Epiphany 4, Year A, 2017

You know how when you’re waiting to board the plane, you start to hear, “Platinum Diamond passengers are welcome to board. Gold Passengers are welcome to board. Frequent fliers are welcome to board. First class passengers are welcome to board.” By the time they get to you, in section five, with your seat right next to the rest room, you have a pretty clear understanding of what your status is. Low.

Whether we like it or not, our status in life is incredibly determinative of our life experiences. Some of us have great status. We are born to parents who have a house and some money and live near good schools. Some of us have worse status. We are born in poverty and violence and go to poorly funded schools. And status affects us whether we even realize it or not. Our status can determine what kind of higher education we get, where we get our first internship, whom we marry. Even our church denominations have status attached to them. Of the 45 Presidents our nation has had, a quarter of them were Episcopalians! Another eight were Presbyterian. There’s a lone Roman Catholic on the list, and no Pentecostals. You didn’t know you were grooming future Presidents by bringing your kids here, did you? Even within an individual congregation, social status can sometimes creep in and affect who has positions of power and who is taken seriously.

The Corinthians really struggled with status. We heard last week about how they were fighting about being followers of Paul or Apollos or Peter. This was just part of their struggle. Corinth was a new money town, full of people striving to climb the social ladder. And the church at Corinth was filled with a real mix of people of different statuses. The power structures of the world were getting played out in the local congregation. Rich people would gather for communion first and eat up all the good food before the poor people could get there. The church was also a mix of Jewish and Greek people, so their religious status was also an issue. The different groups were not united, not treating each other with kindness. People of higher statuses were acting like they were more special than people of lower statuses.

You might expect to Paul to wade in and sort out these arguments for the Corinthians—give them some direction about who was right and who was wrong. But Paul wants to make a larger point.

He says, “for the logos of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

New Testament scholar Alex Brown points out that

For Jews, the logos was the law and Wisdom … For Greeks, the logos signified the reason behind the cosmic order and the advances of philosophy in understanding that order.”2 Brown concludes, “This ‘logos of the cross’ constitutes a contradiction in terms offensive both to the reasoned and to the religious mind.[1]

Paul is saying much more than that the cross is a message. He is saying that the cross is part of the cosmic order. And in this cosmic order, statuses are upended, if not discarded altogether.

One would think that God would have the ultimate status. He rules over all of creation and everything within it. He could come to earth and lord over us all. Instead, when God does come to earth, he chooses not to exercise his status. Instead he is humiliated, put to death on the cross as a common criminal. If Epiphany is a series of revelations, this is a huge one: that God did not come here to lord over us, but to come alongside us and face even our worst humiliations.

Whatever our status, whomever we follow, any airs we might put on look ridiculous when compared to God’s sacrifice and humility. Paul writes,

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

Our world feels a lot like Corinth these days! Instead of people following Appollos and Paul, we have followers of Jerry Falwell or Jack Spong; Tim Keller or Nadia Bolz Weber. Conservative and liberal Christians have been at each others’ throats, convinced the other side fundamentally misunderstands who God is and what God wills for our country.

Is God primarily interested in us being faithful to the law and living pure lives? Or is God primarily interested in us being compassionate and welcoming to as diverse a group of people as possible? Whatever our position, we have certainly been getting on our high horses as we align ourselves with religious leaders, teachers, and politicians that reflect our beliefs. Whatever you believe, there is a Christian somewhere ready to yell at you about how your status as a Christian is questionable.

And it is humbling to remember that Jesus died for this. He knows this about us. He knows we can’t even talk about God without becoming defensive and hurtful. And instead of whipping us into shape and telling us what to do, he comes alongside us, loves us, and sacrifices himself for us.

That is foolishness! That makes no sense! It’s almost embarrassing to think about how the God of the Universe came to love us despite how incredibly petty we can be, how willing we are to demonize people, how sure we are that we are right about everything.

Whenever we are in conflict with another person, whether about politics, religion, or anything else, it is helpful for us to spend some time at the foot of the cross. Spending time with Jesus, who offers everything to us with utter vulnerability and without any regard to status, reorients us. And it helps us to give up our status—which is just an illusion anyway. And if we are willing to give up our status maybe we’ll be willing to encounter Christ in the other.

When anyone around us got too self-righteous, my mother would mutter, “He’s going to be really surprised at who is with him in heaven.” She was not a theologian, but I think she was on to something. We’ll all be there together—liberal do-gooders and conservative rule followers—because our salvation is not based on us believing the right doctrine, but on a series of historical acts—Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. And if we each focus on following Christ, rather than tearing into each other maybe we can get somewhere constructive. I have conservative and liberal Christian relatives. The conservatives help pack meals for the hungry and volunteer in schools. The liberals volunteer in soup kitchens and teach Sunday School. While their ideas about policy are completely opposite from each other, the way they live out their faith is very similar.

And I think we could yell at each other for days without anyone changing their minds about a single thing! There is a path forward, I think, in which we boldly express our opinions and frustrations to our elected leaders, and find a way of talking to those close to us that is rooted in the humility of being people who are free of status, standing together at the foot of the cross.

And Christians need to get our act together because the world needs Jesus and Christians are Jesus’ current delivery system. Jesus did not die for us so that we could be right. Jesus died for us so God’s kingdom could spread throughout the world. A world of peace and justice. The world needs us. Refugees need us. Kids being trafficked need us. Hopeless people who have turned to heroin as a way out need us. Kids who can’t count on a meal at the end of the day need us.

At Diocesan Convention this weekend, Bishop Gulick reminded us that we are each crucial. The word crucial means cross shaped. We are crucial, because we stand at the foot of the cross–able to see ourselves and others clearly. There is no us and them, there is just us, forgiven and loved by God.

Let’s get to work.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3140

Proper 14, Year C, 2016

The internet has ruined family arguments, hasn’t it?

The minute you get heated about which pitcher played the last inning of the 1996 World Series, or what year it was that the Hindenberg exploded, or which Kardashian it was who called out Taylor Swift, all you have to do is get online and do a quick Google search. Argument short circuited.

We have such a vast store of information at the tips of our fingers. We can go as far back in history as there are written records. We can learn every piece of trivia about our favorite show. We can learn about obscure plants and animals, ways of life in other countries, the mysteries of space.

