Saturday, April 15, 2017

Unnamed Discipleship

Sermon for Good Friday
John 18:1-19:42

"Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. "

Last year I had the privilege to be in the place where all of this happened. It’s in Jerusalem, in the Old City. The Old City is not as old as the city described in the New Testament, which can be confusing to tourists. That city, in the gospels for instance was smaller even that the small Old City of Jerusalem is now. The current Old City is less than a half square mile in area, though it feels a great deal larger when you are in it.

Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane which is a walk of, I’d say, less than a half hour to the temple where the high priest Caiaphas would have been. Then another short walk to the south eastern part of the city that housed the headquarters of Pilate. Finally, it is a short walk to Golgotha where Jesus was executed by crucifixion and his tomb is not more than 200 feet from there. All told I suppose one could walk from the top of the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, to the Temple, to the Roman Headquarters, and then on to the cross and tomb in a half day. I suppose lots of tourists do that every day, I know I have.
The Church that has been built on the location of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is called the church of the Holy Sepulchre. 

Soon after Jesus’ ascension Christians began to meet at the tomb and at Golgotha to pray and share the meal. This became a nuisance to the Empire so they filled in the old expired quarry that had been turned into a Jewish cemetery and where they used to crucify people, they filled it in and, to add insult to injury, erected a Temple to Venus. Years later Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, using an ancient travelogue as a guide, excavated the old site of the tomb and place of crucifixion, and established the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century.
The Temple is no longer there of course, destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman Empire, all that remains is the western retaining wall that holds up the small mount that used to hold the Temple. 

The headquarters of the Empire are, of course, perfectly preserved.

My point I suppose on all this is to try to drive home the reality of all this. All of this happened: the crucifixion of Jesus, his death, his burial, his arrest. It is all too real, and, as we focus more on the fact of all this, I am struck by a particular aspect of the story that might be the most real. It’s not about Jesus, or Pilate, or even Peter, it’s about another disciple who is not even named in this scene.
If you look at what this disciple is doing in this story today, a great deal is revealed. First we see that after the arrest of Jesus this unnamed disciple is known to the High Priest. Being known to the High Priest means that the disciple is able to invite Peter in. Being known to the High Priest, this disciple is able to walk in the areas of power, indeed he is able to share his privilege and include others. This disciple has one foot in the cultural and societal power structures of the world and one foot in the radically dangerous, loving Kingdom of God in Jesus.
Now, once this disciple has secured Peter’s entry into the courtyard of the Temple we have Peter’s famous denials of Jesus. Much has been made of these denials, and rightly so: all of us have denied Jesus at one time or another, probably most of us do so on a regular basis. But what we don’t have in this scene is the denial of that unnamed disciple of Jesus. This unnamed disciple is not asked about Jesus, he is not interrogated.
While some of us are Peter and we deny Jesus, all of us are really this unnamed disciple walking in two worlds, one in discipleship to Jesus but also wielding significant cultural power of one kind or another. Furthermore we are this unnamed disciple because we have the privilege of not being interrogated about our allegiance to Jesus. That disciple could have spoken up and said, “I am one of his disciples,” but he didn’t. He simply let Peter get questioned. If I know people, then I would wager that this unnamed disciple even was aghast and indignant at Peter’s denials of Jesus. Yet that unnamed disciple was never questioned and thus stayed safe with an intact integrity knowing that he was pure and good and on the right side of history.
We are this unnamed disciple. We are walking in two worlds, one of power and privilege and one of knowing the expansive, boundary breaking world of Jesus. But it is not simply that we are bi-cultural. The fact of our privilege in the world allows us to be quiet in our discipleship, to avoid interrogation and, when it serves our purposes to silently deny Jesus.

As we stand here at the cross it is time to give that unnamed disciple a name be it Josh, Russ, Budd, Mary, …. That disciple needs a name. Claim your name and identity as a disciple of Jesus. Do not remain silent for when the powerful are silent then they are complicit in the injustices of the world. Come out of the shadows and boldly distinguish yourself as a disciple of the one who was obedient to God even unto death on a cross.

