God’s Steadfast Faith

Most of you are probably not aware of it, but during the interminable Season After Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary, from which our Sunday readings are prescribed, actually gives us some options.  There are two distinct tracks for the lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures during the long, green season.  Track One offers a semi-continuous reading that follows major stories in the Old Testament week to week.  In Year A, it begins in Genesis, in Year B we would hear the stories of the Kings, and in Year C, our current Year, the lessons come from the Prophets.  Track Two follows the old Roman Catholic tradition of tying the Old Testament to the Gospel lesson thematically.[1]  The RCL’s intention is that a congregation will pick a Track and stick with it throughout the season.  Here at Christ Church, we’ve used Track Two for as long as I’ve been here because, quite honestly, sometimes the Track One stories are so challenging and so disconnected that I fear having them read out loud and then not preached about could do more harm than good.

Now, when Track Two says that the Old Testament lessons are related to the Gospel thematically, that tends to be more or less true.  However, I’m not sure it has even been quite so obvious or heavy handed as all four lessons are for today: from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalm, Epistle, and straight through to the Gospel.  Even the Collect of the Day gets in on the action, making sure that we are well aware that faithful perseverance in the face of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin is our theme for today.

In the lesson from Genesis, we find ourselves dropped down into the story of Jacob who had been on the run for quite some time.  After stealing his older brother’s birthright, Jacob was forced to flee from his homeland and his brother, Esau, who planned to kill him.  Having settled with his uncle Laban for several years, it was Jacob who got tricked into taking both Leah and Rachel as his wives.  When it became clear that God’s favor was upon the outsider, Jacob, Laban and his sons turned on him, and he once again had to run away, this time with his wives, children, and an abundance of livestock in tow.  After years of deceitfulness and running away from trouble, one night, Jacob found himself alone by the River Jabbok where he spent all night wrestling with God and with himself.  Jacob fought with human nature, with his own sinfulness, and with his greed until, when morning came, God blessed him and changed his name from Jacob, which meant “trickster” to Israel, which means “struggles with God.”  Immediately, the newly renamed Israel was reunited with is older brother Esau, and the restoration of their relationship began to take place.  By God’s grace, Jacob persevered in faith, and healing followed.

Psalm 121 is a traveler’s psalm.[2]  Known as “The Song of the Ascents,” it is the prayer of someone on a long and dangerous journey and in need of God’s care.  Anyone who has ever travelled toward the Gulf Coast on I-65 over Fall Break knows what it means to need God’s help to persevere on a long journey.  In this ancient song, the Psalmist is sure that help and protection will come from God whose faithfulness is perfect.  “The Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps.”  “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil.”  “The Lord shall watch over you… from this time forth for evermore.”

Next, our lesson from the Second Letter to Timothy includes some of the final words of encouragement sent from an older, wiser, mentor to Timothy, a young, still somewhat green, up and coming disciple.  These words are meant to help the next generation of Christian leaders navigate the challenging complexities of this world.  Persecution by the Romans and the Jews was still quite common.  Even among those who were following the Way of Jesus, there was still very little consensus about what that looked like, or about who was in, and who was out.  Timothy was inheriting a faith that was very much in turmoil and his mentor knew that God’s grace and a healthy dose of faithful perseverance would be needed for the faith to endure.

Finally, we have a really strange parable in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel that the author tells us is meant to encourage us to pray and not lose heart.  This makes sense, of course, given that the audience to whom Luke’s Gospel was written would have expected Jesus to have returned already.  Nearly a generation removed from the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, followers of the Way were getting pretty antsy, wondering if they had hitched their wagon to the wrong savior.  They had seen people for whom they had been praying that they would live to see the return of Jesus die for their faith.  They had been faithful in prayer, in worship, in addressing the needs of the poor in their community, and were no doubt beginning to wonder why they were still waiting.  Luke uses this parable from Jesus to encourage them to keep the faith, to persevere, and to trust that God who is just and compassionate and full of mercy, wasn’t just being a capricious, unjust judge, but that God’s faithfulness would endure and so should theirs.

I find this somewhat heavy-handed presentation of God’s faithful perseverance in spite of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin to be helpful this week. As we baptize young Henry into the life of faith this morning, many out the world would likely wonder “why?”  Why, when the church is so full of hypocrites, would anyone want to join, let alone baptize their child into that?  The lessons this week remind us that God has been at work in the lives of hypocrites and sinners all along.  That is true whether your name is Jacob, or Timothy, or Steve.  No one is perfect, but with God’s steadfast faithfulness and through the encouragement of community of folks who are trying their best to live into the Way of Love, a church full of hypocrites can still make a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God.