We can even go a little bit into the future. We can see projections of who is most likely to win an election. We can watch videos of what might happen to the earth if all human life ceased to exist. We can upload our photos into programs to project what we will look like when we are older.

We have so much information now that when we run into a situation where we cannot research an answer, we feel flummoxed! How long will my company survive? When will I meet the love of my life? How sick is my disease going to make me?

When we bump up against these questions, we are reminded that the future is not predictable. Our knowledge has a stopping point.

The second generation Christians to whom the letter of the Hebrews was written were running up against their own limitations. They had never met Jesus, but they had heard about him from people who knew him. They believed the stories, but because of their belief, they were running into real trouble in the world. They were being jailed and harassed. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has to convince them that their belief in Jesus is legitimate and that they have a future.

And so we get one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith in God is not the same thing as scientific belief. We can’t titrate anything and come to a clear answer about whether God exists. To relate to God is always an act of faith, facing the world with a clear hope about how the world is structured, without having concrete evidence to back up that hope.

While we don’t have evidence, we do have something even better: stories.

Before I became a Christian, when I was a teenager, I would read Madeleine L’Engle books and really want to inhabit her world. I did not have words to express why, but I loved her sense of wonder and the way people related to each other in her books. Years later, when I was a Christian and I learned she was Christian, it all made sense to me. The stories she created, while rarely mentioning God, were rooted in a Christian centered world. Her characters behaved the way they did because of their faith and it was that which attracted me.

Stories tell us things that are true, even if the stories are not historical. L’Engle’s books taught me that we are accepted even if we are awkward, that we all have important jobs to do in the world, and that love conquers fear and hate.

The author of Hebrews also uses stories to make his point. He tells the story of Abraham, to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, despite Abraham and Sarah’s old age. Abraham was given this promise. He did live to see Isaac’s birth, but he did not live to see his descendants grow to the millions. Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob after him, followed God without evidence. They trusted that God would fulfill his promises.

Well, according to the author of Hebrews they did. If you actually look back at the text in Genesis, you see Abraham doubting God at multiple points in his life. Every story of faith is more complicated than it might appear.

Second generation Christians needed to be reminded that they were part of God’s story. Like Abraham, they were faced with real doubts about God’s faithfulness. But through reminding them of the story of God’s faithfulness, the author hopes to encourage them and give them hope.

Today at the 10:30 service we will baptize Ellie Jane Simmers. When we pray over the water, we will tell ourselves the story of how God has used water throughout history. We will remind ourselves about how the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters during Creation, how the Spirit brought order out of chaos as land pushed through, separating the vast waters into oceans. We will remember the Israelites following Moses through the waters of the Red Sea, magically parted so they could escape slavery in Egypt. We will remind ourselves that at Jesus’ baptism the skies parted and God’s voice boomed down, blessing his Son. We will remind ourselves that in our baptisms we are buried with Jesus’ death and reborn into a new life of resurrection.

This story is so important. This story shapes our lives. If we are resurrection people than we know we can face hard things with courage. If we are resurrection people we know no one is their worst day. If we are resurrection people, then we know that there aren’t just second chances—there are third, fourth, seventy seventh chances to pick ourselves up and start over with God. If we are resurrection people, maybe we can even have faith that when everything looks bleak, God will show up and change the story.

Ellie Jane is becoming a member of a really radical community, a community based entirely on faith. And we have faith that God is already at work, claiming Ellie Jane and each of us as his own. We can’t Google whether or not God loves Ellie Jane, but we have faith that he does. And God loves Ellie Jane not because of her resume, because it is still pretty thin. God loves Ellie Jane because love is who he is. When we march babies down the aisle, I see the love in your eyes as you meet babies who now belong to you as members of the Christian family. I am always moved by how people will crane their necks, even leave their pews to catch a glimpse of our newest Christians.

Babies are cute, but I think we so enjoy greeting a newly baptized baby because there is joy in remembering that God loves us even more than we love these babies.

If you are in a place in your life where it is just too hard to believe in God’s love for you, may I suggest you tell yourself some stories? Maybe you need to read some stories from the Bible to remind yourself of the ways God has loved and challenged human beings. Maybe you need to tell yourself stories from your own past—times when God showed up in unexpected ways. When we are anxious about the future, telling ourselves stories is one of the best ways to shore up our faith.

And if you come to church once a week, you are guaranteed to hear stories about God, rather through Scripture or the sermon or the prayers at communion. We tell ourselves the stories of God’s faithfulness to us over and over again, so we can join those early Christians in faithfulness and hope.

Amen.

Proper 8, Year C, 2016

The Apostle Paul is angry, you guys. Extremely angry.

Paul has worked hard to teach the Galatians the Gospel, and some rival group has come in and told the Galatians that to be Christian, they must obey the Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul is so mad that in Galatians 5:12, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” So, be careful how you talk about circumcision around the Apostle Paul, okay?

Paul passionately wants the Galatians to experience the freedom that comes from faith in Christ. He is furious that anyone would undermine the freedom that comes in Christ. For Paul, freedom means no longer having to follow all the particulars of Jewish law. Freedom means that Jesus has done all the work of salvation for us, so following the law is no longer a requirement.

This is wonderful, amazing news, especially if you were a gentile man looking to become a Christian! Dropping the requirement for circumcision makes conversion MUCH MORE ATTRACTIVE.

Freedom from the law sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Not having to check to see if what we eat is kosher. Not having to carefully ritually clean your house if it gets mildew. Not having to leave the community when it is your time of the month? Not having to do any ritual sacrifice of your flock?

Not being bound to the law sounds almost exhilarating! We are free! We can do what we want! But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, Paul writes:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are freed from the law, but our faith in Christ binds us not just to Christ, but also to one another. We are given freedom, not to do whatever we want, but so that we can love each other more deeply. We are called to be slaves to each other, to put others before ourselves.

And just in case we think we can love each other without sacrificing too much, Paul lays out what this kind of freedom prohibits: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

What I love about Paul is he writes this FOUR VERSES after he has just wished castration on a group of people. I think Paul is preaching to himself here as much as he is preaching to the Galatians! He knows how tempted we are by our base instincts. For generations the law has been a construct to protect us from these desires and impulses, but now we are free from the law, so what keeps us from just devolving into an orgy of our own desires?

