Monday, April 20, 2015

Not Judges but Witnesses

[Sermon from Sunday, April 19, 2015]
Welcome to the second in our six-week sermon series, “A Critical Conversation: Exploring the Church’s Harsh Reviews.”  The idea is to take seriously the perspectives of people who find churches out of touch with the real world, opposed to science, overly political, hypocritical – and, this morning, people who find churches to be judgmental and self-righteous.  For many of the 43 percent of Americans who are staying away from church,1 this describes the church they’re staying away from. 
And hearing today’s readings, you might see why some people associate “church” with judgment and self-righteousness.  I mean, the word “sin” comes up nine times in the Scriptures we just heard.  In the Acts reading, Peter lays it on the line to people of Jerusalem, telling them they rejected “the Holy and Righteous One,” Jesus, “and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”  He says, “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” (Acts 3:14-15,19)  The reading from the First Letter of John says, “No one who abides in Jesus sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him” (3:6).  I’m sure in many churches using the Common Lectionary, the folks are hearing a nice diatribe on specific sins in today’s world right about now.
If you’ve encountered churches as judgmental and self-righteous, I’m sorry.  There have been times in the Church’s history, and certainly ugly moments on the nightly news, when supposedly faithful people have been more than ready to point out the speck in someone else’s eye while avoiding the log in their own.  Some of it’s just hating – a disfigurement of Jesus’ message of love, beating up on other people out of bigotry and calling it “good news.”  If you see self-proclaimed “Christians” carrying protest signs saying that God hates some class of people – God’s own children, by the way, people God created – that’s all it takes for a lot of us to say, “No, thank you.” 
That’s easy to understand.  But most churches aren’t of the Fred Phelps variety, literally carrying signs of hate into the world.  I think the temptation for churches more often is to imagine themselves as open and accepting while unintentionally making some people feel excluded.  In the Episcopal Church, for example, that can sometimes manifest itself as the intolerance of the tolerant – the sense that, if you don’t meet the litmus test of having no litmus tests, this may not be the right community for you.
So for me, here’s the question.  If we reject the notion that God’s always looking for someone to condemn, how do we avoid going to the other extreme?  How do we keep from turning God into a whole lot of nothing and making Jesus into a bland poster boy for “It’s nice to be nice to the nice”?  We talk a lot about how the Episcopal Church is a “big tent,” a place where people who differ in background and perspective can come together, an image of the reconciled diversity of God’s good creation.  But, as Fr. Marcus and Mtr. Anne and I were discussing a few weeks ago, don’t even big tents have walls?  If the risen Jesus isn’t interested in seeing the Church, his body in the world, being an instrument of judgment for those who don’t toe the party line, then what does Jesus want the Church to be about?
I got a glimpse of at least one answer from an unlikely source this week.  Driving back from Springfield after visiting my parents, I was listening to All Things Considered on the radio.  And, in one of the rare moments when they weren’t doing the annual spring membership drive, there was a story about a new book from the columnist David Brooks.2  The book’s title is The Road to Character; and in it, Brooks is contrasting a past collective mindset of humility with what he calls our “culture of the Big Me,” a culture that celebrates the opinions and accomplishments of the self.  As a pundit and a “recovering secularist,” Brooks has come to see himself as the epitome of this cultural shift from humility to self-promotion.  He says, he’s “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to … appear more confident … than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear … more authoritative than I really am.”  He’s come to see that he’s been on a slippery slope toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness – a slippery slope that churches would do well to watch for, too.
In contrast to a culture where he says we “present the world with a highlight reel” of our lives, Brooks’ new book tells the stories of historical figures who came to “the turning point in a life toward maturity,” asking themselves, “‘What's the weakness I have that leads to behavior I'm not proud of?’”  In the stories of people like the social activist Dorothy Day, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and President Dwight Eisenhower, Brooks says he found a common element:  that they each looked deeply into themselves, confronted some core place of brokenness, and found a way to heal it.  As Brooks said, “By the end of their lives, they became strong in their weakest places.”  They managed to build characters that helped change the world.  They avoided our more common temptation: staking out positions without doing the hard, introspective, transformative work of cultivating virtues – virtues like courage, honesty, and especially humility.  As Brooks says, “Character is a way of living. It's not a series of positions you take.”
