Day Clean

I love sleep.  The refreshment of the Sunday post-church clergy nap.  The joy of sliding into clean sheets.  The cocoon of comfort under the covers while the ceiling fan swirls cool air all around.  I love sleep.  So it is that I noticed with some trepidation yesterday this idea that in John’s Revelation of the new heaven and the new earth that there will be no night.  If, in fact, the glories of heaven are beyond even my wildest imagination, then at the very minimum, it will include biscuits and gravy, some sort of non-injurious football, and the opportunity to sleep.

As this somewhat ridiculous mental exercise was bouncing around in my head yesterday, the pilgrimage in which I am journeying took a tour of about three blocks of Savannah, Georgia from the River where slave ships docked to the slave auction block that sat in the shadow and under the protection of Christ Episcopal Church.  Our guide, the operator of Underground Tours of Savannah, Sister Patt, is a descendent of the Gullah Geechee people and those among the 14 different tribes stolen from the Golden Coast and sold into slavery in the United States.  Sister Patt shared with us some of the customs and language of the Gullah Geechee, including this concept of “Day Clean.”

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For the Gullah Geechee, sunrise is Day Clean, it is God wiping the slate clean for a fresh start.  As it says in Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”  Each morning is an opportunity to choose, yet again, to live for the Kingdom of God, to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.  In 21st century America, we almost live without night and the natural cycles of time.  Each day is not its own, but part of a never ending slog toward progress.  The hamster wheel never slows down.  But if we are intentional about marking time, as our ancestors did, I think this concept of Day Clean can be of great value.  It is a way to honor the good and the bad that happened yesterday, to offer it to God, and then to start the day fresh, forgiven, restored, and working toward a more hopeful future.

As I sat on the beach at Isle of Palms, SC this morning, I gave thanks for the opportunity of a new beginning, a fresh start, a Day Clean, as I seek to discern how God is calling me to take what I’ve learned and experienced during this week into my life and my ministry. I wish for you, dear reader, the chance to experience a Day Clean for yourself.

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Crazy Enough to Hope – a sermon

It feels really good to be back in Mark’s Gospel.  After spending Easter season in John, I’m glad to be settling back into Mark.  Reading John reminds me of the rides my parents would make us take on Sunday afternoons.  We would load into the family sedan and drive out into the country, not really going anywhere, in search of I don’t know what.  Depending on which direction we were headed, either my sister or I would spend most of the time complaining about the sun baking us in the back seat, while we argued over what color the sky was.  Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, is more like my trip back from the Gulf Coast of Alabama yesterday.  We pointed the car north and, with only a few traffic slowdowns and the Clanton, Alabama Whataburger trying to feed 5,000, we headed home just as fast as we could.

Mark’s Gospel moves very quickly.  You’ll recall that the author’s favorite word is “immediately.”  We hear it more than forty times, as Jesus immediately moves from this thing to that thing and on to the next thing.  In this morning’s lesson, we find ourselves only in the third chapter, and yet so much has already happened.  Jesus has been baptized by John, tempted in the wilderness, and called his first disciples from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  He’s healed Simon Peter’s mother, cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and that’s only in chapter one.  By chapter two, Jesus has already gotten under the skin of the religious powers that be.  His disciples don’t fast like the Pharisees think they should.  Worse yet, they plucked a few heads of grain on the sabbath.  Clearly this man was not from God.

After what must have felt like a whirlwind couple of weeks, Jesus and his disciples returned to his hometown, presumably for a bit of rest and refreshment.  Instead, as our Gospel lesson opens this morning, we hear that the crowds that surrounded him were so thick and so desperate to hear his preaching and receive his healing that Jesus couldn’t even get a bite to eat.  His family feared for his life.  They had heard what the religious authorities were saying about him.  They could see the rabid crowd surrounding him.  They knew what he was saying and doing.  Despite the NRSV’s translation that says, “people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind,’” the Greek really seems to say that the people who thought he had gone mad weren’t strangers in the crowd, but his very own family.[1]  Having seen with their own eyes what was happening around Jesus, it was his mother Mary, his brother James, and his other siblings who were concerned that he had lost his mind.  They were fully convinced that he had gone crazy, and the only way to save him from himself, was to try to get him back under control.