When I first joined the Episcopal Church I was coming from a more conservative evangelical tradition, which put a lot of emphasis on rules. I was a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship during college and it was very clear that we were not supposed to drink alcohol. Our bodies were a temple to the Lord, and alcohol would defile that temple.

When I first started attending St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I went to one of their Wednesday night dinners. You guys, there was WINE there. I about fell over. I was entering a church that was full of love and people serving God, but the strict religious imperative against alcohol was not there. It was very exciting.

Eventually, I joined the choir at St. James’. The choir met immediately after these Wednesday night dinners and let’s just say some of the choir enjoyed the wine at dinner a little more than was helpful. Our choir master finally had enough of giggling and lack of focus and gave us stern instructions to limit our drinking at dinner. There was no religious rule not to drink wine, but there was a community reason not to drink wine—being tipsy does not help a person stay on pitch. The wine was getting in the way of us worshiping God together. When members of the choir sacrificed a glass of wine for the good of the choir, rehearsals went much more smoothly and we were much better prepared for Sunday morning worship.

In our case, Paul was right that one of the things on his list—drunkenness–was getting in the way of our community life. If the altos had been super jealous of the sopranos, that would have been problematic, too. Dissension in the choir would have impacted our worship, as well. Paul’s list of prohibitions are a good guide to indicate when we are getting off the rails when it comes to loving our neighbor.

Paul gives us a list of qualities to look for as signs that we are on the right track: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He describes these as Fruits of the Spirit, because we only develop these when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, making us more like the Jesus we follow. We’ll never be perfect, but the Holy Spirit is at work transforming us into people who actually do love others and who exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit.

Whenever we baptize a child, I walk that child up and down the aisles here at church and I tell that child that you belong to him and he belongs to you. In baptism we become part of a community. And in Christian community we lift up the common good over and above our own individual freedoms. We look out for each other. We take care of each other.

Our country’s identity is so rooted in individual freedoms that it can feel really strange, and even wrong, to build a community rooted in interdependence and sacrifice, yet God calls us to serve one another and to put each other’s wellbeing above our own. We belong to each other. For this really to work, we also need to be vulnerable and honest with each other. While our instincts tell us we want to be independent, God has designed us as interdependent people. We are supposed to help each other, and we are supposed to ask for help when we need it.

We’ll end on a few questions and moments of reflection. I will not ask who you would hope would castrate themselves. I’ll leave that for your personal prayer time.

What fruit of the Spirit do you hope God will grow in you?

What might God be asking you to give up for the good of the community?

What do you need from someone else in the community but are afraid to ask?

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2016

In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.

Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.

The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.

Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.

First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:

Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.

Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.

Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.

Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.

So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?

No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.

Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.

God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.

It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.

Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.

Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.

Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable.   But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Proper 9, Year B, 2015

Almost anyone who has worked for a white collar American company or educational institution has, at some point in their career had to take some kind of strengths inventory. We love to focus on our talents, our natural aptitudes and then strengthen them even further. In the 80s my parents talked a lot about whether people were Abstract Random or Concrete Sequential. Clearly their school had done some kind of training in Anthony Gregorc’s learning styles. (By the way, all of us Kinneys are Concrete Sequential. No question about it. ) By the 90s my parents were talking about Myers-Briggs testing and I made all my high school buddies take the test. When I became involved in churches I learned about Spiritual Gifts inventory and by the time I was a priest the book Living your Strengths was very popular for people discerning their role in the church. Focusing on our strengths makes us feel like we have a place in the world, like we matter.

And we aren’t alone. As you may remember from when we’ve discussed the church in Corinth previously, the Corinthians loved focusing on their strengths. Some Corinthians truly believed they were better than others because of their spiritual experiences, authentic or not. So, in our snippet from 2nd Corinthians today Paul toys with them a little bit.

Paul references a spiritual experience he had. He tells them “someone he knows” was once caught up in the third heaven. Now, there is not a single Biblical commentator that knows that Paul means by that. We know from Acts that Paul had a serious spiritual experience when God confronts him on his way to Damascus. But, I like to think Paul is also messing around with the Corinthians a bit. “Oh, you’ve had spiritual experiences? Well, I’ve been to third heaven.” You can just imagine them going. “Oh, yeah, third heaven? I’ve totally heard of that.”

After Paul earns that credibility with the Corinthians, he turns his whole argument on its head. He tells them that instead of boasting in these profound spiritual experiences, he boasts in his weakness. He tells them he has been given a thorn in his side. We don’t know what that thorn is, either. But whatever the thorn is, it humbles Paul. The thorn limits Paul in some way. And Paul rejoices in those limitations.

Paul is not interested in his own glorification. Paul is interested in God’s glorification. And Paul believes that God uses Paul’s weaknesses to reveal God’s own strength.

This is such great news to us ordinary Christians, who haven’t seen the first heaven, much less the third one! Whether the thorn in our side is a bad hip, a speech impediment, chronic anxiety, God can use those weaknesses as a platform for his own glory.

One of the most striking experiences I’ve ever had as a priest was being with a beloved parishioner while she was experiencing congestive heart failure. I was sure she was dying as she literally clawed the air as if she was drowning. Under the care of her excellent physicians, she did not die and a few weeks after the incident I paid her a visit. When we are in pain, it is so difficult to focus on anything else than relieving our own discomfort. I expected my parishioner to talk about her awful medical experience. But this woman, a faithful Christian of eight decades, wanted to talk about her prayer life. Her own suffering had made her think about all the suffering in the world and she was a little overwhelmed about how to pray for it all.

Talk about strength in weakness. She had been so faithful to God for so long, that when she was at her literal weakest, he used her to pray for the suffering of the world.

When you read great Christian thinkers, there is often a point in their lives where things just completely fall apart. Augustine abandons a lover of more than a decade and their child. Thomas Aquinas is literally kidnapped by his family when they find out he’s joined a Dominican monastery. Martin Luther’s vow to become a monk happens in the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm.

