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, August 28, 2016

Places of honor, on this day.

Pentecost 15, Proper 17C

In the name of God.  Amen.

One of the great new developments on Facebook in the last several months is a new feature that they call “On this day”.  When you click the link, Facebook takes you back through memories of the things you posted on that particular date through the years.

For example, yesterday I got a sweet reminder that it had been exactly four years since I first met my younger dog, Wiley.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve been taken back on a pilgrimage through memory to the time, three years ago, when I was traveling in Kenya.  I had been there initially for a conference on the Bible and sexuality, trying to build relationships and bridge differences between Anglicans in Africa and leaders in the Episcopal Church in the United States.  But after the conference was over, a group of us traveled several hours southwest from Nairobi to go on a six-day safari through the Maasai Mara triangle – one of the most thrilling and active nature preserves in the savannahs of central Africa.

A member of our traveling group had researched possibilities for this safari ahead of time, and had suggested that we book our arrangements through a website called  Responsible Travel works to find and support non-exploitative travel options, so travelers can avoid doing more harm, particularly in regions often exploited by outsiders.

The particular arrangements for our trip had us spending three days in mud huts in a manyatta – a small, enclosed village – then, three days in a camp set up for visiting tourists where we’d have more of the Western comforts we’re used to.  During those six days, at both the manyatta and the camp, we had lots of opportunities to interact with the villagers who lived there.  We sat up at night around fires, listening to singing, learning local, traditional dances, hearing stories…  When we got back to where we were staying each day, we laughed with the children, exchanged stories about the differences between our lives with the teenagers, and talked with the women as they worked and made crafts to sell to tourists.  We spent some of our days on driving tours of the nature preserve and some of our days on walking tours.

During one of the walking tours, we looked up to the top of a high hilltop and noticed a few   These structures, though familiar to those of us traveling, seemed oddly out of place on the edge of the savannah.  We asked one of the young men walking with us what they were, and he answered, matter-of-factly, “that’s where the missionaries live.”
distinctly western-styled buildings, with steep metal roofs and late model cars and electricity.

Something about that made me feel uneasy.

Now, before I go too far down this road, let me be clear: I don’t tell this story with any intention of being judgmental.  The fact is, missionaries, serving for months, or even years in far-away lands, probably need some of the comforts of home.  Like everyone, in every line of work, they need to be able to leave some of the work behind at the end of the day to recharge and refresh themselves for more service in each day that follows.  And the fact is, I’ve never lived that life: traveling half-way around the world for extended service to and with people of a different culture.  I like to think that I could do it, but the truth is, I don’t know that I could; and if I could, I don’t know what it would require of me.

But in that moment, when I was seeing what amounted to mansions on a hill-top as compared to the mud huts and tents where I and my traveling companions were staying, it left me feeling uneasy.  It reminded me about how grateful I was to be staying where I was, and meeting the people I was meeting, and learning about their lives in a first-hand way.  Our group could have decided to have stayed in a traditional hotel, with private rooms and soft, luxurious beds and climate control and maid service.  We still would have seen all of the animals, and we even could have popped in to visit a manyatta to see how the local people lived.  It still would have been a truly amazing and eye-opening experience.

But I was grateful that I got to spend a few days really getting to know the people we were getting to know.  I was grateful to have those chances to have real, substantive conversations to learn about the ways that our lives and experiences and expectations were different, and the ways that they were the same.  Those kinds of relationships needed time to build.  They wouldn’t have happened in a passing visit.

So I was thinking about all of that this week as I was hearing Jesus speak about the “places of honor” at the banquet.  The thing is, I think it’s important that we go out of our way to avoid claiming those “places of honor” because we too often misunderstand what “places of honor” really are.  “Places of honor” – at least in the economy of Christ – aren’t always where we’d expect to find them.  If you listen to all that Jesus teaches us, real honor isn’t with the wealthy and the powerful.  Real honor isn’t found in the comfort of the familiar.  It's not always at the  head of the table.  Real honor, instead, is found with the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy.  Real honor is encountered when we broaden the scope of our horizon to seek and to understand those people we wouldn’t otherwise see or understand.

And we don’t have to travel half-way around the world to find those places of honor.  Sometimes, surrounding ourselves with so much that is unfamiliar can help us to open our eyes to truths that more often hide in plain site at home, but with discipline and openness we can find that same kind of truth in our every day lives.

It’s like the difference between forgetting that the clouds are up there, and taking the time to notice that the image of an elephant is floating right above.