Monday, January 30, 2017

We Need to Talk

Sermon for Epiphany 4A
Micah 6:1-8
You know what? I’m a grown man. I’m not afraid of the dark, anymore. I can walk confidently through most days. It’s good to be a grown up. Yet, while I’m a grown up, there is one phrase that strikes fear deep into my heart.
“We need to talk.”
 Have you ever noticed that the phrase, “We need to talk,” is not an invitation to light-hearted conversation? “We need to talk,” means that we need to have a foundational, likely overdue, conversation. For example, my wife has never said, “We need to talk,” and then we chatted about a t.v. show or a weekend away. “We need to talk,” is always serious and about clearing out a block in the relationship.
Whenever I hear those words I also get a little nervous, what did I do? I imagine my wife feels a little nervous when I say the same thing. Even though I’m nervous I know that what lies on the other side of that conversation is a stronger, truer version of us as a unit. Sometimes I’ve had to sit down with some of you and talk, and some of you have emailed and called and said effectively: “Josh, we need to talk.”
How about you, what’s your experience with that phrase, “We need to talk,”? It’s almost never good when your boss has that conversation, or if you are the boss and call that conversation, it may not go well. But, if the relationship is equal then that conversation is about clarity. But then again almost no relationship is equal, or equal across all domains. But if love and respect is present then the need for talk can be healing and offer a window to strengthen the relationship.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear from the prophet Micah. It’s an awfully famous passage, indeed I’d wager that it’s probably the only bit from Micah that any of us have heard, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s a pretty good and pithy statement of what life ought to be in response to God. In fact, I’ve even seen that some churches have this passage as a sort of mission statement. But most of us might not know that what brought about this whole statement in the first place was that God saying to the people: “We need to talk.”
So what brought about this serious talk? If you look at the passage, you will see that God says, through the mouth of the prophet Micah: Hear what the Lord says: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” This is actually a funny play on words because the word, or rather, the name Israel means “to contend with God.” It was the name given to Jacob after wrestling with the angel after which he received a crippling wound and a new name: Contending with God, Israel. So the people of God have this relationship with God but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is a contentious relationship, an in this passage God brings up a controversy that he has with the people who have been contending with him for a long time.
Not only does God have a controversy, have a problem to discuss, but God is making it public, he wants the mountains and the hills to hear what’s going on. The created order is invited to hear this controversy. God says, ““O my people, what have I done to you? In what ways have I wearied you? Answer me! We need to talk. Here the controversy is laid bare: the people of God, both them and us, have treated God as if we are weary of him.
We’ve all be here haven’t we? We grow weary of those closest to us. We get . . .  I don’t know, too comfortable, too familiar and we forget basic kindnesses and respect. We need to reset ourselves, we need to talk. That’s what’s going on here: the people of God are weary of God.
So God decides to remind them of their history with him, he recounts their emancipation from slavery under the Egyptians, about the leaders he gave them, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. God goes on to reference other wonderful acts of his presence among them.
Now, if I were counseling a couple I might ask one side of the couple to not bring up the past so strongly, that it sets the other in a defensive posture and that they should instead move forward from the present in mutuality and co-equal respect. But in this instance, the couple is not equal. God is God, and they are not. God is not our buddy, God is not our Jiminy Cricket conscience, God is God: the one who gives us life, breath, and being, from whom all our works are begun, continued, and ended. So I think we can give God a little leeway here.
It’s actually interesting how God reminds them of the history that they share because throughout a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is the people who are reminding God to remember the covenant they have made. But he reminds them and then the voice changes, now the people respond: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” They have had the talk, there is clarity: God is God and you are not. Now what? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” The people are wondering how to respond to the gracious gifts that God has brought. How to respond? How to pay back a never failing avalanche of graces? Let’s try, they say, “How about burnt offerings, how about 10,000 rams, how about tens of thousands of rivers of oil, how about my child?” They get it now, they’ve had the talk, they want to respond to God’s love and grace, and they are getting crazy with it. But in their craziness they realize the extremes of grace that God has gone to, so they want to match that extreme.
What comes next is, to me, like God taking the people and saying, “Shh…shh,…you know what I want? I don’t need all these gifts, here is what I want: I want you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Can you do that? That’s all I want, I don’t need the sacrifice, I want you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me.”
It’s so simple. But difficult. I daresay that most of us would much rather get the rivers of oil and sacrifice the rams than do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.
You’ll note here a few things. Most importantly the prophet doesn’t say, “What does the Lord request?” It says, “require.” Relationship with God has certain requirements that are necessary for the deepening and strengthening of that relationship.
Next we see that God wants us to do justice. Do justice. Not dream of justice. Not wish for justice, not think about justice, but do justice. This is one area where I actually disagree with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m not so sure. There is nothing natural about justice, justice doesn’t just spring up or evolve on its own. Justice has to be done, justice has to be done by individuals in ways both small and large.
If you are not sure where to start I have two suggestions. The first is to simply, and  perhaps most difficult, be keenly aware of how you might be allowing unjustice exist in your tiny realm of influence. Once the subtle racisms and sexisms are found you can begin to undermine them, to do justice. My other suggestion for doing justice is to think big but act small. For example, there is a the Refugee Support Services group that meets at the Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte that meets close to here on central Avenue. Go, take the Refugee 101 course, it’s free and takes less than an hour. There you will learn about the long plight of a refugee who, by the way, God demands our care of consistently in the Scriptures. Then, of you want, through the Refugee Support Services you can choose to befriend a refugee family. Not to fix, not to convert, not to make like you, but to befriend, to be with.
If that’s too much involvement for you then do justice with advocacy. Did you know that North Carolina and only one other state try 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the court system. What kinds of decisions were you making at 16, were they adult decisions? Friends, we need to stop thinking about justice and do justice. If you want to know more about do justice in this area search Raise the Age NC and you can find a petition and other resources.
God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him. Loving kindness is interesting. We are to be attracted to kindness, to love it. To be kind, not nice, there is a difference.
Finally, to walk humbly with our God. This gets to the core of our existence. To walk humbly with God is to know that there is a God that has graced us with everything. That God is God and that we are not. The humble bit here doesn’t get as much press in the church as the walk humbly bit, including in this sermon. But to know God, is to know that we are properly humble before God’s holiness and that there is no good in us, except through God.

