Sunday, June 24, 2018

Peace, Be Still!

           Some of the most vivid memories I have are those of me as a young boy and not surprisingly these are the memories that have the most feelings attached to them. One of those memories recalls getting ready for church one Sunday morning.
I was probably about six years old and considered myself a “big boy.” Therefore, I didn’t need to ask my parents to get my navy blazer out of the armoire. So, I stepped up into the armoire so I could reach the blazer.
The armoire, mind you, was resting on top a single chest of drawers. The problem, however, was that the armoire was not attached to said chest of drawers. As I stood on my toes to reach for the blazer, I lost my balance.
In an effort to regain control, I grabbed the door frame of the armoire, but the force of gravity was already at work. Crash! I, along with the armoire, hit the floor.  The entire house shook. I was trapped inside the armoire and it was dark and it was too heavy to move. I was not a character in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I can still feel the screams of terror that I belted out. While it felt like an eternity, my father freed me in a matter of seconds. I was given a free pass from church and spent the rest of the day in the loving embrace of my father.
While I have never had to rescue Mary Katherine or John from the inside of a piece of furniture, I have, on numerous occasions, heard them cry out in fear and terror. I have held them tight when they were hurt or scared or afraid.
And I honestly don’t know which is more harrowing – the feeling I felt as a child when I got scared or the feeling I get as a parent when my child is hurt or afraid. I'm not sure what scenario is more distressing to consider, will my parents ever come and rescue me? Or, what if I cannot protect my children?
No matter your age, these primal feelings probe the depths of humanity’s greatest fears – the feeling of abandonment and the feeling of powerlessness. I can almost feel the panic inside of me just thinking about these things.
Holy scripture continually tells the story of how God’s children cry out for help when feeling abandoned and of how our all-powerful God comes to the rescue. While most of us parents might feel powerless over our children, our heavenly Father is not.
God hears the cry of the Israelites when enslaved in Egypt. Through Moses, God shows his mighty power and compassion when he parts the sea and delivers Israel from the hand of their oppressors.
God hears the cry of Job when he cries out following his great ordeal, the ordeal that sees his entire family taken from him. Finally, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and assures him that no matter how chaotic things get – I, the Lord, will prevail. In today’s gospel, our Lord Jesus hears the disciples cry out when they think their boat is going to sink in a windstorm. Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace, be still.”
A few days ago, a seven-minute recording was released that captured the sounds of the children who were separated from their parents at the southern border. The children were sobbing and crying out for their parents. I made it through a couple of minutes of the recording before it became too much. In their cries, I could hear the cries of Mary Katherine and John. In their cries, I could hear myself crying out for my own parents.
This recording was released amid the political and social windstorm over immigration that swept across our country. We saw politicians apply scripture to the situation in shameful ways. We saw religious leaders let anger get the best of them. Thankfully, in the midst of it all, Jesus showed up in the storm of our own devising and said, “Peace, be still.”
The cry of those children did not go unanswered by a God whose property is always to have mercy. But that wasn’t the only storm that had the children of this earth crying out for help. There are countless more all over the world and in our very community who are crying to be heard, who are crying to know that they will not be abandoned forever.
Some of our youth were attentive to this cry last week in Hale Country through Sawyerville. Over twenty-five years ago, a few churches in the Blackbelt noticed a need to give the children of Hale county something to do during the summer months.
The result was Sawyerville Day Camp which hosts week long camps, staffed by the youth of our diocese, for children in Hale county. Today, the staff also includes the youth of Hale county. In an otherwise chaotic life for many of the children in Hale county, they can, for at least a week, experience the peace and rest given in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In our own community, St. Paul’s supports The Bloom House – a safe haven and resource for children and families who are a part of the Foster Care system. The Bloom House is a shelter from the storm. In our parish, we have teachers who, on a daily basis, through their words and actions, breath the words, “Peace, be still” to students who are living lives that we can hardly fathom.
Members of this parish also serve as CASA volunteers for children in abusive homes. These volunteers are court appointed advocates for the children and give voice to the needs of the child amid the storm of the court system. Also, members of this congregation are mentors to at-risk youth through the YMCA’s Reach & Rise program. These mentors offer stability in an otherwise unstable life.
Anyone who has served in any of these or similar capacities know that these storms will continue to rage. Despite our best efforts, children will continue to be abused and abandoned. Despite our best programs, children will continue to be neglected and forgotten. However, this is not a license to give up. This is not a license to cover our eyes and ears from human suffering.
Rather, this is an invitation to grow in faith, this is an invitation to be more attentive to the cries of those who feel like they are drowning in the merciless waves of this world. And we are free to be more attentive because we with God’s help we are not powerless. We have a mighty fortress as our God. We are given a faith that says – do not be afraid for I am with you always – even in the middle of the worst storms.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “there is nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” God knows that are plenty of things in this world are scary. God knows humanity will continue to manufacture storms that leave the “least of these” to drown. And God knows there is nothing scarier than leaving it up to politicians to solve our problems.
