GC79: When People Start Getting Real…

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General Convention, July 6, 2018.  Photo credit: Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly (reuse with permission)

One of the things that I am finding powerful about General Convention is a willingness to enter into a time of truth-telling.  Before I arrived, the House of Bishops hosted a listening session of stories from women who have been sexually harassed or abused in the context of the church.  From what I hear it was a powerful experience of honesty and vulnerability, and I believe many of the bishops (most of whom are male) were moved by the experience.

Last night, I sat in on a hearing for people to offer their testimonies about a couple of resolutions involving marriage rights, particularly same-sex marriages.  Much of the conversation was about a resolution put forth involving a compromise (B012).  According to the resolution, bishops can still make decisions with their conscious for their priests and diocese, but would give permission for any priests who feel called to celebrate same-sex marriages to do so with the oversight of another bishop of the Church.  The testimonies lasted for almost two hours (not including the two hours earlier in the day), and many things became abundantly clear.  Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are hurting and longing to be treated as equal children of God.  And our more conservative brothers and sisters are fearful about not being able to be faithful to their understanding of Scripture and tradition.  The tension was high.  But also present was a spirit of graciousness.  People of opposing views were sitting beside one another, able to make eye contact and stay in the room.  I came away realizing that what I was seeing was what compromise looks like – no one fully happy, but a path forward for now.  And in a county that seems incapable of compromise, it was a gift to see the Church moving in that direction.

And then today, we spent time together talking about Racial Reconciliation – a topic that my conversation partner said has been a topic for twenty years of General Conventions – which means we haven’t gotten there yet.  It was an inspiring, beautiful, hard time, but a time I was glad to see us have.  One of my favorite speakers, the Rev. Nancy Frausto, had this to say, “This society has been contaminated by the plague of apathy.”  In other words, in a political environment where injustice is rampant, we cannot afford to let apathy infect us.

I do not know where these conversations will lead.  I suspect we will not solve the world’s ills at this Convention.  But what we are starting to do is show the world what it means to be a diverse people who stay together, find a compromise, and love and lead together.  It is not easy.  In fact, it’s pretty uncomfortable. But following Jesus is pretty uncomfortable too.  If the Church can’t do it, I’m not sure we can ask anyone else to do that work.  I’m proud of the Episcopal Church tonight.  And I will continue to hold her in my prayers.

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On Discipleship and Decisions…

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Members sing during a church service during the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City

Photo credit:  https://religionnews.com/2015/07/02/episcopal-church-expansive-inclusive-thanks-gay-marriage-votes-commentary/

Today, I am traveling to Austin for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  General Convention meets every three years and is a bicameral legislature that includes the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, composed of deputies and bishops from each diocese. During General Convention, deputies and bishops consider a wide range of important matters facing the Church.  Some years the issues have a huge impact (examples include the ordination of women and members of the LGBTQ community, as well as same-sex marriage).  Other years, General Convention works on important issues that are less flashy.  Regardless of the news cycle, the work of General Convention is about continuing to define who and whose we are, and making sure our work reflects our identity.

I am attending this year as an alternate clergy deputy for the Diocese of Southern Virginia.  My work is to support the eight clergy and lay deputies and our bishops, helping them make important decisions, and filling in when breaks are needed.  The official meetings take place July 5-13, but there are already many committee meetings happening.

In talking to a clergy colleague about my participation in General Convention he asked me, “Why in the world did you volunteer?”  I have been thinking (and laughing) about that question, and after reflection, I realized why I was so interested in serving.  One of the things I preach about a lot is about identity – understanding it, naming it, living into it.  In the current climate of the United States, our identity as disciples of Jesus is an anchor.  But just saying we are disciples without critically examining our lives through that lens does little good.  For me, being a part of General Convention is a way of participating in the work of honing our identity as Episcopalians, and where applicable, helping us to better live into that identity.

I look forward to serving the broader church, our Diocese, and ultimately my parish through this work.  This kind of work creates the space for making us all better, and I am hopeful about what the week can bring.  I ask your prayers for the General Convention over the next many days.  Like any family, parish, Diocese, or church who tries to come to consensus across differences, we will need your prayers to listen deeply, speak intentionally, and make decisions thoughtfully and prayerfully.  I look forward to sharing this experience with you!

