Sunday, February 21, 2021

Look Satan in the Eye

Sermon for Feb. 21, 2021
Mark 1:9-15

We’re beginning a preaching series today on the book Love is the Way by the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, Michael Curry.1  And in this season of Lent, when many of us are giving up something we enjoy that’s really tasty, it seems almost unkind that Michael Curry spends much of Chapter 3 of his book describing his grandmother’s cooking. 

            Now, what do I know about soul food?  From direct experience? – not much, other than to say that soul food is what you find down at Niece’s, just south of Meyer and Troost, which also has maybe the best breakfast in Kansas City.  Of course, as Bishop Curry describes, this wonderfully rich and satisfying food originated from the scraps that kept the slaves alive, trash more fit for hogs than humans.  After emancipation and the abolition of slavery, these scraps were the food most Black people could afford, given that what they had was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner describes it.2  But, as Bishop Curry says, his ancestors made those scraps into something new and wonderful, seasoning them richly and cooking them with an artist’s touch.  “My ancestors took a little and made a lot,” Curry writes.  “They took what was left over and made sure no one was left out. … That’s a miracle.  That’s taking what is old and making something new.” (55)    

Curry describes soul food to help us see what he means by “making do,” which is how he answers what I think is the most compelling question in these first three chapters of his book.  Here it is:  “How do I find the energy to keep loving when the world seems to be going the other way?” (50).  Well, we find the capacity for that by “making do” – living in what Curry calls the “miraculous mixture of hardship and hope” (50); “making garbage gourmet.” (56) 

            The Black experience in America, and here in Kansas City, is certainly a study in that.  But we also heard about a “making do” experience in today’s Gospel reading.  This is one of those readings that we hear and then, piously and politely, we try to ignore the elephant in the living room.  Well, here’s the elephant:  When Jesus is baptized, a voice comes from heaven pronouncing, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  But then, one breath later, we hear this:  “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” (1:12-13)  Really?  This is what you get when you’re God’s Son, the “beloved”?  That’s what God’s love looks like – being driven into the wilderness?

Well, Bishop Curry’s book might help us with this.  When he says his ancestors were “making do,” that doesn’t mean what it might mean for most of us – getting by, in a holding pattern, making it through a rough patch.  For Bishop Curry’s ancestors, and for many people of color today, “making do” means “figuring out how to both survive and thrive” in circumstances that history has put upon you (55).  It’s figuring out how to make soul food from the master’s scraps.  It’s figuring out how to live in the wilderness.

In today’s Gospel reading, I think that’s what Jesus is doing out there in the wilderness – “making do.”  Does he want to go spend 40 days in a wasteland, being tempted by Satan.  I imagine not.  In fact, the situation is imposed on him.  In our English text, the verb is “drove” – “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12).  In Greek, the sense is the same – the verb is ekballei, and in this usage it means, “to lead one … somewhere with a force which he cannot resist.”3  I get the sense Jesus was not going quietly … much like Bishop Curry’s ancestors.  So, there he is, out in the wilderness, being tested by Satan.  And he has to make do.

In Mark’s Gospel, so short on details, we don’t learn what that looks like.  So, I’m now going to commit one of the cardinal sins of preaching and look to one of the other Gospels – Matthew, in this case (4:1-11).  Matthew tells quite a story of Jesus and Satan out in the wilderness.  There, we learn Jesus has been going without food, which may not be too surprising, given the landscape.  And once he’s seriously hungry, that’s when Satan shows up for the test.  

Satan says, if you’re God’s Son, filled with power, turn the stones into bread, and eat up.  Jesus’ response is important – what he says, but also where it comes from.  Quoting the Law of Moses, he says, “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).

Then, in an instant, Satan transports Jesus to Jerusalem, setting him on the pinnacle of the Temple and trying to get his goat.  Satan says, if you’re God’s beloved Son, throw yourself off this place, because after all, this Father who supposedly loves you “will command his angels concerning you,” and “on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”  Now it’s Satan getting in on the act and quoting Scripture, this time Psalm 91 (91:11-12).  But Jesus shows what Scripture’s for – not for proof-texting but for guiding your life – and he says, quoting Moses, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Deut 6:16). 

Then Satan goes for the spiritual jugular and offers Jesus the easy way to royal power and dominion.  He transports Jesus high above the kingdoms of the world and says, Look, “all these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me” (Matt 4:9).  But again, Jesus stands on God’s Word instead, the Word that empowers him even though it’s also God who drove him into the wilderness in the first place.  So, Jesus goes to the Law of Moses once again, snarling, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’” (Deut 6:13).  And Satan disappears, defeated.

Wait.  Defeated? 

That’s right.  The war isn’t over yet – in fact, it’s just begun – but Jesus has won this battle.  Let’s see … in Scripture, when has Satan been defeated before?  Well, really, he hasn’t.  Job stood up to the test, but he didn’t send Satan packing.

In this time in the wilderness, Jesus has proven something I’m not sure we knew before: Satan can be conquered.  The power of evil, overwhelming as it is, does not get the last word.  And “making do” has proven it – proven the power of Love over the power of evil.

How does that happen?  And more to the point, how do we tap into it?  Well, in his book, Bishop Curry talks about a process for it, a “recipe” or a “methodology,” whereby the power of Love takes “an old reality and [creates] a new possibility.”  It’s about overcoming evil with good, as St. Paul wrote (Romans 12:21).  It’s like soul food: “Making garbage gourmet.” (56) 

Here’s how that recipe goes.  First, lean on tradition – not in the sense of “the way it’s always been” but in the sense of the stories and wisdom and direction that have guided God’s people for millennia.  That’s what Jesus is doing out there in the wilderness.  Driven out on his own, away from his community, seemingly away from the Father who loves him, Jesus remembers – and the Word of God flows from his heart.  So, first, learn and remember the tradition that sustains us.

Then, second: Practice imagination.  Jesus was a Jew in first-century Palestine, living under the thumb of the Romans.  Now, defying Rome was something his people did all the time, in quietly subversive ways, as people everywhere do in the face of oppressive power.  But defeating that power was something else.  There wasn’t a lot of precedent for that in the experience of Jesus’ contemporaries.  Revolts didn’t go so well.  But Jesus imagined a different future.  He called into being a future that others literally couldn’t imagine – a world where Love overcomes oppression, where good defeats evil, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where peace rules.  Scripture has a name for what he was imagining – “the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15), the reign and rule of God.  It’s what we ask for every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We can name it, but Jesus could see it and imagine it into being.  So, Bishop Curry would say, the second step in the recipe of “turning the problem of reality into possibility” is to imagine it (56).

