Sunday, February 18, 2018

Wednesday Happened

Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.


I have a fantasy that one day I will write a perfectly “safe” sermon. By “safe sermon,” I mean one that ruffles no feathers, makes everybody feel good and happy, and perhaps most importantly, makes me popular. Even preachers want to be popular!

I thought for a time that today might be the day. Fr. Richard asked me to preach on this date, I said “sure,” and shortly thereafter checked the Gospel lesson, as is my custom. Right away, I thought, “Cool! I get to preach again about the baptism of Jesus.”

So my plan was to remind you that I had preached on our Lord’s baptism just a few weeks ago, then announce a pop quiz over that sermon… as an appropriate Lent One discipline, of course. After teasing you with that for a moment, I would relent and simply review that handy mnemonic of our baptismal covenant I included in that sermon.

You remember:
1.    Go to church.
2.    Be good.
3.    Tell others.
4.    Love everybody.
5.    Seek justice.

Then, after that review, and with our baptismal covenant in mind, I would turn to the question that came up at Theology on Tuesdays this month. For those of you who were not there: We had an interesting, wide-ranging discussion following up on Fr. Micheal’s annual meeting sermons about why we are here, what we come to Grace for, and what kind of healing force we want Grace to be in our community.

That discussion culminated in someone—I don’t remember who—but someone asked, “So what can we do?”

This deacon’s heart just about went into orbit.

So I was going to use today’s sermon to give you a list—a partial list to be sure, but a list nevertheless—of ministries… Well.., make that a list of ways God is already at work in this community that you could become a part of.

Habitat for Humanity would be high on the list. I am delighted that the director of Habitat is coming next Sunday to speak to you, and sorry I won’t be here to hear him.

I was going to tell you about a wonderful ministry that transforms the lives of girls and young women who struggle with unplanned pregnancy, addiction, eating disorders, sex trafficking…. You name it, they struggle with it. It’s called Mercy Multiplied and I will put some info about how you can check it out in Grace Notes for next Sunday.

I was going to talk about what I do in my not-so-spare time, the ministry that called me to the diaconate: the work of Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith. But you and I can talk one-on-one or in small groups about that anytime.

So I had this fun, informative sermon planned for today.

Then Wednesday happened. You know, 17 dead teenagers. In a school. In Florida. Not that far from here. Not that far from the Pulse night club massacre. Not that far in time or space from blood in the streets of Las Vegas. Or Sandy Hook. Or Columbine, for that matter.



I still thought for a while I would write that other sermon. And then, along about Friday evening when I got serious about writing, I re-learned something I’ve actually known for some time: If I can’t write, I’m trying to write the wrong thing.

Try as I might, I could not write that sermon. Or, as we might say in Louisiana, that dog just would not hunt.

So now I am left with saying what is on my heart and my mind as I survey the carnage of gun-violence victims before us.. and behind us.. and all around us.

But before I do, I am compelled to declare—and this feels incredibly peculiar, but for some reason it seems important to say: I am a gun owner. I know how to use the guns I own. I have used every one of them.. to shoot targets, to shoot trap, and to hunt and kill game of various kinds. I intend to continue to own those guns.

So what I am about to say in no way conflicts with gun ownership and the safe, sensible use of guns for entertainment and hunting by mentally competent, upstanding citizens.

But my days of silence in the face of specious, politically driven arguments about how we can’t fix this problem because of our “rights” are over.

So do not tell me that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” because you know as well as I do that people with guns kill people—and more of them in a shorter period of time at a greater distance than virtually any other way. And if they have an assault rifle, make that quantumly more, faster, easier.

Don’t tell me how Timothy McVay did it with fertilizer… unless you want to be reminded that today, you can’t walk into a fertilizer store and purchase large quantities of that fertilizer without equal quantities of documentation–who you are and why you need it–because somehow, miraculously, we knew how to fix that.

Don’t tell me about shoe bombs on airplanes because today we all line up at the security check point and dutifully take off our shoes… because of one shoe bomb taken onto an airplane.. that turned out to be a dud.

Don’t talk to me about how we must interpret the 2nd Amendment in the broadest, most absolutist way possible. We don’t treat any other amendment to our constitution in that way. We cherish the 1st Amendment as well, but... when was the last time you saw a cigarette ad on television?

Don’t talk to me about how the first regulation is a slippery slope to taking away everyone’s guns. Nonsense! We have a long and proud history in this country of debate between pro-regulators and anti-regulators, and what comes out of it is a slightly meandering but mostly middle-of-the-road path that makes nobody completely happy but keeps us out of the trenches on both sides. We do it with driving. We do it with hunting. We do it with television and business practices and meat products in our grocery stores. We can do it with guns.

How about the argument that no law or regulation will keep guns out of the hands of criminals? That no matter what laws or regulations we enact, the wrong people will still get their hands on guns? Sure. That’s true. But that’s an argument for having no laws of any kind. Because no laws are perfect. No laws are perfect preventers of the crimes they address.