And so, we pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the strength to do what is right.  We pray that God’s works of mercy might endure so that even when we fail, the goodness of God might always persevere.  Sometimes we wrestle, sometimes we look to the hills and wonder from whence God’s help might come, sometimes we are called upon to encourage one another to keep the faith, and sometimes we are the ones being encouraged.  Always, we can be certain that the God we follow is just, compassionate, and full of mercy.  Always, we can be sure that God’s steadfast faithfulness will endure, even when we might fall short.  That’s good news for everyone.  No matter how often or how spectacularly we might fall into sin, God’s mercy endures forever, and with God’s help, we too can keep the faith. Amen.

[1] http://lectionarypage.net/#Track

[2] https://www.luthersem.edu/godpause/default.aspx?devo_date=10/15/2019

A Fishing Story: God Cares – a sermon

I am a terrible fisherman.  It isn’t that I don’t like to fish.  There are few things I enjoy more than getting on a boat, rod and tackle in hand, in search of a good meal.  It is really more that I don’t do it often enough to know what I’m doing.  There is both a science and an art to fishing, and I know neither.  I don’t know what time of year what fish are biting.  I don’t know what time of day is best.  I don’t know what kind of bait to use to catch which fish.  I don’t even know how to filet my catch into something edible.  When I go fishing, I am 100% at the mercy of my guide.  When I would go night fishing with my friend, Brad, I trusted him to get us to the right spots, to rig the lines the right way, and to bring us home with a mess of speckled trout.  When my dad and I went out in search of red fish near Alabama Point, we paid a guy who knew the water, knew the habits, and, most importantly, knew how to keep us from running aground.

Trusting in someone else’s knowledge has worked for me almost every time I’ve gone fishing.  Almost.  Then, there was the time I went out on the Blue Sky in search of tuna.  It was to be a twenty-four-hour fishing expedition.  We left at about 5:30 in the evening and were headed ninety miles off shore.  I trusted that the captain would get us there safely, that the deckhands would put us on some big fish, and, erroneously, that the weather man would be correct.  After dinner, a few beers, and good conversation watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, we all turned in to get some sleep ahead of our two am wake up call.  Somewhere in those few hours of sleep, the forecast for one to two-foot seas became a reality of six to eight-foot swells.

I can remember it vividly, even as I’ll spare you the vivid details, but with the combination of diesel fumes, a wildly undulating oil platform that in the dark of night looked like a giant spider bathed in yellow flood lights, and the rocking of the boat, by the time our second fish came aboard, I was doing a great job of chumming the water.  I didn’t really know what to do.  Ninety miles off shore, on a fifty-four foot boat, there isn’t really anywhere to go, and I knew inside the cabin would make things worse.  As my buddies fished and the deckhands worked to bring the giant fish over the gunwale, I wondered if anyone cared that I existed at all.  Were they all hoping that maybe I would just perish so that they could fish without the sound of me retching behind them.

Just then, the captain came down from his perch in the crow’s nest, high above deck with two pills in his hand.  “Take these,” he said, and I didn’t hesitate.  I didn’t question.  I trusted Captain Richard to know what to do about sea sickness. I popped those two pills and six hours later, I woke up.  The seas hadn’t calmed much, but my stomach had.

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Jesus and his disciples trusted one another.  James, John, Peter, and Andrew had all been called by Jesus right off of their fishing boats.  He knew that they knew the Sea of Galilee like the backs of their hands.  They’d fished deep into the night.  They’d experienced its violent squalls.  They’d seen everything that the Sea of Galilee had to offer, and so Jesus took the opportunity to rest.  The disciples, for their part, knew that Jesus had miraculous powers.  They had seen him heal many women and men.  They had watched as he touched a man with leprosy and made him clean.  They knew that he was a special gift from God and they trusted that Jesus was always going to take care of them.

