Sunday, August 11, 2019

Trust, Even in the Darkness

Sermon for Aug. 11, 2019
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

My guess is that, in nearly every church in our nation today, people are preaching and praying about the same things: the two mass shootings we endured last weekend, the violent obsessions and racial hatred motivating the shooters, and the violence that pervades our culture. 
At this point, you know the stories too well.  What stands out to me is the Dayton shooter’s sick fascination with murder and killing police, as well as the El Paso shooter’s horrifying white supremacy.  That man traveled more than 10 hours simply to shoot Latinx people, whom he saw as invaders in his United States.  Of course, we find the murders appalling and sinful, but so are the shooters’ points of view appalling and sinful.  No one is more fully human than anyone else, as we affirmed last week when we promised to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).  To deny the truth that every person is a child of God is to rebel against the God who created us all.
What are we supposed to do with these mass shootings, and the scores that have preceded them?  What are we supposed to do with the shootings and other acts of violence in our own community, acts so common they barely seem newsworthy?  As you’ve probably heard more than once this week, far more people die in one-on-one shootings than in incidents like Dayton or El Paso or the shooting in our own Power & Light District last weekend.  In fact, in our metro area, 129 children of God have been killed just this year,1 most of them in parts of our city that many of us don’t see much.  We bemoan the statistics, but we barely even notice when the story of the next victim appears on the 10 o’clock news – the story of another person “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) but cut down before he or she became whom God intended that divine child to be.
Meanwhile, the Church’s lectionary gives us readings this morning that don’t really seem related to violence and hatred.  Maybe that’s OK, though, because – instead of pointing us toward the problems – I think they point us toward responses.
Specifically, they point us toward the example of Abraham.  In addition to being the common father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abraham is remembered as the paragon of faith.  And by “faith,” I don’t mean intellectual assent to ideas about God; I mean radical trust in God and willingness to follow God’s ways despite the evidence life can give us. 
God first calls Abraham three chapters before the reading we heard today, asking Abram (as he’s known in this part of the story) to set out on a journey whose destination he can’t see.  God simply tells him to leave his homeland and go to a place God will show him, promising to “make of [him] a great nation,” to “bless [him] and make [his] name great.” (12:1-3)  Astonishingly, Abram says yes.  Then, once he and his household arrive in the land of Canaan, God adds to the promise:  “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7); and later, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth” (13:16).  Abram and his wife are in their 80s, so he’s thinking, “Offspring?  Really?”  But, after some adventuring against the local kings, Abram again hears the word of the Lord, which we heard in this morning’s reading, with God again promising him great reward. 
But for the first time, Abram pushes back, asking, “What will you give me, for I continue childless.” (15:2).  I know you’re there, Lord, Abram says, and we’ve come this far together; but help me out here.  So, again, God assures him of the impossible, given the couple’s ages.  God says, “Count the stars, if you are able to count them.…  So shall your descendants be.” (15:5)  And again, Abram believes, and God reckons that trust to him as righteousness.  Now, this doesn’t mean Abram didn’t keep doubting.  In fact, only two verses after today’s reading, Abram needs reassurance once again.  But he ends up finding what the writer of Hebrews named:  “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).
In the face of this week’s news, we may well find ourselves right there with Abraham, right there with the uncertain father who asked Jesus to heal his son, if Jesus was able.  “I believe,” that desperate father said; “help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  We believe in your way of love, Lord.  We believe that that the kingdom of love is your desire and your promise.  And yet, week after week, we see violence explode.  We want to trust.  We believe, Lord; but help our unbelief.
As Abraham’s example shows us, trust is a choice – a deeply countercultural choice.  You know, the world tells us violence reigns supreme.  The world tells us our only option for response is to side with one point of view or the other in the gun debate, and whoever yells loudest wins.  The world tells us that the only likely outcome is more of the same, the path of despair.
