Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Location Matters, or, Jesus Loves You Where You Are...and Enough Not to Leave You There"

"Location Matters, or, Jesus Loves You Where You Are...and Enough Not to Leave You There"

Preached at St. Paul's Lutheran Church
Pittsford, New York
Fifth Sunday in Pentecost
28 July 2015

Day Text: Mark 5.21-43

Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

Many of you know that I am a missionary, a church-planter, at a community in downtown Rochester called the South Wedge Mission.  Recently, we’ve started embracing a vision of SWM as a “school for life,” a place where we are engaged in three primary life-long learnings: “learning to be with God, learning to be with each other, and learning to be in the world.”

During this season of Ordinary Time, we decided to go deeper into the third learning, “learning to be in the world."  When one of our members, Nathaniel, suggested we spend the summer intentionally engaging a series of trainings and conversations around "learning to be allies" to marginalized people, it felt like a no-brainer.  We are located in one of the most segregated and impoverished urban areas in the country.  The South Wedge neighborhood is one of the city’s most concentrated GLBTQ communities.  It’s not enough for us just to say “we are welcoming and affirming;” we need to take the realities of our context seriously, and put in the hard work of becoming the kind of church we say we want to be.  

So today’s Gospel story could not have come at a more opportune time for us.  Because while a myriad of public events press in on the church like the crowds in the story, from Charleston to the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality to escaped convicts to universal healthcare, this incredible chain of events is, ultimately, not the reason we need to take ally-ship, and white privilege, and racism, and all other -isms of injustice seriously.  

Ultimately, we take these realities and challenges seriously because the Gospel takes them seriously.  Jesus takes them seriously.  Even if none of the upheavals changing the face of our politics in the past week and year had taken place, we would need to take these things seriously because of the simple fact that, if are doing our best to follow Jesus, than Jesus will inevitably lead us to confront them.  

Because while Jesus loves us as we are, Jesus also loves us far too much to leave us there.  Especially if the location he found us is causing harm to others.  And to ourselves as well.

Today’s story about two healings of two very different women is consciously constructed to raise questions about our location in society.  If there’s any doubt, just look at how St. Mark very intentionally tells us that the little girl, the daughter of the synagogue leader, is twelve years old, and that the woman has been suffering from her bleeding for…wait for it…twelve years.  This narrative detail is meant to signal to us as listeners that Mark’s trying to tell us something about Jesus by comparing and contrasting the two characters.  

And one thing I’d stake my seminary degree he’s trying to tell us is that their social location, their place in society, matters.  And that much is pretty obvious from the story, right?  We are told that both the synagogue leader Jairus and the sick woman face massive crowds.  Yet, somehow, Jairus walks right up to Jesus and even has space to fall at his feet.  The woman, on the other hand, has to fight tooth and nail through the crowds, probably crawling between the kicking, stomping feet of a hundred other sick people.  

While Jairus’ personal body guards and sterling reputation probably helped opened wide a path straight to Jesus, I imagine the woman using her very last ounce of strength and determination to stretch out her hand, just barely swiping the hem of Jesus’ robe before she’s trampled underfoot.  

Social location matters.  Jairus’ privilege affords him access to Jesus in a way the woman cannot imagine.  And lest we think that, somehow, Jairus earned that access by working harder, Mark seems to anticipate this debate by two millennia when he shares with us that the woman had actually expended tremendous efforts to get healed.  She used up all her money visiting every doctor in the land.  She fights through a suffocating crowd.  Even when she was told there was no hope, she fights on.  For all we know, she used to be Jairus’ next door neighbor.  Now they are worlds apart. 

And that’s the insidious part about white privilege and social location that I think the Gospel is calling us to acknowledge today.  Both Jairus and the woman work really hard.  But their hard work does not yield equal returns.  It’s not recognized as equal by society.  Jairus, the male religious leader, is given a clear pathway to Jesus.  The unnamed woman, diseased, bleeding and unclean, needs to work many times harder just to touch Jesus.

The Gospel recognizes the reality of privilege and the inherent inequalities in society based on status, gender and social location.  And we, as the community called church to whom the Gospels are addressed, are being called by the Word of God to also begin to acknowledge those realities in the midst of our own context and time.

Which isn’t comfortable at all.  Nor should it be.  It’s kind of scary if you let yourself think about it for too long. 

Because if we’re honest with ourselves, if you’re like me, it’s very easy to take the kinds of access I have as a white person fore granted. 

It’s very easy for me to think that because my parents and because I worked really hard, of course I deserve that access, and other people should learn to work as hard as me. 

It’s very easy for me to get on the defensive, declaring, “look, I’m not a racist, I don’t use racist language, and I don’t try to exclude anyone, so why are we even talking about this and dragging it out of the shadows?”

It’s easy for us to get defensive about these realities, I think, because our privilege and our comfort depend on our defensiveness.  Because we think that to acknowledge these disturbing dimensions of the world around us means to condemn ourselves as evil racists, and to disparage the good gifts that we have.  

But I’m here to tell you this: naming, acknowledging and taking ownership of privilege does not have to be a moral condemnation.  I’m not here to tell you that being a Christian means moving out of Pittsford or Fairport and into the slums of the inner city.  I’m not here to tell you that white people are inherently evil or that you should be grateful and enjoy the good things in your life any less than you do.