Sermon – Mark 5.21-43, P8, YB, July 1, 2018

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I once had a parishioner who was both the best and the worst storyteller.  He was the best because his stories were always fascinating, funny, and fantastic.  Not only did he have an intriguing life, he also just had a real gift for telling stories in ways that brought them to life in your mind’s eye.  But he was also not the best storyteller because he was easily distracted.  He would be in the middle of a story and then veer off course, “Which reminds me of the time…” he would say, and off he would go.  Sometimes he would go back to the other story, but you had to really pay attention to remind him of where he had started.  Sometimes the dropped ending on a story would come back to me days later and I would wonder, “I wonder what happened after he dropped that note to his secret love…”

Mark’s storytelling today is a bit like that parishioner’s way of telling stories.  After the fantastic stories of the calming of the sea, and the healing of a demon-possessed man, Mark tells us of Jesus’ next dramatic moment.  Jairus approaches Jesus and falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to heal his dying twelve-year old daughter.  This whole event is a big deal because if you remember, many of the other synagogue leaders were suspicious of Jesus, and even plotting against him.  For a synagogue leader to approach Jesus for help is a huge break in rank.  Jesus goes with Jairus without comment, but before we can find out what happens, Mark basically says, “Speaking of which, there was this woman who approached Jesus without Jesus knowing.  You won’t believe what happened…”  And off Mark goes telling another fantastic story.

This time, we learn of a woman who is a total outcast.  She has been hemorrhaging for twelve years, she is destitute because she has spent all her money on doctors – to no avail, and let’s not forget she is a woman.  We can almost imagine the clandestine approach of this triple outcast weaving her way into the crowd just to touch Jesus’ garment.  To her credit, the simple touch works!  Now, the story really could end there, but Mark tells us something even more fascinating – Jesus stops dead in his tracks, demanding to know who touched him.  In a crowd of thousands, he wants to know which person touched him?!?  The woman comes forward for what should be a great castigation and humiliation.  Instead, her honesty and vulnerability open Jesus up to giving even more blessing.  Not only has her faith in him made her well, he offers her the peace, health, and wholeness that will allow her full integration back into society – a double gift!

Now the good news is that Mark is not as bad of a storyteller as my former parishioner.  Mark jumps back to Jairus’ story – but the news is bad.  The daughter has died!  Everyone thinks the cause is lost, but Jesus encourages Jairus to believe.  So off they go, but this time with only Peter, James, and John.  The gathered crowd mocks Jesus’ assertion that the girl is just sleeping.  But when the six of them go in, Jesus quite simply takes her by the hand, calls the girl to get up, and then asks them to give her some food – dying can really take a toll after all!

You might be shaking your head at Mark at this point, wondering if we can’t just focus on one of these stories – truly either is powerful enough on its own.  But Mark is not really like my former parishioner – he does not simply tell stories because he is good at telling stories, or because he likes to entertain guests.  In fact, Mark does this more than once in his gospel.  The biblical critics call this practice “intercalation,” but many people just call this a Markan sandwich.[i]  As N.T. Wright explains, by sandwiching the stories together, “The flavour of the outer story adds zest to the inner one; the taste of the inner one is meant in turn to permeate the outer one.”[ii]

So what do we learn about Jesus through Mark’s sandwiching these stories together?  Well, let’s start with how they are different.  Jairus is an insider – as a male synagogue leader, he is well-known and respected in the community, presumably with some power and influence.[iii]  Meanwhile, the bleeding woman is an outsider – a female, impure, impoverished outcast.[iv]  Jairus publicly invites Jesus to touch his dying daughter; the woman secretly touches Jesus’ cloak herself.  Jairus’ daughter is just a girl, but the woman has lived a longer life.  More interesting though is how the two stories are alike.  Both Jairus and the woman kneel before Jesus.  “Both victims of illness are female and ritually unclean, one as a result of death and one as a result of hemorrhage; both represent the significance of the number twelve in Jewish tradition (the twelve years of hemorrhage and the twelve-year old girl); and both are regarded as ‘daughters’ (the little girl being Jairus’s daughter and the woman who is addressed by Jesus as ‘Daughter’).  An act of touch restores both women to new life even as those surrounding them lack understanding.”[v]

Mark uses these two stories together because we need their differences and similarities to teach us something about Jesus and about ourselves.  We learn from Mark’s sandwich that Jesus is present with both the powerful and the powerless alike.  Both requests, despite the baggage both a synagogue leader and an impure woman bring, are honored by Jesus.  What we note though is Jesus tends the woman first.  Now some scholars might argue the pause in the story, and the death of the girl before Jesus gets there, are meant to build suspense.[vi]  But equally important is that Jesus stops for the person without power first[vii] – even taking precious time to not just heal her but demand to be in conversation and relationship with her.  He could have kept walking, knowing that his power had flowed out but staying the course with the good deed he was about to perform.  But instead, he stops everything, everyone, and demands a connection – one that leads not just to healing but total restoration within the community – shalom.[viii]  Jesus also shows us about the wideness of family.  A few weeks ago, we read the gospel lesson where Jesus questioned the crowd about who his mother and brothers and sister were.  Today he keeps expanding the circle.  The powerful and persecuting are his family; the most ostracized outcasts are his family; even the vulnerable children are his family.  Finally, Jesus teaches us that healing or the good works we do are meant to be within the context of relationship.  That Jesus tends the bleeding woman and the young girl is much less important than how he tends the two females.  Jesus’ help is not about an impersonal exchange – a few coins dropped in a hat or a check written to a charity – though those are necessary too.  Equally important to dropping a coin in a hat might be stopping to talk to the person asking for a handout.  In addition to contributing to a favorite charity, knowing the stories of specific clients is equally important.