We are not people of despair.  Despair is fear all dressed up with no place to go, and we are not people of fear.  We trust in the way of love, for Jesus’ perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).  Even amid recurrent violence, darkened hearts, and unproductive debates, we are not called to despair.  We are called to faithful love.  We are called to pray and to act.
Of course, we could pray and act in many different ways.  But I believe our society will be blessed if we reframe our responses to gun violence, seeing it less as an issue of politics and more as an issue affecting people.  We would do well not simply to argue about policy but to focus on the people harmed by gun violence.  For if we reimagined an abstract “culture of violence” instead as an existential threat to actual human beings, people who have names and stories, perhaps we could recast the debate from “whose policy framework is right?” to “which interventions actually bring healing to God’s children?”  We take this perspective in business and in medicine all the time:  Don’t follow doctrine; follow best practice.
We have a promise from Jesus, which is the healing power of love.  We have to trust in it – the power of love for actual people, which defeats hate for disembodied groups.  We have to trust that love finds a way to heal even in the darkness, if we love with purpose and intention.  This includes calling out that which is not love, a practice that requires really just a few, simple, holy questions.  About anyone’s assessment of a problem, and about any proposed intervention, ask first:  Where is love in this?  How does this response foster people’s dignity?  How does this response bless people at risk?  How does this response heal people who are broken?  How does this response represent God’s loving rule and reign?  The Christlike healing of our nation’s deepest wounds, like gun violence, does involve constitutional interpretation and legislative change.  But it also asks us, as people of faith, to shine the light of love on real, live human beings through prayer and through action.
Even at the very local level of St. Andrew’s, here are a couple of trusting steps we can take, two outward and visible signs of the grace that always puts people first.
As you know, each Sunday we offer Prayers of the People, commending all our lives to God – the concerns of our hearts, our homes, our cities, our nation, and our world.  In those prayers, when we intercede for people who have died, we’ll remember those who have died violently in our metro area that week, as well as the perpetrators of that violence.  This begins today, with Zavier Mendoza, who was murdered on Thursday; Michael F. McLin and Kevin E. Waters, who were murdered on Tuesday; and two unknown men who was murdered on Monday and Friday.2  Maybe this will help us turn our hearts a little more directly toward those whose stories risk becoming just more ugly noise to ignore on the evening news.
Second, we’re going to be conducting an experiment in speaking and listening lovingly about our society’s hardest issues while learning to see each other fully as children of God.  About 15 parishioners are bravely giving their time to this risky enterprise, parishioners from across the political and theological spectrum.  They will gather monthly, knowing that they disagree on many things but committed to learning and practicing the art of Christlike disagreement – dialogue that begins and ends in love, gathered around a lunch table one day and the Eucharistic table the next.  My hope and prayer is that, through its joys and its stumbles, this group will help show us how to do this work so we can create more groups of people learning to practice holy and loving disagreement.  I hope you’ll keep this experiment in your prayers because it has the potential to be a game-changer.
I believe we’re called to pray and live out love because, in this moment, the stakes are high for our city and our nation.  But, you know, the stakes are also high for each of us.  I think if Jesus were here – and, of course, Jesus is here – he might refer us to the Gospel reading this morning.  We are called to be faithful servants of the kingdom of God, despite the world’s messages of hate or futility or despair.  We’re called to set aside worldly attachments and affiliations, even though the voices around us say, “Strive for position and power.”  We’re called to worry less about whether we’re right, whether we win the argument, and to worry more about protecting and healing real people.  We’re called to be ready to serve as our master serves, not just because our world is dying for it (which it is) but because our own future rewards depend on our present vigilance in following the way of love.  The master wants to bring us to the kingdom, and the time to act is now because the moment that matters is now.  “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit,” Jesus says.  “Blessed are the servants whom the master finds alert when he comes….  For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12:35,37,40)  And it would be good if we were ready.

