Monday, August 29, 2016

These Walls Are Alive!

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“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
            Today, as we officially kick-off a capital campaign to raise some $2.75 million to preserve the buildings at Historic St. Paul’s, Jesus confronts us with a lesson that seems to articulate that the church’s most prized possessions aren’t our buildings but the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 
Thank you, Jesus! You sure know how to make a rector squirm in the pulpit! How about a history lesson to take our mind off this startling juxtaposition? 
A few weeks ago, the church calendar remembered Laurence, a deacon and martyr in 3rd century Rome.  Under the Emperor Valerian, clergy and wealthy laity were the targets of intense religious persecution.  Laurence, the church’s treasurer, watched as his friends and colleagues were beheaded.
            One of the court officials gave Laurence an opportunity to be spared from persecution if he gave the emperor all the money from the church’s treasury.  So Laurence went back to the church and gave the all the money from the treasury to the poor, the lame, and blind. 
            Laurence returned to Rome along with the poor, orphaned, lame, and widowed.  He then announced to the court official, “These are the treasurers of the church.”  This, of course, enraged the court official and Laurence was executed immediately.
            At this point you might be thinking, “I’m not sure the rector knows what the definition of distracting is…He actually made it worse…seems like he is about to announce that we should sell the church and give the money to the poor…”  You can breathe easy folks.  I nor the vestry can put the church on the market – only the diocese can do that!
            As hard as it might be to digest, today’s gospel lesson spells out the Church’s most fundamental mission – to reveal a kingdom where the poor and lame and outcast are lifted high.  Even more than a community with close friends, even more than a place where you come to receive forgiveness, even more than a place to learn about God’s love, the Church exists because God’s mission is all about forming people, under Christ’s rule, to extend the kingdom of God to the people who are left out of the kingdoms that our earthly societies create.    
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright notes, “Yes, Jesus did, as St. Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world.”
            Ultimately, the question at hand in today’s lesson and in the life of the Church today asks, “In what direction is the Church oriented?”  Are we inwardly or outwardly focused?  Several recent studies about church decline show that the primary reason for decline in church membership is directly tied to the fact that churches are growing more inwardly focused – distracted by membership numbers and buildings and programs.
            Former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  While this statement might overlook some service clubs like Rotary, I wonder more broadly, “Do you think most people would agree with this statement?” 
Do most people really see the Church as a place that exists to serve others?  And to be honest, I am not sure.  I am sure a lot of people recognize the Church as a place where individual sins are forgiven.  But as N.T. Wright said, aren’t we much more than that?
At a diocesan meeting a few years ago, I heard a question that shook me to my core.  One of the priests on the committee asked, “What are we doing to save the Episcopal Church?”  And I remembered Jesus paradoxical words, “those who want to save their life will lose it and those who want to lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Again, I will ask, “Are we preserving a church building?” or “Is Building on our Foundation a necessary step in this parish’s growing commitment to provide space where all people – poor and lame included – come to be healed, fed, nurtured, and lifted to life lived according to the way of Jesus.
            I want to help answer that question by reminding you of something that a visiting clergy said when he visited St. Paul’s.  After I finished giving the official tour, the priest touched the wall of the church and said, “Jack, these walls are alive!”  He said he has been to a lot of historic churches and most of them seem more like museums, but St. Paul’s is alive.
            I know I don’t have to remind you that a church is more than a building.  We all learned that when we were three years old.  The people of the church are who animate our buildings through the power of the Holy Spirit. 
As I say when I give tours, when I first visited St. Paul’s I was stunned by the magnificence of this place, but the real beauty this place began to emerge after worshiping and living with all of you.
            For over 140 years, this building has stood as a witness to the kingdom of God – a place where where the people strive to make a place for all of God’s children.  Sure, we’ve made some mistakes along the way – but we have repented and grown in grace – that is the only way any church ever grows.  And even in an age of church decline and diminishing rural populations, St. Paul’s sees growth in more ways than just church membership.
            Every October, Parker Hall is filled three times over with members of the community who come out to enjoy Lobsterfest – a fundraiser for Little Friends School.  Speaking of Little Friends, attendance is up and children, rich and poor, black and white, from around the community come to the school and are nurtured by the love of Jesus. 
            Twice a week our doors are opened for members of the community who struggle with addiction.  I couldn’t tell you how many wander into our courtyard to take pictures.  Next time you see this happening, I hope you will give a warm St. Paul’s welcome. 
I am currently in a conversation with the Atlanta Boys Choir about hosting a community concert in December.  Apparently, we are known as a hospitable place beyond the state lines.  And in just a few months, the Selma Children’s Choir will start having rehearsals on our grounds.
Beginning Tuesdays on September 13, we will host men’s and women’s Bible studies, and I hope we take advantage of this as an Outreach to the community.  Invite your friends.  Invite a stranger.  Invite the poor and the lame.  Invite people to be fed in this place by the healing power of God’s love for all people.
As a priest colleague friend of mine always asks, “How can we create traffic through this place?”  So I invite you to consider the same question for St. Paul’s.  As you discern your response to Building on our Foundation, dream about what kind of traffic we can create through this place.  How might the poor and lame find a place of refreshment here? 
How can St. Paul’s continue to grow into a place where all in this community know they are welcome and cared for?  What lanes and allies must we walk down in order to pull people to experience the heavenly banquet?  And if there is any church in Selma that has the perfect setting for the heavenly banquet, it is St. Paul’s.  Remember the Wedding Feast at Cana window?  Imagine the possibilities.
At the end of the day, God is calling us into right relationship with our buildings.  If our buildings are nothing more than a modern equivalent of a golden calf – a place where we worship ourselves and own accomplishments, then yes we should sell and give the money to the poor.  But I don’t accept this answer for St. Paul’s, and I don’t think you do either.
I do not believe God finished with St. Paul’s – not by a long shot. I believe God planted and rooted St. Paul’s in this very spot with this very building as an enduring witness to the radical nature of God’s heavenly kingdom. St. Paul’s has will continue to have a unique opportunity to articulate and model the kingdom of heaven to Selma and even to the country. 
And my prayer is that this campaign is used as an opportunity to imagine all that God is making possible through this place that is rich with history and beauty.  How we might we continue to take seriously that the people of God – rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, lame and able-bodied – are the people who make these walls come alive, are the people who add beauty and depth to this place – the people who reflect the infinite wonder and majesty of life with God Almighty?    

