Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection, by Invitation Only

Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

I want to go right back to that Gospel reading while it’s still fresh in our minds.  The reading begins “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).  John’s gospel does a lot with light and dark – it begins by telling us Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness (1:5); and when Judas goes out to betray Jesus, that story concludes with the ominous words, “And it was night” (13:30).  And as today’s reading begins, early in the morning three days after Jesus was killed, it’s still dark from that spiritual nightfall.  Of course, we know what’s ahead for Mary Magdalene as she sets out that morning; most of us have heard this story before.  But we may forget that Mary isn’t going to the tomb expecting a miracle.  She’s going to the tomb in deep sorrow, struggling to make sense of the death of her leader and the death of their movement.  She’s a ghost of who she’d been in Jesus’ presence.  The best she can do that morning is simply take each next step.  Sometimes, that’s as good as faithfulness gets.  Sometimes, all we can do is just take the next step.
My hunch is that Mary Magdalene isn’t the only one here who’s walking in the darkness this morning.  On Easter Day, it’s easy for the Church to be so triumphant that we leave behind the people who are struggling.  For many of us, we’ve been walking through a pretty rough patch recently.  Just watch the news.  The conflict in Syria keeps intensifying.  A terrorist drove a truck through a crowd in Sweden, killing four and injuring a dozen more.  Last week, 44 Christians in Egypt were killed by terrorists simply because they went to church on Palm Sunday, tragically dying as they marked they mystery that Jesus died to save them.  And here in our own family, many of our younger people are reeling from the death of one of their good friends just a few days ago, a tragedy literally beyond our comprehension.  We sing “Hallelujah” this morning as we celebrate resurrection, and rightly so; but we have to remember that the path to “Hallelujah” is the way of the cross – and not all of us are feeling the joy just yet. 
Sometimes, when God breaks into our worlds and transforms them, we hurt too much to see it.  In the half-light of that early morning, Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled away from the tomb, and in her devastation she presumes grave robbers are desecrating the body she’s come to honor.  She runs off to get help from her friends, and the disciples Peter and John rush to the scene of the crime.  Mind you, they too are blinded by their sorrow and their pain.  They look into the tomb and believe Mary’s report that the body’s been taken – they can’t yet see God’s hand at work here.  They hurt too much to feel anything but salt rubbed in their wounds, and all Peter and John can do is go back home again to mourn and hide, still afraid the authorities might come after them, too.  So Mary just stands there in the half-light, alone and weeping.
But then, something happens.  When she looks into the tomb, she sees something that doesn’t jibe with grave robbery.  As she gazes into the tomb, looking tragedy in the eye, she sees two men dressed in white.  We’re told they’re angels, but Mary doesn’t necessarily know that.  She still hurts too much to see the miracle, and she sobs to these strangers why she’s so upset.  Then she hears a voice behind her, asking her why she’s weeping and whom she’s looking for; and all she can think is, “Here’s one more guy who isn’t going to be of any help.”  She gets mad, I think, supposing that she’s now found the idiot who took the body and put it somewhere it wasn’t meant to be.  But then, Jesus stops her short.  It is Jesus, after all, not the gardener; and he stops her short simply by calling her by name, reminding her of the person she’s been in his presence.  And when he does, she comes to herself.  As the half-light turns to morning, and the long, dark night finally ends, Mary hears Jesus call her name, and she sees God face to face.  In that face, she sees the one thing she lacked most, which is hope – hope that death does not get the last word. 
In fact, it’s a hope powerful enough to heal her, transforming her from a mourner into an ambassador.  She knows she has to take that hope that life conquers death and bring it to the guys hiding out back home.  She finds Peter and John and the rest of Jesus’ friends, still blinded by their long night of despair, and she opens the door onto the sunrise, proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).  Resurrection happens, Mary says.  Come, and live it.
 Resurrection happens, and it’s not a one-time thing.  It’s a way of life God offers to all of us.  But here’s the mystery about that:  The offer is open to all; as Peter says later, in the Book of Acts, “[E]veryone who believes in [Jesus Christ] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).  So the offer is open to all – and yet, it comes by invitation only.  By that, I don’t mean some doctrine of divine election.  I mean the offer is open to all – but it comes only when one person invites another person into it. 
Let me tell you a story to shine some light on that mystery.  There is a man in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth named Gerald.  He’s in his early 40s, and he’s spent more than half his life in prison – drugs and weapons charges.  He never knew his father.  His mother is addicted to drugs.  Gerald would have every reason to be living in the long night of despair.  But Gerald decided to turn his life around, so he did what he needed to do at Leavenworth to qualify for the Life Connections program, which offers spiritually based mentoring to help prisoners prepare for new life after release.  Four men here at St. Andrew’s have served or are serving as mentors there – Ron Spradley, John Norton, George Kroh, and Deacon Bruce Bower.  It’s Bruce who’s serving as Gerald’s mentor.
So one day recently, Gerald happened to say to Bruce that, back in the day when he was still on the outside, he would never walk or drive in the rain.  It seemed an odd thing to share, so Bruce asked him why he wouldn’t walk or drive in the rain.  Gerald said that when he was a kid in St. Louis, he noticed that every time someone was shot and killed in his neighborhood, it rained the next day.  So he asked his grandmother why that was, and his grandmother told him God sent the rain to wash the evil off the streets.  OK, that’s a lovely word of comfort.  But why wouldn’t Gerald walk or drive in the rain?  Because, he said, he’d been told he was evil – and he was afraid God would wash him away, too.
If the story stayed there, we might join Gerald in despair.  But here’s the thing:  Gerald now sees God very differently because Gerald now knows how God sees him.  In an earlier day, Gerald thought God judged him as nothing more than evil, wanting to wash him off the streets and wipe him away.  No doubt, Gerald had done some pretty sinful things, and he himself would say so.  But all Gerald knew of God was distance and judgment and wrath.
Then something changed:  The risen Christ called Gerald by name.  But it came in the voice of Bruce Bower.  Bruce showed up and kept showing up.  Bruce honored Gerald’s humanity.  Bruce respected Gerald’s dignity.  Bruce helped Gerald see that he is a beloved child, not an evil stain to be washed away.  In his mentor, Gerald sees Jesus’ face and hears him calling him by name.  In fact, after that visit to Leavenworth, Bruce received this email from Gerald:  “Thanks be to God for sending you my way to help me when I feel weak and worthless and down.  I won’t be afraid of the rain anymore.”
Resurrection happens.  It’s not a one-time thing; it’s a way of life.  And it’s offered to all – but remember the mystery:  It’s offered to all, but it comes by invitation only.  Gerald found new life precisely because Bruce invited Gerald to live the truth that God makes all things new.
But you know, the invitation goes back farther than that.  Gerald found new life because, seven years earlier, someone invited Bruce Bower to consider getting involved in a new ministry.  Ron Spradley had been a mentor at Leavenworth for a few years, and he knew Bruce, and he could see Bruce as a good fit for this work.  So Ron did one of the most powerful, most holy things there is:  Ron invited Bruce to take part.  Now, think about the difference that single invitation has made.  Because of that invitation, Gerald will leave prison able to walk in God’s love, he and all the others Bruce has mentored and will mentor.  And you know, that holy power of invitation goes back even farther than that because, of course, 50-some-odd years ago, someone invited Ron Spradley to get involved here at his new church, St. Andrew’s…..
This church family, the body of Christ in this place – we are Mary Magdalene.  We are a family of wounded healers and tongue-tied ambassadors sometimes.  We’re each haunted by our fears and by the shadow of despair, just like anyone else.  But the difference is, deep in our bones, we know that death is not the end.  We know resurrection happens.  In the midst of war and terrorism and untimely loss, we know that Christ has defeated the power of sin and death, making all things new, now and always. 
If you’ve come here this morning haunted by your fears and the shadow of despair, know that you are not alone.  And know that you can find healing in this place – that in the voices of this family, you can hear Jesus calling you by name.
And if you’ve come here this morning as part of this good family, remember and claim the healing power you hold.  It was a word from one person to another person here that has saved Gerald’s life.  So remember the gracious mystery of life made new:  Resurrection happens, and it’s not a one-time thing.  It’s a way of life God offers to us all.  But it comes by invitation only.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