What I am here to suggest is that we take Martin Luther’s first of his 95 theses seriously: that the whole of the Christian life is repentance.  That part of being Christian means seeking the truth that the Gospel brings into the light.  That our works, our good intentions, our accomplishments, and our successes will not justify us. 

But that the faithfulness of Christ has justified us.  Which means that we don't deserve anything, and can stop living and thinking as if we do.  Which means we can look honestly at the world, and ourselves, without fear, in the hopes of discovering a new freedom and a new happiness.  Which means, that when we can acknowledge we are part of the problem, then Jesus can start to heal us too.  

Because look at the story: Jesus never once judges Jairus for being a synagogue leader.  Jesus seems all to willing to leave everything he was doing and come heal Jairus’ daughter.  In the same way, Jesus seems to have nothing but praise for the unnamed sick woman and her faithful act of desperation.  Jesus heals both women.  Regardless of their social position.  

But here’s the rub, and the challenge: when the sick woman was told by every doctor that she was a dead woman walking, she didn’t roll over and quit.  Despite the medical and the social barriers erected against her, still, she sought to press through the noise and the crowds and in faith pressed her way into the presence of Jesus.

Jairus, on the other hand, as soon as he hears his daughter is dead, gives up.  “Why bother the teacher anymore?” ask his servants.  When Jesus promises that the daughter will live, still, Jairus and his posse laugh at Jesus.  

Despite uninhibited social access to Jesus, Jairus simply cannot believe that Jesus’ power can overcome even death.  Despite every argument to the contrary, the sick woman believes that nothing else but Jesus’ power can overcome death.

And see, that’s why we need to let go of self-justification, need to stop trying to cling to our privilege, need to fall on our knees with the sick woman, and start to pray for the gift of desperation.  Because ultimately, it is Jesus who will save us from the divisions we have created.  It is Jesus alone who can show us the truth about our privilege without leading us to despair.  It is Jesus who can bring us back to life.

Jesus loves us just as we are - but also loves us too much to leave us there.  Facing the reality of our privilege is not easy stuff.  It means acknowledging that while the gifts we have are good, they were often obtained at the expense of someone else, via a system that gives access to certain folks based on race, gender, class and other -isms of injustice.  We may be tempted to despair.  Or simply, to laugh when Jesus offers us freedom.

But Jesus wants more for us.  Jesus wants to bring us back to life.  Jesus wants us to be free from the slavery of sin.  Jesus wants us to let go of the phantom limb of the chains of oppression that we often drag around with us, unseen and unacknowledged.  Racism, white supremacy, and all other -isms of injustice are not only sins - they are heresies, lies and false teachings about who God is, who people are, and who God is for Gods’s people.  If we continue to live enslaved by these heresies, we continue to live cut off from the fullness of God’s love.  And from the gifts God is offering the world through God’s children.

This day, I offer you this invitation: spend some time this week praying about your social location.  As God to help you see honestly what in your life is a gift from God, and what has been given to you by a system of privilege, racism and supremacy.  As my therapist often commands me, be gentle with yourself.  This is not about condemning the goods in your life.  But about developing an awareness.

Because awareness is a great place to start.  Imagine if Jairus had been aware of the sick woman.  Even though he was in a rush for his daughter, perhaps he could have pointed her out to Jesus, parting the crowds for her as well, so she could be healed more rapidly, before Jairus’ daughter passed away.  In the Kingdom of God, there is enough time for every daughter of God to be healed if we desire it to be so.  

We would also not have witnessed the amazing miracle of a resurrected little girl; neither would we have glimpsed the fear and the defeatism nestled just below the surface of Jairus’ privilege and power.  Ultimately, in the story, God makes use of injustice to reveal the amazing grace radiating from the faith of the poor.  It’s beautiful stuff - as beautiful as the people of Emanuel AME Church offering forgiveness to the murderer of their pastor.  But imagine a world where the poor and the marginalized didn’t need to bear that burden in the first place.  

Jesus loves us as we are.  This is Gospel in itself.  But it’s also this Gospel that gives us courage to follow Jesus as he loves us too much to leave us in a position where we are not completely free.  The call to acknowledgement of our privilege and to repentance is not a condemnation upon us - it is God’s invitation for us to leave behind our blindness and our burden, and to touch the hem of the garment of Jesus, and, like the sick woman, become free.

So fear not.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.  In the Name of Jesus.   


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sermon: "Learning to Be Racists: Charleston, Confession and the 12-Steps"

"Learning to Be Racists: Charleston, Confession and the 12-Steps"

Based on Notes from an Extemporaneous Sermon preached at
South Wedge Mission
Rochester, NY
21 June 2015

Day Texts: 2 Corinthians 6.1-13
Mark 4.35-41


NOTE: Preaching this Sunday was an emotional event for all involved; given that I usually re-construct my manuscript from my notes and memory after I preach, I thought, this week, it might be more helpful to consider what was said in the form of short meditations.  I pray it will help you, as it helped me.


1.We often begin our liturgy with the rite of confession, which uses the words of St. John: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” Likewise, St. Paul writes: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; this proves God’s love for us.”  

2.Any response to the martyrdom of nine black brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, South Carolina must begin with confession; only a forgiven sinner can proclaim the Gospel.  

3.Our community, the South Wedge Mission, has discerned that its next task is “learning to be allies.”  We might likewise say that this will involve us first “learning to be racists.”

