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.

Haiti Journal, Day 1

Yesterday was a day for choices: either to rant about challenges or to remember blessings.

There were several “I’ve never seen this before” kinds of moments, and not in a good way.  I’ve never seen the kind of traffic we encountered in Port-au-Prince.  It was a perfect storm of leaving the airport late in the afternoon and construction on the main road leading south out of the city, which took the road to one lane at rush hour.  We crawled for an hour to make it perhaps a mile; so with delays in the airport and the traffic, we were probably 90 minutes later than we’d hoped to be.

That was before the flat tire.  Just as we were beginning to clear the traffic jam, one of our two vehicles succumbed to the world of potholes that is the Haitian road system.  As the other vehicle went on its merry way, mine didn’t.

And then came the blessing.  As it happened, the tire went flat just before we passed a guy on our side of the road who fixes flats.  He had set up his shop here that day, with his few tools, his air compressor, and his patches.  So we pulled over, and there was the “garage.”

Now, a more cynical person could look at this and imagine the young man having put sharp objects in the road and set himself up for a quick $20.  If you know Haitian roads, you know that’s not necessary.  But what I saw in this situation was the grace of God – or, as the tap-taps proclaim it, painted in bright letters over their windshields, “La Grace de Dieu.”

And that’s only the start.  Every time I come here, I’m struck by these proclamations of faith emblazoned on trucks and buses.  Here are several (translated) that I had time to collect in the creeping traffic:  God Alone Judges.  Eternal Power.  With God, We Will Do Great Things.  The Love of God.  God Above All.  Thank You, Lord.  Divine Grace.

Along with these are the businesses that witness with their signage:  Infinite Grace Body Shop.  The Eternal Is Great Food Shop.  Son of God Convenience Store.  Thank You Jesus Pharmacy.  Of course, it becomes manipulative, too, at some point:  Eternal Father Lottery. 


But as always, finding God’s grace is, first and foremost, a matter of looking for it, which our youth and parents did beautifully.  May our work today at our partner school in Maniche give us the chance to see such grace abound.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Normal, Everyday Apostles

Sermon from Pentecost, June 4
Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