What is hidden in these two tales about Jesus is the “flash of precious intimacy between two human beings who are socially very distant from each other.”  As one scholar explains, what Jesus brings alive for us today is “Our relationships – in the church, in friendships, and in marriage – are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation.  Relationship, ‘touch,’ if you will, makes us human and whole.  As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’”[ix]  What Jesus’ actions and Mark’s adept way at combining stories do today is invite us to consider not what we do, but how we do what we do.  Jesus invites us to slow down – to take those moments when someone’s pain is presented to us, and not just offer help, but stop long enough to make a connection – to develop intimacy with others.  “A teacher once remarked, ‘You know…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’”[x]  Jesus also invites us to care for everyone – rich, poor, young, and old – but he especially wants us to start with those most in need.  Finally, Jesus invites us today to see, really see, where people are, and to be a people of compassion, healing, and love.  Before you know it, you may be the one at coffee hour, veering off one story to tell yet another story, all highlighting the wonderful, lifegiving, challenging ways that stepping into relationship with others has changed your walk with Jesus.  I can’t wait to try to track your stories!  Amen.

[i] Karoline Lewis, “A Lesson from Mark,” June 25, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5184 on June 28, 2018.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 58.

[iii] Efrain Agosto, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 189.

[iv] John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 2 (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 2002), 174.

[v] Beverly Zink-Sawyer, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 191.

[vi] Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 108.

[vii] Mark D. W. Edington, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 192.

[viii] Williamson, 109.

[ix] Michael L. Lindvall, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 192.

[x] Williamson, 112 (quoting Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, p. 36).

On Holiness and Heroes…

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Wonder Woman

Photo credit:  https://www.themarysue.com/no-boys-allowed/

This Sunday we begin our summer film series at Hickory Neck called “Faith and Film.”  When I announced to our parish that this year’s theme would be superheroes, I got some raised eyebrows.  My suspicion is that for those of our parish who have not already blocked out the next five Sunday evenings, their raised eyebrows are because superhero movies may seem frivolous, superficial, or even violent.  On the surface, I can understand the suspicions.  For a long time, I though superhero films dabbled a little too much in escapism and fantasy.  And there is certainly some of that component to the films – who doesn’t enjoy what filmmakers can do with computer graphics these days?!

But at the heart of these films is something much more significant.  Each film seems to asks deep, defining questions.  What kind of person are you going to be?  What morals or ethics will rule your life?   What things are of ultimate significance in your life?  What responsibility do you have for the world and people around you?  These questions are not frivolous questions.  When someone dons a Captain America hat or a Wonder Woman shirt, they are not just celebrating a fun, fictional hero – they are also celebrating a moral way of life.

I cannot imagine anything more relevant to a disciple of Jesus than discerning and making decisions about your life that reflect your morals and ethics.  As Episcopalians, we look to our baptismal covenant for that definition.  It defines five core elements:  1) continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers, 2) resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord, 3) proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, 4) seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and 5) striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.[i]

These days, as our current political climate challenges us on more and more specific issues, I cannot imagine a better topic than to talk about what defines us and our behavior, and then recommitting to that identity and purpose.  The good news is that if you are able to make it to all five movies, the following Sunday (August 5), we will be renewing our baptismal covenants as we baptize a child of God – an event where we all commit to being superheroes in the life of Christ.  I hope you will join us for this fun, sometimes frivolous, but mostly foundational journey.

[i] Book of Common Prayer, 304-304.

Sermon – 1 Samuel 17.1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, P7, YB, June 24, 2018

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This summer, our Faith and Film series is all about superheroes.  I was never a huge fan of superheroes growing up.  I liked Superman and Batman nominally, sported a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos as a kid, but in general wasn’t really into superheroes and certainly not into comic books.  But a few years ago, I stumbled into the film, The Avengers, and found myself curious about the back stories of all these superheroes.  That began a deep dive into multiple films, many of which you can see this summer.  The first one, Captain America, is a classic story of the little guy overcoming.  Steve Rogers, a literal little guy with a bad case of asthma, wants to enlist in the US Army during World War II so badly, but his health and height disqualify him.  Impressed by his tenacity, Steve gets recruited into an experimental program to be medically turned into a Super Soldier.  There begins his journey of the little man taking on the big man of Nazi Germany.