And the third step in the recipe is this: Add God to the equation.  This was the core of Jesus’ answer to his test out there in the wilderness.  Satan was offering him lots of things.  He invited Jesus to draw on his individual power.  He asked Jesus to lean on the assumption that, if we back ourselves into a corner, God will bail us out.  He offered Jesus the power of the world as tycoons and kings live it.  But Jesus changed the outcome by adding God to Satan’s equation.  As Bishop Curry says, when you change the variables of an equation, the outcome must change, too; and when you factor God into the equation, the outcome must change for good.

Well, here we are, beginning the season of Lent once again, walking with Jesus out into the wilderness.  So, let me ask you the other elephant-in-the-living-room question today:  What do you fear you can’t change?  What do you fear you can’t overcome?  What do you fear might be so powerful that you can’t conquer it? 

This Lent, take a cue from Jesus in the wilderness, and look Satan in the eye.  Remember the tradition that upholds you.  Imagine a liberated reality.  And add God to the equation.  Then, get ready.  Because when you do that, in the ancient words of the Great Litany, you will “finally beat down Satan under [y]our feet” (BCP 152).

1.  Curry, Michael.  Love Is the Way.  New York: Avery, 2020.
2.  Foner, Eric.  Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
3.  Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, electronic database, 2011, quoted at Bible Hub.  “1544. ekballo.”  Available at: https://biblehub.com/greek/1544.htm#.  Accessed Feb. 18, 2021.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Stepping Up to Heaven

Sermon for Feb. 14, 2021
2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9

Preaching about the story of the Transfiguration sometimes feels like analyzing a dream.  No matter which Gospel writer tells this story, it’s an otherworldly experience.  In Luke’s Gospel (not what we heard today), the text even states that Peter, James, and John were “weighed down with sleep” there on the mountain; so, they themselves weren’t sure whether they might not be dreaming (9:32). 

Today’s account from Mark is different, more straightforward.  There are no sleepy disciples here; the story just happens.  But still – what exactly is it that’s happening?  Even if Peter, James, and John are wide awake, they just thought they were taking a little hike with Jesus up the mountain.  They hadn’t planned to meet God up close and personal.

You get a similar sense from today’s Old Testament reading, too.  Elijah had been Israel’s most important prophet – battling the priests of other gods, anointing kings, and talking with God on Mt. Sinai when a corrupt king was trying to kill him.  Now Elijah’s come to the end of his ministry, and God has told him to call Elisha as his successor.  Elisha says “yes” to the prophet and follows along; but soon after, we come to today’s reading. 

Elisha is loyal and refuses to abandon his master, even though something highly dramatic and probably terrifying is about to happen.  Realizing Elijah is about to be taken away, Elisha asks for a “double share of his [prophetic] spirit,” fully embracing his call (2 Kings 2:9).  But then, I wonder if he regrets it immediately, as “a chariot of fire and horses of fire” take Elijah off to heaven (2 Kings 2:11).  Elisha cries out and tears his clothes as a sign of mourning – grief that his master is gone, sure; but maybe some second thoughts about what Elisha has signed up for, too.

Elisha knows that Elijah will be taken from him.  Peter, James, and John know that Jesus is the messiah, God’s anointed king.  They know these things are true – at least they know it intellectually.  But did they know what those truths would mean for them before they crossed their boundaries and followed along to find God revealed in frightening majesty?

Now, the evidence was there to tip them off as to what was coming.  Elisha had seen Elijah call down heavenly fire on a royal army and condemn the king to death – not a move likely to endear the prophets to the next king (2 Kings 1).  For Peter, James, and John, the testimony was straight from the mouth of Jesus himself.  Just six days before their hike up the mountain into heaven, Peter had said out loud that Jesus was the messiah; he got the answer right.  But then Jesus had pushed him – do you know what lies ahead for God’s anointed king?  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus had said, “and be rejected by the [religious authorities], and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  But that’s not all.  When Peter had protested that Jesus got it wrong, Jesus had raised the stakes:  It’s not just the messiah who will take that hike up the mount of Calvary.  “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus had said, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me” (8:34).  The servant is not greater than the master, after all. 

I wonder what the disciples made of that.  I mean, they’d seen Jesus healing people.  They’d witnessed him walking on water and stilling a storm.  They’d watched him feeding thousands from five loaves and two fish.  They’d heard him challenging the authorities and calling them hypocrites for choosing law over love.  Now, the disciples heard Jesus name the cost that love would carry.  Their head knowledge told them they were following God’s anointed king.  But it took them a while to realize the cost that call would carry for them.  It’s one thing to know a truth intellectually.  It’s something else entirely to step across the boundaries of our experience and make that truth our own. 

I spoke to you a few weeks ago about the boundaries we’ll seek to beat this year as we follow Jesus together.  One of those is the boundary of difference – the boundary that says, you and I are not enough alike to take the risk of connection.  Some of those differences are real and active among us – differences of politics and policy, and to what extent a church should address them.  We’ll have some opportunities to talk about that as we read our presiding bishop’s book Love is the Way and as we learn about the practice of civil discourse during Lent.

Other boundaries of difference lie outside our parish family – but they’re not so far away, just a mile or so to the east.  We saw a powerful example of crossing that boundary last weekend, as people here took part in the sixth installment of our Andie’s Pantry ministry with families at Benjamin Banneker Elementary.  Through these months of pandemic, Andie’s Pantry has morphed from an anonymous food-distribution event into an opportunity whereby some of us are stepping into difference.  There are lots of ways to help Andie’s Pantry get food to hungry families, including contributing funds or buying groceries.  But some of us are going one step further – stepping onto a family’s front porch or meeting up at the store to buy groceries.  