Something stunning is about to happen this morning.  It’s something you’ve probably seen before, even something that may well have happened to you.  But every time it happens, it’s new and miraculous.  Are you ready?  Here it is:  The Holy Spirit is about to descend upon three small, normal, everyday people – babies, in fact.  And that Holy Spirit is about to change their lives and change the life of the world.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit among Jesus’ apostles – his friends he sent out into the world.  We call Pentecost the birthday of the Church because it was on this day that 12 normal, everyday people became gifted in a way they could never have been on their own.  God sent the same Spirit that moved over the waters in creation to move among them and within their hearts, equipping these 12 normal, everyday people to be something I guarantee you they’d never imagined themselves to be: witnesses of God’s transforming love.  Each one of those 12 people changed the world, going places they’d never imagined going, meeting people they’d never imagined meeting, sharing their passion and experience of God’s love, and inviting people into eternal life – life in the here and now that means so much more than what passes for life in most people’s day-to-day grind.
So that’s Pentecost, when 12 normal, everyday people received gifts of language and calling that they never knew they had.
We’re participating in that story this morning.  A few minutes ago, we spoke and heard words that sounded odd and confusing, Good News from Jesus to his astonished friends, when he told them they should both be at peace and stretch themselves in ways they’d never considered.  “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you” to proclaim peace, and to forgive, and to love, and to draw people into beloved community (John 20:21).  In a way, his call sounds even stranger in clear, everyday English than it did in the multitude of tongues we just heard.  It sounds strange because, surely, Jesus can’t mean us, right?  We’re just normal, everyday people.
But then we come to the other way we’re participating in the Holy Spirit’s story this morning.  In a few minutes, these three small people, just beginning their journeys in life, will come to this font – and something stunning will happen.  You may have seen it a hundred times, but it’s still stunning because, as I said, it’s new every time.  They will come to this font to die with Jesus symbolically and rise with him into resurrected life, the life he brought to his friends in the upper room behind their locked doors.  And in that moment, the Holy Spirit will come upon them and enter into their hearts.  The three of them – Graham and Margot and Madeline – will come out of the water not just with Christian names, an identity inextricably intertwined with Christ, but also with the gifts of the Holy Spirit:  among them, “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works” (BCP 308).  God will open their hearts to grace and truth.  God will fill them with life-giving Spirit.  God will teach them to love others in the Spirit’s power.  And God will send them into the world to witness to Christ’s love. (BCP 305-306)  Those aren’t just lofty hopes.  Those are divine promises, the equipping power of the Holy Spirit anointing us, like the apostles, to change the world.
We don’t know how that will look exactly, any more than the apostles knew what lay ahead on that day of Pentecost, as they felt their hearts catch fire and knew they were, indeed, sent to speak words they didn’t know they knew.  Starting with these 12 normal, everyday people, the Word went forth from one community to another.  Soon, people in all kinds of unlikely places began to learn how following this way of our resurrected Lord can transform your life – people in Greece and Russia, people in Persia and India, people in Egypt and Ethiopia.  The travels and proclamation of these 12 saints reflect deep passion and commitment and trust, the stuff of legend.  But actually, those saints were no more special, and no differently empowered, than little Graham and Margot and Madeline about to be baptized this morning. 
And, those saints were no different than you.  Or you.  Or you.  Or you.  In just a few minutes, we’ll each renew our Baptismal Covenant.  We’ll remember who we know God to be, and we’ll remember what the baptized life looks like – gathering for strength and praise with a community of fellow travelers, resisting evil and repenting when we miss the mark, proclaiming Good News by word and deed, seeking and serving Christ in everybody, and striving for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of all.  Our Baptismal Covenant will remind us of this high calling, the job description of apostles today.
But as we remember that, I want you to remember something else, too.  If you’re anything like me, on any given day you’re likely to look in the mirror and think, “You’ve got to be kidding, Lord.  You’ve made a huge mistake.  I’m not exactly apostolic material.”  Like Moses on the mountain trying to talk God out of sending him to free the children of Israel, we all probably have our moments when we figure God must be crazy, when we just can’t see God sending us out for divine work – or, when we just don’t want to go.  “O, my Lord,” Moses finally said on the mountain, “please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13).
But here’s the mystery:  You’re the one.  Graham and Margot and Madeline and me … and you.  You have come through the waters of new birth.  You’ve been welcomed into God’s own family.  You’ve been cleansed of your sins.  You’ve been reborn by the Holy Spirit.  You’ve been marked as Christ’s own forever.  And you’ve been gifted and empowered as an apostle, sent “into the world in witness to [God’s] love” (BCP 306).  
The same Spirit that blew through that upper room on Pentecost blows through your life, too.  It was poured out on you in baptism, perhaps evoked again and claimed by you in confirmation.  That same Spirit wants to make your heart dance.  God longs to hear your heart beat with love, and God longs to see you to act on that power you’ve been given. 
What would happen if we lived as if it were all true?  What if you had words you didn’t know you had?  What if you had stories to tell about God blessing you in surprising ways, or turning your life in a new direction, or using you to touch another person’s heart?  And what if you had a commission from God on your heart to be an agent of change and healing and hope?  What if God actually loved you and believed in you that much?  What would you say and do in witness to that love?  How would your Spirit-filled life change the world? 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascension, Memorial Day, and the Middle Way

Sermon for May 28, 2017 (Ascension, transferred)
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

