The Way of Love

       One of the things I’ve noticed as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, is that human beings seem to carry a six or seven month emotional and spiritual reservoir.  Most of us can go for quite a while with things being really out of whack, but at some point, all of us will run dry.  As a pastor who is connected with many people in all kinds of life situations – single adults, families with young children, empty nesters, widowers, you name it – I’ve watched, with sadness, as folks of all sorts have found their reserves completely run dry.

       All of us are tired, and this loooong week certainly didn’t help, but as I prayed through the challenging parable of the bridesmaids, I began to focus my attention on the things we can do to refill our flasks with oil.  Staying awake, in the metaphor of our parable, means that we are ready for the long haul – lamps trimmed and lit and with plenty of oil in reserve.  In the metaphor of our times, it means keeping our emotional and spiritual reservoirs from drying up, so that we are able to face the long and challenging days that continue to come our way.

       So, how do we replenish our oil?  How do we keep our lamps lit?  How do we keep something in reserve?  I think it all boils down to finding a rule of life: establishing patterns that feed us and deepen our relationship with God.  Some of you have heard me talk about this before, but I am increasingly aware that without intentional actions to stay in relationship with God and our neighbors, COVID and our divided political climate have the real possibility of sowing estrangement and damaging relationships over the long term. In response to that reality, I’ve been so happy over the past eight weeks, as about a dozen of us have gathered on Zoom to talk through Scott Gunn’s latest book, The Way of Love – A Practical Guide to Following Jesus.  This book builds on the Way of Love framework first set forth by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at General Convention in 2015[1].  Rather than another curriculum or program, the Way of Love is an invitation to find a way of living out your faith in Jesus Christ through seven ancient practices of discipleship – Turn, Learn, Worship, Pray, Bless, Go, and Rest.  It is by way of some combination of these seven practices that I truly believe each of us can find oil to keep our lamps lit through the dark days of the COVID Winter.

       The first practice in the Way of Love is Turn.  Turning means to “pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus,” and it might be the most important thing we can do these days.  There have never been more voices clamoring for our attention than there are right now.  There have never been more options on how to spend your time than there are right now.  It might even be true that there have never been more people or organizations trying to capitalize on your fears than there are right now.  To turn away from all of those things and intentionally choose to develop a deeper relationship with God and deeper love of neighbor by treating every person with respect, by smiling at a stranger, even if they can’t see it behind your mask, and to engage in kindness rather than contempt is imperative to refilling your spiritual reserves.

       The second practice in the Way of Love is Learn.  To learn means to reflect on scripture each day, and to focus especially on the life and teachings of Jesus.  This may be the easiest practice to maintain during the pandemic.  Here at Christ Church you can learn by joining the Conversations with Scripture class on Zoom or engaging in one of our ongoing racial healing book groups.  Daily Meditations can arrive in your inbox from Forward Movement or give us a call and we’ll happily send you a copy of Forward Day by Day.  Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I are always eager to offer book suggestions, if you’d like, or, better yet, pull out your Bible, open it up to Matthew’s Gospel, and just start reading. Opportunities to learn are everywhere.

       Third is the practice of prayer – intentionally dwelling with God each day.  If learning is getting to know more about God, prayer is the practice of getting to know God as a Father or a friend.  Again, resources on prayer abound.  The nave remains available as a Good Place to Say your Prayers.  The Book of Common Prayer has several different formal prayer services you can say in the comfort of your own home.  Practices like Centering Prayer help quiet our hearts and minds so that there is space to listen for the still, small voice of God.  You don’t have to pray for hours at a time.  Start by setting aside 5 minutes, three times a day, then grow it to ten or fifteen.  As Mother Becca is wont to say, “prayer is never wasted.”

       The fourth practice in the Way of Love is the most difficult these days.  Worship, the act of gathering in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God looks very different in 2020.  Unlike church closures during the 1918 flu epidemic or the polio outbreaks of the 1940s, we still have the ability to gather, around screens rather than in-person, to offer God thanks and praise.  Thanks to the herculean efforts of Linda and Rick Mitchell, the faithful service of Ken and Deb Stein and Brittany Whitlow, and the imaginative faithfulness of Deacon Kellie and Mother Becca, corporate worship remains a possibility, even when gathering as a community isn’t.  It certainly isn’t perfect, and we all long for the days when we will be able to come together in these pews once again, but I continue to be encouraged by how many of you are choosing to fill your spiritual wells by worshiping God from home.

       The fifth practice is Bless.  Blessing is the act of sharing one’s faith and unselfishly giving and serving our neighbors.  While the practice of blessing has also been hamstrung by the Coronavirus pandemic, it is by no means impossible.  We continue to bless and be blessed by our community by reaching out in loving service through City Shapers, MEALS INC, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, a modified Wednesday Community Lunch, and soon our annual Blessing Tree.  Christ Church is able to continue to bless the world by sharing the love of God through your financial gifts as well.  Without your generous blessing, we wouldn’t be able to provide resources to worship, learn, or bless.

       The sixth practice to fill your flask and keep your candle lit is to Go – to cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.  Being a follower means you can’t stay where you are.  Being a follower of Jesus, means that even in midst of a pandemic and in a deeply divided nation, we are called to take his ministry of healing into the world by being the face of kindness and encouragement.  To go in these times might mean to not share yet another article or meme that stokes division, but rather to reach out with a phone call, an email, or even a handwritten note to let someone know you’ve been thinking about them and praying for them.  You don’t have to physically go anywhere to reach out with the love of God.

       Finally, the seventh practice in the Way of Love is to rest.  Resting isn’t just not doing anything, but the intentional way in which we receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration. Rest is rejuvenating work that allows us to set aside the busyness that so often drains our spiritual reservoirs in order to be refilled by living water that never runs dry.  Eight months into this thing, rest may not seem that important, but I suspect most of us haven’t truly rested, even if we haven’t done much of anything.  Rest, like the six other practices, requires intention in order to be beneficial.

       Seven practices may feel overwhelming.  Instead of biting off more than you can chew, pick a couple and try them out for 30 days.  As you do so, pay careful attention to your flask of oil.  Is it beginning to fill back up?  Is your candle burning stronger than it was before?  Do you have enough to share with your family and friends?  These seven practices will keep you in the Way of Love even as we wait for what feels like forever for the bridegroom to return.  Remember, no matter how draining 2020 might be, the Way of Love will sustain you. Love never fails. Love always wins. Amen.

[1] For more on the Way of Love, check out Definitions of each practice are from this site.

Whose Image?

       Growing up, my sister was the queen of arguments.  In fact, she was so good at arguing that we all assumed she’d grow up to be a lawyer.  Instead, she has spent her career advocating for the needs of children with developmental delays and disabilities, which is probably a better use of her skills.  Anyway, one argument that has gone down in family lore occurred on a long road trip from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Little Rock, Arkansas, and on around to Chicago, Illinois.  At some point along some long stretch of Interstate, in the backseat of our Chevy Caprice, my sister turned to me and said, “Say the sky is green.”  Unsuspectingly, I turned to her and said, “The sky in green.”  “No, it is NOT!  The sky is blue!” she barked back, and we were off to the races.  I have no idea how long the argument lasted, but I know that she won because, well the sky is actually blue, and she had successfully goaded me into a truly stupid debate.

