Tuesday, February 28, 2017

'I Hope I'm Not Asking Too Much'

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Choose Life, Love More, Love Better

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

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

Love Small

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

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

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

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