brave people make intimidating congregations

Over coffee this morning, shop-talking with my colleague, Dane, I thought of this ole post. May the 26 y.o. Emily speak to you as she’s spoken to me–demanding courage to speak the truth at all times and in all places.

hope of things not seen

Often, while sermon-writing, words come slowly, and when they come, they seem like little clods of dirt that break apart into dust the moment you try to grasp them. This exercise sends me running through my cycle of google reader-facebook-twitter.  Having just completed the circuit a few minutes before, there was nothing new on my reader, but when i typed in “fac” in my browser bar (the fewest letters necessary to bring up my worn “facebook.com” link) and arrived at the top of my newsfeed, a new photo had been posted by my sister:

She wore a white sundress, her blonde hair was down, and the big white posterboard she held up read, “Shh… just go back to sleep.”  It was a photo taken for Project Unbreakable, a website dedicated to survivors of sexual assault.  I’d known about the event she referred to for a few months, but seeing…

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more pomp & circumstance–why process for the Gospel…

As we gather for worship this morning, I’m going to paint you a picture of our life together; something that might—or might not—help us understand and imagine how we work together as one body, how we are God’s hands and feet in the world.

Somewhere near the middle of our Eucharist service, we read from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John together.  When this happens, have you noticed that a lot of people move?  The deacon, or the celebrant, in the Keenan Chapel services, walks into the middle of the nave, right into the heart of the congregation, if you think of us all gathered here as a “body.”  Once the deacon is there, she proclaims the Gospel to us all.  She’s not just reading what’s written on the page; just like there’s something special about singing together and praying together, as we do when we gather here, there’s something special about listening together—most of us learned about that in kindergarten: we learned how important and transformative it is when we all listen to the same words and instructions at the same time.  Not least, it’s easier for our teachers and leaders to help do their jobs if we’re all paying attention to the same place at the same time.

Many of us turn to face the deacon as she or he shares the Gospel with us from the middle of our gathering.  This is a great and beautiful symbol—someone who has been appointed by God to spend all their time taking the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection into peoples’ everyday lives does that on Sunday mornings, too, in order to remind us that God belongs in the middle of our lives, in the middle of our relationships, as the focus of our attention and our bodies—God is the one toward which we turn and orient ourselves.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!

The Original “Lean In”

Sheryl Sandberg has stolen from Jesus.  As usual, Jesus is pretty gracious, and as far as I know, Sheryl hasn’t yet been struck dead, but you hear the words of Sheryl’s best-seller in our Gospel text for this morning: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 8:41).  Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and author of the book “Lean In.”  Her message is more specifically about women in the workforce and in society, but she’s tapped into something much larger, deeper, and more important than how to narrow the gender gap in Fortune 500 companies.

Part of what made her words so popular is that they don’t quite line up with the messages that we’re used to hearing from secular sources.  She challenges her readers that when doors start to close, you should stick your foot in them before they shut completely, when someone won’t answer you, knock harder instead of walking away.  Women throughout history have been known as the necks that move the heads of state; gaining ground through unofficial back channels–there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament alone.  To face problems head-on and refuse to back down is how Sheryl asserts women should tackle the last hurdles toward gender equality.  This is not the way that most women have been taught to respond to resistance; giving away a shirt is not the way most people have been taught to respond to someone who demands your coat.

Of course her audience is women in the workplace, and the dogged ambition that motivates the message might raise some concern, but I wonder why we don’t approach God’s message with the same ruthless determination.  Through Jesus, God teaches us a new kind of math in this Sermon on the Mount: meant to awake in the hearer the story of Moses and Mt. Sinai, Jesus gives a new summary of the law here in the fifth chapter of Matthew.  You hear again and again the refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”  Jesus is painting the picture of the Gospel as clearly as he can: when someone wrongs you, lean in.  When someone steals from you, lean in.  When all sorts of evil comes your way, batten down the hatches, turn your face toward the rain, and let it do its worst.

The strength to face these trials comes not from ourselves but from God, through the Holy Spirit.  It is only when we’re leaning on God that we can lean in to the kinds of lifestyle that Jesus is outlining for us in the Gospel lesson today, and that’s what the whole of Scripture is about.

In our Old Testament reading today (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18), we hear about the ways that God set out for his people, the Hebrews, to behave.  They were to avoid corruption and deception, they were to be generous and fair to each other, to the less fortunate, and to the strangers in their midst.  At the end of each exhortation or law, there is a refrain, “I am the LORD.”  It refers back to the beginning of the passage, where God says to Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).  It’s a sort of shorthand, you see–every line, every law that’s being laid out by Moses to the people on God’s behalf is about holiness.  It’s about living in a way that imitates God, that makes the world holy like God is holy.  That’s what being “sanctified” is–being made holy.

Even back in Leviticus, God knew that we humans weren’t quite capable of being holy on our own.  God says that his people will be holy because of his own holiness–the promise that God made back in Leviticus came true when Jesus arrived on the scene.  That’s part of the reason why Matthew’s gospel draws so many lines back and forth between the Old and New Testaments–he wants his readers to see clearly that God is fulfilling his centuries-old promises in the person of Jesus Christ.

So, how do we live these words that God has given us today?  How do we “lean in”?

The truth that we know deep down, that we see witnessed to in the pages of Scripture, and that we hear in our prayers every Sunday, is that we can’t “lean in” on our own.  We can’t make ourselves do any good thing apart from God’s power through the Holy Spirit.  We’re helpless to our selfishness, our desire to keep our coats, to do the bare minimum required, to ask for our possessions back as soon as we lend them out.

