Monday, November 23, 2015

Jesus, the truth

Homily notes for the Last Sunday after Pentecost  (Christ the King, 11/22/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Jesus answered, "You say that I king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 
Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" 
Pilate’s response is interesting (unfortunately, it is missing from today’s reading), "What is truth?" Indeed, what is truth? That is a question for the ages. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, politicians, poets, and priests have been searching for the answer for all of human history.

What is Jesus answer? You might think that Jesus, the Word Incarnate, might have an eloquent soliloquy in answer. But, no! Instead, what we get from Jesus is silence. Jesus, always so determined to rebuff the cynical and self-congratulatory questions of the Pharisees – always ready with quick response to the silliness of the disciples – often ready to answer a question with a question….now, Jesus has nothing. Jesus doesn't answer Pilate's question. He just stands there in silence.

Silence is nothing new in the scriptures. The Psalmist prays, "For God alone my soul waits in silence" (62:1) and "Be not silent, O God of my praise" (109:1). In the book of Revelation, when the Lamb opened the seventh seal "there was silence in heaven" (8: I) – creation itself coming to an end with a new creation about to begin. The silence that has always intrigued me the most, however, is this silence, the silence of Jesus before Pilate. “What is truth?” It seems to be a question tailor-made for the great Rabbi.
While Jesus does not answer the question here, he does address the question elsewhere in the Gospel. "What is truth?" “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). 

Jesus doesn’t claim religion to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim what people teach about him to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim the Bible or the Church or some system of ethics or theology to be the truth. These all bear the imprint of the truth. They are all individual truths but that is not what Pilate was after. Pilate wasn’t in search of this or that truth. Pilate was after THE truth – the truth about who we are and who God is – the truth about being and about life and death and about eternity.

It is the truth that is The Word, spoken at creation and made flesh in Jesus. It is also the truth that can never be captured by words or doctrine or creed because it is too big or too far beyond the capacity of our language. But it is also the truth that will constantly beckon. “What is truth?” Look to Jesus.

Jesus told stories to describe the truth. Stories often serve well where descriptions will not.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan. This is truth.

Then there’s another story about the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Lost Brother, the last we know better as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You know the story where the wayward son returned home to be welcomed by his father with great celebration “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” This is truth.

Jesus life was truth, his actions and relationships with the people he knew. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus gave sight to the blind. Jesus expelled demons. This is truth.

And do you remember Jesus last sign involving a certain man, Lazarus of Bethany, who had died. Jesus was brought to where Lazarus was and there he wept. But this would not be the end for, as he told Martha, Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Instead of being the end for Lazarus, Jesus commanded that the stone of the tomb be taken away and Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out.” “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:44). This is truth.

At 2:34 am, in the middle of what was a beautiful sleep, I was rudely awakened by a cat jumping on top of me. I can usually fall asleep without much trouble, even after an event like that, but this night I was having trouble because a passage of scripture was swirling through my head.
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)
I can count on one hand when scripture strikes me so deeply in the middle of the night that it just must be added to my homily. But it happened this night. Maybe it was because I was preparing for Christ the King and this was last year’s Gospel selection or maybe I was considering the murals that line our Church (depictions of the same commands found in Matthew 25). In any event, there was the passage. And then it struck me: This is truth.

We’ve all signed agreements before, with cellphone carriers, cable companies, or banks. Have you read the fine print? Honestly, it’s maddening and so much so that most of us probably don’t even bother. If you ever do read it, however, you will find rule after rule and addendum after addendum. Then will notice that amidst the rules and addenda are a great number of asterisks that add numerous caveats to the rule and addenda.

When I got the first proofread copy of my dissertation back from my director, the email accompanying it read, “It looks good except for a few notes, which are marked by red asterisks.” It looked as though my director had bled all over the dissertation.

Asterisks mark the exceptions.

Please know, before I go any further, that I am preach from a place of searching – hopefully humble searching though not always, if I am honest. I don’t have a soapbox. I don’t have a policy paper. I’m preach, today, from my knees. While I am searching, I do know that my faith and what propels me to act are based on the above verses in Matthew as well as on the similar command in Micah 6:8,
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Whatever our politics or ideologies or persuasions, even if they are vastly different, I longingly hope and deeply believe that we can common ground in the desire to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. While our ideas of justice, mercy, and walking with God may differ, we can at least meet quietly and listen carefully, praying together and searching for the truth.

That being said, there is a war going on. There is a war with bombs and guns, blood and death that is taking its toll on our humanity. There is also a different kind of war that is equally as real and just as deadly: peace against violence, hope against despair, courage against fear, love against hate.

We are all there, I imagine. I am there, right in the middle of it. Something struck me, though, as Matthew 25 floated through my sleepy brain.
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36).
There are NO asterisks.

Jesus didn’t say, “For I was hungry, and you fed me.*
* First show me your tax statement so I know that you aren’t mooching off the system.
Jesus didn’t say, “I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.**
**But you smell of liquor and tobacco. Get sober. Then I will give you a drink of water.

Jesus didn’t say, “I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.***
***But I can’t be sure that you are a real refugee. Huddle up with your hungry children under this tattered blanket and make yourself comfortable out in the cold. Unless you can prove you’re a Christian because then, of course, you are welcome.

No!!! There are no asterisks in Matthew 25.
I don’t have the answers. I am a broken man looking out on a broken world. There are times when I want to gather my house and shutter the doors, hiding from the wretched brokenness. But I refuse to give in to despair. I refuse to lose hope. I cannot give up on my broken self and this broken world because God did not give up on us. Even though we turned against God and betrayed God’s trust and even though we turned against one another, God has called us to return. God did not give up, sending prophets and sages, giving us a righteous law, and, the, in the fullness of time sending the Son, Jesus, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

The Good Samaritan could have walked right on by and would have been more justified than the priest or the Levite but he stopped, bandaged the wounds, and cared for the man. The father could have refused the son when he returned home but instead he welcomed him back. I refuse to give up on the brokenness of the world because when Jesus taught us how to pray he said, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It would be easy to sweep our arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare with Chicken Little, “The sky is falling.” Instead, I choose to be stubborn and look with hope. There is life right here before me. I believe that God has not yet given up on us gathered here nor on this world. Instead of shuttering my doors, I choose to point my children in the direction of hope: to the life right before them, to the opportunity for peace, to the presence of Christ in their midst.

I do this because my faith is bound in a man who gave himself in bread and wine for a hungry world.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Messiah who gave himself as living water for a thirty world.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Lord who healed the sick and bound up the broken-hearted.

I do this because my faith is bound in the King who set the captives free.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Middle Eastern family – a man, woman, and baby, who were once refugees themselves.

I am a Midwestern man who grew up on Florida’s east coast, who’s soul hungers and thirsts, who is in need of freedom and healing, whose soul is need of refuge.

I don’t have the answers but I believe that Jesus came as witness to the truth. The truth that God has wrapped our wounds…that God has welcomed us back after a long sojourn…that God has fed us, given us drink, covered our nakedness, healed our wounds, set us free, and given us refuge. No asterisks.

I pray the words of the Psalmist, together with our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, “Be not afraid.”

I pray love and peace and courage to us all…with no asterisks.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Jesus Movement

Homily notes for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost  (Proper 28B, 11/15/2015)
with the Celebration of New Ministry for Deacon Ray Perica
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

On November 2, 2015, the day after his consecration and installation as the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael Curry gave a stirring video message to the Church. Watch the video or read the transcript that follows.

"God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way. He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love. He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending. That’s why, when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words, “Follow me.”
"Follow me," he said, “and I will make you fish for people."
"Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be. Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.

"Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel story of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Mary Magdalene and some of the women go to the tomb to anoint his body. When they get there they find that the tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away and there is no body there. Then they see and hear an angel who says to them, “This Jesus of Nazareth whom you seek, he is not here, he has been raised as he said he would be and he has now gone ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him. It is in Galilee that the Risen Lord will be found and seen for he has gone ahead of us.”
Galilee. Which is a way of talking about the world.
Galilee. In the streets of the city.
Galilee In our rural communities.
Galilee in our hospitals.
Galilee in our office places.
Galilee where God’s children live and dwell there.
In Galilee you will meet the living Christ for He has already gone ahead of you.
"A few years ago I was in a coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, just a few blocks away from our Diocesan House there. While in line I started a conversation with a gentleman who turned out to be a Mennonite pastor. He had been sent to Raleigh to organize a church in the community on the streets without walls. As we were talking over our coffee, he said something to me that I have not forgotten. He said the Mennonite community asked him to do this because they believed that in this environment in which we live, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is."
So, what does it mean to be in the Jesus Movement. That is, indeed, the question of a lifetime, isn’t it? It is, at least, the question of the Christian lifetime. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to be in the Jesus Movement?