All of this started because God said, “We need to talk.” And I’m glad that God did have that talk. Whenever these hard talks occur however, when love and commitment are present, which they always are with God, on the other side of these talks there is deeper love and commitment as well as a renewed understanding of what the relationship is. Our relationship with God is first and foremost a relationship, we must never be scared away by God’s holy otherness, but that God has requirements to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dreaming and a Dog Jesus

Sermon for Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23
Last night I dreamed that all but ten of you heard this sermon. The rest of you walked out in protest. Hopefully that won’t happen in real life. Dreams are funny, especially in the telling, they reveal a deep truth. So perhaps I’m a little anxious about the content of this sermon because I need to hear this one especially.
Image result for archbishop of york
 Anyway, in my dream the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and other dignitaries were there, as were a few of my seminary classmates, and since I don’t see any of them here, I think we are safe. The funny thing in the dream was that you all came back for the Creed, so you were definitely protesting the sermon, but you were committed to Trinitarian Christianity, so that’s good. That’s the thing about my dreams in particular, they are strange, but perfectly reasonable. There are no unicorns or hobbits in my dreams, everything really could happen. My wife finds this to be rather boring: my dreams are just reality, but slanted.
Come to think of it, that is what Jesus was after: a slanted reality. A reality where everything is the same, but everything is different, where somehow the lighting has changed so that we see more of reality. It’s in this slanted reality and his invitation to it that we catch up to him today in our gospel.
Jesus begins his ministry because of the arrest of John the Baptist. There is continuity in the two ministries of John and Jesus,but they are not the same: John was preaching the repentance of sins, Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven. Today we see that Jesus begins calling disciples. There is a word in these accounts of Jesus calling his followers that always interests me that word is, “immediately.” “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Immediate. There is no waiting. There is no preparation. There is no, “waiting for the right time,” or the right season of life. They follow him immediately. Following Jesus is a right-here, right-now occasion. None of us can ever be prepared for following Jesus: it’s not that kind of thing. You get prepared for following Jesus by following Jesus. I want to say to anyone who is thinking about going deeper in their spiritual lives, or committing to an outreach mission, just do it, follow Jesus immediately, come with us, we don’t know exactly what’s going on either, but Jesus is leading us into some interesting territory.
Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Now, we Christians believe that Jesus is the perfect icon, the most-full manifestation, of the God of love that the world has ever encountered.  When Jesus leads us, he leads us onto more and more profound avenues of love. That is the way of Jesus, as a spiritual and political path.
Now, don’t get antsy, I can’t have you walking out on me, I know you won’t, because the part where you leave, isn’t this part, it’s in a minute. Anyway, the way of Jesus is the way of love, as a spiritual and political path. By politics I mean any public act, yes it can be voting and advocacy but it also means how you buy, sell, work, parent, be a friend, or talk to any of your neighbors. The way of Jesus is the way of love. When we follow Jesus we are lead more and more into love.
So, my questions for you today is: how is that going? This is the part of the sermon where you walk out. Is your love for others total or have you left a few people out? Have you followed Jesus into every avenue of your life or is there one person that you have walled off from Jesus’ leading? You see we can do that, even though we follow Jesus, we can still direct him. Jesus is so non-violent that he will allow us to forbid him to go into certain areas of our lives. It’s as if we say, “Yes Jesus I will follow you but not over here, or over there, and that place over there, you can go there in a year.” Do you see what I am saying?
Where have you walled off Jesus’ way of love in your life? Is it in your family’s past? Perhaps your college roommate. Maybe you have walled off Jesus’ leading in how you make a living or in your sex life. Maybe you have refused to love the mayor, our our governor, or our president.
You see, when we remove even one person from our love, from Jesus’ guidance, we are showing that our following of Jesus into love is not complete. As one of my spiritual mothers says, “When we leave one person out of our love, or commit one act of un-kindness, we are revealing that our so-called love is only there because it pays.[1]
“We are revealing that our so-called love is only there because it pays.” We are admitting that since there is even one that is walled off from Jesus’ leading that we aren’t following him at all, we are in fact leading himWe are treating Jesus not as our lord but as a dog that is leashed. Yes, he walks ahead of us, but we are the ones who are leading. 
Image result for dog on a leash (All Gods must be kept on a leash)

“Oh Jesus I love that you are leading me, No! Not there! Bad Jesus, let’s not walk over there. Good Jesus, we don’t walk over there, that area, that person is undeserving of my love.”
“When we leave one person out of our love, or commit one act of un-kindness, we are revealing that our so-called love is only there because it pays.” That one person that you don’t love, it shows that the entire system, your entire well-meaning-ness is really just a cottage industry of quid-pro-quo of affection and respect based on the condition of pleasing you. Jesus wants to trample that old system and set up a new one of unconditioned love, and he has empowered you to do it too.
Now, when we found that we have not been following Jesus into certain places and relationships, we are not lost or even bad, but we have the opportunity to, just as those first disciples did, to immediately follow Jesus into all of life. Immediately, not later, not soon, not once we have a moment to deal, immediately.
Love does not mean approval by the way. We seem to have forgotten that. Love does not mean approval. We can love, we can be lead into love by Jesus, even though we might be actively opposing a given person or policy. We are called to follow the lord of love more deeply into love. We can pray for those we love, and we can actively oppose them, that is possible. But what I expect from all of you is love.
I implore you, please, please allow Jesus the Lord of Love to lead you into every corner of your lives. Let him illuminate all the darkness that you don’t let love into. If you allow him in, he will transform you. Even those you do not like and who are evil, you can love and fight even more, but you will love them.
You’re still here.
Must have just been a dream.
I’m glad. I’m glad you are here. In fact, I hope you believe me when I say, I love you.

