Monday, February 26, 2018

Set Your Mind On Divine Things, Not Human Things

          Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things!” And this is reason number one why Jesus would make a terrible rector. I have a couple of guesses of what might happen if I pulled our Senior Warden aside and said, “Get behind me Satan!” While I’ve never said, “Get behind me Satan” to anybody, I had a great opportunity to do so this past week. Don’t worry! It did not involve a parishioner…
            I was walking into the hospital when a woman noticed my collar and asked me to pray with her. This is not unusual. I often stop and pray with random people in the elevator or hallway at the hospital. I feel this is God’s way of helping me remember what following Jesus is all about. Following Jesus is on God’s time and according to God’s agenda – not my own.
            Anyway, I asked the woman, who was holding her two-year old daughter, what kind of prayers she wanted me to say. She immediately responded, “I need money.” Fair enough, I thought. She must be struggling with medical bills and needed food on the table. The woman continued, “I also want God to make me rich and famous and reach celebrity status.”
After I realized she wasn’t joking, I struggled to figure out how to respond. Now, this would have been the time to respond, “Get behind me Satan!” But I didn’t. I missed my chance. Instead, I asked God to help me synthesize all of this into a prayer.
I prayed a good Episcopalian prayer, “Lord God, giver of life and salvation, grant to your beloved daughters health, wealth, and prosperity according to your mercy and most gracious will and may your servants trust that you are doing for them things far better things than they can desire or pray for through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
While I did not flat out deny her prayer request, I also tried to make it clear that God doesn’t grant us our prayers according to our will but according to God’s own will. Ultimately, I do believe in a God who wants his beloved children to be healthy and safe and well provided for. And I also believe in a God who, through Christ, has given humanity everything it needs to make this a reality.
But I am also all too familiar with a world who gets in the way of making this prayer a reality, a world who sets its mind on human things instead of divine things. I am all too familiar with a world who is content on satisfying selfish desires, a world who takes shortcuts whenever it can.  Sometimes, without realizing it, these shortcuts to health, wealth, and prosperity lead us down a road that goes nowhere, these short cuts lead us down a road to emptiness, these shortcuts are the ways of Satan.
Like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus ventures down this road to nowhere, finds us, and says, “Take up your cross. Those who want to save their life with lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Jesus is offering a way back, a way that gets us off this road to nowhere and back on the road to life by way of the cross.
And because Jesus does not offer the shortcut Peter and the disciples had hoped for, because Jesus does not recruit a rebel army to take back Jerusalem from Rome by force, because Jesus doesn’t promise cushy jobs in a royal tower, Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter can’t comprehend how the salvation of the Jews can come through one who will be rejected and killed by the religious authorities. But who can blame him?
 The way of Jesus, the way of the cross doesn’t make sense according to the human point of view. From the human point of view, the road Jesus leads us on is filled with detours and potholes.  The way of the cross seems foolish to the human mind as Peter points out in his rebuke of Jesus. But thankfully we don’t have to rely on the human point of view to get us home.
The way of the cross shows us a God who does not conform to human desires or expectations. Our God is not a politician. Our God will endure even the worst kind of evil this world can muster just to keep his promise to be with us even to the end of the ages. Our God will not be bribed into a popularity contest for ours is a God whose commitment to truth is unwavering.
As the reformer, Martin Luther would say, the human way prefers a theology of glory over a theology of the cross. The theology of glory seeks fame and fortune and popularity while the theology of the cross seeks justice and mercy and truth no matter the cost – even suffering and death. And as Christians, we proclaim the theology of the cross, we follow the way of justice and mercy and truth, a way forged in the way of Jesus Christ – the one who is risen from the dead.
Even more, a Christian takes up her own cross, a Christian pursues the work of justice and mercy and truth in her own context. For a few, taking up the cross means a career change, it means being a missionary or becoming an ordained person. For others, taking up the cross means giving up a life of fortune to work for a non-profit. For some, taking up the cross means giving up time to volunteer in the community.
But for most, taking up the cross simply means being attentive to the need the suffering servant in our midst. Our obedience to God in the way of Jesus means offering mercy when the world is ready to condemn. Our obedience to God in the way of Jesus means speaking against an injustice when we see it take place. Our obedience to God in the way of Jesus means proclaiming truth when lies threaten to lead people from the ways of God.
In our Bible study on Tuesday, I asked the class, “What have you had to give up in order to be a follower of Jesus?” Someone said, “I’ve had to give up a lot of my time.” Another said, “I’ve had to sacrifice going on vacation.” I said, somewhat jokingly, “a career on the PGA tour.” These are all relatively minor as they relate to the price Jesus paid and the price many have paid to remain obedient to the way of the cross.
However, our faith demands you ask that question, “What do I have to give up in order to be a follower of Jesus?” And like someone in our Bible study said and like Jesus himself said, when we give something up to follow Jesus, we learn that we aren’t giving up anything at all. Instead, we are gaining everything. We are gaining the world Jesus died for us to see and be a part of.  Those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
The truth of the gospel, the truth of salvation is truly a paradox. Instead of following our own desires, we are called to follow the desires of God. But that doesn’t mean we are called to be miserable. Rather, in my experience, following the desires of God reveal to us that God’s ways really are better than our ways.  Following the desires of God give us a joy and an inner peace that human ways can never manufacture.
