The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sacrifice & Discernment

Pentecost 16; Proper 19B
Mark 8:27-38

In the name of God, who creates all that we have; in the name of Christ, who gave up for us all that he had; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who motivates all that we are.  Amen.

A couple of weeks ago, before the responsibilities of the school year came into full swing, and when I had a bit more time than I currently do, I got to spend a little time watching some movies.  It’s a real luxury to be able to sit and to watch a movie, but it’s one of those luxuries that can also feed your spirit if you do it right.  There are stories out there from which we are made better for having heard, and one of the movies that I re-watched in that downtime was one of those stories: Pay It Forward.  Maybe you’ve seen it.

Pay It Forward is the story of Trevor, a 7th grader.  When his Social Studies teacher assigns his class to find a way to make the world a better place, Trevor has the idea to do three “really big things” to help other people.  In return, he only asks that they each do three more “really big things” to help other people, as well, and that they keep the chain of helping others going.  The movie follows the story of how the chain of events spreads - people sacrificing in big ways for others who really need it.  The chain spreads more than Trevor, or his mother, or his teacher ever might have imagined, and the world really is changed.  But even beyond the concrete examples of kindness that are spread, the real change is the attitude of altruism and service that are inspired by the people who participate in the exercise.  People receive real kindness, and in turn, they’re inspired to be kind to others in ways that they’d never imagined possible.

It’s a story about the power of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is one of those concepts that doesn’t tend to get a lot of “press” in the church these days.  To the degree that we talk about sacrifice at all, it’s usually in the context of recognizing with gratitude the sacrifice that Jesus once made for us.  But, what we more often fail to remember when we’re thinking about sacrifice like that, is that as Christians, we are committed to modeling our lives after Christ.  We usually think about that in terms of teaching each other about God, and trying to live prayerful lives, and trying to be kind to others.  But we rarely think about that in terms of real sacrifice.

While it’s certainly true that kindness, and prayerfulness, and teaching can all be kinds of sacrifice, they’re very small in comparison to sacrifice as it was embodied in the life and death of Jesus.  When we model our lives after Christ, we’re called to do more than simply give a nod in that general direction.  We’re called to live Christ-like lives, and a Christ-like life is one that is largely - if not entirely - a life of sacrifice.

Each year in the fall, just as there is a subtle shift in the winds denoting the first whiff of a chill in the air reminding us of the winter that is to come, there is also a subtle shift in the tone of Jesus as he speaks with his disciples.  Have you noticed it?  The lighter teachings and miracles that we’ve heard about through the summer change focus slightly.  There’s a sharper edge.  There’s a chill in his words, reminding us of the sacrifice that is to come.

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…”  There is a great sacrifice to come.  And if you want to follow me - if you want to truly follow me - you’ll have to sacrifice, too.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life.”

Another way of saying that might be: refusing to sacrifice will have an unimaginable cost; but sacrifice will have unimaginable rewards.

Today, as a parish, we are celebrating Grandparents Day.  While that’s not really a religious observance, it does sort of make sense for us to note the day as a Christian community.  For many of us, if we are fortunate enough to have known them, our grandparents are among the first examples of sacrificial living that we encounter.  Perhaps obliviously, we hardly notice the sacrifices that our parents made on our behalf.  But our grandparents’ sacrifices stand out a little more clearly.  They are these people who come into our lives seemingly out of nowhere.  Yet they care for us and love us about as generously as we can imagine.  But even for those of us who didn’t know, or have close relationships with grandparents, we can still remember with gratitude that they went before us.  We can still imagine the ways that their lives influenced our own - even in those ways that are beyond our ability to perceive.  Through the decisions they made, and the children they bore, our grandparents paid it forward.  They made sacrifices for the generations that would follow, even our own.

It’s out of that sense of honor and gratitude for those who have gone before that our parish has found its emerging mission focus: providing pastoral care and services to the elders in our community.  The generations before us have brought us to where we are now, and for that we are grateful.  With gratitude, we long to give something back: we long to sacrifice.

In our common life as a parish, it is important in the same way to look around at the inheritance that we enjoy.  That inheritance is rich - both in the resources that we continue to use, but also in the established community itself.  But in recognizing that inheritance, it’s important to remember that it exists because of sacrifice.  The generations that precede us have paid it forward.  Now, as the inheritors, we are called to keep paying it forward to the generations who are to come after us.  How will we sacrifice for the sake of the gospel?  What would we be willing to sacrifice to leave behind an inheritance just as significant as the one that was left for us?

Unfortunately, when we’re confronted with questions of sacrifice, we too often respond with answers of preference.  “What shall we give up?” we ask?  Too often our answer is, “I don’t want to give up that.”  Sacrifice is not about having our preferences met, but about risking something big for something good.

