This week I ended my job as a vicar at St. Augustine’s in Dallas, Texas. The most important part of a priest’s work is the leading of worship (it’s the only thing we do that not-ordained people can’t do themselves), and I’m really not sure when I’ll do that again. I don’t have another priest-post lined up, or any guest-gigs at the moment.
What I do have a lot of this week, and, I’m starting to see, in the weeks to come, is still a lot of leading liturgies. I’m leading my little family in the relentless rhythms of our days, and that, in a very tangible (and also, intangible) and big (and also small…) way, is important, orienting, rooting work, very much the way that leading church liturgies is.
That’s the other thing about church to me now: it’s more important than ever, because almost nothing else in my life is the same. It’s even more important to me to show up on Sunday morning and hear the same words, to be reminded who I am and to whom I belong. It’s even more important (though perhaps not as easy, since church will still go on without me!) to be present with the Body of Christ, whoever and where ever I am, to anchor my heart and my week.
While at home I’m creating new liturgies, doing the work of cultivating furrows for new seeds to grow in the lives of my family, moving again and again through the same motions, in trust that they will become second nature and part of the fabric of our lives, I’m eager, too, to continue enjoying and resting into the older liturgies, not only the ones I’ve practiced for longer at church, but that the Body of Christ has practiced for millennia, tying Christians in the 21st century to brothers and sisters in the communion of the saints in the first century, too.
In being required to innovate “new” liturgies for my family in a new place, I’m relieved, indeed, I cling to, the “old” liturgies that are the foundation of Christian worship and belief. In a time and culture that is changing rapidly, there’s even more reason to not-change the liturgies that have sustained faithful Jesus followers for thousands of years already.
I’ve been taking meditation seriously the last few months.
In its most basic sense, meditation is just staying put. It’s not drifting off to sleep (though this sometimes happens, and when it does, it probably means you’re not getting enough sleep), it’s not emptying your mind of all thoughts (this is impossible, in my experience), it’s not even reaching some kind of nirvana or intellectual heaven or bliss.
Meditation is just staying put with where you are right now. And then just staying there.
Meditation is about abiding, about stability, and when things get uncomfortable where you are, noticing that things are uncomfortable, and then staying in that discomfort.
So, meditation isn’t like, allowing yourself to get sunburned — staying put in the discomfort of beating-down-sun — but allowing yourself to get irritated at noises, or get frustrated with the itch on your arm, or get pissed off at the way your mind keeps making that same damned grocery list. And when you feel yourself getting irritated, frustrated, pissed off, distracted, saying to yourself — perhaps even out loud! “I feel pissed off.”
Huh. So, you’ve said it. And what happened? If you decided not to move or change anything about your body in that moment, nothing has happened. You’ve acknowledged the annoyance and just trudged along with what you were doing, you decided not to be defeated by the itch, or the noise, or the grocery list.
And as we do this over and over, day by day, our not-get-defeated muscles get stronger, and they get not as distracted or frustrated by itches or lists or noises.
And what does this mean for our lives?
It means that when there are noises in your home or life (like, living with little kids), they don’t bother you as much. When there are people who make you feel itchy, you aren’t as upset about them and their words and their itchiness. When there are distractions in your work or relationships or travel or life, you’re better able to ignore them and keep on with what you want to be doing.
It also means that when in your life you are tempted to throw up your hands and go home, to cut off a relationship, or to walk out, think again — wonder if you might be leaving just when you’re being taught something, just when you are being asked to sit with something uncomfortable, just when God is about to transform you by your relationships with others.
Listen to the new perspective, be curious about your resistance. Sit with the person who annoys you, wonder where that annoyance comes from in yourself. Spend time with the group who frustrates you, walk in their shoes and look through their eyes.
God in Jesus Christ came and listened, he came and sat, he came and spent time. Humans are made for relationship and we are called to do the same.
Last week on the way to church one morning, I was listening to the radio, and I had a somewhat “1984” experience.