For this reason, God does not leave his plan of salvation up to those who hold power and control in this world; God does not leave his plan of salvation up to the state or government. Instead, as we hear in the Song of Mary, God’s plan of salvation is accomplished through the poor and lowly, through those who, in our earthly systems, have no voice. Mary sings, “he has cast down mighty from their thrones; and lifted up the lowly.”
 God's plan of salvation is accomplished by magnifying the cries of the most vulnerable and powerless. And because this nation heard the cries of those children on our southern boarder God's justice was administered with compassion. 
Through Jesus, God is focusing our attention on those who can’t help themselves.  Those who can help themselves have no need for God. Like Jesus himself said, a well person has no need of a physician.
Therefore, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God amplifies the cry of the lonely, forgotten, and afraid. Like the cries of our own children, these cries are supposed to rattle the soul, these cries are supposed to grab those of us who can help ourselves in such a way where we can’t help but to respond to the needs of the helpless, in a way where we can’t help but breath God’s word of peace in the midst of chaos.
Friends in Christ, there are children all over the world crying out for the embrace of a loving parent, there are children in our own community crying out for the embrace of a loving parent. May those of us who know the loving embrace of our heavenly Father reach out in love and calm the storms of those who are drowning.
And may our acts of love and peace point to our Savior Jesus Christ – the One who, during the political and social storms of his own day, stretched out his arms of love on the hardwood of the cross so that all may come within the reach of his saving embrace. Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Parable of the Privet Hedge

“The seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” As someone who grew up in the big city away from farms, this sentence makes a lot of sense to me. I didn’t know any farmers and really didn’t think a lot about the process of planting seeds and making them grow. I just assumed it was easy as digging, planting, and waiting on the rain. It just happens, right?
Now I live next door to a farmer and understand better the complexities of planting and growing a crop. I understand that a farmer can’t sleep through growing season and expect to yield a profitable crop. I understand that while you want it to rain, it can only rain on this day and that much. I understand that deer and grasshoppers can destroy acres in a matter of days, and I understand that it is quite likely for a farmer to have to replant an entire crop.
One thing is for sure, this first parable in today’s lesson is a terrible description of what it is like to be a farmer. But, as we know, Jesus isn’t talking about farming. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God in the form of a parable. Jesus is using a familiar image to point to a concept beyond human understanding.
And the meaning of a parable is discovered when the story takes an unexpected turn, when Jesus turns our earthly assumptions upside down. In this first parable, the story is turned upside down when we are told the farmer or sower does not know how the seed sprouts and grows.
But this doesn’t make any sense. Of course, the farmer or sower would know how the seed sprouts and grows. The farmer is the one who pours his blood, sweat, and tears in making sure that it does grow – his livelihood depends on it.
The kingdom of God is different, however. The kingdom of God is a divine mystery growing in our midst. Even when we fall asleep on the job, the kingdom of God is growing all around us. The kingdom of God grows not because of our own blood, sweat, and tears, but because of Jesus’ blood, sweat, and tears.
The kingdom of God depends on the mystery of divine intervention, not on the effort of human will and intelligence. And for us Anglicans or Episcopalians, the mystery of divine intervention should make a lot of sense. We are a people who embrace mystery, a mystery most clearly stated in our Eucharistic theology.
Instead of reducing the Lord’s Supper to a memorial or trying to over explain it using a doctrine of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, we simply proclaim the Real Presence. We don’t know how Jesus is present but we believe that Jesus is here. In other words, you can sleep through the entire church service (but I’m watching) and the bread and wine will still become the body and blood of Jesus.  Ultimately, we believe that God’s active presence in the world is not a riddle to be solved but a mystery to grow into.
The point of our Eucharistic theology, as is the point of the first parable, is that our lives with God are driven by the greatest mystery of all – God’s grace – a concept that we as humans have a difficult time accepting. But the truth of God’s grace remains even when we don’t understand.
We belong to a God who loves us even when we turn our backs on God and each other. We belong to a God who is making paradise for a people who constantly reject God’s paradise in favor of their own idea of paradise.
And as our story goes, our own version of paradise quickly turns into hell. Anytime we try to control what the kingdom should look like, anytime we try to twist God’s vision to make it fit our own near-sightedness, we in fact, make kingdoms that are hostile to the kingdom of God.
As we move into the second parable of the mustard seed, we are confronted with the reality that no matter how hard we try to replace God’s paradise with our paradise, God’s kingdom will still sprout up and grow. It is like a scrubby, invasive mustard bush. God’s kingdom simply won’t go away.