Most of us enjoy a good story of the little man overcoming.  That’s why the story of David and Goliath is so epic in our memory.  This little kid, totally untrained, completely unarmed (with the exception of some rocks and a sling), and certainly the underdog to the 9 feet 6 inches[i] of Goliath, David is the prototypical little man.  And yet, with the entire Philistine army staring them down, with a giant taunting them for forty days, and with the ominous threat of defeat, no one else is willing to step forward.  The giant, covered in over 126 pounds of armor, and holding huge weapons like the spear whose iron head weighs fifteen pounds[ii], utilizes his own brand of psychological warfare.[iii]  In the end, that dry river bed between the two armies is not just a valley of separation, but a “chasm of fear.”[iv]  And yet, somehow, the teenage shepherd boy steps forward to fight – the little man, the underdog, makes his move.

But unlike a typical underdog, David does not need science, or a lucky break, or some trick.  What David needs has nothing to do with him.  Instead, what he needs is God.  No one in the Israeli camp has mentioned God at this point in the story.  Saul has tried to overcome the chasm of fear with the promise of riches and even his own daughter’s hand in marriage.  And yet, the entire army of Israel can only see how mismatched they would be against the ultimate warrior.  But David sees things differently.  Having fought lions and bears to save his sheep, David knows he can fight Goliath too.  But not because he is a mighty warrior – but because Yahweh delivered David then too.  Even Saul, God’s formerly appointed king, has forgotten God.  But not David.  David is first to speak Yahweh’s name in almost forty verses of text.[v]  When David faces Goliath, he invokes God’s name, recalling with the name the entire memory of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel in the past.  David knows that he does not need the conventions of human warfare, but only the God of Israel.[vi]

This week, I have been thinking what a ridiculous sermon that is:  all we need is God.  If all we needed was God, we wouldn’t be in such a political mess, totally unable to compromise, hear each other, and work for the common good.  If all we needed was God, that cancer diagnosis, that lost job, that lost pregnancy, or that lost relationship would not have felt so devastating.  If all we needed was God, we would have figured out a way to both secure our borders and humanely treat those fleeing injustice and seeking asylum.  In saying all we need is God, we sound like a bunch of hippies singing the great Beatles song, “All You Need is Love.”  As modern pragmatists, we know better – we know letting go and letting God is what you say – but not what you do.

So how do we turn ourselves from being skeptics, cynics, and dispassionates to seeing all we need is God?  Well, first we have to define a few things.  What is happening in David’s story should not be a surprise.  If you remember a few weeks ago, when the people broke their longstanding covenant with God, asking for a king like the other nations, God gave them Saul.  And Saul was just that – like the other nations, fighting battles with weapons of other nations.  So when David offers to fight, Saul does what a conventional leader would do – arm David with the conventions of war.  He tries to weigh down David with his armor, hoping against hope that there might be a modicum of protection against the Philistine.  Saul is a ruler like the other nations have.  The contrast between Saul and David then becomes a contrast between trusting conventional means and the means of God.[vii]  Saul has become ruled by fear instead of faith.

The way we pull ourselves out of being skeptical, cynical, or dispassionate is not by rallying behind the idea that we are the little man – the underdog David or Captain America, just waiting to be empowered by God.  The way we put to bed our skepticism, cynical thoughts, or dispassionate feelings about all the things in life overwhelming us is to recall the faithfulness of God.  When David says, “All you need is love,” he does not mean all you need is people giving hugs to one another.  What he means is, all you need is to remember the faithfulness of God – especially when we are not faithful at all!  In his speeches to Saul and Goliath, David is recalling the salvation narrative – the stories of God’s faithfulness for generations.  His trust is actually pretty bold too, considering the current king Saul’s appointment represents the breaking of covenant between God and the people.  But David trusts even a broken covenant can be overcome.  David claims his identity as a child of God and knows his identity is all he needs to fight the worst this world has to offer.

This past week, as politics and religion got dragged together in front of camera crews, I slowly began to realize that we are in a David moment.  We can keep doing what we have been doing – keeping our faith out of politics, putting politics in a box that we especially do not open on Sundays, or we can start realizing that we can never put our faith in a box.  The bond that we have as Episcopalians and especially within the hugely politically diverse community that is Hickory Neck is extremely fragile.  Our fragility is why I rarely talk about politics among the community.  I value our ability to come to the Eucharistic Table in spite of our difference over just about anything else.  But that high value on the common table can come at a cost – the cost is never talking about what being a people of God means – what being a disciple of Christ and being an American means.  In order to protect that common table, I have put on 126 pounds of brass armor, and taken up a spear whose head weighs fifteen pounds.  Instead, today David invites us to shed the ill-fitting armor, and just walk in the clothes God gave us (and maybe a few stones).