So maybe that’s a lens to help us read Scripture like some of the readings we just heard.  In each of these readings, there’s that hard word, the “S” word, the word that nice people like us don’t like to use: Sin.  For all the people who are wired to point at others and wag their fingers and rail against things they don’t like – for everyone who’s wired like that, there are those of us who are wired to avoid the conflict entirely, nice people trying to be nice to the nice.  But still that word is there, with a big letter “S” – Sin.
And that big-letter-S kind of sin is what Jesus is concerned about, in Scripture and in the ongoing life of the Body of Christ, the Church – the sin of separating ourselves from relationship.  No matter our perspective – progressive, conservative, libertarian, whatever – no matter our perspective, it’s easy to draw lines between what we see as right and wrong and then find ourselves separated from each other instead.  Now, we can have great conversations about specific issues – why one person thinks it’s sinful to ignore carbon emissions and climate change, while another person thinks it’s sinful to limit the productive capacity of business and industry.  That’s a great conversation.  But we’re never going to move past the art of dueling statistics and snarky catch phrases unless those conversation partners come together in the virtues of honesty and humility, recognizing their common brokenness first and foremost.
And – even more important – recognizing their common redemption, too.  Much to the chagrin of political pundits and religious judges, we are not saved by getting the answers right.  We are not saved by pointing out how the other side misses the mark.  We are saved, in the end, by following the risen Christ who heals our sin.  We are saved by following Jesus, who comes to us with nail holes in his hands and feet, gaping wounds that mark an astonishingly strong, life-giving, resurrected body – a body real enough to eat a piece of fish but operating on a whole different plane than our small world, a body that walks though doors that everyone else finds to be locked. 
We are that body.  We, the Church.  We are the risen body of Christ in the world – wounded, yes, but able to show the world a reality just beyond our self-centeredness, able to practice the virtues that bring the kingdom of God to life. 
The sin, the brokenness, the locked doors in our relationships with God and each other – those don’t disappear either by condemning the other or by wishing our differences away.  We have to look at those shut doors with our eyes wide open and then do the hard work of picking the lock.  We have to remember that each one of us isn’t any more holy than the person with whom we disagree the most.  We have to look to the examples of the saints we’ve known to build the virtues through which we imitate Christ, to deepen within our hearts the well of love that gives itself away. 
And we who love the Church have to cultivate a faith community in which honesty and courage and humility guard us from the temptation to become the pundits of our own small worlds.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now” the First Letter of John says.  “What we will be has not been revealed.  What we do know is this: When Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)  In the meantime, as we come to see the risen Christ more and more clearly, our call is not to be judges but to be witnesses – witnesses of the power of “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47), witnesses of the long, slow, hard work of characters built, hearts transformed, and lives made new. 

1.        Barna, George, and David Kinnaman.  Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.  Tyndale, 2014.

2.        “Take It From David Brooks: Career Success ‘Doesn’t Make You Happy.’”  All Things Considered, April 13, 2015.  National Public Radio.  Available at:  Accessed April 16, 2015.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Changing How the Story Goes

[Sermon from Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015]
On this glorious morning, with flowers seeming to spring from every surface, I want to tell you three stories of new life, three stories of resurrection.  Now, for some of us who’ve heard the Easter story year after year, the idea of resurrection is something we almost take for granted, crazy as that is.  But others of us here today might be more than a little skeptical that Jesus died and then actually came back, physically alive.  If that skepticism describes you, you’re in good company.  Jesus’ own followers weren’t looking for him to rise from the dead either.  They thought they knew how the story had gone, the story of a movement that became just that much too threatening to the powers that be.  The Romans had won; the religious authorities had won; Jesus’ movement had been crushed like so many before and after.  Resurrection would have been the last thing on a reasonable person’s mind – certainly then; maybe now, too.