God's Last Word

Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 27:11-54

Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get those words out of my head when I hear the Passion Gospel.  Amid the tragedy of the excruciating death of God’s innocent servant, I can’t stop hearing that cry:  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The reason that line haunts me is because it begs the question, the central question Palm Sunday invites us to struggle with:  Who is this man who’s calling out to God?  Our readings today point us toward an answer, but they’re stops along a journey – a journey we know as the way of the cross. 
Outside, in the day’s first Gospel proclamation, we hear the crowd hailing Jesus as the king.  If we’d been in occupied Palestine 2,000 years ago, we would have seen this amazing man as the sign of our hope – hope for release from Roman captivity by God’s anointed king, which is what “messiah” means.  We would have been cheering for him as he entered the holy city in triumph, riding on a donkey like one of Israel’s ancient kings, because we would have hoped he’d be the one to bring us freedom.
But now that we’ve taken our places here in the church, symbolically entering the holy city, things go south for this man we hoped was king.  He challenges the authorities, both religious and civil, by starting a riot in the Temple, railing against its leaders whose taxes and sacrifices cost poor peasants money they don’t have.  In the process, he strikes fear into the hearts of the political rulers, who see the crowd about to become an angry mob.  As any smart oppressor knows, when the people get angry, you distract them with someone else to be angry about.  So the religious and political leaders collude to turn the crowd against Jesus instead of against them.  Soon, we’re shouting “Crucify!” rather than “Hosanna!”  And the bloody drama unfolds, leading to that haunting line – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 
Why would Jesus say that?  What’s he thinking about himself at that point?  And what’s he thinking about the God to whom he cries out?
The reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a clue about how Jesus might have understood himself and his role.  This is one of four “servant songs” from Isaiah, in which the prophet describes different roles that God’s appointed servant plays in bringing salvation to the world.  For Isaiah, the servant was Israel; but I think Jesus saw himself fulfilling that role, both in his day and for all time.  In the first servant song, the servant is described as “a light to the nations,” the one who models God’s justice to all the world (42:6).  In the second servant song, God says it’s not enough just to bring God’s servant, the people of Israel, back from their exile in Babylon; God says, “I will give [my servant] as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6).  The Old Testament reading this morning is the third servant song, sung in the voice of the servant himself.  Although Israel failed to follow God’s desires, the servant remained steadfast and endured persecution for his faithfulness.  In his own day, Jesus could look around and see the chief priests and the Pharisees fulfilling Isaiah’s words about unfaithful Israel – and he could see himself as the suffering servant, persecuted for threatening those leaders’ grip on religious power.  This suffering servant, knows what’s coming, but he also trusts God’s presence in the outcome:  “Who are my adversaries?  Let them confront me.  It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:-8-9).
But before long, that confidence seems to give way to desolation.  Of course it does.  After interrogations, and beatings, and dragging the cross on his own broken back, of course the suffering servant’s confidence gives way to anguish.  It’s the anguish of torturous pain, of course – but is it also the anguish of failure?  The anguish of rejection by those the servant has come to serve?  The anguish of offering love and having people spit in your face?  Is it the anguish of abandonment?
In that awful moment, as Jesus hangs on the cross, a song comes into his head – a song from the Temple’s hymnal, what we call the Book of Psalms.  We know this song as Psalm 22, and we’ll pray it when we gather here again on Good Friday evening.  It’s a song of despair, or at least it starts off sounding that way.  But like most good songs, there’s more to it than what you hear right off the bat.  So, here’s the first line of that song Jesus starts to quote, Psalm 22.  It goes like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1 BCP).
Here’s the mysterious and wonderful thing about Psalm 22: It doesn’t stop with despair.  The first half of its 31 verses give voice to the deepest suffering you can imagine. 
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer….  [A]s for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by all and despised by the people….  Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help….  [T]hey pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones….  They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing. (22:2,6,11,16,17, BCP) 
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see the connection.  That song in Jesus’ broken heart is playing out all around him as he hangs on that cross.
But, as I said, Psalm 22 doesn’t stop there.  Yes, this is a song of the servant’s suffering, but it’s also, just as much, a song of God’s deliverance.  For as much as it laments, the song also remembers: 
Our forefathers put their trust in you; they trusted, and you delivered them….  I will declare your Name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you….  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.  For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations. (22;4,21,26-27, BCP).
The Lord rules over the nations, says the song that Jesus gasps out from the cross.  The Lord – not the frightened religious authorities; not the governor, Pilate; not even Caesar in all his imperial grandeur back in Rome.  The Lord rules over the nations, Jesus’ song proclaims – even when the Lord hangs on a cross.
So, back to the question of the day: Who is this man who’s calling out to God? 
This is where the mystery goes deep.  This man hanging on the cross is not just the suffering servant fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  This man hanging on the cross is not just a wise and holy teacher, renewing the Jewish tradition in his own day.  This man hanging on the cross is not just the anointed king of Israel, the messiah for a people trapped in political oppression and religious stagnation.  This man hanging on the cross is the one to whom the Roman army officer pledges his converted allegiance when he says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54). 
And even that may not capture this deep mystery in its fullness.  Because human language stumbles to express the nature and life of God, we’re immediately limited in what we say even when we proclaim Jesus to be God’s Son – because being someone’s child might imply more difference than the Trinity actually holds.  After all, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are “one God … in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being” (BCP 380).  So the fact that they are one takes us to the edge of the deepest mystery of them all: This man hanging on the cross is not just the anointed offspring of God.  This man hanging on the cross is God.  He is the kyrios, the “Lord,” which was a title claimed by Caesar himself.  This man hanging on the cross is the true Lord whom Caesar can’t unseat, the “highly exalted” one, whose name “is above every name, so that at [his] name … every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” – not Caesar. (Philippians 2:9-11)
As we begin our journey though Holy Week, “may the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).  May we walk alongside him each step of the way, as present to his pain as he is to ours.  And all along that holy way, may we, too, sing Psalm 22 – and remember that the cry of desolation, the cry from the cross, is never God’s last word. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 5: What's Next After Death?