4.In the Gospel story, it is tempting for the to see ourselves as standing with Jesus, protecting the disciples by commanding the waves “peace, be still!”  We sincerely want to stand up for our black brothers and sisters in the boat of the Body of Christ against the crashing waves and howling winds of racism and white supremacy.  As people of good will, when we witness a problem, we want to help fix it.

5.An important rule for reading the Gospels: we are never Jesus in the story.  More often, we are those that most need something from Jesus - a healing, a lesson, a confrontation, a deliverance.

6.Jesus’ command, “peace, be still!” is a rebuke and an exorcism of the demon-possessed waters that threaten His church.  We, the White American church, are not Jesus, or the disciples in the boat.   We are the demon-possessed waters.  Our every effort to “speak up on behalf” of our black brothers and sisters only adds to the noise of the winds; our every attempt to “stand up and fix things” for our brothers and sisters adds to the force of the crashing waves.  

7.One name for the demon possessing us is denial.  As participants in the story called “America,” we are taught from an early age to be in active denial of the pervasiveness of racism in our society, and of its role in maintaining our privileges of safety, comfort and prosperity - at the cost of freedom, dignity and opportunity to our black brothers and sisters.

8.We practice denial even when we believe we are doing our best not to be racist.  We do so especially when we try to absolve ourselves by shifting the blame for specific acts of racism onto causes other than ourselves.

9.When we label the murder of Christians in Charleston a “hate crime,” we practice a subtle form of self-absolution, claiming a subtle sense of superiority over the supposedly “isolated individual” who pulled the trigger.  This is the equivalent of claiming not to be an alcoholic simply because of having never killed someone while driving drunk.

10.We practice denial when we emphatically call for the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the statehouse in South Carolina, while living in a city named after Col. Nathaniel Rochester, a life-long slave owner; in a nation whose capital city is named after a life-long slave owner, George Washington; while worshipping in a church that celebrates the legacy of Frederick Douglass while just a few blocks away, a school named for a white man stands on the former grounds of Douglass’ homestead - which was burned down several times by his white fellow residents.  

11.We practice denial when we point to the powerful witness of lament, forgiveness and hope of our black brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME and Baber AME here in Rochester, and somehow believe that this witness somehow mitigates our own responsibility, within the white church, to begin difficult conversations and confessions regarding our continued contribution and participation to the system which necessitated such a witness in the first place. 

12.We practice denial if we think that the lives of nine brothers and sisters in Christ is an acceptable price to pay for our continued enjoyment of comfort and privilege.  We practice denial if we think that even one life of any brother and sister is an acceptable price to pay.

13.The first step in a 12-step program of recovery from addiction is the relinquishment of denial and the confession of helplessness: “Admitted we were (alcoholics) - that our lives had become unmanageable.”

14.Nine brothers and sisters in Christ were murdered by another brother in Christ - our life as an American Church has become unmanageable.  

15.Too often, even with the best of intentions, we who are still possessed by our addiction and dependence on privilege and racism try to jump ahead in the steps of recovery:
-to step 12, trying to help other racists become less racist
-to step 9, trying to make full amends for our own racism
-to step 7, trying to fully surrender the defect of our racism
-to step 4, trying to fully understand and confess the depths of our racism

16.While well-intentioned, such leaps ahead in step work ignore the fact that the disease of our dependence and addiction to racism is ultimately a spiritual problem.  We cannot begin to even understand our racism - let alone recover from it or help others recover from it - before we take the first steps ourselves.  The language of demonic possession is in many ways far more fitting even than “systemic sin” or choice.

17.When Jesus rebukes us with the command, “peace, be still!” we are being called to stop trying to solve the problem of racism with the very paradigm that caused it in the first place - self-will, which always stacks the deck in its own favor, usually through denial or blame or dishonesty.

18.Self-will cannot fix a problem caused by self-will.  Any effort we make to fix the spiritual maladies of racism and privilege from within the system of racism and privilege will ultimately contribute to the system and strengthen it.  

19.Being a participant in the system does not mean we walk around uttering racist remarks or actively hating black people.  Rather, by virtue of being white Americans, we benefit from, profit by, and hence depend on and participate in the system.  Like the Matrix in the film of that name, privilege and oppression are a 400 year old system that makes possible the good life we take for granted at the expense of the suffering and ongoing exclusion of an entire group of people.    

20.Like the city of Ninevah in the book of Jonah, the White American Church stands under the judgement of the God who raised up the people of Israel from the slaves of Egypt.  We are called to repent with sackcloth and ashes; to ask for help from a power greater than ourselves, a power that promises not only justice, but vengeance, for the oppressed.

21.In order to save us from the wrath of the God who avenges the oppressed and defeats the proud, Jesus speaks the words to us, “peace be still!”  However, such peace is not peace as we know it.  Elsewhere Jesus says he comes to bring, “not peace but a sword.”  Jesus comes with a sword of Truth to cut away the stone from our hearts so that we might have new hearts - hearts of flesh.  In order for us to be freed from our own possession by the demons of privilege and racism, Jesus must rebuke and exorcise us.  In order to be capable of truly good works, we first must be given a new heart, a heart of flesh, that is capable of truth and love.  

22.We as a church are being called to make a kind of “First Step Prayer.”  Such a prayer usually follows the form, “I admit that I am powerless over my addiction.  I admit that my life is unmanageable when I try to control it.  Help me this day to understand the true meaning of powerlessness.  Remove from me all denial of my addiction.”

