Sunday, July 31, 2016

Practicing Enough

Sermon from Sunday, July 31, 2016
Luke 12:13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

I won’t ask you to say it out loud, but I do want you to think about how you might answer this question:  What do you always want to have more of?  Where do you struggle with understanding how much is enough? 
For me, it’s French fries.  It’s hard for me to get a good handle on how many French fries is enough.  And sometimes – when I’m finally leaving church at the end of one of those days, when I haven’t had anything to eat but some nuts at my desk, after another meeting that drags into the middle of the evening, when I’m tired and frustrated and feel like George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life – sometimes, when I’m finally leaving church, I go by McDonald’s on the way home.  I get a Quarter Pounder, and I get fries.  And not just some fries.  A large order of fries.  If they’re spilling out the top of the carton and falling to the bottom of the bag, that’s about right.  The more, the better.  Then once I get home, I drown my sorrows in salty, greasy goodness. 
Or at least I think that’s what I’m doing.  But what if my attitude toward French fries actually says something about my relationship with God?  I mean, I am hungry as I wait in line at the drive-thru; but it’s not really hunger that’s motivating my order.  I could just eat food I have at home.  Instead, at that moment, those French fries don’t really represent a source of nutrition, good or bad.  Those French fries represent greed, as well as gluttony.  I get those fries simply because I want them – and lots of them.
So what’s wrong with that?  Well, maybe nothing’s wrong with that, other than raising my cholesterol.  But maybe those French fries represent a little rebellion.  Maybe those French fries are a way for me to say, “I’m going to have what I want.”  And that’s where greed begins.
The Gospel reading we heard today starts with someone trying to get what he wants – and asking Jesus to justify it.  The man’s asking for a share of the family inheritance, but Jesus sees into the man’s heart.  So Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who’s struggling with a problem most of us would envy.  He’s got more wealth than he can store.  He’s been blessed with the abundance of God’s creation, and now he’s struggling to find a place just to keep all he has.  There’s nothing obviously wrong with this man’s wealth or how he came by it.  We’re given no reason to believe he oppressed his workers or cheated his customers.  He may well have followed Jewish Law and left some crops in the field after the harvest so poor people and strangers could come and take the gleanings.  Nothing in this story leads us to judge the man’s business practices.  But it’s his heart that God’s concerned about.
The man’s heart problem is its orientation.  In his day-to-day practice of worship, this man is looking in the mirror a lot more than he’s looking to an altar of sacrifice.  He sees all that he’s produced, and he thinks, “What should I do, for I have no place to story my crops?”  Then he says, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store my grain and my goods.  And I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many goods laid up for many years.  Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” (Luke 12:17-19)  Now, in that quotation, you may have noticed a lot of personal pronouns – “I” and “my,” specifically.  That might be a clue that something’s out of kilter.  This man has placed his hope and his trust in himself – his own work, his own wisdom, his own giftedness.  He’s filled his barns with the fruits of his own capacity.  He is a case study of wanting to be in control.
Except, of course, God has the last word.  Unfortunately for the man in the story, it’s literally the last word he’ll hear.  “You fool,” God says, “this very night, your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20).
There’s a big difference between stewardship and control.  In a sense, we might see the man in the story as a paragon of stewardship:  He takes what he has and manages it very carefully.  But that’s only half the recipe.  Stewardship is not simply careful control.  In fact, it’s the opposite of control.  Stewardship is managing the abundance God shares with us in ways that foster God’s purposes and honor God’s sovereignty.  The steward says, I’m here to take care of my master’s estate.  The steward says, I’m here to carry out my master’s plan.  The steward says, God is God, and I am not.
