Sunday, February 17, 2019

Welcome to Spring Training

Sermon for Feb. 17, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

So, here we are in another weekend of snow.  I don’t know about you, but I need springtime, and I need it badly.  And thankfully, Major League Baseball is here to help us out. 
Spring training began this week, finally.  Pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday, and full-squad workouts for the Royals start tomorrow.  Then, spring-training games begin this Saturday; and even though those games won’t count at all, I’ll be happy for every victory.  It’s great to see them win, even in Arizona. 
But the point of spring training, actually, isn’t to win.  The point is to get ready to win.  And to do that, sometimes you have to make it through some rough innings in the moment, as you get your team ready for 162 games that do count, leading (you hope) to baseball heaven, the postseason.
For each of us, in our own lives – what part of the season are we playing?  I think many of us live as though we were always in the late innings of the seventh game of the World Series, as if every move might make the difference between championship or failure.  I know I do that.  I get frustrated when I can’t get just that much more done in a given week, or when I miss something I should have gotten right, or when my effort just isn’t where I’d hope it would be.  It seems like I’m always in the late innings; and if I let up, the other team will win.
Now, because of the pastoral nature of baseball, I like to think that Jesus is a fan.  Much as I enjoy watching the Chiefs (especially this season), I do have to say there may be a little more divinity in “coming in safe at home” rather than blitzes and sacks and long bombs.  So, if Jesus is a baseball fan, he’d probably point out that, when I live this life as if the Series were on the line, I’m missing the elegant beauty of what comes first:  spring training.  Because I think Jesus might argue that spring training is exactly where we are in this life – all of us.
Like spring training, the point of our earthly life, oddly enough, isn’t winning today’s or tomorrow’s game.  The point is preparation.  The point is practicing the fundamentals.  You and I are just getting started as we play through a season longer than we can imagine.  Life in the here and now, Jesus might say, is just a warm-up for what’s coming.
Listen again to the point the apostle Paul is making in that First Letter to the Corinthians.  It’s not exactly Paul’s best prose; I think he needed some editing of the redundancies in that paragraph.  But still, his repetition ensures we don’t miss the point:  The resurrection of the dead is the good news on which Christian faith rests.  If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then we certainly won’t be, and all this “heaven” stuff is just a pipe dream after all.  But – Jesus was raised from the dead, “the first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of God’s offering of eternal life to all who follow Jesus’ way of love. 
So – if eternal life is real, that means, in the here and now, that we’re just getting started on a life of love that has no end.  We’re just beginning to learn how to play this elegantly beautiful game.  Just as the pitchers and catchers are loosening stiff joints and remembering their signs, just as the full squad tomorrow will start scooping up grounders and putting bats to balls, so each of us is at the very beginning of a very long haul. 
But still, like I said, we have trouble remembering where we stand in this long season of eternal life.  Many of us wake up and charge into each day imagining the championship is on the line.  Others of us maybe find the long season something of a bore, and we want to fast-forward to the joy and excitement of the postseason without putting in all the work it takes to get there.
And that brings us to today’s Gospel reading.  Now, this may seem like a stretch, but hang with me for a minute.  This is a pretty familiar reading, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.  And honestly, it’s a little hard for me to hear.  Now, Matthew’s version is a little less intense.  In Matthew, Jesus says, blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  OK, maybe I can get Matthew’s version:  Pious people are blessed, and the rest of us have some work to do.  End of sermon.
But Luke is a little more “in your face” in the contrast Jesus draws about the life of worldly success versus the life of God’s reign and rule of love.  “Blessed are you who are poor….  Blessed are you who are hungry now….  Blessed are you who weep now….  Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you….  Rejoice and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” (Luke 6:20-23) 
Just that’s hard enough to wrap our hearts and minds around, but then comes the gut punch:  “Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says, “for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26) 
It’s tempting to twist ourselves up in some real Scriptural gymnastics to explain that one away.  I mean, let’s be real:  Aspiring to be rich, to be well-fed, to enjoy life, to be well-regarded by our peers … that kind of sounds like the American dream, right?  Who wants to be poor, and hungry, and weeping, and reviled?
Well, as we pursue the good life, I think Jesus is asking us to look hard at what the good life is.  It’s not about working like demons for our own affluence and satisfaction and status in this microscopic chapter of eternal life.  Instead, look at the reading again, and see what Jesus offers to those who’ve chosen to follow him, those whom he calls “blessed” or “happy” in their poverty and hunger and weeping and exclusion.  Look back at what happened in today’s reading just before Jesus speaks those hard words.  “A great crowd of his disciples” and “a great multitude of people” who’d learned about Jesus “came to hear him and be healed of their diseases….  And … power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Luke 6:17-19)  They may be poor, and hungry, and weeping, and excluded … but they’re also healed, on every level you can imagine.
It is interesting that the word “salvation” looks an awful lot like the word “salve,” as in an ointment we apply to heal a wound.  Christ’s healing is what saves us for the long season of eternal life.  And to find that healing, to find that salvation, I think Jesus is calling us to focus on the proper work of spring training:  the fundamentals.
As that great baseball movie Bull Durham puts it, this game is pretty simple.  You throw the ball.  You hit the ball.  You catch the ball.  All the excitement – the double plays, the home runs, the plays at the plate – all the beauty and all the championships come from getting the fundamentals right. 
I believe the same is true about eternal life.  It’s practicing the fundamentals that make us part of the kingdom of God.  The game is pretty simple, too.  You love God.  You love neighbor.  You love one another.  You choose the path of sacrifice when the world says to take what you can get.  You limit the time you spend on what you could have and help someone else get more.  You give money even though you can’t be guaranteed of the outcome.  You make time for a conversation when you don’t have time to spare.  You speak for justice and dignity when you see people suffering.  You ask the name of the person who’s cleaning the halls of the church for you, and you listen to her critique of the times when you’ve passed others by without even so much as an introduction, as she looks you in the eye and says, “It’s good to be seen and not observed.” 
Practicing these fundamentals will not leave us as rich, or as full, or as merry, or as renowned as we might have been.  But they condition us for the long season ahead.  Because our life here is just spring training.  This is less the time to be swinging for the fences, Jesus says, and more the time to focus on getting the fundamentals right. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Looking for a Prophet in the Barbershop