There’s a wonderful write-up about it in this weekend’s Messenger and bulletin – parishioners delivering shopping bags to someone’s home, or meeting someone in a grocery store, and having a conversation.  These conversations aren’t about delving into the divisions that plague our metro area.  They aren’t interviews about “what it’s like to be black in Kansas City,” as if one person would want to speak for a community’s experience.  They’re just conversations about what we have in common:  kids, grandkids, frustration with COVID, frustration with the Chiefs, staying warm in such abominable cold.  There is some risk in having these conversations, as Jesus said would come when we set aside our fears and follow him.  But as we take those steps across the boundaries before us – steps of faith, steps of love – we find that we’re stepping up the mountain into heaven itself.

Maybe that’s a way to think about the time that’s coming next for us.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  The Church calls us to a season of “self-examination and repentance”; of “prayer, fasting, and self-denial”; of “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP 265).  All that is right.  But here’s another way to think about it.  We could see Lent as a time to cross boundaries, a time look and listen and learn from what we find.  It’s a time to follow Jesus through experience – to hold love in our hearts, not just in our heads. 

That’s why spiritual practice makes a difference.  It doesn’t matter whether you give something up or take something on; but I think it does matter that we do something as we make our way through Lent.  Spiritual practice matters because habits form us.  Actions change us.  When we deny ourselves something we lean on, it trains our hearts to beat first for others and not first for ourselves.  When we make time to pray or read Scripture daily, it opens our hearts to God’s astonishing love for us, despite all the reasons we don’t deserve it.  When we meet a stranger in a store and buy some groceries, it turns our hearts to understand, helping us see how we’re bound together with people whose lives we don’t know.  Lent is about beating boundaries between us and others, between us and God, to help us practice in our lives what we carry in our heads – the truth that relationships are what life is all about.

We know that – in our heads and in our bones.  But if you need to hear it from a higher authority, we have that, too.  As God called out to the disciples on the heavenly mountaintop, so God calls to us now:  “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him!”


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Not a New Normal but a Heavenly Next

State-of-the-Parish Address
Mark 1:14-20
January 24, 2021

Welcome to an Annual Meeting Sunday like never before.  All through this year’s Annual Report, one ministry after another notes the strangeness, challenges, or difficulties of 2020.  And they’re right.  To me, 2020 seems like the experience of your first heartbreak: We all made it through, and we may be stronger for it; but few of us would choose to go through it again.

I think many of us wish we could rewind the clock and go back to the time before last February, when things were “normal.”  I’ve heard that longing from many of you who are aching to get together with family and friends, to come back to worship in person, to have a parish party … to say nothing of going to see a movie or taking a trip.  We can’t wait for things to get back to “normal.”

By the same token, we’ve heard countless people tell us to get ready for the “new normal” – a phrase many of us will be happy if we never hear again.  Of course, the problem is that we aren’t “there” yet – and once we are “there,” at the new normal, the goalposts will probably keep moving.  That new normal will be out of date a few months later – or less.

Through 2020 at St. Andrew’s, we did the best we could to be present and responsive to the “normal now,” whatever that was in a given moment.  The Annual Report gives us great examples of people’s creativity and heart as they looked around and said, “A pandemic isn’t going to shut down our worship.  A pandemic isn’t going to cut us off from each other.  A pandemic isn’t going to keep us from loving and serving God and the people around us.”

I am overwhelmingly grateful for the resilience, inspiration, sacrifice, and love you’ve shown this year in ministry, in generosity, and simply in showing up.  As hard as it’s been, 2020 has been one of those times St. Andrew’s will remember and say, “You know, God didn’t just bring us through that; God made us stronger.”

Well, part of growing stronger is living out this truth: We aren’t going back to what we knew as normal, and we shouldn’t be satisfied just coping with the “normal now.”  Instead, God is calling us to create the heavenly next. 

How?  A few years ago, I wrote a book called Beating the Boundaries. If you actually read it, you’re part of a very exclusive club, so feel good about that.  It was about nine congregations that were stepping beyond what had been normal for them, combining their inherited approach to being church with new expressions of ministry to the people and the world around them. 

In their own ways, each of those congregations was responding to the call Andrew and Peter heard in today’s Gospel reading: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17).  Andrew and Peter understood their work of fishing in a particular way.  They’d been fishing like that for years, thank you very much; and it had worked for them just fine.  But Jesus came by, in that pesky way he has of upending our conventional wisdom; and he said, “Yes, the fishing you’ve been doing is great.  And … let’s fish differently.”  Jesus was beating a boundary, and it changed Andrew’s and Peter’s lives – not to mention changing the world.

We need to apply this same kind of thinking to the question, “How will we be church after the pandemic?”  The beauty of the congregations I profiled in my book was that they never abandoned who they’d been; they just expressed their DNA in new ways for new times and contexts.  That’s our call now.  It’s time for us to move past responding to the pandemic and start beating the boundaries that separate us from the heavenly next that God wants us to find.

So, what boundaries shall we beat?  Well, there are five that rise to the top for me, priorities for this year that will help us express what’s always made us St. Andrew’s but in a world that will never be the same.

First, we need to beat the boundaries of worship in a post-pandemic world.  Though we wouldn’t have asked for it, we’ve had opportunity this year to learn a lot about making virtual worship meaningful and connective for people at home.  The fact that we had livestreaming capacity, and that we could work on improving it in 2020, meant worship was less of a pandemic boundary for us than it was for many congregations.  But still, we’ve got work to do to provide a worship experience in which people encounter Jesus fully in Word and Sacrament, whether they’re in a pew or on the couch.  For example, think about our worship in the summer and fall, before we had to suspend in-person services a second time.  If you were at home, you got to see visuals on the screen as part of our sermons, but you received Communion only spiritually.  If you were in the nave, you received Jesus’ Body in your hands, but you couldn’t see what people at home were seeing during the sermon.  We need to move toward making the worship experience as complete as we can, regardless of whether you’re sitting on your couch or in a pew.