[1] Ruth Burrows OCD, TO Believe in Jesus, 523

Monday, October 31, 2016

A wee little man in the present tense

Sermon for Proper 26 C
Luke 19:1-10

I have mentioned in the past about the childhood Bible that I had, its images still figure prominently on the landscape of my spirit. I can still vividly recall the image of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus up in the tree, the illumined face of Jesus up-turned to him.
Today’s Gospel story is very familiar and it is featured in every children’s bible or comic gospel I’ve ever seen. I suppose that’s because children like climbing trees.
The way that we usually read this story is that Jesus invites himself to sit with Zacchaeus and the mere invitation and meal is enough for Zacchaeus to turn over a new leaf and give half his possessions to the poor and plan to give back four times what he may have cheated out of people. This reading makes sense to us because it fits our normal understanding of how God works in our lives, we confess our evil, repent, and then are forgiven. Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." Cause and effect. It makes a whole lot of sense: Zacchaeus, that short man in both stature and social standing, is a sinner in need of repentance.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. As we know the tax collectors worked for the empire and could add a little to the bill for their own payment. They were especially hated by the natives probably because the tax collectors themselves were natives. It’s one thing to be the occupying empire, it is quite another to collaborate with them. In the first century the people commonly referred to the tax collectors as sinners, as a group, because for them the activity of collecting taxes was especially heinous; it was a sin against God and neighbor to do what they were doing and they became rich from it. Tax collectors were sinners because their livelihood was enmeshed with their sinful actions.
The usual reading of this passage has Jesus, the forgiver, walking into a sinful life in order to redeem it. I like that reading because it makes sense to me, I have lived that life. I have found myself to be living out of right relationship with God or my neighbor, or even myself, I have confessed and I have felt God’s forgiving love. Haven’t you?
But I don’t think that is what’s going on in the story. And the reason I don’t think so is, unfortunately, for grammatical reasons. I’ll get to that in a minute, first let’s look again at the story.
The passage says that Zacchaeus is short, but the Greek word there (elikia) could mean short in stature, age or time of life, or even maturity. So Zacchaeus could just be young, or maybe he’s grown-up, yet immature! Maybe that’s why this rich, up and coming tax collector, who manages a bunch of other tax collectors sees nothing at all wrong with climbing a tree: he’s young at heart and just doesn’t care what people think. When my kids climb trees they certainly aren’t worried what people will think, they climb trees because they want to!

So Jesus spots him, Jesus looks up to the see the small Zacchaeus. Jesus is able to spot Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. It seems that this is the first lesson of this passage; Jesus will always find those who seek him. If you want to find Jesus, you will find him.
Anyway, Zacchaeus accepts Jesus’ invitation to invite Jesus over for dinner and as soon as they get inside, once they get through the crowd that is scandalized that Jesus is eating with such a sinner, Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his things to the poor and he will pay back four times as much to anyone he may have cheated.
Except that’s not what Zacchaeus says.
I know that what the text says, but that’s not what it says.
You see, as part of my weekly discipline, to  actually pray with the scripture, I have to force myself to read slowly, and the best way that I have found to do that is to read it in Greek, and  because my Greek is not nearly as good as it used to be; I have to look words up. So to read and understand these ten verses it might take me a half hour of slow, plodding, yet revealing effort.
What I found was that Zacchaeus doesn’t say that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and that he will pay back those who he has cheated, instead what he says is that he gives half of his things to the poor, he pays back anyone he has cheated. It’s all in the present tense. In fact in the grammatical structure of Greek what Zacchaeus says is called the iterative-present, he has been doing those things in the past and he is doing them in the present.
In the version of the Bible that we almost always use in this church, the New Revised Standard Version, the translators have decided to place Zacchaeus’ statement to Jesus in the future tense, he will do these things. The implication is that because of his encounter with Jesus he will change his ways. He is having his Ebenezer Scrooge moment, he will change.
The notion of whether Zacchaeus is doing the good deeds in the present or will in the future, to me is crucial. Once I discovered that the Greek used the present tense, I did a quick online search and found that 6 out of the 24 most used translations of the Bible in English use the future tense, and the remaining 18 use the present tense. Zacchaeus says, “Lord I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I find that I have cheated anyone, I pay them back four times as much.”
Who cares? Why does all this matter? Why does all this comparison and grammatical rigmarole matter?
It matters because if Zacchaeus has this encounter with Jesus and then promises amendment of life, well that’s actually a really good thing. But if we see that Zacchaeus has been giving to the poor and making right with those he may have accidently cheated all along, well that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If we hear the past and present activity of this sinner, this person who the entire community reviles, if we see that he is in fact more than simply just, that he is living a salvation-life, well then we have a problem.
You see, when we read Zacchaeus as promising some future event, then when Jesus’ statement that “Today salvation has come to this house,” we read that as centered on Jesus only. Now, that’s not bad, and I’m no heretic, as you may have noticed, I am a huge fan of Jesus.
But when we read the Zacchaeus has been just and giving all along, we find that Jesus is in a place of discovery, he exclaims, perhaps loud enough for those who are outside and wouldn’t be caught dead with someone like Zacchaeus, “Wow! Salvation has come to this house! Here is a son of Abraham!”
Indeed the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, but Zacchaeus’ lost-ness has more to do with the fact that his community and the system in which they are forced to live has made them all take up sides. In Jericho the people could not even conceive of a situation whereby a chief tax collector could be anything other than a sinner, a traitor, and a collaborator.
Most of us who know this story from of old might think of Zacchaeus as a sniveling little miser who finally got right with God. But the story actually shows this very righteous, good person who is also very hated by his community. Jesus then is the bystander in the story who recognizes the wonder that God has been at work even in the evil system of taxes, military occupation, social stratification, and judgement. Jesus is there to recognize and declare that salvation is there, that God seeks people through whatever boundaries a society has set up.
Jesus then is the one who accepts the invitation to witness to God’s work in the most intractable, divisive situations. And since that’s what Jesus does, then you can bet that that is precisely what we are meant to seek: God working in unlikely places.
Now, if only we were, I don’t know, engaged in a sharply divided political landscape. If only we had an economic situation that pits us against them, where we judge each other harshly. If only we had a system in our city whereby we demonize certain groups with zero sense of history or even common sense.
It’s simple folks: Who is your enemy? Who is the one that you know is sinful? I’ll give you a sec to figure that out. Who is sinful, who, in your mind, is clearly working against the purposes of God? Now, invite yourself over to their house. I can guarantee that God is up to something in that person’s life, and you will get the joy of discovering it just as Jesus did.
Jesus knew exactly who and what Zacchaeus was: a rich, chief tax collector. He had every right to dismiss Zacchaeus as less-than. But he decided to see what Zacchaeus was all about, and he discovered that God was already at work.
Are you brave enough to be like Jesus, to be willing to enter the life of the one our community knows is oh so very sinful? Are you brave enough to listen for God even in dark corners?
Don’t be surprised by the way if you find that someone else thinks you’re the sinful one.
You don’t have to actually go over to their house, but you might. Enter their lives, see what they are about, above all listen. Look for God, and just as Zacchaeus looked for Jesus and found him, you too will find God.
Y’all we need this right now. We need this. Our community is hurting just as much as Jericho was hurting 2000 years ago. The election is not going to fix our problems either, in fact I think it will make things worse. The only thing that can heal our community is if there are a great many sinners going out and looking for Jesus, looking for God at work in each other’s lives.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Temptation, Revelation, Anger: an Installation Sermon for Rev. Suz Cate and Holy Trinity, Clemson