I must thank Bishop Curry for his bold witness and for reminding me of the theme that my preaching should take. He has, indeed, given me a framework for decades to come. I say “remind me” because, of course, the Jesus Movement (though I never framed it in so few yet precise words) is what drew me to ordination in the first place. Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder.

What does it mean to be in the Jesus Movement? That will be fodder for many sermons to come and, I am sure, Bishop Curry will elucidate his understanding as time passes. For now, let me stick with the obvious. Being in the Jesus Movement means following Jesus, not in a moralistic sense or dogmatic sense but in a way that emulates Jesus – in a way that moves like Jesus moved. Again, that is a big topic which we will explore together over the coming weeks, months, and years.

For today, I would like to address Deacon Ray, for whom we are having the Celebration of New Ministry at this Eucharist. So here are three ways that the Deacon can and should be an example of what it means to be in the Jesus Movement.

First, welcome everyone. Our Gospel narrative is the beginning of Mark 13, the so-called “Little Apocalypse,” in which Jesus is revealer of the coming future and heavenly reign. Apocalyptic literature is full of stark imagery and metaphor, symbols for the coming future. It is often called the literature of the dispossessed, arising out of an oppressed or alienated people. The Book of Daniel (our first reading today) came out of a Jewish group circa 165 BCE who were under the oppressive thumb of the Seleucid kings. The book of Revelation (the quintessential New Testament apocalyptic) came out of Christian persecutions during the reign of the Emperor Domitian circa 95 CE. Mark uses his apocalyptic to address Christians who have undergone suffering in the name of Jesus and will expect even more. The first Christians constituted a tiny minority of the Roman empire and necessarily placed their hope in God’s vindication, finding a reason for Jesus suffering and their own suffering in the 'soon-to-be-glory'.

Moreover, it is no accident that this “Little Apocalypse” comes immediately before the passion and the resurrection of Jesus, the one who himself was dispossessed of freedom and life to show us the way to find it. As well, the “Little Apocalypse” comes after Jesus' ministry among the people. Jesus could have told the apocalyptic story earlier in his career but he chose to wait until the very end. He waited, I think, until after he had invited all the other dispossessed to the party.
  • Remember the four women we talked about last week: one an enemy, one in a state of unholiness, one a widow, and one who dared enter the men’s club to honor Jesus. Jesus welcomed them all. 
  • Remember the man with the unclean spirit, the leper, the paralytic and blind Bartimaeus. Jesus healed them and welcomed them. 
  • Remember Simon, Andrew, James and John, all poor fishermen. Remember Levi the despised tax collector. Jesus welcomed them.
The point is: Welcome everyone. Welcome the highest and the lowest. Welcome the shy and the outgoing, the young and the old, the bold and the timid. Welcome them all because Jesus did. Welcome them all because we all need to be reminded of God’s love and the soon-to-be-glory.

Second, practice great and wonderful love among the outcast. Bishop Brewer called upon you at your ordination "to show Christ’s people through your life and teaching that in serving the helpless, they are serving Christ Himself." This doesn’t really need a lot of elucidating, does it? It’s constant in the message of Jesus and the Letters. Moreover, if you will serve at this church you will be reminded of it every time you step foot in the sanctuary. You see the murals on the walls surrounding us. Dowing Barnitz has created beautiful reminders of the commission in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger, and comfort the sick. 

This kind of activity is exactly what Jesus did. When the five thousand were hungry, Jesus didn’t take the apostle’s advice and send the people away. Instead, Jesus had them sit down and, with seven loaves and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd. When the sick and hurting came to Jesus, Jesus didn’t just wish them well and send them on their way. Instead, Jesus healed them.

Find out who in our community is in need of healing, who is in need of being made whole. Bring their needs to our attention and, as the author of Hebrews wrote, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”

Third, tell the story among us. When Jesus came among us, Jesus proclaimed the good news of redemption and release. Jesus came among us to tell us the story of God’s love for each one of us. Ray, tell the story among us of how God loves you. It’s good news and we want to hear it. Deacon Joan, tell the story among us of how God love you. It’s good news and we want to hear it. All of you gathered here, tell the story among us of how God loves you. It’s good news and we want to hear it.

And then tell the story out there in the world. Tell the story of God’s love. Tell the story of our love. Tell the story because its great news and you want to shout it from the mounttops.

Bishop Curry finished his video message of November 2, 2015, with this challenge.
"Now is our time to go. To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ. To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

"This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.

"God bless you, and keep the faith."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Embodied Faith - Total Surrender

Homily notes for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost  (Proper 27B, 11/1/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

When I was a kid (maybe 10 or 11) our family went on a road trip from Melbourne to Cleveland. It was a long drive with a lot of stops on the way. At our first stop to get gas, just as he was getting out of the car, my brother found a penny on the ground right there next to the gas pump. Yeah, I was a little jealous at first but then I found a penny right there on the walk leading into the store.

It turns out that a lot of people drop their pennies and don’t go searching for them. Together, I think we found five pennies at that one stop. My brother and I made little competition for the rest of the trip, seeing who could find the most pennies on the ground.

What is a penny? It’s the lowest amount of money on the totem pole. It’s the smallest unit. It isn’t even divided. A nickel can be divided – there are five pennies in a nickel. A dime can be divined – there are two nickels or ten pennies in a dime. But a penny is all by itself. Only gas stations seem to know how to divide a penny with their 9/10 of a penny added on to every gallon. People almost see pennies as worthless.

But Ben Franklin assured us, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

We are told, “It’s worth every penny.”

In Jesus day, a penny could purchase two sparrows for the Temple (Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?”)

Sir Thomas More asks us, “A penny for your thoughts?” (Four Last Things)

Thomas More was the first to publish this particular saying though was not likely the one to actually coin the phrase. It might be much older. The idea, I think, is very much present in today’s Gospel narrative where the widow offers her copper coins to God through the Temple treasury.

Indeed, the poor widow in the story shows unbelievable and uninhibited vulnerability by offering all she had to live on. Widows in ancient Israel had no inheritance rights and, while a levirate marriage might have been arranged for some, most widows relied on their children or on charity. So giving over her last two lepta (the smallest monetary denomination in circulation at the time) to the Temple was a true sign of sacrifice and trust.

THE WOMEN IN MARK'S GOSPELIt was, to use the colloquial definition of a sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It was her sacrament to God. It was her outward sign of the inward trust that she had in God her protector. It was a posture of total self-giving.

This is a kind of trust emblematic of the women whom Jesus encounter’s in Mark’s Gospel. There are five episodes of interest.
  • In the first (Mark 5:24b-34), there is a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” who reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus cloak. The woman certainly knows that her ritual impurity would make any she touches impure as well. Nevertheless, the woman stretches boundaries, reaching out in faith. She knows, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
  • In the second, (Mark 7:24-30), a Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus in Tyre seeking healing for her daughter. In the very act of approaching Jesus, the woman stretches and even crosses boundaries – a landed Greek property owner approaching an itinerant Jewish preacher was unheard of. But she does approach Jesus and when Jesus rebukes her (an expected reply in first-century androcentric society), the woman stretches boundaries even further with her courageous reply. In the end, Jesus capitulates to her enduring faith.
  • The third episode is the story heard today where the widow offers everything she has to God.
  • The fourth episode (Mark 143-9) comes immediately before the last supper discourse, almost as a prelude to the narrative of Jesus’ passion and death. In it, a woman (again unnamed) approaches Jesus in the home of Simon the leper and pours “expensive ointment, genuine nard” over Jesus’ head. The woman in this scene again stretches boundaries by entering what would have been an all-male gathering and touching Jesus, not to mention the exuberant outpouring of precious and expensive nard. She also stretches boundaries, however, as one who recognizes what is coming in the life of Jesus, showing tremendous devotion to her Rabbi and Lord. This, in other words, is clearly an anticipation of Jesus’ death, the woman seeing and accepting what the disciples did not.
  • Finally, there are the women at the cross, among them Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome but others as well. Though they were at a distance, they at least had the faith and courage to be there.
In the end, the stories of the women in Mark’s gospel are all stories of embodied faith.