This is why Jesus says what he says about greed at the beginning of the parable.  Listen to his language – it’s not about judgment but about loving protection.  To the man in the crowd who wants to make sure he gets a share of the family inheritance, Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15).  He isn’t looking at the man and saying, “Bad boy!”  He’s saying, “Be careful, because greed will hurt you.”  
So, Jesus says, be careful to protect yourself from … what is it exactly?  How does greed hurt us? 
The reading we heard from Colossians names the risk out loud: idolatry.  Idolatry – now, that’s an interesting word.  We may hear that word idolatry and think about little statues of fertility goddesses or calves made of gold.  But idolatry doesn’t mean pagan worship; idolatry simply means the worship of that which is not God.  Idolatry is ascribing power and ultimate value to a creation rather than the Creator.  And I believe it’s the root of every other sin.  Everything that breaks the heart of God, everything that imperils our salvation, all of it is rooted in idolatry – in honoring something else in the place of the One who creates us and redeems us and sustains us.
So, most of us are probably thinking, “OK.  I don’t worship money, or my house, or my car, or my job.”  Probably not; and that’s good, because the neighbors might talk if you were out in the driveway, saying prayers to your Mercedes.  But you know, the stuff is not the real temptation.  It’s not the golden calves that attract us.  It’s not the idols themselves; it’s the source of power to which the idols point, which is … us.  The people of Israel made the golden calf, after all.  It was the work of their own hands.  The man in the story raised his crops and built his barns; they were the work of his own hands.  Our houses or cars or professional success – we can look at those and say, “I did that.  That’s the work of my hands.”  We may not be worshiping the car, but we may be worshiping the one who bought the car.  At the least, we’re tempted to see ourselves as the ones in control.
Jesus warns us to be on our guard against the threat of greed in order to save us from the sin of idolatry, the delusion of control.  So if that’s the poison that threatens us, what’s the antidote?  Well, we heard it in the Gospel reading last week and in Fr. Marcus’ sermon; and we’ll hear it again when we pray the Lord’s Prayer this morning.  The antidote to idolatry is daily bread.  “Lord, give us today our bread for tomorrow.”  Give us enough.  That’s it, really.  The treatment for greed is the practice of enough.
Now, your temptation may not be French fries, but I’ll bet we’ve each got a place or two in our lives where we never quite feel like what we have is enough.  Maybe it’s shoes in the closet.  Maybe it’s cash in the bank.  Maybe it’s time.  Maybe it’s certainty that we’re right.  Maybe it’s affirmation of our value.  For each of us, there’s probably some bucket we just can’t quite seem to fill, so we pour in more and more, not seeing how much less of it we need as it spills out over the top.
The practice of enough says this:  Seek less to find more.  Having fewer fries on my plate might encourage me actually to taste them and revel in that salty, greasy goodness – and to be thankful.  Thankful that I have the cash to buy them.  Thankful that I have an hour to turn on the TV and enjoy them.  Thankful that I never go hungry.  Thankful enough, in fact, to share that salty, greasy goodness with the person next to me on the couch.
That’s not a bad working definition of enough: having what you need, plus some to share.  If we have that, where’s the value in having more?  And beyond that, remember the risk in having more – the risk of forgetting who’s in charge.  The practice of enough is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the fundamental truth of our lives, the first sentence of all theology, and the first beat of a peaceful heart – that God is God, and I am not.
             There’s really nothing wrong with French fries.  I just have to be careful why I’m eating them and remember that more is not better.  I can have a few in gratitude for the blessings of that long, hard day – maybe simply in gratitude that the long, hard day is finally over.  Or I can have a lot in the momentary fantasy that I’m the one in control.  The right choice reveals the holy irony of God’s abundance:  We may well need to part with some of what we have in order to have enough.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Neighbors on the Road