And what if, with reasonable, thoughtful laws and regulations, we cut the number of gun deaths… by half? Maybe by only a quarter? Maybe by ONE? Jesus said he would go to the ends of the earth for one of us! Is that not worth it?

Maybe before we answer, we ought to go face-to-face with the screaming mother of a dead teenager. Maybe we ought to look at our own children and grandchildren before we answer.

And, finally, don’t tell me the problem is mental illness. Every other country in the world has mental illness at about the same rate we do. No other country in the world tolerates the level of gun-wrought carnage that we do.

Some time in the last 48 hours, Bishop Jake published his words on this issue, and one thing he said spoke especially powerfully to me. He said, “My prayers are hollow, even false, if I do not act.”

I don’t know if you needed to hear this sermon today. I know I needed to preach it. Certainly, I know none of you contributes to or promotes gun violence. But as Fr. Michael preached two weeks ago, we’re either hurting or we’re healing. There’s no neutral ground on this issue.

We must demand change. Our legislators are too beholden to powerful, moneyed interests to do this on our own. We must demand it. And if we don’t, we are complicit. The blood of future victims will be on our hands.

Please pray with me: God forgive our past inaction. God help us find the courage to act, to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable. In your Holy Name…

AMEN.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ongoing Story

1st Sunday after the Epiphany, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.


Can it be just two weeks since we paused in wonder to gaze at a newborn in a manger? That we sang carols with the angels, knelt with the shepherds, and with Mary, pondered all these things in our hearts?

It always seems to me that time stands still.. and the universe holds its breath for just a moment.. that holy night.

And then, so soon—and especially this year, so soon!—come the words of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Wait. What? I am never quite ready for such grown up words, such an incomprehensible notion, such a mind-boggling truth. I really would rather just play with the baby for awhile!

But.. the Word became flesh and lived among us… and the consequences are real.

Then, in rapid succession comes 12th Night—the wisemen arrive with their gifts; yay, party time in Louisiana!—The Epiphany; Jesus is for ALL of us—oh, blessed night! And…

Boom! Here we stand, on the banks of a river.. out in the middle of nowhere.. listening to Wilderness John preach hellfire and brimstone. Although Mark’s account does not emphasize that, we know it from other accounts.


Here we stand. That babe in the manger is 30 years old in the blink of an eye, and we’re about to get a powerful lesson in what it all means, and in those very real consequences.

Jesus is baptized. The heavens open. God speaks: This is my beloved…

And Jesus is catapulted into the world to begin his ministry. To call disciples, to turn water into wine, to preach, teach, heal the sick, argue with the Pharisees, that is, the good church people of his day… That’s the consequence of being the Beloved.

We know where that path takes him. We know how that story ends.

Except, of course, it hasn’t ended yet. Except, of course, that we who choose to follow Jesus into and through the waters of baptism are the ongoing story. That’s the consequence of being beloved.

Did you hear both the connection and the distinction I just made? Jesus, called by God, “the Beloved” with a capital “B,” sets out on a path of ministry that leads to the cross. That’s the consequence for him.

We who follow him are made his brothers and sisters through the waters of baptism. That’s what we say. That’s what we believe. We are “beloved” with a small “b.” And the consequence for us is carrying out Jesus’ unfinished ministry in the world.

What else could you possibly do… with the wonderful and terrible knowledge of being God’s beloved?
 
Daniel Bonnell, The Baptism of the Christ

We celebrate the Baptism of our Lord every year at this time. It is a familiar story. We read one or another version of it, not only the first Sunday after the Epiphany, but also the first Sunday of November, All Saints Day.

We repeat our own baptismal vows—as we are about to do—multiple times throughout the year.

I suggest we think of Jesus’ baptism as his ordination experience. While praying, Jesus is named by God to be God’s own and in response to knowing who he is and who he belongs to, he goes out to do the work he is called to do. Sounds like ordination to me.

And as his baptism was an ordination experience, so too ours.

See, I think we’ve gotten way careless about our terminology and our thinking. Even I, when someone asks, am likely to name the orders of the church “bishops, deacons and priests.” But “laity” is also an order!

I was reminded of this in a striking way a few years ago. I was at a Diocesan task force meeting when Fr. Frank Hughes referred to “the five orders of the church.”

Five? I thought. What is he talking about? Everybody knows “bishops, deacons and priests.” After all, we pray for all of them every Sunday!

And when he then named them, it was a real face-palm moment for me. Of course, “laity” is an order—and the fifth, in case you’re wondering, is that special order of monks and nuns who choose to live out their call through vows of poverty, piety, community and service.

Baptism is an ordination. Some adults are ordained by the church to preach the word and administer the sacraments. But at baptism every person is ordained to serve Christ according to his or her calling. Every Christian is a "minister”—one who does ministry of some kind.

What exactly that might be varies a great deal and certainly changes over time for most people. The specific ministry one is called to in mid-life while raising a family and developing a career is likely to be quite different from ministry after retirement.

One of the special responsibilities of deacons in the church is to bring the needs of the world to the church and to lead lay people in servant ministry. That’s why Bishop Jake wants more deacons—not to DO all the service of the church, but to be catalysts for lay ministry, especially lay ministry outside these walls, lay ministry responding to the needs of the world.