Cranmer loses a fellowship at Jesus College to marry a woman named Joan, and then Joan dies. Our modern thinkers are no different. Buechner’s father commits suicide. Anne LaMotte and Glennon Melton face addiction. There is something about brokenness that God finds helpful to do his work.

When we are broken, we are vulnerable. We are open to change. We are open to re-imagining the world.

And those are the kind of people God needs to do his work. We have a new presiding Bishop-elect, as you might know. His name is Michael Curry and he is the Bishop of North Carolina. He fits into the profile of Christian thinkers who have suffered in that his mother died when he was very young. When he described the work of the church in the press conference after his election, he describes it as making the world “more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare”.

And God’s dream is so different from our nightmare. Bishop Curry describes God’s dream as Christians figuring out how to live as the beloved community, the human family of God.

We are so much more likely to treat each other with compassion if we have known suffering or weakness. We are so much more likely to be honest about our own lives, to let people unlike us into our lives. There is something about suffering that makes us more deeply human. After we suffer, we look at the world differently. We re-evaluate how we spend our time and where we put our energy. We remember that we have a family, and friends, and that work maybe is taking too much of our mental space. We have more compassion for others, realizing that their lives probably contain suffering, too.   We may appear weaker to the world, but suddenly we are open to God showing his strength to us.

I do not wish suffering or weakness on any of you. But I also know that your weaknesses, your wounds are beautiful. Most of those of you I know well have suffered mightily at some point in your life and that suffering is part of what formed you into the people you are now. You are people who are generous with your time and resources, who are quick to listen or bring a meal, who volunteer countless hours to make your community better. Your suffering is not wasted. Your suffering is redeemed by God and transformed into his Dream.

May God continue to shine through our weakness as we seek to become his beloved community.

Amen.

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2015

First, a note to thank Eric for covering for me last Sunday! It is a great gift to work with a rector who completely understands your need to stay home with a feverish pre-schooler. And thank you all for all your concern. Charlie is just fine, thankfully.

This sermon was written for last week’s lectionary texts, when I was originally scheduled to preach. I encourage you to open your bibles to 1st Corinthians, chapter 8 from which this sermon springs.

On December 27th, a few days after Christmas, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, hit bicyclist Tom Palermo at 2:30 in the afternoon, killing him. She initially fled the scene, and then returned a half hour later. News of this hit and run has been all over newspapers and social media, especially when it was revealed Bishop Cook’s blood alcohol content was .22, which is the equivalent of having consumed at least ten alcoholic beverages. More questions emerged when it turned out that Bishop Cook had been arrested for a DUI in 2010 with a BAC of .27. This DUI had been revealed to the search committee for the Diocese of Maryland, but was not revealed to the larger Diocese.

This whole awful situation has raised many, many questions. Why did she agree to stand for election when she clearly needed help? Why did the search committee not see her previous DUI as a red flag? But Mike Kinman, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Louis has the most interesting question, I think. He writes:

 The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

 What does this say about us?

 What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

 He goes on to say:

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

Phew. Instead of locating the problem solely on Heather Cook’s shoulders, Canon Kinman encourages us to look at our entire church’s relationship with alcohol and addiction. But what do we have to do with Bishop Cook’s problem? We don’t even know Bishop Cook, right?

Believe it or not, Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about idol meat can help us here.

Yes, I know you have been waiting your whole life to hear what Paul has to say about idol meat and today is your lucky day!

Here is the situation at Corinth: You have a new Christian community mixed up of all kinds of different people. A group of “elites” has started to act in really snotty ways. They arrive at communion before everyone else and eat and drink up all the good bread and wine, they think their spiritual lives are way better than everyone else’s, and they happily eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Why would Corinthians even be eating meat sacrificed to idols? Corinth was a diverse town, and there were lots of people for whom worshiping their gods meant sacrificing an animal to their god. After these animals were sacrificed, there would be big social feasts in which the animals would be consumed as part of the meal.

The conflict in the Corinthian Christian community was whether it was appropriate for Christians to eat the food at these parties. After all, it had been sacrificed to a God that was not the Christian God.

The Christian leadership in Jerusalem had decided that there was nothing a person could eat that could defile them. But this was a really, really new idea. The Corinthian elites understood this concept and so thought eating the meat at these parties was no big deal. But there were other people in the community for whom the idea was just horrifying. They had recently become converts and eating the idol meat was just too yucky for them, felt too close to worshiping false gods. The elites thought these conflicted people were stupid, basically, and appealed to Paul to share his knowledge with them.

But Paul turns things around on the Corinthian elites. He tells them that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to say that while the Corinthian elites were technically correct in their understanding of the issue, their knowledge didn’t really matter. What was important was that this issue was becoming a real stumbling block in the faith of the other Corinthians. Paul tells the elites if they sin against members of their family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, they sin against Christ.

The members of the church at Corinth belonged to each other, whether the elites liked it or not. Their welfare as a community hinged on the well being of every member, not just the “knowledgeable” ones.

I believe alcohol may be the Episcopal church’s idol meat. I came to the Episcopal Church after a brief flirtation with more conservative Evangelical traditions. At my first Wednesday night supper at St. James’ Episcopal church in Richmond I was totally stunned and, thrilled frankly, to see wine being served at a church dinner. It was my first clue that the Episcopal Church understood that one could lead a holy life without following all the “rules” so dominant in more conservative traditions. We can dance and play cards and enjoy a beer. I love the freedom of the Episcopal church. I also really enjoy a glass of wine! But I have also been in parishes where police had to be called because of public drunkenness at a church party and where a rector had to wrestle keys out of the hands of an inebriated parishioner. This week Episcopal Relief and Development announced a contest for Dioceses to raise the most money for relief efforts. The prize? A Beer Tasting at General Convention for the winning delegation. The culture of alcohol lives at every level of our church life.

Bishop Cook is far from the first cleric to be an alcoholic. And I’d hate to see the statistics of the numbers of clergy who use alcohol unhealthiy, even if they are not technically alcoholics.

I think Bishop Cook’s arrest is a wake up call for every Episcopal parish. In the spirit of Canon Kinman’s essay, I ask you to help me think about our parish’s relationship with alcohol. I floated a case study about a recovering alcoholic in the ethics Adult Forum I did a few months ago and the general sense was that it was the sole responsibility of the person in recovery to manage her own sobriety. But I think the apostle Paul would argue with us. I think he would ask us to take a hard look at our life together and really look at whether we are causing stumbling blocks for any one in our parish life.