The news went on and on about the invisible killer, warning that any one of us might already have “it.” The disease might already be coursing through our veins, we might be already waging war against our last illness and not even know it. It’s the killer that has stalked the globe, it’s the pandemic with no clear cure, it’s in the air, a simple breath can infect us, it is coming for you!
Though I knew that the announcer was talking about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, which has changed the face of our world’s society in a matter of months, I was struck by the possibility of attributing all that the newscaster said instead to sin.
That invisible killer, the disease we definitely already have. The illness coursing through our veins, the war that we’re losing, it stalks the globe, it affects every life, it tears apart families and steals loved ones, it sows discord and hatred, it destroys human life and community.
We’re here on a Sunday morning, a Sunday morning that looks almost unrecognizable to the people who were headed to church on Kiest Boulevard on March 8th, 2020. [We’re masked, and distanced, let alone being outside and on the lawn in camp chairs, with just one hymn accompanied by an electric keyboard, and a sort of self-serve communion, with a jarring immediate exit afterwards.] [We’re sitting in our homes, hunched over screens, perhaps wearing pajamas, with bare feet and a cup of coffee balanced on our knees. If I remember to sing the hymn in a few minutes, it will not sound at all like when everyone is together and the organ is playing — who could imagine on March 8th that this is what church would look like in June?]
Of course church isn’t the only change — despite many restrictions being lifted in Dallas and in Texas, I suspect like us, many of you are going to grocery stores much less often, not sauntering around retail areas for something to do, not wandering around stores on a Saturday afternoon, not spending hours at friends’ houses sharing dinner and drinks. Indeed, I wrote this sermon seated in my beloved cloffice, Jordan’s dresser at my left elbow and laundry at my feet. We wear masks outside, we work and eat and spend and travel — which is to say we don’t travel — all differently in order to avoid this virus taking hold in our lives and the lives of those we love. We have changed our habits and our very bodies in order to keep this invisible killer at bay.
I’m not saying that we’re afraid, or that the new habits we’ve undertaken are excessive. I believe they are right and good. I believe they showed me the ways that we as a culture and people value human life. I wonder though, whether I am behaving in a way that makes physical death the greatest evil, the biggest-bad, in my life and world. I do not profess to believe that physical death is the greatest evil, I say that I serve a God who finds death to be an insufficient enemy. I say that Jesus is my Lord, and he is the one who overcame death.
So all my care and thought and new habits and preparations made me wonder: how have I changed my habits or arranged my life in order to avoid that one, true, invisible killer? (SIN).
Part of the overwhelmingness of sin is that it takes so many forms, and there is so much we don’t know.
There’s communal, or societal sin, and racism is one of these that has had a lot of media light shed on it the last weeks. Another is healthcare; the difficult systems that have many cracks for those who are ill, or those who have little money, or are stuck in bad habits called addictions, or suffer under the oppressive evil of mental illness. Our society isn’t perfectly just or true, our society does not always celebrate and reward the good and the truly beautiful. There are wide chasms in our communities, across our nation and world, systems that allow for people to go hungry, or to not keep a job, or to suffer and die from preventable illnesses (malaria, cholera, measles, polio, etc etc).
There’s also individual sin. The breaks in relationships that we ourselves cause by our anger or selfishness, the temptations we give into for numbing ourselves with drink or with food or with scrolling or a screen. The self-hate we perpetuate with our thoughts. The prejudices we teach to our children. The choices we make in where and from who we buy our clothes and our food and where we choose to buy a house if that’s a choice we’re privileged to make. How we spend our money or give our money, with whom we spend our time; when we choose to speak up and use the power and voice that we have, and when we choose to be silent in the face of injustice, oppression, and evil.
Who has time, though, to look into the supply chain of the half-and-half that’s available for purchase at Kroger? Who has enough brain power to do a cost-benefit analysis on the environmental impact of producing hamburgers? How do we know which sources of information we can trust? If we happen to have enough time and brain power for these ethical quandaries, do we have enough money to choose better options?