I think it’s wonderfully ironic that for us – a bunch of rational, analytical people – our faith is full of paradox.  I love paradox; one of the reasons I embrace our Anglican tradition is that we can hold apparently conflicting truths in tension without letting them drive us completely crazy.  Try these on for size:  The path to eternal life is to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus to self-sacrifice.  The God we worship is a “Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being,” three in one and one in three (BCP 380).  Christianity is one paradox after another.
We get a healthy dose of paradox in the feast we honor today, too.  The feast of the Ascension was this Thursday, 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection; and we’re marking it in our worship this morning.  I think the Ascension is one of the least-understood concepts in our faith, right up there with the Trinity itself.  Listen again to the prayer we offered earlier:  “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:  Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, [Jesus] abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages” (BCP 226).  Chew on that for a minute.  Plus, this is no asterisk in the catechism; it’s a core element of Christian doctrine.  We profess every week, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (BCP 358).  And yet, at this altar we also proclaim that he is really present with us.
We heard the Ascension narrated in our readings this morning.  In Acts, the disciples are having an amazing time hanging out with Jesus in those 40 days after his resurrection.  And I think they’re figuring that since he’s defeated the power of death itself, surely it’s time to defeat the power of Rome, too.  Time to be the Messiah we all hoped you’d be, Jesus – God’s own warrior king.  So they ask him flat out, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Come on, Jesus, this has got to be the climax of the story.  But instead, paradoxically, Jesus leaves God’s work in their hands.  It’s not about political victory, no matter how badly that’s what the disciples want.  Instead, Jesus says, it’s about witness:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  And with that, he’s taken from their sight.  We’re told the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) a few days later, on Pentecost.  But for now, they’re standing there with their mouths hanging open, trying to wrap their minds around “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) even as he returns to divine majesty on high. 
So what does the Ascension mean in terms of how we understand God?  For me, it’s about uniting what seem to be opposites: immanence and transcendence, vulnerability and sovereignty, relationship and majesty – all at once.  Hang with me for a minute:  The fact that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father means that all sovereignty over heaven and earth has been given to him.  And, at the same time, the fact that Jesus has ascended, returning to the dance of relationship that is the life of the Trinity, that means God has experienced vulnerability God hadn’t quite experienced before, the brilliant joys and crushing sorrows of being human.  All that life Jesus lived didn’t just evaporate with resurrection and ascension.  It was taken back up into heaven, into the life of the God who is One in Three.  Jesus brings humanity into God’s heart in a deeply personal and intimate way.  So the sovereign of our world and of our lives is also our greatest advocate, the one who pours out on us “grace upon grace” (John 1:16) despite our constant failures and faithlessness.  Transcendence and immanence; sovereignty and vulnerability; majesty and relationship:  Welcome to the life of our ascended Lord.
So what earthly difference does all this make – literally, what difference for us here on earth, in the midst of the messiness of our lives?  It’s kind of fun, intellectually, to revel in the poetry of God’s paradoxes.  But it would be helpful if all this actually mattered in daily life. 
So, hang with me again.  I’ve got two more paradoxes for you.  The first is the paradox of the two things we’re celebrating this weekend.  Sometimes the Church calendar and the secular calendar crash into each other spectacularly, and this weekend is one of them.  As we remember the Ascension of our Lord into sovereign majesty, we also mark Memorial Day, when we honor those who’ve given their lives in service and honor the nation that they served.  For people with the peculiar job of planning worship, days like this present some cognitive dissonance:  Here we are, proclaiming Jesus as the cosmic ruler who transcends all boundaries of tribe and language and nation, “far above all [human] rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21).  Yet at the same time, we’ve posted the flag of our own nation as we pray for those who’ve fallen in its service; and we’ll soon raise our voices in song asking God to protect and guide our nation particularly – by implication, at least, saying, protect us, Lord, from those other people in other countries who don’t follow you as well as we do.  There are times when following the flag and following the cross don’t pair so easily, despite these flags standing beside each other here today. 
Now, you can take this to one extreme of the argument and say we should have no national emblems in church and sing no national songs because no nation equates with the kingdom of God.  Or you can take it to the other extreme of the argument and see the United States as the new Israel, God’s elect nation, uniquely the shining city on a hill.  Or, option 3, following our Christian and Anglican traditions, you can honor the paradox and find a middle way.  There are times when allegiance to the nation and allegiance to the sovereignty of Christ will present us with conflicts.  In those times, at our best, we can find ways to live in the blessed paradox of “both/and” – and bless the world around us in the process.
Here’s an example, the last paradox of the day.  On this Memorial Day and Ascension weekend, I want to commend a movie for your viewing pleasure.  Actually, “pleasure” isn’t the right word because much of this film is not very pleasurable to watch.  It’s Hacksaw Ridge, one of last year’s Oscar nominees for best picture.  As you may know, it’s the story of Desmond Doss, a young man from Virginia who comes of age in the Depression and the early years of World War II.  Like so many millions of the Greatest Generation, he signed up to serve in our armed forces and fight against Hitler and Imperial Japan.  But unlike nearly all of his comrades in arms, Doss refused to take up arms.  He was a conscientious objector, refusing even to hold a weapon, much less fire one; but he was also a patriot, insisting he had service to offer his nation.  Ironically, he had to fight to convince the Army that he could serve – and, more to the point, be trusted to serve – as a medic, fighting for his country by saving people’s lives instead of taking people’s lives.  If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the story for you, other than to say Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot.
Desmond Doss lived in the tension of paradox, keeping one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom of heaven, with each foot firmly planted.  He knew exactly where he stood.  Few of us will know the kind of tension Doss faced, and (thank God) few of us will find ourselves in a situation where the stakes of our decisions are so high.  But you know, we all will find ourselves in situations where we have to ask:  “Where does my allegiance lie?  What is my sovereign power?  Is my sovereign my bank account?  Or my professional success?  Or my family?  Or my country?  Or my risen and ascended Lord?”  For those who travel the middle way, there is room for authority of several kinds.  St. Paul himself urged the Christians living in Rome, of all places, to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) despite the fact those governing authorities had nailed Jesus to the cross as a rebel king.  And, at the same time, St. Paul could proclaim with complete certainty that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” or kyrios, which was the emperor’s title (Philippians 2:10-11). 
So, where is that tension operative for you?  Day by day, in decisions great and small, how are you pulled to honor one sovereign or another?  And where, for you, is that path of Desmond Doss, the decorated soldier who never fired a shot?