Six years ago, next month, I was in Indianapolis with more than a thousand other Episcopalians worshipping in a convention center ballroom.  It was the third day of General Convention, and the then Bishop of North Carolina, Michael Curry, was preaching.  In a sermon that was later expanded into a book, Bishop Curry invited us to ponder the response of Jesus’ family to his ministry.  He asked us to look at the lives of the saints of the Church, focusing especially on the first Apostle, Mary Magdalene, and abolitionist and author, Harriett Beecher Stowe.  Bishop Curry called on us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Mary, and Harriett by becoming Crazy Christians.[2]  It has been six years since that sermon.  Michael Curry is now our Presiding Bishop, leading the church out into the world to be Crazy Christians.  He was elected for many reasons, not least of which is his ability to preach the truth of God’s love to the masses, but what struck me in the profile for the Presiding Bishop candidates was his desire to serve the Episcopal Church as CEO, Chief Evangelism Officer.  Not only does Michael Curry ask us to live as Crazy Christians, but he expects us to invite others to join in the fun.

The Good News of Jesus Christ that each of us are called to proclaim seems crazy to a world that is in love with power, privilege, and violence.  Jesus’ family thought he was crazy because he was challenging the status quo.  The status quo, whom Mark collectively calls the Scribes, went a step further, claiming that he was possessed by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, precisely because he was a direct threat to their power, privilege, and comfort.  Jesus, however, knew that the only thing that was truly evil in this world was an inability to see God’s hand at work.  Jesus was, and is, seen a crazy because he showed the world what it looks like to have hope in the face of hopelessness.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy because he believed that love was stronger than hate, that peace was stronger than violence, and that God’s grace was sufficient for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy because he lived his life to show us that the power of God’s love could keep the plundering power of evil at bay.

The promise of God’s loving grace frees us to be Crazy Christians.  It frees us to claim that hope is stronger than despair, that love is stronger than hate, and that God’s grace is open to everyone.  In that same sermon, Bishop Curry called on the Episcopal Church, gathered in General Convention, to embrace the craziness of Jesus.  “We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord,” he admonished the fairly staid congregation, “Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God — like Jesus.  Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it.”[3]

Here at Christ Church, we call that crazy way of living “radiating God’s love to all.”  We show the world God’s crazy love through our Wednesday Community Lunch, by opening our doors to the homeless, by helping our neighbors keep their lights on, and by bringing fresh water hours into the Amazon River delta.  We live out the crazy love of God when we care for the sick among us, when the grace we share at this table goes forth to be a blessing to others, and we engage our children, youth, and young adults.  We empower the craziness of God’s grace when we take the time to support these ministries and so many others, by giving generously so that our collective ministry can continue to flourish, and by sharing our gifts and talents for the building up of the church and the restoration of the world.  We share the craziness of God’s love when we tell the story of how Jesus has changed our own lives.

To the world, it makes a whole lot more sense to sleep in on Sunday mornings, to have whatever you give financially back in your monthly budget, and to not worry about the problems that exist outside your front door.  Many see all that we do as nothing more than a crazy pipe dream, but that puts us in good company.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy, and as his disciples, we too are called to be crazy: crazy enough to believe that God loves sinners, just like you and me, and that by God’s grace, we can change the world.  May God bless us with a willingness to be crazy enough to live in hope and love.  Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3675

[2] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/general-convention-july-7-sermon-bishop-michael-curry

[3] Better to hear it than to read it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abJMKeyCWoQ

Words of Comfort

We have done a lot of damage to the words of the Church.  Evangelism now conjures up images of firey preachers with megaphones, yelling about the damnation of all who disagree with them.  Grace is this cloyingly sweet concept that God’s love for creation means we can do whatever we want, with impunity.  Come to think of it, we’ve done similar damage to the first amendment to the United States Constitution, but I digress.  Perhaps the most violence beset upon a churchy word in 21st century America has been inflicted upon the word prophet.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, have used this word to assert their authority over the other.  On the left, there are plenty of self-proclaimed prophets willing to decry everything the Republican Party says and does.  On the right, similarly self-proclaimed prophets are quick to get up in arms about whatever bleeding heart liberals might be fighting for.  Neither, it would seem, quite have it.