Feast of St. Luke
I just got back from a week at the beach. It wasn’t all fun and games, it was actually a little soul-wrenching and head-checking because I was there for the Credo Conference. Credo is a ministry of the Episcopal Church, namely the Church Pension group. The idea of Credo is to assess the health and vitality of your life in the areas of spirituality, mental and physical health, vocation, and financial. I was there with 22 complete strangers, all of whom are now friends. We came from all over the church with all kinds of interesting and creative ministries. I’m happy to report that the Episcopal Church cares very much for her priests.
You see, being ordained, being a deacon or a priest, or a bishop, is strange work. It is so integrated that sometimes us collared folk lose sight of where we end and the church begins. It’s tough work. Like the bishop says in Les Misarable, the novel, which is actually a wonderful piece of Christian literature, he says, “Just as the coal miner emerges from the mine covered in the soot and grime of his work so too does the priest.” This happens to everyone of course, but priests get an especially high dose of the highs and lows of human experience, and it can be jarring spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
So this Credo conference is all about best practices for living a healthy life and they offer desert at every meal and late night snacks. I actually think that the folks who run Credo just put this stuff out and when they clean up they take note of what is left to gauge whether we are all listening to the health recommendations. On one of the final nights I was staying up late with several of my new friends playing a game. As we played we were all in close proximity of a tray of cookies. Now, I’m no bastion of self-control obviously, in fact I had had two cookies already, but as the game went on the chocolate and toffee in these cookies were assaulting me. Others made mention of the wonderful cookies. Finally, I reached over, grabbed the tray, and offered them to everyone. One person said, “No! Get behind me Satan! I a planned the work and I’m working the plan! No thank you!” Others chimed in too that they were trying to be healthier. Encouraged by their self-control, I abstained and the desire for cookie goodness evaporated. It passed.
Temptation. It’s tough. But having others around to help you through it, that’s the key. Have you had that, have you had a moment of temptation and then just the smallest of nudges from someone else brought you on the right path immediately? Perhaps for you it was a time that you were about to bad-mouth someone and throw them under the bus and then the person you were with said something good about the one you were about to malign; and you stood down. Perhaps you were about to break your sobriety but chose a meeting instead. Maybe you were tempted to cheat at school but decided to just do your best and let the chips fall where they may.
I’m talking about this because today’s gospel reading, chosen for the feast of St. Luke could not be better for this occasion, and it has something to do with temptation. It’s the story of Jesus going home to Nazareth and reading in the synagogue. He reads this passage from Isaiah. “The spirit is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, give sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus says, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is saying that what Isaiah was talking about 250 or more years before Jesus was born is happening right then and there in that synagogue and it is centered on him.
And for us, since it is centered on Jesus, that means through our baptisms that this activity, these reversals: sight to the blind, freedom to prisoners and oppressed, and good news to the poor, since we are baptized into Jesus, this is our life and work too. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Israel, he is the Year of the Lord’s favor he is the release to prisoners and he is the sight of the blind.
That’s us, that’s our work. And on this occasion tonight, where we celebrate the beginning of a new relationship between a priest and a parish, I cannot think of a better choice of a person to continue to lead you into the work and life of Jesus. Suz, who I have known for about 8 years, is a person who walks closely with Jesus taking her cues from him and not much else. This is who the church needs, a person dedicated to Jesus Christ to the exclusion of all. That doesn’t mean she won’t care for you and the various ministries of this parish, it actually means that she will love you and the ministries of the parish more deeply than she could have on her own. But it also means that with her powerful commitment to Jesus she will sometimes be critical of the activities of this parish. She will ask good questions. She will call attention to every elephant that a room can hold. And it will be uncomfortable. But it’s good because she is, in her questions and her leading, bringing you closer to Jesus who brings good news to the poor and release to the oppressed, and then you will do that work too.
Which brings me back to the temptation. You see, this passage where Jesus asserts that God’s way of doing things has been most revealed in him comes right after Jesus’ time in the desert, where he is tempted by the Devil. So this great revelation, this wonderful expression of what we are about, about our work and mission comes right after temptation. Now, what follows tonight’s passage is a scene where Jesus criticizes some of those in the synagogue and they get angry, real angry, like run-out-of-town-on-a-rail-and-they-tried-to-throw-him-off-a-cliff angry.
Revelation of God and the purpose of our life and work sits right between temptation and anger. It’s a narrow way too. In Luke there is more room and real estate given to the temptation story and the part about Jesus making everyone mad than to this great proclamation that God has come powerfully in Jesus. The work we do and the abiding presence of Jesus sits cozily between temptation and anger.
Here’s what I mean: I will now talk just to this congregation. Suz, plug your ears.
Friends. She’s the real deal. That’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. She will poke you where it hurts, where you are tender. She will be looking for Jesus in the most unlikely places and you need to join her in this. But sometimes you will be tempted to hold on to your pet project, your little fiefdom. Don’t fall into that temptation. Sometimes you will though, and you’ll go right from temptation into full on anger because this Jesus is threatening the way things have always been done.
Now, Suz. I want to talk to just Suz, so you all plug your ears. These folks are the real deal. And that’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. They will squeal when you poke them where it is tender. But they will also show you where Jesus is in this place and in this city. But sometimes you will be tempted to start your own pet project, or not listen very deeply. Don’t fall into that temptation. But sometimes you will, you’ll go from temptation into full on anger because Jesus is threatening the way you think things ought to be.
Ok, ears unplugged. I said ears unplugged!!
Here’s the thing. You have each other to help you through temptation and anger to keep on that narrow path between them, staying with Jesus and his work of release and Good News.
Just like my new friends were able help to be strong against the temptation to stuff my face with cookies, so too will all of you together be able to see temptation and anger when they arise, confront and deal with it in love, head-on so that this community can become more true to God’s call in this city.
The good relationship between a rector and her parish is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t just happen. A healthy church is one where people realize and own their strong feelings of involvement and mission. I’m not telling you to become indifferent to your projects and missions, to the way things are done here, that is all important, vital even, but it must be tempered with the fact of Jesus Christ: that God’s favor has come powerfully among you all and that you have work to do, work with each other and work with those who you haven’t met yet.