       Young Lisa would have made the Pharisees and Herodians proud.  They too down for an argument.  Our Gospel lesson this morning is set in the midst of Holy Week in Matthew’s Gospel.  After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his interactions with the powers-that-be grew more and more contentious.  He threw out the money changers in the Temple, argued with the chief priests and elders over his authority, told pointed parables like the wicked tenants and the wedding banquet that we’ve heard the past couple of weeks, and by now his adversaries were totally fed up.  They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and this team was about as strange as they come.  The Herodians were loyal to the Roman Empire.  They carried the name of the late Herod the Great, Rome’s appointed “King of Israel,” and his son, Herod Antipas, who is perhaps best known for serving the head of John the Baptist to his step-daughter-slash-niece on a plate.  The Pharisees, on other hand, were a religious party that sought to reclaim the purity of Judaism.  They spent their considerable energy and power digging down to the nitty gritty of the Torah, and calling people to be faithful to the various acts of penance for their sins.  Of the 613 ritual laws, number two on their list was that one that says, “you shall have no graven images,” but more on that in a minute.

       The one thing that the Herodians and the Pharisees had in common was their desire to rid themselves of the itinerant Rabbi named Jesus.  His teaching, preaching, and miracles were equal opportunity offenders.  Rome was increasingly anxious about rebellion among the Jewish people, and Jesus was now routinely being called the Son of God, which was a title reserved for only Caesar.  The Pharisees saw Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, eating tax collectors, and hanging out with sinners as an affront to true religion. They were also more than a little scared that Rome would respond to Jesus by clamping down on all of Israel with power and might.  So, they joined forces to get rid of him, and they did so brilliantly, or so they thought, with a Gordian knot of a question from which they were convinced no one could escape.

       “Is it lawful to pay taxes?”

       The tax that they hoped to use to trick Jesus was essentially a census tax.  It had to be paid by every non-Roman citizen for the pleasure of being occupied by Rome.  It wasn’t just that it had to be paid annually, but it had to be paid with a very specific coin – a Roman Denarius – that featured an inscription of Tiberias Caesar’s face, with some variation of the phrase “Son of God” surrounding the image.  The powers-that-be believed that they had Jesus dead to rights.  If he said yes, the Pharisees had him.  He would be a traitor to his people, a sympathizer with Rome, and a hypocrite against his God.  If Jesus said no, the Herodians had him.  He could be brought up on charges of sedition and cast as a revolutionary who called on his followers to not pay their taxes as a sign of protest.  The Pharisees sought to wreck his reputation.  The Herodians sought to send Jesus to jail.

Jesus, it seems, wasn’t fooled by either.  He noticed right away their thinly veiled attempts at flattery.  In a quick, and now familiar, pivot, Jesus asked to see the coin used to pay the tax.  That they could produce the coin with its graven image so quickly, presumably either inside, or within the shadow, of the Temple is an indictment in and of itself.  Pointing to it, Jesus then asked them, “Whose image is that?  Who bears that title?”  Without realizing that the tables had been turned, they answered, “the Emperor.”  “Render therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The scene ends with both the Pharisees and the Herodians walking away, shaking their heads, amazed at what had just happened.

In a world dead set on arguing, fighting tooth and nail for some false sense of ideological purity, and screaming into the echo-chamber of one’s well curated social media feed, this question, “Whose image is this?” should give us all pause.  When you look in the mirror, whose image do you see?  Do you see someone made in the image of God?  When you look at the friends on your Facebook feed, or that neighbor with different yard signs than you, whose image do you see?  Do you see someone made in the image of God?  When you watch the news, whose image do you see?  Do you see someone made in the image of God?  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to give the government what belongs to it, but nothing more.  To God, then, we give our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To God we give our whole lives, for it is God’s image and inscription that is carved upon our hearts.  To God, we give our neighbors, our friends, and especially our enemies, for God’s image and inscription are carved upon their souls as well.

I’ve given a lot of thought lately about what it means to give our family, friends, and even our enemies over to God.  I’ve wondered, what does that look like in real life, bitterly divided, 21st century America, and I’ve settled on this as a starting place.  Pray for them by name.  I don’t mean the kind of prayer that says, “God, make so-and-so think more like me,” but rather a prayer that says, “God, let me see so-and-so with your eyes.  Help me to see your image imprinted upon them.  Help me to forgive them the wrongs they have done.  Help them to forgive me for the wrongs I have done.  Help me to love them.”  Depending on whose name you insert in that prayer, this might be really hard to muster, but if we are going to be true to Jesus’ call to give to God everything that belongs to God and bears God’s image, it is a prayer worth trying.  It is a practice which I firmly believe will help to bring healing to our bitterly divided world.

The Herodians and Pharisees were sure that they had Jesus trapped.  It isn’t hard to imagine that many of you are feeling trapped in a world that you don’t recognize these days.  Often, we find ourselves seemingly trapped in arguments we didn’t even know were starting, fighting bitterly over things that we might not really care that much about.  In a very real sense, it feels like the Tempter is actively prowling around, seeking to divide, to dehumanize, and to blind us to the image of God that is stamped on the heart of every human being.  Remember when you feel trapped by anger, fear, or frustration to offer yourself back to God, for you are made in God’s image and you a loved.  Offer your neighbors, your friends, and your adversaries back to God, for they too are made in God’s image and loved by God.  Despite strong evidence to the contrary, we are not trapped in the bitterness of this world with no way out. God is here among us, continuing to offer to every human being, through Christ, the ability to be set free.  The world can have its pittance, its graven images of all sorts, but let’s not forget to offer back to God everything that bears God’s image: our friends, our families, and even our enemies, for no matter what, they too are God’s beloved children.  Amen.

Co-Laborers in the Kingdom

       One of the unexpected gifts of the new votive prayer stand is that every time I enter the nave and see a candle burning, I begin to wonder what someone has prayed for.  As I imagine who might have come through and what they would ask God for, it stirs my heart to prayer as well.  I’ve found myself thinking of many of you who are watching; praying for your physical health, mental health, and spiritual health as well as for those whom you love.  The prayer stand has also reminded me of one of my favorite church stories about a man named Shane.  Shane worked hard, but could never quite make ends meet.  As the years went by, his credit card bills grew bigger and bigger, until he was sure that he’d never pay them off.  Feeling stressed, he went to a local church, lit a candle, knelt down, and prayed that God would look favorably upon him and help him win the lottery.  The next week, he returned, lit a candle, knelt, and prayed that God would look favorably upon him and help him win the lottery.  The week after that, once again, he went to the church, lit a candle, knelt down, and prayed that God would look favorably upon him and help him win the lottery.  Suddenly, the candle was snuffed out by a gust of wind, the roof shook, and the voice of God spoke, “Shane, I can’t help you win if you won’t buy a ticket.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of being a Shane from time to time in my life.  I just want God to wave a magic wand and fix everything that is wrong because God is God, and why wouldn’t God just make everything right?  We know, of course, that’s not how God chooses to work in the world.  Rather than acting as some cosmic puppeteer, God’s way of working toward the restoration of creation is to invite us to work alongside as co-laborers in the mission of building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. 