That’s why you see my name linked in Grace Notes to the call for participants in the Episcopal Habitat for Humanity build coming up in February. Helping low income folks become homeowners is diaconal ministry because it changes peoples’ lives. It’s transformative.

And, indeed, that is what we promise to do… each and every time we repeat our baptismal vows.

Now.. NO PEEKING into prayer books! Our baptismal covenant begins with several statements of what we believe. We’re going to repeat those in a moment.

Then… we make a series of five promises. What do we promise? Test yourself. No peeking. I’ve developed some shorthand—an aid to memory:

1. Go to church. (teaching, fellowship, Eucharist) – Pretty easy stuff, right? We’re the good church people. We go to church for the fun of it.
  
2. Be good. (resist evil, repent) – Still no biggie. We wouldn’t be caught dead being bad on purpose… although we might be willing to stretch the concept of “good” a bit from time to time.

3. Tell others. (proclaim by word & example) – A little harder, maybe? Thank goodness, “by example” is one of our options, because telling people about Jesus, well, we kind of prefer to leave that up to priests, right?

4. Love everybody. (your neighbor as yourself) – I admit, this one gives me some pause, and not in the way you might think. It’s not the street person or the immigrant or the Muslim or the whatever. I have no trouble seeing Christ in them. It’s the Nazi. The KKK. It’s the smug, self-righteous Christians who are quite sure they have God all figured out.

5. Seek justice. (strive for justice and peace) – The dreaded liberal agenda, right? I mean, we know this is not just about the U.S. criminal justice system and its requirements of legal representation, fair trials, etc. We don’t have to say “social justice” to know that for God’s beloved, justice must include consideration of things such as access to health care, education, and affordable housing, the ability to care for a family with the sweat of one’s brow. Justice is not mere charity. Justice transforms lives. Justice helps people know they are beloved.

In fact, I don’t know a better way to measure ministry than to ask, Does it help people know that they are beloved?

Brothers and sisters, when we repeat our baptismal covenant, we are accepting our status as beloved.. and committing ourselves to being the ongoing story. More. We are asking to be catapulted into the world to declare God’s love and justice for all  human kind. If we were smart, we just might strap on crash helmets.

In the name of God, father, son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Glorious Hope

Christ the King 2017, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church over on Bon Aire Drive is the first Episcopal Church I walked into 20 years ago. One of the first things I noticed was the crucifix at the front of the church. Grace has one just like it over in the parish hall, and so does St. Alban’s in their parish hall.


I was raised in a very Roman Catholic part of southeastern Iowa. In fact, the county paid tuition for my siblings and me to attend a Roman Catholic parochial school because it was cheaper than busing us, the only protestant kids in the neighborhood, to the nearest public school.

So I was plenty familiar with crucifixes. Moreover, the ultra-protestant church of my childhood taught against them as both idolatrous and emphasizing Jesus’ death over his resurrection.

Thus to encounter Christ the King, crucified but alive; on the cross, but wearing kingly robes and a crown, spoke volumes to me. It was one of those features of the Episcopal Church that invited me in.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate an aspect of Christ’s identity—his kingship—separate from all else.

The majority of references to Jesus as king in the New Testament occur in the Passion narratives in the Gospels. What a sharp contrast—to juxtapose Christ’s kingship with that moment when state and religious authority seems so powerful and in charge.

But of course we know that Christ becomes king—not by the usual earthly methods—but by way of the Cross. Jesus himself made it quite clear that his kingship is like no other. His ministry on earth was one of peace, liberation and above all service. Jesus the Christ radically redefined and transformed the concept of kingship.

So today’s Gospel lesson has Christ the King on his throne with us—the human family—assembled before him. But this king is not concerned with the state of the economy, or taxes, or foreign trade or immigration policy. This king is concerned with one thing alone: Have we been taking care of each other?

Like the lessons of the past few weeks, it contains that disturbing concept of judgment, and the possibility of being thrown into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So I wonder… where do you locate yourself in this story?

Notice the surprise of the righteous: WHEN, Lord, they ask, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? 

I am delighted by that. What a lesson in humility and selflessness: to have done the work of the kingdom without even realizing you were doing it. What a moment of joy to hear Jesus say, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. 

But I am also taken aback by it, for it requires me to come to terms with my own little morality problem. You see, I am both a sheep and a goat.

The problem isn’t wanting to do right, take care of people, feed the hungry, visit the sick and befriend the stranger… I’ve always wanted to do right.

The problem is wanting to BE right—which so often comes with built-in judgment of others who won’t accept my charity with sufficient gratitude, who make poor decisions about money or lifestyle that get them into trouble all over again, or who dare to criticize the system that has served me well.

Or judgment of those who insist on calling God by other names. Or who do good even while insisting that God doesn’t exist! Sooo many ways to pass judgment on other people!

The moment I see myself among the sheep, I find myself glancing over at the goats… and there’s my own face looking back at me.

