Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Church's Word to the State

Sermon for Independence Day
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48

Last night, a handful of us gathered with parishioners from St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church to Pray on Prospect.  Like last year’s Pray on Troost event, it was a chance for faithful people from different traditions to gather along an East Side artery and pray for an end to the violence that afflicts our city.  The event concluded the “21 Days of Peace” sponsored by the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Kansas City.

If you couldn’t make it to pray on the street last night, you’ll have another chance in two weeks.  On Saturday morning, July 17, St. Andrew’s members will join in the Walk for Unity sponsored by Unite KC.  We’ll gather at Troost and Truman Road, and we’ll walk down Troost to the Royals’ Urban Youth Academy near 18th and Vine.  This Walk for Unity is a great opportunity to pray with our feet, as well as our hearts and minds, for the healing that flows from confronting the truth of our racial history.

Now, the people organizing these two events come from somewhat different perspectives.  Both groups seek reconciliation in our divided city, but I imagine they wouldn’t agree on everything.  One group might be described as more progressive, the other as somewhat more conservative.  I think that’s OK and that we can authentically stand in prayer with both efforts.  One doesn’t need to agree with everything someone else believes in order to pray together for God’s healing.  I think we can come alongside a wide range of friends and colleagues trying to make a difference.  That’s where our big-tent approach would lead us anyway, to gather on common ground rather than dividing into different camps.

Most of the St. Andrew’s people praying on Prospect last night were part of our recent exercise in civil discourse – our class “What’s the Role of the Church In…?”  It was a wonderful experience, masterfully guided by our junior warden, Ann Rainey.  The goal was to help us work against our wiring for polite silence by practicing the holy skills of listening and sharing our hearts.  The class members did that, and more. 

Here’s a result we might not have expected:  Several participants left the class wanting to engage more deeply, more personally, with the issues we were discussing, things like violence, and racism, and LGBTQ+ inclusion, and immigration.  They wanted to find ways to pass the peace – not just praying in church for racial justice and reconciliation but hitting the streets in prayer; not just naming the people who die in gun violence each week but gathering on an East Side artery to pray for people at risk of violence.

I think there’s an interesting connection between praying on Prospect last night and gathering here this morning to celebrate the Fourth of July.  In a sense, they’re both about how our faith speaks to our secular life. 

Independence Day is an official feast day of the Episcopal Church, like a saint’s day.  It has its own special prayer and readings appointed for it.  Maybe that seems strange, given how important many Americans hold the separation of church and state to be.  So, if Independence Day is a feast on the Church calendar, what is it the Church is saying to the state?

The first reading appointed for today was from Deuteronomy.  The Israelites are encamped on the Jordan River, about to enter the Promised Land; and through Moses, God is laying down the law for the people’s new life there.  Of all the points of the Law of Moses the Church might raise up for us to hear on Independence Day, it’s this:  “The Lord … executes justice for the orphan and the widow and … loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19) 

What’s that saying to us about our national life?  Well, I think it’s a pesky prophetic call, one that our nation has lived out well in our best work and, at the same time, one from which we’re constantly tempted to stray.  It’s the call to remember and lift up the people whom the well-established could it find easy to forget.  In fact, God says, don’t just remember them.  Prioritize them.  Make a highway in the desert and make the rough places a plain for those who aren’t yet living into the fullness of who God created them to be.  When, as a nation, we find ourselves tempted to rest on our past success, tempted to be satisfied with who’s at the table now, God says look around and ask who’s missing and what it would take to set another place.  Whether our family histories are rooted in England or Ecuador, in the Great Plains of America or the west coast of Africa, both our faith and our American experience tell us:  Don’t write off anybody, and ensure everybody has an equal chance to thrive.  Prioritizing policy this way not only honors God; it just makes sense because the benefits flow both ways:  To the extent the nation blesses all who come to the table, so the nation is blessed by what they bring to the banquet.

I think this is one of the strengths of our odd historical identity, both as a nation and as the Episcopal Church.  We gather those we haven’t even explicitly invited, those whose contributions we wouldn’t have seen coming; and we provide equal opportunity for all to flourish.  And … when we recognize that we’ve fallen short of that goal, we do the hard work of growing to see yet another facet of the truth that all means all – liberty, justice, equality of opportunity for all.  That isn’t easy, but it’s part of what it takes to help realize God’s dream for this nation and for the world.

But – expanding our view of how “all means all” brings us a challenge, too.  Some of the folks who come to the table bring differences that push our buttons.  Progressives push conservatives’ buttons, and conservatives push progressives’ buttons.  People bring different traditions.  They bring different histories and different readings of the history we share.  They may look different and sound different and act different.  And sometimes, those differences seem so great that we see those folks as the other.  And especially when the other asks for change, we see it as threatening.  They become “them” – no longer just different but enemies.  I’ve heard it myself, and my hunch is that you have, too – even in our own halls.

So, given all that, what does the Church choose for today’s Gospel reading?  What does the Church pull out of Jesus’ life and teaching to say to the state on its birthday?  It’s this:  Love those you don’t like.  In Matthew’s Gospel – with Jesus in the role of the new Moses, updating God’s Law in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus recognizes that the coming of God’s kingdom doesn’t instantly make everyone friends.  He knows our differences will threaten to divide us, and he calls us to make a different choice:  “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:44-47) 

The brokenness of the world and the brokenness of our hearts will drive us apart.  Left to our own devices, we’ll listen to the points of view we already embrace and grow ever more rigidly righteous in our own eyes.  So, as our nation celebrates Independence Day, the Church says, choose a different path.  It’s already there, in our DNA.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people only works when those people hear God’s call to honor the full humanity of the other and love them enough to serve the common good alongside them.  Whether it’s in the House and Senate chambers or here in the church, we have to choose to cross the aisle if we seek to pass the peace.