Monday, August 15, 2016

Division before Peace

“I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.”
This passage was written in the journal of seminarian Jonathan Daniels just one week prior to his death when he was shot and killed 51 years ago in Hayneville during the Civil Rights movement.  Daniels was 26.  Today, August 14th, marks the annual commemoration of Daniel’s martyrdom as recognized on the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar.
I realize Daniels is remembered differently than the others we recognize on the church calendar because Jonathan had a relationship with St. Paul’s Selma.  For the last six months of his life, Daniels worshiped in this place and sat on the very back pew.  The last time Jonathan took of the Lord’s Supper in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood was at this altar.   
A couple of you sitting in the pews today remember Jonathan.  Some of you had dinner with him in your home or you chatted with him at your office.  Some of you remember him as a nice young man with good manners, as a respectful young man.  Some of you remember him as a pesky outside agitator, as a self-righteous Yankee with a messiah complex – a complex that even Daniels himself admitted to in a journal entry.
Regardless of how you remember him, Daniels is remembered this day on the church calendar as someone who gave his life so that another might live and as Episcopalians, as followers of Jesus, we are faithful in honoring this ultimate witness to the love of God laid down for us in Christ.  And more importantly, like all of you, Daniels is to be remembered as a beloved child of God. 
In a letter to the late Kate and Harry Gamble, members of this parish, Daniels writes, “Though we speak in different accents, though we live perhaps in different worlds, you and we have already begun to live that life in the vision we share.”  And that vision Daniels spoke of is a vision of a beloved community where all children of God – black and white, young and old, whole and broken –join hands in the way of the cross.
I realize that this perfected vision of God’s beloved community seems like a wish dream.  Even 51 years later, race relations in this country are tenuous especially on the macro level.  Yes, we have come a long way when it comes to individual relationships between blacks and whites.  But as Mark Twain is known for saying, history doesn’t repeat itself, history rhymes.  And history is certainly rhyming when it comes to race relations in our country. 
            As I reflect on the witness of Daniels and the current state of affairs in our country today as it relates to race, the words we hear from Jesus in today’sgospel lesson start to come alive.  “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”
            This difficult passage from Luke’s gospel is descriptive of what it looks like when the truth of God is breathed into a situation.  And even the household of God on earth, the Church, is not immune from this division when the Spirit of truth speaks.  51 years ago, when the Spirit of God led Daniels to St. Paul’s with an agenda to integrate, this parish saw division—the leaders of this parish were divided.
I want to be clear that this is not an indictment on anybody of St. Paul’s – all of us would, at some point, find ourselves on the wrong side of history if not for the God who saves the trajectory of history through Christ. 
Like the article for the week said, “The Church is a messy place by nature. That’s what happens when a bunch of sinners come together anywhere. But it is a messy place designed by God to be His face to the World, and all those sinners reflect Him in unique ways.”  So regardless of what side of the house one may have been on, you, the members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, were and are an integral part of sharing in the way of the cross. 
As Jesus says to his disciples, in order to continue to share in this life that walks in the way of the cross, we, as people of God, must be able to interpret the present time.  Mind you that interpreting the present time is far different than observing the present time.  Anyone can observe that the state of our union and the state of the world is very unstable on every front – politically, religiously, socially…
But how do we interpret these times?  How do we make sense of what is going on?  And how does interpreting the times through the lens of the gospel give us reason to hope instead of despair?  How to we interpret eternal truth when that truth will inevitability cause division?
