Do not be weary in doing what is right

Four years ago yesterday, I wrote my most popular blog post ever.  It was the day after President Obama won his re-election campaign against Mitt Romney and my sense around social media and in the real world was that people had lost perspective on the place of American politics in God’s larger plan of salvation.  “Why I’m Grieving Election Day” was read by more than 40,000 people in 24 hours.  It received 140 comments and was shared thousands of times on Facebook.  It struck a chord, to say the least.

That post is getting some retread this week as we once again go to the polls to elect a President for these United States.  Once again, my Newsfeed and conversations are filled with people who are praying that their candidate would be elected, and that the future of American depends upon it.  Mark Twain’s War Prayer would remind us that these prayers also includes the unsaid prayer that God would forsake the cause of the other side.  Prayer is a dangerous activity, and we would do well to consider what it is we are really praying for before we list our candidate and his or her platform.

Here’s the thing: come tomorrow, or whenever this national nightmare is over, the call of Christians will be the same whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton becomes the President-elect.  We are to, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “not be weary in doing what is right.”  As my friend Megan posted on a Facebook thread yesterday, “God’s still in charge no matter who wins tomorrow. But equally as important, our call to preach the gospel, free the captives, help the struggling continues no matter who wins too.”  Or, perhaps better yet, as the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Thessolonica, “Do not be weary in doing what is right.”  We can not let the world take away our impetus for love, which, I’m sorry to say, this election cycle has worked hard to do.

And so my word for today, both here and on my social media platforms is quite simple, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  If we can get that part right, as the Diocese of Ohio bumpers sticker reminds it, we will change the world.

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Thank God I’m not like those people

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If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

Christ is [the] all, and in all

A few days ago, a parishioner of mine shared a video with me entitled, “What should Christians do if they dislike both Presidential candidates?”  The show, like most Christian talk shows sits right of center, but the message of discernment is worth hearing.

As the Democratic National Convention nears its ending, with the Republican National Convention having done its work last week, I’ve been thinking again and again about what role the Church has in American Politics.  No, I’m not suggesting that we repeal the Johnson Amendment, but I am suggesting that perhaps instead of letting politicians and talking heads tell us what makes these candidates good or bad, Christian or not, that preachers have an obligation to offer our congregations a glimpse into the Kingdom of God and invite them to discern, prayerfully, which candidate’s life and platform more closely align to it.

The reality is that faithful Christians are going to come up with very different answers to that question.  This is because Jesus doesn’t fit nicely into the box of Democrat or Republican.  Paul, as he wrote the the Church in Colossae, a church that struggled with differences of theological opinion like every other church in the history of Christianity, urged them not to get caught up in partisanship arguments of “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” Democrat and Republican, Libertarian and Green Parry.  Instead, Paul reminder the diverse members of the Colossian Church that “Christ is [the] all and in all.”

If our focus on the reign of Christ, and the work of discernment is taken out of the emotional and the self-serving, and handed over to the Spirit of Christ that dwells within us, then the vitriol and ickiness (a deeply theological word) of modern politics will fade away.  We may still disagree as to whether the ideals of Johnson, Stein, Clinton, or Trump most closely align with the will of God, but if we are focused on Christ, the all who is in all, then we won’t be able to dehumanize and reject the other, but rather be willing to listen, to learn, and, God forbid, to have our minds opened to another possibility than the one truth we have found.

Not only is this way of engaging in politics Biblical, but is the teaching of the Episcopal Church, summed up in the Prayer for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority found on page 820 of the Book of Common Prayer.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

The telos of politics is the reign of Christ, and until we remember that, we will continue down the spiral of downright ugliness in which we are currently and seemingly intractably, stuck.  May God grant us grace to seek Christ who is the all and in all.  Amen.

The Most Excellent Way – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Every Sunday [at the 10 o’clock service] we sing this song as the children leave for Follow the Word.  For years, I haven’t given this little ditty much thought.  I just enjoy singing it.  It is a cute song that reminds me of the Vacation Bible Schools of my youth, but as I spent this week immersed in the lessons, I found myself reflecting on this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  These are words of comfort and hope.  That the Son of God loves me means that I’m included in those who are his brothers and sisters.  It means that I’m an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.  It means that I’m a part of the people who Jesus was anointed to save.