Sometimes, God blesses us to see the kingdom in small in-breakings among us, and I think our civil-discourse class was one of them.  We began a bit stiffly, with people ginning up the courage to speak their passions while also fearing that being vulnerable would get them hurt.  But open ears and open hearts prevailed.  No one went on the attack, and no one took difference personally.  Instead, they chose the harder path, the “both/and” of who we are at our best in this big tent: speaking our own passion, hearing the passion of others, and acting for God’s purposes, passing the peace where passions intersect. 

And so, in our next opportunity to pray with our feet, the Walk for Unity in a couple of weeks, I’m nearly certain there will be faithful St. Andrew’s folks walking together down Troost praying for God to heal the divisions in our city, even though those same faithful folks will have watched vastly different news channels earlier that morning.  Together, we’ll raise up the people it would be easy for us to forget, and we’ll chose love over difference as children of the God who loves all. 

There you have it.  Thus says the Church to the state:  Pass the peace. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Why Are You Afraid?

Sermon for Sunday, June 20, 2021
Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41

This may be a little heavy for Father’s Day morning, but I want to ask you:  What’s your greatest fear?  Now, there are the phobia-type fears that many of us have – fears of snakes, or heights, or enclosed places, or airline travel, that kind of thing.  There are also the fears that fill a given chapter of our lives – fears related to health problems, employment challenges, eroding relationships, financial security.  Those are all real, serious fears, things that keep us up at night.  But how about going even deeper than that?  What’s the fear that underlies the others?  Maybe this is an occupational hazard, but I think our greatest fear is about whether God is really there – the fear that maybe, at the end of the day and at the end of our lives, maybe we’re ultimately alone.

At least for me, the few memories I have of being truly afraid are about being alone.  The most vivid example came when I was about 6.  My parents, my sisters, and I went to California to visit my grandparents, as we did nearly every summer.  But this time, we kids hit the jackpot: We got to go to Disneyland. At that age, I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect than getting to spend a day at Disneyland – it was heaven on earth. 

We had a great time riding rides and eating bad food, but finally the time came to leave.  We took a streetcar back toward the entrance.  I was exhausted and not paying as close attention as I should have; and when we got off the streetcar, my family turned left and I turned right.  That’s all it took.  I was lost in Disneyland. 

            Now, this was before cell phones or child-location devices, so my parents had been careful to make a plan with us: If anyone got lost, we would meet at Cinderella’s castle. It was the one landmark you could see from anywhere in the park.  So, I dutifully went to Cinderella’s castle; and I waited, sitting on a bench, crying.  As I sat there, someone came up to me, an Asian man, older and with kind eyes.  He began speaking to me, I’m sure trying to find out what was wrong.  Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak whatever he was speaking.  But he stayed there, standing nearby.  I don’t know how much time passed – probably only a few minutes, but it seemed like an hour.  Finally, my father and mother came into sight, walking fast, with my sisters trailing behind. 

Of course, I hadn’t really been at risk.  The good people at Disneyland would not have locked up the park that night leaving a 6-year-old boy crying outside Cinderella’s castle, never to see his family again.  But in the moment, that was precisely my fear, and it felt real.  It’s one thing to choose your meeting place at Disneyland – to understand, intellectually, there’s a chance you might find yourself lost and alone.  It’s something else entirely to feel that you truly are.

I think that’s where the disciples find themselves in today’s Gospel reading – lost and alone.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us much detail, and the narrator doesn’t illuminate Jesus’ state of mind.  All we know is that, after spending the day teaching what the reign and rule of God is like, in one parable after another, Jesus gets in a boat on the Sea of Galilee to sail with the disciples to the villages on the other side.  As they make their way, a storm rises and starts to swamp the boat.  The storm must have been truly awful if it was enough to make professional fishermen fear for their lives.  But Jesus is asleep, napping after a long day; and they wake him up, crying out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38).  What are you doing, Lord?  Get up; we’re afraid!

I think some of our most truly frightening times are when God seems to sleep.  I remember feeling that way as my father was dying.  The doctors had discovered advanced cancer, and it was time to start hospice care.  I felt good about that, knowing from working with many of you just how healing a hospice experience can be.  Or, not, as it turns out.  It all depends on the people involved.  We ended up with the antithesis of who you’d want as a hospice care coordinator, a woman who spent her time with us warning about everything that could possibly go wrong in the experience.  One of my sisters started calling her “Ms. Hair on Fire.”  But eventually, we got my father settled, and the waiting began. 

I waited through the first night, sleeping a little and staring at the TV.  I know this process can take a while, but it’s different when it’s your parent lying there.  That night led into the next day, with family members coming and going throughout it.  Then the day gave way to night.  Everyone else left, and the waiting began again.  

The only interruptions through that night were the episodes when my father got restless and moved uncomfortably, followed by the nurse coming in to ease the pain.  That seemed to go on forever, though it was only several hours.  But I wondered, where is God in all this?  I found myself praying, “Come on, God.  Let’s get this done.  Do you not care that he seems so uncomfortable?  Do you not care that I’m definitely uncomfortable?  Where are you?” 

The long night dragged on, and finally, as the sun was rising, he died.  That storm was stilled, but I felt like I hadn’t faced the situation very faithfully.  I’d had no deep experience of the presence of God through that night.  Instead, I’d had a little spiritual temper tantrum, and I felt bad for doubting whether God had been with me.  Well, the nurse came in to deal with the body, and I stepped into the hall.  When she came out, she asked how I was doing; I said I was fine, though clearly I wasn’t.  And she said something to the effect of, “It’s OK.  And it’s going to be OK.  You were just where you needed to be,” she said, “doing just what you needed to do.  Your father would be grateful and proud; and before long, you’ll be together again.”