I think Jonah might be the patron saint of Shane’s way of thinking.  We only get the tail end of the story this morning, but the entire book of Jonah is a parable on God’s invitation to join as co-workers in mission.  The story begins with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah to “Go at once to Nineveh to cry out against it.”  God had seen the wickedness of the Ninevites and wanted to invite them to repentance.  Jonah, however, had other plans.  He was sure that God was capable of calling the Ninevites to repentance without him, and so, he immediately bought a one-way ticket in the opposite direction.  Instead of taking the northeast road five-hundred-fifty miles to Nineveh, he hopped on a boat to go twenty-five-hundred miles due west, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Tarshish, and the end of the known world.  In response to Jonah’s refusal to act, God hurled a great wind upon the sea, but as the crew threw their supplies overboard, Jonah slept in the hold of the ship, confident in his decision to run way.  God could handle the Ninevites, Jonah thought, and God would calm the storm.

The captain of the ship wasn’t quite so sure.  Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was the problem, and they threw him overboard as well, hoping to appease the Lord and calm the sea.  It worked.  Rather than allowing Jonah to drown and skip out on his mission in Nineveh, God had him swallowed up by a large fish, and after three days in its belly, Jonah was spewed onto the dry land, and again God spoke to Jonah saying, “Get up and go to Nineveh to proclaim the word I have for them.”  This time, Jonah went, but he still didn’t much care for his task.  When he got to Nineveh, rather than make some grand show of God’s power before declaring the word of judgment, he meandered into the city and proceeded to preach the worst sermon in the history of preaching.  “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  No mention of the Lord his God.  No call to repentance.  Nothing, but a lazy prophetic word.

Jonah had no joy in his work, no pride in his calling, no desire to be a co-laborer in God’s kingdom.  He didn’t want to be bothered by God to go to Nineveh in the first place, and once he was there, he certainly didn’t want to be there long.  So, he did the very least that was required of him, and bailed to a nearby hill, hoping to watch the destruction of the great city.  Much to his chagrin, the people of Nineveh repented – even the king, who proclaimed a fast – in hopes that God might relent and spare them their destruction.  And relent God did, which made Jonah even angrier.  Shaking his fist to heaven, Jonah seethed to God, “I knew this would happen, O Lord.  I said so before this whole stupid journey started.  I know that you are gracious and merciful.  I know that you are slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  I knew you wouldn’t destroy this city.  You didn’t need my help. Why did I have to do all this if you were going to change their hearts anyway?”  As the story wraps up, it fades to black with a grumpy Jonah, sitting beneath a dead shade bush, having missed the chance to celebrate his role in God’s ongoing redemption of the world.

We see this kind of thinking all around us these days.  Would that God might just wipe COVID-19 from the earth.  But no, God has invited us to wear masks and remain physically distant so that we might be co-workers in mission; making sacrifices that show our love of neighbor.  Would that God might wave a magic wand and heal our nation of its foundational sin of slavery.  But no, God is inviting us to reckon with our past and address the ongoing power of systemic racism and white privilege so that we might co-create a better future for all of God’s children.  Would that hurricanes might dissipate, fires might burn themselves out, and the effects of climate change might reverse overnight.  But no, God is inviting us to take stock of the ways we have failed to be good stewards of creation and ravaged the gifts entrusted to our care. True liberation won’t come until we are willing to answer the call to be co-laborers with God and with each other in the mission of redemption.

Our new votive stand is, indeed, a way into deeper prayer, but if it ends at just lighting a candle and asking God for help, we’ve missed the true opportunity of prayer.  Instead, we should follow the advice of Pope Francis who says, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  As 2020 drags on, and the weight of it all feels unbearably heavy, I invite you to pray for the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the vulnerable, and then to roll up your sleeves and answer the call to be co-laborers in the kingdom; working alongside God in bringing God’s grace, mercy, and steadfast love to all of God’s children.  Amen.

3, 7, 77, or 60 million? How Often Should I Forgive?

       “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”  That was Jesus’ advice to his disciples on how to treat a member of the church who had sinned against them, but refused to be reconciled.  We heard those words from Jesus in last week’s Gospel lesson.  Treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.  Two thousand years down the road, this advice is pretty hard to understand, but even as Jesus said them, Peter was pretty sure they were a trick.  I imagine Peter standing there, counting on his fingers and scratching his head.  “So, first, you call them out on their sin.  If they don’t listen to you, second, take one or two others and try again.  If they still won’t listen, third, take it to the whole community.  If they won’t listen then, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector?”

       Peter knew there was something fishy going on.  It was well known that Jesus had a habit of hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  Heck, our Gospel writer, Matthew, was both before he became a disciple.  Jesus had healed the servant of a Gentile Centurion.  He had his heart changed by a Gentile woman of Canaanite descent.  Treating someone like a Gentile or a tax collector sounded an awful lot like continuing to love them, despite their sinfulness.  Peter was pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t suggesting a “three strikes and you’re out” policy for his disciples, but he also wasn’t sure just how much forgiveness Jesus was suggesting.  Wanting to get it right, Peter presses the matter a bit in today’s Gospel.  Three strikes didn’t seem like quite enough, so Peter took to Jesus what he thought was a preposterous idea.  “Jesus, I know you just told us how to handle a fellow disciple who sins against us, but really, how many times should I forgive someone?  Is seven times enough?”

       Not three.  Not seven.  But seventy-seven. Or, better yet, seventy times seven.  I can see Peter’s eyes wide open and his mouth agape as Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant.  Here a servant who is forgiven a debt of sixty million denarii, roughly 3.5 billion dollars, immediately refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow slave who owed him six thousand dollars.  Not three.  Not seven.  Not seventy-seven or seventy times seven or even sixty million.  Jesus makes it clear to Peter that the call of Christians to forgive isn’t about keeping a bigger ledger than everyone else, but rather, it is about forgiving extravagantly, as we have been forgiven.

       This over-the-top understanding of forgiveness shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.  Neither was it particularly surprising to Peter.  It had likely been a year, or more, since the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, but I’m sure Peter quickly remembered that conversation.  Since we use the Lord’s Prayer here every Sunday, you, too, are likely very familiar with how Jesus summed up the most important things we should pray for.  When you pray, Jesus told his disciples, pray for the Kingdom of God and the will of God to be present on earth, for God to provide enough for the day at hand, for protection from temptation and deliverance from evil, and for the grace to forgive as you have been forgiven.  We who have been forgiven our sixty million or so debts and trespasses, need to be willing to forgive just as much.

       This is, of course, wildly frustrating and seemingly impossible.  Forgiveness is hard work, because, as my friend Ashley Freeman says, forgiveness is work that I didn’t sign up for that I have to do because of something someone else did.  When you put it that way, “three strikes and you’re out” sounds plenty generous.  Which takes us back to the question about treating folks like Gentiles and tax collectors.  What did Jesus mean by that?  How do we square the call to prodigal forgiveness with the truth that we are not meant to be doormats to abusive patterns of behavior?  I think the key lies in the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.