The widow in today’s story approached God boldly. “This is all I have,” she seems to say. “So here it is. What do you want me to do now? Here is my penny for your thoughts, God.”

That is the very definition of embodied faith – giving every good gift back to God, trusting that God has a plan.

It’s the faith of the widow at Zarephath who trusted the word of God as spoken by the prophet Elijah.
“Do not be afraid… The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
It’s the faith of Jeremiah,
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).
It’s the faith of Paul who wrote to the Philippians, 
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13).
It’s the faith of the Angel who spoke to Mary, 
“Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
It’s the faith of the widow who broke open the doors of something new, challenging those who said her two pennies were not enough, that they could not do a thing. She paid no attention and entered the Jesus movement, walking with God and trusting in God. Ultimately, the widow understood that it wasn’t about her pennies. It was about herself, about the total giving of herself over to God.

American artist and musician Judson W. Van DeVenter, who wrote the lyrics for the classic hymn, “I Surrender All,” once wrote,
“For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life.”
Worship is essentially our response to God’s love, generosity and graciousness. What is worship? Is it generous and gracious like the widow’s? Does our worship reflect the widow’s selfless act of vulnerability? The Gospel narrative, once she has given her all, has Jesus saying to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”

The widow’s gift was truly amazing. The gift of the two coins is a beautiful presage of Jesus’ last days: the suffering, the passion, the via crucis, and the final total self-offering of Jesus on the cross. Like the women, Jesus stretches and crosses the boundaries. In his final act of self-giving love Jesus has crossed or, rather, eliminated that proverbial boundary between heaven and earth. The boundary is no longer.

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Jesus has shown us the love of God that awaits us. Jesus has shown us the unmitigated, uninhibited, and endless love of God that awaits us if we but surrender ourselves to it.

Van DeVenter’s Hymn speakS well:
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Saint - it's all in a name

Sermon notes for the Feast of All Saints (11/1/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate all of the Saints. Such a commemoration of God’s holy and faithful has been happening since the earliest days of the church when the lives and witnesses of the martyrs were remembered and honored. As the church moved through time and place, while martyrs still gave their lives in witness to the faith, it was recognized that there were also many others whose lives were ought to be recognized as examples of righteousness and holiness. The Feast of All Saints has been widely observed in Christian communities since about the year 600 CE and on the first day of November since it was fixed in 735 CE.

As you all know, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Not to understate it but the whole subject of Saints was always before us. My Italian grandmother had a virtual altar on here dresser full of pictures of saints, statues of saints, and holy cards. They were, for her, a sign of the great comfort of the enduring truth of God’s Word and a constant reminder of the life of love to which she was called. At every funeral and on every special day, the saints were called upon, mediators and examples of holy life.

When I was in the second grade, I was allowed to become an Altar Boy. It was in the eighties when trading cards were still a thing. Naturally, among the Altar Boys, trading cards became popular. Now, we didn’t trade baseball cards, we traded holy cards, with saints pictured on one side and brief biographical sketches or special prayers written on the back. I know, I was cool. Oh, how I desired the Saint Thomas Aquinas! I never got one.

With all of my exposure to the saints, I learned that they could be examples of holy living. Some demonstrated lives of prayer, of self-giving, of charity, or of faith. The saints were demonstrations of how God and Jesus wanted me to live. At the same time, however, I also got the impression that the saints were folks who lived perfect lives. Now, I knew all too well that I could not do that so the saints were certainly not “just folk like me,” as Lesbia Scott’s great hymn proclaims. The saints on those holy cards and on my grandmother’s dresser always looked so pious and righteous. Maybe if I could just imitate their pious posture, I could be a saint too. It didn't work.

As I began to read the Bible with much more seriousness later in life, I discovered that that the Greek word for saint, hagios, appears forty-four times in the Pauline epistles, each time referring to the Church or its members. That’s right, Paul’s “holy ones” (hagios) are in the Church – alive, not dead. Paul seems to indicate that the saints are in the church. Yes, we are called to be God’s saints.

But how can this be? Saints were perfect pictures of piety and we are certainly not. So what makes a saint a saint?

The answer, I think, is all in a name.

First, being a saint is found in the name “Christian.” This is the primary sense of the term and from which any other understanding of saint will flow.

We are saints because we bear the name Christian – followers of Christ and children of God by baptism. In the introduction to his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints (hagios): Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul acknowledges the Christian status of the Roman Church by applying to them standard titles. They are “beloved” because they are God’s people and they are “saints” (hagios
“not primarily because of a moral quality of their lives but through their membership of a people of that is ‘holy’ because of its closeness and dedication to God” [Byrne, Roamns, Sacra Pagina 6 (Liturgical Press 2007) 41]. 
The same title is used to address the churches at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. Paul further reflects upon the saints in his letters to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, and to Philemon. In all of these places, sainthood is a construct of grace, being loved and chosen by God.

The point is: We are saints because of the incarnate presence of God among the people. It is God, fully holy and intimately present, who came in the flesh and who indwells the Church. It is that presence that permeates the entire community of faith, making God's people holy. It is, in other words, God’s presence not our behavior that makes us saints.

Isn’t that good news! We know all too well that our humanity is fragile, far from reaching its perfection. Except that God has perfected us, our having been justified “by God Himself through His grace” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q100, A12). In his famous hymn, former slave ship captain John Newton brings home the reality of God’s grace that makes sainthood possible:
"Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see."
On our own we will disappoint but with God's loving grace we can grow to the highest heights of human expression.

So we are already saints; but, at the same time, we are not yet saints. It’s that mysterious Christian conundrum of already-not-yet. So, on another level, being a saint is found in a life lived in the grace of God and for God’s glory.

In the lesson form Revelation today, God calls out, "See, I am making all things new." So, you see, while God has already justified us in Christ Jesus, thus making us saints, there is also a process. This is what Thomas Aquinas refers to as the acquired virtue, that side of justification by which the person is being made right (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q100, A12). Many years ago, not long after my ordination, I was on a retreat and had expressed some frustration with myself as a spiritual leader, particularly that hadn't done enough and was too slow in developing a spiritual life worth sharing. During some down time, a woman – a matriarch in the Church – came up to me and proceeded to pin a button on my shirt. I looked down and read the button, "Be patient, God is not finished with me yet!" Words that I could truly take as my own.

The Bible and Christian tradition are full of stories of the already-not-yet.
  • Jacob stole a blessing from his blind father that was meant for his brother Esau. He then ran off to conquer the world and become fabulously rich. He would be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, the guarantor of the covenant.
  • David married Bathsheba only after having her husband sent into battle to be killed. King Solomon the wise would their child and Davidic throne would be the sign of covenant.
  • Peter would deny Jesus three times and Paul would persecute the nascent Church only to become the two great apostle of Rome.
  • John would let his pride take hold, requesting (with his brother) the seat of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. John would be the one Jesus entrusts to care for his mother, Mary.
  • Francis would grow up in a wealthy family in Assisi, abusing his status and position and treating others quite badly. He would found one of the preeminent Christian orders, dedicated to the poor and the outcast. 
  • Ignatius of Loyala was a captain in the Spanish military, a killer by trade. During a period of convalescence, after reading the lives of the saints and a treatise on the life of Jesus, he swore to lead a life of self-denying labour, emulating the heroic deeds of Benedict and Francis.
  • John Newton was captain of a slaving ship but would inspire William Wilberforce to become one of the great champions of the anti-slaving movement in England.
Examples of holly conversion are countless in number. Origen, Augustine, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Dominic, Francis, Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta all have stories of the already-not-yet of sainthood.

We who are already God's Saints through grace are called now to allow the holy presence of God to continue the work of justification in our lives. We are the already-not-yet that need to be transformed by the loving grace of God. The Church has recognized a great many of those who have gone before us, called the Communion of Saints and the Great Cloud of Witnesses, as examples and models to follow. They are doctors and queens and shepherdesses on the green. They are soldiers and priests and martyrs. They teach us and guide us and model for us what it means to be transformed into the image of holiness and righteousness.

It’s all in a name, you see.

Justin, Hippolytus, Felicity, Benedict, Catherine, Clare, Dominic…At my confirmation, I took the name of a saint. After months of research and an essay for Sister Ida Marie, I took the name of Francis – the medieval giant who preached to the birds, converted wolves, and walked naked through the streets. Plus, it was a good way to honor my Uncle Frank who was also my godfather. At my ordination, I chose two names, Ignacio and Polycarp, the first to reflect my veneration of Ignatius of Loyola and the second because Polycarp is just a cool dude with a cool name.