I am not saying once we shed man-made armor we will suddenly know what immigration policies are the best.  But what I am saying is until we take on God’s armor, until we recall all those times when God has delivered us, when God has turned chasms of fear into paths of faithfulness, until we remember that we have a distinct identity as children of God and disciples of Christ, we will not be able to take on the Goliath issues of our day.  Stripping down to David-like clothing, we are able sit down comfortably, to see each other more honestly, to be in relationship more authentically, to gather at this table – not just trying to avoid banging our heavy armor into each other, barely able to make eye contact because of our heavy helmets, but actually brushing the skin of elbows with one another, looking deeply into the eyes of the chalice bearer serving you Christ’s blood, and offering the hand of Christian friendship as we rise from the altar rail together.  We can do all those things because God is faithful.  We can do all those things because God has delivered us before.  We can do all those things because we are Christ’s disciples – and that is what we do through God.  We may be underdogs, and we may be vulnerable in a world that is happy to deploy psychological warfare, but we are united and empowered by the love of God.  Our invitation is to step trustingly, boldly, confidently into that love.  Amen.

[i] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B, Batch 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 4.

[ii] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B, Batch 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 4.

[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preach, First and Second Samuel (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990), 131.

[iv] Ward, 2.

[v] Brueggemann, 130.

[vi] Brueggemann, 132.

[vii] Brueggemann, 131.

On Politics, Priests, and Prayer…

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lightstock_99088_medium_david_needham

Photo credit:  https://www.lebanonfbc.org/ministries/power-prayer-pop

One of the hardest parts of being a priest is creating a community in which we can talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, hold widely varying political opinions, and yet still gather at the Eucharistic Table – elbow to elbow, as the imperfect, but beloved body of Christ, determined to stay in community.  I say that the work is difficult because I have seen how fragile this work really can be.  During my priestly formation at seminary, congregations and Dioceses were walking away from that common table over the issue of human sexuality.  Although I was proud of what the Episcopal Church did at the time, I also deeply mourned the loss of diversity at the Table – the creation of a more homogenous Church than a Church who was devoted to staying in the tension while honoring the Gospel.

Because of my high value of the uniting force of the Eucharistic Table, my priesthood has taken a slightly different shape than I might have imagined in my early twenties.  If you had asked me then about the primary role of the priest, I might have argued the role of prophet – decrying injustice and leading the people of faith to a more just world.  But as I aged, and as I served diverse parishes, I began to see the role of prophet is one of many roles, one that needs to be used judiciously so as not to alienate parishioners and create an exclusive community of like-minded people.  And so, my priesthood has been marked with great caution around politics.  While many of my colleagues will beat the drum for justice, I find myself trying to carefully walk with my diverse congregations as we discern together how to interpret politics in light of the Gospel – not in light of Democrats or Republicans, but in light of the witness of Jesus Christ.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have strong political opinions; it just means that I try to take focus off the politician or political issue of the moment and try to create disciples who can see and follow Christ.

That being said, this past week, the issue of what is happening to families seeking asylum on our southern border, and the separation of children from parents as a punitive, purportedly deterring action has shifted my normal practice – not because I changed my mind about politics and the Church, but because two agents of our government utilized Holy Scripture to justify those actions.  Here’s the thing:  if this were just another issue where we are divided about policy, where we had a debate about the extents to which we value national security over other values, I would have happily encouraged our parishioners to be faithful Christians in dialogue.  But when Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked Holy Scripture to justify separating children from parents, he stepped into my area of authority, leaving me no other option but to speak.

Now I could layout a Biblical defense against the small portion of Romans 13 that Attorney General Sessions quoted, giving you the context of the chapter, giving you the verses immediately following what he quoted as a counter to his argument.  I could quote to you chapter and verse for countless other scripture lessons that tell us to love one another, respect the dignity of other human beings, care for the outcast and alien, tend the poor, and honor children.  I could also tell you about how that same bit of scripture was used to justify slavery, Nazis, or apartheid in South Africa.  But the problem with a scripture quoting war is that no one wins.  What is more important is what we know of the canon of Scripture:  that our God is a God of love, that Jesus walked the earth showing us how to be agents of love, healing, and grace, and that the Holy Spirit works through us today to keep spreading that love.

Knowing what I know about the Good News of God in Christ, in my baptismal identity as one who seeks and serves Christ in all persons, respecting the dignity of every human being, I cannot stand idly by or be silent when the Holy Scriptures of Christians are being used to justify political actions that are antithetical to our Christian identity.  As a priest, I invite you this week, especially when a governmental leader is invoking our faith, to reflect on how the Gospel of Christ is informing your view on this issue.  Not as a Republican and not as a Democrat, but as a follower of Christ.  Fortunately, prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to be coming to agreement on this issue – a rarity these days – but also an example to Episcopalians who hold a high view of coming to the Eucharistic Table across our differences.  I am not saying we need to agree on this – in fact, I suspect we will not.  What I am asking is that you live into your identity as a disciple of Christ, as an agent of love, and then respond in conversation, in political advocacy, and in worship as one holding in tension both our American and Christian identities.  I support you in this difficult, hard work.  I love you as you struggle.  I welcome you to the Eucharistic Table.