Jesus would have preferred not to sacrifice quite so much.  We hear it in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “If it’s possible,” he prays, “let this cup pass from me.”  In the end, however, he isn’t driven by his own sense of preference, but instead by his own heart for sacrifice.

For this parish, as we continue to engage in a season of transition and discernment, part of how our bishop has asked us to think about this transition is through the lens of sacrifice.  One of the ideas he’s mentioned that we’ve talked about, at least abstractly, is the idea of selling all of our buildings and using these resources we’ve inherited to engage more closely with the community we are here to serve.  If we were to do something like that, it would certainly be a major sacrifice.  It would probably be something that many, if not most of us, would prefer not to do.  But Christian discernment is not about coming to a clearer understanding of what we want.  We can usually identify our preferences pretty easily and pretty clearly.  Instead, discernment is about coming to a clearer understanding of how we can better embody our Christian faith.  Most of the time, that involves sacrifice.

While sacrifice can be a pretty scary concept, we don’t have to look very far to see that it’s a good thing.  Remember the boy in Pay It Forward.  Remember our grandparents.  Look toward Christ.  It’s easy to admire the sacrifice that others make, but it takes a bit more work to recognize that we should be following in their example.  In the season ahead, I pray that we find the sacrifices that we’re able to make so that we can live as better examples of faith in action.  Amen.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

We are immigrants

Ellis Island, July 1, 2015
Pentecost 6, Proper 9B
Mark 6:1-13

In the name of God our creator, Christ our brother, and their Spirit who continues to guide us.  Amen.

All week this week - and this weekend in particular - our minds have been turned toward independence; toward celebrating this country and the freedoms we enjoy, and too often take for granted.  At our Wednesday morning service earlier this week, we read the lessons and prayers for, and geared our discussions around Independence Day.

One of the resources we shared was a reflection on Independence Day by the Rev. Dr. Sam Portaro.  While this wasn’t planned on my part, it was surprising - jarring, almost - how much his words seemed to speak to us here at Holy Trinity about the discussions and discernment that we’re engaged in as a parish.

His reflection focuses on our own shared condition as immigrants - for we are all immigrants.  Except for the few of us whose heritage is more defined as Native American than anything else, everyone within these shores is an immigrant.  We are all strangers in a strange land.  We are all guests.  No matter how much we’ve made this our home, it’s an illusion.  We are immigrants.

Dr. Portaro says, “Most of us are descended from people who were so desperate, who circumstances were so dire, they were compelled to leave everything that they held precious - family, homeland, friends, language, and culture - and strike out for the unknown…  Their survival depended notably upon their ability to embrace this new and challenging wilderness; their survival depended, as well, upon their disciplined letting go of all that was behind them.  They had to let go of the warm memories of love and comfort, of home and security…  But they also had to let go of the despair, the anger, and the fear that had driven them to leave.”

His words are a remarkable take on Independence Day - it’s not only about celebrating “home”, but about remembering how it wasn’t always our “home”.  Independence Day isn’t just about cookouts and fireworks.  It’s not just about patriotism and parades.  Instead, a deeper embrace of Independence Day requires recalling the need for leaving behind the things that were holding us back.  It requires remembering the sacrifice that freedom requires - not just in an all-too-cliché “remember the troops” sort of way, but remembering the real sacrifice of all the real people who had to leave behind real joys and comforts and familiarities in order to find something better.

The words we heard on Wednesday struck me as almost chilling.  As we face the future of this parish - whatever it may hold, be it merger or anything else - the fact is, it will require significant change.  No matter what we decide, we will have to leave some things behind.  We’ll almost certainly have to leave behind expectations for how we’ve always done things.  We may have to leave behind some areas of influence.  We may have to leave behind physical things that were once very precious to us.  And, if we’re going to find real independence from the challenges that have been stifling us, we will, without question, have to leave behind some of the pain, and difficulty, and fear that have too often defined this season for us.  We can be angry for a little bit, but we can’t hold onto anger or blame for long.  We can mourn the comfort and security we used to expect, but eventually we’ll have to let the sadness go.  It’s alright to feel unsure about our next steps as we start to take them, but in time, we need to let our fear give way to faith.

The one thing we can’t do is bury our heads in the sand.  The one thing we can’t do is stay home as if the world is no longer rapidly spinning beneath us.

As I was reflecting on the Gospel lesson for today, I was reminded of my first time traveling to Africa.  I was there as a part of a class in my seminary - we were studying “African Indigenous Religious Roots of African American Spirituality”.  Our class took place in Ghana, and there were very different experiences between the white students on the course and the black students (all of whom were African American).  Those of us who are white immediately expressed our experiences of being the racial “other” for the first times in our lives.  The African American students, however, mostly described a sense of excitement of glimpsing the world of their ancestors.  A few students even described the experience as feeling like they were going home.