I think I was in good company in wondering where God had been.  In the Old Testament reading today, Job has been suffering dreadfully, and he demands answers from the God he’s served faithfully all his life.  In the reading from Mark, as the disciples fear for their lives, they demand to know why Jesus is napping while water fills the boat.  Now, in both these stories, God does indeed show up, making a dramatic entrance to affirm not just God’s power but God’s investment in the lives of these seemingly insignificant humans.  But it’s important to note that God’s dramatic arrival on the scene happens not as a problem-solving strategy but as a teaching moment.  At the end of Job’s story, God grants Job a great reversal of fortune – but not before upbraiding him, in today’s reading, for daring to question God’s fairness.  And in the Gospel reading, Jesus does still the storm and save the disciples’ lives – but then he upbraids them for their failure to trust. 

Despite occasional dramatic moments of divine intervention, I think God works differently most of the time.  You know this: Through our lives, hard stuff happens; and the truth is, God typically doesn’t prevent it.  But God is there nonetheless, never absent from us, never leaving us alone, far more powerful than we’d imagine.  Ironically, our Lord and Savior shows up in the bit characters of our dramas.  Lost at Disneyland, I experienced the presence of a stranger, someone completely other, someone with whom I couldn’t even communicate; but he cared enough to check on me, and he didn’t walk away.  As my father lay dying, he and I were blessed with the presence of Love to ease his journey – the nurse who tended to his pain and who blessed me at the end for having hung in there with him. 

Acting through bit characters like these, God brings us through the hard stuff.  And if we look for it, God blesses us with the eyes to see the truth that, even in the times of our deepest fears, we’ve never been alone.  That’s pretty wonderful, really – pretty empowering.  And – it’s just the start, setting the stage for act 2 of eternal life, when God moves out of these earthly bit-character roles to begin a cosmic one-person show.  The disciples got a glimpse of it out there, on the water, as their friend and teacher suddenly became the One whom “even the wind and the sea obey” (Mark 4:41).  They’re filled with great awe, witnessing the power of the creator of the universe.  And then, Jesus looks them in the eye – just as he looks us in the eye – and asks the teaching question: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (4:40).  You’ve never faced your fears alone, and you never will.


Saturday, June 19, 2021

Just Getting Started

Sermon for June 13, 2021
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34

Almost nine years ago, we gathered for what we called a Celebration of Common Ministry.  I’d just become rector, and we were marking that moment with what traditionally would be an “installation” service, when a new rector receives gifts from the parish symbolizing his or her new authority.  That seemed like the wrong symbolism, given that we were launching a collaborative approach to being church together.  So, we called the service a Celebration of Common Ministry; and instead of you all just giving me tokens of my authority, we exchanged gifts.  For example, you presented a Bible for the lectern, and I presented you with a welcome bag and a yard sign as symbols of your call to take the Good News to others. 

One of those gift exchanges came to mind when I saw the Gospel reading for today, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.  Parishioners gave me books of biblical interpretation and theology, tools for preaching and teaching.  And I gave them a planter with mustard growing in it, symbolizing the power of faith, even when it seems small, to help us reveal God’s reign and rule – and, thereby, change the world.

Now, there was a little backstory to this planter of mustard.  Mtr. Anne had gone out and bought seeds of mustard plants, and we thought we had plenty of time to put them in the planter and let them grow so the planter would look full and lush by the time the service rolled around.  Turns out, mustard takes longer to grow than we thought.  So, the symbolism took something of a hit because what we hoped would be a planter full of lush mustard ended up looking more like a Chia pet instead.  Best-laid plans….

Well, maybe the Chia-pet symbolism was better anyway.  After all, today’s parable tells us that the kingdom of God starts small among us, coming with low expectations.  From that tiny seed rises “the greatest of all shrubs” (Mark 4:32).  Of course, this is a different kind of mustard than the plants I was trying to grow for our service, a mustard “tree” rather than a flowering plant.  But it’s also kind of funny the way Jesus describes the kingdom – not like one of the towering cedars of Lebanon but as a great … shrub.  Of course, his point isn’t whether the mustard is impressive; the point is the good the shrub does.  The mustard shrub “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32).

If you’ve been here a little while, you may also remember that the mustard seed, and its resulting shrub, was the image we used in the Gather & Grow campaign, six years ago now.  It represented the vision for a new HJ’s Youth & Community Center, a place that would offer generous welcome for our neighbors, a life-giving place where people could gather, and connect, and see that “church” can be more than what they thought it could be.

Surprising blessings come from small seeds: That paradox seems to capture some of God’s best work.  And we’ll see another example of it tonight when we get together at HJ’s for our “Evening in the Caribbean” party, celebrating and supporting our more-than-30-year partnership with St. Augustin’s Episcopal Church and School in Maniche, Haiti.  This is a great mustard-seed story.  In 1988, St. Andrew’s was one of four Episcopal churches in the KC area that volunteered to help a Haitian priest who was assigned to serve four isolated congregations there.  What began with prayer, dialogue, and personal visits has grown into a partnership that educated 250 kids this year (the numbers are down considerably because of the pandemic) and provides a hot, nutritious lunch for the students, teachers, and staff five days a week.  In the past few years, new classroom and kitchen buildings have gone up at the school, and St. Augustin’s parish has grown enough to have its own priest, Pere Petit-Homme.  Thirty years ago, no one was banking on this kind of outcome from our partnership.  But I know for a fact that our people who give their hearts to Haiti could imagine such a thing, because I’ve watched them grow the kingdom of God there.

Through that partnership, we beat boundaries of our own experience and expectations.  St. Andrew’s people looked at a remote mountain village in Haiti and said, “Yes.  Our efforts may start small, but we can be part of God making a huge difference there.”  And with that, this mustard seed began growing into the great shrub it is today.

