find myself back there with the people of Israel in the wilderness, as we heard in the first reading today.  They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for what seems like forever.  God has given them manna, divine sustenance, the “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25) come down from heaven every day just for them.  But by this point, they’re sick of it.  They want meat.  “Hey, Moses,” they complain, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. …  Now … there’s nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:5-6)
I had lunch recently with my old boss from the American Academy of Family Physicians, where I used to be managing editor of their practice-management journal.  That was the job I left when God nudged harder than we could resist and we moved off to Texas for seminary.  I was telling my old boss about all the cool things going on here at church.  And at the same time, I found myself remembering work life as I’d known it then.  I went to work every day at 8:30.  I took a lunch break.  I left at 5.  I had a nice little cubicle where I edited articles about running physician practices.  I had a couple of meetings a week, never at night.  Frankly, I had almost no stress coming from my work life.  And as I talked with my old boss, those melons and leeks and onions in Egypt were sounding pretty good in my memory of working at the Academy.  What was it, God, that was so wrong with that life?  I mean, yeah, sure, there’s manna raining down for me here every morning – mortals eating the bread of angels, blah, blah, blah. 
You know, sometimes even astonishing blessing becomes run of the mill – or, worse, it feels like one burden after another.
In the story, it isn’t just the people of Israel who are feeling resentful; it’s Moses, too.  He’s had enough of everybody’s complaints about all this manna they have to eat.  And more troubling, he feels like God doesn’t really care about the burden he’s been carrying.  In the stress of that moment, even Moses forgets his own story: saved from death as an infant … raised as royalty in Pharaoh’s palace … given a prophet’s eye and heart to see his people’s need for freedom … commissioned by God’s fiery Spirit  to lead them … trumping the power of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt … delivered by God to walk through the Red Sea as on dry land … and now fed with the bread of angels in the wilderness, on the way to the land of promise.  All that’s true, but the pressure gets to Moses anyway.  And he forgets his own story.
God’s answer to Moses is this:  Look for the story’s next chapter.  You know how I’ve been with you, God says; trust that I’m with you now.  Look around you: You’ve got 70 people right here who will help you bear your burden.  Look for my next gift to come from this fountain of blessing, God says, and honor me for it.  See and know that all that you have, and all that you are, and all that you will be comes not by your own might or power but by the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6).  And then, stop whining and say thank you for the gift. 
And Moses does.  He sees this exercise in collaborative leadership paying off, with scores of his people speaking as God’s own agents; and he exclaims, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).  Though he’d just been railing against a God who didn’t seem to care, Moses now remembers God’s M.O.: Even in the darkness, the next blessing is just around the corner.
So when we receive a gift, especially a gift we can never really repay – when we eat the bread of angels – what’s our response?  I think about my relationship with my parents.  They blessed me with life, and raised me in love, and taught me to love, and have been there through my ups and downs for 50 years.  How on earth do I pay that back?  Well, we talk on the phone each week, which is a good outward and visible way to live gratitude.  But the love they gave me also makes me want to love – to be the best husband I can be, and the best father I can be, and the best priest I can be.  And the same is true of the love I know from Ann, and from Kathryn and Dan, and from you.  Those gifts of love make me remember, deep in my bones, how incredibly blessed I am.  And those gifts of love make me want to love in return.  Like the song says, you want to pass it on.  You want to pay it forward.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll begin a season of gratitude.  In those four weeks, we’ll be asking you to remember, specifically, what you’re grateful for; and we’ll be asking you to name what it is that you’ve done, or are doing, or will do in gratitude for the gifts you’ve received.  In the Narthex, we’ll have a couple of trees on the wall (don’t worry, they’re vinyl, and they’ll come right off again).  On those four Sundays and through the fall, we’ll ask you to name your gratitude – to write down on one leaf a gift you’re grateful for, and then to write on another leaf the response of gratitude that comes from that gift. 