IN THE NAME ALBAN BARRET MICHAELIt’s all in a name. Today, we will welcome another into the household of God. At the beginning of the baptism I will say, “The Candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented.” The Parents and Godparents will respond, “I present Alban Barret Michael to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.”

As is my custom, may I offer some advice to Alban Barret Michael - “Bear” as he is known.
I just have one piece of advice today: Live into your name?
Live into the name “Christian.” Above all, know fully and completely that you are beloved and already a saint by the grace of God. Nothing can take that from you! So live into the name “Christian” and be loved.
Live into the name your parents chose for you. Alban Barret Michael is a powerful name. It will be, I hope, a strength for you as well as a challenge.
Alban is traditionally recognized as the first Christian martyr in England. A soldier in the Roman army, Alban gave sanctuary to a Christian priest who was fleeing the persecutions of Diocletian. Having been converted by him, when the soldiers came to Alban’s house, Alban dressed in the priest’s garments and was himself martyred in place of the priest. Live into the name “Alban.” Be for others a place of sanctuary and, continually dying to self, be a sign and giver of life for those around you.
Michael is the archangel, powerful agent of God who wards off evil from God’s people and delivers peace in the end. Michael means, “Who is like God?” This is a question, not a statement. Be the answer. ”Who is like God?” Alban Barret Michael is like God – loving, gracious, strong, an agent for peace
And you will find inspiration to be Michael in our parents. Derek means “ruler of people.” You will grow to know your father and he doesn’t fit the world’s vision of a ruler of people – laid back, chill, a listener before a talker. But Saint Bernard notes that the three most important virtues are humility, humility, and humility. Your father fits the bill and that, indeed, makes him the perfect “ruler of people.” Bear, right now, you sit in your father’s lap. When you grow, you would do well to sit at his feet (proverbially, of course) and learn from his humility.
Laura Ann is such a fitting name for your mother and is most fitting as a baptismal example. Laura is an old Latin names that comes from the Laurel plant, the branches of which were used by the Romans as a sign of victory or honor. Ann comes from the Hebrew "Hannah," which means grace. Laura Ann – the victory of grace. It is the victory of God’s grace signified in baptism and it is the victory of grace found in the love of your mother and father that will be our shield and your strength.
And then there is Barret. I searched high and low for a Saint Barret but could not find one. So, here it is: you will be Saint Barret – the ”Bear”, gentle and strong, curious and resolute, wise and discerning. You will be Saint Barret, graced by God as God’s beloved.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Servant not Sensation

Sermon notes for Proper 24B, the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (10/18/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

When I was a kid, my family would sometimes go to the local homeless shelter to serve lunch to the men, women and children who would come. One Sunday as we were leaving church (I was maybe eight or nine years old) my mother and father stopped to chat with some friends. Their friends asked if our family would like to join them for breakfast at Pop’s. Since we were on our way to the homeless shelter, my mother politely declined. Excitedly, I jumped in, “We are on our way to the…” Almost immediately, I felt a squeeze on my shoulder. It was my father giving me one those “Dad Squeezes.” You might know that squeeze. It was used in public to gently indicate that I should stop whatever it was that I was doing. In this case, my father wanted me to stop talking.

When we got in the car, my dad turned to my brother I in the back seat – not in the least bit angry or concerned or embarrassed, but in that serious mode of him wanting to teach us something. "Boys, there’s no need to tell others that we go to the homeless shelter. We go there to be of service, not to be a sensation."

The story told through today’s Gospel lesson is quite a remarkable contrast between service and sensation. We hear James and John request from Jesus positions of power and prominence when Jesus is in his glory. Now, James and John are two brothers who have been with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus ministry. Called by Jesus as they were mending their nets, they "left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him" (Mark 1:10b). How could two who had been with Jesus so long, who had been so close to the Teacher, have missed the boat so completely?

Jesus responds to the two brothers but not with indignation or even a hearty rebuke; bu, rather, it is with loving concern. Jesus asks them a simple question. Ah, beware of the simple question from Jesus! If you look back at the Gospel lessons from the past few weeks, we have been hearing narratives from the tenth chapter of Mark. In each of the narratives Jesus asks what appears to be a simple question but each question turns into a larger teaching on the nature of discipleship.

The first narrative starts with Jesus confronted by some Pharisees about the question of divorce (Mark 10:2-12). Leaving marriage and divorce for another sermon, what is striking in the scene is that Jesus asks the Pharisees a question to which he must assume they already know the standard answer. But Jesus turns it around saying, “Because of your hardness of heart….” The people couldn’t accept the story as it was originally given, in which people (husband and wife in this case) lived the covenant life in harmony and love. So the story (i.e. the law) had to be re-written. The idea of “softening” one’s heart to the story of God is made more clear in the very next scene when Jesus welcomes the little children (Mark 10:13-16). On one level, it is fitting that the story of the children should follow the teaching on marriage/divorce, since women and children were especially vulnerable in first-century Palestinian society. On another level, the story of children is in direct response to the hardness of heart the Pharisees. In other words, as disciples we should approach the story of God and the life and love of God with open, contrite hearts.

The second narrative begins when a man approaches Jesus and inquires, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-22). Again Jesus responds with a question, but clearly one that requires no response, “Why do you call me good?” And Jesus proceeds to recall the commandments which the man claims to have kept “since [his] youth.” So, as with the Pharisees above, the encounter turns when Jesus says, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ “Come, follow me.” An invitation much like the one offered to Peter and Andrew, and James and John. But something is holding the rich man back and Jesus recognizes what it is so he tells the man to first “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…” But this was too hard for the man who “went away grieving.” The episode of the rich man is followed by two more episodes (10:23-27 and 10:28-31) that are joined together with the first episode in a teaching narrative on wealth as an obstacle to discipleship, God’s preferential treatment of the poor, and the rewards for voluntary poverty in the service to the mission of God. The basic principles of Mark’s narratives on poverty and riches must continue to provide a challenge to all who dare call themselves Christians and especially those who do so in the “rich nations” of the world today.

And now we have the third narrative, the one we just heard today. James and John asked Jesus a rather impertinent question. Perhaps they were afraid after what Jesus had just told them about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. In any event, like the episodes before, Jesus asks a question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Personally, I think the question was rhetorical and didn’t really require an answer. James and John answer, however, that are able. Jesus assures them that they will be drink the cup that he drinks and they will be baptized with the same baptism but that the places they ask for are not his to give. Then, in the midst of the other disciples’ jealous anger, Jesus takes the opportunity to contrast earthly greatness with divine greatness. The Gentile rulers lord their power over others, acting as tyrants. But among Jesus’ disciples, those desiring greatness must “servant…and slave of all.”

There are a many examples of those who desire worldly greatness in our midst today. Take a look at the news: the financial barons of Wall Street, the energy moguls, and the arms dealers who prize financial gain over life, creation, and the common good. Consider, as well, the jockeying and power hungry attitudes found in the presidential primary. But they should not be our model so we will leave them be.

There are a great many examples of those who seek divine greatness, who seek to serve and not to be served. Indeed, a great cloud of witnesses testifies and gives example. Consider, Francis and Clare who forsook their wealth to care for the poor. Consider John Vianney, known for his compassionate proclamation of divine mercy. Consider Marin de Porres who founded an orphanage and children’s hospital and worked tirelessly among the mulatto of Peru. Consider William Wilberforce whose faith led him to use his power in England as Member of Parliament not to line his own pockets but to help abolish the slave trade. Consider Desmond Tutu who, as Archbishop of Cape Town, didn’t puff himself up but rather puffed up the people of South Africa, leading them to change.

To be great in God’s kingdom is to be a servant modeled after Jesus’ own life of service not to be a sensation only after self-fulfillment. As hearers of the Gospel today, the story of James and John is disconcerting because if James and John couldn’t incorporate his teachings into their lives, how on earth are we to do so?

So how do we become better servants? This is, of course, the long journey of the Christian life so let me share three thoughts with you today.