Earlier this year, on annual-meeting Sunday, I spoke to you about how we’d be beating our boundaries in several areas of parish life this year, despite the pandemic … or in some cases, because of the pandemic.  After spending a year or so locked up, or at least locked away from each other, beating our boundaries should be what we’re all about.

Think about what’s possible.  I mean, even during the pandemic, God has done amazing work with us in beating boundaries.  When in-person worship stopped, we had a head start on many congregations because we’d already planted a mustard seed:  We livestreamed worship on our website, using one camera offering one shot.  When worship went all-virtual, we wanted to livestream on Facebook, as well as the website.  So, we taped my phone to a music stand upside down, with a little microphone sticking out to pick up the sound.  What I didn’t realize was that the video image didn’t adjust to right itself, so we began that morning livestreaming upside down.  To fix it, we taped a half-empty Kleenex box to the music stand, and I set my phone over the opening at the top of the box, with a little remote mic sticking out the bottom and hanging down the side.  It wasn’t exactly a marvel of videography. 

But now?  A few technological apostles, particularly Adam James, have spent a year improving the quality of your experience of worship at home.  Who’d have thought we’d do that as my phone sat on a Kleenex box taped to a music stand?  And yet, here we are – not just Adam now, but a team of Tech Guild members bringing you, and the world, worship from multiple angles, with the text of prayers on the screen and announcements about what God’s doing in the life of this place.  That’s a mustard seed that’s grown into quite a shrub of blessing.

So, what might be next?  Well, if we can bring worship to people at home, maybe we could bring sermon visuals and prayers and songs and announcements onto iPads here in the pew racks.  When I show pictures of a mustard tree or the school in Haiti to the folks worshiping at home, wouldn’t it be great if the folks in the pews could see them, too?

Here’s another example.  If we can bring our current worship to more people, we can also bring new worship to new people, people who might not be interested in a traditional service in a beautiful old stone building with stained-glass windows.  As much as I love it, this kind of liturgy is not everyone’s cup of tea.  So, in September, we’ll be launching Trailside, a more informal worship experience at HJ‘s, with music that’s more accessible to modern ears, and prayers and preaching that connect better with people taking a different path in their spiritual quest.

And here’s another possibility.  Our Outreach partnership in Haiti is a great example of a mature mustard shrub.  We have other strong Outreach partnerships too, like our growing relationship with Benjamin Banneker Elementary or the annual Free Store downtown.  In fact, if you glance at the bulletin board in the hall by the Jewell Room, you’ll see another dozen partnerships.  Well, about the same time as we brought out that Chia-pet mustard planter at our Celebration of Common Ministry, I also talked about wanting us to take Outreach ministry as seriously as Scripture does.  You’ve probably heard Jesus’s famous instruction in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, that when we feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger, and visit the imprisoned, we’re doing that work for Jesus himself (25:40).  We also know that Scripture asks us to show our deep gratitude for our blessings by giving to God 10 percent of what God first gives us.  So, several years ago, I said I would love to see our support of Outreach ministry grow to 10 percent of the amount of our pledges to the church.  In other words, just as God asks us, as individuals, to tithe from the gifts God gives us, so our church, the body of Christ in this place, should tithe to show our gratitude and to bless the world. 

There’s an idea being discussed among several St. Andrew’s commissions right now about a way to make that happen by adding a third source of ongoing support for Outreach ministries.  Currently, we fund Outreach in two ways.  First, we give a percentage of your pledged gifts to support the work of our Outreach partners.  Second, individuals give generously to specific ministries, as we’ll do at the Haiti fundraiser tonight.  So, the idea being discussed would be to create an Outreach Fund, not part of our endowment but working like an endowment.  The income from it would provide a third source of support for our work to serve Jesus’ brothers and sisters in need.  And what I’d love to see would be for that extra support to fund the work of a gifted individual to support our Outreach ministries at the staff level, helping committed leaders organize events and gathering more of us to be Jesus‘s hands and feet working in the world with our Outreach partners, offering our time and our talent with the same passion as we offer our treasure.  That’s a boundary for us to beat:  Wouldn’t it be amazing if volunteering with our Outreach partners just became part of what St. Andrew’s members do?

Here’s the thing:  When Jesus described the kingdom of God as being like a mustard seed, I don’t think he had a single seed in mind.  I think he envisioned a mustard grove – not just one shrub but a place where hundreds, even thousands of mustard shrubs provide welcome and shade and nurture and habitat for the birds of the air.  All people need God’s love, and all people can bear God’s love to others.  We differ according to our gifts, according to our needs, and according to our spiritual wiring.  But we’re all called to love.  Just as God loves all, and all means all, so God asks us all to love with all we’ve got – in time, and talent, and treasure, giving from every chamber of our hearts.  

If we beat our boundaries, just imagine how this mustard grove of St. Andrew’s could bless God’s world.  After all, we’re just getting started.  And we’ve got so many seeds to plant.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Pass the Peace, part 2

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2021
Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

OK, let’s start with some congregational participation:  Raise your hand if you feel authorized and prepared to speak on behalf of God.

That’s sort of what I thought.  You may notice that I didn’t raise my hand, either. 

Today is a good day to be suspicious of our ability to speak for God.  In fact, it’s a good day to be suspicious of our ability to understand God, which might be a prerequisite for speaking on the deity’s behalf.  Today is Trinity Sunday, when we try to wrap our minds around the mystery of God being simultaneously both unity and diversity, Three in One and One in Three – Father, Son, and Spirit in constant relationship, eternally creating and redeeming and sustaining together.