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
These are worthwhile questions, and good habits to break and re-make. They will not happen all at once, and the thing is that we’ve been living in sin, breathing in and out the coronavirus-of-evil, for our entire earthly lives. We will not be able to suddenly shed the entire system and habit and inner practices and temptations that we have in a moment as if our sin is like the skin of a snake. But that does not mean that we should give up and let evil run roughshod in our lives and communities either.
“We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit marks each person’s soul as washed and free. No longer imprisoned by sin, but able to be made into the creature that God has had in mind for his precious creation from the very beginning.
Baptism is being claimed by God, marked as safe from spiritual death, capable, now, of seeing the sin that clings so closely and that tries to continue to blind us with logs and specks and to leech into our hearts and our lives with its smoothness and ease, its go-with-the-flow of the culture of our community or nation or world.
Resistance, though, is not futile. The plodding, continual, transformative work of refusing sin and disentangling oneself, one’s family, one’s culture, one’s community, from the infection of sin is the vital and long-suffering work of the Gospel.
In just 4 months, Texans, as well as people the world over, perhaps especially in the United States, have become disenchanted with COVID-19. We go to bars and restaurants, we see movies and hang out in malls, we have started up long dinners with friends and some — not Episcopalians! but some — churches have started piling people into their pews again.
And, my friends, the wages of non-vigilance are clear: Dallas is suffering a rather dramatic spike in cases, and we have far less an excuse than New York City did in those first days of April; from research, we know a lot more about the novel coronavirus now, and we — Dallasites, Texans, Americans as a whole — choose to ignore the truth, returning to life as normal, resuming our habits that are comfortable, but that are tuned toward death.
“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Our only life, Brothers and Sisters, is in living away from, out of, in opposition to, sin. Evil, and death, and darkness have no place in God’s resurrection people. You and I are free, we’re made free by the great price of Jesus’ life, by his death on the cross. May we offer the prejudices, the evil, the riches, the power, the relationships, of our lives on the altar of God, and let him give back to us what he would have us use to his glory and the things he’d have us enjoy with his presence.
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Reception, compassionate welcome, hospitality — Jesus tells us to practice these things in the Gospel passage today; they’re hallmarks of Christian life and if I do say so myself, St. Augustine’s is awfully gifted at them. Our Community Meals, our eagerness to fill up meal-train slots, our great gifts in casserole-making and in big-dinner-cooking, our saying hello to newcomers and inviting people into our pews — this community is one who knows the importance of compassionate welcome, of reception, of hospitality.
But now most of those typical ways of sharing this gift — of sharing this mandate, really — have been taken away in the time of Coronavirus. So are we to do with this urge, this habit of hospitality that we have? Where can we put that energy? How can we exercise that muscle?
Well, there’s good news and bad news: the good news is, there’s still plenty of field to harvest when it comes to practicing hospitality. The bad news is, it’s perhaps more demanding, more sacrificial, even, than our more comfortable habits of hospitality with respect to food.
Jeremiah gives us an idea of how we might engage hospitality outside of food or bodies: he’s is hanging out with the — false — prophet Hananiah, who has just given a very optimistic prophecy. The first verses of chapter 28 record that Hananiah has declared that God will bring his people out of exile in Babylon in just two years’ time.
Hananiah says that their travail is as good as over, their suffering has practically ceased. The favor of the Lord returns! Huzzah!
Jeremiah’s response is generous, one might even call it compassionate welcome. He tells the truth with gentleness, saying, “Oh, may that be true! What a wonderful thing that would be! Yes, ‘may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied’!”
You see, he joins in the desire and hope that the people long for, he affirms Hananiah’s instinct to give the people something to hang on to. Jeremiah seeks to understand where Hananiah is coming from, seeks to slip into the shoes of the people of Israel who are suffering exile. He knows their heart longs for deliverance. He acknowledges and reflects back to them — showing he’s an active listener — their thirst for better days ahead.
