Sunday, September 17, 2017

Throwing Rocks

Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 17
Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after last week’s reading from Matthew, which was about disciplining members of Jesus’ community who harm each other.  In that case, the teaching was about confronting the offender in a progressively public manner – first alone, then with another one or two, and then before the whole assembly.  It’s a way to resolve conflict for the good of the order.
But the next question, of course, is the one Peter raises in today’s reading.  What about the personal side?  What about the harm someone’s done to me?  How am I supposed to deal with someone hurting me personally, not just disrupting things in the church?  What’s the scope of forgiveness, Jesus?  And how are disciples like us supposed to do it?
Even asking the question, Peter understands that the bar will be uncomfortably high.  He asks, how often must I forgive?  Seven times?  Jesus, of course, sets the bar much higher – unattainably high, it’s always felt to me.  We must forgive seventy-seven times?  Or, as the verse also could be translated, seventy times seven times?  Really?
So then, in classic Jesus style, he illustrates this hard teaching with a parable.  Now, of course, parables are notoriously bad for explaining things because they’re really not intended to explain things.  That takes a different kind of illustration – a diagram or a flow chart maybe.  But that’s not where Jesus is going.  Instead, he’s telling a parable, and parables invite the person hearing them to interpret their meaning.  Parables aren’t cut and dried; you’re supposed to wrestle with them.  So, how I interpret today’s story may not be just the way you’d interpret it.  And I think Jesus would say, that’s OK.  Struggling to understand God’s intentions and purposes – well, I think that’s the point, at least in this chapter of eternal life.  We’ll have an eternity to find the clearer answers.
Anyway, Jesus tells this parable of the king and the unforgiving servant.  I’d like to title it, the parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant, but I think the story is a little muddier than that. 
So, this king is settling up accounts with his slaves who owe him money.  One slave owes him 10,000 talents.  Now, that amount doesn’t mean anything to us; but you have to know that one talent was the equivalent of about 15 years’ wages for a laborer.  So, owing 10,000 talents is a debt you couldn’t even conceive of paying.  But the slave wants to try to make things right, and the king has mercy on him for his good intention.  Then, the slave gets the opportunity to show similar mercy to another slave who owes him 100 denarii, basically three months’ wages.  It’s a lot of money, but it’s a debt that a worker might be able to pay.  But the forgiven slave fails to return the favor of grace, and he throws his debtor into prison.  The king gets wind of it and confronts the forgiven slave for his failure to forgive.  So, the story concludes, “his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay the entire debt” – which, of course, he could never pay.  And then Jesus adds the bitter icing on the cake:  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
I was good with this story right up until those last two sentences.  I think I can understand the first part of the parable: God wants us to forgive just as we’ve been forgiven, to show grace that mirrors God’s amazing grace.  And the other side of the coin is also true, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:  We will be forgiven as we forgive those who hurt us.  But I have trouble with the conclusion Jesus offers, that if we fail to forgive as our heavenly Father forgives, then God will hand us over to be tortured until we pay the debts we owe. 
So here’s where the wrestling with the parable begins.  I guess I’d ask this:  Is that torture at God’s hands, or at our own?  At least in my experience, refusing to forgive someone is its own torture, because refusing to forgive is choosing to bear a burden that eventually will crush us.  Hanging onto righteous indignation over someone else’s failure doesn’t hurt the offender.  It hurts the victim.    
But, of course, the huge challenge from this reading is that it sounds like we’re supposed to forgive people over and over again as we endure the consequences of others’ sinful choices.  That might sound like we’re supposed to be doormats, forgiving someone’s selfish acts seventy times seven times, not counting the cost but letting it go.
Letting it go….  Now, that’s where forgiveness gets interesting.  Is Jesus really asking us to let ourselves soak up other people’s sinful behavior, over and over again?  Is that letting it go?  Not at all.  Real forgiveness requires the offender to own the harm.  You know it’s true on a personal level; if someone cheats you but doesn’t own it, it’s awfully hard to forgive.  It’s also true on a broader scale:  In South Africa, after apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu didn’t just call his flock to forgive their oppressors; he put together the truth-and-reconciliation process, which allowed those who benefited from apartheid and those who suffered from apartheid to hear each other’s experience.  Full forgiveness is about love and justice.  It’s about grace as well as contrition and repentance and action to amend your life.
But even when the offender does own the harm, forgiving is hard.  For some of us, at least, we want to hang onto the hurt.  Righteous indignation sometimes feels a little too good.  Or, even if we want to let it go, we don’t know how.  The hurt just won’t go away; and every time we hurt, we remember what caused it.  Even though Jesus asks us to, we just can’t shake it.  And we end up living in that torture the parable spoke about – the torture that comes from being unwilling, or unable, to let the offense go. 
It probably won’t surprise you to know I don’t have a quick-and-easy prescription for forgiveness.  But let’s play a game.  Let’s create a parable of our own.  Just for a moment, remember some harm you’ve endured.  Don’t remember it too deeply, but just remind yourself of it.  Now imagine that harm against you as a backpack full of rocks – a hundred pounds of rocks that you’re consigned to carry, day in and day out.  So, here’s the parable of the backpack full of rocks.
*     *     *
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – something like that; not in our world, at least – there was a woman who’d been hurt by someone close to her.  In her world, people carried that kind of pain in the form of a backpack full of rocks, a backpack that you couldn’t take off.  Carrying that load felt like a sentence, ultimately unfair.  The woman would sometimes get down on her hands and knees and try to shake the rocks out all at once; but try as she might, she couldn’t because the opening was so small.  And the longer she carried her backpack full of rocks, the heavier they seemed.  What she really wanted – and what she felt was her due – was for the person who’d hurt her to take her backpack and carry those rocks instead.  It was his fault, after all.  He should bear the weight, not her.  So she waited and hoped and prayed that he would come to his senses, and see his obligation, and take the rocks off her back. 
Now, this person who’d hurt her was pained by what he’d done.  So, he came to her and poured out his heart; and he promised to walk the path with her in a new way from there on.  But he couldn’t figure out how to take the backpack of rocks off her shoulders. 
Finally, as they walked sadly together, with the woman laboring under the weight, a stranger approached and began to walk with them.  They came to the edge of a cliff – and frankly, by this point, the woman was done; she was miserable enough she just wanted to jump off, into the ravine.  But the stranger said to her, “Why don’t you reach around, and throw a few rocks off the cliff instead, and lighten your load.”  The woman could only reach a few because her shoulders were stiff, but she threw them over the edge, into the ravine.  She felt a little better, so she turned to the stranger and asked, “OK, now what?”  The stranger said, “Come back to the ravine tomorrow and the next day and the next, and I think you’ll be able to reach a few more each time as your shoulders loosen up with practice.”
And day after day, for what seemed a stupidly long time, the woman came to the ravine each morning.  She struggled to reach back and grab as many rocks as her loosening shoulders would allow.  Each day, she could reach back just a little further.  Each day, she could throw the rocks just a little farther into the ravine.  And each day, the backpack felt just that much lighter … until one morning, she forgot it was there.  Every now and then, one of the few rocks at the bottom of the backpack would poke her uncomfortably, and she’d remember the time she’d been hurt so badly.  She’d have to struggle to reach way back, and dig down deep in the backpack, and pull out that offending rock; and she’d have to go to the ravine that day to throw it in.  But afterward, she’d forget about the backpack again.  And she and the person who’d hurt her could keep making their way, along with the stranger … who, by this point, had become a companion.
Here endeth the parable.
*     *     *
So, here’s the truth I know about forgiveness:  It can’t be a one-time thing.  It’s a seventy-times-seven-times thing.  We’ve got to throw rock after rock into the ravine, each time we’re able to put our hands on one.  Because the torture would be to keep carrying them.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Don't Go to Church; Be the Church