This week’s Gospel lesson is a continuation of last Sunday’s in which we heard Jesus read words of comfort and hope the from the Prophet Isaiah.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he as anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The crowd that was gathered in the synagogue was excited at these words.  They heard the promise that God loves them, that God cares for them in their hardship, and that one day, God will restore everything and make the world right side up again.  They stared at Jesus with eager expectation, hoping for a clearer picture of what this could possibly mean for them.  And so Jesus sat down, as preachers did in those days, and uttered his first public words in Luke’s Gospel.  His first sermon is only nine words long, but it would forever change the course of human history. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today?  As in, right now?  As in, no more boot of Rome on our throats, no more heavy taxes, no more fear?  Today!?!  Luke tells us that the crowd moved beyond excitement to wonder and amazement.  They were thrilled at these words from Jesus and began to murmur among themselves, “Can it be?  Could this really come from Joseph’s son? Can he really be the anointed one who has come to save us?”

But Jesus didn’t stop there either.  He kept talking, opening up their imaginations to a more excellent way.  He invited the crowd to see a world where God’s love isn’t confined to the Sinai Peninsula and the people of Israel, but is available for everyone, everywhere.  Remember the Widow at Zarephath?  She lived in Gentile country, but Elijah ministered to her and her alone in the midst of a famine.  She lived in the wrong town and worshiped the wrong way, but, Jesus says, she is included in the year of the Lord’s favor.  Namaan the Syrian, was an ungrateful leper.  He talked harshly about the waters of Israel, even as he had come to Elisha to be healed.  He was a Gentile and not a very nice one, and Jesus says, he’s included too.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.

“Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We love that song.  “Jesus loves you, this I know…” is less popular.  That other person might be nice and pleasant, but what if they aren’t?  What if they’re a jerk?  Jesus loves jerks.  I know because I can be one sometimes.  What if they’re Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are a banker on Wall Street or a drug dealer in Aaronville?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are my ex-husband or my emotionally distant mother or my annoying neighbor?  Jesus loves them, too.  For the crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach, that was just too much to handle, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably too much for us as well.  So what do we do?  How do we come to grips with the reality that God’s favor rest upon many who we consider to be undesirable?

We follow Paul’s more excellent way.  The Christians in Corinth were singing a different version of this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know because I have the gift of tongues, but I’m not so sure he loves you because you only have the gift of prophecy.”  That pretty awful song threatened to tear the young church apart, and so, in the midst of his teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul took a pause to teach them how to love one another.  From verse four to the first half of verse eight, Paul uses 45 words to describe love.  Sixteen of them are verbs.  Love is something that requires work.  Love is busy.  Love is active.  Love is always finding ways to lift up and care for the other.[1]  Remember that this is being written to a church that was on the verge of divorce.  The Corinthian church was being torn apart by envy and bitterness and to them Paul says:

Love is patient, but it isn’t passively patient.  Love means being slow to avenge when someone does you wrong.  Love isn’t just kind in the polite “hi, how are you” kind of way.  Love is kind even to those who have hurt you.  Love is not being envious of the gifts that someone else has.  Love is not being boastful about the gifts that you have.  Love is not being rude or puffed up with an overinflated sense of self.  Love is the most excellent way because love is the ultimate dream of God for all flesh.  “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will never fail.”[2]

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the bishop talk about how heaven isn’t some place that is far from here in time and space.  Instead, he says, heaven exists somewhere right here (waves hand at side of face).  When we love one another in the way that Paul suggests the Corinthians should love each other, heaven comes right here.  God is love, and so when we love one another, God is right here.  Jesus Christ came to earth to show us the way of love; the way of self-sacrifice; the way of God’s holy restoration of all creation, and when we follow his example of love, Jesus is right here.  It doesn’t matter what else we might do, if we don’t have love, heaven stays out of view, God remains absent, Jesus is not among us.  But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we usher in nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus loves me, this I know.”  These are words of comfort and hope, but if that is all they are, then they are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  Because of God’s love for us, we are called to show that love to the rest of the world.  By showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us. With some practice, who knows, one day we might even be comfortable enough to turn to our neighbor and sing, “Jesus loves you, this I know.”  That kind of love will change the world.  Love really is the most excellent way.  Amen.

[1] Brian Peterson – http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734

[2] Ibid.