As our course took us to different locations in the country, our group stood out wherever we went.  Children swarmed around us and shouted “Obruni!”  When we asked our guides what that meant, they explained that it was an unfortunate side effect of colonial influence.  Whenever the children saw white people, they had learned to run up and to beg for handouts.  Obruni simply means “white person”.

A few days later, however, some of the African American students had ventured out separately from the class.  When they returned, they disappointedly reported that the children continued to swarm around them shouting “obruni”.  Our guides explained to them that the children didn’t see them as Africans.  Instead, they were seen as no different from the white people.  To the Ghanaian children, African Americans remained distinct from themselves.  Their concept of race had less to do with ancestry than it had to do with culture.  No matter how much my colleagues imagined themselves to have been going home, that home turned out not to be what they thought it was.

Jesus had a very similar experience of “home” in the Gospel lesson we’ve heard today - both our experience, here at Holy Trinity, and the experience of my colleagues on the course in Ghana.  He, too, had a shifting understanding and experience of home.  He went to a place - a place that should have been a place of sanctuary and welcome for him - but instead he found opposition, distrust, and people who could only see him for what they expected of him, not what he had become, or what he knew to be true.

In order to truly realize his power - in order to faithfully live into his calling - he had to leave home.  He had to leave behind the comfort and the security.  He had to chart a new path, because the old path had become worn out for him.

It couldn’t have been easy.  He must have felt angry and betrayed.  He probably felt sad.  But he couldn’t live there.  He couldn’t live in either that place where his potential couldn’t be realized, nor in the difficult feelings that must have come from realizing his new truth.

Like the American immigrants who are still building this country, he had to leave something behind to find something new.  Whatever our future holds, we will have to do the same.  We’ll have to leave something behind to find something new - to realize our potential, to fulfill our calling.

As Christians, we are all immigrants.  We are always immigrants.  We are always journeying to some greater truth, some deeper calling, some clearer sense of God’s presence.

As Dr. Portaro wrote, “…we could [try to] return and settle in our past.  But God has promised us a new land, a brighter country where all people dwell in love and mutual respect.  Our God accompanies us, yet always with the leading step.  God is the great pioneer, walking with us as a bush blazing in the desert, as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, in the transfigured Christ ascending victorious over death, as the fresh and liberating spirit present whenever and wherever we venture beyond our past to embrace one another.  God is leading us into our unknown future, where we will find new depths of compassion, new heights of understandings, and a greater breadth of affection.”

Sometimes that means leaving something behind.  In fact, it usually means leaving something behind.  That path is rarely easy, but we follow in a long line of immigrants before us.  The same immigrants that we celebrated this weekend, but also that same immigrant that we celebrate here each week.  These are the examples after which we model our own journey.  May God continue to give us the strength to be the immigrants whom God has always imagined us to be.  Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Discerning a possible merger

3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6B
Mark 4:26-34

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In a couple of churches where I’ve served, the Sunday School has used the Godly Play curriculum.  In case you’re not familiar with it, Godly Play is a church school curriculum based on the principles of the Montessori Schools.  It’s an interactive way of teaching children that attempts to meet them and their sense of wonder and curiosity where it very naturally is at that early childhood stage of development.

In the Godly Play curriculum, the teacher doesn’t lecture the children, or assign tasks for them to accomplish.  Instead, the teacher sits with the children in a circle on the floor and serves more as a storyteller.  After the story is shared, the teacher helps to guide the children into a deeper understanding of the story by presenting “wondering” questions.  The teacher doesn’t put anyone on the spot, but opens up discussion by “wondering” about the story that’s been told: “I wonder why Jesus would have done that.”; “I wonder what the blind man first saw.”; And so on.  It provides space for the children’s imaginations to open up and to discover the deeper meanings of the stories we all know and study.

One of my favorite tools from the Godly Play teaching resource is its approach to parables.  Each of the stories from the curriculum has a box containing all of its visual aids.  But parables have special gold boxes - because, as the program says, “parables are a gift”.  Sometimes they may seem a little harder to understand than some of the other stories, but they are a gift.  It may take a bit more digging or unwrapping, but there’s always something beautiful hidden inside.

Part of why the parables work so well for the Godly Play method of teaching children is that they already inspire the imagination.  They often bring up as many questions as they answer.  And Godly Play isn’t just about depositing information into supposedly empty young minds - it’s about teaching these minds to engage the Christian story - to engage the challenges and the questions of our faith - to build literacy.

