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.

7009896651_5a0744a38b_b

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.

Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

prayfor

So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

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.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.

Jesus came to bring what?

“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

long-division-31

Even if Jesus came to bring long division to the earth, I wouldn’t like this passage.  As I’ve said all week, these words from Jesus are difficult to hear.  This isn’t the Kumbaya Jesus of modern day prophets – you know, the kind that the prophet Jeremiah spoke against in Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson – who wants to give you “your best life now.”

joel_osteen-false_prophet

No, this is the Jesus who has come to stake his claim on your life so that the world might come to know the kingdom of God now.  Living a life of the kingdom of God in a world hell-bent on the successes of the kingdoms of power, privilege, money, and self-interest will cause division, of that there is no doubt.  However, this reality seems to be difficult for many preachers to name.  Instead, we hem and haw about how in the time of Luke’s Gospel, following Jesus might mean getting kicked out of the Synagogue or your family business, but we don’t really know those struggles today.

What we do know is that there continues to be an ongoing battle between the kingdom of God and the powers and principalities of this world.  Following Jesus in 21st century  American means doing such unpopular things as caring for the poor, showing hospitality to immigrants, honoring the sanctity of all human life, forgiving those who have hurt you, praying for your enemies, showing compassion to the weak, respecting those with whom you disagree, and generally loving your neighbor as yourself.  This is 100% counter to the politics of this age that are built upon fear, mistrust, anger, and self-preservation.

Those who are called to live lives of the kingdom today will, no doubt, find themselves at odds with the rhetoric of the day.  They won’t fit in with the Republicans or the Democrats, which will make them seem as strange outsiders.   It will cause division in a world that is increasingly bipolar; seeing the world only in black and white, or red and blue, with no room for the beautiful color palette that makes up the middle.  Jesus came to bring division, but not the sort of division that  FoxNews and MSNBC have come to create.  Jesus came to tear us away from hateful rhetoric of this world in order to see the beautiful peace of the kingdom of God.

In What do you Trust?

sheriff-decaljpeg-56ba72132e4c56dc

The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office has joined in the growing number of police departments that have added “In God we Trust” to their patrol cars.  As a member of the clergy, I should probably be more excited about this growing trend, but so often these moves feel like they are done in spite, which makes me feel icky (a deeply theological term).  Anyway, no matter how I feel about the new sticker and fully aware that my judgmental nature is well outside the “radiating the glory of God” category, I’ve actually found myself drawn to these words that we find printed everywhere from Sheriff’s patrol cars to the almost useless penny.

In God we Trust

This is such a profound creedal statement, that if it were really true, would change the face of the earth.  In Sunday’s various lessons, we hear a lot about trust, which in theology is called faith or belief.  For Abram to believe that Sarai was going to bear a child at 90 required something deeper than the intellectual assent we post-enlightenment westerners associate with belief.  Rather, Abram had to trust in God fully.  He placed his whole stake trusting that God would keep his promise. As a result of that trust, the entire course of human history was changed.

Paul, in his letter/sermon to the Hebrews offers a helpful way of looking at trust/faith/belief.  “Faith,” he writes, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is having trust in the one who makes promises, which, again, if we really believed this, the world would be a vastly different place.

Which leads us finally to Jesus’ final word on the parable of the foolish rich man that we heard last week. As he explains the parable to his disciples, the tells them that “where their treasure is, their heart will be also.”  He lays it down before them, wondering, do you trust my word enough to follow me fully in heart, mind, soul, and body? Or, is your trust in someone or something else? Is your trust bifurcated? Are you willing to follow me fully?

Placing our full trust in God is not easy. There are plenty of forces: powers and principalities; that clamor for a little chunk of our trust – us tiling fear, frustration, and the promise of a better future than God has prepared.  To stake out future solely on God can be frightening, but as Jesus, Paul, and Abram show us, the reward is well beyond anything this world can offer.

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.

We are They – a sermon

My Palm Sunday sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


They are powerful and influential people.  They maintain that power and influence even though nobody really knows who they are.  They say it is going to rain, and so we throw an umbrella in the car.  They say that eggs are bad for us, so we quit eating them.  Two years later, they say that eggs are good for us, and so we start buying them again.  More recently, they’ve had the most exciting news yet, they now say that a glass of red wine is as good for our hearts as an hour at the gym.  They aren’t always right, and yet, whoever they might be, when they speak, people listen.