Sermon from Aug. 27, 2017
Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8

I think you could see today’s Gospel reading as the end of a long series of stories leading up to it.  In the chapters before this reading, Jesus has walked on the water and called his friend Peter to do the same.  He’s redefined Jewish law about what truly defiles a person.  He’s come to acknowledge a non-Jew as a person of faith, redefining the rules of inclusion and exclusion in God’s eyes.  By curing many people, he’s fulfilled the prophet Isaiah’s vision about the blind regaining their sight and the lame walking (Isaiah 35:6ff).  He’s fed thousands of people from a few loaves and fish, not once but twice.  And he’s stood up to the religious authorities, calling them out for protecting their own power at the people’s expense.  All these scenes beg the question: Just who does this guy think he is?
I imagine the disciples are asking themselves the same question.  But Jesus turns it around and asks them first.  He sort of eases into it: Who do people say that I am?  So the disciples report what they’ve heard people saying – that Jesus is one of the prophets sent to get people ready for the coming of the king.  But then Jesus pushes his friends just a little harder: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).  
The Gospel story doesn’t tell us how long it took before anyone said anything, but I imagine there might have been some awkward silence.  It’s not an answer they wanted to get wrong, especially with the teacher right there, staring them down.  So finally Simon, the brother of Andrew, dares to say what he’s thinking: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  Jesus himself is the anointed king sent to inaugurate God’s rule on earth and build God’s beloved community.  Jesus isn’t just getting people ready for God’s decisive action in the world; Jesus is God’s decisive action in the world.  Simon nails it, despite the fact he often stumbles and blunders his way through his relationship with Jesus.  And as a result, Simon the dunderhead gets a new name, one that recognizes both his greatest liability and his greatest asset: “You are Peter,” Jesus says – a name we would translate as “Rocky” because the Greek word for rock is petra.  It implies just what you might think – that this guy’s maybe not the brightest light in the room, maybe not the guy who knows which fork to use at the club.  But Jesus hears Peter’s solid proclamation as a sign that he’ll be solid for the long term, at least eventually.  “You are Peter,” Jesus says, “and on this rock I will build my church, and [even] the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (16:18)
You may find it interesting that this is one of only two times in the Gospels that the word “church” shows up.  What did it mean then?  And what do we think it means now?
The word in Greek is ecclesia, and it means “assembly.”  Initially, that meant an assembly of citizens come together for public deliberation.  In the context of Christianity, it came to describe followers of Jesus on both the micro and macro levels: the assembly of his followers in a particular place, the whole body of Christians in the world, and the assembly of the faithful gathered in heaven from across time and space.  Regardless of the level where it’s applied, the word “church” means people following Jesus Christ. 
That may seem obvious, but I would say it’s important to remember this meaning very explicitly – especially for us in our time and place.  Because when we say “church,” we’re often not thinking about people first.  For us, “church” may mean a denominational brand, as in, “I attend the Episcopal Church.”  Or “church” may mean the spiritual aspect of public discourse, as in the “separation of church and state.”  Or “church” may mean an institution, as in, “The church’s membership is declining.”  Or “church” may mean a building, as in, “The church is full of water.”  All these aspects of the word “church” matter.  But none of them is what Jesus the Messiah had in mind when he commissioned his friend Rocky to be the foundation of the holy community he was creating.
This likely isn’t news to you either, that the church is about people – not a building, or an institution, or a brand.  We know that, intellectually at least.  But what do we do with it?  How does it affect us?  If “church” means the beloved community of Jesus’ followers, how does that affect how I act and who I am?
What we think something is drives our expectations about what that thing should do.  If “church” means a brand, we expect it to attract customers.  And for decades in our culture, that sort of worked.  If you wanted fiery preaching based on Scripture, you looked for the Baptist brand.  If you wanted a strong salvation message but with a little less heat, you looked for the Methodist or Presbyterian brand.  If you wanted tradition, Sacraments, and central authority, you looked for the Roman Catholic brand.  If you wanted a nice mix of Word and Sacrament, Protestant and Catholic – and really good manners to boot – well, you looked for the Episcopal brand.  And so long as nearly everybody felt the social expectation to go to some church, the denominational-brand approach worked.  Anymore?  Not so much.
So, what if “church” means the spiritual side of public life, in contrast to “state”?  Well, then, it’s tempting to see church being divorced from the “real world” of politics and government and business, relegated to the sidelines and brought to mind only one part of one day of the week – if we’re lucky.  Or, looking at the other side of the same coin, we might see this meaning of “church” as something in conflict with the real world, with its leaders constantly calling us to change our ways and follow their particular version of the Good News more faithfully.
So, what if “church” means an institution?  Well, then, we expect it, first and foremost, to run well and to meet its constituents’ needs.  And, of course, there’s truth in that – a church absolutely needs to run well and meet its constituents’ needs, just like a school or a hospital or a club.  But I think there’s more to our call than that.
So, what if “church” means a building?  Well, then, our focus is on maintaining, protecting, and improving that physical structure as best we can.  Again, we certainly need to steward this beautiful “house of prayer for all people,” but I think there’s more to our call than that, too.
But what if the church is the beloved community of the followers of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who embodies God’s decisive action in the world?  How would that change how we see ourselves and how we hear Jesus calling us to live?
I think Jesus is calling us not just to go to church but to be the church.  You’ll be hearing that idea a lot through this fall, the theme that will bind together all that we do.  Don’t just go to church; be the church. 
So, what does that look like?  I think it’s three primary actions.
First, the church remembers.  That’s what we do here every week – remembering the stories and teachings of Jesus, remembering through prayer our call to love God and love neighbor, and actively re-membering Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  To be the church is to remember who God has made us to be and how God asks us to live, now and through eternity.  So first, the church remembers. 
Second, the church practices.  We practice love for God and neighbor in hundreds of ways, each of which forms us as followers of Jesus.  We learn to pray daily, to make prayer not an appointment with God but a way of life.  We steward the gifts God gives us, gifts of time and talent and treasure, to direct God’s resources toward accomplishing God’s purposes.  We explore questions and dive deeper into our relationship with God, looking for divine fingerprints on our lives and responding to the Holy Spirit’s nudges.  And we build relationships with the members of our family here, loving and caring for each other just as God loves and cares for each of us.  So second, the church practices. 
And third, the church serves.  We serve each other in worship, and pastoral care, and maintenance, and event planning, and committee work, and a hundred other ministries that our common life requires.  We serve “the least” of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, going into the world to feed people, or read to children, or grow vegetables in a school’s garden, or help children learn in Haiti, or empower a mother for a living-wage job, or advocate for the strangers our culture tends to demonize or forget.  And we serve the people God puts in our own paths by inviting them into this beloved community, telling them our stories about how life is better when you have a relationship with God and asking them to come along this journey with us.
As Jesus’ followers, we remember, we practice, and we serve.  And as we do, we change the world, one life at a time – nothing less.  That’s what it means not just to go to church but to be the church – changing the world, one life at a time. 
And you know, through that faithful work, Jesus keeps on building his church, a work in progress for thousands of years now.  It isn’t yet what he dreams for it to be, just as none of us has mastered this whole discipleship thing quite yet.  But our Lord has literally all the time in the world … and time beyond that, too.  And he is patiently persistent and insistent that this work-in-progress of the church can be more than it has yet been.  We have what it takes to be whom Jesus needs us to be, if we are willing to “present ourselves as [the] living sacrifice” he desires (Romans 12:1).  As the one body of the church, “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to [each of] us” (Romans 12:6).  So what that means is this:  Every last one of us is essential.  Every last one of us has a part of play in the well-being of this body of St. Andrew’s.  Every last one of you is a rock on which Jesus is still building his church.  And despite all the reports of the church’s coming demise, even the gates of hell will not prevail against it. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Video links for Beating the Boundaries congregations