And so, it was, that one night, Jesus had wrapped up his teaching for the day, and when he said, “let’s go to the other side,” they all loaded up and went, no questions asked.  Now, it must be pointed out here that this was no ordinary trip for Jesus and his disciples.  In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first trip outside of Galilee.  Leaving from Capernaum, they were headed east, across about six miles of lake to the region of the Decapolis, a Greek speaking area, filled with Roman citizens.  They were, for all intents and purposes, headed to Gentile territory.  Jesus’ disciples trusted that he knew what he was doing.  They must have assumed that he had a plan for what they would do when they arrived, and so, without any hesitation, they headed to Gergesa.

As the story goes, in the dark of the night, a storm rose up such that the seasoned fishermen had never seen before.  It would have taken a real doozy of a storm to scare the sons of thunder, James and John, but Mark tells us that all of the disciples were convinced they were going to sink.  No doubt, they all knew of someone who had found their demise 141 feet deep in the Sea of Galilee during a swift moving storm.  In the midst of their fear, the first thing to sink to the bottom of the lake was their trust in Jesus who was asleep in the back of the boat.

“Teacher!”  Not master.  Not Lord.  Those honorifics were swept up in the howling wind.  Tonight, Jesus wasn’t a miracle worker from God, but he had been demoted to teacher, the one who they had chosen to hitch their wagons to and were beginning to wonder why.  “Teacher!  Don’t you care that we are perishing?!?!”  This is perhaps the most challenging rebuke anyone could give to Jesus.  Don’t you care?  Of course, Jesus cares.  He cared about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.  He cared about the man with the withered hand.  He cared about the crowds of thousands that pressed in upon him.  God cares about everyone, that’s why God sent Jesus to earth to proclaim the Good News of salvation for all people.

Jesus most certainly did care, and so he jumped up, and with the harsh words of anger rebuked the wind and calmed the waves.  Jesus deeply cares, and so when the ordeal was over, he looked his disciples square in the eyes and said, “Why don’t you trust me yet?”

It is not uncommon in times of hardship to cry out to God and wonder, “don’t you care?”  With the world changing so rapidly, it can feel like a mighty storm has whipped up on us in the dark of night.  It would seem that we have every reason to be frightened, and to wonder if all that we had hoped for might be for not.  It is totally natural to lament what feels like God’s absence, as if God were asleep at the helm of the entire universe, and wonder, does God really care about us?  No one said the life of faith would be easy.  In those moments of doubt, when our trust in God seems to be wavering, we are in good company.  Even Jesus’ closest friends had trouble holding on to that trust in hard times.

What this story helps me remember is that like Captain Richard, God is always paying attention.  God knows what you are going through because God is right there in the boat with you.  God does care, and even in those moments when God chooses not to stop the wind or calm the waves, God is there.  God will never abandon us to the pit.  The world may be rocking and rolling under our feet, but God is there.  God loves you, and God will never leave you alone.

When Jesus and his disciples get to the other side, they will be greeted by a man possessed with a legion of demons.  The momentary calm after the storm will break and fear will once again strike the disciples.  Yet, there again, Jesus won’t abandon them.  Nor will he abandon the demoniac.  God’s compassion and love knows no bounds.  God’s mercy is everlasting.  God cares – about you and about the whole world.  Amen.

Jonah is all of us

Proper 20, Year A always takes me back to my senior year of high school.  Every Friday morning, about a dozen of us who made up the core group of my Young Life club would gather at the Fletcher home for Bible study and monkey bread.  Occasionally, we would spend the night there Thursday night, though the older I get, the more I can’t imagine how our parents let this happen.  Anyway, on those Thursday evenings, we would hang out with Fletch and Julie’s kids (who are now way too old for my liking) and watch Veggie Tales videos.  Mostly, we’d enjoy the Silly Songs with Larry best-ofs, but every once in a while, we would watch a real episode.  Proper 20, Year A takes me there not because of any of the VHS tapes we watched then, but because of the 2002 release of the Veggie Tales Jonah movie, but you, dear blog reader, are used to reading long, useless intros by now.

My favorite part of both the movie and the Biblical book from which it based is the ending.  Without so much as a spoiler alert, Sunday’s Track 2 lesson takes us right to the very end of the story.  To recap, Jonah tried to escape God’s call to prophecy in Nineveh by jumping a ship to Tarshish on the other side of the known world.  A storm comes up, presumably because of God’s indignation over Jonah’s failure, and eventually Jonah is thrown overboard where a fish (not a whale) swallows him alive and vomits him out three days later.  A contrite and probably disgusting Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where he prophecies against their sins and retreats to a high place to watch God’s destruction.