And so, we pray.  We use the words that God himself taught us through Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, we use words that faithful people throughout time have used in our Book of Common Prayer, we use our own words, offering up our souls and bodies to be used by God.

What does God do?  He sent his son, our Lord Jesus Christ; we disciples take this gift into our own bodies in the Eucharist every time we gather here together.  He sent the Holy Spirit to transform us into holy people, to give us strength to lean in when we have got nothing left.  From the beginning of God’s relationship with people, he’s always told us that he is only as far away as we push him; he’s always standing just as close as we’ll let him, ready to give us the strength we need to face whatever evil may throw at us to try to destroy us.

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).  No matter how hard evil and violence push, God pushes back with peace and love.  Through his strength, which we gain in prayer and in our sacraments, we can push right back, too.

We have learned through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that when death–the greatest evil–does its worst, God’s power is still stronger.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; this is the truth upon which each of us may stand–and when we do, even the gates of hell cannot prevail against us (Matthew 16:16-18).

Amen.

To Be, Rather Than to Study

A few weeks ago, there was a mindfulness retreat in Asheville, led by the yoga teacher who made it all click for me last summer, and though I desperately wanted to learn more from her, I couldn’t go (you know, occupational responsibilities, like, Sunday morning).

After the retreat, she posted about the weekend on facebook, commending mindfulness as “where it’s at.”  I lay in bed with my phone very early Sunday morning, wishing I could have been there and learned something with that community, and I commented, “what should I read to learn more?”  I could almost see my teacher smiling compassionately as her comment appeared, “find a quiet place, sit comfortably, breathe, let go!”  I rolled my eyes–of course!–I wanted to study the practice of meditation and to learn about mindfulness, but doing the actual thing?  Learning by practicing?  No, no, that was too hard.  It was much easier to let my mind just run about while I dove into a book, or let my thoughts wander around while I discussed the theory.

That’s what Paul’s telling us this afternoon about the cross (1 Corinthians 1:10-18).  For many reasons, we’ve become a people who believe that knowledge is power.  We’ve seen how our medical advances save, or at least prolong, life.  We pay lots of money for diplomas on our walls that symbolize years of reading, writing, and testing.  Our obsession with study and learning, while they are goods, can begin to blind us to the Gospel.  I do not believe that being a “thinking church” or the “church where you don’t have to check your brain at the door” is a badge of honor; it is a condemnation.

God did not come into the world as a scholar, though he has all knowledge.  When God the Father sent his Son to be among humanity, and to be human himself, he did not set his kid up in the hotbed of intellectualism, or in the most prestigious city in the world.  God showed by his example in Jesus’ life that knowledge is not the core of our faith.

A former rector of mine always used to say that, “the Episcopal Church is David dancing before the Lord.”  We understand grace; we depend on it–we dance because of it!  What a beautiful gift for our brothers and sisters in other denominations in Christ’s regrettably divided body.  However, as Paul said elsewhere, though everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial (1 Cor. 10:23); sometimes our deeply-held belief in the grace poured out for us, we think that we decide to believe whatever else we want, because of the grace safety-net.  We can slurp up the newest theories of Jesus’ wife, or find the “real person”-Jesus behind the text, we can obscure the view of Jesus’ death on the cross all together with the more pressing, more important matters of social justice.  Again, Paul says, “while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Our first charge as disciples of Jesus is to sit at the foot of the cross.  Jesus’ sacrifice of love through his death on the cross is the foundation of our faith.  “The wisdom of the cross stands against worldly wisdom” (Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year A, Volume 1, pg 282; Timothy F. Sedgwick).  We understand God’s love not by reading about it, or by studying the details of the Gospel accounts; we learn by practicing. We sit, and stand, and bow, and kneel in front of the altar, the most-ancient symbol of sacrifice.  It is at the altar, the table–the cross–where God, through Jesus shows us the Good News.  The Gospel is that we are no longer helpless to evil, there is no longer any reason that we should drown and die in our sins.  The one person in the history of the world who had the power to fight evil from the beginning, the one person who lived a perfect, blameless, sinless life–he died a violent death for each of us.

Jesus taught using words on the Mount, in the Temple, on the road, and on the sea, but we do not spend every Sunday remembering any one of those places or moments.  The most important moment was not when disciples’ minds were being given a work out, the most important moment was when Jesus gave himself up to death, even death on a cross, because of God’s great love.

When the church tries to argue its way into converts, it will always lose.  Our world doesn’t set us up to understand the Gospel as making sense and as the respectable thing to do.  Our world is a place of division and dissension; just as Paul talks about in the Epistle lesson today–how the church in Corinth was prioritizing their spiritual lineage over their identity as Jesus’ disciples.  I wonder how much we prioritize our lineage as Episcopalians, or as Methodists, or as Roman Catholics above our identity as belonging to Jesus Christ because of his life in backwoods-Nazareth, his death on the cross and sacrifice on the altar/table, and because of his resurrection from death, the complete triumph over evil on Easter Day.

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we gather together, sitting quietly at the foot of the cross, waiting for God to reveal himself to us again, to enlighten our hearts with his saving grace.  May we be ever-humble, knowing that we do not have the whole picture, eager for the reunion of all the disparate pieces of Jesus’ body, the church, throughout the world, and placing our trust and faith in Jesus Christ alone.