Parables lend themselves to that kind of teaching.  Jesus wasn’t interested just in teaching about a mustard seed.  The mustard seed itself wasn’t important.  What was important was the ability of the faithful to re-envision how they experienced their faith.  They needed to think bigger than the limits of their faith had previously permitted.  They needed bigger imaginations.  And so do we.

This morning we heard two parables of seeds.  Seeds make for a good starting place for parables.  Seeds, like parables, contain more within them than is immediately evident.  In the first of today’s parables, the point seems to be that the seeds grow - not from the inspiration or direction of the farmer - but apart from any human interaction.  The farmer plays a role in the life of the seed - in the sowing - but once that role is accomplished there really isn’t anything more that he can do.  He must wait for the processes beyond his control to take over.  Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like that.  We can have a role in it - in making space for it - but its flourishing requires forces that are beyond our control.

Moreover, we hear that this kingdom of God isn’t just like any seed, but like a mustard seed - a tiny seed that grows into a giant shrub.  Its yield is so much bigger than its initial product could ever suggest.  Though the tiny seed may have appeared insignificant, the shrub it produces becomes something big enough to cast shade, and to provide shelter for the birds.

The kingdom of God is like that - as is our role within it.  We take these seemingly tiny steps - we sow these tiny seeds - and there is no end to the wonder that can come of them through the mystery - the unimaginable gift - of God’s intervention.  That’s why the steps that we take - as Christians and as a church - are so important: like that mustard seed, their reach extends farther than anyone might have imagined possible at the beginning.

We’re in a season of our church life when one of those steps is right in front of us.  Most of you know that Holy Trinity has been experiencing declining financial health for a number of years now.  That’s why Mother Brenda agreed to shift her role here to part-time ministry for a while shortly before her departure.  It’s also why I was called here as your part-time Priest-in-Charge rather than you calling another full-time rector.

When I first arrived here, Canon Betit informed me that a significant part of my work would need to be leading you through a period of transition that would probably culminate with a merger with Christ Church in Lynbrook.  We were all shocked and saddened to learn of its closure before we would have a chance to explore a path forward for both of our parishes. And this news came just after our annual meeting, where we all saw the financial picture of the parish with the realization that, despite our sincerest efforts at austerity, our financial safety net was too-quickly vanishing.

Though the committee that put together our budget for this year, along with input from the Vestry were able to keep our budget deficit to the lowest it had been in a long time, we also knew that if we didn’t find some way forward in the course of this year, it wouldn’t be possible for us to plan for another year after this one.

The truth of the matter is, even if we had been able to proceed with a merger with Christ Church, we still probably wouldn’t have been able to keep going indefinitely.  The two struggling churches together probably would have been a bit stronger than we were apart, but probably still not enough stronger to have made enough of a difference in the long term.

As difficult as this is to hear and to think about, the good news is we have been offered another possible way forward.  The rector and other leadership of Trinity-St. John’s Church in Hewlett - the congregation that originally founded us - have extended an invitation for us to reunite with them.  One of the unique aspects of this offer is that they haven’t extended it because they are struggling and they need us to come save them.  They are already a very stable parish with close to 200 people worshiping there each week and a substantial enough endowment to continue as they are in perpetuity.  Instead, they are extending this offer because they have learned a bit about our challenges and they think that we could both be stronger if we were to come back together again.  Our parishes are similar in many ways, not the least of which is our shared history.  Even our name came from them.  So in many ways, this merger would make a lot of sense.

But even so, nothing has been decided yet.  I have had extensive conversations about this possibility with their rector (the Rev. Chris Ballard), and with our bishop and Canon Betit.  The only thing that has been decided at this point is that it is worth exploring.

With their blessing, I presented the idea initially to our vestry in its meeting this week for a first conversation.  We devoted a great deal of time to discussing the possibilities and what all it might mean in our life together.  Our discussion was passionate and thorough, but the only thing we decided at that meeting was that we needed to expand the conversation to include you.

Two weeks from today, we will have a roundtable discussion after church that will be devoted to exploring this opportunity, discussing any other possible ways forward for us as a parish, and most importantly: discerning God’s will for us as a parish.  Even at that meeting, though, nothing final will be decided.  It will be an opportunity for us to discuss and discern as a community.  No one will try to force you to think or act in any particular way - we will only discuss and discern.

In the course of these two weeks leading up to that discussion, I hope you will take some time to really think about this possibility or any others you may be able to imagine.  Research Trinity-St. John’s Church a bit.  Look through their website and learn about them.  Spend some time praying for wisdom and discernment.  Pray that we will be open to the will of God.

