Choosing Mercy – a sermon

Shortly after my arrival in Foley, a parishioner named Wayne asked to meet.  He had been serving on the board of the local educational enrichment foundation and asked if I could attend a meeting with him and the Principal at Foley Elementary School.  In that meeting, in Dr. Lawrence’s cramped office that he shared with his administrate assistant, I learned for the first time what it meant to be a Title I school.  At that time, 75% of Foley Elementary School students received free or reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  More than 50% of the children didn’t have a dad living at home.  Just less than half came to kindergarten with no pre-school experience.  Nearly 25% came from homes where no English was spoken.  As a result, most incoming students were already a year behind: they didn’t know the alphabet, couldn’t count to ten, didn’t know blue from red, and often, had never held a crayon or a pair of scissors ever before.  My heart was broken, but I was afraid the task was just too big.  I could feel the doubt creeping in, and Dr. Lawrence could too.

“I have to tell you,” he said with dead cold seriousness, “you are the third church to come to my office and ask what you can do to help.  I never heard from the other two again. I hope you are serious about coming back.”  So much for sneaking out the door quietly.  Whether we wanted to be or not, the Holy Spirit had just committed Saint Paul’s to adopting Foley Elementary School.  For almost a decade now, there have been Saint Paul’s members all over that school.  Most help in kindergarten, helping the least and the lost get on that first rung of the ladder.  My favorite part of my nine years in Foley is easily the hour I spent in Mrs. Cashion, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Laurendine’s class rooms.  Watching kids who couldn’t recognize the letter A when I first met them read “Tap, Rap, Bam” to me by the end of the year was a gift.  Seeing our volunteers, many of whom had grandchildren who were grown or lived far away, fall in love with these kids was a gift.  Even as my heart broke for the kids who I knew hadn’t had a clean shirt since Monday or whose shoes were clearly third generation hand-me-down, or who I wondered if they had anything to eat from Friday lunch until Monday breakfast, God’s blessing was always present in that place where there should have been despair.  I can’t help but think about Foley Elementary School every time I read the beatitudes because they remind me that God is always present where we least expect him.

A funny thing happens when you start to spend time with people different from yourself: you begin to care about the things that affect them uniquely.  After several years of being blessed at Foley Elementary School, we found our Latin American friends in the middle of a crisis.  In 2011, the state of Alabama passed HB56, a draconian anti-immigration law that was intended to make brown-skinned people second class citizens.  Its impact was as far reaching as it was uninformed.  Some of the provisions of the bill included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant.  As a priest, I was eligible for prosecution if I gave any kind of aid to an undocumented immigrant.  Under HB56, I could have been arrested for using my discretionary funds to help someone stay in their trailer, keep their lights on, or feed their children.  At Foley Elementary School, the law struck fear into the hearts of many.  Schools were required to check and keep track of the immigration status of all of their children.  “We’ll never ask you to turn in your students,” they said, but Dr. Lawrence and his teachers didn’t put much faith in that promise.  Mothers would tearfully ask teachers to take care of their children if they were arrested during the school day.  Children were afraid to get on the bus, unsure if anyone would be home when they got there.  Over the first weekend after HB56 was signed into law, some 50 Foley Elementary school children disappeared into the dark of night as their families fled in fear.  It was heartbreaking, and yet, God was in that heartbreak, calling us to show mercy.

The IRS is very clear about what I can and cannot say about politics from the pulpit.  Saint Paul’s, like Christ Episcopal Church, was a rich tapestry of political and theological viewpoints from Tea Party Conservatives to Bleeding Heart Liberals and yet that Sunday my Rector and I decided it was time to take a stand.  This wasn’t a political issue, it was a gospel issue.  Hundreds of thousands of Latin-Americans were made to feel less than human because of the color of their skin or the accent on their lips.  In that moment, we had a choice.  We all have a choice.  Do we stand with the oppressed or with the powerful?  Do we use our positions of privilege to lift up those who have been cast down or do we sit comfortably and give thanks it isn’t us?  That Sunday, we chose to speak out on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We invited our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those young children at Foley Elementary who were so scared, and we let them know that despite a state law to the contrary, we would continue to show mercy to those who were in need, whether they could prove they were in this country legally or not.  It was what we were called to do as followers of Jesus and ministers of the Gospel.

This morning is another one of those mornings when a choice has to be made.  Will we sit in relative comfort as a thousands of Muslims right here in Bowling Green, both Arab and European, along with 1.6 billon Muslims worldwide are told that they are less than human?  Will we allow 55 million Latin and Mexican Americans live in fear of harassment or arrest just because of their appearance or accent?  Or will we use our positions of privilege to do what is right, to show the love of God and to respect the dignity of every human being?  Will we be a church that is too afraid to stand up for the Gospel of love or will we take a risk by showing mercy to the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the outcast?

During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples the basics of blessedness.  Among the items on that list are things to which we might be called for a season: mourning, meekness, and persecution, for example.  Others are things that I believe all disciples are called to seek at all times: a hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, and especially, showing mercy.  We live in a time in which being merciful has gone out of fashion.  It has become increasingly easy to casually label and dismiss our neighbors be they Muslim or Jew, Hispanic or Black, straight or gay, rich or poor.  As a nation, we have lost sight of what it means to show mercy, to offer compassion, and to see the good in one another.  And as a result, we’re seeing more and more unmerciful legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.

In the beatitudes, Jesus is clear that his disciples are to stand up against such things, by showing mercy to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  In the beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s blessing on those who seek after the heart of God, who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother, who fled to Egypt as a refugee when the powerful tried to kill him, who declared God’s love to sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, and Centurions, who died on the cross that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace, and who invites each of us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in his grace.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness, we who have received mercy, are called to show mercy to all because God cares not just about those who are in power, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they shall receive mercy.”  Will we choose comfort over blessedness?  Will we show severity instead of mercy?  The choice this day is us ours.  Amen.