I had the pleasure of presenting at the Diocese of West Missouri’s Summer Church Summit about my book, Beating the Boundaries: The Church God is Calling Us to Be.  If you’d like to know more about the parishes I visited while researching the book, here are links to videos about each:

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Still the Storm

Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 13
Matthew 14:22-33

That’s quite a story we just heard, Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in the storm.  For Jesus’ followers after his resurrection, hearing this story back in the day, it would have reminded them of ancient Jewish tradition about God reining in the uncontrollable forces of the natural world.  The psalms frequently tell of God subduing the primordial chaos, defeating sea monsters and setting the oceans’ boundaries.  When the great flood came, the people saw it as God’s fearsome judgment, using the power of nature against them.  And when the people were delivered from oppression in Egypt, God used the Red Sea as a path of liberation for them but a path of destruction for the Egyptian army.  As we’ve come to remember more vividly than we’d like in the past month or so at St. Andrew's, water is certainly life-giving, but it’s also a serious threat – a force we’re still trying to manage and tame.  So when Jesus comes to us walking over the water, it’s not simply an amazing feat but a sign of his divine mastery over the destructive power of chaos.
To get a sense of the disciples’ mindset entering into this story, it’s always good to go back and see what happened just before it.  Today’s story follows another astonishing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000 – a miracle not just of divine provision but of overwhelming abundance, showing that what God gives us, through Jesus Christ, is astonishingly more than we can ask or imagine.  Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us not just the bounty of our daily bread but the promise of eternal life, which we experience at this altar each week as bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given.  I think it’s also significant that this feeding miracle isn’t Jesus’ work alone.  He carries it out with the participation of his friends.  When the crowds are hungry and his friends come to him looking for help, Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16).  And thousands are fed through the partnership of God’s abundance and human hands. 
But then, as we’re still reveling in the wonder of that miracle, the scene shifts and the mood darkens.  Jesus sends his followers out on the Sea of Galilee, telling them to cross over to the other side while he goes off to pray.  And suddenly, they’re face to face with the chaos that’s always lurking in creation, as the storm batters their small boat, a storm serious enough to frighten professional fisherman.  As if that’s not enough, the disciples then see something even scarier – what they think is a ghost coming toward them, a symbol of the power of death itself heading their way.  Jesus sees and hears their fear, and he assures them that he’s no ghost.  “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  If you hear it in Greek, what he says is even more assuring:  The same phrase given here as “It is I” can also be translated as “I am” – as in, the great I AM, echoing the voice of God to Moses from the burning bush.  This is no ghost.  This is the same One who subdues the sea monsters and sets the boundaries of the wild waters.  This is the One who tramples down the power of the storm.
 So then the scene shifts to Peter.  He’s just as scared as any of the other disciples, but what counts is how Peter responds – with totally unselfconscious faith.  Maybe he’s still in awe from Jesus feeding thousands of people from five loaves and two fish.  But for whatever reason, Peter’s response to Jesus reveals deeper faith than he probably even realizes:  “Lord, if it is you,” he says, “command me to come to you on the water” (14:28).  The question for Peter isn’t whether a person might actually be able to walk on the water; the question for Peter is simply whether he’s seeing whom he thinks he’s seeing.  Because for Peter, if that’s really Jesus out there, there’s no question whether he can walk on the water and overcome the storm.  Why not, having just fed thousands of hungry people from five loaves and two fish?  Why not, having cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and healed withered limbs, and restored sight to the blind, and brought the dead to life?  
Peter sees no reason why he couldn’t be a partner in God’s work to overcome chaos and still the storm – right up until he thinks about it too much.  He notices the wind and the water, and he gets scared again both by the strength of the storm and by the weakness of his own capacity.  So he begins to sink.  But that very human moment shouldn’t diminish the power of the example of Peter’s faith.  As long as he taps into the depth of his trust, Peter is able to join Jesus in defeating the powers of chaos simply by naming a power that’s greater than they are.
We’ve seen something of the power of chaos this weekend, in the news from Charlottesville, Virginia.  A crowd of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered there, ostensibly to protest the removal of statue honoring Robert E. Lee but really there to advocate for taking “their country” back.  The protest was met with counter-protest, and the two sides fought each other with clubs and sticks, bottles and chemicals.  All of that would have been horrifying enough, but then a man drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 more.  In all, three people are dead and 35 injured from this weekend’s chaos.
I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that Jesus stands against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Klan – despite the appalling fact that probably most of those protesters would claim to honor and serve Jesus as their Lord and Savior, too.  But if Jesus isn’t standing with the Klan, where is he in this storm?  And how does he call us to follow him?
I see Jesus out there on the waters of the chaos, standing tall in the storm and inviting us to step out on the water to join him in stilling it.  Our Lord seems to have this odd preference for finding partners in working miracles, just as he did when he fed the crowds, just as he did in inviting Peter to join him on the water.  So what does it look like for us to take our place next to our risen Lord and Savior and work with him to counter violence, racism, and hate?
For us, in our particular context, maybe it’s a matter of naming truths that we might well have thought were self-evident – the truth that God loves all people, no exceptions; the truth that following Jesus allows no place for discrimination; and the truth that we are called to help bring God’s kingdom to life in the world God shares with us.  Now, that may seem like advocating for the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow or that we should brush our teeth before we go to bed.  And we might be tempted – especially those of us of a certain age – to look back a few decades and argue that we once enjoyed a social consensus that rejected hate and consigned neo-Nazis and the Klan to the lunatic fringe; and we might lament what’s become of our world today.  But you know, not so many years ago, we had Klansmen and white supremacists in the halls of power, calling on Jesus just as we do.  So, sometimes it is a holy act simply to proclaim God’s truth, because God’s truth is probably not as self-evident as we nice Episcopalians would like to think.  Sometimes, it is a holy act simply to say that Jesus calls us to practice love, not hate; to practice reconciliation, not conflict; to practice engagement, not vilification of “the Jews” or “the blacks” or “the Muslims.”  Sometimes it is a holy act simply to say that we stand with Jesus Christ, whose power brings people together and unites us as one, just as he and the Father are one.  Sometimes it is a holy act to say out loud that we stand with Jesus on the water despite the storm, confident of his power to make the demons flee.  It’s a holy act because words change things when influential people speak them with courage.  Words change hearts, and changed hearts change the world.
That may be a stretch for us nice Episcopalians.  It may put us uncomfortably close to linking faith with politics, though I would argue vigorously that if racism and supremacy are part of your politics, faith should stand against it.  But it’s our call as followers of Jesus not to let even obviously holy truths lie silent when they’re under assault.  When we’re at the grocery store, or the coffee shop, or the club, it’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against hate.  It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against racism.  It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against anyone’s efforts to consign others to second-class status.  It’s even right to say out loud that Jesus judges such things as contrary to God’s purposes and therefore as sinful. 
We may think all that’s self-evident.  But we are in a time when such truths need our voices.  For when we proclaim them, we take our place next to Jesus out there on the water, proving his power and stilling the storm.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sacrifice for Glory

Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, 2017
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

Today we mark the Feast of the Transfiguration, as told in Luke’s Gospel.  You’ve heard me say before that, at the end of the day, God’s work to create us, redeem us, and sustain us for eternal life – it comes down to mystery, that God’s truth is simply more than we can wrap our minds around.  The Transfiguration brings that into high relief.  If you think I’m going to stand here and try to explain what happened on that mountain, think again.  It’s sort of like preaching about the doctrine of the Trinity: Some things are better experienced than explained.
That truth about experiencing God’s mystery makes me think about music.  Before I got into this priest gig, I had the joy of singing in church choirs from second grade on.  As a kid, teen, and college student at Christ Episcopal in Springfield; and at Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City, Iowa; at the Episcopal church in Blue Springs; and at my seminary in Austin, I was blessed to get to sing in a choir every week.  It was one of the ways I first experienced the presence of God.  Especially at the church in Iowa City – part of a choir that was nearly as good as ours here and that eventually got to sing at the National Cathedral – I knew moments of transcendence I really can’t capture in words.  But it wasn’t just an experience of beauty; it was beauty that revealed God’s majesty.  Trying to explain it sort of cheapens it, but you need to know it was there.  As part of that choir, because of the music we were making and words we were singing, I first knew, for a moment at least, what resurrection and new creation actually feel like.
There are moments on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings now when that majestic glory reveals itself again for me.  Officiating at Evensong and Choral Compline on Sunday nights, I’ve had times when I’ve had to force myself to remember that I’m actually officiating, rather than just getting lost listening to God’s voice.  We have a treasure here, and I urge you to come and hear it for yourself.  These are moments when we are blessed to hear the voice of God, and live.
That’s what’s happening in our readings this morning, too.  Moses has come back from being on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God a second time and renewing the covenant after the people broke it by worshiping gods of their own making.  Moses climbs the mountain and stands in awe as God descends in a cloud, speaks the divine name, writes the Law on tablets of stone, and lets Moses experience the divine presence up close and personal for 40 days.  When Moses returns to the people, his face is radiant, literally glowing, which scares the living daylights out of the people.  In the tent of meeting, Moses continues to stand in God’s presence and speak with the Almighty, and he would cover his face with a veil when he came back among the people because regular folks like us can only handle so much glory at once.
That story sets the stage for the Gospel reading, as Jesus takes three of his followers into the presence of God.  They go up on the mountain to pray – just as Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Law, just as Elijah went up on the mountain to experience God’s empowering presence.  There, as the disciples snooze, Jesus’ face becomes radiant, literally glowing, and his clothes become dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus, time and space collapsing into one heavenly moment.
But why?  Why is this happening here in the middle of the Gospel story, 14 chapters before crucifixion and resurrection?  Here, for no apparent reason, Peter and James and John get a preview of the end of the story, seeing the Messiah in the fullness of his glory, with Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets of Jewish tradition as they point to him as the one who completes their story.  The three disciples are roused from sleep just in time to see this time-bending encounter, with Moses and Elijah and Jesus talking about his coming departure, which in Greek is exodus – completing God’s work to deliver the people from the waters of death at the Red Sea and to bring them into a heavenly country instead.  And then, as Peter struggles to interpret the wonder he’s experiencing, suddenly the cloud of the divine presence comes upon all of them, like Moses and Elijah experienced on the mountain in their own days.  The disciples are terrified in the presence of majesty they can’t begin to describe, and the very voice of God speaks to them, in person, and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
Wait.  What had Jesus said?  What are we supposed to listen to?  He was talking with Moses and Elijah, but we don’t get to overhear that conversation.  In fact, Jesus doesn’t have anything at all to say in this reading.
So, it might make sense to go back a few verses and see what Jesus says just before this Transfiguration story.  As it turns out, he’s just had something pretty important to say.  He’s asked his followers, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:18-20).  Peter nails it for once, proclaiming Jesus to be nothing less than the messiah, God’s anointed ruler, the one who will reveal God’s presence, and rule with God’s justice for the poor and forgotten, and bring about the kingdom of heaven, uniting all of creation, heaven and earth, into the completeness and peace that God intended in the beginning.  And in response to that revelation, Jesus says the very last thing any of them, or any of us, would expect to hear: that this king will “undergo great suffering, … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22).  But that’s not all.  He goes on to say that this way of the cross is the path to glory not just for the king but for his followers, too: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (9:23-24)  These are the words of God’s Son, the Chosen.  Listen to him.
We often hear that call to sacrifice and think, “I couldn’t give my life for God.”  We hear stories of the martyrs, or see examples like Mother Teresa, and we think they’re out of our league.  And when we open our hands and our hearts to the mystery of what happens at this altar each week, we remember that Jesus gave his body and blood for us and continues to give us his body and blood for us, opening eternal life to us through his sacrifice.  And the voice of God, booming from the cloud, tells us to follow that same sacrificial path?  Really?
In a few minutes, we’ll baptize four new members of this family, four new followers of Jesus, four new inheritors of eternal life.  They’ll receive a little water on their heads, but what they’re really doing is participating in the journey through the Red Sea, going down into the water and back up again, following Jesus’ path of dying and rising, putting the world on notice that sin and death do not get the last word.  And as they rise from that water, they will receive God’s own Spirit, “send[ing] them into the world in witness to [God’s] love” (BCP 306).  Empowered by that Holy Spirit, they will have what it takes to die and rise daily, taking up the cross and following Jesus.
That life doesn’t have to look like the sacrifice of the martyrs or the service of Mother Teresa.  We’re called to walk our own paths, not theirs.  Jesus calls us to take up our own crosses and follow him in hundreds of ways, in actions great and small.  They may look very different for this person or that person, from one season of our lives to the next.  But what unites them all is sacrifice, the daily act of taking up the cross and following the path that, unbelievably, leads to glory.  It might be in feeding the hungry, or helping poor kids learn, or mentoring a mom at the Grooming Project.  Or it might be scraping out wax from the votive candles, or leading a Finance meeting, or restoring floors and ceilings after the storm.  Or, it might be singing and playing God’s praise here, week after week, offering the sacrifice of untold hours of preparation and rehearsal for the moment of glory in worship, the moment when heaven opens and the glory of God lifts us where we simply cannot go on our own.  Because whether our gift is the time to serve others, or the talent that puts flesh on the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the treasure that makes the work of ministry possible, the mystery we live is this:  God uses even such as us to reveal divine glory through sacrifice, and every step of the way of the Cross takes us one step higher up the mountain of life that never fades away.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