We got some stirring glimpses of God’s mystery in our readings this morning.  The first one gave us more than a glimpse, actually.  Isaiah gets up one morning, planning to do whatever he did as a court official and perhaps a temple priest.  But instead, he encounters the Lord, up close and personal.  Yahweh’s presence is overwhelming, the hem of the deity’s robe filling the temple.  Seated on the throne, God is attended by seraphs.  We may hear that and think of angels, but artistic representations of seraphs show them as giant flying cobras.1  No wonder Isaiah said, “Woe is me!  I am lost!” (6:5).  My language might have been a bit more colorful that that.  In Isaiah’s tradition, mortals who saw God face to face didn’t live to tell about it; so, Isaiah was sure that his profaneness, in the presence of God’s absolute holiness, was a chemical reaction he wouldn’t survive.  But one of the giant flying cobras takes a hot ember off the altar, touches it to Isaiah’s lips, and cleanses him of his impurity.  Then Isaiah hears the voice of the Almighty ringing in his ears:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And Isaiah – despite how ill-prepared he is to speak for God – Isaiah says, “Here am I.  Send me.” (6:8)

You may have noticed that pronoun at the end of God’s one line in this reading: the word us: “Who will go for us?”  That’s a glimpse of divine mystery all by itself, potentially even more stunning than giant flying cobras.  Now, the people of Isaiah’s time would have heard this plural pronoun referring to the heavenly court – the royal attendants, and angels, and maybe even demigods over whom Yahweh ruled.  For us, we hear it differently, much like we hear that line in Genesis, in the first story of humanity’s creation, where God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (1:26).  For Christians, it’s a glimpse of the reality we name as the Trinity, which to me is all about relationship.  God is relationship, and a model of “three in one, and one in three” tries to capture that – though maybe about as effectively as a two-dimensional character trying to describe the concept of “up.” 

Then, the Gospel reading fleshes out God’s mystery a bit more.  Jesus is talking with Nicodemus – a Pharisee, supposedly a religious expert.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he’s seen miraculous signs.  He knows that Jesus “has come from God; for no one can do these signs … apart from the presence of God,” he says (John 3:2).  On some level, Nicodemus understands that, when he looks at Jesus, he’s seeing divinity itself.  And I think that gives Jesus a chance to open up this deepest of mysteries.  He tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:3) – in effect saying, You’re right.  And just as I have come to earth from the realm of God’s reign and rule, so those who see God’s reign and rule must be born from above, too.  If you see the signs of the kingdom, Nicodemus, then you’re more than halfway there already.  Just believe it and connect the dots, and eternal life is yours, now and forever.

In this present chapter of eternal life, we’re not going to be able to explain the nature of God.  The best we can do is describe and reflect on some divine attributes.  Here are some I feel pretty sure about.  First, love – in fact, scripture tells us, love isn’t just something God does; it’s what God is (1 John 4:16).  Here’s another: relationship.  The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that this is how God functions, partners who together form a living, dynamic entity that’s both greater than, and reliant on, each individual.  Here’s another: movement, both in terms of how God works and in terms of what God seeks from us.  Our God does not sit still, impervious to the joys and the suffering of creation.  Instead, our God is a deity who goes, who comes, who whispers and cajoles and reproves and inspires.  And who sends.

Fundamentally, God wants two things from us, I believe.  As Jesus tries to explain to Nicodemus, God wants relationship with us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  And that means not just existing forever but living in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  So, that’s number 1: God wants relationship with us.  And then, number 2: God wants relationship from us, asking us to care for our neighbors and for one another.  Our God is Love that sends us out to love.

We know that, right?  I’m convinced we know it because, over the past several months, I’ve heard it over and over again, from you – the people of this church family.

The story begins with a Vestry resolution, of all things – not typically the source of deep reflection on our relationships with God and one another.  Many of you have heard this before, but here’s the short version.  Last summer, a resolution came to Vestry that we should fly the LGBTQ pride flag from the church’s flagpole.  St. Andrew’s is not a place with a history of wearing social advocacy on its sleeve, so we created a process for gathering input to discern what to do when questions like this arise.  That involved creating an Advocacy Discernment Committee made up of progressive, conservative, and radical-middle parishioners, and that committee put together several opportunities for us to learn to talk about divisive issues.  We had a Lenten study of our presiding bishop’s book Love Is the Way, which drew on his personal history, as well as our nation’s history of the struggle between exclusion and embrace.  We offered a class on how to do civil discourse – how to share and listen in love when different perspectives are guaranteed.  Now, we’re offering a class called, “What’s the Role of Our Church In….”  I actually made a mistake with the name; the class is really, “What Should Be the Role of Our Church In…” because that’s what we’ve been talking about over the past four weeks.  And one of those topics was the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Church and the question of flying a Pride flag.

As Jesus observed to Nicodemus, the Holy Spirit often moves in ways we can’t predict and maybe can’t even see directly, like watching the wind blowing through the trees.  In the April Vestry meeting, we were discussing the issues before us – not just the Pride-flag resolution but how we’re learning to have civil discourse on hard topics.  And I had a Holy Spirit moment.  I know this because I felt the urge to sketch something.  Now, my artistic abilities pretty much stop at stick figures; so, if I felt the urge to sketch, it wasn’t coming from me.  Listening to the Vestry members talking about just how hard it is these days to share our passions without cutting ourselves off from each other, I sketched a set of three banners.  Not banners to go inside the church but to go outside, banners to share with the neighbors we’re called to love.  Lauren Richardson, our communications manager, who has much more artistic ability than I do, took my ugly idea and turned it into something.  If you’re here in person this morning, you’ll find these images on the next-to-last page of the bulletin.  You’ll also find them hanging on the front and the back of HJ’s, and they’ll be there for the foreseeable future.

For those of you at home, here they are: “God loves all.  All means all.  Pass the peace.”