23.Taking the First Step of confession does not mean we have to know what the next steps will look like.  We may not know the shape the repentance and the amends that God will call us to.  And in many ways it does not matter.  What matters is that we are admitting our powerlessness, and seeking the help of the One who has the power to show us the way.

24.Making the First Step prayer is the equivalent of crying out, with the church in the boat, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Only a forgiven sinner can proclaim the Gospel.  Only someone who acknowledges their utter need for grace can truly receive it.

25.When we admit our powerlessness, deny our denial, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, like the waters of the lake, we will be commanded to be silent.  We become calm and still.  We stop trying to fix the problem; we cease trying to “be a prophetic voice” or trying to change or control others.  We seek to clear our surface of our own voice and waves.  So that our surface may become a mirror that reflects only the grace and the calling of Jesus.

26.Just as the waters calmed by Jesus reflect His image once more, and so are suitable for carrying the ship of the church to safety, so too must we be made calm by Jesus, so that we may be of service in helping to bear the burden of the injustices that have been committed against our black brothers and sisters in this country.  

27.Jesus rebukes the white church, not because Jesus hates us, but because “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Jesus heals and sanctifies us, not so we can resume our roles as more benevolent versions of our white privileged selves - but so that we may realize our true humanity as members of the Body of Christ, receiving the gift of the glory of our black brothers and sisters; we are called to become holy, not to be better than others - but to become better for others.  

28.Steps two and three read: “came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “turned our lives over to a higher power.”  We surrender our self-will, and our denial.  

29.When we confess, we become calm.  We allow the waters of our soul to reflect and amplify the voices of our black brothers and sisters without seeking credit for doing so; we begin to make their concerns our concerns; we become actively engaged in their struggle, first, by becoming actively engaged in our own work of recovery, and, whenever possible, being of humble service, assuming the posture of learning rather than of teaching.

30.In short, the task with which the white church has been charged is simple: we are called to “learn to be racists.”  Only then can we discover what it means to live as “forgiven racists.”  Only then can we begin to be of service to our fellow racists - and to be allies to those who have been hurt by our racism.

31.Following the sermon, worshippers of SWM were invited to receive the mark of a cross on their forehead using ashes left over from Ash Wednesday.  This was meant as a symbol of our intention to practice the First Step throughout the week ahead - to admit our powerlessness and confess our need for exorcism and healing.  After receiving the cross, their hands were anointed with healing oil as a symbol of our intention to actively engage in the work of recovery and of service.

32.The First Step is not an ending, but a beginning.  These demons have haunted the waters of the White Church for centuries.  And yet, it is out of the chaos of the waters that God first created the world, and called it “good.”  We are called to confess our sin; even more so are we called to confess the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which promises us: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”  We confess our desire to be free - and so commit ourselves to living into the promises of Jesus Christ, who alone can save us from ourselves, and save us for service to others.  

33.Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sermon: "The Zen of Glory"

"The Zen of Glory"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Second Sunday after Pentecost
7 June 2015

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4.13-18
Mark 3.20-35

Jesus faces what seems like a never-ending slew of challenges in his ministry.  Demons, disease, and widespread destitution; dimwitted disciples, dastardly religious demagogues and corrupt political dictators; even doubt, despair, and death.  But here, near the beginning of his ministry, he faces what I imagine might have been the most difficult ordeal of all.

His family - his mother, his brothers and his sisters - have come.  Not to listen to him, or to join his movement.  Not to show their unconditional love and support.   They’ve come to take him away.  Actually, the word St. Mark uses is much harsher.  They’ve come to “restrain” him.  

There’s a certain level of force in the word “restrain” that goes beyond merely trying to gently persuade Jesus to come home.  When Mark says Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” have come, in ancient parlance this could have referred to his cousins and other relatives as well.  So in my mind I see a small gang of folks, down from that ol’ Podunk town Nazareth,  darkening the door of the house where Jesus is speaking to a sold-out standing-room-only crowd, with big cousin Bubba ready to full-nelson his little relation, toss him over his shoulder, and if necessary, drag him back to his carpenter’s bench.  

Even if you come from a broken family, we all have a sense that this is not how families are suppose to act towards each other.  I’m blessed with extremely supportive parents.  But as a parent myself, I’ve learned through experience that even when you have no clue what it is your daughter just drew for you, the right answer is always “that’s beautiful honey, thanks a lot!”  

And look, my guess is that Jesus’ family is probably acting with the best of intentions.  After all, they’ve heard the local and regional banter.  “He’s gone out of his mind!” people are saying.  Maybe Mary’s worried Jesus took the whole “Son of God” thing a little too far and needs a little more time at home before he’s ready.  Maybe she was hoping that those scribes Jesus is arguing with, the bigwigs from Jerusalem, would write her son a sterling letter of recommendation so he could start his climb towards becoming the High Priest, and now he’s ruining his best shot to get his message out.  Maybe, given his increasing popularity, they’re all just afraid Jesus is going to get himself crucified by the Romans.  

But no matter how well-meaning parents can be in trying to protect or guide their children, I can’t imagine it’s easy for Jesus.  Here he is, doing his thing.  Proclaiming the Gospel.  Driving out demons.  Healing the sick.  Packing out his church.  And at his moment of greatest triumph, instead of proud parents and siblings cheering him on…they show up with chains.