On God’s Mothering Wings…

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Photo credit:  https://themilitarywifeandmom.com/one-simple-trick-to-help-your-kids-fall-asleep-fast/

The other night I was rocking my younger to sleep.  The practice is slowly becoming a rarity.  She is getting a bit big for rocking, and now seems to prefer me to sing to her in her bed without rocking her.  The loss of that privilege is one more thing on the list of preferences that demonstrate she is becoming a big girl and is needing me less and less.  So, although she consented to the rocking, her body revealed her resistance.  She was tense and alert.  But once I was able to quiet her down, and the rocking continued, her body began to let go.  Fatigue overcame her, and I could feel her body gradually relaxing in my arms.  That willful, determined, independent little girl was able to let go for a moment, and give into sleep in my arms.

As the tension in her body melted away, I wondered if that is how God feels when I finally cede control to God – if I am similarly determined and defiant when it comes to my relationship with God.  The revelation reminded me of the lament of Jesus from Matthew 23, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  I have always loved that image of the hen gathering her brood, but I never thought about how willful those chicks felt to the mother hen, how willful we are when it comes to God.

As I held my child that night, and I felt her breathing slow and her muscles untense, I was keenly aware of how our bodies were becoming more sympathetic.  Her relaxing into me allowed me to relax too – such that I was not fighting for intimacy with her but just experiencing it.  Barriers came down, just for a moment, and we were able to just lean into one another.

I wonder what barriers are up between you and God these days.  What might leaning into God, trusting God to handle your vulnerability and weakness, feel like?  I do not think God wants us to give up our strength, independence, or drive.  But I do suspect that we would do a better job with those if we were bold enough to admit when we need God too.  That may mean confessing that to God directly.  It may mean finding a trusted friend who can serve as Christ for you this week.  Or it may mean confessing that weakness to a friend who is also struggling so that they can see their weakness as beloved as yours.  Allowing ourselves to be gathered by God’s mothering wings – even if only every once in a while – might just be what we need to strengthen us for Christ’s work in the world.

Sermon – 1 Samuel 8.4-20, 11.14-14, P5, YB, June 10, 2018

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Today we encounter one of the most pivotal moments in our faith history.  The story from First Samuel may not seem that momentous.  Surely the Flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, or the arrival at the Promised Land, or, I don’t know, the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are more pivotal.  But this short piece of scripture contains something quite theologically significant in the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people.  Samuel has been a righteous prophet and judge for the people, but much like his predecessor Eli who we heard about last week, his sons have become corrupt leaders and the people are unhappy.  And so, the people suggest a solution:  a king.  In their minds this is a great solution.  A king could solve their problems, and most certainly would help protect them from enemies.  A king would dispense justice and mercy to foster right relationships among the people, would hold fast to the covenantal law, and would be appointed by God.  And they would still have prophets to act as their system of checks and balances.[i]  Besides, all the other nations have kings, why shouldn’t they?

The request sounds innocent enough.  As twenty-first century Americans, having no governing leader is inconceivable.  For us, the idea of a theocracy is so foreign, we almost have a hard time imagining the concept.  A king, or at least a president, sounds perfectly reasonable.  But for the people of God, a theocracy is all they have ever known.  “Since the time when Israel first became a nation, Israel had been a theocracy, a community guided and protected by YHWH.  They were set apart, distinctive from other nations, and they had no king as others nations did.  Israel was led by various judges whom God raised up in times of need.  These leaders included, among others, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Deborah, Samson, Gideon, and Samuel, who served not as kings or queens but as mouthpieces for God as they arbitrated disputes, saw that justice was done, or led the people to victory over a threatening enemy.”[ii]  So this request for a king is a huge shift.  As Walter Brueggemann explains, “Their request is nothing less than a change in Israel’s foundational commitments….This request for a king is one more step in [a] continuing performance of mistrust.”[iii]  In other words, the people of God do not trust God, and out of their mistrust, they are willing to change the entire basis of their relationship with God.

Now if you were to ask me about my greatest spiritual struggle, I would likely say worry.  I have told countless people how much the Matthean text about worry has been a spiritual guide for me, “Consider the lilies of the field…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”[iv]  My whole life I have thought my greatest struggle was worry.  But in reflecting this week, I am not sure my greatest issue is worry.  My greatest issue might be trust.  I worry because I do not trust – I do not trust God to make a way, so I strive and fail and strive again to make my own way.  I suspect I am not alone.  We all fail to trust God from time to time.  And any logical person would quietly support your lack of trust in God.  Because to trust in God seems naïve, lacks self-responsibility, and discredits our agency in the world.  Most of us read today’s Old Testament lesson, and secretly we agree with the Israelites.  Sure, there is no perfect form of government, but you have to have something!  We may jokingly or even figuratively ask Jesus to take the wheel, but we all know that we still need to drive the car.