There are miracles, and places of honor, and encounters with Christ all around us.  Every day.  If we stop fighting to get ahead, and open ourselves to the wonder right around us, we’re more likely to find them.

Christ is right here – with us.  And, just as much, always right there, with them.  And, with Christ is our best place of honor.  Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Weight of the World

Pentecost 14, Proper 16C

God who made the world; Christ who bore the cross; Spirit who lifts us higher; help us shoulder our burdens.  Amen.

One of the observations I’ve had from time to time about my experience of preaching is, that it is sometimes hard for me to preach to congregations who aren’t conversant in the music of the Indigo Girls.  And though they do have a following, their music doesn’t make them the kind of “household name” that typically works best as sermon illustrations.

So, even if you haven’t heard of the Indigo Girls and you don’t know anything of their music, I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment as I tell you about them.

The group is made up of two singer/songwriters, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.  One of the reasons that their music has spoken to me for so many years is that it tends to have a very strong social justice edge.  In their songs, they address issues like equal rights and addiction and volunteerism and poverty.  Though they’re not explicitly religious, there are certainly aspects of their songs that speak to my own understanding of religion and spirituality, and what it means to represent Christ to the world.

As I was reading the gospel lesson this week, one song in particular kept rolling through my mind: “the girl with the weight of the world in her hands”.  The song speaks of this unnamed girl – perhaps she was someone real in their lives, or some conflagration of women they’d known – but whoever she was, she had a familiar, unaddressed mournfulness to her.

It’s familiar, because we’ve all encountered those characters in our lives.  Just this week, you probably saw the young boy from Allepo, Syria.  He had survived a bombing, and was sitting alone in an ambulance, dirty and bleeding.  His image spoke to so many of us because of its mournfulness.  He wasn’t crying.  He wasn’t unconscious.  He was simply in a state of shock, taking in all that had happened to him.  Being so young – people say that he was probably about 5 – war and crisis were about all that he’d known.  Perhaps he wasn’t crying because he wasn’t surprised.  He was simply taking in the tragedy once again, as if he’d come to expect it.  In his own way, he was that “girl with the weight of the world” in his hands.

I kept hearing this song in my mind this week, thinking of that woman in the story “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”  We’re told that she was “bent over” and “quite unable to stand” until she met Jesus, and experienced the saving power of Christ.

How often do we feel “bent over” as though we had “the weight of the world” in our hands?  And, how much more often, still, do we encounter those mournful souls in the world who might as well be bent over from shouldering the weight of the world?

The truth is, there are those in our world who more often shoulder the weight of the world than others.  The Syrian boy that we all saw this week is only one example.  But there were other examples, if we were willing to see it.

A lot of us have been watching the Olympics, or at least following some of its stories.  At its best, the occasion of the Olympics is a time for us to join together in celebrating those things that are best about the human experience: teamwork, physical achievement, multiculturalism and pluralism…  And there have been instances of those things during these Olympics, but there have also been some less shining moments.  There have been times when our shortcomings have also been on display.  There have been times when the mournfulness cast upon those “lesser” members of the global community has been highlighted.  Have you heard the stories?

Perhaps you heard about how Gabby Douglas, a gold medal-winning, young, African American   Meanwhile, you very likely haven’t heard of Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovaks: gold and silver medal winners who also didn’t put their hands over their hearts as the national anthem was played.  Crouser and Kovaks are white men, but they faced no public outrage for the same action as Douglas.  The only differences were their race and gender.
woman, was attacked by commentators and pundits for not putting her hand over her heart during our national anthem.

Or, you probably heard about Ryan Lochte and his teammates.  They vandalized a local business in Rio and destroyed its property, but when speaking to the press, they made up a story about how they had been robbed at gunpoint.  There has been embarrassment and outrage about their actions in the public, but the International Olympic Committee tried to make excuses for them.  Their spokesman said, “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun. Let's give these kids a break...”

In principle, I agree.  People do make mistakes, and forgiveness and redemption are a huge part of how I believe we should be relating in the world.  But it’s important to hear that call to forgiveness and redemption in the context of our wider world: Ryan Lochte is a 32 year old white man, and we’re told that he is just a “kid” who deserves “a break”.

But what about the story of Tamir Rice?  He was a 12 year old African American boy.  Trayvon Martin was 17.  Michael Brown was 18.  All of these young African Americans were deemed sufficient enough of a threat to warrant lethal force, and those decisions were later upheld by systems of authority.  Just think about that – young African Americans systematically warrant lethal force, but a 32-year-old white man who committed actual crimes is excused as just a kid having fun.

