Monday, August 28, 2017

Don't Go to Church; Be the Church

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

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Video links for Beating the Boundaries congregations

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Still the Storm

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

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sacrifice for Glory

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

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