Looking back over the past few weeks of parables, I am the servant given five talents who doubles them. But I am also the one who gets one talent and fearfully buries it in the yard. I’m even the master who relentlessly punishes the timid one, even though I know Jesus said, The meek shall inherit the earth. And I’m the poor schmuck who shows up at the wedding feast in the wrong clothes, as well as the crazy king who goes ballistic and throws him out over a mere wardrobe malfunction.

We humans are expert at throwing ourselves into outer darkness—and passing judgment on each other is one of our most popular ways of doing it.

But the moment I say that, I must also recognize that we humans are called to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. And to do that requires resisting evil. And resisting evil requires making judgments.

We must take stands against wrong, even when we do not agree on the definition of  “wrong.” Or maybe we agree that, for example, racism and white supremacy are wrong, but we do not agree on what constitutes an example of it. Or we agree that poverty or people dying for lack of health care are wrong, but we do not agree on the best way to fix the problem.

These disagreements about really basic and important things are high profile today for a couple of reasons. One is the internet and social media, but I’m going to leave that to another sermon. (I sometimes think they should be called “anti-social” media.)

Another is a culture of relativity that says, “All opinions are created equal.” I have done my share over the years of promoting that culture in trying to make room for some of my favorite but unpopular stands.

But it’s not true.

Some opinions are based on data, historical facts, fair and thorough analyses of competing claims and points of view. Others are based on ideology or wishful thinking.

Some opinions are based on the actual experience of being oppressed by virtue of one’s skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation. Others come from the perspective of being mainstream, a member of dominant social groups. That would be me, most of the time.

Some are based on the experience of living on the socio-economic margins, dealing with the panic of a major car repair when the paycheck barely reaches from one to the next under the best of circumstances. Others come from the point of view of a savings account that can be raided on a rainy day.

To evaluate a human opinion, a human perspective.., to take a stand on what is right or wrong and how to fix it, we must—of course—listen to each other. You have heard that before. But we must also examine ourselves. We must ask, Who am I in taking this stand.

I have no easy answers. Welcome to the conundrum of my daily life: How to listen, take stands, show the way of Christ as I understand it—without shutting down conversation—especially when my instinct is to grab people by the shirt front and scream, “What is wrong with you?” Expletive deleted.

Here we are, the last Sunday of the church year, celebrating Christ the King.. and heading into Advent—a perfect season for doing some soul searching.. in preparation for God to come among us once again.

And so I invite you to spend some thoughtful, prayerful time with the question, Who am I in the stands I take? Who am I in this interaction, with this person, at this moment in time? How is my story, my perspective, my challenges and, yes, my privileges, making room—or not—for the other person’s story?

But Advent also directs our hearts and minds beyond the babe in the manger.. to that completely outrageous and utterly glorious hope that Christ is King and will come again in power and great glory to reconcile and redeem us all in the end.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Choosing Chosen-ness


Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

I don’t like this story.

I mean really.., listen to that punch line again: “Many will be called, but few will be chosen” (NRSV, Matthew 22:1-14). What an un-Jesusy thing to say.

And what an awful punishment to mete out to the poor schmuck who shows up at the wedding banquet in the wrong clothes! For those of us with the fashion sense of a turnip, this is not good news.


So let’s go back to the beginning of the story and see what sense can be made of it. Jesus is speaking in parables again, and we know full well that Jesus’ parables telling us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like often turn the world as we know it inside out. This one is no different.

It begins with a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son. A lot of us have been there and done that, and we know that you invite relatives and good friends—people you know and care about—to a wedding banquet.

But, shockingly, in this case, the invited guests do not come—even after being invited twice. Some appear to be just too busy. They go off to work the farm instead, or to the office to take care of business.

Others get downright ill-tempered about it and abuse—even kill—the messengers delivering the invitation. It’s almost as though they don’t trust the king who has sent the invitation.

Perhaps they fear the king will have invited folks they don’t normally hang out with—like people of other political or religious persuasions or socio-economic statuses, and then what would you talk about for two whole hours?

Maybe they’re afraid they’ll get to the banquet and be asked to do something they don’t like doing or don’t feel good at, like share a story from their own life, maybe something the king has done for them.

Maybe they’re worried about what it will cost them in terms of missed work, having to buy a gift, or having to share out of their own plenty with those who have less.

Or maybe they just resent the king’s claim on their time and their life.

Perhaps some of these reasons for not responding to an invitation sound familiar to you. They sure do to me.

Whatever the case, they don’t come. And guess what? You can’t be a guest if you ignore or reject the invitation.

And so the king, being upset as wouldn’t we all be, sends out new messengers to gather up anyone and everyone from the streets and byways to come to the banquet—and they come.

What an odd assortment of characters must have been in that crowd! “The good and bad,” Jesus said; come they did and commence to party.

They became the kings honored guests—not because they were relatives or friends or of the right political persuasion or socio-economic status. And not because they had earned the king’s favor in any way. The king’s messengers invited everyone.

And they became the kings guests because they chose to respond to his invitation.

