Monday, August 28, 2017

What Makes Jesus Worth Following?

            After officiating at a funeral a while back, I found myself in an interesting conversation with two self-proclaimed atheists. They told me, “that’s the best funeral we’ve ever attended.” I jokingly said, “Yeah, the Episcopal burial service is the best evangelism tool we have. It’s our best kept secret.” They replied, “Yeah, you’re right! Can you bury us using the Episcopal service when we die?”
            As the conversation went on, it became clear to me that this was the first time these two people had truly heard the gospel message. Sure, they had heard about Jesus and were familiar with his teachings. One of them grew up going to a church that shall not be named.
As far as they knew, they weren’t good enough to be Christians so why bother. As far as they knew, Jesus came for the righteous and they weren’t.  But the core message of the gospel has nothing to do with how good or bad you are and everything to do with how good God in Christ is.
            As strange as it may sound, the burial liturgy is one of my favorite services in our prayer book. The burial service is able to articulate the message of the gospel in the clearest of ways. The language of the service makes it clear that our salvation has nothing to do with we have done or left undone and everything to do with what God has done in Christ.
One of my favorite prayers in the burial service says, “we pray thee to set thy passion, cross, and death, between thy judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.” The ultimate vocation of Jesus is crystalized in this short prayer. While the ministry of Jesus includes miracles, healings, casting out of demons, great teachings, it is his passion, cross, and death that grant us the knowledge of salvation. It is the passion, cross, and death that makes Jesus different than every other religious leader or prophet.
 In today’s lesson, Jesus invites his followers into a theological discussion concerning who exactly others think he is. The disciples report that many see Jesus as another great prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah or John the Baptist. Prophets are certainly known for their deeds of power and their prophetic teachings but as we have seen in the salvation story these deeds of power prophetic warnings do not have the power to turn the sinking ship of humanity around.
Jesus continues the conversation. Who do you say that I am? Peter responds correctly, you are the Messiah – the Son of the living God. But like a 4-year-old who is trained to say Jesus anytime a priest asks a question, Peter does not understand the implications behind his answer. Peter has yet to experience the passion, cross, and death of Jesus. Peter has yet to experience how Jesus is any different than other messiah figures.
            If we look at the long story of salvation beginning in Genesis, we see how God is in the business of saving humanity from total destruction, from themselves. Again and again, humanity trades in the free gift of God’s love for the illusion of power and control. Again and again, God intervenes to remind humanity that true power comes from a love that cannot be controlled, from a love that cannot be possessed, only given away.
Again and again, the salvation story tells us that not even a great teacher or prophet or miracle worker like Elijah or Jeremiah can reverse humanity’s desire to choose power over love. God sends messenger after messenger to help the people turn back to God but nothing sticks. Humanity continues to choose power and control over love and compassion. God will have to do something drastic to rescue humanity from sin and death...
Fleming Rutledge says, “From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”
As Christians, we believe this divine intervention comes at the place of the cross where the pursuit of power and control is exposed as totally destructive and shameful. As Christians, we believe the cross is also the place where we see that a love that is willing to die for the even the enemy is the only force that can reverse humanity’s insatiable appetite for power and control. 
Only God's drastic measure on the cross of Jesus Christ can flip the script. The best methods and practices on how to live in community won’t do it. The most inspirational speakers in the world won’t’ do it. Even a miracle cannot permanently flip the script. Only the cross of Jesus Christ can change the trajectory of our fallen history. And that trajectory is forever changed when Jesus rises again on the third day.
The way of Jesus is true not because it solves our problems or all the world’s problems. The way of Jesus is true not because it gives us practical advice on how to live a better life. The way of Jesus is true because 2,000 years ago the Son of Man was willing to die for the sins of the whole world. The way of Jesus is true because 2,000 years ago the crucified One rose from the dead and lives beyond the grave.
But even though Jesus died and rose 2,000 years ago, I sometimes wonder if we aren’t living in the same place where we find Peter in today’s gospel lesson. Sometimes I wonder if we stop short of proclaiming the Jesus who died on the cross and resort to proclaiming Jesus the great teacher or Jesus the great healer and miracle worker.
What about the Jesus who took on the shame of humanity so that humanity might take on the compassion of God? What about the Jesus who knows that the cross is the only way to life? Sometimes I wonder if we expect too much out of Jesus – or not enough, depending on how you look at it?
            Jesus does not promise to fix your life. In fact, he promises more. Jesus does not promise to love you more when you are good. In fact, he promises more. Jesus promises to love you even when you are bad. Jesus promises that your problems will seem trivial in light of his passion, cross, and death. Even more, Jesus promises life beyond your problems, beyond your sin, beyond your death.
            In a few minutes, we will be assured of this promise, when we baptize Janeisha Smith into the household of God. One of our prayers for baptism says, “grant that we may be baptized into the death of Jesus Christ.” In other words, baptism acknowledges that our individual salvation stories begin to take shape when we are willing to die with Jesus for if we don’t die with Jesus, how can we ever expect to live beyond the grave?
            So, the prayer continues, “baptized into the death of Jesus Christ so that we may live in the power of his resurrection.” In the end, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts to death the illusion that power and control are the keys to a happy and successful life and give birth to the truth that a merciful and boundless love is the way to true joy and true life.