       When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive another member of the church, the Greek word translated as “forgive” literally means “to let go.” Loosing the sins of another is a common Biblical image for forgiveness that continues to resonate even today. According to the online counseling site, forgiveness is “the decision to overcome the pain inflicted by another person by letting go of anger, resentment, shame, and other emotions associated with an injustice, and by treating the offender with compassion, even though they are not entitled to it.”  I find this image of letting go helpful.  It reminds me of one of the tricks I’ve learned to overcome my fear of public speaking.  Rather than allowing my mind race with anxious thoughts, if I’m feeling nervous, just before I step up to speak, I clench my hand into a tight fist.  Very quickly, my mind recognizes something is physically wrong with me, and my attention is drawn away from the fear of public speaking and toward my fist.  As long as I’m clenching a tight fist, my mind is fully focused there.  By the time I let go, I’m standing behind the podium and my fear has gone away.

       Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness is like clenching a tight fist forever.  I might be able to focus on other things for a short period of time, here and there, but always my attention is brought back to the closed fist, to the thing that is wrong, to the hurt I’m holding onto.  Forgiveness as letting go is the intentional action of opening up and releasing the very real and very understandable feelings of anger, resentment, and shame that go along with being sinned against.  In letting go, you are able to better see the one who as sinned against you as a human being, flawed just like you are, and to have compassion on them, or as Jesus said it, to treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.  All of which is possible and necessary even if the other person never admits their fault, never asks for forgiveness, and if reconciliation isn’t in the cards.

       It might go without saying, but forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing.  Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but the restoration of a relationship isn’t the goal of the forgiveness process.  Sometimes, the sin is just too great, or too long standing, for the relationship to continue the way it had in the past.  Sometimes, the offending party has no intention to change their ways, offers no remorse or contrition, or never intends to make things right.  Reconciliation requires both parties to do a great deal of work.  Forgiveness is work that must be done alone.  The goal of forgiveness is simply to be open to the possibility of a new future no longer defined by the anger, resentment, and pain of the past.  Done well, it will allow us to let go of the pain, but it doesn’t mean the sin is forgotten.

       Peter was right.  Jesus was playing a bit of trick.  By telling his disciples to treat someone like Gentile or tax collector, Jesus wasn’t telling them to cast them aside or to hold onto the wrong.  Instead, Jesus was calling them to forgiveness, even without the possibility of reconciliation.  He was inviting them to let go of the hurt and the anger, to offer compassion, especially when the other isn’t entitled to it, and, in time, to move forward, whether or not the relationship could ever be put back together.  Two thousand years later, we’re still pretty good at hurting each other, and the image of forgiveness as letting go remains sage wisdom.  Three.  Seven.  Seventy times seven.  It doesn’t matter.  Forgiveness isn’t fun.  It is work you didn’t sign up for.  But it is imperative for a future in which the Kingdom of God is made real here on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Overcome Evil with Good

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, I’ve felt a bit overcome by evil this week.  Monday brought with it yet another video of yet another black man, Jacob Blake, being shot by a police officer who reacted not out of his training, but out of a systemic and culturally engrained fear of black bodies.  Wednesday’s news revolved around the story of a white teenager, raised on steady diet of hatred and fear, who shot multiple protesters, killing two, with a gun almost bigger than he is, only to be allowed to walk right past police officers, cross state lines, and return home to sleep in his own bed. Lest Mother Nature be left out, we had two hurricanes, including the incredibly destructive Hurricane Laura, wreak havoc, throughout the southern United States.  And let’s not forget that amid COVID-19, school started this week for the students of Western, Warren County, and Bowling Green Independent while news of positive tests among school aged children and young adults rattled through our inboxes and across our television screens.  Fear and hatred and violence and pain and suffering seem to be ever present.  They weigh heavy on my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Evil seems impossible to overcome.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There was a point this week where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say anything more to you than these words from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  They are a message of hope that feels almost out of reach these days.  In my heart, I know that I am called to preach the hope of the resurrection at all times, but as the week went by, finding that word of hope felt more and more difficult. By Thursday evening, when my sermons are usually fully drafted, I had nothing but a couple of false starts, as I searched for hope in the midst of systematic evil.  I kept searching because, despite it all, I know that earlier in Romans Paul promises that hope does not disappoint us as God’s love has already been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Hope may feel beyond our grasp, evil may feel overwhelming, but by the grace of God, we have the opportunity to overcome evil with good through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Thursday evening, the Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky met via Zoom.  As is the custom at T&C meetings, the Bishop offered some opening remarks.  He noted, as I have here, how difficult things continue to be amidst the dual pandemics of racial injustice and COVID-19 before he reminded us of our call to shine the light of hope in our communities.  By way of a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop White called us as leaders in the Diocese of Kentucky to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.  “Christianity stands or falls,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”[1]

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In order to find our voice as harbingers of the goodness of God, those of us who claim to follow Jesus must side with the vulnerable, the weak, the outcast, and the oppressed.  On the broad scale, Episcopalians like to think we do this naturally, but we also tend to take a lot of pride in claiming 11 US Presidents as Episcopalians, St. John’s Lafayette Square as the Church of the Presidents, and the Diocese of Washington’s Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul as the National Cathedral.  Our collective past would have us aligned pretty closely with the worship of the kinds of power that since the beginning of civilization have threatened to overcome good with evil and violence.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In order to help us live into this call, Paul offers a few specific keys to success.  Love one another with mutual affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal.  Be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.  In light of the dual pandemics and the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two of these are speaking deeply to me this weekend.  First, Paul calls on Christians to outdo one another in showing honor.  Honor is one of those old-timey words that gets used often in the church, but so rarely in society that I’m not sure we really know what it means anymore.  To honor someone simply means to regard them with respect.  In order to outdo one another with honor, we must seek to respect all who have been made in the image of God.  Christians who seek to overcome evil with good must learn to see the other, especially those whom we have been taught to hate or fear, as beloved by God, and worthy of honor.  Hearing that quote from Bonhoeffer on Thursday night, I realized why I struggled to find a word to preach this week.  I felt powerless to the societal evils that threaten to overwhelm and saw that powerlessness as a bad thing, when, in truth, powerlessness is exactly what is called for.  Setting aside our positions of privilege to outdo one another in showing honor is the beginning of our society’s path toward wholeness.  This is not easy work. Emptying oneself of power and privilege is a learned behavior.  More often than not, it is a lesson hard-learned as we work to overcome the things that our society, our churches, our politicians, and sometimes even our families of origin, have taught us.  Which brings me to the second admonition that is gnawing at me today, Paul’s call to be ardent in spirit.  Paul is always good for a word or two that need some exploration. I had to look up ardent. I’ll save you the effort and tell you that, in the Biblical context, ardent means to burn hot.  While the world has always taught humans to burn hot with anger, fear, and hatred at those who differ from us, Christians who seek to overcome evil must seek to burn hot with the Holy Spirit. It is only by the Spirit’s help that we can learn to give up the pursuit of power and seek to love our neighbors. It is only by the Spirit’s help that we are able to live lives marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It only by the Spirit’s help that we can, ultimately, serve the Lord.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