This story reminds us that “choosing” and “being chosen” are two sides of a single coin. It’s a 2-way street. We can’t be chosen if we don’t choose back.

Think about the people in your life. Can you choose a “best friend,” if that person does not want to be your best friend?

Anyone in this room ever have a crush on someone who didn’t return the sentiment? Doesn’t go very far, does it? Not much fun, is it? Even a business partnership requires a mutual choosing.

If you’re married, think about how that happened. One of you probably initiated the relationship, made the first move. But it was a mutual choosing.

And it didn’t happen just once. To stay together you must choose each other, over and over again. Being in relationship means constant choosing chosen-ness. A million big and little things—annoyance, distractions, “epic disagreements”—will require you to choose each other over and over again.., even when you are not aware that that’s what you are doing.

And finally, think about the pain of choosing someone who does not choose you back. Or, worse, who chooses you for a time, and then un-chooses you.

Losing a friendship, losing a marriage, losing an employer-employee relationship; all are painful un-choosings that can send human lives into a tailspin.

Are you worried about the guy who gets thrown out because he’s not wearing the proper clothes? He chose back, but not really. He came to the party half-heartedly. He’s there, he’s making an appearance.., but he’s sitting in the corner.. or the back pew.. looking to make a quick escape… before anything much can be asked of him. Been there and done that, too.

See, it’s a whole lot easier to go to church than to put on the wedding robe of God’s Love and actually follow Jesus. It’s perfectly possible, even rather easy, to say, “Yes, Lord, I love you, I choose you…” but then to be certain there’s nothing we can do to solve the problem of health care for all of our neighbors.

We can go to church week after week, year after year, and be more worried about the price of produce at the grocery store than about whether the people who pick the produce can feed their kids by the sweat of their brow. We can say, “Lord, Lord,” and never once wonder how many jobs the people who wait your table at the restaurant might be working to make ends meet.

How often have we been too busy, too hurt, too angry, too fearful… to accept the chosen-ness God offers us? How often have we responded, but half-heartedly, or grudgingly.., or with a sort of empty piety?

I am reminded of Jonah. Not responding to God’s claim on us can send us straight into the belly of the beast, where we will surely weep and gnash our teeth.

But here’s the Good New: With all of our faults and limitations, our stinginess, our blind self-righteousnes, we are whom God wants. Jesus says, “The many…” which I take to be inclusive: “The multitude of humankind.” Or, as we might say in the deep south: “all of y’all.”

God chooses us—over and over again. Every minute of every hour of every day, God chooses us. That’s the beauty of it. If we don’t choose back at this moment, we’ll have another chance in the next. If we don’t care for this neighbor in the ditch today, we will encounter another tomorrow….

We are invited to the banquet we call the Kingdom of Heaven—and not just one of some far off future “next life,” but the one Jesus insisted was within and among us, the one we pray for here on earth each and every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

And more. We are invited to be God’s love here on this earth. We are called to become God’s hands and feet responding to the pain of the world. And by the grace and love of God, we become what we choose back.

In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. AMEN
 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Who am I?


 Grace Episcopal Church, August 27, 2017

A few years ago, I was sitting on a friend’s couch in his living room writing a profile for some social media platform on the Internet I wanted to try. I don’t remember the details, like what social medium it was or what I wrote. I’m pretty sure that profile no longer exists today.

But I do remember turning to him and asking questions that sounded a lot like the ones Jesus asks his disciples in today’s Gospel story. What’s the most important thing about me? Who am I to people? Who am I to you?

Many interpretations of today’s Gospel story focus on Peter’s declaration of faith: You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.

Awesome, Peter! You nailed it. But remember that this recognition of the divinity of Jesus is not new. Just a couple weeks ago we were looking at the story of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter’s similar declaration of faith when Jesus stills the storm.

We all must consider and decide who Jesus is, and I do believe that for us today, especially us “good church people,” coming to that declaration of the divinity of Jesus is a good bit easier than it was for the disciples.

Early Christians struggled mightily with the question of who Jesus was and is. You don’t have to be much of a church historian to know that it was a gathering of Bishops in Nicea in AD 325 that finally ended the debate.

Today we reaffirm what the Bishops decided every time we say the Nicean Creed—which is pretty often! And I doubt we hesitate for a moment when we say those words affirming the divinity of Jesus.

Today I want to come at this story from a different angle, that of the questions Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?

Why would Jesus ask those questions? I don’t think he was just testing the disciples. I think he was asking a genuine question: What does all this mean? Who in the world am I? It must have been confusing at times, being fully human and fully divine.

This Gospel story is one of those moments when I experience Jesus as fully human. We do believe that, too, you know, even though I think for us today, it can be hard to remember.

So that’s my first question for us today: When and how does it become really, really real to you.. that Jesus was just as fully human… as he was fully divine?

Now here’s my bigger point: Like Jesus, we need to ask the question, Who am I? Who do other people say I am? Who do those closest to me say I am? Who.. am.. I?

