Hope does not disappoint?

Borrowing from the Unitarian reformer (yes, such a thing exists) Theodore Parker, in several of his famous speeches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered this reflection on the hope of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Given the time in which he lived, it would have been easy for Dr. King to give up that hope.  It wasn’t just your run of the mill racists who seemed to be working against the bend toward justice, but governments, and even entire denominations were working hard to keep this nation that was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” from ever making that foolish claim in the Declaration of Independence a reality.

Some 50 years later, Parker’s original quote seems more apt than even the Dr. King paraphrase, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  In a nation where angry rhetoric is spilling over into actual violence, it is hard to see much hope beyond the horizon that the arc toward justice creates.  I can honestly say that in my own thoughts, at times, I wonder if there really is any hope in the sort of peace that comes when every human being is afforded the rights and responsibilities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I fear that my children will only know a world of bitterness, anger, vitriol, and violence.

Thanks be to God, that at just the right time, I am reminded to never give up hope.  This week’s short lesson from Romans, though used to great damage by religious leaders who send battered wives back to their husbands or keep whole peoples from rising up against oppression because “we should boast in our suffering,” can and should be redeemed by the telos of our collective suffering.  For all who struggle with hope, for all who wonder if justice will ever roll down, for all who lament the violence and the fear mongering, Paul offers these words:

“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The reason we continue to hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary, is because God’s love is at work in the world.  This isn’t some ethereal claim of ooey-gooey love without substance, but the reality that God’s love has hands and feet and hearts through the Holy Spirit given to each of us in baptism.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the agents of hope in the world.  We are they who should be calling for justice.  We are they who should be working for peace.  We are they who should be offering compassion.  We, who can see only as far as the horizon, with the help of the Holy Spirit, must continue to work to bring the end of the arc into focus.

In times like these, hope can be difficult, but with God’s help, we who continue to hope and work for a just society will not be disappointed.

Peter’s Resurrection Moment -a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


It had been almost a week since that awkward encounter.  Jesus had probably long since forgiven Peter for it, but if Peter is anything like me, he had spent the last six days working those few minutes over in his mind again and again and again.  Six days ago, Jesus and his disciples were on the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean that was 100% Roman: where Herod had built a Temple in honor of Caesar, and after his death, Philip the Tetrarch gave it the name Caesarea – Caesar Town.  There, in the shadow of an entire city built to honor the power of Rome, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

You can almost see them trying to avoid answering the question.  Like a classroom full of Middle Schoolers, no one wanted to make eye contact with Jesus.  Somebody muttered John the Baptist, which was a ridiculous answer.  John hadn’t even been dead a year; how could Jesus be John the Baptist.  Another person piped up, “Elijah,” which seemed more sensible.  Elijah was the one who was to return and prepare the way for the Messiah.  Another voice suggested “Jeremiah or some other prophet,” which was, again, not totally unreasonable.  Jesus pressed further.  With the Temple Complex of Caesar and Pan rising in the background, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter, God love him, couldn’t contain himself.  He knew the right answer and wanted Jesus to know he knew it too.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter blurted out, without a care in the world as to where he was standing or who might hear him.  It just so happens that Caesar also carried the title “Son of God,” but that didn’t matter to Peter.   Jesus was the Son of the true God.  Jesus was the one who had been sent to rid Israel of their Roman occupiers.  Jesus was the one who would raise up an army, tear down the Temples built to pagan gods, and return the throne of David to its rightful place.  Jesus was here to rule with power and might, and Peter was ready to fight.

Jesus praised Peter for his forthrightness.  “Blessed are you, Simon… For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”  Peter was riding high, but Jesus continued to speak, telling the whole group that the Messiah wasn’t going to be about power and might; that the Messiah wouldn’t be raising up an army; but that the Messiah, he, Jesus, their Rabbi and friend, would be going to Jerusalem where he would suffer at the hand of the religious leadership, and be killed, and, mind you, on the third day rise again.

“God forbit it, Lord!”  Again, Peter bowed up and blurted words out before he could even think.  This wasn’t right, it wasn’t how it was supposed to work.  Peter hadn’t left his wife and career to traipse around the Sinai Peninsula for years only to watch Jesus be killed, and so Peter balked.  He looked right in the face of Jesus and said, “No!”  And Jesus looked right back at him and said, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Talk about awkward.  The discernment that Peter had just done so well was flung right out the window.  From “my Father in Heaven revealed this to you” to “you have set your mind not on divine things but on human things” in the course of about 90 seconds.  The rest of the disciples went back to staring at theirs shoes, and for six days, it seems, nobody made mention of “the event.” Then suddenly, Jesus looked back at Peter and along with James and John, invited him on an afternoon hike up Mount Tabor.