In case you haven’t noticed, these words are becoming something of a mantra for me.  In a time when evil feels as real and as threatening as I’ve ever known, my prayer for myself, for you, for our nation, and for this world is that we might not be overcome by evil, but that with the help of the fire of the Holy Spirit burning within us, we might outdo one another in showing honor, setting aside our positions of privilege to listen to and lift up those who have been marginalized and systematically dishonored for so long.  It is a long and arduous journey toward self-emptying love that at times will seem impossible, but the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus has never been easy.  Do not be overcome by evil, my dear friends, but by the power of the Spirit, find comfort in the hope that one day, with God’s help, we will overcome evil with good.  Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), ‘My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness’ a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9 found in ‘The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’

A Little Faith is Enough

       This week, the girls and I took a quick, end of summer, Corona-cation up to Lake Malone.  While trying to be safe and physically distant from others, we made a few plans for fun things to do.  Miniature golf in Hopkinsville was a must.  So was a stop at Stellian’s in Central City for ridiculous, bajillion-calorie milkshakes garnished with whole Twinkies, Little Debbie Nutty Buddy Bars, and Oreo Cookies.  On the lake, we swam at the State Park Beach, but the centerpiece of our trip was a kayaking adventure.  I know next to nothing about kayaking.  I mean, I’ve paddled around for a few minutes near the shore in one a couple of times, but I am by no means an experienced kayaker.  I probably should have researched how to get back into a kayak in deep water before we launched, but I honestly didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  Without any faith in my own abilities, I put what little faith I had in the kayak’s buoyancy to keep us afloat.

       During our afternoon ride, the lake got a little busy.  At one point, cutting across our bow was a pontoon boat.  On our port side was a speedboat, pulling a tube full of kids, making donuts in the water.  These two powered machines were putting off pretty good wakes that were now coming at us from two different directions.  In order to not find myself suddenly in the water, I needed to muster just enough faith in the center of gravity in my kayak so as not to panic and capsize myself.  It wasn’t much faith, but it turned out to be enough to ride that little kayak through what this beginner thought was some pretty rough water.  Meanwhile, in the other kayak, Eliza thought it was all a lot of fun.  I believe Jesus had something to say about the faith of a child, but that’s for another sermon.

       As I read the story of Jesus and his disciples on the stormy sea, I couldn’t help but look fondly upon the little faith of disciples.[1]  It is easy to look down on the disciples, especially Peter, in this story.   Our lesson comes on the heels of one of the most remarkable miracles in Jesus’ ministry.  The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle, aside from the Resurrection, to appear in all four Gospels.  Hounded by the crowds, Jesus wasn’t even able to mourn the death of John the Baptist.  As he and his disciples crossed the lake looking for solitude, the crowd ran around the shoreline to meet him.  He spent the whole day curing the sick, until it grew late and the disciples suggested Jesus send everyone away to find something to eat.  Instead, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and made the disciples feed the crowd out of God’s great abundance.  As soon as the twelve baskets of leftovers were collected, Jesus sent the disciples on their way back across the lake while he found a quiet place to rest and pray.  We might wonder how their faith baskets weren’t also filled to overflowing.

The truth of the matter is that they still had plenty of reason to doubt.  Jesus sending them away was reason enough to question what was going on.  He’d spent the last several days telling them parables about weeds planted among the wheat, seeds that didn’t take good root, and angels separating the good fish from the bad.  In the feeding miracle, they made what seemed like a mistake in suggesting that Jesus send the crowds away.  Despite participating in such an enormous miracle, when Jesus chose to stay behind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the disciples to wonder if something had gone wrong.  Their faith was not particularly strong as the waves begin to the beat against the side of the boat and the wind turned against them.  Exhausted from a night of fighting the storm and mired in doubt, it is no wonder that the disciples were terrified when they saw what appeared to be a person walking on top of the water, coming right at them.  In their fear, they cried out, “It is a ghost!”

As their already shaky faith began to crumble, Jesus came right up to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  In order to experience this next miracle, all the disciples needed was enough faith not to panic and sink themselves.  It seems that eleven of them got it, but Peter needed more proof.  In that moment, Peter’s faith wasn’t strong enough to take Jesus at his word.  He needed a sign.  When Jesus called him out onto the water, his faith again began to falter, but as he sank, he cried out to the only one he knew could help him, “Lord, save me!”

It had been less than twelve hours since the disciples directly participated in one of Jesus’ miracles, yet their faith was fragile, and I honestly don’t blame them.  It’s been twenty-two Sundays since we’ve been able to participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  Twenty-two Sundays since the community has gathered in the nave, a Latin word that literally means ship, a worship space designed to remind of us Christ’s presence in the stormy seas.  If you are feeling like your faith is weak at this point, I don’t blame you.  Going without the rituals and practices that have sustained this congregation for more than 175 years, it can most certainly feel like we’ve been battered by the waves and wind for 154 straight days.  Having to decide whether to send your children to school as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow.  Having to decide between putting yourself at risk to go to work or choosing between paying rent and buying groceries.  Struggling to affect systemic, institutional change in light of 400 years of white supremacist policy in our nation.  The waves are coming quickly from every direction, and it can feel like faith in God’s promise of restoration is hard to come by.  Maybe you are looking out at the horizon and feeling terrified yourself.

In that kayak on Wednesday, I was reminded that even though it sounds like criticism from Jesus, a little faith is more than enough.  Take heart.  In fact, it is that very same Jesus who elsewhere tells his disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed could move mountains.  Do not be afraid.  We may not be able to gather in person, but even at a distance, God is present.  Take heart.  Even with a little faith, God can work miracles.  Do not be afraid.  Even if it feels like we are sinking, God can save us.  Take heart.  Do not be afraid.  All God asks of us is enough faith not to panic and sink ourselves.  The rest, even when it doesn’t feel like it, God’s got it.  Take heart.  Do not be afraid.  My friends, a little faith is more than enough.  Amen.

[1] I’m grateful for the Sermon Brainwave Podcast for sparking this line of thought during vacation week sermon prep.

Patient Weeding

       One of the many, many, many ongoing projects around our 1940s-era home has been to reclaim the yard from years of neglect and questionable choices.  Lots of hours were spent pruning bushes, felling tree-sized weeds, and digging out roots, until we had a few spots ready to plant new things.  Two summers ago, we purchased five, teeny-tiny baby limelight hydrangea to begin a new bed.  We prepared the soil, layered it with newspaper to slow weed growth, planted the baby plants, and covered it with mulch.  Of course, as we all know, nothing really slows down the growth of weeds, and so, very quickly, the little hydrangea were simply 5 good plants amid a myriad of unwanted intruders.  One Friday, before mowing the yard, I set out to weed the new, but nearly overgrown flower bed.  I yanked and I pulled and I shook off dirt from disproportionately enormous root balls, carefully trying to discern good from evil.  I was eighty percent successful.  Somewhere, my radar was off.  I didn’t know it, however, until the next spring, when four, not five, hydrangea came back to life.  Despite what I thought was careful weeding on my part, 20% of our hydrangea investment went in the compost heap.