I’m not suggesting some sort of shallow preoccupation with what other people think. My mother, may she rest in peace, always made sure her children had on clean underwear. “You might be in an accident,” she would say, “and what would people think.”

No, I’m talking about who we are at the deepest possible level, and that is who we are in relationship to God. It is just as fundamental to our faith to ask, Who am I? as it is to ask who Jesus is.





One of the stories told about St. Francis of Assissi is that he often prayed all night, and one of his frequent prayers was, Who are you, oh God? And who am I?


Back in 2010, I decided it was time to add my own voice to that massive outpouring of verbiage on the Internet commonly known as “the blogosphere.” I created then, and continue to maintain—albeit somewhat erratically—several blogs. One is a sermon blog, where you can find this sermon later today if you’re so inclined.

And, of course, one of the first things I had to do to begin blogging was create a profile. Unlike the one I mentioned earlier, this profile still exists. And on the day I created it, I was apparently in a good place, because here’s what I wrote:

To my students of communication at a regional university, "Dr. K." To the people of the Episcopal parish to which I'm assigned, "Deacon Bette." To myself, beloved of God, lover of humankind.

Pretty cheeky, don’t you think?! If only I knew exactly what that last part meant: Beloved of God, lover of humankind.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have an explanation, a reason I believe it, if you will. But it’s mostly an exercise in thinking, less so one of experiencing myself and other people in those terms.

I was being pretty glib when I wrote beloved of God, lover of humankind. But I’ve never changed it. I haven’t changed it because it makes me think. It still makes me ponder.

I ponder it because it seems so implausible. I’m with the psalmist all the way in saying ‘who are we, God, that you should take note of us?’

I have had moments, not only of thinking it true, but of experiencing being held in the arms of a God who loves me. I cannot imagine a life more desolate, more despairing, more meaningless… than one lived without glimpses of the love of God—of the intimate, personal, experiential kind.

So here’s one thing I do know from those experiences: The second part of what I wrote, lover of humankind, is completely impossible without the first part, beloved of God.

And here’s another: Way too much of the time, I don’t act like I know.. that I am beloved of God. I can tell that by how I think about and treat other people.

That’s why this is an important question. If we don’t know who we are, then we can’t possibly know who everyone else is. It is precisely when we are being impatient, defensive, argumentative, resentful, judgmental… angry enough to want to lash out, whether physically or with our snappiest verbal put-down… In those moments, we have forgotten we are God’s beloved.

So I invite you to ponder these questions….

In your own life, how do you know yourself as God’s beloved? At what moments do you experience the enough-ness.. –may I make up a word? –the absolute enough-ness of knowing you are God’s beloved? And how does that shape your view of yourself? The world? Other people?

And then try this: Think about people behaving badly—and I mean behaving badly, as in marching in the streets spouting slogans and waving flags historically saturated with racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. I mean behaving badly as in proclaiming the supremacy of people of their own kind, striking terror in the hearts of people who do not look like them, or were not born here, or who practice some other faith. Behaving badly as in blowing up other people in the name of religion.



Then ask: How do we call out the hate? How do we name the evil and take a clear and unequivocal stand against it, all the while knowing ourselves AND the hater—that other person preaching and doing the evil… How do we know.. and show.. that all of us… are fully.. and equally.. beloved of God?

That is the question that keeps me awake at night. I have no easy answers, no formulae, no list of practical steps. We will not always get it right. But we cannot compromise with evil. Name it and call it out we must.

Jesus is Love Incarnate. That’s who he is! And love is what he does.

We are his Beloved. That’s who we are! And if we know that, love is what we will do.

So let us ask as Jesus did, Who does a sad and broken world--out there beyond these sacred walls--say that we are? Do they know us as… love?

In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. AMEN




Monday, April 24, 2017

Practicing Resurrection

 Easter Vigil, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe


When it comes to resurrection scenarios, St. Matthew seems to have taken a page out of the book of Cecile B. DeMille--maker of epic movies with religious themes of my youth.


By contrast, in St. Mark’s resurrection scenario, the stone is already out of the way when the women arrive. A young man in white seated quietly inside the tomb tells them Jesus is not there. The scene ends in dumbstruck silence with the women running away, afraid to tell anyone what they had seen.

But Matthew is all high drama. An angel in blazing white descends from heaven before their very eyes, single-handedly rolls a mighty stone out of the way… and triumphantly sits on it. The men on guard duty—not the women—the men…  swoon at the sight.

Then the angel makes his magnificent proclamation, the women turn to go—according to Matthew, in fear and great joy… and suddenly… Jesus himself stands before them. The women fall at his feet and worship him.

But I left out a very important detail. Matthew puts his high drama in motion with nothing less than… an earthquake.

Can it escape our notice that just yesterday, at high noon, an earthquake punctuated the last breath of Jesus the Christ… on a cross… in a place of death called Golgotha?

Can we forget that in 2015, almost 9,000 people died in an earthquake in Nepal?

That in early March 2011, an earthquake in the Pacific sent a giant tsunami wave of destruction crashing into Japanese shores, killing almost 16,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 and leaving utter devastation in its wake?