Second, we need to beat the boundaries of parish life in a post-pandemic world.  In 2020, we learned that people can come together virtually for meaningful fun, fellowship, and learning. Of course, we’re all looking forward to the next Haiti Dinner or Trivia Night or Discovery class where we can actually sit next to someone and enjoy a conversation.  But even once we can come back together, we’ll still need to share parish life with people who can’t or don’t want to return to it in person.  With activities like coffee hour, Sunday school, youth gatherings, newcomer classes, and other learning opportunities, we’ll have to figure out how to bring people together so that physical separation doesn’t stop fellowship. With both worship and parish life, we’ll have to learn how to inhabit a new reality, what a market-research firm calls “phygital reality” – a hybrid of the physical and digital worlds.1

Third, we need to beat the boundaries of pastoral care.  2020 has reminded us how deeply we need connection with God and each other.  It mattered that, twice last year, Vestry members, Parish Care volunteers, clergy, and staff called members just to check in.  It mattered that we brought Christmas Communion to homebound members’ front doors.  It mattered that the Order of St. Luke was praying for people every week.  But 2020 showed us that we need to continue building our capacity to provide the care you need.  We still have work to do to beat the boundary of our expectation that pastoral care is something only “holy” people with clerical collars do.  And we need to beat the boundary that regular checking-in by trained parishioners might seem just too hard for us to pull off.  It can’t be.  So, in 2021, we’ll keep at it: equipping more people to check in and show God’s love, doing a better job of systematizing contacts with you, and continuing to improve our use of data to care for you.

Fourth, we need to beat the boundaries of our church walls.  Before the pandemic, we’d been making solid progress with this.  The church and HJ’s Youth and Community Center were busy nearly all the time, both with St. Andrew’s people and folks from our neighborhoods.  Some of that community use we sponsored as part of our mission, and some of it helped with our bottom line.  We’d realistically planned that event revenue at HJ’s would cover the cost of the building’s operation in 2020 … until March came.  We’d also planned to launch a new worship experience at HJ’s called Trailside, a less-formal service with more accessible music to tap into the spiritual longing of our Brookside and Waldo neighbors we aren’t reaching otherwise.  Now, we have to get Trailside launched this year, once it’s safe and reasonable to have a service in the friendly confines of HJ’s.  I hope that can happen at back-to-school time.  In the ways we offer worship and engage with people around us, we need to help them see that the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement offers grace and hope, even if they aren’t so interested in reading from the Prayer Book among stained-glass windows.

Finally, we need to beat the boundaries of difference and learn to love people who aren’t like us.  COVID certainly wasn’t the only challenge our country faced in 2020.  Protests in our streets and a divided election have shown clearly how much we struggle to listen to each other and to hear godly intent in people with whom we differ.  In 2020, we began trying to listen to our neighbors of color.  We prayed with neighbors on Troost.  We gathered folks from St. Andrew’s and folks from St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on the east side to experience art together and talk about what they saw.  We had plans for more gatherings like that, until COVID got in the way.  Once the pandemic allows, we’ll start that up again, as well as offering opportunities for book and film discussions here.  At the same time, we learned how differently people in our own parish view the world and how hard it can be for us to talk about our passions, hopes, and dreams for ourselves and our nation.  And, with our baptismal promises to love all people, respect all people’s dignity, and strive for justice and peace, we heard calls from parishioners for the church to proclaim more publicly what we stand for as Episcopalians.  All these situations point to the reality that, whoever we are, we need to grow in loving our neighbors who aren’t like us.  So, we’ll try to understand each other better by beating the boundaries of race and worldview, learning how to hear each other’s passions, hopes, and dreams for God’s world.

Clearly, we’ve got our work cut out for us.  But you know, we serve a Savior who’s already beat the ultimate boundary.  It was the boundary of death, with three crosses as its fenceposts and a tomb as its guardhouse.  On Good Friday afternoon, it looked like death had won.  On Holy Saturday, experience showed that sin held even the best of us bound.  But then came Easter morning, and the ultimate boundary was beat. 

Jesus has already done the hard work of resurrection for us.  All he’s asking us to do is this: to look at fishing differently and then hit the road, loving one another and the people we meet along the way.  We can do that.  What we can’t do is say that journey is too hard.  What we can’t do is say we’ve never fished like that before.  Instead, we’ve got to follow Jesus and beat our boundaries: the boundaries of worship, the boundaries of parish life, the boundaries of pastoral care, the boundaries of our church walls, and the boundaries of our differences.  If we’re faithful in that, I believe Jesus will be there helping us clear the path, leading us not simply to endure a new normal but to move down the road toward the heavenly next.

1.      “Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2021.” Euromonitor International. January 2021. Available at: https://www.euromonitor.com/top-10-global-consumer-trends-2021/report. Accessed Jan. 20, 2021.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Hitting Bottom

Sermon for Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021

Mark 1:4-11

Last Monday, I went to see my mother in Jefferson City.  She’s in a senior living community there, just down the street from the state capitol building.  Many of you know I used to work in Jefferson City; I was speech writer and deputy press secretary for Gov. John Ashcroft in the late 1980s.  I worked in the capitol, in an office the size of a closet.  It may have been small, but it sure had a view, looking out over the Missouri River.  The view wasn’t just beautiful; it was inspiring, as was the view inside the building.  Every day, I got to see the stunning architecture and paintings and stained glass in that shrine of democracy.  Every day, I also walked by an inscription in the rotunda, a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18).  And every day, I saw the Great Seal of the State of Missouri, which of course is everywhere in that building, even on the doorknobs.  On that seal is the state motto: “Salus populi suprema lex esto”; let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.  It was an inspiring place to serve.  So, on Monday, after I saw my mother, I took a few minutes to go to the capitol, and park there in the circle drive, and look up to my old office window. 

All kinds of memories came back.  I remembered late nights at the end of the legislative session and the pasta feast from Rigazzi’s in St. Louis, served in the House Lounge among the Thomas Hart Benton murals.  I remembered friends I worked with, people kind enough not to dismiss me for how young I was and how little I knew.  I remembered working hard to dig up positive stories and deflect negative ones.  I remembered a meeting about the governor’s reelection campaign in which a brilliant senior staff member talked about the possibility that our opponent, Betty Hearnes, might capitalize on one particularly negative story about the governor, and the staffer vowed that we’d “tear her to shreds” if she did.  It was one of many less-than-holy moments of working in that office, and it helped me discern that doing press and speeches for a political leader probably wasn’t my calling.  I remembered looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, “I can’t go on like this.”  But thankfully, as I sat in the car last Monday and looked up at my old office window, what stayed with me was the beauty and the aspiration that Missouri’s stunning capitol building embodies.