First, we can become better servants by checking our motivation. Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1758 until his death in 1768, once said,
"God has three sorts of servants in the world: some are slaves, and serve Him from fear; others are hirelings, and serve for wages; and the last are sons [and daughters], who serve because they love." (Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited {Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1988} 452).
In the week ahead, as you seek to serve God, check your motivation. Divine servanthood is always motivated by love – a loved “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). I was listening to music as I was praying the homily this week and as I was reading again the passage from Mark a great old classic came on:
Come, thou font of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace!
Streams of mercy never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! Oh, fix me on it,
Mount of God’s unchanging love.
Hear that: God’s unchanging love. God loves us, each one of us with an unchanging love. Yes, even in our sin God loves us. That is the love that should be our motivation to serve others in Jesus’ name.

Second, we become better servants by being mindful of the one who calls us. We should remember that in all things we serve because Jesus has beckoned us.

Moreover, we should remember that we serve God in all things. When we serve our beloved spouses, we serve God. When we serve our beloved children, we serve God. When we serve the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely, the sick, the orphans, and the widows, we serve God.
"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:34-40)
As we become more aware of God’s presence in everyday life and as we become more able to see Jesus in our neighbor, we can strive to understand that all we do is somehow of God and toward God. With this approach, even the most mundane tasks that might not usually be associated with our spiritual lives can be viewed as service.

Third, we can become better servants by ensuring that this church is a “Servant Church.” Karl Barth discusses churches dedicated to the mission of the Gospel, describes the living church as one that:
“...proclaims the Gospel to every creature. The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it that only now and then it sticks out its feelers and then thinks that the claim of publicity has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald. Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself.” (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline {New York: Harper, 1959} 147).
Is our congregation a living servant church? Do we have a clear understanding that we exist in service to Jesus and in service to the proclamation by word and example the good news? Do our actions stem from Jesus’ commission to proclaim the gospel?

Does worship ….
Does outreach…
Does common life….
Does our stewardship, our meetings, and even our disagreements….
….have the possibility to transform those they touch?

If not, perhaps it is time to begin a conversation about focusing more clearly on Jesus’ call to us as disciples and on our purpose as a congregation.

As hearers of the Gospel today, the story of James and John is disconcerting because even the most pious listeners can see a bit of themselves in the story. How many of us are able to truly base our lives and actions on the divine definition of greatness – servanthood?

Fortunately, the story closes with a message of hope and wonder. Jesus proclaims that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus promises us that although we will all fall short, through his death we are redeemed.

And that is the Good News, indeed.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ending Gun Violence IS a Gospel Value

Reflection on Gun Violence (10/14/2015)
This is a version of the opening remarks that I gave at our recent discussion, A Christian and Community Response to Gun Violence. They are somewhat expanded from the original.

Gun violence in America has reached astonishing levels, reaching 32,251 deaths in 2011 (the last year for which the CDC has data). While we are shocked by these numbers, the tragedies the afflict our cities, schools, and neighborhoods unfortunately no longer seem to surprise us. Once romanticized in western and gangster movies, lively shoot-outs have infected places once deemed inoculated by such violence: sanctuaries, school cafeterias, malls, community centers, campuses, playgrounds, and our suburban homes. Geography is no longer a buffer from the violence. Everyone is at risk. There are currently an estimated 112 guns per 100 people in America – that’s more guns than people! We are, as a country, armed and dangerous.

The Episcopal Church has for thirty years been concerned about this growing and frightening phenomenon, as have our sisters and brothers in a vast array of faith traditions. At the 1976 General Convention in Minneapolis the church took its first stance on guns, urging congress to adopt effective measures on hand gun control legislation (see here for the full text of Resolution 1976-C052). Since the 1976 General Convention ten more resolutions directly related to gun violence have been passed. Two were passed at the most recent General Convention in Salt Lake City in July of this year (2015-B008 and 2015-C005). While these newest resolutions don’t ask for any more than what has asked for in the past, it seems clear that the church recognized that our voices have not been persuasive enough and our actions too limited.

There are, it seems, to many places in America where it is difficult to hear the gospel over the resounding retort of gunfire. Nevertheless, we need to remain stalwart, convinced that God calls us to protect the lives of all within the human community, each a precious light in the eyes of the Creator. Moreover, in order to fulfill our baptism covenant to seek “peace among all people” we must persevere and find new and active ways of bringing change. We can no longer tolerate our self-imposed and truly preventable exile from God’s shalom, the kingdom of peace.

Christian Gospel values challenge gun violence in order to protect human life from unnecessary tragedy. The most recent approaches to gun violence, whether from the perspective of law enforcement, public health, or public safety, have all centered on individual offenders and owners of illegal firearms. While certainly an important approach, it might not be enough. We might need to plow a new field, harvesting for future education and policy that approaches the issue from the point of view of society and the common good. The Episcopal Church’s emphasis on legislation, policy, and education is clear in its current and past resolutions. A social need is clear and will require social action.

Should the church be involved in social action? Does the church have a duty or a responsibility to engage in the public policy discussion? Does the church even have a right to do so?

The vision presented in Isaiah 65 of “new heavens and a new earth….where the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” has lost its power amid the sanitized idealization of the Christmas card. The people of God must continue to hold fast to the sacred visions of our Sacred Story, the scriptures which recall the intentions of the Creator for humanity. It is this vision, where humanity lives in radical peace with all of creation, that ought be our driving force when we confront Empire, the evil oppressor.

“For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy….no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,” continues Isaiah 65, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” This is the idyllic vision of the Creator’s intention. This is a vision where parents don’t have to worry about sending their children to school or to play in the neighborhood. This is a vision where adults don’t have to fear walking down the street or going to the movies or shopping in the mall. As we recall this vision – as Isaiah reminds us of this vision we longing is stirred for a different way and different kind of society. Not one built on fear and terror but one built on solidarity where the other is “alas, bone of my bone…a suitable helpmate.”

This vision is, moreover, one that should hold for those who profess Christ and for those who do not. It is for those inside the community of faith and for those not. Those of within the Anglican tradition continue to be informed by the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us. From the start, the prophets of Israel and Judah – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea, and so many others – challenged those in authority to create places of justice and peace. They challenged the leaders of government and religion to change institutions and policies so as to protect the poor. Many among the early Christians challenged Roman treatment of the early Church. Saint so the middle ages, most notably Francis of Assisi, challenged the economic systems of the feudal city-states. In the 16th century, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers challenged the Church and State to change their corrupt ways. And using their faith as a catalyst, William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and countless other saints helped to change the structures and institutions of the modern world.

It is not only the church that is knit together, one body out of many parts. Our Anglican tradition (read the Caroline Divines) affirms that the whole human community ought to reflect the image of the triune God. Government and public structures, then, are most fittingly used when they defend the lives of our neighbors, build community, promote tranquility, and protect our citizens. As a church, we must recapture the voice of the prophets challenging government policy and the interests aligned with the status quo. Indeed, despite rhetoric to the contrary by the likes of the Tea Party, Government is not evil and law are not inherently bad. Good government and sound laws can, indeed, by guides to people of faith and help structure the burdens of social life.

It is time that people of faith advocate a government role that protects its citizens and raises the standards of responsible gun ownership, with careful protections for all.

While Episcopalians and other communities of faith were issuing statements of against gun violence, the violence continued with an estimated 620,000 dead in the last two decades and another 1.4 million injured. It is time, therefore, for the church to not just pay attention to the rightness of our words but also to heed the size and efficacy of our actions. It is time to regard the effectiveness of our actions in stopping preventable suffering and death of so many of our daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbor.

It is time to effect and enact God’s “NO.”

So, if we are to be effective, we need to be intentional and smart. From the start, the church must recognize its role in creating the atmosphere of spiritual awakening that leads to social movement, the broader search to change laws and cultural norms. Social scientists have long noticed five coexisting needs for social movements to flourish. All five are present if we but heed the call.

A Clear Grievance
Consider that 90 people die every day from guns – that’s 32,000 every year. Approximately 3,000 children are killed each year by guns – that’s nine every day.
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”
If the deaths of so many are not enough of a grievance, consider also the spiritual, moral, and emotional malaise created by the widespread fear in our culture. The depiction and use of violence is constant in our cultural milieu. The malaise has given rise to notion of redemptive violence, a myth that has insisted on the need for assault rifles, semi-automatics, and handgun arsenals that go far beyond the needs of self-defense, much less hunting and sport shooting.

Consider the facts: Countries (with a few exceptions where organized crime is the de facto law of the land) where fewer households are armed have fewer gun related homicides and suicides. States that require more intense background checks, licensing, and registration have fewer gun related homicides and suicides than states that do not.