A prophet is never, and can never, be self-proclaimed.  God always appoints the prophets because what makes a prophet isn’t opinions or motives or prognostactive ability.  What makes a prophet a prophet is that they serve as the mouth piece of God.  Sometimes, those words can be harsh.  In today’s Daily Office lesson from Amos, we hear God’s word of judgment and subsequent punishment.  Other times, the word a prophet is called to bring is a word of comfort and hope.  This is the case in the Old Testament Lesson for Advent 2B.  After a period of punishment and exile, the time has come for the fortunes of Israel to be restored.  God, speaking to the angelic council, allows the prophet to overhear this word of salvation and restoration.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

Maybe it is the forty-three weeks of apocalyptic parables we’ve heard of late, but I feel ready for a word of hope; a message of comfort.  Perhaps I’m projecting, but I feel like we might all be in need of a prophetic word of consolation.

Every three years, when Isaiah 40 comes around on Advent 2, I’m grateful for its words of comfort and for my friend John Talbert, who took these words, paraphrased in Hymn 67 of our Hymnal, and performed them beautifully.  As the week begins, with two funerals headed our way, you’ll find me listening to John’s version of “Comfort, comfort ye my people” on repeat, giving thanks for a prophetic oracle of consolation and hope.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

 

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.

A cure for hopelessness

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him because they were “harassed and helpless, likes sheep without a shepherd.” (NRSV) A little digging in the Greek and my favorite outdated resource Robertson’s Word Pictures tells us that the plight of the crowd was even worse than that.  Other translations render it thusly:

  • Their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. – NLT
  • They were faint and cast aside – YLT
  • They fainted and were scattered abroad – KJV

The Greek word translated at “harassed” or “faint” is ekloo’o which means anything from “being set free” to “troubled” to “despondent and faint hearted.”  The crowd was bordering on hopelessness.  This is because, as the second word, rhipto, translated as “helpless” or “cast aside” insinuates that someone or something else was acting upon them.  They were, as we might say today, feeling like the victims of a divide and conquer technique.

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We live in a world of unprecedented connection and unmitigated isolation.  Those things that have been created to “bring us together” have in many ways become the place in which we most often tear ourselves apart.  Facebook’s unfollow feature allows us to feel like we are connected with hundreds, even thousands of “friends” while actually living in a echo chamber of our own ideologies.  Each succeeding social media platform comes into existence so young people can escape being “followed” by their parents and grandparents.  In the end, our plight is worse than the crowd that followed Jesus because, we are not only being divided by outside forces, but often it is we ourselves who work to define ourselves against something or someone.  At some point, I have to wonder, will we wake up one day and realize that we too are like sheep without a shepherd, faint hearted, helpless, and despondent?

Jesus’ reaction to the crowd in search of hope is to commission his disciples to offer hope, but as we learn from the various Gospel narratives, more often than not, the disciples are the same flock of harassed and helpless sheep to which they are sent.  Our calling is no different.  Despite our ongoing need for a Savior to show us the Kingdom of God, we are called to help others find their way to Jesus.  Sometimes, it will be us showing them the Kingdom.  At other times, perhaps they will be the light of hope for us.  Ultimately, the cure for the hopelessness of division and faint heartedness is a community of compassion, faith, and love that can remind us, with regularity, that the Kingdom of God is as near as a relationship in Christ.