Or that one year earlier, an earthquake leveled the capital city of Haiti, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless?

We are all too familiar with earthquakes, and the human tragedy they cause. So what in heaven’s name is one doing, here, right in the middle of our resurrection story?

Nora Gallagher is a novelist who has also written several books about her own spiritual journey. One of them is called Practicing Resurrection. It is an account of how the loss of a beloved brother throws her life into a tailspin, and of her return from walking straight down a wrong vocational path, dragging a failing marriage.

Gallagher’s struggle back requires her to re-examine everything: her call, her work, her marriage. It leads her finally to an exploration of nothing less than life after death. She finds that “experiences of resurrection are not believing six impossible things before breakfast.” Rather, she proposes, “Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”

We have all been there, in one way or another. Human existence is a series of earthquakes, large and small. Some are beyond our control. I have never experienced an earthquake of the natural kind, but I understand that little can be more terrifying than to feel the very earth move under our feet. It is the ultimate loss of control.

Other earthquakes are of our very own making. We march resolutely into dead ends and struggle to find a way back out again.



And as Matthew illustrates by putting an earthquake smack dab in the middle of the resurrection story, joyful events can also create upheaval in our lives. A baby is born, and mom and dad must create a new marriage out of the ashes of the honeymoon, a marriage in which gazing into each others’ eyes is replaced by advanced skill in “keeping an eye on” 16 things at once, from the shrinking pile of clean diapers to the toddler about to stick its finger in the puppy’s eye.

We don’t have to be “control freaks” to long for some control, some ability to maintain our balance as we face big challenges and small ones of daily life. But we have so very little. Fr. Richard Rohr defines human suffering precisely in these terms. “When are humans suffering?” he asks. “When they have no control.”

It often seems to me that it is precisely when we think we finally have it together, that we are finally on top of our game, that life hands us the most deadly, life-destroying blows. And we suffer.

Someone we love dies. A spouse or lover leaves us. A friend betrays us. We are downsized by our employer. Our company fails. An economic downturn takes much of our nest egg. Our politics turn nasty. Our children and grandchildren are sent half way around the world to fight a war that we are just not sure is worth the sacrifice of young, beautiful lives.

We aren’t in control, and much of the time it looks like God isn’t either.

But God chose to become human, to suffer and die on a cross in order to rise again in power over death. How do we understand that? As a one-time event? An economic transaction in which Jesus “paid a price” to God.. or was it to the devil? ..so that we can live happily ever after.. some day in some glorious future?

That kind of thinking certainly creeps into our religion, but it is wrong-headed. It diminishes the meaning of resurrection by making it a mechanical transaction trapped in history, and our lives something to be “gotten through” for some period of time while we await the coming of Glory.

As Fr. Rohr observes, it makes our religion a mere “evacuation plan for the next world.”

The fundamental story of our faith is that something always must die before something new, better, more beautiful can be born. And the thing that must die is typically our own beloved ego.

Earthquakes are destructive, but the human ego even more so. It is the human ego that leads us to destroy others in myriad ways, physically and emotionally, individually and as nations, with our need to be right, to save face, to feel secure, to divide the world into black and white, good and evil, us vs. them… to take sides and to believe that God is on ours.

About two weeks ago, the ULM Canterbury group I serve spent some time together examining our baptismal covenant—the one we are all about to witness and renew. We had no trouble with the first three promises. You know: Go to church. Confess your sins. Be a good example.

The last two promises we make—the ones about seeing Christ in all persons, seeking justice and respecting the dignity of every human being led us straight into a discussion of refugees from war-torn countries and our response to them.

I listened in awe as those young people spoke of their struggle to find balance between the heartbreak they feel for the people and their fear of consequences of people of different beliefs and values living among us. They want to be like Jesus, but the scary political rhetoric of the day plays on their very human fears. And so they struggle.

In Matthew’s resurrection story, the women fall down and worship Jesus. But in fact Jesus never once asked us to worship him. What he asks is that we follow him. And to follow Jesus the Christ, we must practice dying so that we can practice resurrection.



To let go of our need to be right, our need to be in control, to be safe and secure… not only feels like dying, but is a form of dying. And if we can do that, if we can follow Christ through the suffering and through the ashes of our hurts and losses and failures, if we can accept the healing that the infinite love of the cross offers us, the earthquakes of our lives become the very path to living our faith and sharing God’s love with a hurting world, which is to say, the very path to practicing resurrection.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Named

St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Monroe, La. 

This past week—a week of preparation for my last semester of full-time teaching—was deranged. Completely deranged. I spent the week dealing with one crisis after another.

Some of the crises belonged to others—like students, who didn’t manage to get advised and enrolled in classes in the fall, and now were desperate to get into already full classes in order to stay on track to graduate.

One would like to say, “Well, your failure to get advised and into classes is not my problem.” But the truth is, one can’t really do that. And so I went to work and did what I had to do to get them into some classes.

But the hardest part about the week was that the biggest and most difficult of the crises—the hurricane of a crisis that kicked off the week—was a crisis of—guess what!—my very own making.