Jesus knew this reality all too well, for they had accused him of all sorts of things.  They said he was a blasphemer, placing himself on par with the Lord God.  They claimed that he was leading an insurrection against Rome.  They told Pilate that he alleged to be the King of the Jews.  When Pilate couldn’t find any reason to execute him, they fought back.  They cried out for Jesus to be crucified while Barabbas, a murder, was set free.  They dragged him through the streets of Jerusalem.  They cheered as he was nailed to a cross.  They derided him as he hung there and died.  Yet in the midst of all of that, even as he was suffering through extreme pain and suffocating agony, Jesus still had compassion on them.  “Father forgive them,” Jesus said surveying the angry mob that was gathered around him, “For they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, and as the story of Jesus’ crucifixion played out, they wielded every bit of power and influence they could, but Jesus had mercy upon them.  As this Holy Week unfolds before us, it would be easy to condemn them for what they did.  The Gospel stories were written in a time when the struggle between the Jewish community and the fledgling church were bitter and raw, and because of that they are full of anti-Semitic rhetoric meant to make sure that we know what they did. The hard truth is that from time to time, all of us are a part of them.  We are they, even though we really don’t want to be.

They dehumanized Jesus by turning him into a laughing stock.  They blindfolded him, beat him, and laughed as they asked, “Prophesy! Who struck you?”  They cloaked him in a purple robe and crowned him with a crown of thorns, mocking him and shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They stripped him naked and hanged him high on a cross for all the world to see.  The ridiculed him, asking where his Father was to save him; scoffing at how he had saved many others, but he couldn’t manage to save himself.

As much as we’d like to believe we wouldn’t have taken part in that sort of dehumanizing behavior, we continue to do so in ways that are both intentional and unintentional.  Every time we look with disdain upon the mother using a WIC check to buy milk for her children, we are they.  Every time we clutch our purse a little tighter when a black man walks by, we are they.  Every time we feel that twinge of anxiety when an Arab looking couple gets on our airplane, we are they.  Every time we share a politically incendiary, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anti-Muslim thought on Facebook, by email, or even over drinks with friends, we are they.  Every time we fail to see Christ in the other, we are they.  Yet even as we engage in these dehumanizing activities, Jesus looks at the angry mob around him and has compassion on us saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, but the love of God is stronger still.  The compassion of Jesus from the cross is more powerful and more influential than any angry mob, any dehumanizing behavior, and group of they or we.  As we walk the Way of the Cross this week, I pray that you might take the time to meditate on two truths.  First, because we are they who mock, ridicule, and dehumanize the Son of God, we are in desperate need of a savior.  And second, through his compassionate word of forgiveness from the cross, Jesus is precisely that savior that we so desperately need.  By taking the time to contemplate these realities, the Way of the Cross can become for each of us the way of life and peace.  We are they: powerful and full of influence; but the compassion of God is stronger, the forgiveness of God is stronger, the love of God is stronger than the worst parts of us.  Amen.

Powers and Principalities

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, SHW, the kids, and I joined some friends for Worship on the Water at the Florabama Lounge.  It was one of my sabbatical goals to worship there, but to be honest, I found it disappointing.  I didn’t drink a beer during church, though I suppose I could have.  The music was entertaining, but nobody was singing along, even when they sang Amazing Grace.  The theology was what you might expect, conservative and evangelical, though with a healthy attitude toward outreach, especially to those battling addiction.  What I found most disappointing, however, was the sermon.

The founding pastor preached.  I’d heard good things about him, his ministry, and his preaching ability, but it was really quite flat.  He told good stories and he had a few good punch lines, but he was sprinting the entire time.  Maybe it was the heat, but he left us with no chance to laugh at the jokes because he was already on to something else.  You didn’t come here for a review of Worship on the Water, however.  You came here to read something about the Bible.  Coincidentally, the sermon preached that morning was the last in a series on the armor of God that Paul writes about in the lesson from Ephesians appointed for Sunday.

While battle imagery has gone out of fashion in most Episcopal congregations, this image of being strong in the Lord is one that is vitally important, especially as we’re already 6 years into a 4 year presidential election cycle with another 15 months to go!  The call to be ready to stand against the wiles of the devil and his “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil” are perhaps even more crucial today then they were in the first century because if there is one thing the media is good at, it is hyping up what the King James’ version of the Bible calls “powers and principalities.”

For those who are sure how these different dangers all fit together, I found this handy chart.

Whether it is Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson, the key to primary presidential politics these days is building and allaying fears.  Immigrants are bringing drugs and taking your jobs, but I’ll deport them.  Republicans want to leave the poor to starve to death in the gutters, but I’ll feed the masses.  Hilary can’t be trusted with national security, but I’ll keep you safe.  Liberals are spending us into slavery to China, but I’ve got a plan to cut taxes, stimulate growth, and remove all entitlements.  The power and principality of fear is alive and well in our culture, and if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t strong in the Lord, we will easily succumb to its wiles.

Let’s put on the full armor of God and take on the fear that threatens to overwhelm us.  Let’s place our trust in the LORD, not the rulers of this world.  Let’s follow after the will of God and see about changing the world.