Pick up your excuses

My life has changed a lot in the last 9 months.  Ever since Mr. D. showed up on our porch at Christ Church, I’ve had to learn and relearn many many things.  I’ve learned that homelessness is wildly complicated.  I’ve learned that addiction is more powerful than just about everything else.  I’ve learned that the system is designed to make it nearly impossible to get a grip on the first rung of society’s ladder.  Most recently, as in, as I read the lesson from John 5 appointed for Easter 6C, I’ve learned that I am really good at making and accepting excuses for not helping people.

Like Paul after his conversion, something like scales fell from my eyes as I read, once again, of the exchange between Jesus and the invalid at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I noted with familiarity how Jesus asks the man, “do you want to be healed?”  Something changed, however, as I read the man’s response to Jesus’ question, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  I thought of all the ways my friends J, M, R, R, M, T, M, A, L, and others have been told they are completely responsible for their own situations.  How if they weren’t just so damn lazy, they wouldn’t be where they are.

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The man’s response to Jesus sounds like an excuse – but not in the way I used to think of it.  Rather than being an excuse for the man not making his way into the pool after nearly 40 decades of trying, but the excuse hundreds of thousands of passers-by had used to not be the one who helped him.  “Oh, he just doesn’t want to get better.”  “If only he hadn’t burned bridges with his family.”  “He probably likes the attention.”  “Another opioid addict.”  “The government should step in.”  “The Church should help him.”  On and on and on.

The truth of the matter is that like the pool of Beth-zatha, the system is, by and large, completely arbitrary.  This was highlighted during the long government shutdown in late 2018-early 2019, when reports began to show just how many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  According to Forbes, the number is 78%.  That means that nearly 4 out of every 5 Americans don’t have the reserves to pay their bills after missing only one paycheck.  And once you fall behind, it is nearly impossible to get back on track.  With late fees and exorbitant reconnect fees, where the price of a gallon of milk at a food desert C-Store is three times what it costs at my local Kroger and a load of laundry at the laundromat costing about the same, where getting “a deal” at a no-deposit weekly hotel still puts your monthly rent at $1,100 a month, with no kitchen, it is easy for me to hear the voice of my friends experiencing homelessness in the words of the man beside the pool of Beth-zatha.

These aren’t excuses they are making to not want help, but the realities of the situation, and, quite frankly, excuses those of us in positions to make a difference often use to not do anything.  Jesus picked up all those excuses and changed the rules.  No longer would the man have to wait by the pool, but rather, he could be healed right now.  Now, I’m not a miracle worker nor a billionaire, able to simply wave my hand and fix a system full of excuses, but I serve a God who can.  What excuses is God inviting you to pick up and toss away?  How is God inviting you to see the world in a different way?  How is God inviting you to change your community?

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JBap’s Holistic Discipleship

In a post of the Living Church’s blogsite, the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Dan Martins published a post that utilized one’s preference for or against Mel Gibson’s epic, The Passion of the Christ, as a litmus test for whether one would fall on the side of Christianity as a social justice movement or oppositely, at least a the Bishop of Springfield sees it, Christianity as a global operation to save souls.  Yesterday, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Megan Castellan, used none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer a strong critique of Bishop Martin’s dualistic worldview.  I strongly encourage you to read her post, as it is most assuredly better than this one.

What strikes me as odd in the Bishop’s article, is that I can’t find my own place in his dualistic world.  I didn’t like The Passion of the Christ, not because I don’t think that Jesus’ sacrifice is the lynch pin in salvation history, and not because it has the theological nuance of Thor’s hammer, but because the Good Lord did not bless me with the spiritual gift of a strong stomach.  Rarely do I watch a movie that includes graphic violence, not out of some moral repugnance, but a more physical one.  In fact, I planned to never see The Passion of the Christ on just those grounds, but when the Presbyterian youth pastor asks you to join his youth group’s discussion on it because “you’re an Episcopalian who has walked the Stations of the Cross and maybe can explain the extra-biblical bits,” you feel compelled to oblige.

Based on my reason for disliking The Passion of the Christ, am I supposed to all about social justice or evangelism?  Thankfully, as I re-read Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I realized that I have none other than John the Baptist to point to as an example of a holistic discipleship that allows for both.  You’ll recall that in the Gospel lesson for Advent 2, we heard JBap proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This JBap would have loved The Passion of the Christ (if it wasn’t about the brutal death of his cousin, of course) because he is focused on the need for atonement in the lives of human beings, or what the Prayer Book calls “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  Fast-forward to this Sunday, and we hear the crowd responding to JBap’s proclamation by asking: “What then should we do?”

Note that JBap doesn’t take the crowd down Romans’ Road in search of a conversion experience, but rather, he offers practical advice of how disciples of the Kingdom should live: “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food to eat, share.”  In Bishop Martin’s dichotomy, this JBap wouldn’t have been impressed with The Passion of the Christ, choosing instead to focus on the politics of the Kingdom, or as the Prayer Book calls it, “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.”

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Both are true to who John the Baptist was and what he taught because the reality is that evangelism and social justice are both at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of the Kingdom.  John is essentially proclaiming the need to be born again and then describing what the new life looks like.  Despite what Bishop Martins (from which he later retreats, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, but let’s be fair, it is a dualism held by many on the progressive side of the debates of yore as well) posits, the discipleship we learn from none other than John the Baptist calls us to believe that both the conversion of self and the conversion of the whole world are important. As followers of Jesus, we are to proclaim him as exemplar of the faith in the fullness of the Incarnation: his life, his death, and his resurrection.

An Aiden of Lindesfarne Moment

Since my sabbatical came to an end yesterday (I promise I’ll stop talking about it soon), and with one last evening in the sports doldrums upon us (The US Open begins today), I decided to do some reading for work and cracked open my new copy of Susan Brown Snook’s God Gave the Growth, a guide to church planting in The Episcopal Church.  I’m only a few chapters in, but, as expected, I’m finding Susan’s book to be insightful and well worth a read.  Of particular note is her willingness to strike a balance between the call to social justice and evangelism, “The church must make new disciples if we plan to do social justice work, help the poor, or transform unjust structures of society.  This is long-term work, and it will requite generations of disciples to do it” (13).

With that still rattling around in my mind, I opened up Morning Prayer on the Forward Movement website and read with great joy the collect for the feast of Aiden of Lindesfarne.

O Loving God, you called your servant Aidan from the peace of a cloister to reestablish the Christian mission in northern England, and endowed him with gentleness, simplicity, and strength: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

I like my saints ruggedly handsome, thank you very much.

As a monastic, a missionary, and an evangelist, Aiden spent his life rebuilding the church in Northumbria through a combination of preaching the Good News and showing what it meant by feeding the hungry, caring for the widows, and loving his neighbor.  In so doing, Aiden lived a life worthy of the Epistle of James, from which we hear these words this week, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Faith without works is dead, James tells us.  In the same way, social justice without the Gospel is hollow and the Gospel without love is false.  As disciples of Jesus we are called to follow all of his teachings: caring for the least and seeking out the lost, but in the hyper-political world in which we live, many have forgotten to live in this tension.  Perhaps we need an Aiden of Lindesfarne Moment; a reminder of the fullness of God’s call to Go!  Go, and make disciples.  Go, and feed the hungry.  Go, and share the Good News in word and deed.