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Blessed?

Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the peacemakers…

I have been known to occasionally get fussy about the unthinking appropriation of religious language into common parlance.  For example, the Florida Georgia Line song entitled H.O.L.Y. uses the word that God uses to set apart his saints as an acronym for “high on loving you.”  Because of this, I’ve determined that all comparisons between FGL and Nickelback are moot because FGL is so awful they make Nickelback look like a decent band.  Another word that I’ve tended to want to protect is the oft repeated one in Sunday’s Gospel lesson “blessed.”

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To me, to be blessed is to find favor with God.  So the various #Blessed memes that are out there, usually associating God’s blessing with some sort of material possession or physical ability really make my blood boil.  But then again, so does the choice by most translators to make a similar mistake with the beatitudes: conflating the meaning of blessed and happy.

Despite our years of comfort with “Blessed are the meek,” the Greek word that Matthew chose doesn’t actually mean “blessed.”  Instead, Matthew chose the common word for happy.  “Happy are the meek” seems to make even less sense than blessed are the meek, am I right?  But the more I dug into that word, the more I realized that Matthew might have been onto something.

Having dedicated my life to the service of God in the Episcopal Church, you can imagine I’m a fan of our Book of Common Prayer.  In my now nine years as a priest, I’ve been through the Book from cover to cover more than once, and by far the best thing in there is Burial Office.  It is crawling with great biblical imagery, especially the opening anthem (which could use some gender neutral tweaks, but I digress) that ends with these words from the Revelation of John, “Happy from now on are those who die int he Lord!  So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.”

As God is wont to do, this ordinary word “makarioi“in Greek, “happy” in English is transformed.  It is imbued with grace.  It is made holy, and not in the FGL sense, such that those who are called to live in meekness, as peacemakers, with purity of heart will find not just blessings, but happiness in their circumstances.  God turns this world on its ear, helping those who the world would say are outside of God’s grace and helps them to find joy in even the most difficult of circumstances.   Do you find yourself blessed by God?  If so, you better also find happiness.

The Basics 102

“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  The prophet Micah, as I suggested yesterday, gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God’s desire for discipleship.  Of course, to think that this is the fullness of God’s dream for the Kingdom would be foolishness.  Because the concept of justice is so widely contested, there are any number of ways that one can live out these three basic tenants of discipleship.  We need something else, something deeper, to help open our eyes to the specific ways in which God would have us live into the Kingdom.  We need a 102 course.

Which brings us to Sunday’s Gospel lesson and the opening verses of Jesus’ three chapter long Sermon on the Mount.  We will spend the next four Sundays in the fifth chapter of Matthew, hearing things about salt and light, difficult teaching on anger and divorce, and the admonition to love our enemies.  There are any number of ways that Jesus could have started his public ministry, and yet, he chose the most challenging.  He laid out, from the very beginning, what discipleship would look like, and it all starts with the nine beatitudes that turn the world’s understanding of power upside-down.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You could spend your whole life trying to wrap your mind around these blessings, but the real power in them comes when they are lived out.  It is only when you find yourself being comforted in your mourning that you’ll realize the blessing it contains.  It is when you feel that insatiable pull toward righteousness that you’ll understand the blessing that comes from seeking justice for every human being.  It is when you are mocked and reviled for standing up against fear mongers, war makers, and power brokers that you’ll come to know the blessing that is God walking alongside.

None of these things are easy, which is precisely why they are blessings.  When we get out of God’s way and take part in the hard work of the Kingdom, blessings flow like a mighty river, sustaining us for journey ahead.

A Timely Reminder

If last week served no other purpose, it reminded me, once again, that there are two strongly prevailing and often at odds visions of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in America in the 21st century.  Whether it is the furor over the election of Donald Trump as President or the ongoing lack of real conversation between the perpendicular arguments of pro-life vs. pro-choice, the world has seen Christians arguing among themselves, at best, and outright denying the faith of the other, at worst over the course of the last month, well, maybe more like a year, or decade, or more.

It is in that climate that the liturgical calendar turns its page to the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the only words that anybody can remember from the prophet Micah.  At the tail end of a long list of rhetorical questions about what actually pleases God, come these words, “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?”

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Those who have hung around this blog for a while know that my favorite Greek word is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  It is a word that would be helpful for every Christian to make a part of their vocabulary.  Most of what masquerades as deep theological debate these days is actually vitriolic arguments over adiaphora.  That’s not to say that having a well informed theology is important.  For example, if one were to take “thou shalt not kill” seriously, then it would behoove that one to take an holistic view of that commandment.

That being said, it does Christianity at large a huge disservice to publicly argue about matters indifferent with the sort of anger with which Christians have come to be known of late.  I am particularly grateful, then, for the words of the prophet Micah as a baseline for what it is we are to be about.  God has already told us what really matters in the heart of God: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.  The current state of religious debate fails at the latter two points, and it is usually in the context of debate over the former.  There are gray areas in what justice looks like, I am fully willing to admit that, but until those conversations happen in the context of loving kindness and humility, we as Christians will be unable to move forward toward effectively working toward the goal of building the Kingdom.

In Rotary Clubs, there is the Four-Way Test for every decision:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Perhaps as Christians, we might take a more trinitarian tack, and ask ourselves these questions before we hit the comment button on social media:

  1. Is it JUST?
  2. It is done in LOVING KINDNESS?
  3. Does it promote WALKING HUMBLY with God?