You see, I too didn’t get something important done before the end of the fall semester. I failed to request renewals of funding for several graduate students for whom I am responsible as Communication Program graduate coordinator.

And much to my chagrin, when I ran to the Dean’s office with renewal forms Monday of last week, I was told we were out of money.

Thus ensued a couple days of scrambling, recalculating, negotiating, begging and identifying students who either weren’t returning or had decided not to come to ULM, thereby freeing up some money. By mid-week I thought we had things covered and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Within hours of that sigh of relief, I received an email from a new international student I had not heard from in over a month and had decided was not coming. Her money had been used to fill a gap for another student left by my failure to do renewals.

 “I’m here in the U.S.,” her email said, “ready to accept my graduate assistantship.”

I just about came unglued. I felt like the most incompetent boob to walk the planet.

I share that this morning in order to say this: The stories we tell about ourselves... are not the stories God tells about us.

Let me say it again: The stories we tell about ourselves are not the same, indeed, bear little resemblance to, the stories God tells about us.

Listen to Isaiah: The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 

Brothers and sisters,, do you hear that? You, me, all of us. We were named by God.. before we were born!

Now, I’m not assuming that means God chose “Bette Jo,” spelled “b-e-t-t-e j-o,” then put a bug in my daddy’s ear. But do notice that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus does something like that. He gives Simon a new name—Peter—the name we know him by to this day.

So, clearly, this naming business is important. Our name, and who named us, is part of our human story. Anyone here not know who named you? Or who you might be named after?



Naming is an act of love. Whatever else God might have in mind for each of us, our first name, the name God gives us in the womb, is Beloved. Beloved, as in, the one I, God, have chosen. 

The tricky part about that, of course, is that God gives that name to all humans. Indeed, all of creation, but that’s another sermon.

The moment we start thinking that we are more beloved than the next person, that immigrant over there, that person using food stamps in front of us in line at the grocery, that redneck with the beer gut, that dang Democrat, Republican or whatever… that’s when we’ve already forgotten who—and whose—we are.

And I say that as a person who forgets it.. all the time.

In May of this year, as one of my last acts of service to the University of Louisiana Monroe, I will again call the names of the students as they cross the stage to the applause of their families and friends to receive their diplomas. I spend a good bit of time getting ready to do that, finding out the proper pronunciation of the names—including the challenging foreign ones—and practicing, so as to get it right. It is one of my favorite tasks. It is a calling, and I will miss doing it.

And it is appropriate that this task I love so much is, indeed, an act of service. Note that Isaiah goes on to tell us more about who we are to God. 

And he said to me, Isaiah says, “You are my servant…in whom I will be glorified.” 

So we are not only God’s beloved. We are God’s beloved servants. We have work to do. We were not put here just to bask in the light of God’s love! How could we? How could we possibly respond to such love by doing nothing?

Some people say, indeed, some preachers in some religious traditions say, that if you tell people they are God’s beloved, that God loved and named them in the womb, and that God does and will love them regardless of what they do, you are thereby giving people carte blanche to behave any way they choose, any immoral, evil, ugly way they choose, without fear of consequences.

To which I say, Nonsense! That is not how it works.

To the contrary, when you see someone behaving in an immoral, evil, or just mean spirited way… pray for that person. Instantly. On the spot. In your heart might be better than out loud! But pray for them because that person has forgotten who and whose they are. That person has forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that he or she was named and chosen by God before being born.

You see, in those moments when we truly get and accept who we are—God’s beloved servants—when that resonates in our heart, mind and soul; when we claim that name—we will respond to the world and everyone in it with love, kindness and generosity. In light of such a gift, such unearned and complete grace, we cannot do otherwise.

Now..., I began this sermon with a story and I don’t want to leave you hanging. Yes, with the help of other people of good will, my grad student funding crisis was happily resolved. I am back to feeling modestly on top of my game.

Indeed, I ended the week helping a young man who flunked out of school a few years ago figure out how to get past his failure, get back in school and move on toward his goals. I’m excited! were his parting words to me.

But the larger value of these stories from academia is this: We live within merit systems. I have spent my adult life writing test questions, designing assignments, correcting, critiquing, sending things back to be redone, and ultimately awarding grades. More than once I have had to explain to unhappy students how they, indeed, earned the grade they received.

The version of the merit system that dominates your life is probably different in detail. Those of you who work in medical fields have the special stress and burden of knowing that your failure could have dire, even fatal, consequences.

But ALL of our merit systems have the ability to hurt, to wound, to frustrate, to beat down… the human spirit. It depends on how we use them. Merit systems dominate human endeavor, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

The challenge for God’s people is twofold. First, we must remember that God, thankfully, does not operate by the merit system. And we are beneficiaries of that.

Second, we must remember that however practical and useful the human merit systems within which we function might be, they are ours, not God’s, and the people to whom we apply our merit systems—from the wayward student to the welfare recipient to the violent terrorist—are every bit as much God’s named and beloved as we are.

 

In the name of God, Father, son and Holy Spirit, AMEN