As this church that has been walking with Jesus all along joins hands with Suz who has been walking with Jesus as well; my hope and prayer is that each of you will allow the God of release, sight, liberation, and Good News to anoint you for the work of God. And when you receive that anointing anew, well: brace yourselves.

Friday, October 14, 2016

God and Gasoline

This past Monday I departed Charlotte on my way to the Credo conference. Credo is clergy wellness conference that the Church Pension Group sponsors. The idea is to assess all areas of our lives: physical, mental, spiritual, vocational, and financial so that we can continue to be healthy, happy, productive people for God. Now, I had some concerns about this conference because it was being held at Salter Path NC, on the Atlantic coast, hurricane Matthew was in that very spot a few days prior to my departure. On Sunday I received a call that the storm had passed and it was all systems go for the conference.

As I left Charlotte and approached the small hamlet of Hamlet NC, I noticed that there were lots of people in line at the gas stations: lots, like maybe a ¼ mile of cars lined up. I called the conference center to ask them if anything was wrong between Hamlet and Salter Path, “Well, no, things are fine, we all lost power for a few days but I guess people are now able to get out. You know, some folks panic.” So I kept driving on, eventually I myself needed to stop for gas and stopped near Whiteville, the first three gas stations I stopped at had no gas or power. All of them had signs on the doors with my new least-favorite words “No gas, cash only.”

Once I drove through Whiteville by way of some back road, dodging giant oaks that were partially in the road and driving carefully across inches deep water, I noticed that the entire city was without power and was indeed in great crisis. I decided to just keep moving, to get on 74 East and hope for the best. 74 was closed by police in either direction. I asked the police how to best get to Salter Path, they didn’t know, they weren’t local. So I let the navigation software do the work, I found an alternate route and got going. 

Soon after leaving town I found that the road I was supposed to take had turned into a river, a very large active river. I made a note of that on the navigation software and pulled over to consider my options. I called my wife. She basically became Houston to my Apollo mission. She checked and called for places that had gas. We found one in the next town, Clarkton, just a few miles to the north. My gas was really low at this point but Clarkton looked to only be about 8 miles away; I’d limp there as much as possible and then perhaps need to walk if I ran out of gas. I can be a little slow on the uptick so it was then that I realized that Hamlet was basically my last chance for gas many miles ago, indeed I had been in a trap for a long time before I even realized it.

About three miles out of Whiteville I ran out of gas.