Six days is a long time to stew on something.  I wonder just how down in the dumps Peter was feeling as they made the slow climb?  What did he expect when they arrived at the top?  Were James and John invited as witnesses for his further rebuke?  Was it a regularly scheduled prayer day?  Whatever Peter might have guessed was going to happen that day, the Transfiguration wasn’t it.  As Jesus’ face shone with the brightness of the sun and his clothes reflected a dazzling white, Peter again found himself speaking faster than his brain could work.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents…”  While the words were still making their way out of his mouth, a cloud enveloped them and a voice from heaven spoke to them, and Peter joined James and John in fear and trembling.  Six days of uncomfortable silence.  Six days of avoiding Jesus’ passing glance.  Six days of wondering if he had pushed past the point of no return, and now Peter was in the midst of a vision of God atop a holy mountain, and all he could do was sputter and stammer and kneel down in fear and trepidation.

Note what happens next.  God doesn’t rebuke Peter.  Jesus doesn’t call him out.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t smite him on the spot.  Instead, Jesus walked over to the three of them, touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus said to them.  In the Greek, what Jesus really said as his reached out in loving care to his three scared-to-death disciples was, “be raised, and fear not.”  The word translated as “get up” in the NRSV is the same word the angel will later use to describe what happened to Jesus on Easter morning.  “He is not here, he has been raised.”  In the depth of his despair, after nearly a week of anxiety, stress, and dis-ease, there on that mountain top, Peter was still talking faster than he could think, but it was precisely in that moment that Jesus gave Peter his own moment of resurrection.

As the Season of Epiphany comes to a close and we prepare ourselves for Lent, the story of the Transfiguration serves as something of a bridge.  Starting Wednesday and for forty days, we will purposefully spend time paying close attention to our tendency toward sin.   We will be invited to take stock of the ways in which our wills are at odds with the will of God.  Marked with an ashen cross, we will be made keenly aware of our mortality and dependence upon God.  Some of us will fast, giving something up that distracts us from the dream of God.  Others will take something on, finding a new prayer practices, devotions, or scriptural readings that are meant to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to God.  No matter how you plan to spend your Lent, I pray that you will have a Peter experience, and I mean both sides.  I pray that at some point in Lent, either in your private prayers or on Sunday morning, you have a profound awareness of the sin that has separated you from God.  I’m not asking you to spend six days in that place, but maybe six minutes.  Feel the pain, the fear, and the awkwardness of knowing that sometimes your best intentions aren’t a part of God’s plan and then be ready to feel God’s hand upon your shoulder.  Listen for Jesus as he offers you a resurrection moment.  “Be raised, and fear not” for God loves you, forgives you, and wants to build the Kingdom of Heaven with your help. Amen.

If, somewhere in the next eight weeks, you can find your way there: from the depths of your sinfulness to the heights of your resurrection moment, you will have been blessed to have the glory of God revealed to you.  In Hebrew, the word for glory means “weight” or “heaviness.”[1]  By the grace of God, what starts as the weight of our sin is transformed into the weight of Christ’s hand upon your shoulder, inviting you to be raised and fear not.  My prayer for you this Lent is that you feel the weight of God’s glory so that you can join with Jesus on Resurrection Day.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Palmer, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century Email 20 Feb 2017.

The Kingdom of God is Still Near

For those of us who run in Episcopal circles, the past few months have been really topsy-turvy.  While it is true that Episcopalians span the political spectrum, it is equally true that the majority of Episcopal priests tend to sit left of center.  The old joke that Episcopal congregations have altar rails to separate the Republicans from the Democrat might not be as true as it once was, but there is still a statistically significant difference between the political balance of the church’s laity and her clergy.  As you might guess, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has brought with it much consternation.  In recent weeks there have been two major controversies around the decision by some congregations to cease the habit of praying for the President by name and around two decisions by the Washington National Cathedral to 1) hold the usual interfaith prayer service on the eve of the Inauguration and 2) to allow a choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.  I will not weigh in on any of those questions because, by and large, it has been yet another opportunity for the Episcopal Church to shoot itself in the foot by behaving badly in disagreement.  We should have learned our lesson in 2003 following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but sadly, the rise of social media since ’03 has allowed us to be only more publicly cantankerous than we were before.

I will say this, however, that no matter what you think about what will happen when Donald J. Trump is sworn in at noon on Friday, the central message of Jesus is still true. The Kingdom of God is still near.  For my Republican friends, know that the Kingdom of God was near when the Affordable Care Act became law.  For my Democrat friends, know that the Kingdom of God is near even as it is being repealed.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent upon who is in office, but rather, its unveiling is the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, of which we are constituent members.