       I think most of us can relate to the earnestness of the slaves in the parable of the wheat and weeds.  Looking at America today, many, maybe even most of us, are chomping at the bit to get out there and start ripping out what we see as weeds in our society.  Propagated on our insatiable hunger for instant gratification, watered by a steady stream of Facebook fake news and Twitter trolls, and fertilized by emotionally manipulative, advertising and profit driven 24-hour “news” networks, over the last decade, Americans have been cultivated into a society of eager weed eaters, ready to cancel anything and anyone over the slightest of disagreements.  We’ve become adept at ripping out anything that doesn’t look right to us while ignoring the log that is tearing open our own hearts.

       It is meet and right to want to fix injustices, and to do so quickly.  What we learn from Jesus in this parable, however, is that though evil is real, insidious, and pervasive, easy fixes like “just tear out the weeds and leave the good wheat behind” often does more harm than good.  When we take it upon ourselves to declare others as “weeds” and cast them into outer darkness, we run the risk of throwing Jesus out as well.  When we take it upon ourselves to take the place of our God who is the Judge of All, we run the risk of justifying the evil in ourselves and declaring the weeds in our own hearts as good fruit.

       This is not to say that we should excuse racist systems, bigoted actions, or damaging patterns of behavior. No, these must be named and addressed every time we see them, but in order for real and lasting change to take place, patience is required.  Six hundred years of dehumanizing actions toward Native Americans can’t be rectified by changing the name of the professional football team in Washington DC.  Four hundred years of injustice and violent oppression of our black siblings won’t be fixed simply by removing a racist trope from a syrup bottle.  Two hundred years of environmental exploitation in the name of economic growth isn’t simply undone by Burger King feeding cows food that makes them less gassy.  Sure, these things are steps along the journey toward wholeness, restoration, and redemption, but in this moment of reckoning for many of the systemic sins of our society, we should be wary of those who would peddle quick fixes and tempt us with miracle cures, lest we simply fall for yet another deception from the Evil One.  Changing hearts is not work that is done in a couple of hours or weeks or even months.

When we are too hasty to act, not only do we succumb to the great American temptation of the instant gratification of a quick fix, but we also risk doing real damage to ourselves.  In the parable, the householder warns against pulling the weeds lest the wheat be uprooted.  This isn’t just about the householder wanting to secure his profit at harvest time, but the very real possibility that no wheat means that he and his family and slaves might starve.  In 2020, as we look at the landscape of sin in our world, we should be cautious that our response doesn’t infect our hearts with the very sin we hope to weed out. As the Reverend Doctor Joy J. Moore suggests in her “Dear Working Preacher”[1] column this week, in seeking destroy those with whom we disagree, we risk destroying ourselves through anger, rage, vitriol, and violence in the process.  Until and unless we come to terms with the reality of evil in our world, our response to sin will too often devolve into hating our enemies rather than loving and praying for them as our Savior commands.

So, what should we do as we wait with eager longing?  We should pray, as the Psalmist does, that God might teach us the truth.  We should pray for the wisdom of Solomon and the Spirit of discernment.  We should pray, as Jesus commanded us, for our enemies and those who persecute us and others.  Praying not simply that God would change their hearts and make them more like who we think we are, but rather, praying for them in love that they might find hope and joy in God’s never-failing mercy.  We should pray for the redemption of the world.

Built upon a foundation of fervent prayer, next we slowly begin to act by way of listening and learning.  The goal isn’t simply to reinforce what you already believe, but to really listen to the stories of the oppressed and the marginalized like the one told in Between the World and Me, and to learn not just how evil at work in the world or in the other has brought about their suffering, but to listen, intent to learn how the evil at work within ourselves has caused others to live in pain, fear, or sorrow.

Through prayer and discernment, listening and learning, the next place we should find ourselves is seeking forgiveness through the confession of our sins.  We cannot begin to address systemic sins until we are willing to confess and repent of the sin in our own lives.  Through repentance and confession, we can be assured of God’s forgiveness and begin the process of restoring the relationships we have broken.  Finally, after prayerful listening, discernment, and confession, we can begin to turn our attention toward those incessant weeds, not by violently ripping at them – risking damaging the wheat or leaving the root behind, but by working to nurture the good wheat; moving the world within our sphere of influence us toward justice by the way we talk, the way we vote, the way see our enemies, and the way we love our neighbors.

The redemption of the world is painfully slow work.  Two thousand years after Jesus showed us the way, we still have such a long way to go, but even still we are called to live lives of hope, utilizing the same patience God offers us in our sinfulness, knowing that one day, through deliberate and persistent work, the Kingdom of God will arrive, the good wheat will produce an abundant harvest, and righteousness will shine like the sun.  Amen.


An Easy Yoke

       The church I grew up in was a mission congregation planted during the post-World War Two economic boom.  The building was nestled in the very back of the Mission Hills neighborhood. Many who have driven on St. Thomas Road probably have no idea there is a church at the end of it.  Despite enormous population growth and housing developments taking over farm land on a daily basis, to this day, St. Thomas still backs up to a vast Amish farm.  On more than one occasion, I can remember leaving the church, smelling the natural fertilizer wafting heavily through the air, and seeing a man in a blue shirt and straw hat standing on a plow behind a team of two mules preparing the soil.

I didn’t realize it at the time, as I choked for fresh air amid the stench of manure, but without that Amish farmer in the church’s backyard, I wouldn’t have an image for what Jesus is talking about when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Nothing about what that farmer and his two mules were doing was easy.  The ground was hard and rocky.  The blades on his plow had to be hand sharpened.  The wooden yoke that tied the mules together surely weighed heavy upon their withers.  Yet, without the yoke, there could be no teamwork between the two animals.  Without the yoke, the farmer had no control, or with mules, the semblance of control.

       For me, then, whenever I hear this well-worn turn of phrase from Jesus, I imagine that farmer and his heavy yoke, working hard to keep a way of life alive and his family fed.  For Jesus’ audience, the farming metaphor would not have been lost, but two other images would also have been close to mind – one Biblical, the other Rabbinical.  After the image of a famer’s field, the next thought would have probably been of the Prophet Isaiah.  In the ninth chapter of Isaiah, after stern warning of the judgment that was coming against a nation that had forgotten their God, had made their worship idolatry, and had ignored the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed in their midst, the prophet looks ahead to a day in which God will appoint a new king who will overthrow all those who have oppressed the Israelites and break the yoke of their burden.[1]  The crowd who heard Jesus speak of his easy yoke would immediately have had this promise of a new King, in the lineage of image of David brought to mind.  Their hopes would have again been stoked that Jesus would be that king who would overthrow their Roman oppressors and bring a kingdom of peace to their land.  Oh, how they longed for the heavy yoke of their oppressors to be broken, and easy yoke of God’s kingdom to be revealed.

       Close behind that image would have been the Rabbinical image of a yoke.  The teaching of a Rabbi was said to be his yoke.  For many, that yoke took a lifetime to learn.  The Torah, with its 613 individual laws, with all their various interpretations, could, at times, feel burdensome, as Paul the Pharisee tries to articulate in our passage from Romans.  In the wrong hands, the Law was used to weigh people down, to force them into a system that kept them poor and reliant upon the Temple to mediate God’s forgiveness.  For many in the time of Jesus, the Pharisaical interpretation of the Torah felt like a yoke too heavy to bear.  Not only was their political life a heavy yoke, but religious life didn’t seem to offer much in the way of lifting the people’s burdens.  The people were weighed down, tired, and broken.