Well, here’s resurrection story number 1 – the classic we just heard.  Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb, though John’s Gospel doesn’t say why.  Maybe she had more work to do in tending to the body; maybe she was simply tending to her own broken heart.  But what she finds is alarming:  The body is gone.  She probably fears grave robbers, someone wanting to intimidate Jesus’ followers by mutilating the corpse.  So she runs to get Peter and another disciple to help her find it.  The guys go into the tomb, the investigators on the scene, looking for answers.  Once they see the body is gone, at least one of them believes intellectually that Jesus must have been raised from the dead; but even his response is to go home and hide out.  The disciples thought they knew how this story would go, and they feared they’d be next on the authorities’ hit list.  Mary also looks into the tomb, but she isn’t so much looking for answers; she’s looking for Jesus himself.  She’s yearning for the connection she knew, with him and with God through him.  She’s aching for relationship.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus shows up, but he looks like anybody else, passing for the guy who cuts the grass.  And with a single word, Jesus changes the story everyone “knew” to be true.  He speaks her name: “Mary!” (John 20:16).  That’s all it takes for Mary’s world to change.  In that moment of intimacy, in the single word that encapsulates her whole self, Mary knows Jesus is alive – and not just alive, but in charge.  “I have seen the Lord!” she exclaims to the other disciples (John 20:18).  Jesus is alive, and so is Mary – in a way she’s never known before.
OK, here’s resurrection story number 2 – a story of new life for an old faith.  We heard about it in the second reading this morning.  In the months after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciple Peter had been taking this resurrection story on the road, sharing it with as many of his fellow Jews as he could.  The Jews were the people Jesus had been trying to reach, after all.  He was “the king of the Jews,” the one to fulfill the work of the greatest kings and prophets of Israel.  So Peter thinks he knows how this story should go:  He’s supposed to tell about Jesus, heal folks, and bring new life to the rest of the Jewish people.  But then Peter has a vision in which God tells him the rules have changed.  It’s not just the Jews that God’s trying to reach – it’s everybody.  God brings a Roman army officer named Cornelius to meet Peter – not exactly a friend to a Jewish insurrectionist.  But in his conversation with Cornelius, Peter comes to see that God has in mind for everybody to find new life – including the oppressors, including the pagans, including … well … everybody.  And that “everybody” includes Peter’s own community of faith, too.  God changes the story they “knew” to be true by showing Peter that these Jewish followers of Jesus, this infant “church,” needed rebirth every bit as much as the people they were trying to reach.  So from that intimate conversation with Cornelius, the infant Church finds just as much new life as any blind or lame person Peter ever healed. 
And here’s resurrection story number 3, a story that’s a little closer to home.  It’s about three women here at St. Andrew’s who are taking part in an intimate outreach ministry called Sister Berta’s Friendship Circles.  The idea came from Sister Berta Sailer at Operation Breakthrough, who spoke to us here last year.  Sister Berta suggested that faithful followers of Jesus could make a huge difference on a tiny scale by really getting to know a client at Operation Breakthrough – a mom simply trying to make her life work out.  So three women from St. Andrew’s took Sister Berta up on the suggestion and started getting together with a mom I’ll call Yolanda.  Yolanda barely made it out alive from an abusive relationship with her ex-husband.  She has two grown daughters, a teenaged son in a juvenile facility, two daughters in elementary school, and another daughter in preschool at Operation Breakthrough.  And she is deeply afraid of her former husband, for herself and for her kids; so she keeps as low a profile as she can, which leaves her pretty isolated.  She doesn’t have a strong education, and she’s struggled to find a job that pays her a living wage.  She has no car, no background in how to search for a decent job, and no connections to help her network with employers – or to intervene with KCP&L when they threaten to turn off her electricity.  And on top of all that, she has no community – no group of people she can trust.  Well, the three women from St. Andrew’s didn’t have an instruction book in how to do this, but they took some stumbling steps to get to know Yolanda, trying to offer friendship and presence to someone whose devastated life looks very different from theirs.  In a sense, the three St. Andrew’s ladies came to the tomb, which is not exactly a comfortable place to visit.  Now, I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine both partners in this awkward dance might have felt a little mistrust going in.  On some level, we all think we know how this story would go.  Deep down, Yolanda was probably looking for a car, or at least a consistent source for bus fare, right?  Deep down, the St. Andrew’s ladies were probably looking for a Band-Aid on the sore of white liberal guilt, right?  Well, instead, over the course of one intimate conversation after another, they found something else – because in those conversations, Jesus was up to something.  In fact, in those conversations, Jesus changed the story everyone “knew” to be true.  Yolanda told the ladies about her life.  The ladies listened.  They cried with her when she cried about her kids.  They helped her put a résumé together, helped her think about where to apply for work, and encouraged her to keep at it when nothing panned out.  And eventually, Yolanda told these ladies the most improbable of truths: that these three women are the only people with whom she feels safe enough to share what’s really going on in her life and in her heart.  And for these three ladies, the witness of Yolanda’s courage and perseverance, the witness of the depth of her heart – all that has changed their hearts and made them see life anew.