I Can Work With This

Sermon from July 30, 2017
Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39

As you’ve seen in the Messenger and in the bulletin this morning, Kansas City’s most recent 100-year rain brought water into the building again.  You’ll be happy to know the problem wasn’t with the recent fixes to the drainage at the doorways below ground level.  Those fixes held, which is great.  Unfortunately, the water found a new way in, as the 7 inches of rain overwhelmed the drains on two of our flat roofs, causing water to pool and then spill down interior walls.  We’ve been greatly blessed by the quick work of junior warden Morgan Olander, our operations manager Michael Robinette, and our friends from Haren Laughlin construction, who were here anyway for the bathroom project.  We’re also blessed by the decision the Facilities Commission made, after the last water incursion, not to put carpet back in the undercroft.  So, the damage is being fixed, and we’re exploring how to solve the drainage challenge on the flat roofs before the next 100-year rain comes next month.  Just call me Noah.
In the midst of it all, you can’t help but ask the question, “What’s up with all this?”  We’ve wondered if maybe the church is sitting on some ancient burial site, and the spirits of the dead are rebelling against us.  But seriously, when you’re afflicted – whatever the affliction – you look for answers.  Whenever and however hard times come, you can’t help but ask, “Where is God in all this?” 
So – rewind a couple of months to our mission trip to Haiti.  We tried something we’d never tried before, taking youth and their parents to Haiti.  Now, youth mission trips always bring the possibility that things will go south, kids being kids.  But add to that the uncertainties and challenges of being in Haiti, no matter your age, and your mission trip becomes a grand exercise in trust.  Jean Long, our youth formation coordinator, did a stunning job planning and executing the trip – but it’s Haiti.  There’s only so much control you can exercise.  In a place with little infrastructure, where government is presumed to fail, where they’ve had centuries of tension between social classes and precious little opportunity for a better life, where simply disposing of the trash seems to be an obstacle too great to overcome – in a context like that, you’re going to find challenges even when you’re trying to do the right thing, even when you’re sent by God to help build this holy relationship we share with our partners there. 
So, driving through Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon, we had a flat tire.  Or, I should say, we had a flat tire on one of our vehicles – a contraption that looked like something from a Mad Max movie, a vehicle we ended up christening “the Adventure Van.”  And dealing with a flat tire in Port-au-Prince doesn’t look like calling AAA.  Instead, four kids and I waited near the Adventure Van while a guy on the sidewalk fixed the flat with some repurposed rubber and a blow torch.  Remarkably, the patch held. 
There were other dubious moments, too … such as the food poisoning many of us got from the high-end resort where we went swimming.  And our truck got stuck in the river at Maniche, a river swirling not just with mud but with the bacterium causing cholera.  Wading is not advised.  Put it all together, and it’s enough to make you ask, “Where is God in all this?”
Listening to our reading this morning from Genesis, I imagine Jacob might have been asking the same question about his situation.  As we heard last Sunday, Jacob has traveled to Haran, in present-day Turkey, going back to his family’s land to receive a wife from his kinsman, Laban.  Jacob strikes a deal with Laban for one of his daughters – that Jacob will work for Laban seven years in exchange for Laban’s pretty daughter, Rachel, the one Jacob loves.  So Jacob fulfills his obligation, and the time comes for the marriage.  But Laban tricks Jacob and gives him his older daughter, Leah, instead.  Nothing against Leah, but it’s a dirty trick – in fact, the same kind of dirty trick that Jacob played on his older brother, Esau, to steal his birthright and his father’s blessing.  So Jacob the trickster gets the poetic justice that’s coming to him, having to work for Laban another seven years in order to get the girl he loves, as well as Leah, which must have been interesting.  And Jacob is not exactly pleased.  I can imagine a few shouting matches between Jacob and the Lord who had promised, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15).  “Oh yeah?” says Jacob.  “Where were you when Laban cheated me out of seven years of my life?” 
Well, it turns out God finds a way to use Jacob’s situation to bring new life out of manipulation and deceit.  In a culture where children, especially sons, meant wealth for the family as well as divine blessing, God gives Jacob 12 of them.  And those 12 sons become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel.  And the last of them, Joseph, becomes the right-hand man to Pharaoh, saving all of Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine.  Now, was God a fan of Laban’s deceitful behavior?  For that matter, was God a fan of Jacob’s deceit of his brother, Esau?  I don’t think so.  But I do see God looking at those situations, like a long-suffering parent watching headstrong children making bad choices; and I imagine God saying, “Well, OK.  We can work with this.”
You know, you can find Bible verses that might lead you to think God scripts situations like this.  We have one of those verses in our reading from Romans this morning.  In the translation we heard, the New Revised Standard Version, it reads, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).  Well, if “all things work together for good,” many people would make the leap to say God must be setting things up that way.  But I have to tell you, I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying.  I don’t think God is a cosmic puppeteer, pulling the strings to get Jacob to cheat Esau and Laban to cheat Jacob in order to get to the outcome God wants.  I don’t believe God causes deceit or manipulation or suffering or pain.  But I can tell you firsthand that God finds ways to use them, like an artist piecing a mosaic together from bits of broken glass.
On our trip to Haiti, plenty of things went wrong … which meant there were plenty of opportunities for God to use them for good.  We found ourselves in the Adventure Van with a flat tire in a poor section of Port-au-Prince as evening was approaching – not exactly the situation I would have chosen.  And yet, the flat happened literally right next to a guy on the sidewalk whose microbusiness is fixing flat tires.  That’s why he was there.  Later, we found ourselves stuck in the middle of a river full of bacteria, with the van unable to get traction to get to the other side.  And yet, people living around the school came out of nowhere to push and pull the van onto dry land.  Our youth dealt with food poisoning and seasickness and heat, to say nothing of inconvenience like they’d never known.  And yet, they came away from the trip grateful for God’s abundance in their lives, and blessed by the opportunity to play with kids at our partner school, and deeply aware that they are part of a relationship much bigger than themselves, and able to take their trust in God to a whole new level.
And that’s not all.  The reality they saw on the ground in Maniche only underscored the blessing our youth experienced:  Our school has grown from about 180 students with mediocre test scores to more than 300 students with the top scores in the area.  The church in Maniche used to have a priest come every couple of months for Eucharist; they’ll soon be receiving their own priest who will live and serve in that community – the church is growing that much.  So where is God?  God is there, bringing healing from brokenness, hope from despair.
Deep in the muck and mire of life, in all the unfairness and tragedy and sorrow – we can count on God to be there.  Think again about that verse from Romans I mentioned.  Romans 8:28 is one of the defining, truly converting passages of Scripture for me, particularly if you dig into the language a bit.  In the translation we heard, it says that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”  But if you go back to the Revised Standard Version, the translation many say is closer to the original Greek than the version we use, you find the verse given this way: “In everything, God works for good for those who love him….”  It’s not just closer to the Greek; it’s closer to God’s mysterious truth.  In everything, God works for good.  Everything.  God isn’t necessarily causing those things, especially not the things that bring us suffering and pain.  But God excels at working through them, even the things that cause us suffering and pain. 
From division comes healing; from darkness comes light; from death comes life.  That’s our story because that’s God’s story.  Whether it’s a flat tire in Port-au-Prince, or food poisoning, or getting stuck in a river … or whether it’s receiving your own challenging diagnosis, or having to leave the home you’ve loved for decades, or feeling under assault by the water running through the church’s hallways – no matter what, God is there.  And when God is there, God acts for good.  God can do nothing else, because God is love lived in relationship.  God can’t help but bring healing out of brokenness, life out of death.  Even when, like Jacob, we shoot ourselves in the foot and help bring on our own suffering, God looks at us like a loving parent and says, “Ok … I can work with this.” 
When we remember that in everything God is working for good, we can rest in that promise even when we can’t yet see it realized.  For whether it’s a flat tire in Haiti, or a frightening diagnosis, or water pouring in where it’s not supposed to be, or “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword … [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,39)  Nothing.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Jesus: Come and Walk With Me