Consider that in 2015 it is expected that gun deaths will outnumber automobile deaths for the first time. 95% of American households own automobiles whereas estimates ranged between 25% and 50% on gun ownership. We know automobile rates and have curbed automobile deaths because cars are required to be registered and drivers licensed. Very few states require universal background checks, licensing, or registration of guns.

The statistics are staggering, too numerous to list them all here. The point is that there is a clear grievance!

A Moral Argument
Jesus named the idols that became the foundation of the unrepentant society. He reprimanded Peter for grabbing a sword in his defense, “for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:25). If firearms become the mode of our social relationships, they will kill us. I fear that in many quarters and in many ways (some unknown because one never knows who has one) guns are indeed becoming an important factor in social relationships. American social life is perhaps a reflection of American diplomacy as well. Upon Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983, the British Ambassador to the United States was rumored to have remarked, “It’s no surprise. Invasion is in the American comfort zone.” Have guns become our go-to comfort zone.

If preserving you guns has become more important than the lives and safety of thousands of other human being, then your guns have become your idol. And this is in diametric opposition to the vision of a city of joy, where children and old people live out their years.

But it is not enough to just have a social critique. As the author of the first letter of John challenges us, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). We must struggle now with how to implement the vision. This is not a call to arms but to community. There is a direct connection, as we know well, between God’s intentions, the prophetic vision, the teaching of Jesus, and the implications for our actions. Moreover, if God commands that we not kill and that we work for a future where former enemies work as friends, the injunction must extend beyond our individual choices into the public sphere. We are compelled to work towards policies that order society, defending and promoting tranquility and removing harm. The most effective way to love the stranger is to create a world in which all are safe.

A Paradigm Shift
On January 20, 2009, I was in Alexandria, Virginia, when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, swept into office on a wave of hope and change. The stunning victory seemed to be a expression of a public frustration that would no longer accept the trends of war and violence, among other things, as pre-determined trajectories. While the policy implications were unclear at the time, there was a consensus that change was needed.

Perhaps related to this, 2009 also saw a new war of fear, highlighted by a number of gun-related murders – a doctor who had performed abortions shot while at Sunday worship, the killing of a protester in front of an abortion clinic, the massacre of the staff of an immigration center, and the murder of police officers in Pittsburgh and Oakland, among too many others. Tragedies like these become moments when we stop, lamenting bitterly and weeping like Rachel. Tragedies like these also become moments when we stop, shouting like the prophets, “NO MORE!”

The paradigm shift is here. Poll numbers demonstrate that a vast majority of the American people support background checks and licensing, as well as banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. If guns were less accessible and more carefully monitored as they are in European nations….if policies for carefully following disturbed and threatening individuals were in place….if the ATF and other law enforcement were allowed to do their job, then the lives of so many might be spared. So we must pay careful attention to what is happening and take hold of the paradigm shift before is slips away.

A Focus on Resources
Significant social change is only possible with resources. Financial resources are of course important to make advocacy work. The pro-gun advocates and gun-manufacturer lobbying agents like the NRA have deep pockets and will influence change. It is a hard task but we must not let the excuse of money keep us from moving forward. Capital comes in many forms, after all. There is our moral capital – never count out the power of goodness and justice. There is spiritual capital where prayer and worship can be a strong voice to the suffering caused by gun violence. There is social and cultural capital of the church which brings a powerfully connected system and larger ecumenical, interfaith, and multi-faith community. We have space for meeting, forums for discussion, and congregations for rallying.

A Sense of Viability
Together with a clear grievance, a moral outrage, a paradigm shift and resources, we also have a deep sense of hope that change is, indeed, possible. For Anglican Christians, as well as for Reformed, Catholic, and Orthodox, we claim that the hope of God is active in the world. There is hope in the world that God’s glory can be manifest and God’s kingdom built. As sinful people, the Good News is that God never gives up. Transformation is always possible when we live into the story of peace and joy, life and love that God has set before us.

God’s work in the world through the people of faith is lifted up. We must repent of our lack of trust, nurture our hope, and perfect our love.

God has provided us with what we need to be agents of change in the world. The change needs to comprehensive, addressing the idolatry of guns, the violence the permeates our society, and our obsession with rights over responsibility. We must keep the goal ever before us. Enough blood has been spilt. We will affirm that having been animated by the Holy Spirit with a passion for justice and peace that comes from being the people of God, gun violence can be dramatically reduced in our nation.

May our church dedicate itself to this task.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Make me a channel of your peace

Sermon notes for Proper 22B, on the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi (10/4/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Today was our Faith, Faily, Food Sunday, a family-focused, child centered worship celebrated on the first Sunday of each month (next month's will, however, be celebrated on the second Sunday, November 8). As part of the liturgy, I prepared a special homily for the children. 

After the children's sermon, I read a prepared statement reflecting on the recent shootings in Roseburg, Oregon.  

I began my homily for the children by telling them about Saint Francies, whose feast day is October 4. I then told the story of Francis's encounter with the wolf and the townspeople of Gubbio. While there are many versions of the story, most seem to include the lesson that we should forgive as Jesus forgave and that we should love even our enemies.

Rather than recounting the story in this space, you can find a useful version of the story here. During my telling, I tried my best to amplify what I consider some key points to the story:
  • The wolf had been left behind by his pack because he was injured and couldn’t keep up. In other words, the wolf was lonely, in need, and hungry. I asked the kids if they new anyone like this, that maybe was in need of a friend or was hungry or was thirsty.
  • Francis went to the wolf in peace under the grace of the Lord. He called out, "Come Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace." How might we go to others, especially those that are lonely, hurt, and in need, in peace? How can we be agents of God's love?
  • Finally, the townspeople found compassion for the wolf."  What does it take for us to get along with one another? How can we have compassion for those that we might consider enemies - those that are mean to us, that don't like us, that don't share?
I finished my time with the children by telling the story of Francis and the Birds. In the story, Francis happens across a large flock of birds of all kinds. Francis then preaches to them, encouraging them to "praise your Creator and always love him." The intention of the the story was to get the children to think of how God cares for and loves each of them, just as they are. You can find a version of the story here

In Jeremiah 31, the prophet has broken into a lyrical account of the afflictions of the northern kingdom, personified by Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin.
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping.Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more." (Jeremiah 31:15) 
Our nation once again mourns the victims of a mass shooting. Once again, the shooting was at a school, a place of personal and communal learning and growth. Once again, this time in Roseburg, Oregon, we weep at the senseless death ravaged by the violence of our gun culture.

Once again...but I hope we are not lulled into a spiritual lethargy, a religious weariness, a torpor in the wake of what has become an endemic part of American life.

I heard the news and, admittedly, I groaned, "Not again!" But then my first instinct was to shut the news out. At first I skipped over those headlines, thumbing past them on phone. But then I realized that I could not let myself become complacent. I could not skip the story because I didn't want to deal with it. I could not skip the story and hope that it goes away. I could not skip that story because it is the story - the tragic story of fellow human souls on the same journey I am on. I could not skip that story because that story is my story. And I must live into the story if I am to rewrite the story.

So once again, we find ourselves praying for the victims:
Lucero Alcaraz, Treven Taylor Anspach, Rebecka Ann Carnes, Quin Glen Cooper, Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, Lucas Eibel, Jason Dale Johnson, Lawrence Levine, Sarena Dawn Moore
requiem in pacem.

Once again, we find ourselves praying for the shooter (unlike the Oregon sheriff, I will offer his name and his eternal rest to God):
Chris Harper Mercer
requiem in pacem.

Once again, we find ourselves praying for families, first responders, and whole communities who suffer from gun violence. 

And rightly should we pray for them. But let me suggest that is also time (or, rather, well past the time) that we should pray for the vision and courage to try to prevent these occurrences in the first place. At General Convention 2015, more than 1500 people walked through the streets of Salt Lake City in a prayerful vigil, urging "people of faith to seek common ground in efforts to curtail gun violence." Additionally, a number of resolution were passed that call for the dioceses of the Episcopal Church advocate, including:
These join several other resolutions from previous General Conventions, including:
  • 1991-D089 Encouraging Understanding Mental Illness
  • 1997-C035 Urging Restrictions on Sale, Ownership, and Use of Firearms 
  • 2000-B007 Requesting the Removal of  Handguns ad Assault Weapons
Note that the goal is reducing gun violence which is a goal that people of faith no matter the political stripe should be able to agree on. 