Our task, in light of the ongoing dis-ease in our country and the wider world, is to see Christ in each other, to be about building the Kingdom on earth, and to be discerning God’s will for the world in which we live.  It is that final piece that causes the most problems, since both sides of our current debates are good at claiming God is on their side, but if we work hard at the first bit, at seeing Christ in each other, and especially looking for Christ in those with whom we disagree, then the Kingdom of God comes even closer than it had been before.

As we approach an historic moment, with some who rejoice, some who mourn, and some who fear, I’m looking toward the Kingdom, looking for Christ in my neighbor, and committing now, more than ever, to work toward God’s dream for creation that God so loved that he sent his only Son not to condemn for its failures, but to save for its potential.  The Kingdom of God is still near, dear reader, pray that your eyes might be open to see your place in bringing it into reality.

Many will say “the time is near”

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Late last week, the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site made in the image of the Onion, posted an article entitled “Second Coming of Christ Scheduled for Game 7 of Cubs-Indians World Series.”  Quite honestly, that Jesus didn’t come back during that rain delay is surprising to me, but who knows, perhaps God’s omnipotent plan for all of Creation doesn’t revolve around the decaying pass time of the current largest empirical economy in the world.  I’ve seen others who think that maybe tomorrow will be the day.  This is again an American-centric plan that suggests that the 2016 Presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might be the catalyst for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Of course, Jesus warned us about such foolishness. In Sunday’s timely and unavoidable Gospel lesson, we find ourselves jumping ahead to Holy Week.  Since most Episcopal congregations skipped over Proper 27, Presumably in order to transfer All Saints’, but likely because nobody wanted to preach levirite marriage, after almost four months of walking with Jesus from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, we all of a sudden find ourselves in Jerusalem in the thick of Jesus’ struggle ahead of the cross.  Last week’s lesson was h the first of several encounters with the religious powers-that-be.  This week, we hear a portion of Jesus’ ongoing lament over Jerusalem, and how the central image of God’s steadfast love for his people has been sabotaged, and now has to be torn down.

Even then, Jesus says, even when God allows his very home to be destroyed in your midst, don’t let people fool you into thinking it is something bigger than it is.  There will be wars and rumors of wars.  We’ve got that.  Earthquakes.  See Kansas and Oklahoma.  Famines. Check. Plagues.  Isn’t Whopping cough making a comeback?  Portents in the heavens?  A Wrigley Field sign that reads “World Series Champs” would seem to qualify.

If you are looking for signs, they will no doubt seem to be there, and yet, we do not know the day or the hour.  Instead, rather than getting caught up in the signs and the scare tactics, Jesus invites us to trust that he will be by our side.  As we go to the polls tomorrow, fueled by a healthy dose of fear mongering from both sides over the past year or more, remember that even if the world were to end tomorrow, not that I think it will, God is still in control.

Do thou likewise

This Sunday morning, congregations around the globe and across denominations will hear Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells this powerful story in response to a lawyer who rose up to challenge him.  In first century Palestine, this would not necessarily been seen as an aggressive act by the lawyer.  In fact, intense debates between Rabbis, Scribes, lawyers, and lay people are an ongoing part of the Jewish faith.  This scene between Jesus and the Lawyer would be commonplace, and Jesus seems willing to engage the debate.

After proving that he knows his law, the lawyer turns the question back on Jesus by inquiring “who is my neighbor?”  Surprisingly, this question is a whole lot more difficult to answer than “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  There is no passage in Leviticus to memorize to understand “who is my neighbor,” but instead it is lived out in the life of faith.  Jesus shows this by creating an absurd scenario.  Not that getting robbed and beaten wasn’t something that could happen on the Wilderness Road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but the odds of the first three passersby being a priest, a Levite, and a dreaded Samaritan are quite slim.  These three are of course necessary for proving Jesus’ point.

The priest, a professional follower of the Law, chose ritual cleanliness over the commandment of Leviticus 19.18b.  The Levite, a man ethnically predisposed to religious practice made the same choice, but the Samaritan, a man who was an outcast, a half-blood, and by his very nature considered to be unclean took the risk and sacrificed his own time and money to nurse the injured man back to health.  When confronted with this story and the question of who acted as a neighbor, all the lawyer could muster was “the one who showed mercy.”  His pride, his privilege, his assumptions, and his fear would’t allow him to even utter the word Samaritan, and Jesus has the audacity to say, “do thou likewise.”