But please don’t panic.  Please don’t waste your energies worrying about who is to blame for our current struggles.  As you think about it and discuss it with one another, please don’t catastrophize this situation that, honestly, isn’t even a situation yet - it’s no more than an idea.  Don’t waste your time thinking about all that could go wrong, and ignoring all that could be beneficial this early in the process - there’s still just so much that we don’t know yet.  Please don’t start or spread gossip, or rumors, or anything else that might be hurtful to anyone else here.  All of these are the kinds of things that can endanger the livelihood of this community faster than any financial difficulties could.

As I said to the vestry on Thursday night: I don’t expect that kind of behavior from you.  I have come to know you as good, honest people who love God and who love the church.  That’s the only reason I would take the idea of this merger seriously at all: because this is a community that needs to stay together.  I have known parishes that needed to die.  But this community needs to live.  So it’s worth thinking about big ideas that can not only allow us to live, but to thrive and to grow like that mustard seed from the parable into a piece of the kingdom of God that is more significant than we can even imagine right now.

I suppose Jesus could have said all that he said more simply: the steps you take in bringing about the kingdom of God will yield unimaginable rewards.  The things you do, through the intervention of God, will produce more than the simple things themselves.  Perhaps it would have been easier if Jesus had just said it.  But like the children in Sunday School, we all learn in a deeper way when the answers are discovered and discerned and not just simply heard or passed on.  As we make our way through this challenging season into the fullness that Christ has envisioned for us, it may not always seem like the path makes sense.  Sometimes it may be painful.  Sometimes it may feel like we’re giving up a lot.  The mustard seed had to give up something of itself to grow into its plant.  So there will also be times when we’re joyful.  And there will also be times when we gain more than we could have imagined.

Imagine this journey as if it were a parable.  A parable is a gift.  It’s a gift because it gives us the chance to work through the big questions of our faith and our relationship with God and how we put that all into practice.

We’ll hear more parables in the weeks and months ahead.  We’ll even live through a few parables here and there, ourselves.  I suspect we’ll encounter stories and experiences whose meanings are difficult to unpack.  I wonder what unimagined gifts we might find…

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My soul is still troubled

Lent 5B
John 12:20-33

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Now my soul is troubled…”

Three years ago, when these words came up in the lectionary cycle, the news was only beginning to break - at least on a national scale - about the death of Trayvon Martin - the teen who was shot to death by George Zimmerman because he “looked suspicious” while walking through a Florida neighborhood.

I preached that week about how I believed that our broken world, and our distrust for one another, and our violence toward one another was part of what troubles the soul of Christ, and what also continues to trouble the souls of justice-seeking Christians around the world today.

Now three years have passed.  George Zimmerman still walks free - he was exonerated from all wrongdoing.  Trayvon Martin is dead, and he’s now been joined by a host of other young men and women - mostly people of color - who share his designation as unarmed victims of violence - casualties of our society’s brokenness.

We all heard about Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner from Staten Island.  But there was also Kendrec McDade, an unarmed 19 year old college student who was shot and killed in Pasadena, California.  There was Jonathan Ferrell, a 24 year old black man who was shot 10 times while seeking help after a car crash in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This is merely a sampling of a problem that has spread through the last several years from sea to shining sea.

Perhaps the only thing in America that is more dangerous than being a young black man, is being a transgender woman.  You probably haven’t heard much about these deaths, because they remain largely unreported by the media, and all too often, the remain un- or under-investigated by the police.

There was: Bri Golec - a 22 year old transgender woman from Akron, Ohio; Lamia Beard - a 30 year old transgender woman from Norfolk, Virginia; Taja DeJesus - a 36 year old transgender woman from San Francisco; Penny Proud - a 21 year old transgender woman from New Orleans; Ty Underwood - a 24 year old transgender woman from North Tyler, Texas; Yazmin Vash Payne - a 33 year old transgender woman from Los Angeles.

And those are only the ones we know of this far into 2015.

In the context of our lives as Christians - in the context of our life as the church - these stories aren’t just a litany of current events.  They bring forth a much deeper meaning.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled…” and I get that.  I can taste a bit of what it’s like to look out on a world that’s aching and broken and to feel that internal trouble and turmoil.  Jesus was aching for us.  Jesus saw the brokenness and the division that existed in the midst of us and it caused his soul to ache.

In the season of Lent we try to intentionally remember a little more of that ache.

But in the gospel lesson Jesus also reminds us that he came to draw all people to himself.  We hear it at the beginning of the lesson today: that some Greeks were there who had come to see Jesus.  But we also hear it throughout the gospel stories again and again.  It’s not just the Jews that Jesus came to save, it’s not just his disciples, it’s not some select group.  Jesus came to draw all people to himself.

A few years ago I traveled through Samaria, and while I was there I heard, again, the story of the “Good Samaritan”.  This “outsider” to the Jews - this “unclean” person - who turned out to be an example of righteousness and goodness.