In my experience, doing the things God desires are actually the things we ourselves desire deep down in our soul for God made us in God’s image. Doing the things God desires help us let go of our human desires because when we grow in the way of God, we die to the insatiable need to find fulfillment in human wants and desires, in human things. For in the end, what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit the life God prepares for you in Christ Jesus? Amen.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Rainbows and Painbows

            Something you do not know about me is that I once managed a band. Before you get too excited, I need to tell you that I only managed to book one gig for them. In case you were wondering, I was able to secure a venue at St. Thomas Cabin at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, Alabama. The group was particularly well known for covering the song “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” by the Doobie Brothers.
            Anyway, the name of the band was inspired by an Arts and Crafts project constructed by an elementary school camper. The program for the day related to Noah’s Ark. For whatever reason, the boy only had a black marker to work with. So, he drew the rainbow that God set in the sky with black marker, and he titled his work, “Painbow.” We couldn’t let this stroke of genius go to waste. We named the band “Rainbow."
Painbow circa 2006
            Now, why am I telling you this? It’s a stretch, but I was reminded of the band “Painbow” because I was surprised to learn in this week’s biblical commentary that in ancient times a rainbow actually represented Divine wrath. Before Noah’s Ark, a rainbow didn’t inspire hope and beauty. Instead, a rainbow reflected God’s anger. You might call it a painbow.  
            As Christians, we are formed in a faith that finds salvation in Divine wrath and Divine mercy. Some Christians focus more on the wrath while others focus more on the mercy. I bet you can guess what we as Episcopalians focus more on.  
We as Episcopalians don’t talk a lot about Divine wrath and judgement, except when we start talking about changing the wording of the Book of Common Prayer or when the priest shifts from Rite II language to Rite I language. But I am convinced that if we do not comprehend the weight of God’s wrath, we will never learn the gravity of God’s mercy.
            Between the Great Litany and the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer, we get a heavy dose of both God’s wrath and God’s mercy. For every sobering word of judgment, our liturgy comforts us with an even more profound word on grace. For example, look at the placement of the Comfortable Words. After we bewail our manifold sins, we are nourished by scriptures that say stuff like, Christ came into the world to save sinners; For God so loved the world…
            The reason I like to use Rite I liturgy during Lent has nothing to do with my love of Elizabethan English – well, maybe just a little bit. And while I don’t necessarily see Rite I as more penitential in nature than Rite II, I believe Rite I articulates the destructive forces of human sin in a way that wakes us up to the truth that we are a people who need mercy, who need a Savior.
I believe Rite I language creates a longing in our hearts to hear the good news of the salvation revealed in God’s Son. Rite I helps us acknowledge sin in a way that inspires repentance and amendment of life instead of ways that promote paralyzing shame.
            This is good news because we live in a culture that is paralyzed by shame and fear, and we hardly know it. And for this reason, we live in a culture that has a hard time knowing what to do with sin – to say the least.
            Generally speaking, we respond in one of two ways – neither of which allow much room for mercy. Our country is currently experiencing the first way. Instead of taking ownership of the sin as a group, we accuse the other side of being more complicit. Even worse, we have left zero room for nuance. You are either for us or against us – the middle ground has eroded away.
I wonder, when will we learn that polarization hasn’t solved a problem yet? When will we learn that polarization breads self-righteousness and bitterness? When will we learn that polarization makes constructive dialogue impossible, makes resolution impossible?  
How many times must we see Jesus die because of our blindness before we seek true repentance and amendment of life? How many times must we see Jesus die because of our pettiness before we recognize in the other our common humanity? How many times must we see Jesus die because of our pride before we seek justice and walk humbly before our God? As the poem from Tobit suggests, “Grant that we might find mercy and grow together.”    
            Secondly, our culture tends to diminish the destructive nature of sin especially in those who are on our side. We still live in an “I’m okay, you’re okay” culture. We would rather preserve our relationship with the other than risk someone getting upset with us for pointing out their transgression. In many ways, we are a culture of enablers.   
            I’ve quoted to you before that nothing is more cruel than the leniency that abandons another to their sin while nothing is more loving than the reprimand that calls the sinner back to the community of faith.  This nugget from Bonhoeffer is what Lent is all about. Lent is about confronting sin in such a way where it calls the faithful back to God through the grace given in Christ Jesus.
Our Ash Wednesday liturgy reminded us that Lent used to be a time where notorious sinners were called back to the community of faith through the process of penitence and forgiveness. Now, imagine what that might look like today.  Imagine the Rector going through the parish directory checking off the names of notorious sinners in the congregation.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you are a notorious sinner or your average every-day sinner, our sinful nature is a part of what makes us human. I don’t know why we sin like we do, but I do know that our sinfulness doesn’t make us any less lovable in the eyes of God.