Sermon from Feb. 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:14-21

Welcome to Scout Sunday – which explains why the first several rows are filled with kids in uniforms, and why Scouts are serving as acolytes, lectors, and ushers this morning.  This is our annual opportunity to celebrate the ministry of Scouting.  Now, maybe that sounds odd, to describe Scouting as a ministry.  But after all, Troop 16 is a part of St. Andrew’s, not simply an outside organization using our building.  So, if that’s true, there must be some significant overlap between the church’s mission and Scouting’s mission.  So, how is Scouting a ministry?
We’ll there are definitely connections in what the Church and Scouting teach.  After all, the Scout Law says – say it with me if you know it – that a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.  In the Church, we’d be on board with young people learning to practice all those values, but it’s that last one where we intersect the most – being reverent.  In fact, if you look at the Scout Oath, you find the intersection runs deeper than we might realize.  The Scout Oath begins this way:  “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law….”1  So, a duty to God is part of what Scouting is all about.
But Scout troops are part of all kinds of religious and civic groups, so that “duty to God” plays out in lots of different ways.  Each tradition is free to carry out religious training as it sees fit.2  In the Episcopal Church, Scouts can earn four religious emblems as they grow up – God and Me, God and Family, God and Church, and God and Life.  Honestly, I don’t know the specifics of those programs as well as I should.  But I think our readings today might suggest that we should add a recognition that isn’t currently part of the program.  That would be a merit badge for serving as a prophet. 
Now, for that to make any sense, we have to know what a prophet is.  In the Bible, a prophet is not a fortune teller.  A prophet may get a glimpse of what’s coming as part of the message he or she receives from God, but the point isn’t to forecast the future.  The point is to be a spokesperson, delivering the word of the Lord and calling people to follow God’s ways.  That’s what it means to be a prophet.  Prophets speak for God – whether they want to or not, whether it serves their interests or not.
We get two examples this morning, from Jeremiah and from Jesus.  Our first reading was about the call of Jeremiah as a prophet of the Lord, an experience that probably scared the living daylights out of him.  He’s young – maybe actually a boy, maybe a very young man.  But no matter his age, he’s isn’t ready when God tells him he will be a “prophet to the nations” (1:5).  Jeremiah tells God, “You’ve got the wrong guy.”  But God quickly says – no, I’m not asking you to do this based on your own wisdom and power.  Instead, “you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of [anyone],” God says, “for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
The second example of being a prophet comes from Jesus himself.  He’s in his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath; and he’s just read out loud from the prophet Isaiah, where God is proclaiming good news for the poor, and release for the captives, and healing for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.  Jesus finishes his reading, sits down, and gives them the shortest sermon ever: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).  Jesus himself is one who will bring relief to the poor, the captives, the afflicted, and the oppressed by bringing God’s way of love into everyday life. 
Well, the people wonder what makes him say that, given that they’ve known Jesus forever.  This is his hometown crowd in Nazareth, where he was raised.  They know him as the carpenter’s son – a good kid, but hardly somebody who speaks the word of God.  Jesus gets it; he knows they’re not going to give him his due.  But still, he gives them God’s “truth” (4:25):  that just because they’re on the right team, just because they’re part of God’s chosen people, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing what God asks.  After all, he says, several other times in Israel’s history, God has blessed outsiders instead of Jewish people who weren’t living very faithfully.  The hometown crowd doesn’t appreciate that kind of honesty, and they don’t like having their feet held to the fire by some carpenter’s son; so, they try to throw him off a cliff.  Being a prophet is risky business.