But there’s also the story of Jesus ministering to the woman at the well.  Saving prostitutes.  Being in fellowship with tax collectors.  Time and time again we hear stories of Jesus ministering to society’s outcasts and most unclean people - those that the dominant society saw as the most sinful and removed.

Jesus was there - not just for them - but especially for them.

The reason Trayvon Martin died, or the reason that Eric Garner died, or Bri Golec or Penny Proud or any of the others, was because someone saw them as “other”.  Someone saw them as set apart and dangerous.  Someone saw them as less worthy of basic human decency than everyone else.

The work of Jesus is still much needed in this broken, soul-troubling world of ours.

Most of us probably aren’t capable of murder, or even violence, but the seeds for that violence are planted in the fields of “otherness” that we all support to greater and lesser degrees.

Who are those people who are other in your life?  Can you even see them?  Do you even recognize them?  Who are those people whom you are afraid of?  Those people whom you think you have nothing to learn from?  Who are those people that you feel you need to protect yourself from?  Who are the people who make you uncomfortable, or who challenge your world view, or whom you fear might threaten your way of life?

We all encounter them every day.  We walk around in our little circles - in our closed off groups of friends and family, in our bubbles.

But Jesus came to break all of that apart.  Jesus came to draw all people to himself and into the reckless love of God.  Not just those who are like us.  Not just those who agree with us.  Not just those who look like us, or think like us.  But everyone.

Who is Trayvon Martin to you?  Who is Ty Underwood to you?

How can you, in your day to day life, break down whatever barriers are separating you from the people who seem most “other” to you?

That’s how we serve as Christ’s hands and feet in the world - by repairing the brokenness we find, little by little.  That’s how we heal troubled souls - both Christ’s and our own.  Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Contradicting truths 4B
John 3:14-21

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the things that can be equally marvelous and maddening about religion is the way that we can have internal conflict within ourselves.  We can know contradictory things to be simultaneously true.

This is something that can be challenging for the people outside of our communities to wrap their minds around.  And it can be something that can be challenging for us to teach ourselves.  There’s a difference between fact and truth.  And right and wrong, and true and false, and most other binaries, for that matter, aren’t usually as “binary” as we might wish that they were.

But we, in the church, aren’t the only ones who suffer this affliction.  The same can be said of any philosophical, or emotional, or artistic endeavor.  In all of these fields - in all of these pursuits - truth is often in the eye of its beholder.  And just as often, one can behold the truth in any number of ways.  Often in multiple ways at the same time.

We were talking about this phenomenon in one of my classes a few weeks ago: we were discussing the role in policy-making in identifying, evaluating, and correcting various social problems.  The problem that we encounter in this analysis, however, is that we approach social problems and their intended solutions from the perspective and the assumption that social problems are addressed through rational means.  The problem with that, however, is that people aren’t always rational - or at least, people’s rationales may be different than we’d anticipated, and sometimes our rationales are even different from what we’re willing to admit.

So, while people who speak about religion might accuse us of hypocrisy or spouting contradictory messages, the truth of the matter is, we’re hardly the only ones who can be guilty of this.

I say all of this simply so I can admit to you - honestly and upfront - that I’m about to contradict myself.  In the course of this sermon today, I’m going to tell you two things that are at odds with one another.  But even though they’re completely contradictory, they’re both also completely true.  That can be uncomfortable, and it can be difficult for us to wrap our minds around it, but it’s just the way it is.

One of the truths is, there is no verse in the Bible that stands alone as the sole arbiter of truth.

That’s important for us to hear today, because we’re hearing one of those verses of the Bible that the popular culture of Christianity would often have us believe is, indeed, the sole arbiter of truth.  It’s one we’ve all heard, and could probably all even quote without needing to look at our Bibles or printed lessons.  We could probably all even cite it, chapter and verse.  No matter how biblically illiterate we may believe ourselves to be; no matter how infrequent our church attendance; even if this happens to be your first time inside the walls of a church anywhere - I’m sure you’ve all heard this verse.  It’s John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

You know it, right?  The Christian Evangelical movement has adopted this verse as a kind of motto.  Perhaps even as a mantra, or a creed.  And they’ve adopted it so uniformly across their movement, and they’ve been so successful at marketing it, that it has penetrated popular culture.  It’s not uncommon to see people at football games holding up signs that simply say, “John 3:16”.  You’ll see it on bumper stickers, and graffitied onto dollar bills.  It’s so pervasive that they no longer even need to recite the words to which that citation points.  We all know it.

But the funny thing about it is, this verse is cited as if it stood alone - as though it were all that there were, and that nothing more need be said.  As if it were some sort of hard and fast, and uniform and unambiguous truth.