Sermon from July 9, 2017
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Today we’re marking a transition even as we see another one just on the horizon.  As you know, Mtr. Ezgi Saribay Perkins is here with us for the first time.  As she makes her transition into St. Andrew’s, she will have a grand total of 10 days to work alongside Mtr. Anne before Mtr. Anne goes off for vacation and sabbatical, returning late in the fall.  Mtr. Anne’s last Sunday with us before that journey will be next week, and she’ll be preaching that day.  So this is my last homiletical shot for a while with Mtr. Ezgi and Mtr. Anne both in the room.
As you know, Mtr. Anne has focused on pastoral care in her 10 years among us.  It’s one of her greatest passions in ministry, and she has blessed us with it richly.  As she’s cared for so many of you over the past decade, she’s come to see a growing need in pastoral ministry, here and elsewhere – the need to help people manage the baffling maze of changes that come with major losses and life transitions.  Mtr. Anne’s sabbatical project will be looking for ways churches can do a better job providing resources to help people understand and cope with what’s next when they find themselves faced with illness, job loss, addiction, or the death of someone they love. 
When she returns late this fall, Mtr. Anne’s role will shift, as you’ve heard before.  She’ll work about 15 hours a week, doing some one-on-one pastoral care but also working on projects here at St. Andrew’s related to her sabbatical study.  So she will be back, but in a different role than what we’ve known.
And speaking of new roles … that’s what Mtr. Ezgi begins today.  I need to be clear that she is not taking Mtr. Anne’s place, no matter how much the timing may look that way.  What Mtr. Ezgi will be responsible for is ministry with younger adults, families, and the community.  In fact, that’s her title:  assistant rector for younger adults, families, and community.  All of us probably should repeat that as a mantra for a while because that specific work is what we need Mtr. Ezgi to focus on.  We’ll have to be intentional about avoiding “mission creep”:  When someone has many talents, it’s easy to let those talents wander in a variety of directions; and we found ourselves plagued by that a bit during Fr. Marcus’ time with us.  Mtr. Ezgi would be very good at overseeing liturgy, and being the clergy liaison with the Altar Guild, and taking the lead on pastoral care … many of the same tasks Mtr. Anne has overseen through the past few years.  But that’s not why we called Mtr. Ezgi here. 
In a nutshell, here is Mtr. Ezgi’s job description.  Roughly half of her work will be building relationships among younger adults and families who are part of the parish now – those we see week in and week out, and those we don’t see very often at all.  She’ll be their primary pastor, and lead opportunities for learning and service, and share in our ministries with children and youth.  The other roughly half of her job will be to build similar kinds of relationships and offer a similar pastoral presence with younger adults and families who aren’t yet part of this parish family – engaging people in the community around us.  As the new HJ’s begins to rise from the rubble of the old building across the street, it’s exciting to imagine new life there: speakers, service opportunities, discussion groups, art displays, community dinners, musical offerings, Scout meetings, and events for kids and parents – ministry rising from the hopes and dreams both of people here and of people not yet here.  Not all of that will be specifically targeted to younger adults and families, but much of it will be.
So, with Mtr. Anne about to leave for four months and Mtr. Ezgi not taking Mtr. Anne’s specific role, you may be wondering how we’ll manage pastoral care.  Well, Deacon Bruce will be coordinating it, with support from Mtr. Ezgi and me.  We’ll be in the hospitals and nursing centers, and we’ll certainly have enough breakfasts, lunches, and coffees to keep us perpetually caffeinated.  But there’s another important pastoral resource we’ll be building over the next few months – members of the first order of ministry, the baptized.  That’s you, by the way.  One of Deacon Bruce’s passions is broadening and deepening the ministry of pastoral care to take greater advantage of the gifts of people in this very room. 
Honestly, even if Mtr. Anne were remaining in her full-time role when she returned from sabbatical, we’d still need to be doing this.  For a long time, we’ve known that a few ordained people simply can’t attend to the needs of this congregation, especially as people age – which is why we have about 25 faithful souls now making pastoral visits or phone calls or writing notes to other members of this family.  We want to build on that foundation and raise up more of you to live into that baptismal vow we make about continuing “in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers” by taking that promise on the road, so to speak – reaching out to people we often don’t see on Sunday morning.
If you feel like you’ve never been invited to do this work before, I’m sorry.  Although we’ve tried to build up this ministry of pastoral calling and visiting several times over the past 12 years, you may not have heard us calling your name before.  Well, I’m calling your name now.  If you’ve ever felt a bit of a Holy Spirit nudge to find out more about caring for members of this parish family, consider this your Holy Spirit shove.  We need you.
So there’s our moment of transition, in a nutshell.  It’s an exciting time, especially for Mtr. Ezgi and for Mtr. Anne.  But you know, transitions are also a little scary.  As we watch the construction happen across the street, and welcome our new assistant rector, and bid adieu to Mtr. Anne for a few months, we don’t know exactly what the future will hold for us.  It’s an occupational hazard when you’re a follower of Jesus Christ.  Like the apostles of the early Church, we apostles are sent out by Jesus himself to live resurrected life and invite others into it.  New life is our birthright as baptized people.  When we enter that water of baptism, we die to the old life of sin and self-centeredness and stagnation; and we rise to a new life of love and liberation and leadership – bringing others to find the grace that we ourselves are finding.  That’s how we change the world – which, by the way, is our call as followers of Jesus Christ.  Changing the world is why the Church is here.
But the thing is, as we follow Jesus into love and as he sends us to love others, we don’t know exactly what it’s all going to look like.  And transitions bring that uncertainty into bold relief.  God longs for Mtr. Anne to go and rest, and re-create, and learn – and to come back here with new energy and insight to help us care for one another.  And God longs for Mtr. Ezgi to come and learn about St. Andrew’s, and create relationships with people within the parish and beyond our boundaries, and build community that will change people’s lives.  And God longs for you to step into a calling you might be hearing, maybe to love the people around you through cards or phone calls or visits.  But you know, I can’t stand here, in this moment of transition, and tell you exactly what any of that will look like. 
In a moment of holy uncertainty, it’s a good time to drink deeply from the well of wisdom, to return to our roots as God’s people and remind ourselves of some fundamentals.  After all, Jesus didn’t spend much of his time debating theology with the “wise and intelligent” (Matthew 11:25), the scribes and Pharisees and other experts in the Law.  When it came to knowing the mind of God, Jesus regarded human expertise with a healthy dose of skepticism.  So today as well, Jesus isn’t calling us to be experts and get everything right; he’s calling us to be servants – which I can attest is the common wiring that runs through Mtr. Anne, and Mtr. Ezgi, and Deacon Bruce, and our staff, and the people of this good place who lead ministries, and stage events, and clean up, and sing, and serve the chalice, and greet people, and reach out to one another.  We’re called to be a family of servants led by servants, all of us empowered by the Holy Spirit through our baptisms to change the world by inviting one person after another to experience the grace we’re coming to know ourselves. 
As we follow that call, not knowing just how it will look, we may be tempted into fear and maybe even into paralysis, uncertain about stepping forward into a new life whose shape we can’t quite make out.  But we need not fear.  We need not fear because we can let Jesus take that burden of the outcome off our shoulders.  Mtr. Anne, you don’t need to know yet exactly what you’ll bring back from your sabbatical.  Mtr. Ezgi, you don’t need to know yet exactly what a stronger community of younger adults and families here will look like.  Deacon Bruce, we don’t need to know yet exactly how we’ll deploy more people to call or write or visit or pray with each other.  And those of you who might step up to serve, you don’t need to know yet exactly how to do it.  We can give Jesus the burden of the outcome because – despite our folly and even our sin, as St. Paul says, the “law that when [we] want to do good, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21) – despite all our failings and the roadblocks we’ll meet along the way, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich heard Jesus whispering to her.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29) 
It’s a good antidote to anxiety.  Jesus doesn’t call us to success on the world’s terms; he calls us to faithfulness on the kingdom’s terms.  And that involves taking our place right next to Jesus and shouldering his yoke alongside him, like workhorses pulling the load together.  It’s the yoke of servant leadership, the yoke of inviting others into the joy of love freely given, the yoke of serving beyond our comfort zones and changing the world one small act at a time.  It is Jesus’ way that we’re called to learn and his burden that we’re called joyfully to bear alongside him. 
           You know, this life of letting the love of God take flesh and dwell in the world through us – it’s not always comfortable, and it’s certainly not predictable.  But that yoke is easy and that burden is light because Jesus is shouldering the load with us, every step of the way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 5