But when we step away from a theocracy, when we change the foundational covenantal commitment between us and God, we must face the same fate as the Israelites.  Samuel tells them what having a king will mean.  Having a king will mean giving up their sons for service in battle and for the tending of the king’s fields, giving up their daughters as cooks and sexual servants, giving up their best land, livestock, and produce.  And worst of all – worst of all – they will be the king’s slaves.  Now for a people who have been enslaved before, this should be the ultimate warning.  All they need to do was think back to those days with Pharaoh – no rights, no power, brutal labor, no hope.  But then, God says something even worse.  When the Israelites finally see God is right and that the new king they wanted is a mess (and spoiler alert:  the new kings will be a mess – the kings do all that Samuel predicts and even more horrible things); when the Israelites cry out, God will not answer them.  This critical part of their relationship with God will be over.

These are the words that have haunted me this week, “…in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”  Are there things I could do that would make God not answer me?  Is there a chance that on the two millionth time I refuse to trust God, our relationship could finally break?  Is there a chance we could have a government so broken by ego and lack of compassion and compromise that God would refuse to exert God’s power to redeem us?  A couple of years ago, we talked to our pediatrician about discipline and our frustration with our children’s constant pushing of boundaries.  The pediatrician recommended the “Three Rule.”  Instead of threatening punishments and consequences, instead of engaging in lengthy explanations about why behaviors were unacceptable and what the consequence would be, we should follow the “Three Rule.”  When a child does something unacceptable, the parent says, “one.”  No words are exchanged, no threats are made.  Just the number one.  If, or I guess I should say when, the behavior continues, the parent simply says, “two.”  Finally, when the behavior still continues, the parent says, “three,” and the child immediately goes to their room for a period of time commiserate with their age.  But, and here’s the kicker, when their time is up, there is no discussion, no scolding, just a return to normal.

Now I get a little wary of comparing God with a parent, since parents are just as flawed as kings, but here is what I appreciate about God in this text today.  God strikes me as a person who calmly works through the Three Rule.  So, although Samuel breaks the rule by going on an on about the consequences of a king, God does something extraordinary with the people of God’s request.  God says “okay.”  In a wonderful combination of “grace and judgment, the Lord commands Samuel to ‘listen’ to the people but also to ‘warn them and show them the ways of the king.’”  God does not smite the people or abandon the people.  God, as God always does, respects their free-will and allows the people of God to choose their fate – even if their choice is a fundamental altering of the very basis of their relationship with God.  There is something reassuring to me about a God who allows us full agency in our relationship – whose love is not tied to us making good decisions – and who can remain calm even when we are catastrophically proposing a fundamental change in our relationship with God.

But even more than God’s reaction, I am not convinced the judgment of God is as final as Samuel predicts.  We know God is a God who judges.  Lord knows the Israelites do indeed suffer the consequences of taking on a human king – their sons, daughters, and property are decimated, and eventually the kingdom is divided and ultimately destroyed, with the peoples scattered all over the world.  But we know a few things more about God.  We know that God’s mind can be changed.  We saw this reality firsthand when Moses advocated for mercy with the sinful people, or when Nineveh repented of their sins, or when some of those earthly kings changed their ways.  But mostly we know that God sends a Messiah – God’s only Son to redeem us.  Though judgment is a part of our relationship with God, so is redemption, forgiveness, and grace.  I am not sure I will ever master trusting God fully.  Perhaps I am just too human.  But our invitation this week is to keep trying.  Our invitation is to pause in those moments of mistrust and recount the wonderful deeds of our God.  Maybe you start with a scriptural mantra, “Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Hannah, Jonah, Ruth, Peter, Paul.”  But perhaps more importantly you start your own mantra, “That time when I walked away from God, that time when I blamed God, that time when I…”  We have seen God’s faithfulness, even through the sacrifice of God’s only Son.  But we have also seen God’s faithfulness every day of our earthly life.  Our invitation is to listen, as God listens to God’s people everyday.  Amen.

[i] Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 3.

[ii] Marianne Blickenstaff, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 1.

[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preach, First and Second Samuel (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990), 62.

[iv] Matthew 6.28, 34

On Searching for Hope…

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One of my favorite podcasts has become “Stayed Tuned with Preet,” a podcast hosted by Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney, that addresses issues of justice and fairness.  The topics vary pretty widely – from law enforcement, to the psychology of leadership, to the opioid crisis, to gun control, to the #metoo movement.  What I appreciate about his podcast is he breaks down a lot of the complicated legal matters in the news into terms I can understand, he shares his passion for justice, and he tries to frame a current specific issue in the broader context of justice in society.  Admittedly, there are times when I listen to Preet’s podcast and begin to wonder if there is any hope.  But what Preet always does at the end of his podcast is tell a story of hope – sometimes entirely unrelated to the current episode, but always life-giving.