An important caveat

One of my most oft quoted lines from the Bible gets read every Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A.  I first fell in love with this sentence while in seminary.  The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hook, one of my homiletics professors, assigned us an off-the-cuff five-minute reflection based on 1 Peter 3:15b, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;”  It was an interesting challenge to offer that defense/account/answer to a room full of seminarians who were trained to think theologically, to reflect skeptically, and to offer critique of our work.  Over the years, I’ve come back to that phrase again and again: challenging not only myself to “always be ready,” but inviting my congregations to do the same.  We will never overcome the reluctance to be Episcopal Evangelists without embracing 1 Peter 3:15b.

This morning, however, I’ve noticed, maybe for the first time, that the sentence doesn’t end with verse 15.  Instead, there is a semi-colon.  This admonition from Peter (or likely someone using his pseudonym) brings with it a very important caveat that will make the hearts of Episcopalians sing while offering a strong critique to those street corner evangelists who decry the sinfulness of those who walk by, use the fear of hell to coerce, and suggest that only their way is the way of salvation.  Here’s the advice of “Peter” in its entirety.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

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The Greek here translates as “gentleness” or “humility” and “fear” or “reverence,” which points us to the two directions in which we must give an account of our hope.  First, we speak to other human beings who have experienced life and faith in ways that are different than ours.  When we tell them how the story of God intersects the story of our lives, we should always do so in humility, recognizing that our story is only our story.  No one person’s experience is universal, and we all have our own understanding of God and of hope.  When we share, we should recognize the power of the story of the other.  Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, we must recognize that we are telling the very story of God.  We should not presume to have all the answers, but rather, with fear, awe, and reverence, should be pointing always beyond ourselves to the power of God at work in the world and in our lives.

When we fail to share our hope with gentleness and reverence, we harm the gospel witness.  We should take this caveat, inexplicably broken apart by the oddities of chapter and verse, exceedingly seriously.  Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you with humility and fear.

Searching in the Dark

Audio is available on the Christ Church website.


One of my favorite youth ministry games is called Sardines.  For those of you who are sadly unfamiliar with Sardines, it is something of a distant cousin to hide-and-seek.  Everyone gathers in a room while the first person heads off to find a hiding place.  After each passing minute, another member of the group heads out, in search of the first.  When you find that first person, you join them in their hiding place, until, smushed together like sardines, all the seekers but one are hiding in the same spot.  In my experience, the best time to play Sardines is around midnight, during a youth group lock-in, when the lights in the church are all turned off.  Well, at least that’s true most of the time.  A few years ago, in Foley, we had a college group staying in our education building while on a Habitat for Humanity spring break trip.  During one of their late-night games of Sardines, someone had the brilliant idea to hide in an upper cabinet in one of our classrooms.  It was the sort of decision one makes in the darkness.  It did not end well for the student or the cabinet.  Still, despite the occasionally foolish decision that arises after midnight, there is something exciting about seeking in the dark, as senses are heightened, and expectation grows.

On this Easter morning, we find Mary Magdalene searching in the dark.  After witnessing the gruesome death of her beloved friend and Rabbi on Friday afternoon, Mary spent all day Saturday searching in the dark.  How had it all gone so wrong?  Where were his disciples?  Why didn’t the fight for him?  Why didn’t Jesus come down from the cross?  Mary spent the Passover Sabbath lost in the darkness of fear, shame, and grief.  After what must have been another sleepless night, she couldn’t wait any longer.  She had to go see the tomb.  She needed a place to weep, a location upon which to pour out all her grief.  So, while it was still dark, literally before the sun came up, but more accurately, figuratively with the light of hope extinguished from her soul, Mary made her way to the tomb, searching in the dark for closure, if nothing else.  She fully expected to arrive in the garden, take a seat in front of the still sealed tomb, and pay her respects.  Despite having heard Jesus on multiple occasions assure his disciples that on the third day, he would rise again, nobody, especially not Mary, expected him to be anything but dead and buried.