       So broken, that even the most righteous among them, John the Baptist, had begun to doubt.  The impetus for what we have just heard is a scene just before our Gospel lesson this morning. Imprisoned and frustrated, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the one he had hoped for.  Could it be true, in a world that sat so heavy upon his shoulders, that Jesus really was the one to lift the burden and break the yoke?  Emphatically, Jesus says yes.  Not because he was gathering an army to overthrow Rome.  Not because he had a plan to break John out of prison.  Not due of any show of force, or power, or might, but Jesus is resolute that his Messiahship is based in freedom.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  The poor have the good news brought to them.  “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, “and my burden is light.”

       Almost immediately after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the Church began to add weight onto the yoke of Christ.  Two thousand years later, and after sixteen hundred years of being tied to empire, the Gospel of Jesus can feel pretty heavy for many.  Over the centuries, the easy yoke of Jesus has been weighed down by sexism, colonialism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and nationalism, among other things.  It has been bent under the weight of powerful men who have tried to muscle the easy yoke of Christ off the path of freedom.  Add to that the sheer weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, economic instability, and a long overdue reckoning for America’s original sin of racism, and it should come as no surprise to any of us that many people are feeling weighed down by the burdens of sin, fear, and hopelessness.  Despite it all, the promise of Jesus remains true.  His yoke is easy.  His burden is light.  If only we human beings would let God lift off all the garbage we’ve laid upon the yoke of Christ, we could be unburdened.  If only we would let God break the yoke of oppression, those who have been oppressed and those who have been the oppressors would be able to stand taller in the freedom of God’s mercy.

It’ll take eleven more chapters in Matthew’s Gospel before we get a clear understanding of just how easy the yoke of Jesus really is.  In Matthew 22, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were embroiled in a philosophical war of words with Jesus.  Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees one final time, when the Pharisees got together and sent a lawyer to test him.  “Teacher, which commandments in the law is the greatest?” he asked.  Out of all 613 laws in the Torah, which one is most important?  Jesus answered him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Jesus could have stopped there.  Having shared with the lawyer the foundation of his teaching, he would have answered the man’s question, but he went on.  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It isn’t just that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself is the beginning of Jesus’ yoke, but it is the fullness of it.  Everything else Jesus taught was simply an interpretation on love God and love neighbor.  As Deacon Kellie said in her mid-week meditation on Wednesday, “even when Jesus is talking about finances, or fear, or feeding, or following, or faithfulness, he’s always also talking about love.”[2]  Or as the Presiding Bishop said in his installation sermon back in 2015, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”[3]

The yoke of Jesus is love.  It is simultaneously feather light and impossible to carry on our own.  The yoke of love unites us together.  The yoke of love necessarily puts us in community.  The yoke of love puts to mind first the needs of others, it moves us toward compassion, and calls us to reconciliation.  Without the yoke of Christ there is no ability to work together.  Without the yoke of love, our work in the field of God’s kingdom goes undone.  I invite you, my dear friends, no matter how heavy the weight of today might feel, to let Christ replace your burdensome yoke, for his yoke is truly easy, and his burden is, in fact, light.  Amen.




The Ever-Changing Church

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the sixth chapter of Acts begins.  Despite some early successes, including three thousand new members on Pentecost, public perception was that they were a tiny minority of fools, following a failed, fake Messiah, doomed to flounder for a few months before it all came crashing down.  On top of that, a series of intense internal squabbles threatened to split the Church.  Leaders who were picked based on their ability to teach and preach and inspire, suddenly found themselves having to learn how to administrate.  Factions were arguing constantly, and the leadership could no longer do it all on their own.  So, with some reluctance, they decided to open up the ranks, and seven new leaders were brought on board.  These men, called Deacons, were charged with the day-to-day operations of the ministry, while the rest continued to focus their attention on teaching and preaching.

As we are well aware here at Christ Church, a good Deacon is worth their weight in gold.  Seven good Deacons showed the potential to turn the Church around.  The word of God spread because it had hands and feet in the world.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly as people began to experience the love of God lived out in real life.  Things were blowing and going and everything looked great, until… Luke tells us that even many of the priests of Judaism were being converted by this newfound way of being the Church.  Converting the rank and file is one thing, but religious leaders don’t take too kindly to the poaching of clergy.  Stephen, one of the seven Deacons, was supremely gifted.  Like Deacon Kellie, Stephen’s skills went way beyond the primary role of Deacon as a servant minister.  Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit.  He was a gifted preacher.  He had a servant’s heart.  He even began to perform miracles.  His public persona became the focus of frustration for some of the Jewish leadership.

The story we heard this morning comes at the tail end of a long Passion Narrative for Stephen.  In many ways, his story follows what happened to Jesus.  A secret plot leads to the need for false witnesses to testify before the authorities.  Ultimately, the power of the crowd is used to convict Stephen and he is sentenced to death as a blasphemer and dragged out of the city to be killed. As he dies, Stephen, like Jesus, asks God to forgive those who killed him.[1]  Despite all manner of hardship, the prodigal love of God that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth was still at work in the world, through disciples like Deacon Stephen, but things were about to get much, much worse.

The Lectionary ends at chapter seven, verse sixty, but the story of Stephen doesn’t really end until one verse later – chapter eight, verse one.  There, the story transitions based around a new character who will carry the narrative through the rest of the book.  “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  We heard Saul’s name in our assigned passage.  He was said to be a young man who was trusted to watch everyone’s overcoats as they stoned Stephen to death. Saul was a Pharisees’ Pharisee.  The son of a Pharisee, Saul was an up-and-coming leader in the Jewish faith, and after the message he heard in Stephen’s final sermon, he made it his duty to destroy the Christian faith.

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the eighth chapter of Acts begins.  After their brief glimmer of hope was snuffed out by Stephen’s death, Saul successfully organized a massive persecution of the followers of Jesus.  Those who didn’t flee the city or deny their faith in Jesus, men and women alike, were dragged from their homes and thrown in prison for blasphemy.  The Apostles hid, not unlike they did after the death of Jesus, and the faithful fled to surrounding communities in Judea and Samaria.  There were only a handful of Christians left in Jerusalem, their membership was spread all throughout the land, and there was no Facebook Live to broadcast Sunday services.

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.  The people who scattered took the story of Jesus with them.  As they travelled, they told about the power that God’s love and how Jesus had changed their lives.  They showed God’s love to strangers in their new communities by acts of compassion and service and by modeling the sharing of resources for the needs of the poor.  These people, who fled everything they knew for fear of their lives, took Jesus with them on the road, and lo and behold, the Church continued to grow.  When everything else fell apart around them, the faithful reinvented what it meant to the be the Church in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the love of God with everyone they met.