In fact, God is more interested in loving your sinful parts than your righteous parts because God wants to make you whole. God wants to redeem and transform your whole person. So, during this Lenten season, go ahead and get used to the fact that God loves the part of you that you don’t even let yourself get in touch with. God loves the part of the other that you are repulsed by.
To help you get used to loving the sinful part of human nature you might consider taking a page out of Nadia-Boltz Weber’s playbook. She will sometimes greet a friend by saying, “Hello, sinner.” For her, it is a term of endearment. For her, it communicates that she loves everything about her friend – even their sinful nature. Notice I didn’t say tolerate the sinful parts but love the sinful parts.
Fellow sinners in Christ, may this holy season of Lent help you get in touch with sin in healthy ways, in ways that are honest, in ways that are kind, in ways that are hopeful. May this holy season of Lent help you see sin as an opportunity to seek true repentance and amendment of life. May this holy season of Lent help you feel and know deep in your being that God is loving you, especially the parts you find unlovable, back to life again through the mercy of Jesus Christ – the One who was tempted in every way we are except without sin. Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Made From the Same Pile of Dirt

           “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast…gather the people…Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests…weep. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord.’”
            While we didn’t blow a trumpet to begin the service, we did ring the church bells for all of Selma to hear. You may or may not be fasting today. You, the people, are gathered, at three different times, but you are still gathered.
I stand here between you the people and the altar. While I don’t plan on weeping, I will paint a cross of ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross and remind you that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, through his life, death, and resurrection, cries out, “Spare your people, O Lord.”
Today’s prophecy from Joel comes at a difficult time for the people of Israel. In particular, locusts are destroying their land and their crops. Foreign armies are causing havoc in their communities. Their very livelihood is being threatened at every level. They cry, from where is our help to come? And their priest weeps for them.
While Joel speaks to a people who exist in a very different time and place than we do today, the fears and concerns of the people remain very much the same. Our earth and our natural resources are being devastated at an alarming rate. People in every land and nation and city are plagued by war and violence and power struggles.
Sometimes I wonder, “What kind of earth are we leaving behind for our children?” “Are we just making a bigger mess out of the mess we were left by our ancestors?” “Are our ‘civilizations’ any more civil than they used to be or are we just putting lip-stick on a pig?”
Maybe I should be weeping today. Maybe we all should be weeping. Maybe we should all cry a little louder, from where is our help to come? And maybe those cries are a little louder after the school shooting in Florida earlier today.
But instead of crying louder, we tend to resort to the blame game. I know I do. Instead of weeping and lamenting, we point our fingers toward those people over there. It is easier that way. Instead of sharing in the blame and the pain, we inflict pain on others. Instead of admitting that we are a part of the problem, we are content in naming how they are a part of the problem. It is human nature to justify the self by putting the other down.
But thank God for Ash Wednesday. In so many ways, Ash Wednesday levels the playing field. Rich or poor, republican or democrat, black or white, gay or straight – you all get the same ashes smeared on your forehead. You are reminded that you are made from the same pile of dirt as everyone else. And, at the end of the day, you return to the same pile of dirt as everyone else.
But for whatever reason, we as humans spend a lot of time separating ourselves into different dirt mounds. Somewhere along the way we convince ourselves and others that this batch of dirt is more valuable than that batch of dirt.
But one day it rains – a national figure is killed, a child goes missing, a hurricane causes devastating damage and floods – and all the different mole hills turn to mud and it all runs together. We discover, in painful and often humiliating ways, we have all fallen in the same muddy ditch and the only way out is together.
I wonder, will we ever get tired of pushing the dirt back into our little corners of the world? When will we recognize this exercise of vanity? When will we see in the other our common humanity?
When will we drop our love affair with our own dirt piles and let the God who formed us out of the earth reshape us through the love poured out in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord? When will we drop our love affair with our selfish ways and let ourselves be shaped by the selflessness of the One who laid down his life for the sake of the whole world – even his enemies? When will we drop our love affair with the blame game and be shaped by the One who defeats sin by works of mercy? 
Again, I say, thank God for Ash Wednesday. The ashes that I will paint on your forehead will be fashioned in the shape of a cross. On this Valentine’s Day, the ashen cross reminds us that God’s love is much sweeter than chocolates and more beautiful than roses. God’s love is about seeing that the world is not how it should be but loving it the way it is through Jesus Christ.  
These ashen crosses are a reminder that whoever you are the life God prepares for us in Christ isn’t about what you can make of yourself, it isn’t about trying to secure your place in the best pile of dirt humanity can construct.
Instead, it’s about trusting in a God who hears the cry of his people. It’s about trusting in a God who brings order out of chaos. It’s about trusting in a God who spares his people through way of Jesus Christ, a way forged out of love, a way that calls us to see in the other our common humanity, a way that is gathering the people together as one, a way that makes good on even the biggest messes this world can make.  
And now, let us begin again in the way of Jesus Christ by observing the holy season of Lent...