Solid Citizens or Disciples?

Sermon from Sunday, May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21

St. Andrew's hosts the monthly luncheon of the Southtown Council, the local business association.  As people were gathering for lunch this Wednesday, I was talking with one of our neighboring business owners, Andy Wolff, who’s a massage therapist.  Andy said he felt convicted that he needed to do something about a real problem he saw in our community – the risk of teen suicide.  After the recent tragedy involving a St. Paul’s Day School graduate, teen suicide is a threat that strikes pretty close to home.  So Andy took it on himself to put together a suicide-prevention workshop, which is happening later this afternoon, actually.
Before the luncheon, Andy and I were setting out flyers on the tables at the same time – his inviting people to his workshop; mine inviting people to our picnic and HJ’s farewell party later this morning.  I showed him the image of the new building and told him what we had in mind for it as a place to support church ministries and build relationships with people in the community.  He said, “You know, I had a really hard time finding a good spot for my workshop.  I would’ve much rather hosted it here in Brookside rather than down at the library.  It’s great that you’re doing this new building,” he said – “just the kind of thing our community needs.”  I don’t know where else this potential partnership might go, but it’s exciting to imagine how we might come alongside Andy in the work he feels called to do to respond to a deep need and build the well-being of our community.  Sounds like an opportunity to proclaim Good News in word and deed.
Similarly, I mentioned a couple of Sundays ago that Mike McKinne, our engagement coordinator, has been connecting with a new initiative being offered by Research Medical Center.  It’s called Brookside Babies, “a neighborhood and online resource for all things fertility, pregnancy, baby, and being a parent”1 … a way for parents to connect with each other and learn about healthy parenting.  Mike got in touch with the person organizing Brookside Babies, and – long story short – St. Andrew’s is going to be a partner with Research in offering the program.  We’ll provide resources for building spiritual well-being for young adults who are beginning the blessed and challenging journey of raising kids in this day and age.  Again, it’s a chance for us to come alongside people in our community who are feeling called to build wellness and quality of life for people around us.
These are great steps – great ways to connect with people who aren’t necessarily looking for a worship experience at 8:00 or 10:15 on a Sunday morning but who do have a need for God’s healing and resurrecting power in their lives.  But the question is, once we develop a partnership like this, then what?  What’s our next step, as followers of Jesus Christ here in this family of St. Andrew’s?
I think we can learn a lot from the example of St. Paul in today’s reading from Acts.  This story shows just how much of a “back to the future” experience being a Christian today really is.  In a lot of ways, we’re living not just in the 21st century but in the 1st century, too, right there with St. Paul.  This reading is set in Athens, but it could be Kansas City instead. 
The apostle Paul finds himself in a place where there is no dominant spiritual narrative.  As he walks around Athens, taking in the sights, he sees many grand buildings honoring the official religion, temples to this god and that god.  In Athens 2,000 years ago, lots of people practiced the official religion, but whether they really believed in it is another question, especially in such a cosmopolitan city.  There, as Acts says, “the Athenians and the foreigners … would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21). 
So Paul spends time in Athens debating with philosophers.  He’s trying to take the way Jesus has transformed his life and connect it with the experience of the people there.  His experience of the living Christ has changed his heart, recalibrated his reality; and he’s looking for a way to translate that for the people God has put in front of him.  So, he keeps his eyes open.  He listens deeply to the people around him.  And he finds the living God at work, even in the spiritual shopping mall of Athens. 
Out of the way, probably on a side street, Paul finds a small temple “to an unknown god” (17:23).  It’s a wonderfully Athenian thing – if all paths lead to the same place, why not set up a temple to honor whichever god you may have missed along they way?  So Paul takes that bit of experience about life in Athens and uses it to connect with the hearts and minds of the people he meets.  In the reading, Paul is speaking to the equivalent of a community forum of thought leaders, but he could just as easily have been having a more intimate conversation over a beer or a latte.  The point is that he looked for an expression of the kingdom of God, something advancing God’s purposes in the community around him; and he linked what he found to God’s invitation to resurrected life for all people.