Sermon from July 10, 2016
Luke 10:25-37

You may have noticed in Scripture that people often come to Jesus looking for a judge’s ruling.  Not surprisingly, they usually also look for the answer that best serves their own interests.  We are humans, after all – deeply beloved and deeply flawed.  So we come to Jesus, the face of God among us, and ask:  Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  And what do I have to do to make sure I’m in the right?
You also may have noticed that Jesus usually takes that kind of conversation in a different direction.  We look for a judge’s ruling, and he transforms our hearts instead.
Take, for example, the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading.  We focus on the story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan, but I think this reading is just as much about the lawyer who asks the question in the first place.  He’s an expert in religious law, and he wants to justify himself to prove he’s on the path to eternal life. 
So, in this conversation between two religious experts, the answer is never in doubt.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks (Luke 10:25).  Jesus gives him the answer he already knows:  “Love God and love neighbor.”  “Well, then,” the lawyer asks, ready to score his debating point, “who is my neighbor?”  Everybody knows we’re supposed to love people, the lawyer is thinking – but how far does that love have to go?
Well, Jesus isn’t about to start drawing lines in the sand about who’s comparatively more or less worthy of love.  Instead, he tells a story that spurs a deeper question.  This story of the Good Samaritan is one many of us have heard before, and here’s the short version we may already have in our heads:  A man gets beaten up on the road; two religious types can’t be bothered to help him; somebody at the losing end of the holiness scale, a Samaritan, does the right thing, going above and beyond to help the injured man.  Presumably, the lesson – the expected answer to the lawyer’s question – is that anyone you come across is your neighbor.  Everybody is worthy of your love.  Badda bing; end of sermon.
Well, I think Jesus would agree that everyone is worthy of your love.  But that’s not what he’s asking the lawyer to wrestle with.  At the end of the story, the question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus’ question to the lawyer is, to what degree are you a neighbor?
And that’s a much harder question.  I find it pretty easy to understand that every human being is a child of God and therefore worthy of love.  Great.  But am I loving them as best I can?  Am I being a neighbor? 
So, back to the Gospel reading and this lawyer who’s trying to justify himself into the kingdom of heaven.  I wonder what the next line in the conversation might have been – what Jesus might have had in mind when he told the lawyer to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)?  We don’t know; as usual, Jesus isn’t nearly as directive as we might like.  We’re left to wonder what real-world concerns the people in that moment were thinking about.  But here are some things we know were true for the Jews of Jesus’ time:  They wrestled with how to relate to the Roman occupying forces.  They wrestled with how to relate to all the different kinds of people who came through their land, traders and travelers on the international highway of the day, some of whom came and brought their strange ways … and stayed. 
And the Jews of Jesus’ time wrestled with how to relate to maybe the most challenging people, the Samaritans – which just means the people who lived in neighboring Samaria.  The Samaritans were very much like the Jews, religiously and culturally.  They once were the same people, before the Kingdom of Israel divided, and the two nations were exiled under different circumstances, and the Samaritans came to worship the one God differently than the Jews did.  That’s why Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the virtuous character in this story.  The Jews hated the Samaritans because they were so similar, and shared so much history, but didn’t see things the same way.
So, when Jesus told the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” following the Samaritan’s example, what did he have in mind?  Well, one really obvious thing about this story is that the Samaritan was out there.  For whatever reason, he was out on the road, encountering people; and he allowed himself to be drawn into an extremely inconvenient relationship with someone he probably disdained.  The Samaritan wouldn’t have been any happier about dealing with a Jew than a Jew would have been happy to deal with the Samaritan.  On top of that, this Jew was injured, needing time and care.  But the Samaritan stopped.  He engaged.  We don’t know what went through his mind at that moment, but something happened.  He saw the common humanity of this person he would have preferred to avoid, and he acted on it.