Sermon for April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

So here’s something that might sound creepy, but it’s true: I like funerals.  I don’t think that implies a morbid fascination with death (at least I like to tell myself that).  Instead, I think it implies a hopeful fascination with resurrection.  That’s a handy thing to have, in my line of work.
Here’s why I like funerals:  Like the sacraments, they give us a rare opportunity to look beyond the stress and pain of day-to-day life and see a reality that is, at once, both much more mysterious and much more real.  It’s a chance to see divine love and divine glory up close and personal – a chance to pull up the window shade and glimpse the face of God.
But once we’ve commended someone to God’s care, proclaiming that his or her life is “changed, not ended” (BCP 382), then what?  As we come to the end of this Lenten sermon series on Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, I get to explore the darkest question of them all: What’s next after death?  All three of our readings this morning take us there – each of them opening a window onto this deep mystery. 
The first is Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  We may get distracted by the holy ghost story here because it’s one of the most vivid, stirring accounts in all of Scripture – the prophet witnessing bones rattling and coming together, sinew and flesh stretching over them, lifeless bodies rising from the dust, and the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, blowing into them and standing them up on their feet, “a vast multitude” (37:10).  But while we’re reveling in the Hollywood scene, we may miss God’s point.  By restoring the people from exile to their Promised Land, God’s actually making a point about … God.  “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live … then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” (37:13-14)  As the old spiritual says, “Hear the word of the Lord,” you dry bones.  Don’t just rise.  Listen.
I think it’s also easy to miss the point in today’s Gospel – another in our Lenten hit parade of incredibly long readings from the Gospel of John.  It’s easy to focus on what’s happening with Lazarus because that would seem to be the story’s point.  It’s what the disciples focus on – whether the sick man is sleeping or really dead; and, by the way, whether death awaits them if they follow Jesus into hostile territory.  The death of Lazarus is what the mourners focus on, too, one of them even having the bad manners to ask out loud, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37).  The question isn’t lost on Jesus.  Being fully human, he enters fully into the grief of the people around him, weeping and hurting right alongside them.  But the point is greater than whether Lazarus lives or dies.  Jesus names it at the beginning of the story:  This illness “is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).  And Martha, the dead man’s sister, gets a glimpse of glory, too, even before this holy ghost story reaches its climax.  Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died – but even now, God will give you whatever you ask” (11:21-22).  She knows about Jesus’ other signs – water being turned into wine, five loaves becoming bread from heaven, a man born blind receiving his sight.  Nothing’s too much to ask – even coming back from the dead.  But Jesus manages to give Martha a glimpse beyond the miraculous.  Just resuscitating a dead, stinking body isn’t enough, Jesus says.  Even the general resurrection of the dead “on the last day” isn’t enough, Jesus says (11:24).  “I am the resurrection and the life” right now, Jesus says.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26).  Don’t bother trying to work the equation or diagram that sentence; you won’t find human logic there.  Jesus is raising the blinds on the kingdom of heaven.  And when he finally completes this holy ghost story and brings the dead man out of the tomb, trailing strips of cloth like The Mummy from Hollywood – even then Jesus points the crowd away from the miracle and toward the miracle’s source instead:  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).
So – now that we’ve been blessed to glimpse God’s glory … now what?
I think there are two answers to that question – the answer now and the answer later.  When we glimpse the glory of God now, I think what comes next is a choice.  There’s a reason why this story of Lazarus ends with a beginning.  Lazarus rises from the dead, and the story comes to a screeching halt.  We never get to hear Lazarus speak.  Don’t you wish the Gospel writer had finished his assignment and done his interview with Lazarus?  What a scoop that would have been.  What was it like to be dead, Lazarus?  What did you see?  Did you go to sheol, to the Jewish realm of the dead?  Did you have a conversation with Adam and Eve?  Did they have any hope of getting out?  Or, were you in heaven, Lazarus?  And how freaky must it have been to be summoned back from wherever you were, back to the land of the living?  We’ll never get to read that interview, and here’s why:  Because Lazarus’ death isn’t the point of this holy ghost story.  The point is Lazarus’ choice as he stands there, resuscitated, bound in strips of cloth.  “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands.  Unbind him, and let him choose.  Jesus hasn’t just resuscitated a dead body.  Jesus has given everyone standing there, and everyone sitting here, the opportunity to glimpse eternity and make his or her own choice.  “I AM the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says (11:25).  Present tense.  Yes, the outcome is cast in terms of the future, but the question is for the here and now:  “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (11:26).  The real question isn’t whether Lazarus was raised from the dead.  The real question is, what will Lazarus do once they unbind him and let him go?
And what will we do, because we’re given the same choice.  As the apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. …  If the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (8:6,11).  Where you set your mind determines what you will see.  To set the mind on that divine Spirit means life and peace here in this first chapter of eternal life.  But God loves us too much to force anything on us, even eternity.  Love can’t be given by force.  We have to stumble out of the grave, with Lazarus unbound, and take it.
And if we say yes … if we choose to join Lazarus at the table with Jesus, where John’s Gospel story picks up six days later; if we, too, choose to join Jesus at the table knowing that sacrifice and death are just a week away; if we choose the rich and rocky path of discipleship, following Jesus’ way of eternal life in the here and now – then what?  What’s next after death, for death will surely come to us, the ultimate opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed?  What’s next for us after death?
I’d be lying if I told you I knew.  But I will tell you what I believe.
I have no idea where we go when we die, though I have a hunch it’s much more familiar than we think.  After all, paradise initially looked like a garden, and I have a pretty good sense of what a garden’s like.  By the same token, I believe “heaven” ultimately is life much like we presently know it, only freed and redeemed from all that corrupts and holds it back – life that’s something like what we know now in our most blessed moments, when Christ comes among us, and within us, and shows us God’s love.  The book of Revelation, in its very best scene, tells of the end, when heaven and earth are reunited, the goodness and love that God intended for creation finally restored, with heaven and earth rejoined; when the “home of God [will be] among mortals … [and] God will dwell with them … and wipe every tear from their eyes” (21:3-4).  I believe that’s what we have waiting for us, eventually – embodied life as embodied life was meant to be, living in relationship with God as relationship is meant to be, living among the company of saints across time and space, with absolutely never a moment of despair. 
But does that happen immediately when we die? If we look at our tradition, we find the answer is, probably not.  The Anglican theologian and bishop N.T. Wright describes life after death as being a matter of a couple of stages.  Scripture’s images of heaven sometimes take the shape of heavenly rest and peaceful refreshment – the kind of imagery we see in that amazing angel window over here in the columbarium.  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” the angel in that window says.  Sounds pretty heavenly to me.  But Scripture’s images of heaven also include what we attest every time we say the Apostles’ Creed – “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” – like that beautiful description of the new heaven and new earth from Revelation.  So, N.T. Wright would say, we’re actually looking forward in hope not just to life after death, but to “life after life after death.”1  The first phase of that heavenly life is the window in the columbarium – as Jesus promised to the thief who repented, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  But that paradise of rest is a waystation, N.T. Wright would say – the life we know while we wait for Christ to come again, restoring the unity of heaven and earth and bringing us “life after life after death.”  Despite all the language we use about “going to heaven,” that final stage, Chapter Three of eternal life, is not about us going to heaven.  It’s about heaven coming to us – God’s purposes fully realized in a renewed earth filled with renewed, embodied children of God – where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
That’s resurrection – when the God “who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11).  Resurrection is also the choice we get to make, along with Lazarus, as we stand at the doors of our day-to-day tombs and hear Jesus calling, “Unbind him, and let him go.  Unbind her, and let her go.”  Unwrap our eyes and our hands and our feet, Lord, that we might see your glory, and take your hand, and stumble our way into eternal life.
1.       Wright, N.T.  Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  New York: HarperOne, 2008.  151.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 3: Is There Enough?