            This is us, right?  The God we worship is the God scripture names as Love.  That divine love knows no restrictions.  God doesn’t love everybody except … fill in the blank.  God just loves all – no exceptions.  Whoever feels excluded or embraced – whether people on the right or the left, whether LGBTQ or straight, whether white or people of color – all means all.

And then, God sends us out in love.  In our tradition, we practice this during worship every Sunday, training ourselves in the way God wants us to live the other 99 percent of the week.  We call it passing the peace.  We learn it here so that, when we go forth in the name of Christ at the end of the service, passing the peace just becomes what we do.

These banners came from discussions about social advocacy, but I’d say they’re about something else.  I’d call it divine advocacy.  I’d call it following the heart of the God who loves all, and welcomes all, and sends us out to do the same. 

So, some of you will be looking for the rest of the story.  That Vestry resolution from last summer was about putting something new on the church’s flagpole.  So, let’s close that loop.  The church’s rules, our canons, indicate that the rector has final say in matters of the buildings and grounds.  So, here’s what’s going up on the church’s flagpole.  You’re looking at them – the flag of our nation and the flag of our church.  And, I guess, we could put the flag of our state up there, too, if we want to thumb Missouri’s nose at the half of us whose hearts and taxes belong to the other side of the state line.  But that’s it in terms of what goes on our flagpole – nation, maybe state, and church.

Even though God is deeply mysterious, God’s call to us is not.  We worship a God who is love and who sends us out to love.  Let that be our fundamental understanding, our litmus test.  As our presiding bishop likes to say, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.  That God looks to people even such as you and me and says, “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”  And like the prophet Isaiah, despite our failings and our fears, we come back with, “Here am I; send me.” 

Well, consider this your deployment:  God loves all.  All means all.  So, pass the peace.

 
1.      The HarperCollins Study Bible.  New York: HarperCollins, 1993. 1022 (note).


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Learn Something, Love Somebody, Have a Good Time

Sermon for May 9, 2021 (Mother's Day)
John 15:9-17

It may not shock you to know that, as a boy, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house and go play.  I can see myself one evening in particular, when I was about 9 years old, running to the sliding glass door leading to our backyard, about to make my break to meet up with friends in the twilight.  I was already later than I wanted to be because I’d had to do the dishes before dashing outside.  But as I reached the door, my mother called out and said, “Wait a minute.”  She always did this when I would leave.  Impatient, with my hand already on the door handle, I said, “What?”  And she said, “You know:  Learn something; love somebody; have a good time.”  I rolled my eyes and, finally, I was free.

You may have heard me share that line before.  It was my mother’s favorite line; she said it to my sisters and me all the time.  It drove me crazy, too, and I know my mother enjoyed that.  But she wasn’t just fiddling with me.  She was taking the opportunity to reinforce her prime directive, the mission statement she’d created for the four of us kids:  “Learn something; love somebody; have a good time.”

That line isn’t exactly what Jesus is saying to his friends here in today’s Gospel reading.  But I think my mother was onto something that Jesus was teaching, too. 

 Now, my parents were both educators, so “learn something” was always going to be part of their deepest desire for their children.  In their eyes, everything was a learning opportunity, and especially so for my mother.  Whether it was a big family trip, or a Saturday outing to the zoo, or an afternoon in the backyard watching ants walking in a line, every moment was a teaching moment. She just couldn’t help herself.    

I don’t necessarily hear Jesus saying “learn something” in today’s reading.  But the other two imperatives in my mother’s prime directive I think are pretty much right on point with Jesus’ message to his friends. 

Now, let’s hit “pause” just a minute.  Sometimes in Scripture, what Jesus is trying say gets a little hazy.  I think that’s especially true in John’s Gospel.  The book’s flow feels like it was written by a committee, and Jesus seems chronically unwilling to give a straight answer to any question, even from his friends.  So, sometimes you hear a reading from John, and it leaves you thinking, “Well, that was beautiful.  I wonder what it meant.” 

Not so much today.  Today, Jesus cuts to the chase.  He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12).  And how has he loved them?  By laying down his life for them, for his “friends” (15:13) – or, as the Greek says literally, by laying down his life for his “loved ones.”1  By this point in the story, that’s who his disciples have become to him, and him to them – “loved ones.”  They share the same kind of relationship as Jesus and the Father share.  His followers are no longer servants, or students, or disciples, or whatever word we might feel more comfortable using for them and for us.  Instead – as they experienced earlier that night at the Last Supper, when Jesus took off his robe and stooped down and washed their feet – these men and women around him have become his friends, sharing with him nothing less than divine love.  You are my friends, Jesus tells them, and I lay down my life for you.

I don’t know how that sounds to you, but to me, that’s both the best and the least comfortable thing in the world to hear – that God befriends us.  One of the hallmarks of Christianity is this crazy claim that God stooped down to us and stoops down to us still, taking on humanity fully in the person of Jesus and continuing to take on our nature, dwelling with us and among us, as well as reigning supreme as the Lord of all creation.  I encounter Jesus in you, and you, and you.  Together, we comprise the Body of Christ in this place, filled by him in the Eucharist so we might be him with one another and for this broken world.  “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell” among us in Jesus (Colossians 1:19), and he’s still here, day by day.  “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he says (John 15:16).  That’s tremendously empowering – and deeply humbling.  The sovereign of the universe knows your name and is calling you to walk along, side by side, promising to be there with you regardless how rough the path becomes.  That’s an offer we’d best not ignore. 

And neither should we ignore the call that comes from it.  “I appointed you to go and bear fruit,” Jesus says – “fruit that will last” (John 15:16).  I’ve washed your feet, Jesus says, so you’ll know how to wash the feet of others.  This is less rocket science and more Nike swoosh:  Love one another – just do it.

Well, it’s Mother’s Day.  So, if we’re looking for an example of the kind of love that washes feet, the kind of love that gives itself away, many of us have been blessed to find it in our relationships with mothers by biology or mothers by choice – women who’ve shown us what it looks like to lay down their lives for the people they love.