*  *  *  *
As you know, this week has brought us great sadness in our national life – more black men tragically dying in confrontations with police; police officers in Dallas tragically dying at the hands of a black man.  Predictably, we’ll hear voices dividing into camps as they reflect on five hundred years of racial oppression and division in this land.  But ironically, in the moment of tragedy, victims find common ground.  In his news conference Friday morning, the Dallas police chief said officers felt “under siege,” and he pleaded for support and prayer from his community and the nation.  I imagine those protesting the deaths of two more black men could have said precisely the same thing – that they feel under siege, in need of support and prayer from their community and their nation.  It is tragically human that what unites us is our brokenness and our need to be healed. 
So, as we hear this story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ call to “go and do likewise,” what are we supposed to do to help our culture heal?  I truly believe the vast majority of us want reconciliation and healing.  We’re even willing to be reconcilers and healers, if we can figure out what to do to help.  Sadly, tragedy like we’ve seen this week isn’t something any of us can fix.
Well, we may not be able to fix it, but there are a few things we can go and do.  Our presiding bishop has asked Episcopalians to pray with special intention for healing in our nation – a request I also heard on Friday from one of our own faithful pray-ers at the Noon Eucharist.  So, as part of the prayers of the people, we will do just that.  And I hope you will do it every other day of the week, too.  Prayer changes things, not the least of which is our own hearts.  May we, like the Good Samaritan, open our hearts to the other.
Here’s the other thing I think Jesus would like to see us “go and do.”  Go out, and be a neighbor.  That will look different for each of us.  For me, it might mean spending more time writing sermons at the Roasterie rather than tucked away at home, watching the rabbits and squirrels in the back yard.  I’m more comfortable writing at home, and probably more productive, too.  But to be a neighbor, I have to put myself out there, on the road, and be present to the people I encounter along the way. 
Then, once we’re out there, however that looks in our lives, we need to engage the other.  That “other” might be someone who looks different or comes from a different social background – or simply someone who sees things differently than we do.  In this part of the country, we put a very high value on being polite – meaning that avoiding conflict sometimes becomes the prime directive.  Well, building relationships with people who see the world differently than we do means taking the risk to speak our broken and conflicted hearts, and to hear the broken and conflicted heart of someone else.  For example:  You know we’ve worshiped a few times with our friends from United Missionary Baptist Church.  Well, a few of our members share Bible study with people at UMBC.  From what I hear about that, there’s a lot of honest conversation about areas where they disagree.  But they keep coming back, putting themselves out on the road, engaging the difference rather than pretending it’s not there.
 Now, I have no delusions that if we put ourselves out there and engage with people more intentionally, it will magically heal our social divisions.  But I do believe that every act of being a neighbor, and every act of prayer for our neighbors, matters – no matter how small.  None of us can heal our nation’s brokenness or our sinful turns toward violence.  But each of us can connect with people we might have avoided otherwise.  The more we get outside ourselves, then the more we see that we are one with “those people” we don’t know.  We are like them and they are like us, deeply beloved and deeply flawed, feeling “under siege” and pleading for healing.  They may be Samaritans and we may be Jews, or vice versa; but what matters is the holy fact that relationship builds peace.  So, as we sang last Sunday, may we carry this song in our hearts:

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Carl P. Daw, Jr. (Hymnal 1982, #597)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day, Love, and Dignity

Sermon from Sunday, July 3, 2016.
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48

Happy Independence Day weekend, complete with flags and patriotic hymns here in church.  I imagine some of us today will think it’s completely natural to have a church service celebrating our nation; and some of us likely will feel it goes too far, violating the spirit of the separation of church and state.  I think this is a good time to wrestle with that a bit and ask what Jesus might have to say about church and state, faith and politics.
If I asked how many of you think politics and religion should mix, my hunch is that very few hands would go up.  We’re wary of it, and for good reason.  One of the forces drawing Europeans to the New World was a desire for freedom from established churches (which was us, by the way, in England).  We still reject being told what to believe or having a religion’s practices enshrined in law.  Though when they’re “our” practices, sometimes it’s harder to see the problem.  When I was growing up in Springfield, Missouri, the Sunday “blue laws” were still in force, ensuring that shoppers observed the Christian Sabbath whether they wanted to or not.  But over time, we came to see the law probably shouldn’t tell us whose holy day merits special protection.
So religion and politics typically don’t mix so well.  But what about faith and politics?  Senator and priest Jack Danforth wrote a book by that name several years ago, a book that resonates just as powerfully in our present political season – maybe even more so.  Danforth argues that faith must inform our politics, both its content and its practice.  He calls Christians to claim our high calling as reconcilers, not dividers, as we govern our nation.  He calls us to use God’s command to love as “the standard by which we measure everything we do” in politics and government.  And he cautions us not to baptize specific positions but humbly recognize that God’s truth is bigger than human policies.1
So what does it mean to be people of faith who are also called to the ministry of self-government?  Every week here, we confess the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives and the sovereignty of God over every other power and principality.  If that is true, I think it’s impossible to say that our faith and our politics can’t mix.  Our faith must mix with every element of our lives, from how we spend our money, to what we watch on TV, to how we pay our employees, to whether we recycle.  If the lordship of Jesus Christ has something to say about what I do with my trash, it probably has something to say about what I do with my vote.  So especially in an election year, when the one thing everyone can agree is that the stakes are incredibly high, how are we called to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and engaged, passionate citizens of these United States?
For me, the intersecting point between Christian faith and American democracy is love.  If you boil down the Old and New Testaments, as well as 2,000 years of theological reflection on them, you find discipleship captured in three imperative statements:  Love God, love neighbor, love one another.  Everything else is commentary.    
By the same token, I believe love is also the fulfillment of America’s best self.  I believe love is our highest national aspiration, even though neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution includes that word.  We use other words for love in political life:  Equality.  Self-determination.  Justice.  Freedom.  Each of those values is a facet of the diamond of love.  When we treat all people as having been created equal – that’s an act of love.  When we maximize opportunity for life, liberty, and happiness, especially for those who lack it – that’s an act of love.  When we hold all people to the same standard under the law, regardless of race or ethnicity or class or sexual identity, or anything else – that’s an act of love.  When we expand the boundaries of freedom … now that’s certainly an act of love, as well as being the American story in microcosm.  Starting with white, male landowners, our boundaries of freedom have been expanding for 240 years now, to poorer people, and to people of color, and to women, and to LGBT people.  Pushing back those boundaries of freedom is an act of love.  In fact, as Mtr. Anne Hutcherson preached last week, St. Paul says that the point of freedom is to build love:  “[D]o not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” Paul says, “but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:1,13-14)
So both our Christian and American identities call us to love.  But how do we put that into effect in politics and policy?  You can’t pass a bill requiring people to treat each other with kindness and mercy.  You can’t amend the Constitution to outlaw original sin.  So where do Christian love, and good government, intersect?
This is probably not the only answer, but I think it’s a good one:  The intersection is the practice of dignity.  In our Baptismal Covenant – our job description for loving God, loving neighbor, and loving one another – we promise to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).  Practicing dignity looks like advancing people’s God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – no matter how vigorously we might disagree with those people.  Practicing dignity looks like respecting the wisdom and insights we gain from people whose experience is vastly different from ours.  Practicing dignity looks like governing based on the truth that every person is made in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions.
Of course, practicing dignity is most challenging – and therefore most clearly a mark of Christian love – when the person in front of you is a stranger, or even worse, an enemy.  It’s no accident that the readings for the Church’s feast of Independence Day speak to us about the darker corners of our hearts that most keep us from being our best selves. 
As the people of Israel are about to come into the promised land, Moses reminds them what it will take to live out their covenant with God in the land the Lord is giving them.  Moses says, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, mighty and awesome, who … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You also shall love the stranger, for you were strangers” once yourselves in the land from which God has delivered you (Deut 10:17-19).  It’s a good message for a nation of immigrants to remember.
And as if loving the stranger isn’t hard enough, Jesus ratchets up the call, commanding – not suggesting but commanding – that we love the most unlovable: those who wish us harm.  “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45).  That is practicing dignity to the Nth degree; but at least in God’s eyes, it’s not an option.  Strangers and enemies are facts of life.  Love them anyway.  You don’t have to admire them, God says, but you must treat them with dignity.
So as I stand here precariously in the pulpit in this election year, I would argue that the practice of dignity is where the wall between faith and politics melts away.  As we evaluate candidates for public office, and as we consider their policy proposals, I pray we’ll ask this question:  Do they enhance dignity?  We can bemoan incivility in public discourse (and rightly so), and we can challenge leaders who grandstand and demagogue, riding the hobby horse of divisiveness.  But you and I are the American democracy, and we bear the burden to make the choice for dignity.  We bear the obligation to keep pushing back the boundaries of love.  We bear the responsibility to raise up leaders like St. Andrew's own Audrey Langworthy, who was profiled in last week’s Messenger as an example of someone who has lived out the Baptismal Covenant in her life of public service.  I want to leave you today with her words, a great example of the intersection of faith and politics.  Audrey said, “[Growing up,] contributing to the community was our way of life. As a legislator, the opportunity to help hundreds of people who toiled with state bureaucracies became a great challenge and a rewarding motivation.”  She continued, “My faith, though quiet, has been the bedrock of my life.  I believe that the teachings of our faith demand, if we are able and with God's help, that we serve others as we travel life’s road.” 
There is dignity, the place where faith and politics meet.

 1.  Danforth, John.  Faith and Politics: How the ‘Moral Values’ Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.  New York: Viking, 2006.  14-21, 31.