Sermon for March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

Here we are in week 3 of this sermon series on “Five Questions We Ask in the Dark.”  Last Sunday, we considered God’s very existence: Is God really there?  In the midst of our sleepless nights, that question rises fairly easily, I think, especially when what we hear in response to our prayers is, literally and figuratively, crickets in the dark.  Today, we come to another insomnia-inducing question: Is there enough?  Does God give us enough? 
In the prayer Jesus taught us, he tried to guide us toward humble expectations about enough: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  That’s what we ask in the Lord’s Prayer.  The Biblical text is actually something closer to, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow” (Matthew 6:11, NRSV).  I think offering that prayer is a good way to form our hearts, as well as to set our expectations.  When I say that line in my own prayers, I often follow it up like this: “Give us this day our daily bread.  Help me to see that all I have comes from you and that what you give me is sufficient, and abundant, and extraordinarily generous.”
I tack on that line about daily bread being enough because I’m a lot like the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, as we heard in the reading from Exodus today.  In the section just before today’s reading, we hear about the people complaining against their leaders, Moses and Aaron, for failing to provide food in the desert. God hears the people’s fear as well as their hunger, and God provides manna – quite literally their “bread for tomorrow” and nothing more.  Each morning, the people find it on the ground and collect it.  And no matter how much or how little each one gathers, they all have the same amount in their baskets, and it lasts only one day before it breeds worms and turns foul.  So they couldn’t store it up.  They had to trust that God would send their “bread for tomorrow” … tomorrow.
Now, no sooner had God solved the food problem than the people found a new focus for their fear about having enough – water, which is a reasonable worry in the desert.  They find no water where Moses tells them to camp, so the people quarrel with Moses and with God: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?  To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).  The irony is that, as they’re eating the bread of angels, they’re afraid God won’t set the table with a cool drink of water, too.  So God tells Moses to “strike the rock at Horeb,” also known as Mt. Sinai – the place where God called Moses from the burning bush and where God will give Moses the Law later in the story.  “Strike the rock,” God says, “and water will come out of it” (17:6) – what people of the day called “living water,” the best kind of water, water flowing clear in a stream rather than sitting green and murky in a cistern.  “I will be standing there with you,” God tells Moses.  “You can trust me not just for your daily bread but for the water of life, too.”
So here’s perhaps more of a window than you want into the questions I ask in the dark.  I am right there with the people of Israel in the wilderness, my prayers too often degenerating into, “Lord, what have you done for me lately?”  It’s why that add-on to the Lord’s Prayer about daily bread matters to me – because it’s so easy to become fearful about having enough.
My fears about enough don’t usually swirl around money or things.  I have different afflictions.  My fears about enough usually involve the Church – both St. Andrew’s and the Church with a capital C.  Will the Church be around in 30 years?  For most of us here, most of the time, we’d say, “Sure, of course it will.”  But this is a challenging time for mainline Christian denominations.  In the Episcopal Church, we’ve seen Sunday attendance drop by 26 percent in the past 10 years, and it’s currently decreasing by about 3.5 percent per year.1  With our tiny total Episcopal population of 1.8 million, we don’t have folks to spare.  In these tough times, St. Andrew’s membership is holding steady, but our attendance dipped slightly last year.  Now, we are addressing the scarcity we fear: We’re searching for a new assistant rector to lead ministry with younger adults and families, both people within the congregation and people we want to bring into it.  We’re seeking to draw more people into St. Andrew’s orbit through traditional church programs and services and through points of connection like community classes, neighborhood events, receptions, kids’ programs, and pastoral presence with people around us.  That’s all good.  But, to build the beloved community Jesus wants the Church to be, we need to connect with people more effectively and invite them into this family – which is why we now have a full-time engagement coordinator on staff, Mike McKinne.  But, of course, one staff member can’t do that work alone.  So it raises the really big question about “enough” in the Church: Do we have enough willing hearts?  Do we have enough people willing to connect with others, willing to invite them into something and walk alongside them to help them find a home here?  Does our parish family have enough of a culture of evangelism?  We can think up evangelistic programs; we can offer (and we have offered) different styles of worship; but by itself, that’s not enough.  A culture of invitation, a culture of connection, a culture of evangelism – that has to be here, too.
So, into my late-night fears about “enough” steps an unlikely character: a nameless woman at a well, the woman in today’s Gospel.  She is about as much of a nobody as somebody can be, from a Jewish perspective in Scripture.  First of all, she’s a Samaritan.  The Samaritans and the Jews had been feuding for centuries, feuding the way only siblings can.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before the Exile, and the Jews were the descendants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah before the Exile.  They worshiped the same God but in slightly different ways and in different places – so of course their brotherhood became deep division.  So, this woman at the well is a Samaritan; and as the Gospel tell us, “Jews [did] not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  The second strike against this woman is that she is a person of literally no social standing.  That’s likely the meaning behind the exchange about how she’s had five husbands, and how the man she’s with is not her husband.  From centuries of interpretation biased against women, we may hear that statement as impugning her moral character.  It’s much more likely saying that five past husbands have ditched her, leaving her powerless and alone; and she’s doing the best she can to survive in a society where a woman’s value was measured in terms of being a man’s property. 
But this Samaritan woman at the well engages Jesus in a way no one would have expected.  Like Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel reading, she interrogates Jesus; and he recognizes her inherent value by taking her questions seriously.  As in last week’s reading, Jesus doesn’t give the woman easy answers.  He makes her keep digging, keep plumbing the depths of that well that leads to living water.  Finally, she gets it (unlike the learned Nicodemus last week), and she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the one “who will proclaim all things to us” (4:25). 
What we’ve just heard is this woman’s call story.  Think about other stories of Jesus calling disciples, stories that might be more familiar.  Think of Peter, Andrew, James, and John out there on the lake in Matthew’s Gospel, enduring yet another fisherman’s workday, casting and mending their nets.  Jesus comes to them – regular guys in the midst of their regular lives – and he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19).  Something similar is happening in this story, but the Samaritan woman at the well doesn’t even need the invitation.  After her interrogation of Jesus, she leaves behind her water jar, a vital possession for a woman in that time and place; and just as surely, she leaves behind her old life, too.  This social outcast, not even anyone’s wife, goes back to the city of Samaria, finds her voice, and says to the people she meets, “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done!” (4:29).  Come and see the one we’ve been waiting for.  And, remarkably, the people follow her to find the messiah.  Of course, to Jesus, it’s no surprise:  “Look around you,” he says to the disciples, “and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:35).
In the wee, small hours, I would do well to remember the Samaritan woman – as well as the Lord who gives us living water when we least expect it.  When I find myself worrying about where the church will be next year, or in five years, or in 30; when I find myself worrying that I can never do enough or be enough or meet all the expectations people lay before me; when I worry whether we have enough of what it takes build a culture of evangelism at St. Andrew’s and in the Episcopal Church – in those wee, small hours, I need to remember the Samaritan woman at the well. 
Do we have enough of what it takes to be evangelists?  The answer is, “Yes” – and I can prove it.  Look at the word.  What does that supposedly scary word, “evangelism,” mean?  Does it mean quoting Scripture?  Does it mean telling people that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior?  Does it mean going door to door to invite people to St. Andrew’s.  Well, yes, maybe eventually … but not necessarily, and certainly not right off the bat.  It would be like kissing someone you just met.  That scary word, evangelism, comes from a Greek word that simply means “good news.”  If you can share good news, you are, by definition, an evangelist.  If you can gossip about something good, you are, by definition, an evangelist. 
And what is that Good News?  You can say it many ways, but here’s the simplest way I can frame it.  For somebody out there, someone you meet or know, the Good News is this: that you take this person seriously enough to have a conversation and offer hope about what matters in his or her life.  And here’s why that’s Good News: Because the fact that you take the person that seriously shows that God does, too.  Especially in our world, where authenticity is rarer than living water in the desert, I would argue that the best news any of us can hear is that we are worth someone’s investment to build a relationship with us, a relationship that points us toward hope. 
At the end of the day, that’s what the Church is for.  The Church is God’s community of relationship-building.  Each of the promises of the baptismal covenant is about relationship.  And when it comes to the project of building relationships, God equips us with an amazing and counter-intuitive capacity for blessing.  If you can build a relationship that points to God’s unlimited love, then you have enough to be an evangelist. 
So, remember today’s Gospel math lesson.  You didn’t know you were coming for a math lesson this morning, but here you go:  How many Episcopalians does it take to speak about love they don’t have to earn?  How many Episcopalians does it take to build a relationship that points toward hope?  How many Episcopalians does it take to gossip good news?  The answer is, one.  One is enough.  One is enough – as long as that one is you. 

1.       The Episcopal Church.  “Episcopal Church Fast Facts Trends 2011-2015.”  Available at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/domestic_fast_facts_trends_2011-2015.pdf. Accessed March 16, 2017.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 2: Does God Exist?