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Remarkably, the people repent of their evil (fish slapping, in the movie version) ways and in our lesson for Sunday, we hear that God decides to forego his wrath, which ticks Jonah off to no end.  It is there, under the shade of a tree he did not plant, stewing over God’s grace freely offered, that I realize that Jonah is me.  Jonah is all of us.  It may not be so obvious as grumbling about the eleventh hour conversion of another, but each of us has a place where God’s grace catches us short, where God’s unending love seems wildly unfair to us.  How often do we recognize God’s grace in our own lives while being unwilling to comprehend how that same grace might be made manifest in the life of another?  Like Jonah, it can make us angry to witness God’s grace poured out abundantly on those whom we deem unworthy – angry enough to die – and in those moments, though we fail to recognize it, God pours out his grace on us, even in our undeserving.  This week, I’m grateful for the reminder of fun times in high school, for silly videos, and most especially, for God’s never failing grace that is poured out upon me, even in my most undeserving moments.

Forgive them their debts – a sermon

The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.


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I have a theory.  As you get to know me over the years, you will learn that I have many theories, most of which are useless.  Nevertheless, I have a theory that is relevant to our Gospel lesson today.  My theory is that much of the stress we feel in our lives is the result of frustrated forgiveness.  When was the last time you apologized to someone?  What was their response?  When was the last time someone apologized to you?  What was your response?  Did you say, “It’s ok”? Or “No problem”? Or “Don’t worry about it”?  If so, you short-circuited the forgiveness process.  If it really was ok, if there really was no problem, if it really was something not worth worrying about, then there would have been no need to offer an apology in the first place.  Instead, things were not ok.  There was a problem.  Something was worth worrying about, and because of that, forgiveness needs to happen.

In a world that seems to be addicted to conflict, it feels ironic to say this, but on a personal level, most of us are so conflict averse that even when a wrong has been committed for which forgiveness is required, we refuse to recognize it; choosing instead to brush it off, as if it didn’t matter.  Yet, it does matter.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins tell us that a unforgiveness can be bad for our health.  A lack of forgiveness leads to an increased risk for heart attacks, higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, less sleep, and higher incidents of depression, anxiety, and stress.  The research is clear, unless we “forgive deeply,” we can suffer ongoing health consequences.  In order to forgive deeply, it can’t be offered begrudgingly, simply because Jesus told us to.  According to Dr. Karen Shwartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins, our forgiveness must be an active, “conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.”[1]

Jesus knew this reality two-thousand years ago.  In the second half of Matthew eighteen, Jesus teaches his disciples all about forgiveness.  He begins by teaching them how to handle sin in the community.  When someone sins, don’t be afraid to name it.  If they refuse to hear it, then take a few others to talk it out.  If they still refuse to listen, bring it before the whole church.  If even then they won’t repent and seek forgiveness, then Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Wouldn’t you know it, but Matthew is a tax collector, and Matthew’s church included many Gentiles.  Even when the other won’t seek forgiveness, it appears we are called to forgive.  Or, at least, that’s what Peter seems to have heard Jesus saying.

As our Gospel lesson begins, we find Peter seeking some clarification on this whole forgiveness thing.  “Let’s get real for a minute, Jesus.  How many times do I have to forgive someone when they sin against me?  Would seven times be enough?”  Peter thinks he’s really going out on a limb here.  The Rabbis taught that God would forgive three times for the same sin.  Since we are nowhere near as good as God at forgiveness, three times would have seemed next to impossible, but Peter’s been hanging out with Jesus for a while now.  He knows that Jesus always goes a step further, so Peter doubles that number and adds one for good measure.  Forgiving someone seven times is downright absurd, and yet Jesus responds by saying, “you aren’t even close.”  Depending on how you translate the Greek, it could mean seventy-seven times, or, more likely, seventy times seven.  Perhaps the best translation is the one Mark gave us last week, “forgive them for as long as it takes.”

There must have been a look in Peter’s eye that made Jesus realize that he didn’t quite get it.  He went on to explain by way of a fairly straightforward parable.  Well, it was certainly clear to Peter, but I wonder how clear all that talk of talents and denarii are to us today.  This story hinges on a servant who is deeply indebted to a king.  His debt was ten thousand talents.  A talent was a unit of measure, weighing about 130 pounds and, in this case, refers to silver.  A talent was roughly the equivalent of 15 years of wages for a common laborer.  This man owed the king 150,000 years wages.  In modern terms, if the average construction laborer in Bowling Green makes $30,000 a year, this servant owed the king 4.5 billion dollars.[2]   That’s a fairly insurmountable debt for man making thirty-grand a year.  Yet, the king forgave him the debt, free and clear.  Can you imagine the joy that slave must have felt in that moment?  I’m eleven months away from being down to one car note, and I’m already pretty excited about it.  There must have been tears and hugs and thanks flowing like a river as he left the king’s presence, but it didn’t last long.