I’m writing from within the gates of the Palm Inn Hotel in Port-au-Prince.  It’s lovely in here, with small, tended gardens complete with sculptures; an attentive inn-keeper; and a buffet awaiting us.  Just outside the gates, of course, it’s a different story.  Driving back into Port-au-Prince this afternoon (blessedly on a Sunday, with light traffic compared with Thursday’s insanity), we all noticed the trash.  There is some minimal attempt to deal with the trash that fills the gutters.  Earth-moving equipment was scooping up trash as we passed by, presumably to take it to some collecting point.  But there are countless plastic bottles and wrappers that the equipment misses.  Someone needs to make a lot of money figuring out how to collect the recyclable plastic and sell it to some processor.  It would be perhaps the greatest gift anyone could give Haiti – right up there with a system of clean drinking water, which would eliminate probably half the plastic bottles.

More positively, the day began with worship – wonderful worship.  We started at Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes, St. Sauveur, where they were celebrating the second anniversary of the parish children’s association as well as several children’s first Communions.  The kids sang like there was no tomorrow – and so did the adults, for that matter.  Singing in Haitian worship is one of the most heavenly things you’ll ever hear – not because of the musical quality but because of the full-throated praise.  When these people thank God for their blessings, they are thankful in a way I wonder whether I ever approach.  And the offertory procession – complete with tomatoes, okra, mangoes, sugar cane, pineapples, and bananas (no goats or chickens this time) – it literally danced “thank you” to God’s altar. 

Dancing “thank-you” – that’s not a bad way to look at how my perceptions and attitudes might change following this trip.  That was the question for our group in our discussion last night.  (We’ve had a reflection time each evening, followed by praying Compline.  It’s become christened “Culligan Ice With Spice.”  Some experiences don’t translate so well….) We talked about how we might come home differently than how we left.  I always come away from Haiti with deep respect for the people’s orientation of gratitude, and this trip was no exception.  When people in Haiti are grateful, it’s not lip service.  When they praise God, they do so as if their lives depended on it … because they do.  Of course, so does mine.  But in a world of convenience and privilege, gratitude easily becomes expectation, and expectation can easily slip into entitlement. 

The image of the offertory at St. Sauveur became complete for me in a little girl who wasn’t supposed to be part of the official procession.  She was moving about through the service, clearly at home there.  When the dancers brought forward the produce of the land, she came into the group, too, bearing what she had been carrying around throughout the service: a can of Pringles.  As it happens, I love Pringles.  So she is my patron saint today, bringing forward what she had been given and joining the company of saints in praising God, because their lives depend on it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 4

I’m writing this sitting on the beach at Abaka Bay resort on Ile-a-Vache in the Bay of Cayes. It’s pretty stunning – CNN rated it among the top 100 beaches in the world. We came out to this island today for some down time in the midst of this mission trip, this experience of being sent to help accomplish God’s purposes. The group came in two wooden longboats, continuing the trip’s “adventure travel” theme. We had lunch and a wonderful swim in perfect water on a perfect beach. You could almost forget you’re in Haiti … but you shouldn’t. Because Haiti is beautiful, even in the midst of its ramshackle buildings, aching poverty, and intractable social problems. 

If you’ll permit a moment of theological reflection, perhaps Abaka Bay is Haiti before the fall. Our Christian story begins with God’s perfect creation, as well as God’s perfect love. God wanted to give us those blessings so we would care for both the good earth and each other. But it only takes two chapters of Genesis before we come to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent, and our preference for listening to voices other than God’s voice of love.

All of Haiti used to be Abaka Bay, before sin entered in.  And believe me, there is plenty of sin to go around: Spanish people who killed indigenous people; French people who enslaved African people and then demanded billions in reparations from them because the Africans won the war; Haitian leaders who preferred self-aggrandizement to fostering their people’s well-being; light-skinned Haitians who have lorded it over dark-skinned Haitians from the nation’s beginnings to the present day; Americans who occupied the country in the 20th century and re-enslaved people through forced labor; current Haitian leaders who prefer personal power and empty promises to playing the long game of structural change. That’s a lot of sin, and Haiti bears it as best it can.

And in the midst of our sinfulness, God keeps inviting us to join in Jesus’ work of redemption. Earlier today, before arriving at the resort, we visited the “city” on Ile-a-Vache, Madame Bernard. There we witnessed three in-breakings of God’s reign of love.