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The word of the Lord to this lawyer is that neighbor means showing mercy to everyone, even those who you fear, those who make you uncomfortable, those who seem outside the social norms.  This word seems particularly prudent in the United States as we once again see videos of two young black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were shot dead by police under questionable circumstances.  As tensions run high, and the reality that racism didn’t end with desegregation or the election of a black man as President comes to the fore, it is important for the Church to be present, reminding the world around us that the will of God is that we show mercy to our neighbors no matter their skin color, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their place on the social ladder.

Showing mercy means respecting the dignity of every human being.  It means standing up for justice for all people. It means reaching out with care to those who the world has deemed undesirable because God’s love is stronger than prejudice, fear, and anger.  It is easy to say “love your neighbor as yourself,” but it is really difficult to “do thou likewise.”  Come Lord Jesus, come and show us what we ought to do and give us the strength to faithfully do it.  Amen.

The Abyss

There are very few idiomatic tropes that carry meaning across generations, let alone thousands of years.  Mental Floss generates thousands of clicks by giving readers insights into how words and phrases have changed over the years.  There are, however, a few images that carry weight over centuries, one of which we hear from the lips of Legion in the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Keenly aware of the power of Jesus, the demons, Luke tells us “begged him not to order them to go back to the abyss.”

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A real picture of a real sink hole in Guatemala (2010)

While this fear is from the demons in this story, there seems to be something universal about their fear.  Hollywood knows this, as images of the deep abyss show up with great regularity in films from “This is the End” to “Indiana Jones.”  Despite long giving up on the idea of a three tiered universe, humanity seems to have written in its DNA a fear of that which is deep below, be it hell, the earth’s core, or, as is likely the source of the fear, that which resides deep within our souls.

We would prefer that Jesus not dig too deeply within us.  We’d like to keep those deepest parts of us nicely locked away, never to be dealt with.  There is some comfort in not having to deal with our own, inherent prejudices, fears, and sinfulness; even if it means holding onto those undesirable parts for eternity.  But Jesus will not allow us to stay out of the abyss.  In his life and death, he showed us that only in the depths: his temptation in the wilderness and his decent into hell; is the fullness of God’s grace-filled love for us discovered.

Legion can’t understand this.   They beg not to be sent to the abyss, and Jesus grants their wish.  They are forced into a herd of unclean animals that promptly head down the steep ravine and drown in the waters below.  He banishes them not into the abyss, but into death by shallowness.

The Power of “I Am”

What God was asking of Moses at the burning bush was nothing short of a suicide mission.  Go to the Pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to “Let my people go.”  This task would have been difficult enough if Pharaoh was a plantation owner and the Hebrews were a dozen or so slaves, but to ask Pharaoh, the King of all Egypt, to give up more than a million slaves, on whose backs the entire economy of Egypt rested?  You’d have an easier time convincing a sitting American President to deport all the undocumented laborers who ensure our cheap houses and $0.99 heads of lettuce.  As one might guess, Moses is unsure of the possibility of success.  His fear isn’t just of Pharaoh, but of the more than one million Hebrews who only knew the life of slavery.  When they asked, “Under whose authority do you do this?” What was Moses to answer?

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Tell them “I Am” sent you.

The name God gave Moses to drop is a peculiar one.  In time, the name of God would become so sacred, that the four letter word I’ve posted above is not to be said aloud in the Jewish tradition.  When a reader comes to this word, which is transliterated at YHWH, they say, “Elohim” instead.  More peculiar than that, the name God gives is a verb.  Not even Kanye and Kim named their children a verb.  And it isn’t just any type of verb, but an imperfect verb, indicating an incomplete or ongoing action.  God wasn’t, God is.

In the course of human history, the imperfect verbiness of God will prove quite helpful.  When Moses and Pharaoh are going back and forth through the course of ten plagues, it is nice for Moses to know that “I am” is with him.  When the people of Israel have their backs on the Red Sea while the Egyptian army barrels down on them, there is some comfort in “I am” standing there too.  Forty years in the wilderness, the walls of Jericho, the Judges, Kings, exiles, and even Roman occupation are made a little more bearable because “I am” continues to be.  Even as Jesus hangs on the cross, seemingly abandoned by everyone he has ever loved, feeling forsaken by the Father himself, “I am” is still there.

This is good news for those of us who continue to walk in the Way of discipleship.  Nobody ever said life was going to be easy.  There will be financial pressures, health issues, family quarrels, natural disasters, and any number of other stresses in life when things might feel lost, when God might seem far away, when hope might be dwindling.  In those moments, whether you believe it or not, “I am” is there, holding you as a hen protects her brood under her wings, for God is an imperfect verb, constantly active, and never ending.  That’s the power of “I am.”