So, in our prayers, we pray that the Spirit of Peace might pierce the numbness and apathy with sharp grief for the dead and equally sharp empathy for those who mourn in Roseburg, Oregon and around this nation. And in our actions, may the Prince of Peace lead us to the courage of Jesus who challenged domination and empire and violence, not with more violence but with death-destroying and life-empowering love, fulfilled as it was on the cross.

Baptized members of the risen Body of Christ, we are called to resist the temptation of allowing evil and the actions of distorted souls to make us more violent. Christians who advocate violence, who advocate taking up more weapons, who advocate hatred in reaction to these acts betray the Gospel and betray the meaning of our triumph over death in baptism. The fear which drives this type of advocacy is borne out of fear which is decidedly not a Christian virtue. Yet, tragically, we cower before those who wish to equate unlimited accessibility to guns with freedom, peace, security, and the way of Jesus. Pray that God will lead us through our wounds and make us whole, bringing us to a place of deeper trust in God and violence and the proliferation of yet more deadly weapons.

The rate of gun violence in our nation is vastly higher than that of any other nation in the world. Why is that? I maintain that this is a Christian question, a spiritual question that demands our contemplation. 

That is why I urge you now, as we grieve over this latest tragedy, to reflect on ways  that you as an individual and we as a congregation might be agent of change. We prayed in Sequence Hymn today, "Lord, make me a channel of your peace...." How can we help to bring peace by bringing an end to gun violence?

No doubt, we will hear the same things again. One side will talk about gun control and the other about gun rights. Our president has boldly spoken of change. The NRA has already gotten defensive. Many letters have already been written and many more will come. Will we continue to talk past each other so that nothing will change? Will we just wait and expect the breaking news that in another place more have died needlessly? Will Rachel will weep again and we will join her? Aurora. Sandy Hook. Santa Barbara. The Navy Yard, Santa Monica. Charleston. Roseburg.

As followers of the Prince of Peace, supported by the Spirit of Peace, we are called to persevere, to be relentless in our call for change and renewal in our communities. We continue in prayer. We continue in advocacy. We must not lose heart.

Today, I am inviting you all to a special parish and community discussion on gun violence. This will be an open discussion where we should try our best to not be too attached to our ideologies. This will be a discussion where all voices can be heard. REST ASSURED THAT THIS DISCUSSION WILL ALSO LEAD TO ACTION.

Wednesday, October 14
6 pm in the evening
dinner will be served

Monday, September 28, 2015

Are you properly seasoned?

Sermon notes for Proper 10B (9/27/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

The Institute of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health recommend a daily mean intake of around 1500 milligrams of sodium, with a maximum of 2300 milligrams. That’s about eight-hundredths of an ounce, or roughly a teaspoonful.

Sustained intake of less sodium than we require could result in something called hyponatremia or low blood sodium. Sodium is a mineral essential for human life, including maintaining the balance of fluid in our bodies, regulating blood pressure, and supporting the nervous system. Not having enough sodium could result in tiredness, headaches, seizures, and comas and, over time, could be fatal. Too little salt can be dangerous.

Most of us, however, are more familiar with our doctors telling us to lay off the salt. Indeed, if you consume too much sodium, you can take on extra weight, become at risk for high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. So, too much salt can also be dangerous.

So, while salt (or sodium) is essential to human life, having either too little or too much is a risk to health and life.

Have you ever seen those cooking competitions where the chefs have to present their food creations to judges. The one criticism I hear the most often is that the food is under-seasoned which, of course, means that there was too little salt. I do wonder if those judges have some sort of deal with Morton’s but under-seasoning or too little salt does make for quite an underwhelming dish. I was always told that if you forget to salt the water for pasta you might as well chuck the whole lot away. Too little salt makes for bland, tasteless food.

But have you ever added to much salt. I once misread a recipe and added ¼ cup of salt and ¼ teaspoon of sugar instead of ¼ teaspoon of salt and ¼ cup of sugar. Those cookies weren’t my best. Too much salt overwhelms and destroys taste.

“She’s the salt of the earth!” You’ve heard that old expression, right? You’ve probably used it about a few people here. (Fran Henry comes to mind.) The saying describes a person who is decent, trustworthy, dependable, and reliable. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus describes his disciples with that same phrase, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

At the same time, salting the earth is a destructive practice. The book of Judges relates the account of Abimelech quelling a revolt in his own capital city of Shechem:
Abimelech fought against the city all that day; he took the city, and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt. (Judges 9:45)
Legend also tells of the Roman general Scipio plowing the city of Carthage with salt in 146 BCE during the Third Punic Wars and of Pope Boniface VIII doing the same to Palestrina during the crusades of 1299 CE. In sowing the ground with salt the water table below was ruined and nothing would grow on the land.

Salt, you see, is neutral. In itself, it is simply a mineral, neither good nor bad. But, as with most things, it can be used for good or for evil – for sustaining life or ruing it, for flavoring food or destroying it.

Take something with a grain of salt and you make it more palatable. Rub salt in the wound and you cause more pain.

In the ancient world, it was so valuable that the Romans would often pay soldiers with cakes of salt. So, if a solider was “worth his salt,” he would literally be paid accordingly.

Salt was a powerful symbol in colonial India, such that Mohandas Gandhi would use it as a symbol to topple his British overlords. In 1930, the British levied an excise tax on salt in India, a trade for which they also happened to have had a legislated monopoly. In protest, Gandhi began, with seventy-eight others, a peaceful protest – a 240-mile walk from his base near Ahmedabad to the small coastal village of Dandi. Along the 24-day journey, so many others joined that the procession itself was reported to have been some two-hundred miles long. Upon the reaching the coast, Gandhi broke the salt laws, boiling seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally make. Picking up the salt, Gandhi proclaimed, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” The act sparked a large scale act of civil disobedience as millions of Indians across India joined in breaking the salt laws. Gandhi and some 80,000 Indians were arrested as a result of the Salt March. While the British failed to offer any concessions at the time, historians note the event as major turning point in the movement for Indian independence, something finally gained in 1947.

Now, it seems that Jesus does not underestimate the value of symbol, image, allegory, and metaphor. As such, his discourse on salt here is packed with nuance and symbolic value. Undoubtedly, there are many paths that we could trod down as we explore the metaphor of salt.

But today, in light of all that is happening around us I would like to offer a brief comment on the metaphor as it applies to the discussion of religion in contemporary society.

We are all too familiar with a religious fervor that is over-salted. We see daily reports of radical fundamentalist using religion to assault others. In our American context, the news feeds focus on the Islamic fundamentalists but Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, Hindu extremists in India, Jewish extremists in Israel, and Christian extremists in America and the West have all over-salted religious fervor to attack and kill other in the name of religion.

But it’s not just those that are killing others, those that we might label extremists. Kim Davis has over-salted her religious conviction to insist on breaking the law by not doing her job, a job her religion does not require her to have. And some not-to-be-named office-seekers have over-salted by insisting that only their religion should be allowed the presidency.

All of these kinds of extreme ideologues who practice this kind of religion suffer from a surplus of salt. And this is very dangerous because it is almost always focused on destroying, demeaning and degrading others. It is the same kind of over-salted religious fervor that brought about the crusades, that ushered in the killings during the reformation, and that allowed colonial proselytizing to undermine native cultures and traditions.

It is dangerous because such ideologues expect others to live into some fictive standard of behavior. They insist that women must obey their husbands, that men should not sleep with men, and that men must not marry the daughter of a foreign God – all of these are abominations in the sight of God. Yet these same will go off to wear clothing of mixed fibers and eat foods modified by cross fertilization. They will sow discord in the community, tell lies, and condone the shedding innocent blood. They will eat their shellfish, dig into the pork tenderloin, and eat meats that were killed more than three days ago. All of which are also abominations according to Holy Writ.

You see, the danger of this over-salting is that we can fail to taste the goodness of the Lord and to really taste what God’s law is really about:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
“ shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18b)
There is a real danger in over-salting, legalizing, and dogmatizing.

Now, fortunately, we Episcopalians are a little more delicate in our seasoning, right? We use a careful language and remain aloof from emotional outbursts. We just try not to get caught up in all that. We rarely suffer from too much salt.

But remember that the other danger, of too little salt is just as much of a risk and it’s the risk that Jesus actually warns his disciples about in the Gospel today. Has our religion fallen into this trap? Have we lost our flavor? Have we become bland?