But that’s not all he says.
Jeremiah continues with a warning: prophets from of old have prophesied disaster, destruction, continued suffering for the people. And clearly, he need not remind his audience, all this has come to pass. Indeed, they’re right smack-dab in the middle of some of the terror and hardship that Jeremiah himself has prophesied. So, if Hananiah has a message of imminent deliverance for the people, what a wonder it would be to behold, but it would go against decades, and even centuries of prophetic tradition, it would go against all that God seemed to have been communicating for years, it would be a complete 180-degree change from the direction and message that God has been giving and that has been coming true. And Jeremiah himself stands in that tradition.
Jeremiah bore this affront with great humility, with a generosity of spirit toward Hananiah and the people of Israel that shows a compassionate heart and a willingness to be hospitable to even those who are maddening. He’d had a lot of practice bearing the worst stuff — delivering bad news for decades, and living in the middle of that bad news with the people.
While Jeremiah knows the truth of God, the repentance required for deliverance, the years still ahead of difficulty and of exile and of oppression, Jeremiah sticks with the people he’s been called to serve through prophecy. He stays with the exiles, he commits to suffering with, listening with, and living with the people of God as they reckon with their sin, their disobedience and hardness of heart.
And isn’t this the same thing that God in Jesus shows us by his own behavior? Though he is God, he does not consider his almighty power and ultimate authority as something to be grasped, to be taken advantage of, something to be flaunted and waved around over the heads of sad, fleshy humans.
God, the creator, the source of all wisdom, continues to show a willingness to be a compassionate parent. God surely knows better than any of us what the future will hold and how we ought to meet it, but like Jeremiah, God approaches us with curiosity and with gentleness in his truth, rather than trying to violently bend humanity toward his will.
When I’m faced with opposition, I tend to dig my heels in. I desire to ah, “violently bend” others to my will. And I don’t think I’m very unique among humans on this account. We have a very strong bias for ourselves, and a need to be understood, to get our way. To remain the same, be unchanged.
Now, God is the only one who is truly unchanged, and is fully consistent, and the only being whose will it would be a very good idea to bend toward. But this is not how God approaches us. It is his right to do so, but it is not his method. Instead, God in Jesus Christ becomes human. Chooses to walk around in our skin, to suffer our trials, feel our pain, enjoy our happinesses. God chooses to enter into our experience, to walk around in our shoes, to feel our feelings and to show he understands.
Jeremiah is able to, intellectually, prophetically, sidle himself up alongside Hananiah, to look together, next to, with, the people of Israel at the prophecy that’s been given, and the truth of the prophecies received already, and the witness of God’s hand and behavior. Jeremiah receives and welcomes Hananiah, listening well, being curious instead of shutting him down, looking deeply into what Hananiah and all of Israel longs for, and uses that truth to guide his response of compassionate truth.
God in Jesus Christ makes the ultimate example of love in coming alongside humanity as a man, living with poverty, ministering with the sick, teaching with the uneducated. Listening in love, loving in truth.
To whom are we called to listen in love? To whom are we called to love in truth? Who in your life, which individual, or what group, tempts you to pull on that rope, to trip them, rather than to understand? To silence and squash them, rather than to welcome, and receive them, and then, in curiosity, to redirect?
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union. Grant that we may not so much seek to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
I love the Epistle lesson for today. It’s one of my favorite passages and speaks so deeply to me of my constant desire to do and be good, and my constant inner battle to accomplish that good that I desire. “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?!” Usually, of course, the thing I’m not-doing is avoiding dessert, or getting out of bed to go for a run, or spending my precious-little unfettered time helping someone rather than binging netflix.
