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.

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?”

micah-6-8-two

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?

favored one

If you’ve spent any time at all around folks with a particularly Roman bend to their Christian faith, then you’ve probably realized that “The Ever Blessed Virgin Mary” is held in high regard.  She is, to steal a turn of phrase, “the favored one.”  She is the object of thousands, if not millions, of paintings, sculptures, songs, drawings, and poems.  She even has an app for the iphone.

In the Gospel lesson for Advent 4, Year B, twice the Angel of the LORD speaks of Mary’s “favored” status.  In the Greek the root for both uses is which, according to BibleWorks carries several meanings:

1) grace 1a) that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech 2) good will, loving-kindness, favour 2a) of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues 3) what is due to grace 3a) the spiritual condition of one governed by the power of divine grace 3b) the token or proof of grace, benefit 3b1) a gift of grace 3b2) benefit, bounty 4) thanks, (for benefits, services, favours), recompense, reward

In light of yesterday’s post, I’m drawn to definition 2A, “of the merciful kindness…”  Sounds a lot like loving-kindness.  A lot like the Hebrew concept of Hesed.  A lot like Mary’s status as “favored,” despite my Roman-ish friends who might argue otherwise, a status available to us all.  What difference does it make in your life if you can hear the voice of God’s Angel speaking directly to you and saying, “Do not fear, for you have found favor with the LORD.”  As the days reach their shortest, as the stresses of the season pile up, as the memories and heartbreaks of the past threaten to overwhelm, listen for the Spirit as it reminds you, like it did for Mary, that despite the messiness of life, God’s loving-kindness, God’s steadfast love, God’s favor, rests upon you as well.

Hesed and the concept of love

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  The American Church, at best, has a bad acting definition of love.  At worst, it has no definition for love at all, it has just become a word we all say because it makes us feel better.

Love one another.

Love God.

It is all about love.

Yeah, but what is love?

On Sunday, at least at St. Paul’s in Foley, we will read the Psalm appointed for Sunday (we heard the Magnificat read, sung and preached on Advent 3).  In the Book of Common Prayer translation (which I usually like) verse one reads like this, “Your love, O LORD, for ever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.”

That’s nice, I supposed, but it misses one of the greatest words in the Hebrew language, and, in many ways, exacerbates the problem of love in the American Church.  Read 89:1 again, this time from the Tanakh, a Jewish Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, “I will sing of the LORD’s steadfast love forever; to all generations I will proclaim Your faithfulness with my mouth.”

Hesed

The steadfast love of God, His loving-kindness, Hesed, is the kind of love we can never understand, and so, I suppose, we do the best we can in defining it.  Over time, however, it gets amended and watered down, and eventually it becomes the soft, gooey mess that we can’t do anything with except maybe throw it around to make ourselves feel better.  As we approach Christmas, as we hear the story of the Annunciation and prepare for God’s greatest gift of love, to be born as one of us, Emmanuel, I wonder if now isn’t as good a time as any to work out our definition of love?