Ancient writers didn’t go into a lot of details about characters’ internal monologues.  But I imagine that if we had an X-ray machine on Jesus’ heart, the picture wouldn’t be pretty.  Even without the details, we can just hear it breaking.

Which is why its really crucial that we follow carefully what Jesus does next.  If I were in Jesus’ shoes, I would have thrown in the towel.  I don’t think my spirit could have continued on in the face of such shame and disapproval from my family.  I’d either give up, or get really angry and start tossing some f-bomb grenades or I don’t know what.  

But thankfully, I’m not Jesus in this story, and I’m guessing neither are any of us.  If we’re honest, more often than not, we’re in the position of Jesus’ family.  We are not the heroes, but the ones with reputations to protect and restraints at the ready.  We’re the ones who feel threatened and afraid, and in that state, are quick to try to take control of other people - and most often, it’s the ones closest to us that we target.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait.  While inside his heart is shattered and everything in him is ready to break down, somehow, Jesus manages to stay present.  Somehow, Jesus manages to respond with skill and with wisdom.  Somehow, Jesus maintains his Gospel Mindfulness, and like a true spiritual Bruce Lee, takes an impossible situation, and improvises something quite extraordinary.

In my mind, I picture Jesus closing his eyes and inhaling deeply.  Even though the crowd is pressed in all around him, time suddenly slows and the noises fade away.  The pain inside doesn’t disappear - it burns like a crown of thorns - but Jesus digs deep and finds something else, a wellspring of wisdom to drawn upon.  He exhales and opens his eyes.

I see him raise his head above the sea of faces to look his family in the eye.  And then, slowly raises his hands in a wide embrace, and looks from side to side at all of those around him.  The whole place is suddenly still, listening expectantly.  “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” he whispers.  “Here they are.  Anyone who does the will of God, that one is my mother, and my brother and my sister.”  

With a simple, koan-like statement, Jesus has reframed the entire conversation.  What is so remarkable to me is that, in the face of the violence of restraint and the heartbreak of betrayal, Jesus does not strike out against his family.  Instead, Jesus expands their notion of what family is.  As if to say, “remember who I am.  Remember that all of these are precious to me.  Remember that it is not I who am a part of your family, but you who are a part of their family.”

And maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I love that our little portion of scripture this week doesn’t really resolve.  Because it leaves the story open.  It leaves us with the possibility that Jesus’ gesture of inclusion, his open arms which gently break apart the restraints brought by his family, is also an invitation to his family.  As if Jesus were saying, “put down the chains.  Come in.  We’ll make room for you too.  It’s a little crazy in here.  But it’s a really good place to be.”


A few weeks ago, on the Feast of Pentecost, we talked about how in scripture, the name “Satan” means Accuser, and that into the midst of a world that is divided by this Accuser’s lies and betrayals, God sends the Holy Spirit, who is called “The Advocate,” to restore relationships.  For Jesus, the Accuser comes wearing the face of his family, seeking to distract him and restrain him from his mission of restoration and reconciliation.  But Jesus breathes deeply, drawing on the energy of the Spirit living in his heart, the Spirit given at his baptism, when God says, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  And Jesus is able to speak with words of Advocacy that transforms accusation into possibility.

I said earlier that we should pay attention to how Jesus responds to this heartbreaking challenge, because like Jesus, we live in the world that the Accuser has made, where his lies roar around us like a raging lion, tempting us to coercion and control.  But like Jesus, we have been given the Spirit of the Advocate.  And like Jesus, we’re going to need a stronger center, a source of Advocacy, if we want to be agents of new creation, and act with freedom in the midst of fear.

I think we can find that center, this Gospel Mindfulness, in our first reading today, from 2 Corinthians 4.  In particular, I’m thinking of that beautiful bit where St. Paul reminds us that “we do not lose heart; for even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.”  If we want to act with freedom in the present, we need to remember the end for which we strive.  And that end, according to St. Paul, is glory.

Now, I’m not talking about the cheap glory that the Accuser peddles to us.  And, you know the kind.  Cheap glory, the kind that Martin Luther railed against so long ago, is something human beings achieve for themselves - usually by taking it from someone else.  Cheap glory leads us to respond to a friend’s celebration of an achievement with one-up-manship (“that’s great, now let me tell you what I did…”).  Cheap glory tempts us to troll one another’s Facebook sites, hacking apart one another’s passions and offerings in the name of appearing right and intelligent and informed.  Cheap glory leads families to try to restrain their children and their kin for fear of reputation, under the pretext of protecting, and it leads societies to act paternalistically towards those we deem unworthy (“black lives matter?  Don’t all lives matter?”).

Cheap glory is the Accuser’s promise, dangled before our faces, leading us to mangle the true glory and beauty of the mother and brothers and sisters that Jesus is giving to us.

But Jesus has come to share a more costly, splendorous glory.  I think CS Lewis nailed it, commenting on this same reading from 2 Corinthians, in one of my favorite passages of all time: 

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, 
to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to 
may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, 
you would be strongly tempted to worship, 
or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, 
if at all, only in a nightmare. 

All day long we are, in some degree helping each other 
to one or the other of these destinations. 
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, 
it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, 
that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, 
all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. 
There are no ordinary people. 
You have never talked to a mere mortal. 
Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, 
and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. 
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - 
immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Or, put another way, in the words of St. Iraneus, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  God’s glory is sharing life with God’s children.  By the Spirit of the Advocate, of encouragement, of believing in God’s destiny for each and every human being who is the unique expression of God’s creative love, we are given the blessed opportunity, as Lewis notes, of helping one another to this destination of glory.