What do those responses of gratitude look like?  The short answer is this:  They look like your whole life.  In just a few minutes, there at Jesus’ altar, we will offer not just gifts of bread and wine; we will “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies” (BCP 342).  One essential part of that offering, which we also bring to God’s table every week, is the outward and visible sign of all we have: the sacrament of money. 
Our offering of money is our relationship with God in a nutshell.  It’s not about the amount; it’s about the place of that offering in your life.  Now, for those of you who are having a Moses moment right now, noticing some resentment slithering around in the shadowy corners of your heart, let me tell you:  I’ve been there.  I remember – maybe 20 years ago now, before seminary – I remember coming out of church one night after a meeting, sitting in my car, and fuming.  Someone had said something similar to what I’m saying to you; and I heard it, at best, as a rationalization and, at worst, as a scam.  They’d been talking about tithing, about giving back to God 10 percent of the income God has given us, and I heard it as simply a regressive tax.  I thought it was deeply unfair, and maybe a little disingenuous, for the Church to tell me that poor people and rich people need to give at the same rate (and, of course, I saw myself as one of the poor people in that scenario).  I worked up a nice little internal tirade against God – how I didn’t have enough anyway, and now you want me to have less? 
But in the end, I turned in a pledge card and began letting God go to work on me.  Long story short:  Today, I tithe from “my” salary because I’ve come to see that it’s not actually my salary.  Yes, I work hard.  But what I receive – from every breath I take, to every relationship I live, to every dollar I earn – all that I receive is God’s, on loan to me in the present moment, given from a well of love I cannot fathom and into which God asks me to toss back the coin of one-tenth – not because the well will run dry without it but because I need to remember whose well it is.
I may not be the only one who finds himself walking in Moses’ sandals from time to time, resentful of life’s challenges rather than grateful to live the story of one amazing blessing after another.  If that sounds familiar to you, I hope you’ll join me in cataloging the cascade of blessings that have come your way.  Bring some to mind, write them down, and then ask yourself: “How do I pay this forward?”
And let me offer one more concrete practice, an ancient and efficacious antivenin to the snakebite of resentment.  It’s simply a prayer – an amazing prayer, actually.  Those of us who grew up in the Episcopal Church before the 1979 Prayer Book might still have this prayer ringing around in our hearts, the way we sometimes remember snippets of bedtime stories.  Please turn to page 101 in the Prayer Book, to the end of the service of Morning Prayer, and find “The General Thanksgiving.”  We’ll offer it now, and I would commend it to your daily use to keep that snake of resentment at bay.  Let us pray:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made.  We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages.  Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dog Grooming in the Kingdom of God

[Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015]
It’s Labor Day weekend, the end of the “lazy, hazy days of summer.”  For some of us, this weekend means time at the lake, brats on the grill, and cold beer to wash them down.  For others of us, we’re here in church this morning; and the lectionary gives us tougher food to chew:  A reading from the Letter of James about practicing love for the poor, and a Gospel reading about Jesus bringing the kingdom of God to people outside the bounds of Jewish society.  Oh, and by the way, as we celebrate Labor Day, our city is in the midst of a political battle about labor, arguing over raising the minimum wage.  So, as much as some of us might want an end-of-summer reflection on the beauty of creation at the lake, I’m afraid God’s giving us meatier issues today. 
That minimum-wage proposal is on hold, at least for the moment.  In July, the City Council passed a measure increasing the minimum wage here to $13 an hour by 2020.  It was intended as a middle-way approach; and like many middle-way approaches, it angered people on both sides of the debate.  Church and social-justice groups are petitioning for a vote in November to raise it to $15 an hour instead; business groups are petitioning to keep it where it is; and the state Legislature will soon try to make any local minimum wage illegal.1  So it’s a complicated time.