            In our baptism and at our death, we are reminded that the secret to life isn’t about the acquisition of power, success, and happiness. Rather, the secret to life as we know it in Jesus Christ is about accepting the peace, joy, and love of God which can only be received at the foot of the cross, at the place where humanity’s insatiable love of power is destroyed by God’s inexhaustible love of us sinners. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Lord, Have Mercy On Us All

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Did y’all hear that? Here we have a woman, a beggar, an outcast, an enemy even, lecture Jesus, the Son of David, on who is deserving of God’s mercy. How dare she talk to Jesus like that? Does she even know who she is talking to? The King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
But then again, how dare Jesus talk to the Canaanite woman like that? Jesus called her and her daughter dogs. In case you are wondering, it was just as bad then as it is today to call somebody a dog. And to be honest, probably worse. 
If your understanding of Jesus just shattered a little bit, then that means you are paying attention. This reading should make you feel unsettled. Today’s gospel lesson forces us to admit that we might not know Jesus as well as we thought we did. At least, the lesson makes me admit I don’t know Jesus as well as I thought I did.
It makes sense to me to start looking at this lesson by looking at the bigger picture. To help us along, it is important to know that Jesus is referring to Israel when he says children and to the Gentiles when he says dogs.  And remember, previously in Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to go nowhere among the Gentiles that their mission is to gather the lost sheep of Israel. 
Jesus response, while harsh, tells us that he remains committed to his mission to first gather the children of Israel who are like sheep without a shepherd. The Canaanite woman seems to know this and says, but Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs under the children’s table. At the very least, the woman is reminding the reader and possibly even Jesus that Israel was chosen by God to be a light to the world.
God did not choose Israel so that they might become the supreme race and Lord it over everyone else. Rather, God choose a race of people, the Israelites, who were traditionally oppressed and outnumbered, to be vehicles of God’s mercy and grace to all nations. But it seems that some in the nation of Israel have forgotten their true vocation.
In fact, the people of Israel are pretty divided at this point. There are the Pharisees who are obsessed with ritual purity and make a living off calling others out for disobeying the 600+ laws of God. The Pharisees tend to be the holier than thou type. There are also the Sadducees who decide if they can’t defeat Rome, they will join them in the oppression of their own people. And then there are the Zealots who are a rebel group who plot to take Rome by force.
           And now enters the Canaanite woman who breaks the salvation story open. She is most likely divorced or widowed. She is poor and an outcast among her own people. Her people worship King Herod instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She in no way represents the lost sheep of Israel. But she has something that even the people of Israel have lost – faith.
           She sees something in Jesus that Jesus’ own people fail to see because they are too busy fighting each other. She sees in Jesus the faith of Israel, a faith that Israel has largely forgotten, a faith that is defined by the mercy of God. She sees something in Jesus so powerful that she is willing to be publicly humiliated, fall to her knees, and beg for mercy.
In every way, this Canaanite woman recognizes that she has no power in herself to save herself or her daughter. She has no money. She has no connections. She has no family. She literally has nothing except a daughter who is possessed by demons. So, if there is anyone in this world who knows that mercy is the only way out, it is this Canaanite woman. 
And once Jesus sees in this woman a faith that is utterly dependent on the mercy of God, he says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” This woman is an ultimate reminder that our faith doesn’t work because we are better than everyone else. Our faith has nothing to do with where we are on the social ladder. Our faith isn’t about responding to hatred with more hatred. 
Rather, our faith works when we are humbled to the point where our only option is to beg for mercy – a faith that the world is given at the foot of the Cross of Jesus where all are confronted with the total destruction of human sin and arrogance.
I don’t have to tell you that we live in a divided world, a divided country, a divided church. Over the past week, it has become apparent to me that the religious people in this country are just as divided as the 1st century Jews and in many cases just as arrogant. We are divided between the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. I’ll let you sort out who’s who today.
But sorting out who’s who isn’t the question before us. Rather, the question before us today asks, “Who is the Canaanite woman?” Who, on the outside, is reminding the Church of her true vocation to convey the mercy of God in Christ? Odds are this person isn’t well liked. This person doesn’t have a radio show. She doesn’t have any money or power. This person is the last person most of us would pay any attention to. 
This person is begging for mercy in a world where the favorite child is jumping up and down screaming because they didn’t get the snack they asked for two seconds ago. And this person would gladly eat the crumbs that fall from the favorite child’s Oreo cookie wrapper. 
 There is no question that the Church should stand up to the forces of evil which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. There is no question that the Church should denounce racism and white supremacy and ISIS and any group who believes they are superior than another. But we also need to pay attention to our heart.
We need to pay attention to how this violence and hatred is infecting our own hearts. We need to pay attention to what biases are brought out in us as we watch the news. We need to pay attention how we, too, are complicit in the systems which hold others down. And I hope, as we pay attention to our heart, to our weakness, to our sin, our daily prayer becomes, “Lord, have mercy on us all.”
Ultimately, we need to gather underneath the cross of Jesus Christ. We need to gather in that place where we are humbled, where our need for mercy is made abundantly clear. We need to gather in that place where we recognize that the only way forward is to bear with one another in weakness and cry, “Lord, have mercy on us all.” We need to gather in that place where our Lord responds, “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
May God open your eyes to see the Canaanite woman begging for mercy in your midst and may her faith bring you to the Cross of Jesus Christ where all are moved to cry, “Lord, have mercy!” And may the God whose property is always to have mercy release you from your sin and death so that your life may bear witness to a faith that believes in a mercy that has the power to save us all.  Amen.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hope is Real