Sermon from Sunday, March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

I have to say: Our Old Testament reading today kind of drives me crazy.  More specifically, it kind of makes me feel inadequate.  This is the first time we meet one of the central figures of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions – Abram, eventually to be renamed Abraham.  This account we heard today sounds like it just comes out of nowhere, and that’s nearly true.  The verses before it simply introduce Abram and his wife, Sarai, as part of Abram’s extended family living in what’s now southern Iraq.  Abram’s father takes his household on the road, intending to move them to Canaan, which is modern Israel and Palestine.  But they only go part of the way, hiking up the Fertile Crescent and settling in what’s now southern Turkey.  That’s where we pick up the short reading we heard this morning, when God spoke to Abram and said, “Go from your father’s country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…” (Genesis 12:1-2).  That’s pretty much all Abram got.  But based on this simple call, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” (12:4)
Now, from this story, we know nothing about what kind of a person Abram was.  But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t much like me, maybe not much like you, either.  Whatever else might have been true about him, Abram was willing – willing to walk into the darkness with his eyes wide open.  I can only imagine how much grief he must have gotten from his family and the workers in his household.  “You’ve got to be kidding, Abram.  God has told you to leave everything you know and wander to a foreign land?  Really?  You don’t even know the destination God has in mind.”  Abram is rightly held up as the Scriptural exemplar of trust, staking his life on God’s direction.  I know I don’t measure up to that.
But then we have the Gospel reading, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night for a conversation as deep as conversations get.  Nicodemus … now here’s someone I can identify with.  He’s a religious elder, a Pharisee, a teacher, a leader of the people – someone who’s supposed to have his stuff together.  Nicodemus is the man with all the answers.  But this night, Nicodemus is the man with all the questions.  He comes to Jesus secretly and addresses him as “Rabbi,” teacher.  He knows about Jesus’ signs; he understands that Jesus is channeling God’s power.  But how?  What’s going on here?  Jesus tells him no one can see God’s kingdom without being born anew, born from above; and Nicodemus wants to know, “What does that mean?  How can you be born a second time?”  Well, Jesus waxes poetic about being born of both matter and spirit; he says the wind blows where it will without you knowing where it comes from or where it’s going, but still it happens.  “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8) – as if that explains anything.  And Nicodemus is just as much in the dark as he was before: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9)  It’s tough to be the man with all the answers when all you’ve got is questions.
But the night is a good time for questions like this.  I don’t know about you, but I find myself lying awake in the wee small hours sometimes, trying to hear a voice that doesn’t seem to have much to say.  I can name a few times when God has given me wonderfully direct messages, promising to stand by me and guide me if I’ll take a journey sort of like Abram’s.  That does happen – but it’s the 1 percent of prayer.  The other 99 percent is asking questions in the dark; and, if you’re blessed enough to get an answer, chances are it doesn’t make much sense.  But chances are even greater, in any given moment, that there’s no response at all.  And that’s scary.  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, darkness is frightening because it forces us to admit that we’re simply not in control.  And it’s all the more frightening when we can’t sense God’s presence in it either.  As she puts it, “One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief.”1
Ahhh, there it is … the question that lies beneath all the others, the question we face in the dark but rarely ask out loud.  Does God exist?  Is God really there?  When I pray, am I just having a nice conversation with myself?  Plenty of people, past and present, would say that’s exactly what I’m doing.  Skeptical people sometimes look at people of faith and wonder, “How in the world could you really buy into a relationship with an invisible friend?”  That’s not the question Nicodemus raises with Jesus, but I think Nicodemus has much in common with our skeptical hearts.  Like Nicodemus, our skeptical hearts actually want nothing more than to believe in something deeply.  The interrogation Nicodemus gives Jesus comes from longing, not a desire to play “gotcha.”  Nicodemus wants to believe, and he’s looking to Jesus to help him understand: “How can these things be?”  Jesus’ own mother, Mary, asked the same question of the angel who told her she would be the mother of God.  “How can this be?” asks the skeptic today who sees his marriage failing, and who sees children across town going hungry, and who sees women trafficked as slaves on American highways, and who sees thousands of God’s children warehoused in prisons, and who feels under siege by bitterness and intolerance both inside and outside our nation.  And our own skeptical hearts join the chorus: “How can you believe your invisible friend is really there?”
In a few days, our friend Fr. Marcus will be walking in Abram’s footsteps.  Today is his last Sunday with us, after three and a half years as part of this parish family.  It’s fitting that we’re in this sermon series as he concludes his time with us, because Fr. Marcus has asked questions we likely wouldn’t have considered otherwise, questions we tend to leave in the dark.  He’s also built relationships with newcomers, and prayed with kids on ski slopes, and told holy stories in Children’s Chapel, and retrained himself from swinging incense every Sunday of the year.  Now, Fr. Marcus is heeding God’s call to the frozen north, a distant land far from his “country and [his] kindred and [his] father’s house.”  Unlike Abram, at least Marcus has an address; but he doesn’t really know much of anything about what life will be like in this new land that God will show him.  And still he goes, with our blessing and into the blessing God has in store – both for him and through him for the people God loves.
But you know, Fr. Marcus isn’t the only one walking in Abram’s footsteps.  So is Mtr. Anne.  Later this summer, she will journey on sabbatical and return to us a different role.  Another one walking in Abram’s footsteps is the priest whom God will bring here to minister with younger adults, families, and the community around us.  This summer, God willing, he or she will come into this parish family, having left another land and kindred behind.  And honestly, so am I walking in Abram’s footsteps.  A church’s life is always changing, right out from under you it sometimes seems; and this summer, we’ll be taking down HJ’s and putting a newer, more efficient building in its place to support ministries we’re now building and continuing to grow. 
The truth is, we’re all Abram’s children.  None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, much less the years to come.  We spend our days planning for that which we imagine but cannot see.  Eighteen years ago, I went to seminary with a little savings in my pocket and a pretty decent plan:  My wife, Ann, would work full time to support us and our two little kids.  But I left seminary with a wife who’d nearly died of lupus and was disabled and on chemotherapy.  Oh, yeah, we also left with a mountain of debt.  Nice work by that invisible friend, I hear the skeptic say. 
Here’s the thing:  I know God is there.  Ann is healthier now than she’s ever been since the fall she nearly died.  That mountain of debt is a thing of the past.  I find myself in this beautiful place with you beautiful and broken people, striving to hear and follow God’s call together as best we can.  Many of us could tell a story like that.  So here’s how I came to know that God is there:  Because after asking all the questions, after stumbling in the dark, after feeling sorry for myself, after demanding to know the destination – at the end of it all, I took the risk to trust. 
When we hear that story of Abram setting out for an unknown land, and when St. Paul writes about Abram’s faith, we’re not hearing about someone who just believes something.  The answers that come in the dark are not verifications of intellectual propositions.  The final answer that comes in the dark is to trust – to make the choice to stake our hope and our lives on “the assurance of things not seen,” as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it (11:1).  We begin as Nicodemus, interrogating Jesus to make sense of God’s ways.  We stand there with Nicodemus, trying to fit vast truth into our intellectual boxes.  We hear Jesus mumbling mystery; and with Nicodemus, we cry in the dark, “How can these things be?!” (John 3:9). 
But you know, at the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus again.  This time, he’s not asking questions.  This time, he’s putting his own life on the line in the darkest moment of them all, as Jesus’ dead body is taken down from the cross.  Nicodemus shows up, with Joseph of Arimathea, to take the body away for burial, despite the risk that the Romans might kill him, too.  And to prepare the body, Nicodemus brings with him “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) – tremendously more ointment and burial spice than he needs to do the job.  Now, maybe Nicodemus was just trying to ensure that his failed leader’s body didn’t stink.  But I choose a different interpretation.  I see Nicodemus investing everything he’s got in something even less reliable than an invisible friend.  I see Nicodemus investing all his trust in the man lying dead before him and the divine Spirit that will blow through that body three days later.  For, as the apostle Paul writes, God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). 
On the world’s terms, this is no way to live.  But for Abram, for Marcus, for Anne, for our next priest, for me, for you – it’s the only way to live.  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.  To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life.”2  So, to Fr. Marcus, and to Mtr. Anne, and to all of us who invest our hearts in whispers we hear in the shadows, let me say:  Keep staking your life on the presence and power of the living God – the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  For glorious things await us as we walk in the dark.

1.   Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark (p. 135). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
2.  Taylor, (p. 55). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

'I Hope I'm Not Asking Too Much'

On Sunday, I went to the prayer vigil organized by the India Association of Kansas City, to honor Srinivas Kuchibhotla, Alok Madasani, and Ian Grillot, who were shot in an Olathe bar last week. As everyone knows, Kuchibhotla was killed when a white man came into the bar, yelled, “Get out of my country!” and opened fire.

That is reality. And we can’t wish away the deeper reality those actions illustrate. Yes, the killer no doubt is disturbed, but he was not speaking for himself alone. Just yesterday, I received an email from a well-meaning friend, an email with photos of dark-skinned young men wielding machine guns. The argument was about limiting refugees’ access to the United States, and the caption read, “These children are training to kill your children.” That kind of language – language that presumes a malevolent heart in people who look different from most of the people we know – it infects our own hearts. It gives people permission to inch just a little further, each time we hear it, toward words and actions that turn human beings into avatars of spiritual darkness. And it’s no accident that people in a white culture find it easy to ascribe that spiritual darkness to dark skin. We have centuries of perceived darkness to overcome.

Sunday's service of prayer and remembrance incarnated a contrast reality. So many people came to the suburban conference center that the crowd had to be managed in three sections – hundreds within the ballroom, hundreds in the foyer, and hundreds more outside pressing toward the open doors, struggling to hear the voices of peace over the PA system inside. Those voices were powerful in their quiet proclamation – Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Sikh and Jew, all praying for the same things from the same divinity of Love. The call to strive for peace, healing, and reconciliation knows no religious boundaries.