I was blessed to grow up with a mom like that.  Of course, on Mother’s Day, it’s tempting to turn your mother into someone who nearly walks on water.  That’s not my mother, and she’d be the first to say it; she’s much more real than that.  But still, she earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, and taught English and speech, all the while also raising four kids.  But more significant than the endurance of her parenting was its quality.  She was there for us.  And with the same intention that she put into bandaging skinned knees and reading bedtime stories, she also trained us to wash feet – to deflate our egos, to put others first, and to live in the joy that comes from service.  One time, my sister and I nearly burned the house down; but even then, I didn’t get in as much trouble as when I sought the spotlight for myself. 

We see this love that stoops down from heaven in a million other normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill stories of sacrifice – love so deep, so broad, so high that it can only be divine.  I think of the mothers of kids at Banneker School, working more than one job and still getting their children to class, or on the Zoom call, every day.  I think of the mothers of kids at our partner school in Haiti, spending resources they barely have to send their kids to class in the dignity of perfectly washed uniforms.  I think of mothers here, in this crazy time, showing up for their kids through the emotional and educational roller coaster of COVID, coping with family stress that the parenting guides never imagined.  And I think of mothers in their later years who, like Jesus, can call their children “friends,” still showing up as sources of the holy Wisdom that Scripture names with feminine pronouns.  It turns out, at least in the books of Wisdom and Proverbs, that holy Wisdom is a “she.”2

God still speaks that wisdom and love to us, just as Jesus spoke it to his friends.  So, I want to leave you with a question, something to chew on this week:  When you’re blessed to hear the voice of God, what voice is it? 

Of course, there’s no right answer to that question.  But for me, when I hear God’s voice through the chaos or the fog of daily life, it’s basically my mother’s voice I’m hearing.  And the message is often some facet of her own trinity of hope for her kids: “Learn something; love somebody; have a good time.” 

Now, that last one may seem an odd instruction to hear from God – to “have a good time.”  But I think, deep down, my mother wished that her kids would “have a good time” in much the same way Jesus expresses his desire for us in today’s reading:  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).  God wants us to know joy – not just happiness, for we all know how fleeting that is, like candy that just leaves you hungry a few minutes later.  Instead, God’s deep desire for us is the joy that springs from loving people– the counterintuitive richness and satisfaction that comes only from washing other people’s feet, from laying down your life in love for others.  That’s what I heard my mother calling us to find, as she sent us out the back door on our life’s mission.

So, as you think about the voice of God that you hear, let me end with a prayer: that the voice we too often ascribe to God, the voice of an angry, dissatisfied taskmaster – the dismissive, scolding voice of our own worst judgments – that this voice might finally fall quiet; and that instead we might hear the still, small voice of God whispering, “You are my beloved.  Learn something, love somebody, and live in the joy that only love can bring.”  


1.     
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha. Nashville, Abingdon, 2003. 1939 (note).
2.      See, for example, Proverbs 8:1–9:12, as well as the Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1 in the Apocrypha.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Pass the Peace

Sermon for Easter morning, April 4, 2021
John 20:1-18

Welcome to Easter worship at St. Andrew’s!  You all look beautiful to me.  It’s wonderful to be together in this latest manifestation of being God’s people in this place.  Some of us are here in the nave – masked and distanced, but at least in the same room again – and some of us are at home.  But all of it “counts.”  All of you there at home on your couches:  You’re just as much at worship as the folks here.  My hunch is that this hybrid approach is just how church is going to be – which is great.  It is so good to begin this next chapter in the story of God’s resurrection people.

And yet … in this moment of celebration, so much still plagues us.  In our community and our nation, we’re not yet out of the woods with COVID-19.  In Minneapolis, the trial of Derek Chauvin is underway, and I fear violence will follow whichever way the verdict goes.  On the southern border, children are still being held in what NBC News described as “prison-like facilities.”1  In the halls of government, and on social media, and around the dinner table, dysfunction still reigns as we struggle to talk with each other, not at each other – or we just don’t talk at all.  Given all this, how can we come together – we, who are now part of the minority of Americans who actually belong to a community of faith2 – how can we come together and glibly proclaim the power of resurrected life?

Well, death seemed to prevail on Easter morning 2,000 years ago, too.  In the darkness, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb to do the dirty work, tending to the body of her friend, her teacher, her Lord.  As if that weren’t bad enough, once she gets to the tomb, she sees the body’s gone, probably stolen.  As far as she knows, that’s truly the end of the story.  Just as life feels so often for us, so it was for Mary that morning – insult added to injury, anxiety compounding grief.  Just when you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse.  Welcome to Mary’s Easter morning – and our last 12 months.

Then Mary looks into the tomb, and she sees two strangers staring back at her.  They’re not supposed to be in this scene, and they only make her anxiety rise, the way surreal details complicate a bad dream.  Then she turns from the tomb only to have another strange encounter – one more out-of-place character in this theater of the absurd.  She thinks it’s the gardener and that he must have taken the body away.  But this isn’t the gardener; it’s Jesus, the one she’s been looking for.  And he speaks a word of peace to cast out the anxiety of her moment.  He speaks to her heart, and he calls her by name.

And in that moment, as Mary is filled with the love of the living God, fear and anxiety melt away.  She doesn’t yet understand, but she gets something better: the peace that surpasses understanding.  Empowered by the peace Jesus brings her, Mary passes it on to the other disciples hiding out in fear.  And the darkness that began in weeping gives way to resurrection’s dawn.