I can’t imagine what it was like then, on Wednesday, for the staffers in our nation’s capitol in Washington as they looked out their windows and saw a mob tearing down the fences and climbing the walls.  I can’t imagine how they felt as they went out into the halls to see what was happening and heard glass shattering and breathed teargas.  There they were, watching the cathedral of democracy being desecrated and fearing for their lives.  They must have wondered, where are all the police we saw at the protests this summer?  How can it be that a mob has breached democracy’s cathedral?

At this point, we know the story of Wednesday, so I won’t retell it – other than to note that the mob didn’t win.  Violence didn’t win.  Our representatives and their staff did what they needed to do, risking themselves to ensure democracy won instead.  

Let me also say this.  I think there’s a connection between Wednesday’s events and today’s Gospel story, and here’s the connection I see: Sometimes, it’s good to hit bottom.  Sometimes, we need to hit bottom.  Sometimes, until we hit bottom, we can’t see our sin.

Now, you’re thinking, “Uh-oh.  Just how judgy is he going to get?”  Well, when I put Wednesday’s insurrection in the category of sin, let me be clear what I mean.  Sin is separation from God, turning away from God’s purposes and desires for us.  I believe God has purposes and desires in mind for each of us, and I believe God has purposes and desires in mind for our nation, too.  We say as much when we offer the collect “For the Nation” every Independence Day.  We ask God to “give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will” (BCP 258).  That’s absolutely an aspirational prayer.  We aspire to justice, and we aspire to forbearance.  But we struggle to reach our holy aspirations.  We fall short.  We fail, sometimes by what we do and sometimes by what we don’t do.  That’s sin.

But over the course of the past several years – certainly more than just four of them, I might add – we’ve been aspiring less and sinning more.  We’ve been forgetting what’s in God’s heart and mind for ourselves, our country, and our world.  Our sins have been of the most pernicious type: slow in their growth, hidden in plain sight.  We’ve allowed ourselves to think we don’t need people who aren’t like us.  If the insurrection at the capitol embodied nothing else, it embodied this lie: “Because I know I’m right, I don’t have to honor people I think are wrong.”  That represents our fundamental sin, our original sin: the sin of self-idolatry, the sin of placing ourselves ahead of God and ahead of God’s other children.

That’s the background not just for the events of last Wednesday but for our Gospel reading today.  The story’s spotlight shines on John the Baptist, but behind that is the reality John saw – a great need among the people to acknowledge their sin and choose to turn from it.  The reading doesn’t name specific sins, but it does indicate that the problem, like the Jordan River, ran deep and wide:  “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John], and were baptized by him…, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).  Jesus joins in with the people as they seek to get right with God – not because Jesus needed it but because he wanted to be in it with them.  And as he enters into this experience with the people he came to save, the fullness of God’s glory shines forth.  The heavens are torn open, and the Spirit descends on Jesus, and God’s voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (1:11). 

It’s no accident that the revelation of the Father’s great love for Jesus, and for each one of us, comes in the context of people turning from their sins.  When people recognize how they’ve missed the mark, how they’ve denied God’s purposes and desires for them, that’s when the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit come together to sanctify our longing to get right with God.  When we come to the river and confess our sins, God joins us there, wading into the water with us and empowering us to turn in a new direction.

So, here’s a question Scripture never answers: What led all those people to go down to the river for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4)?  Although each one had his or her own story, I’ll bet you most of the people in that crowd were going through the same thing.  Something had happened, and they’d hit bottom.  Many of us can point to a similar moment in our lives, a time when we looked ourselves in the mirror and said, “I can’t go on like this.”  That’s what leads us to the water’s edge, where God shows up to meet us.

I believe Wednesday’s insurrection was our national moment of hitting bottom.  Ugly strains of self-idolatry have been festering within us and among us for a long time now.  More and more, it’s become acceptable to turn sisters and brothers into others, puffing ourselves up by talking someone else down.  After a while, the power of evil takes that negativity and turns it into toxicity.  And eventually, some of us, at least, decide it’s OK to break the law and destroy property and threaten others … because, after all, I’m right, and they’re not.  We’ve been in that downward spiral for a while now, and finally the capitol was breached.  So, I would say we’ve hit bottom.  We’ve come to our national moment of looking in the mirror and saying, “We can’t go on like this.”

What can the Church do about that?  What’s Jesus’ call to us as we come to the river separated from God and one another?

Well, the Church is about healing and reconciliation.  The prayer book tells us the Church’s mission “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 855).  And the only way to do that is to start with ourselves and the people around us.

This Lent at St. Andrew’s, we’ll be offering an opportunity to get better at civil discourse.  The new Advocacy Discernment Committee has been talking about this over the past month, well before Wednesday’s insurrection, but we certainly see the need for it now.  Here in our congregation, we are blessed with a rich diversity in point of view on just about any topic you can name.  Our shorthand for this is “the Big Tent” – that just as the Episcopal tradition has prayed for all sorts and conditions of people, it holds in tension all sorts and conditions of perspectives.  What we haven’t done so well is to deal with that tension.  Here in Kansas City, we’re very good at “Midwest nice.”  That’s great, in that we don’t have to worry about people storming the church to replace the rector.  But it’s not so great in that we don’t know how to deal with our differences and divisions beyond politely ignoring them.  So, this Lent, as we take the opportunity to get right with God and each other, I hope you’ll consider wading in the water of civil discourse as a way to see how people you disagree with are beloved in God’s eyes.

But our national moment of hitting bottom is about more than needing civil discourse.  It’s about our identity, too.  What this week reminds us is that we always have to hold in living memory who we are.  As a nation, we like to think of ourselves as a people of special purpose, a people who choose to live in the creative tension of democracy because it’s what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.”1  But as followers of Jesus, gathered under this Big Tent, we are more than inheritors of democracy.  We are apostles of love.  We are God’s beloved children, empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow in Jesus’ resurrected footsteps.  We are people who strive to resist evil and who come to the river to confess it when we come up short.  We are people who live Good News in word and deed.  We are people who seek and serve Jesus in all people, loving those who disagree with us as much as we love ourselves.  We are people who strive for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of everyone – no exceptions, even the folks we understand least. 

As we walk that path, sometimes we hit bottom.  But Jesus is there, reaching out his hand, pulling us up, reminding us who we are, and empowering us to try again.

1.      Lincoln, Abraham. “Annual Message to Congress – Concluding Remarks.”  Abraham Lincoln Online.  Available at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.  Accessed Jan. 8, 2021.