So why am I calling this a resurrection?  I mean, it would be nice if I could stand here and tell you some quick-and-easy Jesus story, where someone comes in, and gives someone else just what he needs, and turns a broken life around – badda bing.  We love stories like that.  Well, Yolanda’s life hasn’t been miraculously fixed.  She still struggles with everything she struggles with.  By the same token, the three women from St. Andrew’s haven’t had some dramatic conversion experience.  But still, I say this is a story of resurrection, a story of new life – not for just one of the parties involved, but for all of them.  Because when they came together in their difference, new life arose from the tomb of their expectations.  Everyone involved in that friendship circle thought she knew how the story would go – self-centered motives leading inevitably to disappointment.  But Jesus changed the story they all “knew” to be true.  Expecting smallness and self-interest to carry the day, they found the richness of relationship instead.
So it’s Easter morning – where’s Jesus in this story of new life?  Well, I’ll tell you:  We find the risen Christ in the places where differences meet and boundaries melt away.  It’s not that either Yolanda or the St. Andrew’s ladies represent Jesus, one ministering to the other.  No.  Both parties are broken, and both are blessed.  And in the new relationship that grows between them, in the holy reconciliation of people separated by culture and poverty and de-facto segregation – in that relationship, Jesus lives.  The risen Christ lives where our boundaries melt away.
Here’s an example on a slightly larger scale.  In about a month, on Wednesday, May 6, we’re going to gather with United Missionary Baptist Church, at 27th Terrace and Campbell, for a joint service.  In case you’ve been napping and find yourself now startled awake – yes, you heard me right: a joint service between St. Andrew’s and United Missionary Baptist.  If we were in their church right now, we’d call this service a revival.  To minimize the heart attacks here this morning, we’ll call it “Evening Prayer plus.”  Really – we’ll gather to worship together, our prayers and their prayers, our choir and their choir.  And yours truly will be offering the sermon.  I’ll try hard to dial down my charisma to keep from knocking them out with fiery Episcopalian preaching.  The service should be fascinating, but something very important will happen before it, too.  We’ll gather for a time of fellowship, a social time where the bridging of difference can begin in the way God likes best – around good food:  as the prophet Isaiah said, a feast “for all peoples … a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6).  Well, in this case, maybe not the wine.  I don’t know what will happen exactly, but I do know this:  It will be a little in-breaking of the kingdom of God.  We’ll gather for a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and then our two congregations will stand before the throne, singing and praying to the risen Lord who rules us all.
Resurrection is risky work, in the sense that no outcomes are guaranteed.  When we sit down with the other, whoever that “other” is for you, we give up some control.  I can’t tell you what this service in May will look like exactly or how comfortable we’ll feel in it.  God doesn’t let us order up resurrected life from a vending machine.  But I can tell you this:  Our risen Lord calls us to this work, on scales large and small.  Jesus asks us to inhabit the space where he dwells, the place where differences meet.  Those differences come in every way imaginable – male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, native and immigrant, management and labor, churched and unchurched.  In every place of difference we can name, the risen Christ is there, waiting to resurrect both “us” and “them” – if we take the risk to engage the difference rather than wishing it away.
So listen for Jesus, as you stand outside whatever tomb you know best.  Listen for his voice, changing the story you “know” to be true.  Listen as he calls your name.  And listen to learn where he will send you to find a resurrection of your own.