Whatever you think about the particulars of any of these stories, it seems pretty obvious that there are certain members of our society on whom the “weight of the world” is more easily thrust.  There are certain people among us who are much more likely to be left with crippling spirits.  If you’re a woman, or if your skin is dark, or if you’re a child in a war-ravaged country, or if you are attracted to people of the same gender as yourself, or if you gender expression doesn’t conform to social expectations, or if you’re poor…  You’re more likely to feel the weight of the world bearing down on you.

Jesus saved that woman.  Christ freed her from the crippling spirit.  And we are meant to be the hands and feet of Christ living in the world today.  It’s easy to see the crippling spirits all around us.  If we look, it gets very easy to see them.  But how will we free those people we find trapped under them?  How will be Christ to the ones who are suffering?  How will we alleviate the suffering we unthinkingly perpetuate?

A lot of people will tell you that this story we read today is about Jesus healing on the Sabbath, but in doing so, they’ll skip right over the woman who was healed.  Don’t forget about the woman with the weight of the world in her hands.  That’s where the story begins.  Not with the men arguing over it, but with the woman.  That’s where Jesus first shows up.

That’s also where we’re called to be – right in the thick of it, easing burdens.  That’s where Christ lives, and that’s where we should live, too.  Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Interpretting the Present Time

Pentecost 13, Proper 15C

Almighty God who gave us life, Gracious Christ who showed us the way, Present Spirit who inspires us, still, help us to see.  Amen.

I am a news junkie.  Every day I’m amazed at all that I can see: right now there are flood waters raging in my native home of Louisiana, there are political fires burning across the country as we discern together just how we’ll understand our nation’s soul in the coming months and years, there are African American women breaking records and breaking new ground through their physical achievements in the Olympic games in Brazil.

And you know that I am a travel junkie.  Throughout my life I’ve seen more than I might have imagined possible.  I’ve watched Big Ben strike the hours at noon on the banks of the Thames.  I’ve sat on an airplane hurtling across the equator in the middle of the night, discussing theology with a stranger.  I’ve watched cheetahs stalk their prey on the African savannah.  I’ve touched the wall that separate Israelis from Palestinians.

There is so much to see in the world.  There are so many ways to understand the world and to take it all in.  And the things that we see, teach us.  They broaden our expansive understandings of the world and help us to know and understand.

But even so, there is so much that we miss.  There is so much that we’re blind to.

No matter how much we expand our vision of the world, no matter how hard we try to take it all in, or how much we broaden our experience, there is still so much more.  We still fall short.

And too often, we even miss what is right in front of our faces.

We walk down streets and miss the suffering that is all around us.  We go about our daily lives, blind to the pain of our neighbors.  In our busyness, we miss loneliness.  In our hunger to meet our own best desires, we ignore the hunger of those we meet.  In our lust for security, we make others less secure.

These, and other ways, are all ways that we fail to meet our calling to be Christ in the world, but where we really fall short is when we can’t even see Christ in the world.  We miss the ordinary miracles that make the world and our gift of life within it the extraordinary experience that it is.

There is so much that we see, but so much that we miss.  And that’s the heartbreak that we hear expressed in the words of Jesus this morning: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The “present time” isn’t just about the things that we can see.  The “present time” is more than what is on the news, or in our travel diaries and photo albums.  The “present time” is about not just hearing the words of Jesus, or of anyone, for that matter; instead, it’s about recognizing Christ in the world.  It’s about recognizing that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are in the world, and in our lives, and moving within us and through us.  The “present time” is about the faith we’ve inherited from the past, inspiring us for all that is to come.

The Apostle Paul talks about the “present time” in his letter to the Hebrews: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

This is our “present time”.  We live in a time when we can see so much, but we can’t seem to see what was put right in front of us.  We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” that testify to the presence of God in our past, our present, and that portend that continued presence into the future.

God is with us.  We are not alone.  That’s our “present time”.

Despite whatever grief or sadness, despite whatever worries or fears weigh us down, despite whatever uncertainties we face, we can be certain of the continued presence of all that is Holy to guide us and to comfort us.  We can be certain that God will keep creating newly within us, because that is what God does.  That is God’s nature.  We can be certain that Christ will keep teaching us and showing us clearer pathways to God, but that is who Christ is.  We can be certain that the Holy Spirit between them and among us will continue to guide and strengthen us through this life, because that is, by definition and experience, the way of the Holy Spirit.

That is our “present time”.

We live in an age when can see anything.  We can see anything that exists on this earth at just about any moment’s notice, and quite a bit more that doesn’t really exist.  But will we see the truth that we’ve inherited in our faith in this “present time”?  Will we be open in the week ahead and the lifetime that follows it to living in the “present time” of Christ?