Running out of gas is one thing. Running out of gas in a disaster area is quite another. I was no longer a tourist passing through and gawking at the damage, safely ensconced in my security. I was now a local. I didn’t know what to do and I could feel myself panicking. A very long convoy of fire trucks rolled past me on the way to Whiteville. I got out of the car, breathed. I prayed for Jesus to be with me, a prayer practice that I do daily: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner. I love this prayer, it has saved me so many times. Mercy of course means to have compassion and presence. Jesus be with me in this moment. I was safe, mostly. I had breath and heartbeat. I weighed my options and stuck out of thumb.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever hitchhiked before. It’s interesting. You can make eye contact with people as they drive past. Here I was, nice chubby guy in Costco slacks, brown leather shoes, gingham button down shirt, and Ray-Bans. No one stopped. But after a couple of minutes an older black man in a 1992 Cougar (I learned all this about his car later) stopped and asked if I was out of gas. “Yes.” “OK, you want to come with me to Clarkton and get gas?” “Yes please.” He was driving in caravan with his son-in-law so he grabbed his son-in-law’s gas can and off we went. First off I realized that Clarkton would be no quick drive, the road that lead directly there was closed due to flooding. We had to take many detours.

The man who stopped is named Kenteny. I learned a lot about him. I learned that his son in law is a preacher. I learned that Kenteny is unemployed. He is a strong believer in God. His wife caters weddings and events. He smokes. He also was in Whiteville helping a friend there and was on his way home in Clarkton, he was hoping not to run out of gas. He called me Preacher Man after I told what I do for a living. After a half-hour of driving we made it to Clarkton, walking would have been disastrous.

There was a very long line at the gas station. We got in line and waited, it would be a long wait. 

I kept thanking him, knowing that I was pressing my luck with him. He certainly didn’t anticipate all this. As we waited I scoped out the situation, went into the gas station. They had power but the internet was down and so was the phone so that meant no credit cards: cash only. No problem, I’ll just use the ATM: “broken cable,” on account of the internet I suppose. I went across the street knowing that cash was the only option. Strike two. There was a bank, last option. Praise be unto Jesus! It worked. Cash in hand I went to the Subway to get me and Kenteny lunch. They were sold out of almost everything so I got us steak, the only meat left. Cash only of course.

We ate in the car. Talked. Watched funny things happen like this young man and his horse. 

He was showing off for a while but then he started taking kids on rides. There was a young white kid who stuck his head in “our” car and chatted us up for an hour. He was obviously very poor and his accent was so profound it almost sounded British. I looked around at this scene and sincerely wondered if I were in heaven.

Two hours. Two hours in line for gas. I filled the fuel canister and bought Kenteny gas and we were en route back to my car. On the way there he became very emotional and said that he had never had a full tank of gas in that car and that I had been a blessing to him. I replied that I could never had been a blessing to him if he had not first been a blessing to me. He asked what he supposed to do, just leave me on the side of the road? Jesus made him stop. We both spoke, we both thanked God for the kind of life that allows us to live these Jesus-lives. It reminded me of the book of Acts when it talks about the apostles going along the road giving praise to God. But I also know that I was living the Widow’s Mite and the Good Samaritan because this man had given out of his poverty  and also I was being treated as a neighbor.

We got back to the car and put the gas in. We exchanged phone numbers and Kenteny said that he would escort me to a further town that was in good shape and I could fill up there. I told him he had done more than enough already and that he should just go his own way. He refused, saying “We got you this far, let me see you on your way, you need to make it to that conference because they need your voice and testimony!!” Ok.

We drove about 40 minutes to another town close to the road I needed to take. We only had to wait about 20 minutes for gas, I tanked up. I thanked Kenteny profusely. This is him at our last stop. 

He asked that I call him when I got to my final destination. That’s not right, he kept saying, destiny. “Call me when you get to your destiny.” I really like that.

Kenteny is not an angel and he is not Jesus. He a man who has allowed God’s loving life to penetrate his own, to mold and shape him. Kenteny is a man who has sinned against God and neighbor, without a doubt. And while he is a sinner he is also a saint, a life that recognizes that the things that matter most in earth and heaven is relationship and reaching out to those in need. I was in need and he reached out. Thank you my brother. I’ll do my best to do the same for someone else.

I can't help but wonder and mourn over those relationships that I have lost out on because I was too secure, too strong, too scheduled to allow to emerge. Thankfully, sometimes God is an empty gas tank and he forces the issue.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Fie lee mon, Phil ley mon, Fie ley mon