The religious voices then gave way to those who know the need for healing more personally. Alok Madasani, recovering from his wounds, stood to speak of his dear friend and how a drink after work turned into cold-blooded murder. But Madasani shunned bitterness and moved toward healing, just days after being shot and watching his friend die. “It was rage and malice in another’s heart that killed my friend,” he said. “That’s not Kansas, or the Midwest, or the United States. It’s not what we know.” He then described how a stranger in the bar took off his shirt and stanched Madasani’s flow of blood, likely saving his life. “That’s what I’ll cherish,” he said. “That’s why we made this country our home. We just ask for tolerance of diversity and respect for humanity. I hope I’m not asking too much.”

That’s my prayer, too – that Madasani is not asking too much. I pray that we will speak and act to “respect the dignity of every human being,” as our Episcopal Baptismal Covenant puts it. And I pray that each time we find a moment to speak or act against the presumption of darkness, whether in public events or intimate conversations, we will seize that opportunity for witness.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Choose Life, Love More, Love Better

Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 12
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Today, as we celebrate Scout Sunday, we welcome the boys of Troop and Pack 16, as well as their leaders and parents.  Let me take a moment for a shout-out to a man who’s had to deal with two of the most demanding roles I can imagine:  Dave Banks.  One of those demanding roles has been serving as our Troop 16 Scoutmaster, a job of great sacrifice from which he is stepping down at the end of this month.  The other, even more demanding, role has been getting stuck with following in Morgan Olander’s footsteps.  Dave has given countless hours in his service to the Scouts of Troop 16, their families, and the family of St. Andrew’s – so please show him your appreciation.
So, as we mark Scout Sunday, I want to be clear in what it is we’re celebrating.  We’re not honoring a community partner, some organization we allow to use the building each week.  We’re raising up one of the primary youth and family ministries of our church.  I draw that distinction because Scouting is about formation – from a Christian perspective, it’s about forming followers of Jesus in how they represent Jesus to the world.  And the same could be said about the Girl Scouts, too.  Scouting isn’t just campouts; it’s discipleship.  And that journey of growing as a disciple, of growing more and more into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) – that’s a journey God asks every last one of us to be taking.
A bit later today, six of the boys of Troop 16 will become Eagle Scouts.  As you know, it’s the pinnacle of Scouting achievement.  But, as I’m sure we’ll hear in the remarks this afternoon, it’s also just the beginning for these boys.  Their lives will change the world – certainly in small ways, maybe in big ways, too.  So, although these Scouts will earn the fruit of their labors this afternoon, they’re definitely not finished with the work God has given them to do.  And that illustrates what may be the best characteristic of Scouting, and certainly something Scouting shares with other ministries that form us as Jesus’ disciples:  Scouting is aspirational.  There’s always another merit badge to work on; there’s always a further rank to attain.  As the grown-up Eagle Scouts among us demonstrate every day, there’s always a greater difference to be made, a greater benefit to bring to the world and the people around you. 
Aspiration runs through the readings we heard this morning, too.  In Deuteronomy, we hear Moses trying to explain to the people of Israel that, when it comes to God’s Law, the stakes are so much higher than they imagine.  The Law is not simply a list of rules and regulations for people about to move into a new land.  The Law is God’s path of blessing for a people set aside to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.  Following the Law is the way wilderness wanderers become a great nation, how wayfaring strangers become a light to the world.  As Moses tells his people, following the Law is the great choice God asks them to make, in that time and place.  I have set before you two options, the Lord says through Moses – the way of life and prosperity or the way of death and adversity.  It’s just that stark.  This path of blessing, for yourselves and for the world, is not something you can simply sample as it suits you, a path of convenience.  This path of blessing brings you life, and it brings the light of God’s life to the world.  So, Moses cries to his people, choose this steeper path.  “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him,” Moses says.  Aspire to be the beloved community, living out nothing less than the reign and rule of God. 
That kind of aspiration runs through the Gospel reading this morning, too.  This is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is teaching something that might make us good Christians stop short.  We like to think about Christianity replacing the Jewish Law with the good news of grace – that God’s salvation can’t be earned, only gratefully received.  True enough.  So following the Law isn’t something we do – but that’s not because the Law’s intentions missed the mark.  Actually, Jesus takes the Law of Moses and raises the bar even higher.  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’” Jesus says.  “But I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.…  You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” Jesus says.  “But I say to you that everyone who looks at [someone else] with lust has already committed adultery … in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22,27-28)  To me, we miss the point if we focus on what Jesus means by the “hell of fire” (5:22), the consequences that come when we miss the mark.  To me, the point is where the mark lies. 
The kingdom of God, the beloved community, is about always aspiring to love more.  For example, to name one of the elephants in the room that comes out of this reading – hear what Jesus is saying about divorce.  Clearly, Jesus is not a fan of divorce, and you can find that in other Gospel accounts, too.  But what he’s saying here isn’t about judgment for people who find themselves in the tragedy of relationships broken beyond repair.  What he’s saying here is that the minimum requirement of the Law just isn’t enough.  For that time and place, there was some love in that Law about divorce.  It said a man couldn’t just abandon his wife if he didn’t like her anymore; he had to write a certificate of divorce, which relinquished his property claim on her and allowed her to remarry rather than wandering unprotected as a social outcast.  But for Jesus, that’s not enough love.  He’s looking to protect the woman, the powerless one in the relationship in that time and place, from being tossed aside on a man’s whim.  My point is that Jesus looks at the Law, at the minimum requirement of love, and he says, “You know, that’s not enough.”  Living faithfully isn’t about whether we check the boxes of legal requirements, whether we do just enough to pass the test, or what might happen to us when we fail, as we surely will.  Living faithfully is about recognizing that God raises the bar because God wants for us as much love as we’re willing to choose.  Each day, God sets before us the choice to be a blessing.  So “choose life,” God says, “that you and your descendants may live.”
What does that look like for us, in our present moment?  Well, here’s one way I believe God is calling us to aspire to love more and love better, to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law.  It has to do with how we see our opponents, those who disagree with us; and the ways our small, daily actions bear that out.  In a tweet the other day, the president called people who oppose him “haters.”  Really?  By the same token, on Facebook I saw posts from people on the other side that called people they disagree with “sexist fascists” and “thieves.”  Anymore, we throw around demeaning language as if words don’t matter.  But they do.  And it’s not just the potential pain those words inflict on others.  Throwing around demeaning language to describe other children of God forms us to see those other people as something less than children of God.  And it forms us, as a nation, to live far below the heights where the “better angels of our nature” dwell, as Abraham Lincoln said.  Whether you see it on a protest sign or in a presidential tweet, any message that denigrates those who disagree with you has no place in the kingdom of God.  That’s not how we follow our baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  Because every human being is a child of God.  Every human being – maybe especially those with whom we most deeply disagree.  As Paul writes in the reading from First Corinthians this morning, “As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you … you are behaving according to human inclinations” (3:3), not aspiring to grow more and more into the measure of the full stature of Christ.  Instead, choose a different path.  For we “have a common purpose,” Paul says.  “We are God’s servants working together” (3:8-9).
The six boys who will become Eagles today didn’t have to choose the path they chose.  They didn’t have to work toward one merit badge after another.  They didn’t have to freeze through winter campouts.  They didn’t have to learn to lead their peers.  But for them, the Scout Oath and Scout Law pointed them down a path of aspiration.  If they were truly going to do their best to do their duty to God, and to their country, and to the other human beings around them, then they had to choose the steeper path, the path toward Eagle. 
The call to us from God’s Word says very much the same thing:  If we’re going to do our best to do our duty to love God and love neighbor, to live out the Baptismal Covenant, then we’ve got to take the steeper path, too.  We’ve got to choose to be better than we have to be.  We’ve got to choose be a blessing to the people we encounter.  We’ve got to choose life, that we and our descendants may live.  

