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, 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.