It’s not every day that we read an entire book of the Bible in church. Well, today is no different, but we do come awfully close to reading an entire book from the New Testament. The book we read, almost in entirety, is Philemon. You may have never heard of it. It only makes an appearance in our calendar of readings once every three years, and that is usually around Labor Day; so if you have missed church that weekend, there is a very good chance you may have never read Philemon. It’s a shame because this little book packs a real punch that we, the Church, needs to hear.
First a little background: Philemon is among the shortest books of the Bible. The letters of second and third John are a bit shorter; but Philemon is number three in the shortest book of the Bible category. It is one of the letters of Paul who wrote a great deal of the New Testament. Philemon is unusual among Paul’s letters because it is written to an individual. In most of Paul’s letters he is writing to a community, a church, like the churches in Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Philippi.  But Philemon is written to an individual, Philemon by name, as it turns out!
So what we have in Philemon, as we have in all of Paul’s letters is one side of a conversation. Paul’s letters are a little like overhearing a person’s cell phone call: we hear one side, and we can make out the main point of the conversation but we don’t know what the other one is saying, and we also don’t know why the call was made in the first place.
The letter to Philemon is a mystery, but we can learn a lot with a careful reading. First we see that Paul is writing to someone he knows and loves, Philemon, and not only that, Philemon has a church in his home. This is what the church looked like in the first several generations, believers would gather in house churches. This model of meeting in homes is still done widely, especially in places where the church is under oppression and persecution as it was in the Roman Empire. Since Philemon had a house we might surmise that he was wealthy. As we read along we learn that Philemon actually owned a slave. That slave’s name is Onesimus (O-Nee-si-mus). At one point Paul says to Philemon, the slave owner, that he knows that Onesimus is useless to him. Some scholars think that Philemon may have nicknamed Onesimus “Useless,” because in Greek the word Onesimus means useful or beneficial. Paul will playfully use these words of useful, useless and beneficial throughout the letter; perhaps to chide Philemon.
How Onesimus, the slave, got to Paul is something of a mystery. Paul says that he is imprisoned for the gospel, this is not a metaphor, Paul was imprisoned many times for preaching the improbable and socially revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ. Historians have supposed three possible scenarios: the first is that Philemon the Christian slave owner has sent his slave Onesimus to Paul who is in prison, possibly in Rome. Perhaps Philemon sent greetings or supplies. Another scenario is that Onesimus escaped from his master Philemon and fled to the bustling metropolis in search of Paul. Under Roman custom it was possible for a slave to appeal to a friend or relative of a slave owner if the owner was abusing the slave; then the friend could appeal to the better nature, if you will, of the slave owner for the better treatment of the slave. Finally, Onesimus simply could have escaped for good from his owner. This was perilous of course as slaves were not citizens, had very few rights. The slave owner, Philemon also would have possibly been financially ruined as slaves were quite expensive to acquire anywhere from 300 to 3,000 denarii at the time, that’s somewhere between one year and ten years’ worth of wages.
In either scenario, through this letter, we see that Onesimus the slave has made his way to Paul, has apparently been converted to the faith because of the filial affectionate language; and now Paul is sending him back to Philemon.
Now, Paul gets a great deal of criticism from people today, and rightly so, because he makes no attempt or statement to usurp, disrupt, or otherwise overturn the evil of slavery. Though I will say that if you read Ephesians or Colossians from a first century perspective, Paul comes out as moral and revolutionary as they come. But in this letter, Paul does not lay out the immorality of Philemon’s engagement with the sinful institution of slavery. Why not? Some scholars say that Paul, and others in the early church, may not have been able to imagine a world without slavery. In the ancient world, slavery was so pervasive that everyone either knew a slave, owned slaves, or was a slave. But the ubiquity of a sin does not mean that the sin does not exist, what’s going on here?
As we read the letter to Philemon we see that Paul has great affection for Onesimus, he says that he has become his father. It is interesting because it seems that Paul is also something of a spiritual father to Philemon as well, perhaps Paul brought Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ, he says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self,” which of course is a passive way of saying, “You owe me, you owe me everything because I showed you the path to eternal life.” So being the “father” of both Philemon and Onesimus, Paul urges Philemon to receive the returned Onesimus not as a “slave, but more than a slave, as a brother.”
Here we see that Paul does in fact level a withering criticism and undermining of slavery. His critique though is not general or abstract, it is personal and relational. Paul is not necessarily trying to overthrow the Roman Empire’s slave trade; he’s overthrowing slavery for Philemon and Onesimus! Paul, through the relationships that have been forged through Jesus Christ, is overturning one of the insidious, debased, and pervasive sinful systems of his day. We see in this letter to Philemon three people in a new relationship because of Jesus Christ, a relationship that moves across the insurmountable barrier of slave and master: “receive him not as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.”
We don’t know if Philemon obeyed Paul or not. But we have the letter; and that means that the church, in her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, thinks that what it has to say is worthwhile and is descriptive of what a Christian life should look like. It’s too bad though that we don’t have the next letter from Philemon back to Paul; because, as revolutionary as Paul’s command to receive Onesimus as a brother was, it’s in the doing that is most interesting.
What would that reunion have looked like? “Here comes old ‘Useless,’” as Philemon called Onesimus, “Paul has sent him back, but I don’t like him! Now I have to love him?!” Or, what if Onesimus had in fact run away? Now Paul has sent him back. What’s Onesimus feeling now that he has to return to this slave owner? Perhaps Philemon is humbled, humiliated and ashamed that his sinfulness in owning another human being has been exposed to Paul. The return, the reconciliation, is the hard part. It is one thing to be loving in the abstract, it’s quite another to be put arms, legs, and hands on our love.
So what about you? What is God calling you to love? What injustice are you called to reconcile in actual action, what evil are you being called to confront and defeat, who are your being called to take back in? We need to get specific here, because the abstract is a temptation. Abstraction, keeping things general, is a way to keep loving reconciliation at arm’s length.
Systemic racism for example is something we all need to overcome through reconciliation. But we don’t individually address systemic racism; we find the one small way that we can undermine racism in our own small circle. Yes, fight the systemic sin, but don’t let your epic war replace the small ways you can fight in your own small seemingly insignificant way.
What sin or evil are you struggling with? Don’t fight the grand cosmic evil of lies, and systems, and genetics, and addiction. Instead, be like Philemon in this letter, do the next right thing. Make the next, small right decision because our lives are not, as it turns out, lived in the grand scheme, but on the very small scope of the next moment that arises. Do the next right thing and a year, a decade, a lifetime of those next right things, well then, the grand scheme just might emerge.
This is why the letter to Philemon deserves a wider reading, because it shows how all of us are born into sinful systems, but we can, through Jesus Christ, find the love necessary to do the next right thing, not in the abstract but in the really real lives we each live.
Thank you God for showing us the path of reconciliation; thank you St. Paul for showing us one way to love; and thank you saints Philemon and Onesimus for showing us that broken relationships and great evil can be repaired through the love of Jesus Christ.