1.       Homicide total includes Kansas City, MO (89); Kansas City, KS (16); Overland Park, KS (2); Olathe, KS (3); Independence, MO (4); Belton, MO (2); Raytown, MO (6); Grandview, MO (3); Jackson County, MO (1); Liberty, MO (1); Shawnee, KS (1); and Greenwood, MO (1). See “List of Kansas City area homicides in 2019.” Kansas City Star.  Available at:  Accessed Aug. 8, 2019.  See also “Police release name of 14-year-old boy killed in Olathe; teen suspect arrested.” Kansas City Star. Available at: Accessed Aug. 9, 2019.
2.       At the time of the sermon, I didn’t know about the most recent murder – an 8-year-old boy killed late the night before when his home was riddled with bullets.  See ‘It’s heartbreaking’: Child killed, mother injured in KC house sprayed with bullets.”  Kansas City Star.  Available at:  Accessed Aug. 11, 2019.  Apparently, I’ll have to check the local paper’s website just before worship to ensure the accuracy of our Prayers of the People….

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Transfiguration Happens

Sermon for Aug. 4, 2019
Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred
Luke 9:28-36

This morning, we’re marking the feast of the Transfiguration, which is Tuesday; and we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  At first glance, these two aspects of our celebration may not seem to have much to do with each other.  But, as is so often true about our sacred stories and our sacred rites, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
So, about our Gospel reading this morning – what’s going on there?  Honestly, the story of the Transfiguration has always been a little bewildering to me, as I think it must have been for the disciples.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray.  That should get us ready for something significant to happen because, in our tradition, both prayer and mountains are settings where God shows up.  It was as Jesus prayed, following his baptism, that the Holy Spirit descended on him and God’s voice boomed from the clouds, affirming Jesus as God’s own Son (Luke 3:21-22).  It was as Jesus prayed, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he gave himself fully to the journey to the cross to save us (Luke 22:39-46).  And mountains are important, too.  It was on Mt. Sinai that God called to Moses from the burning bush, sending him to free the people from Pharaoh (Exodus 3:1-12).  It was on Mt. Sinai that God empowered Elijah to defeat an unfaithful Israelite king and raise up faithful kings and prophets instead (1 Kings 19:1-18).  So, combine prayer and a mountain, and you’ve got a recipe for powerful experience.
Well, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John pray, something powerful does happen.  The appearance of Jesus’ face changes, as had the face of Moses when he went to meet God on the mountain; and Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white.  Then, as their plane of reality intersects with God’s own space and time, Moses and Elijah show up, though they’ve both been dead for centuries.  They talk with Jesus about something they all understand: sacrifice, putting yourself at risk for others.  For Jesus, it’s his departure – in Greek, his exodus – that he’ll accomplish on that cross outside Jerusalem.  But the storyline is familiar to his historic companions.  Moses had put his life on the line to save God’s people by the Exodus through the Red Sea.  Elijah had put his life on the line to show Yahweh’s kingship and bring the people back into relationship with the one true God.  So often, God gives us an experience of divine glory to prepare us to give ourselves away.
Now, Peter, James, and John had been in a prayerful trance, but they rouse and find themselves in this intersection of their reality and God’s reality.  They see Jesus’ face glowing and his clothes shining like sunlight.  Even they get it that Jesus is not just their teacher and friend; he’s on a par with the two superstars of Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets in the flesh.  So, Peter says they should honor all three by setting up booths or tents or dwellings, as Jewish people did when they celebrated the Exodus each year.  Peter wants to make this incredible moment concrete – to help the disciples remember and hold onto their intersection with heaven itself.
But God gives them even more, something to guarantee this will be a moment they’ll never forget.  The cloud of God’s presence overshadows them, as it had come down on Mt. Sinai when God gave Moses the Law.  And these three regular guys, along with the three divine spokesmen, get to hear the voice of God itself.  If you think that sounds terrifying, you’re right.  What’s about to come?  Proclamation?  Judgment?  Destruction?  No.  Instead, what comes is clarity.  “This is my Son, my Chosen,” God exclaims.  “Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
I’ve always loved the fact that, in this story that climaxes with God ordering people to listen to Jesus, Jesus has precisely nothing to say.  As Elijah discovered in his mountaintop experience, and as Rita Kendagor reminded us last Sunday, we often don’t find God in the drama or in the yelling.  We often find God in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12), in those moments when there are no words.  Lives change more by experience than by command.
We’ll have one of those experiences this morning, as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  There will certainly be words involved, and those words matter: promises to support tiny people as they grow into the full stature of Christ; promises to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord; a covenant to trust in God and follow God’s ways through prayer, repentance, proclaiming Good News, loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity of everyone, no matter how different they might seem.  There will be many words in that baptismal rite.  But what completes the encounter with the living God, what makes our plane of reality intersect with God’s own space and time, is the power of divine presence, this time come to us in sanctified water.  There will be words for me to say; but even if I couldn’t speak, God would still wash away sin, raise the candidates into new life, and welcome them into the family.  That’s the action of God, not the one who pours the water.  And in that moment of divine encounter, lives will change.
I want to share with you another experience of encounter and transfiguration I was blessed to witness last week.  Now, this has been a week of deeply sacramental moments, significant stops along our journey of a lifelong relationship with God.  Today, we’re baptizing babies.  Yesterday, two young adults committed themselves, to God and to each other, in the covenant of holy matrimony.  And Thursday, we commended a faithful disciple to God’s eternal care.  All these are moments of deep encounter – but so was a moment I wasn’t supposed to see. 
I came into the nave one afternoon this week, and I noticed a figure over in the columbarium, a staff member, actually.  She was alone, kneeling at the votive candles, praying.  I have no idea what she was saying to God, or whether she was saying anything at all.  She may have been listening.  She may have been remembering.  She may have been experiencing the beauty of holiness in this stunning space.  Or she may have been experiencing the presence of Jesus Christ in the sound of sheer silence, assuring her that she is beloved; that she is empowered; and that she is called, by virtue of her baptism, to be part of God’s project of loving the world into submission.  I don’t know exactly what was happening as she knelt there, but I do know this:  She was journeying up the mountain, making herself available, seeking an intersection with God’s own space and time. 
Transfiguration happens – in baptismal water, in marriage vows, in incense rising beside a casket, in Bread and Wine bringing Jesus’ real presence into our real lives.  And, transfiguration happens in the simple act of simple prayer.  Open yourself to that possibility.  Look for it.  Listen for it.  Ask for it.  Then, be still; and let God work.