Now, I can hear some of you thinking this isn’t a religious issue and shouldn’t be getting air time on a Sunday morning.  But I would say poverty is an issue of faith, and Scripture seems to back me up.  If you search the Bible for the words “poverty” or “poor,” you get 238 verses.  Some of the most pointed are in the Letter of James, as we heard this morning.  Of course, like any other issue of faith, the fun comes in the interpretation.  At one end of the political spectrum, people argue that raising the minimum wage would reveal the divine justice of God’s kingdom because, in Scripture and tradition, God is always trying to advance the interests of the poor.  At the other end of the political spectrum, people argue that raising the minimum wage would harm the working poor by cutting jobs and putting more people out of work; so, they would say, letting the market create opportunity is the best way to reveal God’s kingdom and answer “the cry of the poor” (Proverbs 21:14). 
Well, I don’t claim to know much with certainty, but I want to share with you three things I do know to be true. 
First, if you ask five economists about raising the minimum wage, you’ll get five different answers about the likely effects.  But probably even five economists would agree that regardless of whether we raise the minimum wage or keep it where it is, the law of unintended consequences will put up roadblocks along each side’s highway to the kingdom of God.  Raising the wage will probably cause at least some jobs to evaporate.  Not raising the wage maintains a status quo in which lots of the people who through the lunch line at the Kansas City Community Kitchen actually have jobs but don’t earn a living.  Myself, I think it should be more than $7.65 an hour.  But raising the wage, or not, will bring outcomes neither side wants to see.
Here’s the second thing I know to be true:  In issues that quickly move to abstraction, it helps to walk in someone else’s shoes.  I have never tried to live on minimum wage.  But recently, I’ve seen this question through the eyes of someone I love – my son, Dan.  Dan works at a local country club serving food and drinks.  He’s been making more than minimum wage, $9.50 an hour.  And he loves it.  As some of you know, Dan decided not to go back to college this year but to work full-time, living in his own apartment and paying his own bills.  He loves his job, and he loves being (more or less) a grown-up.  For Dan, at 19 years old, he’s been making it just fine on $9.50 an hour.  But … he’s still on my health insurance; he doesn’t own a car; and he doesn’t have a family.  What amounts to a living wage for him now won’t be a living wage as his life changes.  He’ll need to grow into positions of greater responsibility and higher pay; and he may well need to go back to school to make that happen.  Now, here’s where it gets interesting.  Ann and I are blessed in that we could help him do that.  When he wants to go back to school, he and we probably can find a way to make that happen.  But there are thousands of people in our city who don’t have the social and financial capital even to consider a future like that.  My son can work his way up, but it’s tremendously harder for a mom at Operation Breakthrough or a guy who didn’t finish high school, someone who moves from one minimum-wage job to another.  They need something to change.
And here’s where all this becomes an issue of discipleship for us.  Throughout Scripture, God calls us to recognize the full humanity of those who live past the boundaries of our social worlds and then act to bring God’s kingdom to life among them.  In today’s Gospel reading, we see that even Jesus – being fully human as well as fully divine – even Jesus was boxed in by his social expectations.  He’s approached by a woman who’s not a Jew but who’s heard about the Spirit’s power working through Jesus; and she asks him to heal her daughter.  Before he thinks better of it, Jesus says “no” because she’s one of “those” people, a foreigner, someone outside the Jewish social world; and Jesus had come to bring God’s healing to the people of Israel.  So he calls her a “dog” and says the master’s “children” should be fed first (Mark 7:27).  Yikes – so much for warm-and-fuzzy Jesus.  But the woman’s faith makes Jesus stop short and see that, yes, she, too, is a beloved child of the Most High God – someone worthy of a miracle, someone worthy of an in-breaking of God’s ordering of things, even though she was outside Jesus’ world.  When we, too, see “those people” as children of God, we see that they have just as much claim on God’s blessings as we do.