The first was an orphanage, school, and hospital where 23 disabled children live and learn as best they can. It’s run by a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Flora, once a physician in Canada, who came to Ile-a-Vache in the 1970s and stayed to build this place of blessing.  Asked what brought her here, of all places – from Canada to a remote island off the Haitian coast – she said simply, “God,” as if the answer were patently obvious. For decades, her students and patients have been grateful.

The second act of redemption was the reaction of our young missionaries to the disabled people they met at the orphanage. I didn’t know Pere Colbert (our partner priest) was planning to take us there, so I hadn’t prepared them for what they might see. It can be jarring to encounter people with developmental, physical, and psychological disabilities in your own context. Haitian facilities function under different standards than their American counterparts.  But our young missionaries reached out to the kids with open hearts, overcoming their own shock and taking kids’ open hands in theirs.

The third act of redemption we witnessed is just in its early stages. Pere Colbert is planting a church near the town of Madame Bernard. Actually the location is a 25-minute walk out of town, up a steep hill, because Colbert’s passion is to bring church to what he calls “the countryside” – rural Haiti, which has virtually no advocates other than people like Colbert (and partners like St. Andrew’s, actually). Like the people of Maniche, the people up the hill from Madame Bernard need the community that a new parish will bring, and they need the education that the church’s school will provide. It’s redemption in the making.

So as I sit here at Abaka Bay, I give thanks for having seen both sides of this lovely island: God’s glory revealed in the gorgeous beach and God’s loving redemption happening at Madame Bernard. Sin still persists, of course, as “the creation waits with eager longing … [to be] set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19,21). But today, it’s good to be able both to visit the Garden and glimpse its healing.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 3

Today was a somewhat short day at the school in Maniche, and I think it might be a “less is more” situation. Just being here and getting where you’re going takes a lot out of you. It’s summer in Haiti, so there’s the heat. In addition, the drive up the mountain that I remembered being about 45 minutes is now about an hour and a half. The “road” is in as bad shape as I’ve ever seen it, no doubt a result of Hurricane Matthew and the heavy rains since then.
So, we were at St. Augustin’s School for about two and a half hours, but it was enough to finish the photography for the Advent cards, which allow people to sponsor a child’s education for a year.  And it was enough for some wonderful outdoor fun as we continued the “field day.”  The photography and brief interviews is something that needs to be completed, and those of us who are wired as doers find that rewarding.  But the time just being with the students is what forms you.  Our team offered stations for an obstacle course; parachutes and balls; bracelet making; ping-pong ball toss; and a combination of soccer dribbling, spinning for 10 seconds, and hopping on one foot back to base.  Imagine all that through translators and in the midst of hundreds of kids really excited to get out of class.  Jean Long is my current hero and did a great job managing the chaos.  I was grateful to be the guy taking photos of the kindergartners (though I did work the soccer/spinning/hopping station, too).
It’s great being with the younger folks on our mission team, getting a chance to know Caroline Rooney as well as Allison, Elizabeth, and Ian Banks (and the kids from St. Michael’s, who are also amazing). A mission trip to Haiti is an environment in which one could encounter some inflexibility or whining. Not a bit here. Instead, it’s gratitude, wonder, insight, and perseverance when times get tough. Kudos to them. They’re living into their calling, sent to see what God has in store for them here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 2 (part 2)

So, in the process of changing the world, our mission group had an exhausting but deeply rewarding day. 

Our two groups went to visit our partner schools – for the St. Michael’s group, it was St. Paul’s School in Torbeck; for the St. Andrew’s group, it was St. Augustin’s in Maniche.  Points of interaction included art projects with students at St. Paul’s, taking photos of students and doing brief interviews for the Advent Haiti fundraiser for St. Augustin’s, playing soccer and volleyball, making necklaces and bracelets, and doing home visits with a couple of students.  I find the home visits especially moving and informative, as we get to see where students live, hear their parents’ perceptions of the school, and hear their parents’ hopes for their kids later in life. 

I’m posting some photos to capture the joy, as well as this collection of thoughts from various group members. 
·         “The kids were just so welcoming!  I felt like I belonged there.”
·         “For years, I’ve heard about this school in the prayers at church.  It’s just a school – until you go there, and this little girl latches onto your hand.”
·         “The people were so hospitable, especially the ones who came out of nowhere to get the van out of the river.  One guy even went home to get a rope.”
·         “These kids don't have anything, compared with what we have, and I’m sitting there wishing I had Chick-Fil-A for lunch.  This trip will definitely change my outlook.”
·         “We’ve had the chance to experience what the rest of the world experiences.”

And, of course, we can’t forget our day of fun with the Adventure Bus, as it’s now been christened.  First, you have to know that getting to St. Augustin’s requires us to drive literally through a river.  The loose-rock riverbed has been called “Haitian ice” on previous trips.  Today, it lived into the fullness of its glory.  I’ve been to the school several times and never gotten stuck like this.  But it was an amazing example of community as villagers came out to push the blans’ van out of the river … twice.

Haiti Journal, Day 2 (part 1)

I talked with our partner priest today, Pere Colbert.  We were discussing St. Augustin’s Church and School, as well as plans for the future there.  The bishop has sent a recent graduate from seminary to serve at Maniche, someone Colbert hopes and plans will soon be ordained and assigned to Maniche – just Maniche. 

The fact that this is happening is stunning and merits a little background.  Not so many years ago, St. Augustin’s was a sleepy country parish high in the mountains with a school of 150 or so students.  A lay leader officiated at most Sunday services, and Pere Colbert got there every couple of months to celebrate Eucharist.  Today, the school’s quality has increased its enrollment to about 380.  That growth has led to greater connection with the parents of children attending the school, and church attendance has blossomed, too.  The church is sponsoring celebrations and events for community members, not just its parishioners.  A few weeks ago, they marked the Haitian version of Mother’s Day by offering a celebration and small gifts for any and all mothers who came, parishioner or not – and many, many families came.  Between the school’s quality (highest test scores in the region) and an increasing community focus, the growth has been enough to convince the bishop to assign a seminarian (soon to be priest) there as his single assignment.  Priests in Haiti typically serve three, four, five, or more congregations.  St. Augustin’s at Maniche is growing to the extent the bishop wants to invest in it seriously and devote a priests’ resources to it alone.  The new priest will lead mid-week worship, visit people in his community, and teach religion in the elementary school, as well as all his other work.

About Pere Colbert: His leadership and commitment to rural communities has meant 10 years of focused development for Maniche, and he should receive most of the kudos for this amazing story.  But about the people of St. Andrew’s:  You have helped to make this happen, too.  Your increasing investment – in time, relationship, love, and financial support – has made the difference in St. Augustin’s School becoming an instrument for changing young people’s lives and for demonstrating the value of a church to the community.  Your consistent support for the school’s work (through the Advent fundraiser) has meant it can keep a staff of talented teachers and a devoted headmaster, Samuel, rather than plugging staffing holes with unknown quantities.  And your consistent support for the lunch program has meant we no longer see kids in our school with protein deficiency.  They can learn because they can think, and they can think because they aren’t starving. 

This is what it looks like when a church plays the long game in ministry – and through doing that, changes the world.