Oh, but if I leave the passage there, in the place where it’s talking about my little bad habits or guilty pleasures, then it’s castrated. The message Paul seeks to deliver is totally turned lukewarm and inert. And all too often, isn’t this exactly what happens? We interpret Scripture, perhaps as best we can, but in getting it just a little off-kilter, it becomes about eating too many cookies, or giving our time to the poor, rather than the deeper, sinister, actually life-and-death Word that Paul is moved to write and warn his fellow Christians about.
If sin is just resisting the thing we already hate, then if we just try hard enough, we’ll be fine. If reconciliation is just doing the right thing, we can strong-arm our way into it, and sleep in on Sunday mornings.
I suspect that each of y’all know that sin is much deeper, much worse, much more insidious, than that.
So if we turn back to just before this passage starts, a few verses earlier in Romans, we read (in verse 13), “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions…”
Even when we follow the letter of the law, the law, which is good, Paul says; we don’t know the outcomes of the actions we’re taking, and the straightforward results of following the good rules in this sinful and broken world often lead to more sinfulness, more brokenness, because we ourselves, humans, are a broken mess of sin. Like Paul says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”
He’s a great example of what I’m talking about, actually: in his great faithful zeal, he persecuted the church. He is infamous for his great power and work in destroying God’s own bride, the fledging group of Christians who followed Jesus in the first century. His Road to Damascus moment — whence came the phrase we now use — revealed to him the way that sin had taken the good desire in his heart to keep the people of God pure and to help others seek holiness, and made it into something used for evil, almost without him even knowing it. He did not understand the implications of his own actions. He did not know what it was that he was really doing to God himself. It’s why Jesus, when he appeared to Paul on that road said, “Paul” (or really, “saul” as his name was at that time), “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” WHat Paul was really doing was tearing down the very kingdom he desired to build.
This is what sin does. It takes wise, knowledgeable, faithful people and it twists their good work into absolute repugnance. This is what we must admit to, and against which we must pray, and toward which we must show no mercy. The heinous power of sin is to twist and deform the good desires and good intentions and true actions of people into darkness and evil and sickness. And because we’ve tried to be good, to follow the law, to do the right things, when evil and sin take hold and they twist our good, we get defensive, we double down, we refuse the truth of the sin before our eyes.
That’s what I do when I make this passage to be about eating too many cookies or watching too much tv. This passage is about the power of God over sin and death and darkness and evil. It is not about my willpower.
Paul shows us that even in our hard trying — even in our willpower, we are programmed in our bodies — as Paul says here, I am of the flesh — to twist it into evil. That — that is sin. Sin is when order turns into oppression. Sin is when beauty turns into a contest. Sin is when diversity becomes a tool for division. When skin color is a way to define “normal,” and when my celebration is more important than your safety.
This is why, on our own, as humanity, we are hopeless. It is the way of humanity to twist the good, to infect the true, to deform the beautiful. I believe this is why the Gospel passage is so startling, and why I’ve heard it explained as a new way to train your body and soul, but I think that misses the point entirely, again.
“Come to me, all you that area weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The burdens of Jesus may seem heavy to us — can you imagine anything more onerous than being like Jesus in this sinful and broken world? But the yoke of God is only heavy if we are also still holding on to the sin that causes oppression for some, but supremacy for me, or the understanding of “normal” that puts me in the center and others on the outside, or the definition of beauty that sets me ahead when I’m shopping for a car or walking down the street or saying something in a crowded room.
The yoke of Jesus is only heavy if we keep hold, too, to the sin that warps it and makes that burden, that yoke, into something that is inside our own system of the world already.
The burdens and yoke of Jesus is the way that God has *made* the world to function, the grace under which we are *created* to live, the “burden” that our bodies and souls are formed to carry. The yoke of Jesus is the freedom of worshipping him, the burden of God is living in his kingdom, the new Eden (city?).
Even when we try, we do the thing we hate. We do it wrong. Humanity can’t get it right outside of God’s own hand and work in the world. So we gather, we kneel, we ask God again (and again and again) to make us as members of his own body, as pieces of his own kingdom, bricks in his own house of justice, and truth, and beauty. Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.