 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A Better Country, That Is, a Heavenly One

Sermon for Independence Day, transferred
Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48


Fr. Jeff likes to note how he often assigns himself to preach when we have really tough readings, and that’s true.  Just for the record, I want to note that not only did I get the sacrifice of Isaac last week, but I’m also now preaching about Independence Day, and therefore American history, at a moment when people across the country are demanding that statues of national figures be taken down.  In fact, right here in Kansas City, we hear calls to remove the statues of President Andrew Jackson from the county courthouses,1 and the K.C. Parks and Recreation Commissioners last week voted to remove the name of J.C. Nichols from his fountain and street on the Plaza.2  I think all that should earn me some points on the tough-assignment scoreboard back in the office.
So – let’s start with our first reading for the Feast of Independence Day, from the Letter to the Hebrews.  “By faith, by faith, by faith,” it says, part of a longer section of Hebrews that traces the faithfulness of Israel’s heroes:  Abel, Noah, and Abraham, whose journey of faith we’ve been tracing for a few weeks now; and then later on to Moses, Gideon, Sampson, David, Samuel; as well as those who brought down “the walls of Jericho after [surrounding them] for seven days” (11:30).  More on that in a minute.
The writer of Hebrews looks to these heroes of Israelite history not just because of what they did but, even more, because of what they sought.  The letter says, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”  They were “seeking a homeland … a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (11:13-16)
So, here we are this Independence Day weekend, celebrating our history, and our heroes, and our hope.  As I said, this year it comes amid conflict over taking down monuments to men once lauded but now despised by some for their policies and beliefs about people they saw as less than human. That’s the critique of President Andrew Jackson.  Jackson did a lot to democratize our politics, but he also helped destroy Native people’s civilizations … and, by the way, held African people in slavery, as did so many of our leaders. 
So … removing statues, or renaming streets and fountains – that’s probably not what you tuned in for this morning as we celebrate the United States and pray for guidance to “use our liberty in accordance with [God’s] gracious will” (BCP 258).  I’d be happy to go have a beer with you and hear what you think, as well as sharing what I think, about the specifics of honoring Andrew Jackson, or J.C. Nichols, or Robert E. Lee.  But maybe the Church’s celebration of our country could be an opportunity to step back and see this controversy in a different light.
Among the heroes mentioned, at least indirectly, in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews are those who brought down the walls of Jericho after surrounding that city for seven days.  You may remember the story from Sunday School or from the old spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”  It’s from the Book of Joshua, which tells of the conquest of the Promised Land by the people of Israel. 
Here’s a quick recap:  Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and then into the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, where they wandered for a couple of generations.  God let Moses see the land of Canaan, the land God had promised to the Israelites; but Moses died just before they crossed the Jordan River.  With Moses’ death, his assistant, Joshua, takes command – literally.  This band of wilderness wanderers has now become an army.  As God parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt, so God stops the flow of the Jordan River to let them move into the Promised Land on dry ground.  And God directs them to conquer that land, giving very specific instructions how and where to fight and testing their faithfulness along the way.  The Israelite army is sometimes faithful to God’s directions, like when they surround Jericho and bring down its walls with just a trumpet blast.  But they sometimes ignore God’s directions, which eventually keeps the Israelites from taking all of Canaan as promised (Judges 2:1-5).  That’s the version of the Book of Joshua many of us have heard before.
And … if you step back from this story of a people striving to be faithful to God’s promises, you also have a story of a nation seeking to wipe out indigenous people and take their land.  And this is even more problematic than it sounds because, according to the Book of Joshua, they’re doing that because God tells them to.  “Proceed to cross the Jordan…,” God says.  “Every place that the sole of your feet will tread upon, I have given to you. …  No one shall be able to stand against you….” (1:2-3,5)  And Scripture doesn’t spare the gruesome details.  At Jericho, the story says, “they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” and “burned down the city and everything in it” (6:21,24).   That’s not exactly the picture of loving your neighbor we usually like to hold up.  Even if the land was promised to the Israelites – Lord, was there really no way to put them there other than killing the people who were there first? 
This is not just a question of Biblical interpretation, though that’s significant enough.  The story of the Israelites doing God’s will by invading another country – that story was used as a paradigm for Manifest Destiny here, as our nation took over the lands of the Native peoples.  Preachers and politicians alike pointed to the Book of Joshua specifically to justify why it was OK to take the land of the people who were there first and kill them in the process.3
It probably won’t surprise you that the Book of Joshua is not my favorite in the Biblical canon.  I read those stories of conquest, and think about how they’ve been used in American history, and remember a mission trip to the Rosebud Sioux reservation we took here a few years ago, and think about the devastation of Native life – and I don’t really much want to read the Book of Joshua.  In fact, I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t in the Bible at all.
So, should I start a movement to drop Joshua from the Biblical canon?  (It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened.  Martin Luther wanted to remove four books from the core of the Bible and turn them into an appendix.4)  Dropping the Book of Joshua might feel satisfying.  It might even be healing for the faithful people we met living on the Rosebud, and millions like them.
But then, I think about what we’d lose without the Book of Joshua.  It’s a cautionary tale that, even when we’re doing what we believe is God’s will, we can’t just do it any way we want.  Part of faithfulness is self-limitation, following God’s ways even when it’s inconvenient – and you find that in Joshua, as God limits the invading army’s right to pillage, for example.  Joshua is also a tale of courage, of trusting God even when the numbers are against you or when you’ve wandered in the wilderness and your trust is pretty well spent.  We need to hear those divine words when our backs are against the wall – as God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (1:9).  And, the Book of Joshua is a tale of commitment to God, with Joshua challenging the people to step up:  He says, serve the Lord “in sincerity and faithfulness….  [C]hoose this day whom you shall serve, whether the gods your ancestors served … or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (24:14-15).  That’s inspiring stuff.  So, if I don’t like the conquest of the Canaanites, and if I could take the Book of Joshua out of the Bible, what might I lose in the process?
Well, instead, we could deal with the Book of Joshua in all its messiness.  We could let ourselves be inspired by this study in faithfulness and make ourselves ask hard questions of a text that’s justified the taking of lands and extermination of peoples.  We could embrace the complexity of this story, and the complexity of our national story, and the complexity of our own stories – the need to look our own sinfulness in the eye and give thanks that God sees more to us than that.
Dealing with complexity … that doesn’t seem to be among our greatest strengths as a nation right now.  Too often, we want answers that boil down to slogans on signs or ballcaps, and we’d really prefer to hear from people who already carry the same sign or wear the same ballcap as we do. 
But I hear a different call from Jesus in today’s second reading – a call to harder and better work.  He tells us, “[L]ove your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Now, loving our enemies might take many shapes, but I think listening to our enemies might be the essential start to whatever would come next.  You cannot love a person whose heart and mind you will not hear.  Now, that’s hard work.  But it’s also the work I think our nation needs most right now.
And, it’s work that will lead us one step closer to the seemingly impossible call Jesus gives us at the end of today’s Gospel reading.  If we only love those who love us – if we only listen to the points of view that reinforce our existing narrative and pillory those who think differently – “what reward do you have?” Jesus asks.  “Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”  Instead, he says, “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) 
Well, perfection may not sound like a goal we can achieve, but we can’t hide behind the apparent impossibility of that call.  Jesus isn’t telling us we can’t make any mistakes.  That word in Greek we translate as “perfect” is about something more complex – it’s about becoming whole, becoming complete, becoming mature.5  It’s about a journey toward the mystery and complexity of God – a God, our stories say, who says and does things we just don’t get: testing the most faithful person ever, giving a land to one people but at devastating cost to another, asking us to give up all our possessions and rely on God alone.  That’s not a faithfulness of sound bites.  It’s a faithfulness of deep and prayerful engagement with points of view we only begin to understand.  It’s a faithfulness that leads us toward what we all want this Independence Day, whatever sign we carry or ballcap we wear – the faithfulness that strives for us to be “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).