The parable goes on to tell of the newly debt free slave seeing another servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  A denarius was a single silver coin, nearly four thousand denarii made up a talent.  It was worth about a day’s wage.  Returning to our friendly average construction laborer in Bowling Green, he or she would make roughly $115 a day, so this debt, a hundred days’ worth of wages was about $11,500.  This certainly isn’t a minor debt, but it is nothing compared to the $4.5 billion debt he had just been forgiven.  Rather than sharing his joy with this fellow slave and forgiving his debt as well, the forgiven slave had him thrown in jail until he could pay it off.  Obviously, the king didn’t take too kindly to his slave’s lack of forgiveness and the parable ends with him being tortured until he could pay the original debt.  That is, he would be tortured forever.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From this teaching, we learn a profound truth.  Forgiving one another is a universal command for all who follow Jesus.  At least every Sunday, and hopefully multiple times each day, you pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  In it, we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Our willingness to forgive one another flows directly out of the forgiveness we have received from God.  As the Johns Hopkins study suggests, the necessity of forgiveness is hard wired into us.  Whether the other deserves it or not, whether they ask for it or not, when we fail to forgive, it is bad for our health both physically and spiritually.

Let me pause for a moment and draw a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is the conscious choice to let go of past hurts.  Reconciliation is the return to right relationship.  Forgiveness is a choice the offended can make without the offender.  Reconciliation requires both sides to be present to the forgiveness process.  Despite the universal Christian commandment to forgive, reconciliation is not always possible and in some cases, shouldn’t even be attempted.  The Church has not always been good at this, and we should be ashamed of the result.  Too many victims of abuse have been sent back to their abusers by clergy who have misunderstood what it means to forgive.  Sometimes, treating another like a Gentile or a tax collector means forgiving them, even as we remain in broken relationship with them.

As followers of Jesus, we should forgive whether forgiveness is sought or not.  When one who has sinned against us comes to offer an apology, we ought not short-circuit forgiveness by shrugging it off, but rather, we should do the challenging work of confronting the wrong directly by accepting the apology. We do so, not just because a lack of forgiveness is bad for our health, but because we have been forgiven so great a debt that the joy of forgiveness should overflow.  So, forgive them their trespasses, their debts, and their sins, for in the Kingdom of God, forgiveness never ends.  Amen.

[1] Healthy Connections, “Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it (accessed 9/16/2017).

[2] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_14540.htm#47-0000

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.

Blessed are the merciful

In 2011, the state of Alabama passed a draconian immigration reform bill.  HB56 was designed to make sure “illegal meant illegal” and it was as wide reaching as it was uninformed.  Some of the provisions of the bill, which was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant; schools were required to check the immigration status of all their students; and from my perspective as a priest, giving aid in the form of money or a ride to an undocumented person became a punishable offense.  In Foley, where we lived at the time, the law struck fear into the hearts of many.  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 go there.  It was heartbreaking.

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TKT and I knew the limits of our ability to speak out on such things.  Not only because the IRS has strict rules about political comments by churches and non-profit organizations, but because our membership, like many Episcopal congregations, included people from the tea-party on the right to occupy democrats on the left.  But this situation felt different.  This was no longer about political opinions, which are as common as butt-holes and smell about the same, this particular issue cut to the heart of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And so we spoke out, calling our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those children from FES who were so scared, and letting them know that 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.

During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells 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 to which 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.  “Illegal is illegal,” “drill baby drill,” “build the wall,” are a part of our common life.  We casually throw others under the bus be they single mothers in need of help to buy milk and bread or business executives looking to maximize their own return on investment.  We have, by all accounts, list 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 draconian legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, coming down from on high, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.

In the beatitudes, Jesus admonishes us to stand up against such things, to show 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, God who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother in first century Palestine.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness and grace, 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 the most vulnerable.  We are blessed when we show mercy, and now, more than any time I can remember, we have ample opportunity to show it.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.