I would love for anyone planning a church function—whether that be a Lenten supper, Ladies’ Night, or a parish retreat—to think really carefully about how alcohol is used in the function. Are parishioners being pressured into drinking? Is alcohol in the foreground or background of the event? Are there elegant alternatives to alcohol? We can probably do better than powdered lemonade.

If you are an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic, I invite you to share with me how you have felt safe or unsafe in our church setting. What can we do to make church a place where you feel respected and supported? Since the nature of recovery is often that those in recovery are anonymous, please feel free to send me anonymous letters if that would be more helpful to you.

This conversation may raise your anxiety levels, especially if you or someone you love in in trouble with alcohol or other addictions. But Canon Kinman has words of encouragement for us around the good news of Jesus Christ:

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus’ saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question — no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.[1]

And to that I add a hearty, Amen.

[1] Kinman, Michael, http://cccdean.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-right-question-about-bishop-cook.html

Proper 9, Year A, 2014

I have fallen down a hole of BBC television programming this summer. My usual shows are over and so I started with Call the Midwife, which is a refreshingly good natured show after six months of Scandal and House of Cards! One of the actresses in that show is a comedienne and writer that has her own half hour sitcom called Miranda. Miranda is hysterical. She is an at least six foot tall woman who is as agile at slapstick as Lucille Ball. Her character owns a joke shop, much to the displeasure of her traditional mother, and has a big crush on the chef next door. One of Miranda’s problems is that every time she gets cornered or nervous she starts to lie. Crazy, elaborate lies that invent dead husbands and children, and fictive jobs that start out in retail and end up in the secret service. In the show, in the middle of one of these elaborate lies she’ll stop and look at the camera with an expression of utter confusion. As if she means to say, “Why am I doing this? How did I end up here?”

She might join the Apostle Paul in crying out, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This is one of the most relatable passages in all Scripture, right? There is nothing that will get me to bake chocolate chip cookies faster than a vow that I’m going to eat healthier. Why are our brains such contrarians? We read this passage and wander down a road of psychological examination. But is that what Paul intended?

In Romans 5-8, Paul takes on the problem of human sin. He understands sin not only as the bad things we do, but also as a power that Christ has come to defeat. When we read Romans we think of ourselves as human beings as the main subject here, the star of the show who dramatically battle with sin. But to Paul, human beings are almost on the sidelines. We have found it impossible to battle sin alone! We need help! The real battle is between sin and God.

A very attractive and wise New Testament scholar, Beverly Gaventa, who also happens to be my mother-in-law, argues that all these “I” statements in Romans 7 aren’t meant to be Paul’s confession of weakness. She believes he is using the “I” in the same way the Psalmists, did, as a way for each person who read or heard Paul’s letters to the Romans identify with this very specific, but universal human condition. After all, the Romans were not hearing this letter from Paul’s mouth. Phoebe, who delivered the letter to them, read it to them, and as it got passed around from community to community, different voices spoke those plaintive sentences. And more specifically, Paul is describing here how the power of sin even corrupts the laws that are supposed to keep us from sinning! Here he is speaking specifically of the Mosaic law—the commandments God gave the Israelites. He is careful to make clear that it is not the law that is sinful. After all, the law is designed to guide us into holy living. But the power of sin is so pervasive that it can even make our relationship to the law broken.

In Immortal Diamond, the book we have been studying this summer, Richard Rohr writes, 

[Religion] is not doing its job if it only reminds you of your distance, your unworthiness, your sinfulness, your inadequacy before God’s greatness. Whenever religion actually increases the gap, it becomes antireligion instead. I am afraid we have lots of antireligion in all denominations.

Now, as educated and liberated Episcopalians, it’s easy for us to point fingers and say, “Oh yes, I see how this principle has corrupted the Catholic Church, which is rife with abuse and cover ups!” Or we might look over to our fundamentalist brothers and sisters and see how rigid rule following has led to powerfully corrupt leaders and wounded followers. We even take some pleasure when some particularly vitriolic pastor ends up falling in a national scandal. But guess what, friends? We are just as likely to get entangled by sin as anyone else. As I was talking about the ideas in this passage with my husband he asked, “Well, for you Episcopalians, your law would be your liturgy, wouldn’t it? How does sin creep up there?” I literally gasped, you guys.

It never would occur to me that our liturgy could become an avenue for sin. For one thing, it’s kind of boring. I mean, when I think about Episcopalians and sin the first thing that comes to mind is alcohol, not Cranmer. We’ve got a lot of money and a lot of creative ways to break the commandments. If I were to write a novel about sin and Episcopalians, it would take place on a yacht or on the Upper East Side and there would be some private school back story that would lead to an affair or murder that took place after drinking way too much expensive Scotch. But you know what would not appear in this novel? Our liturgy! I mean, even in Call the Midwife, which takes place in an Anglican Convent, our Anglican service music is used for its comfort and beauty, for solace in the midst of poverty and suffering.

For me, our liturgy is a place of comfort and safety. Its timeless words remind us of eternal truths that comfort and challenge us. But is it possible that sin can creep in around the corners of our creed and service music? If we are to believe the Apostle Paul, then yes, it certainly can. Perhaps, as liturgy loving people, where we sin is an unwillingness to let the Holy Spirit change us. Perhaps we sin in fearing the new, in being too wedded to our books, pews and bricks and not open enough to the world around us. I don’t know, frankly, I’m too close to it! I love our liturgy and pews and bricks! But next time I, or one of you, get worked up about some change, or some imperfection in the bulletin or some misplaced note in the choral singing, we’ll have a moment of recognition. Ah, sin got me, too!

Sin is so pervasive to the human condition, that we cannot escape it. Sin will creep in to every relationship we have, whether it is with our liturgy or our law. Sin creeps in under the doors of our offices, inside our cars, gets between us and the people we love. Sin separates us from our own will, our own bodies, our own desires. Sin tries to ruin everything good in our lives. Sin tries to ruin us.