1.      Schwers, Kaitlyn. “Frank White calls for removal of Andrew Jackson statues in front of county courthouses.”  Kansas City Star.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article243809567.html.  Accessed July 3, 2020.
2.      Adler, Eric.  “Kansas City parks board strikes J.C. Nichols’ name from Plaza fountain and street.”  Kansas City Star.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article243882737.html.  Accessed July 3, 2020.
3.      For more information, see Hawk, L. Daniel. Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny.  Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Joshua-3-D-Commentary-Biblical-Conquest/dp/160608819X.
4.      Barton, John.  A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.  New York: Viking, 2019.  395.
5.      HarperCollins Study Bible,  p. 1868 (note).


Offering Isaac

Sermon for June 20, 2020
Genesis 22:1-14
This morning, we’re continuing our summer sermon series: “What the Heck, Lord?  God’s Presence in Tough Times.”  Today’s reading may be the ultimate “what the heck, Lord?” story, one of the most challenging there is: God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham’s promise for the future.
Even with the story’s straightforward style, you can’t miss the pathos and grief.  For no apparent reason, God tests Abraham, telling him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love … and offer him … as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2).  So, Abraham does – just as obediently as he left his home and his tribe years before and set out for an unknown land.  Abraham and Isaac travel three days to get to the place God has in mind – which means Abraham has three days with his son to think about what God’s asking him to do.  Isaac himself carries the wood for the sacrifice, prefiguring Jesus bearing his cross.  And Isaac, in the innocence of childhood, asks the heart-rending question: Dad, we’ve brought wood, torches, and a knife; but where’s “the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7).  Abraham must be sobbing as he tries to explain what he can’t begin to understand, saying, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (22:8).  Then Abraham prepares the altar and the wood, and binds Isaac, and takes up the knife to kill him.  But at the last minute, God intervenes and stops Abraham.  God now trusts Abraham’s trust, knowing that he will withhold nothing of his heart.  And God does provide what Abraham needs, trapping a sacrificial animal in a nearby thicket and ensuring that Isaac will continue the promised line of Abraham’s descendants.
Honestly, this story will strike many of us as horrifying.  How tortured must Abraham have felt?  How traumatized must Isaac have been?  We don’t get to hear God’s side of the story, but God must have been uncertain about the depth of Abraham’s trust and needed to test it.  In addition, maybe Abraham didn’t know the depth of Abraham’s trust, and God needed to show it to him.  But whatever the divine motivation, we’re left knowing God is God, and we are not; and God doesn’t owe an explanation to Abraham or to us.  Though we may not like it, the story argues that God does use life to test people and see how faithfully we’ll respond.
I believe these past three and a half months have been a time of testing for us.  The coronavirus pandemic has kept us unnaturally isolated, anxious, and afraid as we’ve heard about illness, death, bankruptcy, unemployment – and no end in sight.  In this same time, our nation’s open wound of racism has continued to bleed; and we’re seeing more and more clearly just how wide the gap is between White and Black narratives of our nation.  All that may make us indignant, even angry.  But I think it also makes us afraid.  Maybe we’re afraid our nation will never be the same.  Maybe we’re afraid our nation will never heal its wounds.  Maybe we’re afraid of what others may seek from us in the name of justice.  Maybe we’re afraid that the promise of freedom for all people will simply be denied again.  Whatever our take on these past weeks and months, fear is a common denominator – and maybe an indicator that a test is underway.
I think we’re in a time of testing as a congregation, too.  At our June Vestry meeting, reflecting on the movement for racial justice, I asked the Vestry members to discuss a broader question:  How can St. Andrew’s embody a Big Tent approach to faith while also articulating the values of our Episcopal Church, like affirming that Black lives matter to God and that LGBTQ people are made in God’s image and likeness?  I wanted the group to reflect on that broader question because we’re going to find it in issue after issue.  But some Vestry members wanted to move from that general discussion to specific action, though it wasn’t part of the agenda.  One member offered a resolution that we should proclaim publicly, by raising a flag, that St. Andrew’s supports Pride Month, standing as an ally of LGBTQ people. 
I can only speak directly to the last 15 years or so, but I would say St. Andrew’s has taken a relatively quick journey toward LGBTQ inclusion.  Of course, we’ve had gay and lesbian members for a very long time, probably from the start; but it wasn’t long ago that the prospect of two men or two women getting married here would have been a non-starter.  It wasn’t long ago that our diocese didn’t ordain partnered or married LGBTQ people.  That journey has been way too slow for some of us and way too fast for others.  Now, at our June meeting, several Vestry members were asking to continue the journey, moving St. Andrew’s from inclusion to public alliance – hence, the proposal to put up a flag for Pride Month. 
This unplanned conversation was fraught, but it also was respectful and rich.  Wisely, we ended up tabling the resolution to allow more time for conversation, thought, and prayer.  We’ll return to the topic next month, but – at the end of the day, the decision about a Pride flag falls to me.  In the Church canons, our governing laws, ultimate responsibility for church property, including signs and flags, rests with a parish’s rector.  So, in the Vestry meeting, I could have simply called the resolution out of order and proceeded with the agenda.  Some of you might be thinking that’s exactly what I should have done, and maybe you’re right.  But if you know me, you know I typically don’t lead that way.  From the beginning of my time with you, I’ve been preaching Jesus’ call to love one another, manifested in a leadership culture of collaboration.  Still, the canons make it clear that, ultimately, the decision to put up a flag for Pride Month would be mine. 