And see, that’s the center I think Jesus goes to.  If this story were a martial arts form, I’d call it “the Zen of Glory.”  Deeper than the heartbreak of betrayal, more powerful than the fear that impels his family to bring their restraints, is the glory of God, which is a human being fully alive.  It is remaining mindful of God’s promise, and believing God’s Word to be true - that God desires God’s children to be fully alive - that we can draw on the power of the Advocate in the midst of the Accuser’s chaos.

Put into a form of practice, the Zen of Glory might look something like this:

When you find yourself 
in the midst of a difficult relational situation, 
or preparing for one, 

try praying/repeating the following mantra
as a way of grounding yourself
in a Gospel mindfulness:

"The glory of God is a human being fully alive;
The glory of God is (person X with whom I'm in conflict) fully alive;
the glory of God is (your name) fully alive"

Use it as a sign of your intention
to speak with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate,
and reject all forms of violence and division
promoted by Satan, the Accuser.  

Before the sermon, we listened to the song "Glory" by John Legend and Common.  Because in so many ways, we of the white church need to re-learn this Zen of Glory from our brothers and sisters in the black church.  Like Jesus' family, we've sought to restrain their voices and their lives because of the uncomfortable picture of the glory of God that they've held before us.  But no disciple of Jesus in this century has demonstrated more powerfully what it means to be grounded in God's true glory - of human beings fully alive - in the midst of the rage and violence of the Accuser than Dr. King and his followers.  As Common raps, "one son died/his spirit is revisitin' us;" we in the white church who more often than not carry shackles of Accusation rather than that spirit of Advocacy, have much to learn from those who have lived the belief that "even Jesus got his crown in front of a crowd."  The Beloved Community is not something we invented.    

But that’s just it, in the end.  The Good News, the Promise of practicing the Zen of Glory, is that in Jesus, this Beloved Community has already begun.  It is not dependent upon our always acting rightly in difficult situations.  It is not something we have to expand ourselves.  It’s not open for discussion or debate.  It simply is the family that we all belong to in Christ.  It is the purpose and the glory for which God created in the first place.  

The Beloved Community is not a matter of opinion or vote, and it is not something the Accuser can ever take away.  It is something that we get to Advocate for, and to live into, and to receive.  It is a possibility hovering ever before us, encouraging us to take a deep breath in the midst of conflict, to open our eyes to the humanity of our fellow human beings, and to whisper into a world of cheap glory, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  

This week, you are invited to take up the practice of the Zen of Glory.  May it be for you a source of drawing on the Advocate’s energy of freedom and possibility.  May it help you remain focused in the midst of the Accuser’s temptations to restrain and control and compete.  

Above all else, may it ground you in Gospel Mindfulness - that when we were yet sinners, coming at Jesus to restrain and to silence, Jesus said, “come join my family, and learn to live the will of God, which is that every human being be fully alive.”  This week, when the glory comes, let it be not just our family’s, or theirs - but ours.  All of ours.  

In the name of Jesus, Amen. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sermon for Trinity Sunday: "What Will Your Verse Be?"

"Trinity Sunday: What Will Your Verse Be?"


Transcribed from Sermon Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Feast of the Holy Trinity
31 May 2015

Day Texts: Isaiah 6.1-8
John 3.1-17


Ascension.  Pentecost.  Trinity.  These last three services have focused on this trio of feast days in the liturgical calendar, and together, they could be almost considered a trilogy of sorts.  Let’s call the whole thing: “Birth of Church.”  

In Birth of Church, Part I: Ascension, we see Jesus auditioning for the part of Thor in the next Avengers as he flies off into heaven, entrusting his disciples to remain on earth and continue the mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the nations.  

Next, Birth of Church, Part II: Pentecost finds those same disciples “catching fire” (see what I did there?) as they receive the power to carry out that mission via the gift of the wild goose of the Holy Spirt.

So we’ve got the mission.  We’ve got the power.  Everything’s set for an exciting climax.  And then, Birth of Church III: Trinity, delivers…the doctrine. 

Seriously.  Doctrine.  No epic battle of five armies.  No super team assembling.  Not even a surprise “return of Jesus” moment.  Just a doctrine.  Like many a trilogy before it, Birth of Church just seems to come up short at the end.  At least they didn’t go all Twilight and split it into two movies.  

Because let’s be honest.  Unless you’re an uber theology geek (like me), there’s really nothing less exciting than doctrine.  And what’s more, it’s not even a very good one!  It’s complicated (1+1+1 =…1 …and 3???), it’s confusing (“so you have three different gods?”) and to top it off, it’s not even explicitly in the Bible.  A promising premise about the restoration of the world ends up collapsing under the weight of its own Christopher Nolan-esque complexity and navel-gazing.   

If doctrine is the ultimate conclusion of this story, its no wonder it seems to continue flopping in the box office of modern religious opinion.       

Thing is, though, the early church didn’t develop Trinity as a doctrine.  Or rather, that’s not how doctrine worked for them.  See, doctrine wasn’t really about proof-texting or mere theological calculus.  Rather, doctrine was much more like blocking notes for stage actors; dance steps for teaching rhythm; a musical score for a conductor and orchestra.  It wasn’t meant to replace the drama of the story; it was meant to help immerse participants more deeply so as to better tell the story.      