We can.  We can see so much already, and through discipline and faith, we can see more.

I know we can.  Amen.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

We can be ready for that

Pentecost 12, Proper 14C

In the name of God: Lover, Beloved, and Love.  Amen.

Last Sunday, we heard that peculiar phrase, instructing us to be “rich toward God”.  This Sunday, the concept is nuanced and developed – still within the symbolic framework of riches, but this time with more theological and spiritual depth.  It’s not so much about “riches” as it is about a richness that is borne of readiness.

Our value comes from being ready for God – ready to act, ready to respond, ready to answer the call.

Often, in the course of the history of our faith, this call to “readiness” has been heard in one of two ways: either, readiness for the return of Christ at the end of the ages, or, readiness for meeting Christ at our death.  But truthfully, those aren’t the two kinds of “readiness” that tend to most motivate me.

I’ve often told this story, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but it kept coming back to me as I was preparing to preach this week:

A few years after Nick Saban came to be the head football coach at Louisiana State University, he had transformed a team that had an at-best mixed record, into one of the leading powerhouses of college football.  They had twice won the National Championship and people were asking how it was possible.  How was it possible to have such a stark turnaround in such a short time?

At a press conference, following the team’s second National Championship win, one reporter asked just that: “Coach Saban,” he said, “how did you turn this organization around so quickly?”

His response was surprisingly simple.  He said that he had worked, from his first day, to teach the young athletes two important lessons.  First, he said, was that they had to play 60 minutes of ball.  Each football game has four fifteen minute quarters, and to be successful, you have to play all of them.  You can’t fall asleep at the switch.  You have to be engaged the entire time.  Even the most junior player at the farthest reaches of the bench has to be ready to step in in any one of those 60 minutes – even at the very last.

The second lesson, he said, was that he tried to teach the players to stop looking at the scoreboard.  He said that the players should let the coaches focus on the big picture – let the coaches devise the strategy and worry about how to get to the final win.  They players, on the other hand, should turn there focus to each play – to each step, each pass and catch, each defensive maneuver, each block.  If the players executed each play in the best way that they knew how at every point in the game, without burdening themselves with the numbers on the scoreboard, then the game would be played at its highest potential.

And that’s just what happened.  The team had more games played at their highest potential than they had before.  And it turns out, when they were focused, and ready, and fully engaged throughout the entire game, that “highest potential” was pretty good.  They won a lot of games.

When I think about this call to “readiness” that we hear in from Jesus this week, that’s a lot of how I hear it.  The best way for us to be ready to meet Christ, is for us to focus each step, each play, each moment, as if it were the moment we might meet Christ.

I don’t know when Christ will return for the end of the ages.  I don’t know when any one of us will die.  But, what I do believe – even to the point of knowledge – is that if we are looking for Christ, we are more likely than not to find Christ.  If we are looking for ways to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, we are likely to find those people Christ has called us to serve.  If we are looking for ways to bring the knowledge of God to those most separated from God, we are more likely to find those occasions of sharing grace and good news.  If we are looking to love those that seem most unlovable, we will see love everywhere we turn – we’ll never again comprehend “unlovable”.

That’s what it means to be ready.  To take each step as if Christ is just around the next corner.  The truth of it is, Christ most likely is just around the next corner – we can simply be too unready to notice.

If we live with that kind of readiness, then it won’t matter when the end of the ages comes, or even when we die.  We’ll be ready.

We’ll be ready, not because we had some mad rush to get ready, but because our lives had made us ready.

We’ll be ready, not because we were afraid, but instead, we’ll not be afraid, because we were ready.

This is God’s will for us.  God longs to generously shower love over all the creation.  That’s where this call to readiness starts: before we hear the parable, before we hear about riches and possessions and giving alms, Jesus begins with the assurance that it is not only God’s will, but God’s “good pleasure” to give you all that God has to offer.

So we have to be ready.  Just like we have to be ready to see Christ, we have to be ready to accept the blessings that God has in store.  And that readiness isn’t about some act of contrition, or some moment of good behavior – it’s about living a life more oriented toward God, Christ, and the Spirit between them.  It’s about making each play in our lives with that in mind.  Not focusing on the end, but on the moment that’s before us.

I often talk about the hard work that it is to be a Christian – but here’s the easy part: it’s not about the big picture.  It’s not about the end result.  It’s only about the moment before you at any given moment.  That’s all that God wants.  Just that one moment.  Just that one play.

We can be ready for that.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.