I think those two stories tell us something a little challenging.  First, God chooses unlikely people to be prophets.  In Jeremiah’s situation, God turns people’s expectations on their heads, asking a young nobody from a little village to be the one to speak God’s word to “nations and kingdoms” (1:10), telling the leaders how they and their people need to follow God’s path.  But God doesn’t stop there.  Like Jeremiah, we may not think we have the words to say on our own.  But I believe God chooses each of us to be a prophet, at least from time to time – when we find ourselves in situations where what we see and hear around us runs counter to God’s way of love. 
Let me tell you a story – something that happened 30 years ago but still sticks with me.  I had moved to take a job in Jefferson City, and I was only 23, with all the confidence of someone who hasn’t yet learned just how little he knows.  I needed a haircut, so I went to an old barbershop, a place that must have been there for decades.  I came in, and the barber invited me to step right up – a tall, muscular guy with a big smile, huge hands, and a buzz cut.  We made small talk as he put the cape around my neck and got started with the scissors.  It’s an odd situation, asking a stranger to cut your hair – he’s the one with the power, and you never quite know how that’s going to turn out. 
Well, as he cut, he started telling jokes, jokes I’m sure he had told a million times.  As he started out, he was pretty funny; but before long, it got ugly.  He was making fun of women and black people.  He must have thought it was OK because there were only white guys sitting there in the old barbershop.  But suddenly this huge, friendly-looking guy with the big smile was speaking sexism and racism.  And I had to decide what to do.
I would love to be able to tell you a David and Goliath story, that I confronted the barber about his ugly language even though he was the one with the scissors in his hand.  But I didn’t.  I just got quiet.  And as I was leaving, I had the perfect opportunity simply to tell him a holy truth:  that I wouldn’t be back because what I’d heard him saying didn’t align with how God tells us to talk about one another.  That was the truth; I knew I’d never go back to that barbershop, so saying something wouldn’t have put my future hairstyle at risk.  But I didn’t do it, and I’ve regretted that failure ever since.
So, why didn’t I, when what he said was so clearly wrong and I had nothing to lose?  Part of it is the culture of niceness – after all, my mother taught me, and maybe your mother taught you, that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.  But you know, we don’t find that lesson about being nice anywhere in Scripture.  Instead, we find what we heard this morning: God saying, “You shall speak whatever I command you; do not be afraid … for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)  
It’s not just the Scouts who have a duty to God.  When we renew our baptismal covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We promise to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.  Now, that kind of a promise can feel too big to keep:  How am I supposed to promote justice and peace, especially when we can’t even agree about what the word “justice” means?  Well, respecting the dignity of every human being sometimes comes down to the simple, and countercultural, act of not letting “nice” get in the way of speaking for God.  Because you never know when the prophet God’s calling is you.

1.      Boy Scouts of America.  “What are the Scout Oath and Scout Law?”  Available at:  Accessed Feb. 10, 2019.
2.      Boy Scouts of America.  “Manual for Chaplains and Chaplain Aides.”  Available at:  Accessed Feb. 1, 2019.