Recall the book of Revelation, in which John reveals the message to the church at Laodicea:
I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)
The church became so bland it could not even see its own need. Have we lost our salt and become so bland that we have lost sight of who we are and what we are to be? The church at Laodicea became ineffectual, so callous to human suffering and so cowering before the saber-rattling of the empire of the day that they were lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. This is what can happen to churches that do not stand up, speak up, and act up when human beings are not treated with the dignity due to those who bear the image of God.

We see the over-salted zealots and extremists, saying, “Thank God that’s not us!”

But what of the diet of bland spirituality served at so many altars?

It’s a balance that we must find – just the right amount of salt. It includes taking risks, being willing to allow failure, making mistakes, and trying new things. And it also includes turning around, going back to what works, avoiding hazards, and steering clear of danger.

It’s never-ending and constantly changing. Its Church.

But here, among the faithful, we persevere. Here, among the faithful, we find motivation to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

It is here, among the faithful, that we sprinkle just the right amount of salt:
  • where there is no need to check your conscience at the door.
  • where your intellect is required.
  • where our worship transforms and empowering us to be daring.
  • where our tradition gives us strength and courage.
  • where every part of you is welcome and every hurt can be healed.
  • where salt is used liberally—but not to excess.
It is here, among the faithful – among the carefully seasoned assembly of the faithful – that we find hope, strength, wisdom, and inspiration to be the salt that God has made us to transform ourselves and the world around. Amen.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Blessed are the peacemakers

Sermon notes for Proper 20B (9/20/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly to coincide with its opening session. It was held annually on the third Tuesday of September for twenty years, from 1982 to 2001.

In 2001, the General Assembly by unanimous vote established that the International Day of Peace would be celebrated annually on September 21st, a day of non-violence and cease-fire.

Now, each year on September 21st, the International Day of Peace is observed around the world. It is a day “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.” It is a day on which all peoples are invited to cease hostilities, and to otherwise commemorate peace through education, public awareness, prayer, and reflection. Tomorrow, I will accept from Mayor Howard Wiggs a proclamation in which he does “hereby proclaim September 21, 2015 as International Day of Peace in the City of Lakeland,” thus joining tens of thousands of communities from the around the world in so doing.

While the day is particularly focused on international wars and civil violence, the day is also a great time for us to ponder our place in the fostering peace and in the ways that we might have failed.

So, here they are, four ways that we as individual Christians and as Church might be peacemakers.

First, to be peacemakers we must oppose violence and war. This, I suppose, sounds obvious. I have watched religious leaders offer pleas for forgiveness, heard apologies, and seen sincere acts of penance for the so-called “Crusades” to free the Holy Land, for the Catholic/Protestant wars that tore apart 16th century Europe, and for the religiously supported if not induced subjugation of natives peoples.

But we need not go so far back to see where Christians have failed to promote peace and have, in fact, supported war in the name of our God. In the lead up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, there were a great many influential Christian preachers who whipped up support for the war among the faithful, using the name and character of God for their support.
  • Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, affirmed, "God battles with people who oppose him, and fight against him and his followers. So, even though He hates war, God is not against it" (italics added). Using a variety of Old Testament passages and even some form Romans taken completely out of context, Stanley very cleverly insists that we must follow our government to war because “every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God….There whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2). What about the governing authority against whom we fight? Or is only ours somehow uniquely ordained? Then there is a clearly slanted reading of Luke 6:27-30 in which the other cheek only refers to individuals not to nations to which I must ask, “Is not the nation made up of individuals?” 
  • Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) and Marvin Olasky (editor of the World magazine and former advisor to George W. Bush of “faith-based policy”) suggested that the war could be an opening for Christians, creating “exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims.”
  • Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling Left Behind series, saw the Iraq War as "a focal point of end-times events,” suggesting that by the war we might usher in the coming of Christ.
  • A Jerry Falwell article, published in 2004 on, boasts in its title, “God is pro-war.” And while the article affirms near the beginning that “Christians are to be people of peace,” he proceeds to tell us why Christians should support the war in Iraq.
All this to say that Christian leaders have been using the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, to support violence and war for some time. This must stop!

A Muslim imam recently underscored the very centrality of peace-making in the teaching of Jesus and in the biblical vision of the kingdom of God at a conference held at Messiah College, during a talk on the role Islam in achieving world peace. In reflecting on the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, he commented on the nature of peace and role of peace-making in each. In Islam, one finds a mixed witness from the prophet. In the beginning of his career, Muhammad was indeed a pacifist, living by the code of Salema (Arabic for “peace” and root of the word Islam). Later in his life, however, Muhammed would become a soldier. Similarly, there is a great deal of ambiguity in Judaism. The Hebrew Bible features some quite vivid accounts of wars directed by God. In other sections, however, there is a vigorous condemnation of war-making and an equally vigorous charge for peace-making.

The Imam then talked about Christianity, saying that of the three Abrahamic traditions only Jesus was consistent and unequivocal on the demand to be peace-making. The problem is that many Christians don't get it. But Jesus' teachings on this point are crystal clear:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-44)
The apostle Paul picked up the same refrain in his letter to the Romans:
"Repay no one evil for evil . . . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink." (Romans 12:17, 20)
Yes, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Second, to be peacemakers we must seek justice. The Old Testament offers three marks of justice: welcome the stranger and care after the orphan and widow. In other words, God tells his people to look after those with no power of their own, who are weak by their standards and need protection. The Lord once looked after the Hebrews when they were a stranger in a strange land, when their men, young and old, were killed by their Egyptian masters. And such is the charge that God gives to them and the measure by which God measures their fidelity.

Now, to be honest, the New Testament demands are quite a bit more detailed if not stricter. Jesus, the very Son of God, himself grabs a bowl and towel to serve his disciples and reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In his Parable of the Good Samaritan, though, Jesus transforms what it means to be neighbor, insisting that we must care for even our hated enemies. And in Matthew 25, the demands of justice are reiterated – welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, visit those imprisoned, and cloth the naked.

Will we seek justice and welcome the stranger…
or better yet, 
will we seek solutions to why so many refugees are fleeing to the shores of Europe and why so many seek to cross the Rio Grande, fleeing the violence of Central America that we helped to foster.

Will we seek justice and care for the sick…
or better yet, 
will we provide adequate health care for all, children and mothers and fathers.

Will we seek justice and visit those in prison…
or better yet, 
will we decrease the amount of human beings who are corralled like cattle into our system.

Will we seek justice and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked…
or better yet, 
work to fix a system that marginalizes its workers, aim to provide living wages, and seek to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.
"Blessed are you for you cared for me, for I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was in prison and you came to visit me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter." And his disciples said, "When did we do any of those things for you?" And he said, "If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me."
ENABLE OTHERS TO FLEE VIOLENCEThird, to be peacemakers we must let people know that they do not have to live in violence and enable them to flee it. I am, of course, imagining with the rest of you the heart-rending stories of those fleeing from Syria, seeking refuge in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

But its not just about those who are fleeing the bombs of Assad and the beheadings of ISIL. We must remind everyone that they do not have to live with violence.:
  • Those suffering in domestic violence, at the hands of someone that claims love.
  • Those suffering hatred and fear because of the color of their skin.
  • Those suffering bigotry based on their sexual orientation.
  • Those suffering discrimination because of their gender.
It is our responsibility to let them know that they do not have to live in violence. And then must help them escape that violence. Today is not the time to outline the answers though a time will come and soon that this church must do just that. So let’s start with a few questions for our own reflection:
  • How do we help people escape violence?
  • When we see people living in violence do we challenge the perpetrators? When we see hatred and bigotry do we name the source and call it to repentance?
  • Do we work to change the institutions that perpetuate violence in all its forms?
Fourth, to be peacemakers we must preach a message of peace and welcoming. From the start, then, our church must be a place of refuge for all who come. Do we truly welcome everyone to the sacramental life of the church? Is our table set, awaiting those who come or are some excluded because they look different, act different, love different, or think different? And is the fountain of baptism accessible to all who come or is it restricted to those who will “fit in” or are “most like us?”

Likewise, our words need to match our sacramental actions. We need to stop preaching with words that bully. In other words, we need to stop using hell to scare people into faith and, for that matter, its corollary, the promise of heaven. Both are scare tactics, bullying words that belie our faith that is borne out of love.

In the section of the letter of James that we heard today, James instructs,
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will craw near to you.
Indeed, resist the devil – resist evil – resist violence, and it will flee from you. Draw near to God – draw near to peace and it will draw near to you.