Imagine her surprise when she finally got close enough to see the tomb and realized that the stone had been rolled away.  Still in the dark, Mary jumps to the only obvious conclusion she can imagine, someone has stolen the body of Jesus, her dear Rabbi, her confidant, her healer, and her friend.  I’m not sure she thought it was possible for things to get darker than they had been since late Friday afternoon, but in an instant the darkness got darker.  Searching for meaning, for help, for solace, quickly Mary ran to find Peter and John[1] to help her make sense of the growing darkness that surrounded her.  “They have taken the Lord!” she cried, and when the disciples took off running, she too returned to the tomb.

Surely, the sun had come up by now, but John makes no mention of it.  Darkness is still all around as Peter and John return home, having seen the empty tomb.  There is a flicker of hope, like a single flame in the midst of pitch blackness, in the belief of the other disciple, but that is quickly extinguished when all he can muster is to turn around and head home while Mary stays behind.  Still searching in the darkness, still weeping with tears that will not stop, still hoping to find Jesus’ body so that he can be laid to rest once more, she happens upon a man she assumes to be the gardener returning to work after the Sabbath.  Things have gotten so dark for Mary that she can’t even recognize Jesus when he is standing right in front of her, but with one word, everything changes.

Mary!

Suddenly, the light came flooding in.  The darkness of her fear was forced to flee.  The darkness of her sorrow was washed away.  The darkness of her hopelessness was put to flight.  Mary had searched and searched and searched in the darkness, and with a single word, she found the light of life.  Off she went, yet again, this time not searching in the darkness, but soaring in the light.  She found the disciples, still hiding in their own darkness and proclaimed to them the Good News of Easter.  “I have seen the Lord!”

I think one of the reasons that Easter continues to have such strong cultural significance, one of the reasons so many of us show up to Church this day, one of the reasons Facebook offers sharable Easter cards, is because all of us know what it is like to search for truth in the midst of darkness.  All of us have been where Mary was.  For some, our darkness comes as the result of the loss of a loved one.  For others, it is the destruction of a relationship.  For some, it is a struggle with addiction, illness, or anxiety.  Still others live in fear for where their next meal might come from, or find themselves anxious when there is more month than there is money.  Whatever it is that causes us to enter the darkness, none of us is immune to it.  All of us, from time to time, end up searching in the dark, and all of us hope to find our way back into the light.  Maybe you are still searching in the dark this morning.  That’s all right.  Even Peter, when he saw the empty tomb, wasn’t quite ready to believe that light was possible.  Still, we who have experienced the darkness of hopelessness, fear, and grief all gather each Easter because we know, deep down, that light entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  No matter how dark things might seem, we still gather and enjoy the brightness of the Easter lilies.  We worship with the help of brass and timpani.  We put on the pastel hues of our Easter finery.  And we make our shout, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

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But what then?  What happens when the seersucker gets put back in the closet, the bonnets get tucked away for another year, the ham bone gets made into soup, and the champagne loses its fizz?  What happens when the darkness comes creeping back?  What difference does Easter make come Monday afternoon?  That’s the story that is still to be told, the story that comes next Sunday.  As evening came that first Easter Day, the disciples had already locked themselves back into fear and darkness.  The light that had dawned that morning was already growing dim, when Jesus appeared in their midst.  See, the truth of Easter is that it doesn’t last only a day.  The power of Easter is available every day.  There is a reason our Easter Proclamation is, “Alleluia, Christ is risen” and not “Christ was risen.”  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The light of Christ that burst forth on the first Easter Day can never be extinguished.    The light of Christ that entered the world on Easter Day will never go away.  Come Monday afternoon, no matter how dark things might feel for you, Jesus will be there, walking alongside you as the risen Lord and the bringer of hope.

Like a good game of Sardines, all of us have ended our search in the darkness here at Christ Episcopal Church this morning.  My Easter prayer is that next time you find yourself searching in the dark, you can find your way back here, where the love of God will never be withheld, the light of Christ will never grow dim, and joy of the Spirit will never fade away.  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

[1] I follow the general consensus in assuming the disciple whom Jesus loved to be John the Evangelist.