At our Tuesday Bible study, we reflected on how we have romanticized the story of the mustard seed. The way the parable reads to our modern ears suggests that a mustard shrub is a beautiful shrub, a shrub that everyone would want to have planted in their front yard. The reality, however, is much more humble. A mustard bush isn’t sought after like our azaleas or hydrangeas.
From what I can tell, the equivalent of a mustard shrub in Selma is privet hedge. Privet is that stuff in your yard that won’t go away. It is that stuff that blooms in early spring and makes your allergies go nuts. It grows anywhere and everywhere. It grows up through your azaleas.
There is privet on my creek bank that I have tried to destroy again and again but it won’t go away. I’ve just given up and am letting it grow. The privet hedge won. You can try to kill it again and again but it will come back – that is what God’s grace looks like.
Again, this is the twist in the parable that sheds light on what the kingdom of God is like. Despite our best efforts to replace God’s kingdom with our kingdoms, God will make God’s kingdom grow – anywhere and everywhere. At some point, we just have to give up and accept God’s reality growing in our midst. We cannot stop God from moving in this world. God wins – every time.
This is a truth that William Wilberforce knew well. Wilberforce was the politician in the English Parliament who spent his entire career working to abolish slave trade in England. He was once asked why he did it. His reply, “Because if I didn’t do it, then God would have found someone else to do it.”
In other words, Wilberforce knew that God’s justice would prevail. His faith told him that God would not let slavery last forever. He knew, at best, all humanity could do was delay God’s justice in the world, and he didn’t want to be responsible for delaying God’s work in the world. Wilberforce was a man who walked by faith, not by sight.
If he walked by sight alone, then he would have never had the strength and confidence to do what he did. His human sight would have told him that it would be ridiculous to cut down the azaleas and hydrangeas in order to let privet hedge grow. His human sight would have told him to cut down the privet hedge in order to let the azaleas and hydrangeas grow. But through Jesus, he saw the world not from an earthly point of view but through God’s point of view.
At the end of the day, the faith we are given in Jesus is about changing how we see the world. And by changing how we see the world, our words and actions are changed too. Our faith tells us that God’s truth and love will prevail, and we will be much better off if we just let grace happen. We will be much better off if we stop trying to build our earthly systems and kingdoms, built on power and control, and just let God’s kingdom, built on mercy and grace, grow in our midst.
The problem with grace, however, is that it is not a very efficient way to build a kingdom – grace requires lots of detours. Someone compared the movement of grace to the terrible speed of mercy. While God could snap his fingers and make everything right, God lets us make mistakes in the hope that we turn back to God and claim God’s truth as our own.
Our God isn’t interested in making robots. Instead, God wants us to grow in the mystery of faith by inviting us to grow in grace, and this growth through grace is what gives our lives meaning and joy and beauty. This growth through grace is what creates in us a desire to long for God, a desire to love God, a desire to love our neighbor, a desire to live in peace and harmony with one another – no matter how messy growth in grace can be at times.
Even after we have done our worst, even after we reject God’s grace in favor of humanity’s perverted sense of justice, the kind of justice that uses religion to distort God’s will, the kind of justice that crucified our Lord, God’s goodness and favor toward us will never leave us for our Lord and Savior is risen from the dead. We cannot stop God. We cannot stop grace from happening. God will continue to make his Kingdom grow on earth even when we busy ourselves trying to stop grace from happening.
So, can we give up already? Can we stop trying to play God? For the simple reason that we really don’t have a clue as to what we are doing. Can we finally let the mystery of God’s grace grow in our lives in a way that opens our eyes to the simple truth that God made us to choose the way of love, a way made clear in Christ crucified, a way established forever on the third day, a way that makes room for all the peoples of this earth, from every race and nation, to live together in the peace of God which surpasses human understanding. Amen.      

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lord of the Flies

            The scribes said, “Jesus has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Not only is Beelzebul a reference to the Prince of Demons as described in the Old Testament scriptures, but Beelzebul is translated into English as “Lord of the Flies.”
            I am not sure anyone born after 1960 could have graduated from high school without reading the Noble Prize winning book entitled Lord of the Flies. Even I, who rarely read all my required summer reading, remember flipping through the pages of this timeless classic. 
I can still see the images that my childhood imagination created of Ralph and Piggy and Jack. I can still feel the darkness that my soul experienced when I read how the boys mistook Simon for the Beast and beat him to death and when Roger pushed a boulder off the cliff to crush Piggy to death. 
I still remember sobbing with the boys when they were rescued. They sobbed because they were filled with guilt and shame. They sobbed because they wished everything that happened was just a dream. They sobbed because their childhood innocence was gone – forever.
The boys were emotionally and, in some cases, physically destroyed all because they gave power to an imaginary Beast. Just like a page out of the scriptures, the boys even enshrined a Boar’s head to appease the wrath of the alleged Beast. 