Think about what Mary did with that gift of God’s peace.  Now, when we think of “peace,” our minds may go to a pretty passive place.  Maybe peace feels like a long walk in the woods.  Maybe peace feels like a bucket of beers at the beach.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I’d be happy with either one of those this afternoon.  But notice what the Gospel story doesn’t say.  When Jesus appeared to Mary, assuring her that he’d soon ascend to the Father and that all’s right with the world, Mary could have taken it easy.  She could have gone to Starbucks, gotten a latte, and sat on the corner watching the people go by.  She could have said to herself, “Great, Jesus is alive!  Now he’ll make everything go back to normal.”  Mary could have breathed a huge sigh of relief and checked out, now that the Son of God was back in business.

But Mary felt her heart stir.  She found her voice.  She’d seen the Lord, and she was filled with the power of peace.  So, instead of putting her feet up, Mary hit the road, heading out to find the other disciples and share with them the power of peace.  God’s peace doesn’t just give us blessed rest.  It awakens our hearts – and then our hands, and our feet, and our voices, too. 

God’s peace may seem like a rare commodity these days.  Often, the closest thing we get is suppressed conflict.  Anymore, it’s a good day when we manage to avoid an argument.  But that is not peace.  That is not resurrection.  That’s a just a pause in the culture wars raging around us.

God’s peace is not the absence of conflict.  Peace is the knowledge, the trust, the certainty that, in the end – no matter how ugly things may feel right now – in the end, life defeats death.  Hope defeats despair.  Possibility defeats stagnation.  “The light shines in the darkness,” as John’s Gospel says, “and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5).

Now, for us, maybe we’ve never found ourselves in a moment when we thought we had the power to change the world.  But I would say Mary Magdalene shows us that the power of peace does just that:  It changes the world.

In our worship this morning, we’ll be doing something we haven’t done in months.  We will share the peace of the Lord, the peace of the King, the peace of resurrected life.  We’ll turn to each other and exchange that ancient greeting, “The peace of the Lord be always with you” – a countercultural proclamation of what resurrected life brings us.  Whether you’re here in the nave, or in the Jewell Room, or over at HJ’s, or on the couch at home, I want you to feel what Mary Magdalene felt – that the peace of the Lord is the power to change our world. 

And, you know, we’re not the only people who are passing along this holy power of resurrected life in a broken world.  Let me give you a little backstory.  A couple of weeks ago, I preached about God calling us to walk together even as we disagree with each other, and I mentioned a webinar I’d seen featuring former Sen. John Danforth.  In the webinar, the senator, who’s also an Episcopal priest, was calling the nation and our Church to strive for unity.  He was arguing that the Church has a particular role to play in modeling reconciliation – showing how we truly can be, out of many, one.  Well, as it turned out, our senior warden, Bill Aliber, and I had the chance to have a personal conversation with Sen. Danforth a few days later, and the senator had more to say about that call to reconciliation he was giving the Church.

He described an effort he’s putting together with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and other faith leaders, a push to unify people of different political perspectives under the banner, “I choose kindness.”  We’ll be hearing more about choosing kindness in the months to come, I’m sure.  But Sen. Danforth said something else that I think can move us forward even today as we try to figure out how to follow in the powerful footsteps of Mary Magdalene. 

The senator said he sees the ministry of reconciliation as the particular spiritual gift that The Episcopal Church can offer our nation in this polarized time.  Here’s how Sen. Danforth put it:  “People in our Church understand what it means to exchange the peace.  Well, what if we identified ourselves that way?  What if we said, ‘We exchange the peace – that’s who we are’?  What if we said, ‘We exchange the peace – here and there,’ in the church and in the world?  This is our ministry: to exchange the peace with people we disagree with.  Yes, our country is fractured, but we are not powerless to change this.”

We are not powerless to change this.  In fact, our worship gives us the model – it shows us the power we can bring in service to the world.  Every Sunday, in person or online, we gather in the darkness of the toll life can take.  Every Sunday, we join with hundreds of others bearing those same burdens.  Every Sunday, we ache for our hearts, and our society, to be made whole.  Every Sunday, we hear the good news that this healing and wholeness is exactly what God wants, too – even what Jesus gave his life for.  Every Sunday, we gather with other people who believe very different things than we do, but we share this healing meal of Holy Communion, in which Jesus gives himself so we can live – truly live – now and forever.  And every Sunday, we get the opportunity to pass this peace of our Lord to anybody and everybody around us, regardless of their point of view. 

These days, that’s a countercultural witness.  That’s a lifegiving witness.  That’s what living in the kingdom of God looks like: The peace of the Lord be always with you, regardless of your favorite candidate.  The peace of the Lord be always with you, regardless of your immigration policy.  The peace of the Lord be always with you, for you are a beloved child, made in God’s image and likeness.  And Jesus Christ defeated sin and death for you. 

The peace of the Lord is not politely silent, for it stared down political and religious oppression.  The peace of the Lord does not avoid conflict, for it took on evil and won.  Instead, the peace of the Lord seeks the common ground of God’s holy ground.  The peace of the Lord seeks hard conversations.  The peace of the Lord asks questions – not to score points but to go deep, to find out, “What makes you believe that with such passion?”  The peace of the Lord brings healing, restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP 855).

So, when Deacon Bruce stands up at the end of our worship and tells you to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” I want you to take him seriously.  Jesus has defeated sin and death, and he’s given you the same power he gave to Mary Magdalene – the power to heal the world.  What if we believed we could actually do it?  Well, we can.  Just pass the peace. 

1.      NBC Nightly News, March 29, 2021.  Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news-netcast/video/nightly-news-full-broadcast-march-29th-109346885605.  Accessed April 1, 2021.

2.      Stunson, Mike.  “Majority of Americans don’t belong to a place of worship in historic decline, poll finds” [sic].  Kansas City Star.  March 29, 2021.  Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/nation-world/national/article250289895.html.  Accessed April 1, 2021.