What Preet does is what I try to do in preaching.  I am always looking for the problem in the scriptural text assigned for the day (and the related problem in our modern lives), and the hope in the text (and the related hope in our everyday lives).  Sometimes finding the hope is harder than others.  This Sunday, we get the text from I Samuel where the people finally ask God for a king.  That may not sound like an unreasonable request, but you have to remember that God just spent a generation’s lifetime liberating the people from an overlord – from Pharaoh.  And despite God’s faithfulness, and the warning God’s prophet gives them about what life will be like under a king (spoiler alert:  it’s not good!), the people stubbornly demand a king anyway.  In Samuel’s warning, he says, “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”  As I have been praying on this text this week, I have been wondering where the hope is.

Last night, I sat in on a conversation on racial reconciliation, and we wondered the same thing too.  As we look at the world around us, and see the deep divisions among us (on every issue!), and see the ongoing prejudice among us, many of us found ourselves wondering where the hope is.  We spent time talking openly and vulnerably about where our hope is being dashed and the moments that seem irredeemable in life.  But after some time, our conversation shifted – from the moments that were irredeemable to the ones that were redemptive.  We began to talk about how and where we find hope.  And each bit of hope shared brought more hope into the room.  Though we all come from different backgrounds, we seemed to conclude the night convinced that God, through the instrument of the Church, was going to be the source of hopeful change in the world.

I am wondering where you are finding hope today.  Whatever is going on your life, whatever is dragging you down today, what are the glimmers of hope that are sustaining you?  I could preach to you about how God is always our source of “big picture” hope, but I think more often God provides us with little glimmers of hope that leads us on the path to that big picture hope.  Those glimmers are our food for the daily walk with Christ that nourish our souls and keep us out of the dark and searching for the light.  If you have not found the hope today, keep looking.  And if you get to the close of the day and are still not convinced, reach out for support.  You are not alone.

On Politics at the Table…

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Last week I talked about Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding.  His sermon on the transformative power of love created shock waves – one, because most people weren’t expecting such a powerful sermon on a royal wedding day; but two, because his words resonated so deeply with people.  He created a spark of hope, a sense of clarity of purpose, and a renewed passion for justice and compassion.   The message was not new:  he simply preached the gospel of Jesus, a two-thousand-year old message.  And yet, the gospel, like it does for every generation, spoke a word of truth.

But after appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, and countless other programs, it would be easy to soften Bishop Curry’s message, to say, “Yes!  Love is the answer!” and walk away with a warm fuzzy feeling.  The trouble is, Bishop Curry’s sermon was not just about the easy parts of love.  Bishop Curry preached about the action of love.  If we find the message of love compelling, then we have to start living lives of love.  And that is where his powerful message starts getting uncomfortable.

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Less than a week after his historic sermon, Bishop Curry joined prominent faith leaders from all over the country in a movement called, “Reclaiming Jesus.”  A video explaining the movement can be found here.  Now if you have spent any time with me, you know that I am very hesitant to talk politics in the pulpit or even publicly.  I have always served in churches that were a wonderfully complicated mixture of political opinions.  The Eucharistic Table is the thing that brings us together, kneeling before God, shoulder to shoulder with fellow church members whose bumper stickers promote the exact opposite opinion of our own.

But just because I do not believe Jesus was a Democrat or a Republican, does not mean that I do no think Jesus and the Gospel are not political.  In fact, Jesus’ very life was ended because he was too “political” – because his message of love made people uncomfortable.  That is what the Reclaiming Jesus movement is about – reminding us that the Church still has a message of love – and that message is not passive or polite but is quite active and alarming.

This week, I am taking the warm, encouraging feelings I had from Bishop Curry’s sermon and listening once again to his words about what love in the world means.  I invite you to join me.  Join me in hearing what in the Reclaiming Jesus message makes you uncomfortable.  Join me in pondering how both political parties get it a little bit wrong and a little bit right.  Join me in remembering that Jesus’ message of love is not the same as an invitation to “avoid politics.”  The question is how we can do politics better.  How can we be an example of what it means to don different bumper stickers and work together for justice, peace, and love?  What Bishop Curry preached at the Royal Wedding sounded beautiful – just like Jesus’ own words.  But what Bishop Curry and Jesus called for was not just beautiful.  It is hard, confusing, challenging work – and even harder to do when we disagree so deeply.  Thank God for the Eucharistic Table!  It is the only promise to me that we can do this – that we can be political agents of love together.  I hope you will join me!

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