In a sense, when we see the word “Trinity,” we should think less about figuring out a formula; instead, what if we saw a shorthand, a reminder, a guide, a particular way of telling the story of who God is and how God is for us?
Work with me here.  “Trinity” is a story.  The story.  The whole story, of the Old and New Testaments, from Creation to Cross to Conclusion.  Early Christians never really needed to make it explicit because it simply was and is the story.  In their worship and in their baptizing and in their praying and in their Eucharists, they would have invoked the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” all the time.  They lived the story.  And so there was no need to make it explicit as a doctrine.  

As an influential person in history, its natural that lots of people told stories about Jesus.  In the early church, there were actually a number of different “Christianities” practiced in response to Jesus’ life.  You usually read about them around Christmas or Easter time, when Newsweek or Time report on them in some special “Secret Hidden History of Jesus” report.  Most of these end up being the equivalent of tall tales and folk stories.  Fascinating to study.  Rooted in history.  But ultimately, lacking in substance or truth.

It wasn’t until one particular alternative telling of Jesus’ story rose to major prominence and influence that the early church finally decided it was time to explicitly endorse and define the story of Trinity as a doctrine.  This other story was called “Gnosticism,” and while it was an ancient heresy, it’s influence continues to this day. 

To understand the Gnostics, imagine a people who basically thought that the movie The Matrix was real.  Ie, that the material world that we live in is actually a prison, created by an evil being (called “Yaladbaoth”) to imprison our divine spirits in mortal material bodies.  In fact, all things matter were considered corrupt and defiled, and the villainous creator, equated with the God of the Old Testament, instituted all sorts of do’s and don’ts in order to keep humanity enslaved in the dark.  

Enter Jesus, played by Keeanu Reeves in this movie.  Like Neo, the pure spirit being Jesus voluntarily plugs Himself into the prison of matter in order to teach an elect enlightened few the truth about reality, and to help them escape their chains into the world of pure light.  Jesus’ body was not a real body, but a clever disguise he put on in order to reach the chosen few and share his secret “Gnosis” with them.  

And you thought the Trinity thing was complicated.   

Gnosticism was a compelling story in a world full of suffering.  It taught people that bodies were only temporary, and offered the chosen enlightened few the promise and hope of an escape from the messy dirtiness of physical existence.  It was especially appealing to the wealthy and the elite, who naturally had more leisure time to discover the secret of escape, and because it labeled matter and suffering as unclean, reinforced their privileged status over the disease-ridden suffering masses around them.  

And therein we should recognize why the “more orthodox” Christians began to take issue with their Gnostic rivals.  Because if matter and suffering were considered signs of evil and corruption, and special knowledge and privilege were equated with divinity, then a large portion of the folks Jesus actually ministered to - the sick, the poor, the lame, the outcast, and the uneducated - were almost immediately excluded from this version of God’s kingdom.  Which meant that Jesus did not come in solidarity with the world and its brokenness - but only to go through the motions for the sake of the strong and the few.  

Ultimately, the Gnostic Gospel promised enlightenment, but at the price of escapism and exclusion.  And the early Church deemed this too high a price for continued tolerance.  They needed to tell a different story about a different Gospel.

And lest this seem like ancient history, if we’re honest, we’re often not too far off from the Gnostic mentality in our own day and age.  Because even if we don’t believe their mythology, we can very easily fall into a Gnostic way of practicing our faith in the world.

I think we’re especially prone to this mentality when the messiness and difficulty of life in our bodies, and the reality of other bodies, causes us suffering and struggle.  We act Gnostically when, confronted with the challenges of engaging with created reality, we instead readily choose escape from it into some exclusionary simulacrum of enlightenment or specialness.  

So, for example, when our commitments to our friendships and our family start to take us into uncomfortable territory, well, no problem!  There’s a special world called the internet, where we can disengage from the difficulty of face-to-face interactions and live a disembodied existence floating above it all while revealing in the vast feeling of connection and enlightenment that the web provides us.  

Or, maybe church is your problem!  Because when real-life community and spirituality forces us to face our own brokenness and selfishness, and challenges us to share life together with other broken people whose dysfunction doesn’t fix my own dysfunction, well, damn it, I’ll jettison all that “religion” stuff and just be spiritual.  By myself.  Alone.  Where I can make the rules.

Or is the poverty and injustice and segregation of our fair city getting you down?  No need to actually meet poor people and hear their stories!  Simply read about social justice, allow yourself to feel really indignant about racism, and make sure to pursue an enlightened progressive awareness.  Let others do the messy work, and make sure they notice you noticing them.  And voila!  Gnosticism provides you an easy way out from ever having to dirty your hands helping a homeless person, or even having to really give money. 

In so many ways, Gnosticism is our Gospel of choice when, like those ancient Christians, we are confronted by the messiness and suffering of this world, and simply can’t handle the pain it causes us and others.  Even the all-American tradition of “pulling myself up by my bootstraps” is, in its basest form, a type of Gnosticism, as it creates a sense of separation and specialness, where we rise above the common ways and rise into a higher class following our exceptionalist dreams.  It’s the air we live and breathe in a culture that’s perfected the art of peddling escapism and calling it enlightenment.    

Problem is, it’s not God’s story.  And it’s not the story of God’s world.  And it’s not 
the mission we’re called to in Christ.  