That’s our task, too: looking closely and listening deeply to find the Holy Spirit at work around us, then coming alongside that kind of blessing, naming how it serves God’s purposes, and connecting with people who are involved in it – building relationships, linking people together, and inviting them into what God’s doing in and through this church family.
To do that, we need what St. Paul had.  We need to know what we believe, and we need to have something to say about it.  We need to be formed as disciples – having a sense of God’s story, seeing where that big story connects with our own story, and being equipped to engage with other people about it.  It’s about claiming our faith and connecting it across the breadth of our lives so that it guides everything we do, every decision we make; and then being able to reflect on that with other people.  That’s the goal of what we call our formation ministries, which we’re celebrating this morning – ministries that help children, youth, and adults learn and follow the disciple’s path with every step of our lives.
So, what does it look like to when your faith is life-wide, guiding the very practical steps we all have to take?  Here’s a real-world example at the top of my own mind in the moment.  Some of you know from Facebook that Ann and I are having some work done on our house.  It’s not very sexy, as home improvement goes – replacing a broken driveway, replacing windows from 1955, replacing ugly linoleum, repainting the house, that kind of thing.  Frankly, home improvement would not be my first choice for how to spend a fair amount of money.  I barely even spend any time at my house, so my enjoyment of our investment will be kind of limited.  Honestly, I’d much rather go back to England for an extended vacation instead.  But part of the discernment for Ann and me was about our stewardship of this house that God has given us.  We need to leave it better than how we found it, because it’s only ours to use for a season anyway.  We may be the owners legally, but in truth we’re only caretakers, stewards of what God provides for our use.  And we have a responsibility to tend and manage that gift so God can later give it to someone else – even if I would rather go to England.  Part of being a disciple, part of loving God, is following God’s path even when it conflicts with your own.
So guess what?  I just “witnessed” to you, and nobody got up and left.  Pretty sneaky, huh?  Did you feel thumped with a Bible?  Did you feel like Jesus was being shoved down your throat?  See, it’s not rocket science to know what we believe and to have something to say about it.  And you won’t even have people turn and walk away from you.
That’s what this buzz word, Christian formation, is all about.  It equips us to know our faith, own our faith, and connect our faith to real life.  That’s what’s happening in Godly Play with the little kids.  That’s what’s happening in Children’s Chapel.  That’s what’s happening on the youth ski retreat and the mission trip to Haiti.  That’s what’s happening when kids serve as acolytes or gather in youth group or earn a God and Country badge.  That’s what’s happening as grown-ups study the Bible, or discuss good books, or learn about Christian history.  That’s what’s happening when people meet and pray together.  That’s what’s happening when eight guys share a beer at a bar, talk about Scripture, and help each other see how God’s been working in their lives.  That’s Christian formation.  It’s what gives us our story and the words to share it with someone else.
So, back to my question earlier:  As members of this family of St. Andrew’s, as we build connections with people around us in ways we’ve practiced for decades and in ways we’re only beginning to learn – then what?  What is it that makes us followers of Jesus rather than simply solid citizens?  The difference is the path of discipleship:  Step one, remember God’s story.  Step two, know your own story.  Step three, name the connection points between God’s story and your story as you come alongside people to practice love.  “On that day,” Jesus said, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” (John 14:20).  For when we use our stories to build connections and invite people into relationship, the Holy Spirit will guide us, and we will truly live.

1.       “Welcome.”  Brookside Babies.  Available at: http://brooksidebabies.com/about/.  Accessed May 18, 2017.


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.