We are baptizing Jackson Rector today. His parents and godparents will renounce three things: Satan, evil, and sin. Now, renouncing Satan isn’t that challenging. I’m pretty sure not many of you have ever participated in a Satanic ritual. And if you are gathering at midnight in the cemetery to call upon the name of the dark lord, QUIT IT RIGHT NOW. Renouncing the evil powers of the world is a little trickier, after all you have to sort out what is evil and what isn’t! Are we allowed to wear clothes made my child labor? Should we drive a car if it is going to destroy the planet? Should we speak out about unethical practices at work if it means we’ll lose our job? And renouncing sin? Oh boy. We’ve just discussed how sin is everywhere and after us and how it is impossible to not sin! What is the point of renouncing something that is impossible to avoid?

There’s one little detail we haven’t mentioned yet. Christ has already won the battle with sin. It may not feel like it, since we still struggle with sin, but in theological terms, the battle is OVER. Christ’s death and resurrection means sin only has power over us in this world, and even in this world sin never affects our identity as saved, loved people. Once we die, or when the kingdom of God comes to pass, whichever comes first, the power of sin falls away like dust. So, when we renounce Satan, evil and sin, we are acknowledging Christ’s victory. We aren’t saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, he is never going to screw up!” We’re saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, nothing can stand between him and God.” We’ll get to more of that next week in Romans 8, but in the meantime, next time you feel sin creeping around the door, ready to come after you, you can look it in the eye and say, “Sorry buddy, I belong to Christ, you have no power here.” Thanks be to God.

Proper 15, Year C, 2013

We pick up this week with Hebrews where we left off last week.  The author of Hebrews is trying to inspire and encourage second generation Christians who are starting to question their faith.

He continues his greatest hits account of the Old Testament.  His rhetoric is really ramping up, so he doesn’t get into a lot of details, he just starts rattling off names:  Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.

Except for Samson and David, these are not the usual heroes of the Old Testament.  Even those of you who spent your entire childhood in Sunday School may be drawing blanks when you try to remember their stories.

And when you do hear their stories, you may raise an eyebrow!

Rahab was a harlot who helped out some Israelite spies, Gideon was a warrior against the Midianites who took a lot of convincing to follow God, Barak was Deborah’s general who refused to fight unless she came with him, Samson was a strong warrior defeated by love of the wrong woman, Jephthah ended up killing his own daughter after making a foolish promise to God, and David wasn’t exactly a prince.

These people had faith, but most of them weren’t role models.

And maybe that is why the author of Hebrews chose them as examples.  Because faith is not really about us.  Faith is not some moral characteristic we exhibit.  Faith is a gift from God.  God’s power isn’t dependent on perfect people to act in the world.  In fact, in the Gideon story, God commands Gideon to fire a bunch of his warriors so that the world would know that God, not military might, caused Israel’s military victories.

The author of Hebrews is writing to ordinary people.  Ordinary, scared, discouraged people.  They need to be reminded that the heroes of faith were also ordinary and often scared and discouraged!

And the new Christians needed to be reminded that often these heroes did not even see the end results of their faithfulness.  Abraham and Sarah did not get to see the multiple generations born that would become Israel, Moses never got to enter the promised land, David did not get to see a temple built in Jerusalem.

As we turn towards kick off Sunday next week and the beginning of our Christian Education year let’s think about how these two ideas—that ordinary people can have extraordinary faith and that even the faithful may not see results they hope for—can give us courage to minister to our young people.

Those of you who do not have children or whose children are grown may be tempted to tune out now.  Please don’t.  Remember, the children of this parish belong to you.  Every time you witness a baptism you make a vow to do all in your power to support that person in their life in Christ.  So you’re on the hook here, too!

As you know, we have been searching for a youth minister all summer.  We are very close now, but before this person joins our staff, I want to name something.  When we hire a youth minister, we are going to run a risk of outsourcing our youth’s faith formation to that person.  We are going to run a risk of forgetting that we have all made these promises to the youth in this room.  We run that risk by having a children’s minister on staff, too!

Ministering to children and youth can feel really intimidating!  Kenda Dean, in her book Almost Christian, argues that people avoid teaching junior high and high school Sunday School not because they don’t like teenagers, but they feel like their faith is inadequate to do the job.  Potential volunteers are afraid they don’t know enough about the Bible, they don’t pray enough, that they aren’t faithful enough.

But children and youth learn how to be faithful by being around people who are faithful!  And if everyone abdicates responsibility, we are in a lot of trouble!  Parents are the strongest influence in a young person’s life of faith, but other faithful adults are important, too. Dean argues that a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be a great teacher or mentor to a young person, but they do need to be seeking a life with God.  She writes,

What awakens faith is desire, not information, and what awakens desire is a person—and specifically, a person who accepts us unconditionally as God accepts us.  We may question what we believe, but most of us are pretty clear about who we love, and who loves us.  it is such a preposterous claim—God-with-us (oh please)—that young people are unlikely to believe it unless we give them opportunities to do some sacred eavesdropping on us as we seek, delight, and trust in God’s presence with us.  . . .People are not called to make their children godly; teenagers are created in God’s image, no matter what we do to them, and no matter what they do to disguise it.  The law called upon Jewish parents to show their children godliness—to teach them, talk to them, embody for them their own delight in the lord 24/7.  Everything they needed for their children’s faith formation, God had already given them.  In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.  (Dean p. 120)

The best thing you can do for your child’s life of faith is to seek to deepen your own relationship with God.  It is just as important for you to go to a Bible Study or prayer group as it is for your child to go to Sunday School.  And Sunday School teachers, it is just as important to show children that you understand you are loved unconditionally as it is for you to teach them the ten commandments.

And this is where Hebrews can help us.  Because realizing that the children around us need us to model faithfulness can make those feelings of inadequacy rise up in us like bile.  But God uses ordinary, flawed people.  God’s faith grows in imperfect people.  Are you selfish?  Great, then people will be more impressed when they see God at work in your life.  Are you really materialistic?  Super. Then God’s power will be truly evident when you decide to pledge a little more to church or charity this year.  Are you Biblically illiterate?  Perfect, then you can demonstrate humility by learning Jesus’ parables right along with the second graders.  Are you crazy busy?  Maybe God can’t wait to teach you about the joys of Sabbath.