But really, nothing could be further from the truth.  So much of how we understand these words rests on the context in which we place them:

Some people only remember and quote the first half of the verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”  For these people, the point of the verse is the sacrifice of Christ.  The whole of the Christian message comes down to death.  God and Christ sacrificed for me, so I should sacrifice for them.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that message.  It’s one that has stood the test of time.  But is it fair to say that that’s all there is?

Then there are those who remember the rest of the verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  For these people, the sacrifice is certainly important, but only insofar as it leads to belief, because, as they believe, belief is the only path to life.  Again, it’s a legitimate reading, and it’s certainly stood the test of time, as well.  But again, I’m not sure that it represents all that there is.

If we read a little further, we’ll see that there’s more to say.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son of Man into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  With this reading, we begin to see that belief isn’t about guilt, or about threats, or even about condemnation.  We don’t believe so that we can avoid death, we believe because it’s how we really live.

You could read a little longer and hear something else.  You could read a bit more of the context about Nicodemus that precedes what we read this morning and hear something else, still.

There are many readings of all of these passages, and it would be unfair and shortsighted to say that only one given reading can be true.  And no one reading is the whole truth.  The whole truth - whatever that is - is always more expansive than the snippets of any one sound bite could ever faithfully convey.  No one verse, no one sound bite, no one motto or marketing campaign could ever fully convey the truth of Christ, and the life and wisdom that can grow from a life of belief and faithfulness.

It’s never enough to read just one.  It’s never enough to rest your faith on any one mantle, no matter how secure that mantle may seem.

But even so, here’s where the contradiction comes in:

Earlier this week, a friend of mine and I made a quick pilgrimage up to Hyde Park to visit the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.  I’ve done this several times because I love Presidential Libraries in general, and this one in particular, because President Roosevelt is one of my favorite American Presidents.  And each time I go I see something new, and hear something new that makes me think, and that helps me to understand the world and my civic duties within it in a new way.

This time, that came in the form of a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.  She said, in a way that’s almost so comical in its simplicity as to obscure its profundity.  She said, “The best way to begin is to begin.”

It’s true, isn’t it?  And while it’s true that the Bible is far too complex and rich to be consumed in snippets, and that doing so will rob us of our ability to really understand it, it’s also true that we shouldn’t let that stand in our way.  The best way to begin, is to begin.

One verse could never be enough to give us a full understanding of God, or Christ, or Spirit.  But you can’t read the second verse until you’ve read the first.  You can’t read the ninth, or the thirtieth, or the two-hundredth until you’ve read the one before.  We can’t expose ourselves to the truths - both contradictory and complimentary - that the word of God has to offer until we open ourselves to experiencing it.

In the “invitation to a holy Lent” that we hear each year on Ash Wednesday (and that you can read any time you need to in the Book of Common Prayer on page 264), we are invited to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

When we begin to understand the complexity of God’s holy Word it can be intimidating to consider approaching it.  But the best way to begin is to begin.  You’ll never know or grasp or probably even encounter everything that there is to be had in these words.  But the best way to begin, is to begin.

May this Lent be a season of beginning for us all.  Amen.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The curious incident of the Christian accused of being nice

**  It's been a long time since I've actually posted a sermon - or anything, for that matter!  Hopefully I'll get around to catching up on all that lost time.  In the meantime, here's today's!

Lent 3B
John 2:13-22

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Earlier this week, I went into the city to see a show.  You’ve probably heard me talk about how much I enjoy the New York theater scene.  But really, it’s almost moved beyond anything that could be called a hobby, into the realm of full-on addiction.  I follow the news coming out of the theater world pretty closely.  I try to stay abreast of what shows are coming and when, and I try to see everything that I can (or at least everything that I can get discounted tickets to!).  I even read the published list of “Broadway Grosses” each week - a collection of raw data for every show on Broadway - how much money it took in, how many seats it sold, what percentage of its capacity sold, etc., etc.

So, the fact that I made it into the city to see a show is pretty unremarkable.

But, as I was leaving the theater, and making my way back to the train, I happened to bump into a friend of mine who does a lot of work on Broadway.  I called out to him and we chatted for a few minutes while we were walking along in the same direction.  Knowing me like he does, he knew why I was in the city without my even having to volunteer it, and he asked me what show I’d gone to see.  I told him that I’d been to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  He asked what I thought about it, and I offered effusive praise - which it definitely deserved.  It was one of the most engaging and visually beautiful plays I’d ever seen.

He sort of paused for a minute and said, “Oh, that’s such a Christian response.”

I asked him what he’d meant by that and he said, “well, you like everything.  You’re a priest.  Y’all always have to be nice.”