So, if I were following the model of the rector as king, what would I do?  I would put a Pride Month sign in the churchyard.  It probably doesn’t surprise you that my theology takes me there.  Eight years ago, as priest-in-charge, I stood here and told you I would preside at the marriages of LGBTQ people, if the Church and the state gave me authority to do that.  They both did, and we have.  I’ve always said we will hire the most qualified applicants for jobs here, and we have.  We’ve been blessed by the ministry and leadership of faithful LGBTQ people, lay and ordained.  I’m grateful for the journey we’ve taken to live into our Episcopal value that “all means all.”  So, if I were acting as king, we would communicate that value of “all means all” beyond the awareness of our St. Andrew’s family.
And … here’s where the testing comes.  “All means all” isn’t the only Episcopal value I hold dear or that we strive to practice here.  I also treasure the Big Tent – the vision that faithful people can disagree in their theology, politics, and social positions and still know they share something deeper.  This is part of our denominational DNA from the days of Queen Elizabeth I, who “settled” the bloody Protestant and Catholic disagreements in the 1500s by saying English people would worship in a common way, regardless of whether they agreed.  Common prayer is a big part of what it’s meant to be Episcopalian.  And because praying shapes believing, our history of common prayer has shaped us to be Christians who now choose to gather in difference, whether that’s gathering at this altar for Eucharist or gathering around a table for summertime BLTs. 
Well, I’ll tell you what:  Not gathering like that hasn’t done us any favors.  Part of the test we’re facing in this moment – one so obvious that we may miss it – has been our inability to gather around an altar or a table.  As Scripture says, “It is not good for humans to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  We haven’t gathered as the Body of Christ since March 15.  And, of course, our disconnection doesn’t stop with the life of the church.  We’ve been stumbling through how to keep distance from each other for months now; and though some restrictions have eased, life just isn’t what it was.  Nor will it be, at least not until we find the Holy Grail of a coronavirus vaccine. 
So, I think this time is a test for us, and here’s the question I hear God asking:  How deeply will we trust that God will provide the wherewithal for us to hold onto our core values when the world wants to tear us apart?
In this period of testing, maybe we each have an “Isaac” that God is asking us to lay on the altar of sacrifice.  Maybe we each have something with which God has blessed us, nurtured us, inspired us – and now, we fear that forces beyond our control could take that blessing away.  Maybe it’s a son who’s at risk in a traffic stop.  Maybe it’s the sense of your full humanity that a single Supreme Court reversal could take down.  Maybe it’s the identity of our nation as a force for good.  Maybe it’s the safety of a polite church culture that’s protected us from disagreements.  Maybe it’s freedom you thought the Constitution guaranteed but now you sense is eroding.  What’s your Isaac?  Whether it’s about safety, or identity, or freedom, what do you fear may be taken away from you?  What would be the hardest thing for you to bring to the altar of sacrifice and trust that God will provide what you need anyway?     
I’ll tell you what I fear losing most, in terms of my life as your rector.  I fear losing this community as I’ve known it.  I fear losing people from both ends of the political and social spectrum because I love the people at both ends of the political and social spectrum.  I fear losing the Big Tent.  The Big Tent is my Isaac.  And now, I think God’s asking me to bind up the Big Tent, place it on the the altar, and allow God to do with it what God will.
The Big Tent is not an easy thing for me to offer up.  That approach to church has been a true blessing for centuries and one I’ve loved all my life; and God would not lightly ask for it back.  But I have to bind up and offer my Isaac to show whether I truly trust that God will provide.  And I’ll tell you, that’s frightening.    
Practically, what does that mean to put the Big Tent on the altar and see what God does with it?  Well, about the proposal to raise a Pride flag, I’m going to ask the Vestry to consider the broader question first: How can we live as the Big Tent in a day of deeper and deeper division?  I don’t mean that as an intellectual exercise but as a question to answer practically.  How do we proclaim the values of inclusion we embrace as The Episcopal Church, and pray together even when we disagree, and all the while follow this imperative: “First, love the person in front of you”?  What steps, what process, might that take, regardless of the presenting question?  As we journey in this boat that is St. Andrew’s Church, what will it look like when we see someone swimming toward us, looking for a hand to help him into the boat, and then see on his shirt whatever offends you most – maybe a Confederate flag or maybe an Antifa symbol?  Can we learn to extend a hand, and bring that person into the boat, and sit next to him anyway, and journey together toward heaven’s shore?
So, we’re going to build a process for being the Big Tent in a day when the world needs to know what our church does stand for.  Again, regardless of what process we create, a decision to take a public stance on something ultimately will be mine because the canons say so.  But I think, given the world in which we find ourselves, and the range of passion and giftedness among the people of this church, we’ll do a better job following Jesus if we have more opportunity to listen deeply to each other, not less, and if we do that through a process that’s dependable, fair, and clear. 
So, I ask your prayers as we move forward in that work.  The truth is, I don’t know exactly what the Big Tent will look like once we’ve trusted God enough to offer it up.  But I do know this: God makes good on divine promises.  Even when we’re frightened, even when we’re tested, even when God asks us to offer what we thought would root us forever – God keeps God’s word.  When we offer in sacrifice what we most hold dear, God doesn’t let the fire be lit.  Instead, we see blessing we couldn’t have seen otherwise in the midst of the crisis: What we treasure is strengthened for God’s purposes, and our trust just grows deeper as we see God does provide precisely what we need.