As we continue to navigate this new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could learn a lot from the experience of the early church during the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of Acts.  We aren’t being persecuted, but we aren’t able to meet together either.  Still, we have the chance to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God with the world by staying healthy and hopeful at home.  Our clergy might be focused on how to preach and teach in this new climate, but so many of you have found ways to step up and serve your neighbors generously, by ordering meals for the Salvation Army and BRASS, by dropping off fresh baked bread, helping out with grocery shopping, sending cards and letters, and making phone calls.

Twice in a matter of weeks, the early church fundamentally changed how it did business, and the Gospel flourished.  As we come to the realization that this marathon is going to last a lot longer than any of us wants, the Church writ large, and Christ Church specifically, is going to have to take on a spirit of adaptation, of listening for the Holy Spirit, and of evangelistic zeal for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  Even when we can re-open our building, the ways in which we worship God, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love are going to look vastly different than they did on March 12th.  Our task, as we settle in for the long haul, is to discern as a community how God is calling us to be the Church in the world during and beyond these unprecedented times.

None of us has the answers quite yet, but we do have models to look to as we think and pray and dream.  We have the story of Stephen, the work of the diaconate, and the spread of the Gospel in the diaspora, among many others to remind us that even in hardship, uncertainty, and fear, the Church’s mission to restore all people to right relationship with God and with each other will not fail.  The Son of Man continues to stand at the right hand of God, which means that evil, fear, and folly can never win.  Things haven’t looked good for the Church before, but God who is faithful will show us the way to the truth of eternal life.  Amen.


Blessed to be a Blessing

On Maundy Thursday, my family sat down around our dining room table with a Church at Home bulletin, some fancy beverages, and a freshly baked loaf of Leslie Weigel’s sourdough bread, ready for a feast.  As we walked through the liturgy, with a priest at the table, it felt strange to not just have communion.  Instead, our girls said the prayers over the bread and the wine and the cherry lime sparkling ice beverages.  We couldn’t gather as a congregation to celebrate the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, the night in which Jesus instituted the central sacrament of our church, and so neither did my family get to have their own private communion service.  As a clergy team, we very quickly decided that the Governor’s “Healthy at Home” order and the Bishop’s Pastoral Directive meant that due to the Eucharist’s fundamentally communal nature, we should all fast until we can all have the opportunity to share in the sacramental nourishment from the riches of Christ’s grace.  While we don’t all have the same Eucharistic theologies, Becca, Kellie, and I were able to agree that without the ability to be together to share Christ’s body and the blood, the fullness of the Eucharist would be lacking.  That’s not to say, however, that what we experienced around our dining room table on Maundy Thursday evening wasn’t special or sacred.

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As my girls read the prayers that night, my eyes wandered to the notes about the prayers, which pointed out that while the words and shape of them might sound familiar, what was happening there wasn’t “consecration” but rather “blessing, something all Christians are called to do.”  Now, I’m certain that nobody watching this live-stream wants to hear me wax poetic about my own understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, the right and wrong ways to worship during a pandemic, or the nuances of language between blessing and consecration, but this distinction has been helpful to me.  As many of you know, the action that we now know as the Eucharist is based on a common Jewish ritual of the shared meal; a ritual that Jesus and his disciples would have experienced almost every day.  Remembering this has proven helpful as I try to overcome my grief about our inability to break bread together around this altar.

Eight weeks into this “new normal” of live-streamed worship, having to hear how the disciples recognized the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread seems unfair at best – maybe even downright cruel.  As I look at the calendar and think that it’ll be at least another five or six weeks before we can even begin re-gather for in-person worship.  As I slowly come to realize that what that in-person worship will look like is a whole lot less like the Easter Day packed house I long for and probably a whole lot more the like a physically distant Wednesday healing service, hearing that Cleopas and his companion got to see the resurrected Jesus take, bless, and break the bread feels like a bit of a gut punch.  As the Psalmist asks, so we might cry out, “How long, O Lord?  How long?”

Sermon prep during physical distancing looks a lot different than sermon prep used to.  Gone are the days of twenty-page print outs of sermon resources.  My bookshelves aren’t at my beck and call.  My brain is working at less than full capacity, and I find myself easily distracted.  Maybe you know how that feels.  Anyway, this week, in a call back to sermon prep long before I became a Rector, back when I had more time on my hands, I pulled up the Sermon Brainwave Podcast.  Four of the best Biblical and preaching scholars in America spend thirty minutes each week talking through the lessons appointed for Sunday, and I just knew they’d give me a fresh perspective.  Karoline Lewis didn’t disappoint.  She pointed out that Jesus breaking bread with his disciples, what we so often see through our lenses as a Eucharistic action, is, in the context of that first Easter afternoon, simply a ritual that Jesus and Cleopas and his friend would have shared dozens or even hundreds of times before.

When Luke writes that Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, he isn’t just telling the story as a re-creation of the Last Supper.  Luke uses the same language in the story of the feeding of the five-thousand.  Jesus commissioned the disciples to feed the crowd, but when they balked at the idea, he took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, before giving the pieces to the disciples to distribute.  Jesus provided an abundant meal to show the disciples what their ministry should look like.

In the Road to Emmaus story, Jesus empowers the disciples yet again by way of a meal, to take the news of the resurrection out into the world.  The broken bread and shared cup of the Eucharist might be one way that our eyes can be opened to see the Lord Jesus, but what is clear to me in this experience of Eucharistic fasting is that it is most certainly not the only way to see Jesus in our midst.  Whether it is formally consecrated by a priest or blessed by the prayers of two little blonds around our dinner table or blessed by the staff at Indian Oven who prepare perfectly baked naan for take-out, I see Jesus in broken bread of all kinds.  I love carbs, but even when there isn’t bread involved, I can see Jesus at work in this strange new world every day.

I’ve seen Jesus at work though our staff, vestry, and eucharistic visitors making calls to parishioners to check-in with one another.  I’ve seen Jesus at work in the tireless efforts of HOTEL INC, the Salvation Army, United Way, BRASS, and Hope House to serve our at-risk neighbors.  I’ve seen Jesus at work in the sewing of masks for health care workers, our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and some of our most vulnerable members.  I’ve seen Jesus in the care that so many are showing toward one another; a care that has maybe been assumed or taken for granted for too long.  I’ve seen Jesus in the generosity of so many who have given in abundance to keep our congregation in a solid financial position.  I even see Jesus in the camera lens, as I get to share the Good News to people I know and love on the other side of an internet connection. The Lord Jesus has been made known to me in all kinds of new and interesting ways during this difficult season.

After the bread and drinks were blessed on Maundy Thursday, we prayed together, giving thanks for every person who brought the meal to our table and asking God to use that meal, and every meal, to give us strength to be good stewards, to care for creation and for one another.  That is how we continue to make Christ present in the world around us, by loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Even in this time of physical distancing, each of us who follow Jesus as Lord has the opportunity to shine the light of Christ, to be Jesus, for our neighbors, our friends, our families, and even to strangers who are walking this same difficult road.  Today, you might need to see Jesus.  Tomorrow, it could be your turn to be Jesus.  While we remain unable to see Jesus in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread here at church, there are still plenty of opportunities to be Body of Christ in the world as we, like disciples across time, are blessed to be a blessing.  Amen.