In response to this other story about God, the early Christians offered the story named by Trinity.  Because in declaring that God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the early Christians were essentially pointing to the story speaking from the Bible.  Out of the Old and New Testament.  The story that Jesus came to tell.   

It is the story of the God who created the world and all of its people, and when God did so, said, “this world is good.”  This God delighted in the world, made it because it was good and because God loved it.  And, as our Gospel lesson today reminds us, “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…not to condemn the world, but to save it.”  The same God who made the world good is committed to God’s world, such that God would rather die Himself than see it lost.  The same God who made the world became a part of that world in Jesus, and died and rose as part of that world, so that that whole world might be restored, reconciled and renewed.

And, this same God that created the world and redeemed it continues to sustain it through the Holy Spirit.  And through the Church.  The same Spirit that breathed life into the first pile of human dust breathes life into the Body of Christ in the world, and continues to cooperate with human beings, co-creating with and through them, and making contributions to that world through the lives of God’s children.  

Trinity names the story of a God who loves the world God made, and will do anything and everything that God is able to do to make sure that the world will remain a blessing for God’s beloved children.

Trinity names the story of a God who, far from withdrawing or escaping from messiness, suffering, death and despair, enters fully into them, taking them upon Godself, and transforming them into new possibilities and new beginnings.

Trinity names the story of a God who does not raise up an elite few while leaving behind the many, but rather, continues to dwell in and renew the world God loves until every single one of God’s beloved children can know herself as God’s own, as a contribution and a gift that God is giving to the world.

While in times of suffering and of disappointment, Gnosticism may seem like a promising Gospel, it pales in comparison to the story named by Trinity.  Just think about it for a moment.  God made the world because God loves the world.  God made me because God loves me.  God made others because God loves others.  God created.  God redeems.  God sustains.  And I am a part of it.  

It reminds me of a famous scene from one of my favorite films, Dead Poets’ Society.  The free-spirited Mr. Thomas Keating, played by the late Robin Williams, is a teacher at an elite New England boarding school.  While the strict curriculum is designed to help society’s upper crust rise above the lower classes and their boorishness, Mr. Keating is determined to arouse their souls through beauty and poetry.  In the midst of one class, he asks, “why do we read and write poetry?”  His answer:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary for to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.  To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!…of the questions recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’  Answer.  That you are here - that life exists…that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  What will your verse be?”

That’s the question presented by the story named by Trinity.  What will your verse be?  Because as part of this world that exists, that exists because God wanted it to, that is good because God delights in it, and is here because God is sustaining it, you and your life matter.  You are a part of it.  Your story is a verse in God’s powerful play.  This existence, this creation, is no accident.  It is music, and poetry, and it is good, and God has given you a part in it.  You are meant to be.  And God is making a contribution through you.

And not just when things are good.  Trinity names the story of God’s creating you, God’s commitment to you, and God’s contribution of you.  Including the messy times.  The broken times.  The failing times.  The times when life seems overwhelming and we want nothing more than to hide away or escape.  God wants to take the lowest moments of your life and transfigure them into the very stuff that will enable you to love and serve others.  God wants all of you.  And God wants to give all of you.  What will your verse be?

Which means that God also wants all of this world.  And wants to contribute all of this world.  To those who the world believes are unenlightened because they are shackled by poverty and oppression, or by failure or by class, or by the opinion so others or the judgements of their own egos, God says, I created you; I am committed to you; I want to contribute you.  What will your verse be?  

God has created.  God is committed.  God is contributing.  Like the prophet Isaiah, God wants to touch your unclean lips with the burning coal of God’s delight and love, and wants you to speak forth your life into the world.  God doesn’t take away those unclean lips - God touches them.  And speaks God’s contribution in and through us into a world that god loves.  What will your verse be?

Trinity means that your life has a purpose.  You are intended.  You may not believe you have a purpose.  You may not want a purpose.  If you’re like me, you may not really know what that purpose is.  And that’s ok.  Because you don’t need to have it figured out for God to be contributing you into this world.  

What we are called to is simply to believe this Good News, and receive the gift of our lives with gratitude, from the God who created, who is committed, and who desires to contribute you.  In a world where the Gnosticism of enlightened escape and avoidance of reality’s brokenness is the spirituality of choice, this story is more vital than ever.  We’ve been given the mission of proclaiming God’s love for God’s world.  We’ve been given the power to do so through the contributing Spirit.  Now we are given the story that ties it all together.  

Maybe the trilogy didn’t end so badly after all.  Maybe it hasn’t ended yet at all.  The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

What will your verse be?



Afterword: For Open Space, members of the Mission were invited to take up a practice from Upstate NY Synod of the ELCA's Synod Assembly, whose theme was "God's Story, Our Voices."  Using a simple line on a page (see below), they were invited to map their personal story.  Above the line, they were invited to depict the high points of their life.  Below, they were invited to place the low points.  At the end, all were asked to circle the entire timeline and write "God's story."  They were also invited to consider: perhaps the lowest moments, as much as the highest, are the places God is calling you to minister from - the places where, far from being evil, compassion and the possibility of healing and serving others is most likely to arise.  The places we may very well discover our truest vocations.  All of our story, from top to bottom, is part of the verse God is contributing to the story through our lives. 

Click on the image of the timeline below - and try out the practice for yourself if you feel so led!