The other thing that can be frustrating about teaching Sunday School is the lack of obvious results.  You show up week after week and sometimes kids are there and sometimes you have a faithful remnant staring at you blankly.  Sometimes you feel like you are connecting and sometimes you feel like everyone is wasting their time.

But remember our message from last week—faith is the conviction of things not seen.  There is always more going on than we can see.  You may have a child in your class who says not a single word the entire year.  But in twenty years, that child may remember your kindness to him and decide to come back to church.  You just don’t know.

In fact, you kind of have to have faith.

As a church, I hope we will all take a leap of faith to support the children and youth in this place.  I hope we will surround Audi and our youth minister with supportive, encouraging words and actions.  I hope we will show up to teach, to chaperone, or just to give a parent wrestling with small kids in a pew an encouraging smile.

I hope we will, as the author of Hebrews writes, “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Amen.

 

Proper 14, Year C, 2013

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

This is one of the most iconic statements in Scripture.  It has been emblazoned on plaques and embroidered on sweatshirts.  People have cross-stitched it, framed it, and hung in on a thousand living room walls.

But what does it mean?

The author of Hebrews is writing to discouraged, second generation Christians.  These aren’t the disciples who stood with Jesus as he was transfigured and listened to God praise his Son.  These aren’t the crowds that surrounded Jesus and saw his miracles.  These aren’t the friends who noticed the empty tomb and experienced the resurrected Jesus.

These followers of Christ have heard those stories, of course, but those stories are fading.  These followers have been through terrible persecution, seen their friends thrown in jail, know those who have been killed for their faith.  Now they are wondering, “Was it worth it?”  They aren’t seeing any results.  Jesus hasn’t come back.  There has been no revolution.  All they’ve got is the Holy Spirit and some old stories.

The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers. He’s reminding them that faith is more than looking at the evidence around you and sighing in resignation.  Faith requires a person both to look ahead in hope and to look more deeply at the reality around them.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for—faith reminds us that Jesus promised us the kingdom.  Jesus promised us a new way of life.

But faith is also the conviction of things not seen.  That is, faith is the belief that there is more than meets the eye to the present.

Think of our news coverage.  Whether we open the Times-Dispatch or go to the New York Times online or turn on CNN, we are inundated with the fifteen most horrible things that have happened in the entire world the previous day.   On top of that, we are reminded that we are slowly poisoning our planet and that we probably have some terrible disease we just haven’t been diagnosed with yet.  Getting a bird’s eye view of the world is enough to make us want to hide under our covers for the rest of time!

Detroit is a perfect example.  What do you know about Detroit from the news?  Detroit is a big city that has collapsed and is filing for bankruptcy, right?  You probably picture poverty and violence and decay.  And all that is happening.  Buildings are abandoned, some with squatters living inside.  The drug trade and gun violence is all a part of life in Detroit.  But what happens if we have “the conviction of things not seen.”  What if we believe that God is at work in Detroit?

On her wonderful program “On Being”, Krista Tippet interviews people who examine the bigger questions in life, whether they are religious persons, scientists or poets.  Recently she re-aired an interview with a woman named Grace Lee Boggs.  Grace is a 98 year old philosopher who has lived in Detroit for decades.  She and her husband were instrumental in the civil rights movement in the area and she continues to live her life with energy as she tackles the big questions of what it means to be a worker in an era in which all the jobs have left your community.

As Tippett spoke with Boggs and others in Grace’s community, they talked about community gardens which have been springing up in blighted areas. They talked about artists gathering and expressing themselves.  They talked about people in Detroit gathering and breaking bread together, sharing life together.  You heard stories of true community.  Community rooted in love and respect.  Community that sounded quite a lot like a community of God.  There is more than meets the eye in Detroit.  God is at work, even amidst the blight, even if we cannot see that on the evening news.

Abraham and Sarah certainly had to draw on deep reserves of faith.  God send them forth without any real instructions!  God made promises about their offspring that he didn’t fulfill for decades.  Year after year Abraham and Sarah plodded forward, somehow trusting that God was at work, even when promises were not yet fulfilled.

We are not alone in those moments when we wonder whether God is a faithful, loving God.  We are not alone when we have moments in which we think the resurrection story is a little far fetched.  Waaaaay back, just a few years after that resurrection, people were already starting to think it sounded too good to be true.

So how do we nurture our own faith two thousand years, hundreds of generations later?  How do we keep ourselves holding on when the evidence seems thin?  When our own suffering, or the suffering of others makes us start to doubt the presence of God?

The author of Hebrews would encourage us to tell the stories.  Remind ourselves of all the people in the bible, all the people across history who have had encounters with God.  Remember our own stories of God’s faithfulness and listen to the stories of others.  Whether you choose to read about the saints or a more modern memoir of faith by Lauren Winner or Kathleen Norris, reading about the faith of others can encourage our own faith.

Worshiping together can also be helpful.  When a friend first invited me to attend a service at an Episcopal Church, I was a 21 year old evangelical who had just spend the summer on a poorly organized mission trip in Delhi, India.  The trip raised all kinds of questions for me about poverty and God’s work in the world.  It also made me doubt the church, whose cheerful attempts to lead Vacation Bible School amongst people who barely eked out livings in the slums of Delhi seemed patronizing, at best.

I came home uncomfortable in the cheerful, hand clapping worship services of the church I attended.  So, when I walked into the doors of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I did not know what to think.  But then the liturgy started.  And I teared up because for months I had not been able to pray, but now, praying these old prayers in unison with hundreds of other people made me feel deeply connected.  I had never seen the Nicene Creed before and thought it was the most brilliant thing I had ever read.  At the time I had no idea it was a statement of faith that had been cobbled out in the 4th century, but I could tell it was rooted in something deep and true.  I actually still have a scrapbook where I cut the Nicene Creed out of the bulletin because it moved me so much!

When we say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, we say it together and we always say it in the plural.  We help each other keep the faith.  When one of us doubts, another can believe for us.  We may have weeks, months, years at a time when we aren’t able to say the words of the Creed with confidence, but we can stand there silently listening to the chorus of voices around us and remember that faith surrounds us, even if faith is not within us.