I read somewhere recently, “truth is like poetry and most people hate poetry.”  I remember my first clergy conference when Bishop Parsley had a program on poetry and for two days we had to listen to poetry.  Most of the clergy desperately tried to run and hide—I was one of them. 
However, when the truth of God kingdom draws near, there is nowhere to run and hide.  The hills and mountains will come crumbling down – that is those places where we insulate ourselves from hearing and seeing the whole truth – a truth that, if we are all honest, will expose our inherent prejudice toward those who differ most than us – a truth that will make it abundantly clear just how broken our earthly kingdoms are set in contrast to the kingdom of heaven.
In the end, the only place where we can find refuge is a life hid with God in Christ—a life that Daniels knew about just days before he died.  As St. Paul tells the Galatians, a life hid with Christ is a life where there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. 
Again, this might seem like a wish dream instead of a reality.  While this theology from St. Paul does speak to the nature of God’s heavenly kingdom that is ruled over by Christ, we live in a place and time where race still matters mainly because, consciously or subconsciously, we still define people by race.  And no I am not suggesting we become color blind as that only seems to perpetuate the sins of racism. 
It matters that Simone Manuel is the first African American to win a gold medal because for much of our history African American’s have not had easy access or any access to swimming pools and some still do not.  She represents a group of people who have had to overcome barriers most of us in this congregation haven’t experienced. 
So who am I, a person who has always had access to a swimming pool and whose daughter will never be scared of water, to say that race doesn’t matter?  Race will only start to become irrelevant when people of all classes and cultures have the same opportunities.  And thankfully we are moving in that direction and Simone’s gold medal is an indicator of that, an indicator that we are moving toward a society where hyphens don’t matter but today, given our nation’s history, they do.   
Reflecting in this way tells me that we can interpret the division we see as it relates to race as a sign that God is working through our struggle and confusion to accomplish his purposes on earth.  I believe we tend to run from truth because we know that truth will cause discomfort and chaos and even division.  But through the lens of the gospel, this division is an indicator that the truth of God’s beloved community is drawing near.
Practically speaking, I hope this gospel truth gives you permission to engage in these difficult conversations on race, conversations that carry a lot of emotion, a lot of pain, a lot of shame—trusting that God is sorting out truth in the midst of the struggle. 
I hope that a life hid with God in Christ gives you permission to see the other as a child of God just the same as you, as another human being whose heart longs to be made whole just the same as you.  I hope your life in God helps you see in those who differ most from you the richness and beauty of God.  I hope the truth that we are all made in God’s image helps us have these conversations with an ear of respect and the desire to understand where the other is coming from. 
This conversation, no doubt, will require us to be informed by the wisdom and patience of God.  As Jimi Hendrix once said, “knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.”  Because at the end of the day, what the human heart truly desires, is to know that it is not alone.  And the best way that I know how to tell someone that they are not alone is to listen, listen to the deepest fears and greatest joys of their heart. 
I was reminded earlier this week that our witness as Christians isn’t about telling people how they should be living their life, it isn’t about giving really good advice.  No, our Christian witness is about listening to the other with an ear of understanding, our witness is about staying at the table with the other until they arrive at truth on their own.  Simply, it is about being present with the lost and the lonely through whatever obstacles and challenges they face.    
And the good news is that God’s greatest desire is to be present with all his lost and lonely children.  God’s greatest desire is to make a table where all of his children can sit and know that they are loved and provided for – a table that we will gather around in just a few minutes.  Beloved, do not fear, for you are never alone – your life is hid with God in Christ forever.  Amen.