So here’s the third thing I know to be true.  We have some power, and with it the responsibility, to help make the kingdom of God come to life in our own spheres of influence.  God asks us to open doors between this conflicted world we inhabit and God’s commonwealth just waiting to break in.  For those of us in a position to set other people’s wages, including those of us who set wages here at church, we need to imagine ourselves living the life those wages make possible.  To whom responsibility is given, loving stewardship is expected. 
So if God is asking us to open doors between our world and the reign and rule of God for the working poor, what might that mean for ministry at St. Andrew’s?  What can the church do?  Well, we can serve working-poor people directly, as we do each week at the Kitchen downtown.  We can support kids and teachers in our partner schools and try to equip them to succeed.  And we can do something that takes outreach ministry in a new direction, something bridging the political gap by preparing poor people for jobs that pay even more than an increased minimum wage.  You may have seen in the Star2 or on TV3 last week the good news about Natasha Kirsch and her social entrepreneurial start-up, Empower the Parent to Empower the Child, or EPEC.  Natasha is one of the first partners we’ve brought into the Red Door Center, which is St. Andrew’s own social-entrepreneurship incubator.  For more than a year now, officing out of St. Andrew’s, Natasha has been working with church members to build a board, raise money, network with city officials and civic leaders, and find a permanent location for her enterprise.  And what is it she’s creating?  EPEC will train unemployed and underemployed people for jobs as dog groomers.  Little did we know there’s a huge demand for dog groomers in Kansas City and that they earn $19 an hour.  So Natasha’s start-up will train people to groom dogs but also to manage their household income, and be good parents, and succeed in the workplace.  She’s gathering clients from Operation Breakthrough, the Rose Brooks Center, and other agencies.  And as of last week, the City Council is leasing her a formerly vacant building, dirt cheap.  Parishioners here helped her get that building, and have designed its renovations, and have helped her raise the construction costs, and serve on her board of directors.  And, to complete the circle, Natasha is now a part of this church community, serving on our Outreach Commission and worshiping here with us.  Our Red Door Center has incubated EPEC to a point where it’s now taking flight.  And 18 students a year will see their lives, and the lives of their families, transformed by it. 
You can say, well, that’s only 18 people a year.  OK.  But Jesus healed individual people, too.  We are commissioned to enact God’s reign within the scope of our spheres of influence.  And when we do, those spheres of influence grow as others see and know the reign of God breaking into our reality and transforming our sometimes-so-small sense of what’s possible.  We serve as agents of the God for whom nothing is impossible, even in this complicated and broken world. 
It’s easy to get stuck on the horns of political controversy.  And it’s even easier for many of us to avoid the conflicts that political controversy brings.  You’ve heard me say before that our congregation’s functional vision statement has sometimes been, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”  We carry a long history of that, so it’s understandable that we’re not exactly wired, as a church, to jump into political issues.  But we can’t let that keep us from truly seeing the children of God on the margins of our awareness.  We can’t let that keep us from acting as God’s agents to change the realities that keep people trapped in poverty and hopelessness.  We serve a God who makes the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk – and who brings good news to the poor.  Well, amazingly enough, God chooses to do that through us, commissioning even us both to speak and enact good news to the poor, sending even us to say: “Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God … he will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)  It is nothing less than miraculous what God can do when we live out the “royal law” – to love our neighbors as ourselves (James 2:8).  We can’t just wish the working poor well, in the abstract, and hope that God will be nice enough to take care of them.  As James says, “Faith without works is dead.”  But faith with works?  That is divine – God’s own love, in the flesh.

1.       Alonzo, Austin.  “Competing referendums put brakes on KC minimum wage increase.”  Kansas City Business Journal, Aug. 17, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.
2.       Horsley, Lynn.  ‘KC dog grooming school aims to provide jobs to unemployed parents.”  Kansas City Star, Aug. 26, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.
3.       Pepitone, John.  “City Council to approve plan to create dog grooming school aimed at helping single moms get jobs.”  Fox 4 News Kansas City, Aug. 27, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.