Love Small

Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 29
1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

In our readings today, we hear about truth that just doesn’t make sense.  In First Corinthians, Paul is trying to explain the logic of the Cross, the astounding claim that God chose to go about saving humanity by coming among us as a human, the One who then completely empties himself of everything the world understands as power and wisdom.  What seems to be the worst possible outcome – Jesus’ brutal death – turns out to be the way to show the world God’s power and wisdom.  With God, new life comes where you’d least expect it, redeeming the most horrifying thing you can imagine.
And then, in the Gospel reading, we heard Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes – again, the world turned upside down.  In the moment, Jesus’ followers could easily look around their society and see who was blessed.  Blessed were the wealthy, for they have more than enough.  Blessed were the religious authorities, for they had privilege and respect.  Blessed were the Romans, for they had power and might.  You didn’t have to be a rabbi to understand who was blessed.  But Jesus was teaching them something different:  No, he says, things aren’t always what they seem.  Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the true kingdom.  Blessed are the meek and the powerless, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled with God’s own righteousness. (Matthew 5:3,5-6)  Those who seem hopeless, aren’t.  Instead, Jesus says, blessing comes where you’d least expect to receive it – to those at the end of their rope.
So, what does it mean to be blessed?  That word rings our ears after this reading.  Some versions of the Bible translate that word from Greek into English differently.  Sometimes, you see it given as “happy,” which, to me, is even harder to understand.  If you’re broken in spirit – to say nothing about facing sinking poverty or experiencing physical hunger – you’re not happy.  But, Jesus says, you are blessed.  In fact, you are a “privileged recipient of divine favor.”1
It’s also important to note that Jesus isn’t conferring a new state of blessing when he speaks these beatitudes, nor is he giving these classes of people some power they didn’t have before.  He’s in the role of the color commentator in the broadcast booth, calling it like he sees it.  The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted, the pure in heart – they simply are blessed.  And congratulations to them, for God promises that their sorrow will not stand.  When God’s beloved community is realized in all its fullness, when the earth once again mirrors heaven as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, then the folks now suffering will participate in God’s blessing in all its fullness. 
As I say these things, I have to take note of the news from the past couple of days.  I don’t pretend to be an expert in public policy related to refugees and immigration.  But I hear Jesus, in today’s reading, looking out over the people listening to him – the poor, the persecuted, the people in mourning – and observing how blessed they are in God’s eyes.  And I can’t help but think about those who will be caught up in our president’s order to exclude refugees from seeking refuge in our nation of immigrants.  There is much that is dubious in Scripture, much that requires a razor’s-edge approach to interpretation – and then, there are the clear imperatives.  In Deuteronomy, a book that shares the perspective of the Israelites just before they took Promised Land away from the people living there, Moses says to God’s people, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords … who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19)  I hear the same imperative from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading:  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” he says. (Matthew 5:7).  I know we’re afraid of potential terrorists.  I get that.  But being afraid doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to show mercy, particularly to those who seem to meet Jesus’ criteria of blessing.  As he says, “Blessed are you when people revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” (Matthew 5:11).  I grant you that those we are now turning away are not being persecuted for their faith in Jesus.  But I would invite us prayerfully to consider under what circumstances Jesus would exclude the stranger seeking to come among us.
So, let’s recap:  The law of Moses calls us to love the stranger.  Jesus tells us that blessing comes to the people we’d least expect to receive it.  Paul tells us that salvation comes from the God who chose to die a horrific, criminal death in order to call us home.  And this morning, in our worship at 10:15, we will live out the astonishing mystery that we get to take part in this amazing process of dying and rising again by joining the blessed in baptism and living as blessings ourselves. 
Today, we’ll baptize four new followers of Jesus who couldn’t get to church for baptisms two weeks ago because of the ice.  In this rite and in their baptized lives, these children will be taking the same journey the children of Israel took when they passed through the Red Sea.  They’ll be taking the same journey Jesus took when he passed through the grave and gate of death and walked away from an empty tomb.  They’ll be taking the same journey we took in our own baptisms, and the same journey we take again and again in our own lives.  As followers of Christ, we pass through the waters of death time after time, taking on the forces of Pharaoh and the seductions of self-centeredness, and we march on through to the other side.  With Jesus, we rise from death as new creations, our lives made more than they once were, our hearts blessed by relationship with God, and our hands empowered to be blessings to the people God loves.
We find ourselves among the blessed when we join God in the blessed life.  And that blessed life looks a very particular way.  It’s a life of downward mobility.  It’s a life of stooping into love.
The Psalms say that God “stoops to behold the heavens and the earth” and “takes the weak up out of the dust and lifts the poor from the ashes” (Psalm 113:5-6, BCP).  Paul tells us that God chose the way of the Cross intentionally, shedding all power and “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) to show that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).  Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah saw the same truth – that God’s way is the path of humility, and that what the Lord requires is not fancy sacrifice but simply “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).  We are called to stoop down to behold God not only because God is our sovereign but because, astonishingly, God stooped down first – creating us for the joy of it, relating with us for the love of it, then dying and rising again for the victory of it, defeating sin and death to open the doors to eternity.  We walk that way of salvation on our knees because God got down on God’s knees first.  As the story goes, an old rabbi once said to his student, “In olden days, there were people who saw the face of God.”  The young student replied, “Why don’t we see God’s face any more?”  And the old rabbi said, “Because nowadays, no one stoops so low.”2
The exclamation point on this mystery is that we are called to stoop into the relationships that mark God’s way of blessing.  We do it through joining in the apostles’ fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.  We do it through resisting evil and continually turning our hearts in God’s direction.  We do it through living and telling our own story of Good News to others.  We do it through seeking and serving Christ in all people.  And we do it by respecting the dignity of every human being, no matter where they come from.  Those are the promises we make in baptism – the roadmap of the way of the Cross, the job description of the blessed.
These can seem like abstract promises, a lovely vision that may seem impossible to achieve.  But think about how God stoops into relationship with us.  In Christ, God chose to make redemption personal.  God’s M.O. is not to work in generalities but in specific times and places, linking real people with other real people, and changing the heart of one real person at a time.  Our call is the same.  None of us is called to love the world.  Instead, each of us is called to love the person in front of you.  
So, give it a shot.  Each day this week, take someone seriously.  Listen to someone’s story.  Share some of your own story.  Link someone with something life-giving.  Invest yourself in the call to love small.

1.      Danker, Frederick William.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.  611.

2.      Stoffregen, Brian.  “The History of the Word ‘Makarios’ (‘Blessed’).”  Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks.  Available at: http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/allsaintb.htm.  Accessed Jan. 27, 2017.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Stories and Storytellers

State-of-the-Parish Address, Jan, 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23