And if you are struggling with faith today, know that we will believe for you.  We will hold onto the hope that God is at work in your present and that God has a future for you.

We hold onto the faith together.  No one has to go it alone.

Amen.

 

 

 

Proper 9, Year C, 2013

Listen to the sermon here.

How many of you went to see the film adaptation of Les Miserables that came out last year?

As a former teenage girl, I had been extremely familiar with Eponine’s plot—the poor rejected girl who has to suffer through watching the love of her life choose a soprano. Like many of you former and current teenage girls, I had sung “On My Own” in the shower about 500 times over the course of my life.  Every time some cute boy I had a crush on chose another girl, out would come my double cassette recording of the London production.

So what a shock to watch the film adaptation as an adult and realize that poor Eponine is not the heart of the story at all!  The real meat of the story is not Eponine’s broken heart, Marius and Cosette’s love story, or even Fantine’s extremely dramatic, extremely tuberculer death. The heart of Les Miserables is the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert.

For the two of you who are not familiar with the plot:  Valjean in his youth stole some bread, was locked up for 19 years, released, stole some candlesticks, was forgiven by a bishop, which gave him faith and an inner drive to be a good man.  He changed his identity and became the mayor of a town committed to serving those around him.  Javert, on the other hand, was an upstanding police officer, absolutely committed to justice, who had it in for Valjean and relished the idea of re-arresting him.  There are also revolutionaries and barricades and shifty innkeepers and an orphan girl, but you’ll have to see it to get those stories!

Javert does not care that Valjean has changed his life and is a contributing member of society.  He can only see the former thief, former prisoner in front of him.  They battle throughout the musical.  At one point Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but does not.  Javert is so distressed that Valjean has offered him this grace, that he ends up throwing himself off a bridge into the Seine.  The heart of Les Miserables is a battle between grace and the law.

I don’t know whether God does screenings of movies in heaven, but if he does host a showing of Les Mis, I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul is in the front row with a bucket of popcorn, humming under his breath.

Paul spent a lot of time persuading people that grace was the new order after Jesus’ resurrection.  For the last six weeks or so, our lectionary has led us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

To sum up:  Paul is incredibly irritated with the Galatians.  He skips his customary opening where he spends a paragraph thanking the community for how great it is and just dives in telling them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”  Paul has visited the Galatians and taught them personally all about the grace that Jesus has given them.

Not long after Paul and his friends left Galatia, another group came in and told them that grace was fine, but the Galatians were still going to need to be circumcised if they wanted to be Christians.

Paul then spends five chapters outlining why this is a terrible idea.  Namely that the whole point of Christ’s resurrection was to create a new way for human beings to be reconciled to God, so that human beings no longer had to follow the law perfectly.

Don’t worry, lest things get too crazy, Paul explains that without the law we don’t just go around doing whatever we want to do, but that we now live in tension between the flesh and the Spirit.  The Spirit will give us the power to resist all the same yucky human behaviors from which the Law was designed to protect us.  Instead of walking around stewing in anger, factions, sorcery and drunkness, the Spirit will transform us into people marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.  (Not as exciting, I know.  But in the long run, much better for us!)

So, after five chapters of going on and on about circumcision and what a bad idea it is and how unfaithful the Galatians are being by perpetuating circumcision among new believers, you would think that Paul would end with a really strong finish.  After all, he is defending grace, the core of Christian theology!

Instead Paul writes this:

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

In the Greek the second sentence is much shorter—“Neither circumcision or uncircumcision—but new creation!”

This is how crazy grace is.  Even though Paul is theologically correct in being anti-circumcision, he knows ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Circumcision, uncircumcision—Eh!  Paul cares enough to want the Galatians to have a correct understanding of grace, but he loves Jesus enough to wish the Galatians on either side of the argument peace.

Christ’s resurrection changes the nature of the universe so completely, that our old categories do not apply.  Circumcision and uncircumcision aren’t even relevant. We are in a new creation and we are a new creation.

Jean Valjean lives into this new creation by living a life based on the idea that he is loved and forgiven and called to do good in the world.  But Javert cannot see the new creation, even when it is right in front of his face!  He can only see the old creation, the old rules, the old categories.  He can only see good or bad, criminal or upstanding citizen.  He has no capacity for nuance.  And his lack of imagination kills him.

As Christians we have done a terrible job living in the ambiguity of the new creation.  We love labels! Are you baptized or not? Are you confirmed or not?  Are you Catholic?  Are you Protestant?  Are you a progressive Christian or a conservative Christian?  We love rules.  We love to know who is in and who is out.

When I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college we had a problem.  We were a pretty conservative group who spent a lot of time worrying about whether we were following the rules correctly. But even though we were conservative, there was another group on campus that was snatching our members because they thought they were the only denomination that was following Biblical rules correctly. The International Church of Christ  recruited members on many college campuses and may still be operating.  When they pursued our members they would make it clear that the student’s faith was not adequate.  If they had not undergone a believer’s baptism, followed the doctrine of the ICoC, and actively recruited disciples, they were not real Christians.

Not many of our group left to join the ICoC, but a handful did.  There was something compelling to them about having external rules to follow that let them know they were being faithful to God.  There was a safety in law.  With a strict law, their faith could be measured and found adequate.

As Episcopalians, we have the uncomfortable job of living in a lot of ambiguity.  Because our church is rooted in how we worship, rather than what doctrine we believe, sometimes what we believe can feel rather loosey goosey.  But I think the advantage to the way we do things, is that we are forced to actually turn to the Holy Spirit when we are making a decision, rather than following a universal set of rules.  And the fifth chapter of Galatians is a fabulous way to check in about whether we are following the Spirit.  Are our lives marked by enmity and jealousy and out of control behavior? Or are we slowly developing patience and love and joy?

And to be fair, Episcopalians do have hundreds of pages of Church Canons and we even pay church lawyers, so we probably don’t completely understand that we are living in a new creation, either!

What would our lives look like if we lived lives like Jean Vanjean’s, rooted in a deep knowledge of God’s grace?  What risks might we take?  What forgiveness might we offer others?  What forgiveness might we offer ourselves?  May God give us the gift of insight into his expansive, generous grace that welcomes all of us into a new creation.   Amen.