I assured him that that wasn’t the case - that I see plenty of theater that I don’t care for, or that’s poorly produced, and that I’m not at all afraid to say so when I do encounter it.  He asked for an example, and on the spot, I couldn’t think of anything.  So the exchange ended when he had to cross the street, with me unable the defend myself as an occasionally ornery Christian!

It was funny how that exchange sat so heavily on me in the days that followed.  I thought about it a lot.  Why did it bother me so much that I was accused of always being nice?  Isn’t it good to be nice?  Why did I get defensive about being a nice Christian, in particular?

The truth of the matter is, I think we Christians get a bad rap for being too nice.  And I do sometimes get a little defensive about it.  Moreover, I think we’ve internalized this bad rap a little too much, too.

Who ever said Christianity was just about being nice?  Who ever said Christianity was about not making waves, or behaving as the dominant structures of society said we should behave?

In reality, the example that Jesus set for us is just the opposite.  It’s true that Jesus was often compassionate.  It’s true that Jesus was kind to children and the elderly and the ill and the bereaved.  He helped them whenever he could.  But that wasn’t all that he did!

In the Gospel lesson that we’ve read today, we hear one of the classic stories of Jesus, the troublemaker.  Jesus certainly didn’t always follow the rules, and the story of his Passover tantrum in the Temple is a prime example.  But it’s nowhere near the only example.  Jesus was always disrupting the powers that be.  That’s why they wanted him dead.  It wasn’t just some mysterious, metaphysical fulfilling of prophesy.  It wasn’t just God’s plan.  It wasn’t just the necessary atonement to satiate God’s wrath.  Despite whatever you believe or don’t believe about any of those theological concepts - the truth is, the vehicle for the crucifixion was more of a sociological concept than it was a theological concept.

Leaders often fear other leaders.  The establishment always fears the germs of opposition and tries to squash them before they can take root and spread.  The powerful will always resist the efforts of the oppressed to gain equality.

There are countless examples of this truth throughout history.  The story of Jesus is just one - but it’s one that informs our faith and action even today.  Just yesterday we celebrated the 50th anniversary of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when protesters from across the country came together to show the strength of the oppressed to their oppressors.  They were people of faith and action who knew that it wasn’t enough to sit on the sidelines and to smile our way into some polite fantasy of what freedom and victory might look like.  They knew that they had to stand up, and they had to break the rules, and they had to ruffle some feathers.  It wouldn’t be enough to keep sweet and to hope for the best.  Like the Christ who went before us, we would have to stomp and claw our way to “the best” - whatever that would end up being.  Like the Christ who went before us, we would have to turn over the tables of the status quo.  Like the Christ who went before us, we would have to disrupt oppression.

Like the Christ who went before us, it wouldn’t be easy, or calm, or nice.  It’s almost never easy, but it’s almost always necessary if any real change or social growth is to happen.

I’m reminded of the prayer that Bishop Gene Robinson gave at President Obama’s first inauguration.  Among a shocking litany of other petitions, Bishop Robinson asked God to “bless us with anger - at discrimination at home and abroad…”

Righteous anger - the kind that comes from confronting hypocrisy and injustice - is, indeed, a blessing.  A blessing we all too often shirk.  But it is a sign of being Christ-like, if, sadly, not often enough like most Christians.  It’s certainly more Christ-like than any superficial attempts at shallow niceties.

Through these weeks of Lent, so far, we’ve been talking about changing our perspectives - about shifting the ways that we view the world, and our place in it, both as individuals, and as the community of Christians at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

How might our perspectives shift if, as our Lenten discipline, we abandoned our attempts at being merely nice, and instead, focused more fully on being Christ-like: even when that’s hard; even when it’s not the most popular thing?

I think one of the reasons that churches have been struggling so hard through the past few decades is that people have actually started listening to us.  They hear what we preach and what we sing and the lessons that we read and study, and too often they see that we’re not living faithfully to those precepts of our faith.  They know that being Christian is about more than painting on a smile, and they become exasperated when they think that that’s all we know how to do.

I think if we were better at shifting our perspectives to a truer understanding of the Gospel and the one whom that Gospel teaches us to pattern our lives after, we’d look a little more honest to those people outside these walls, and perhaps a little more attractive, as well.  It would probably be unpleasant sometimes.  We’d probably have to turn over a few tables here and there.  It certainly wouldn’t be as easy as painting on a smile.  But it would be truer to the faith that we proclaim, and that integrity would inspire us and those around us.

The people we encounter on the streets would probably still expect us to be flat caricatures of niceness.  But what would it mean if we showed them how dynamic we and our faith could be?

It might be scary, but Lent is a time to face those fears.  How else could we walk with Christ?  Amen.