I’d like to invite you this morning to hear our Gospel reading through the ears of our patron, St. Andrew.  I’d also like you to imagine the reading not as a piece of journalism, not a report by a detached observer, but as part of Andrew’s story, which he’s telling years later.  Andrew is telling this story as he’s hanging out in the ancient equivalent of a coffee shop, talking with someone who’s become a friend.  Andrew is trying to share something about what matters most in his life.
So he sips his latte and gives a little background.  “This guy named Jesus,” Andrew says, “he was from my region, and he came to settle in my own village.  I’d been hearing things about him – that what he had to say made people listen, that it brought people hope.  And it made me think about how people have been finding hope for centuries when God manages to take the hardest things in life and help you find blessing in them instead.  Well, my brother and I were working one day, out fishing, and this guy Jesus came up near us on the beach.  For no good reason, he asked us to come along and see what he was up to.  And, well, we did.  You know, I was dealing with my own problems, and I needed a little light in my life.  So, we started talking with Jesus, and he said, “Hey, come along with me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people instead.”  I wasn’t sure quite what he meant, but we went along; and he invited other guys to come along, too.  And, you know, we saw and heard the most amazing things as we traveled with him.  We heard him teaching about how life could actually mean something, and we watched him heal people and give them a new lease on life.  You know, I didn’t realize how badly I needed that hope and healing until then.  But it’s made all the difference to me.”
There’s the Gospel of St. Andrew, over a latte with a friend in an ancient coffee shop.  It’s a story of hope and healing – not just for Andrew but for the guy across the table, too. 
So what I’ve just described to you is an example of what I see as our greatest need in this church family, as we begin a new year together.  We need stories and storytellers – as the old saying goes, stories told by one beggar to another beggar about where to find bread. 
Why do we need stories and storytellers?  To make love real.  To give it flesh and bones.  That person you have coffee with, or exercise with, or work with – God loves that person more than anything.  And God uses us to show it.  Nothing communicates love like love stories.  So God needs stories and storytellers.  And so does our parish family. 
When I look at our congregation, here’s what I see.  I see a lot that’s good.  I see hundreds of people serving God and loving the people around them, week in and week out.  At the parish meeting downstairs, you’ll get a copy of the annual report, and the ministry it describes is really pretty stunning – people giving their time and talent and treasure to serve in worship, and take care of the building, and raise more than $100,000 for people in need, in addition to the giving that comes from the operating budget.  People who teach children, and manage finances, and visit others who are sick or alone.  When you pull back and look at the ministry that happens week in and week out, the ways people share hope and love, the news is truly good. 
When I look at our congregation, I also see people who love this place and all that it represents.  We were founded 104 years ago when our bishop at that time, the Rt. Rev. Sidney Partridge, said, “Our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field.”1    Since then, St. Andrew’s has been an outpost of God’s mission of love in this community, and we’ve touched hundreds of thousands of people.  I see a congregation that still believes in that mission and wants to ensure we have the wherewithal to help God accomplish it. 
One way I’ve seen this belief is in your response to the Christmas appeal to help us replace the air conditioner in the children’s wing and the undercroft.  A generous parishioner offered a match of $90,000, and we asked you to give toward meeting that match.  Long story short: You gave enough not just to meet the match but another $80,000 beyond it.  As I said in a letter this week, we’ll use those gifts to address water damage in the lower levels of the church, and redirect the way water drains off the roof, and fix the elevator.  It’s a stunning example of your love for this place and for its work to bring hope to real, live people.
When I look at the numbers, I also see some signs of hope.  Pledging is up – $35,000 more pledged than last year, 134 increased pledges, and 39 brand new pledges.  That’s a testimony to the fact we’re improving the way we tell and live the stewardship story.  Good job, Stewardship Commission and the Vestry callers!
And … when I look at our congregation, I see challenges, too.  Sunday attendance dropped this year, and membership is flat.  Pledge payments dropped even as pledges rose.  All this has something to do with challenges of the moment – the nave’s air conditioner dying and us worshiping in the undercroft certainly didn’t help attendance or giving.  But the challenges run deeper, too.  When I was growing up, attending church regularly meant going every week, unless you were sick in bed.  Today, attending church regularly means once a month, or less.  And along with that come demographic challenges to attendance and giving.  If you look out across the congregation this morning, you see a lot of gray hair – including my own, increasingly.  And the people with that gray hair do most of the serving and the giving in this place.  Forty-six percent of our pledges last year came from people over 75.  Forty-eight percent came from people between 48 and 74.  So six percent came from people younger than 48.  We have real work to do – increasing attendance, incorporating new members, encouraging people to fulfill their pledges, and broadening the base of pledge support.  These will be among the Vestry’s top priorities this year.  
Those concerns are real, but they don’t tell our full story.  When I look at our congregation, and the 2017 budget, I see a church family seeking to love more and love better, both within and beyond our congregation.  We’ve received an incredibly generous gift to fund a full-time positon to help us build engagement – with newcomers, with people who use our church during the week, and with people on the periphery of our membership, the folks we don’t see very often.  We’re also bringing on someone part-time to help us start a ministry of planned giving, following up on the incredible work that Charlie Horner has put into stewarding our endowment.  We’re adding hours in formation of children, youth, and adults to help us do more to serve people within the congregation and to reach people in the community around us.  We’re planning a series of spiritual conversations in a coffee shop and more participation in community celebrations and events.  As of this week, we’ll have a new staff member leading communications, a woman named Shelby Lemon, who will help us share the Good News of God’s love among ourselves and beyond ourselves.  Even Mtr. Anne’s coming sabbatical is an investment in love, as she develops resources to help “care for the caregivers,” a role many of us know.
Several of those investments in love fall into the category we’ve called “Gather & Grow ministries,” which is shorthand for reaching people around us in new ways.  The Gather & Grow initiative has always been about reaching people and developing our physical resources to enable that work.  As you know, plans for work on HJ’s hit a major roadblock last spring, when construction estimates came back much higher than we were initially told.  It led the Vestry to some soul-searching over the summer and fall, discerning whether to come back to you asking for more funding.  We discerned God was asking us instead to see that what you had given is enough – and to move forward accordingly.  So we’ve been working with an owner’s rep, Pete Lacy, who grew up in this church, to help us get the best facility we can across the street within the resources you’ve provided.  The Vestry will use part of its upcoming retreat to decide whether to renovate the existing building or build a new, more efficient one.  But in either case, the point is to enable ministry. The point is not to build a building but to connect with people around us in new ways.  And doing that doesn’t have to wait for a new building, which is why we’re working to build those ministries now.  These ministries are about going fishing for people – following Andrew as he followed Jesus and sharing our stories along the way. 
To do that, I see something else we need as a congregation.  We need to read the Bible.  Now, I know that’s not a shocking thing to hear a preacher say, though it may feel a little shocking coming from an Episcopalian preacher.  But in order to tell people Good News about the presence of God in our lives and the value that a relationship with Christ gives us, we have to know two stories: God’s story and our own.  We have to know what God has done and is doing in the world, and we have to be able to link that love story with the love we know when we feel the Sprit moving in our own hearts.  So, we’re going to offer an opportunity to read the Bible together.  And better yet, it’s sort of a condensed version of the Bible, navigating around some of the more distant material from a very distant time.  The resource we’ll use is called The Path, and it’s just that – a manageable journey through God’s story.  Here’s how it will work:  We’ll suggest people read certain chapters each week, and we’ll have a weekly time, after coffee hour, for teaching and discussion.  Our youth will be doing the same thing, by the way, also gathering after church; so parents and youth can both take part; and the younger kids will be using a kids’ version at the same time.  In addition, it’s a great resource for small groups or book discussions.  You’ll get more information about it in the next few weeks, and you can sign up at the annual meeting to find out more.
I firmly believe that this will make a difference for our congregation, if we will commit the time and energy to turn toward God every week.  When we know God’s story and feel it connecting with the grace and love God has shown toward each of us – when our heads and our hearts are aligned with the knowledge and love of God – then we receive the power to speak and act as participants in that divine love story.  We receive the power to serve as Christ calls us each to serve.  We receive the power to give sacrificially and to trust that it will bring us blessing.  We receive the power to reach out to people on the margins of this congregation and draw them deeper into this family.  We receive the power to share our story with someone else and invite him or her to experience what we’ve experienced. 
That’s what our patron, St. Andrew, was doing in his conversation with a friend in that ancient coffee shop.  He wasn’t hawking a product or promoting an institution.  He just identified someone he knew who needed to hear that life has meaning and that hope is real.  Andrew had thought about how his own experience with Jesus fit into the bigger picture of how God has been loving the world from the beginning.  And he thought about how he might tell his story in a way that made sense to the guy across the table. 
As I look at our congregation this year, here’s what I see.  Our greatest need is for stories and storytellers.  To say it in church-speak, we need to build a culture of evangelism.  To say it in the language of real people, we need to know who God is, know who we are, and put that into words. 
So, I began this with my take on our patron saint’s story, based on today’s Gospel reading.  Let me end with my own story.  It’s not beautiful or stunning or theologically deep, which is what I used to think it took to offer “a witness.”  Because I didn’t think my story was compelling or dramatic, I didn’t think I had a story.  Now, I know better.
I grew up in a family that went to church but didn’t talk much about what we believed.  I knew prayers, but I didn’t know the God to whom I was praying.  As a young man, I was working as a writer and editor; and that was OK, but it didn’t mean anything.  I had a wife and a little kid; and when we moved back to Kansas City, and I thought I ought to find us a church because good parents do that sort of thing.  Over the next couple of years, mostly through conversations with two people at work and the priest at my church, I realized that something I thought was impossible might actually be true: that God wanted what I had to offer.  At the same time, Ann and I came to one of those periods couples experience when your relationship goes south, and I had to ask some hard questions about where my life’s meaning really lay.  I started reading the Bible … what a concept.  There, I found a God who is all about new life.  I found a God who loved us enough to come and be one of us, and experience all the ugliness I experienced, and in the end, live resurrection.  Remarkably (or not), at the same time, I also found our marriage resurrecting, too. 
It seems like a story worth telling.  So now I’m telling it.  And if I’m telling my story, you can tell yours.  As Jesus said to one of the people whose life he made whole, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you” (Mark 5:19).  You don’t have to tell your story to everyone.  You just have to tell it to the one who needs to hear it.

1.       The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives.  Page 10.