           Today the Episcopal Church recognizes the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels who was murdered by a sheriff's deputy 52-years ago in Hayneville, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement.  After the act of terror that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend, Daniels’ martyrdom doesn’t feel like it happened that long ago.
            I learned of the domestic act of terror by a white supremacist as I was driving my family back from vacation on Dauphin Island. When I looked in the rear-view mirror at my children, who were sleeping peacefully, I wanted to imagine a future where they weren’t exposed to this kind of violence and bigotry. I wanted to believe that humanity could evolve into a more peaceful kind. I wanted to be more hopeful, but I was at the foot of the cross struggling to see beyond the grave.
I was eager to go to church the next morning and be reminded that hope is real. At church, God spoke clearly of hope when we, through the gospel lesson, encountered the Jesus who makes even the wind and sea obey.
I found myself in Peter’s shoes as I reflected on the part of my ministry devoted to the work of issues related to race and reconciliation. I thought about all the times when I, too, stepped out into the middle of the storm hoping Jesus would bring peace amid chaos.
I thought about the times when I let the waves of evil convince me that the way to holy ground was impossible. I thought about the times I felt my heart sink when forward progress was flooded by hatred and intolerance and indifference.
            I was also reminded of a member of St. Paul’s who helped Jonathan Daniels integrate the church. A local attorney at the time, Miller Childers went to the Dallas County Courthouse to take care of some business. When he arrived, he saw Sheriff Jim Clark order his deputies to deny entrance to black school teachers who came registering to vote. Clark told the deputies to use force if necessary. 1
This was the moment when Childers realized he could not remain indifferent and his actions over the next several months tells us that he did not remain indifferent. Childers, along with Sam Hobbs, Roswell Falkenberry, Kate and Harry Gamble, and others led the charge to allow African-Americans to worship at St. Paul’s. Consequently, these members of St. Paul’s faced personal and professional humiliation in the local community.
These lesser known saints used their positions of privilege and power to do what was right when they could have just as easily gone on about their lives. But like Peter, their faith didn’t allow them to go on as if it wasn’t their problem. Their faith compelled them to wade into the deep waters for it is in these deep waters where Jesus grants his peace.
Jonathan Daniels knew first-hand the peace of the Lord in the middle of the storm. A week before his murder, Daniel wrote these words in his jail cell, “I lost fear in the Black Belt when I knew in my bones and sinews that I have truly been 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.” 
Alas, I was reminded that hope is real. And I hope what happened in Charlottesville helps us let go of our political or social identities so we may claim the identity of Christ whose Word separates good from evil like a sword.  I hope what happened in Charlottesville tells us that none of us, wherever we live, can pretend issues related to race are ancient history. Even if we ourselves aren’t acting out of hate, I hope what happened in Charlottesville encourages us to stand up to and dismantle the institutions, systems, and allegiances which enable acts of hatred and terror. I hope when we feel our heart sinking in the midst of the storm, we have even a mustard seed of faith to cry, like Peter, “Lord, save us!” 
I hope all these things because I believe our salvation story is built on a God who brings peace out of chaos. May we have the grace to meet Jesus in the eye of the storm where there is peace which surpasses human understanding.

1. Eagles, Charles W., Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, The University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Pgs. 70ff.