But, as Simon said, the real Beast was in their hearts. Even the leader of the pack, Ralph, the one who repeatedly denied the existence of a Beast, was eventually overcome by the paranoia and participated in the deadly beating of Simon. The book tells a startling and vivid story of what humanity is capable of when it is driven by paranoia and fear. 
 Following the scribes’ accusation that Jesus is filled with the power of Satan, Jesus speaks to them in parable saying, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Jesus goes on to say that a strong man’s house cannot be plundered unless that strong man is tied up first. 
And finally, Jesus tells the crowd that all sins are forgivable except for sins that blaspheme the Holy Spirit, except for the sins committed because one cannot tell the difference between the works of Satan and the works of God. 
Lord of the Flies is a testament to the total destruction that happens when we assign power to the wrong things, to the works of evil; even more, when we assign power to things that hold no power at all. Instead of turning their attention to the fire, to the light, to the smoke signals that would have saved them, the boys are consumed by paranoia over the imaginary Beast and find themselves beyond the point of no return.
Likewise, we live in a world that often finds itself beyond the point of no return. We live in a world that is distracted by the imaginary things that we think are going to destroy us instead of focusing on the things that will save us. Instead of being consumed by the light of God, by the things that will draw us together in positive ways, we consume ourselves with the darkness of this world, a darkness that we let infect our own hearts, a darkness that puts us against each other, a darkness that is constantly fed by paranoia.
But as Christians, do we not believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it? As Christians, do we not believe that Jesus and the power of his eternal truth and love have rendered Satan and the works of evil powerless? As St. Paul said, do we not believe that even when our earthly systems are destroyed that we have a building from God to protect us from evil?
As far as I can tell, the political system in this country, on both sides, are constantly filling us with a paranoia that is dividing our country, our communities, our families, and even our own hearts. From the right we are hearing, if we don’t do this, then our country is doomed. From the left we are hearing, if we don’t do that, then our country will cross into the point of no return. However, I am afraid we have already passed into the point of no return.
While the particular issues are important and make a considerable impact on our daily lives, the issues themselves are not the things that are going to save us. Rather, there is something much deeper in our system that needs to be addressed and dealt with before the issues can have real power. 
In this supposed “melting pot” of a country, we are a house divided on too many levels to count. Too often do we let our political ideologies, our cultural norms, our religious beliefs, our socio-economic class divide us into separate groups. And instead of seeking the light of Christ working through it all, suspicion and paranoia create a darkness in our hearts, a darkness that clouds our judgment and gives us all over to the work of evil. Truly, a house divided cannot stand.
The good news is that Jesus comes to find us beyond the point of no return. In today’s lesson, we see how Jesus is making a bridge for us to come back to the place of light and life. In Jesus, God is offering a way for humanity to reverse the curse we received in the garden when we rebelled against God’s way of light and life.
In today’s gospel, Jesus builds the bridge back from the point of no return when he asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And then he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” In this statement, Jesus compels us to erase our divisions by calling us to be ruled by the simple truth that we belong to each other, we are family – start acting like it.
As you have heard me say many times before, before the world can know the healing and reconciling power of God’s love in Christ, those of us who call ourselves Christians must model how the healing and reconciling power of God’s love makes us members of one family. 
In this day and time, the most important mission we can do as Christians is to model and work toward unity across the barriers of this culture. And we are able to do this because we believe the will of God is all about breaking down the barriers that divide and destroy us. For this reason, St. Paul’s has partnered with Tabernacle Baptist and St. Peter’s on St. Croix. For this reason, we are beginning to work with the other downtown churches to lift up Ward 3 (more details to come).  
Methodist Bishop William Willimon describes this work of Christian Unity as less than glamorous saying, “What do you have to do to be credibly called a Christian, a contemporary follower of Jesus? … You must join us at the table, addressing some of the most sinful, often difficult to bear rascals as “brother” or “sister,” just because Jesus loves them to death.” 
Doing the will of God means taking up your cross, leaving behind your fear and paranoia and suspicion in order follow the Jesus who is leading all the nations and tribes of this world out of darkness into light and life, the Jesus who is calling the whole world to treat everyone like family.
The warning here is that if we do not believe that the love of Jesus can make this happen, make us all one family, then we are confessing that the work of evil and darkness is more powerful than the work of God’s goodness and light. And according to today’s lesson, this kind of belief is unforgiveable. 
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I pray that you do not fall into the temptation of letting paranoia assign power to things that hold no power. I pray that you do not fall into the temptation of believing that darkness is more powerful than light for remember that even the smallest light, even the dim flicker of God’s light shining in your heart, can inspire a world of change, a change most clearly seen in the glory of God given in the face of Jesus Christ – the One whose boundless love is making room for all to have a place at the table. Amen.