Tuesday, July 24, 2018

God's Compassion

Before every Rotary Club meeting, Bill Gamble recites words of wisdom or a truism for the group. These words are usually taken from the archives of influential men and women. This past week he quoted Sam Adams saying, “Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason.”
This truism speaks directly to the double-edged sword of the human experience. I say double-edged sword because while some feelings can lead to positive action, other feelings can be destructive.  While at times we, as human beings, can choose to be governed by reason over feelings – the human brain is evolved enough to do so – in the end, Sam Adams was right.
Many of our decisions and actions are directly related to how we feel about something. For example, if we feel mad or sad, we are prone to do things to harm ourselves or others. While negative feelings can often lead to destructive behavior, we also have the capacity to feel things that inspire us to do good and amazing things – things that reason would rule out as impossible. The feelings of joy and hope can accomplish things beyond our wildest imaginations.
Therefore, God’s salvation project is not accomplished by giving us perfect reasoning skills – reasoning skills that rule out the impossible; God’s salvation project isn’t about inhibiting our ability to feel – for better and for worse. Instead, God’s salvation project is accomplished by directing our feelings toward God’s goodness and mercy – a goodness and mercy manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ – a goodness and mercy beyond human understanding.
In today’s gospel lesson, we see God’s goodness and mercy play out in the flesh of Jesus. In today’s lesson, we see how God feels about humanity. “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and had compassion for them.” Above all else, God is governed by compassion; God is governed by a merciful love; God is governed by the truth that God wants to be with his children and even suffer with his children.
The part of Jesus governed by reason tells him that he and his disciples are dog tired after their missionary journey. Even more, they have just heard the grizzly tale of John the Baptist’ head on a platter. It is time to take a time out and rest.
However, Jesus and his disciples are overwhelmed by the masses who come seeking healing and wholeness. Human reason says, “We are closed for business – be back tomorrow at 8 a.m.” However, Jesus’ feeling of compassion overrules his reason and he begins to heal the sick and lame.
A week ago, over 100 people gathered for the Rise Up Community Workday. The workday consisted of basic yard work in vacant lots and picking up trash and debris. As the Reeves’ brothers, Allen and Edgar, finished up a morning of hard and exhausting work in the oppressive heat, Allen pointed to a yard that was overgrown.
Edgar replied with human reason, “Well, someone lives there. We were only responsible for vacant lots.” In reply, Allen said, “Yeah, I heard the guy is bed bound – he can’t walk.” Edgar stopped the truck, looked at Allen and said, “Well, I guess that is why we are here.” And believe it or not, Edgar Reeves was moved with a compassion that led him to cut the man’s yard.
 As one writer noted, the truth of God’s compassion toward us is at the center of our theology. Likewise, the human response to God’s compassion is our ethic. In other words, God’s posture of compassion toward us begets our posture of compassion toward others.
The theology of God’s compassion and the ethic of human compassion is growing increasingly more important in a world that is governed by a human reason that says, “you get what you deserve.” God’s compassion is growing increasingly more important in a world that is fed by a human reason that says, “What’s in it for me?”
But I sure am glad God is not bound by this kind of human reasoning or else I wouldn’t be here today. I sure am glad there have been many people in my life who have operated off God’s compassion or I wouldn’t be here today. 
We would do good to never forget the simple truth about all of us – rich or poor, republican or democrat, black or white, gay or straight, man or woman – none of us would be where we are day without God’s compassion, without God’s merciful love played out in the flesh of those around us, and ultimately played out in the flesh of Jesus our Lord.    
I invite you to take a moment to remember those who have shared God’s compassion with you, a compassion that has helped you grow in compassion, a compassion that softened your heart and opened you up to healing and wholeness. Who are those who refused to be limited by a human reason that says – you don’t deserve it or why bother if there is nothing in it for me?
Maybe it was a parent or sibling or grandparent. Maybe it was a classmate or co-worker. Maybe it was someone from church. Maybe it was a complete stranger! Whoever it was, you have experienced the compassion of God through them, a compassion that is meant to direct your feelings to show compassion to others, a compassion that animates the stories of our faith.
I don’t know if you noticed but the lectionary writers glossed over a few really big stories in today’s reading. In particular, the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ walking and water was skipped over. And these aren’t exactly minor stories in the gospel narrative.
When I asked the Tuesday Bible Study why they thought this was, Anne Strand said something like, “because how we feel about something is more important than the resulting action.” In other words, perhaps the lectionary writers omitted these two miracle stories so that we wouldn’t be distracted by the action and gloss over the reason behind Jesus’ action – his posture of compassion (as opposed to duty or obligation).
Underneath it all, our God is governed by an unwavering and incomprehensible compassion toward his people – a people who often look like sheep without a shepherd. It is no secret that we live in a community and a world that is hungry to know compassion, and too often are we governed by feelings of anger and despair – feelings that only perpetuate the problem.
I don’t know about you but in the midst of my own trials and tribulations just an ounce of compassion goes a long way, just an ounce of compassion changes the trajectory of my feelings, just an ounce of compassion shifts my feelings of anger toward charity, from despair toward hope.
Sure, there are ways to program a heavy dose of compassion in the community through projects like Rise Up. But at the end of the day, changing the culture toward the kingdom of God – a kingdom built on the compassion of Jesus – starts with you in whatever context you find yourself on a day to day basis.  
 Who are the people in your sphere of life who are angry? Who are the people who are devoid of hope? Who are the people who are drowning sadness? Who are the people feel lost and lonely? Who are the people who are afraid? These are the people to whom Jesus calls you to be compassionate toward.
And if you are one of these people, do not be afraid to let your feelings of sorrow be known, for ours is a God who is full of compassion, this is a church community who is formed and reformed by the compassion of Christ, you are not alone in your sorrow. Remember the words of the psalmist, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is with me – his rod and his staff comfort me.”
And wherever you find yourself this day – may the Lord be now and evermore your defense and make you know and feel the only name under heaven given for healing and salvation is the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – the Compassionate One. Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

God's Kindness Leads to Repentance

In a few weeks, I will direct a summer session at Camp McDowell where the campers will build the story of the Bible using Lego bricks. Not surprisingly, today’s gospel lesson is not on the agenda. However, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make one of my own Lego creations to depict today’s story (show Lego creation). No matter how you but it, today’s lesson from Mark is strange – beyond the pale even.
            In addition, I find it curious that of all the gospels, Mark’s account is the most detailed when it comes to telling about the death of John the Baptist. If you remember the exegesis on Mark, then you know that Mark spares a lot of details to get to the point. His gospel is the shortest and leaves out details the other gospel writers fill in for us – but not this time.
So, why was Mark, who usually doesn’t get caught up in the details, so interested in this story? Was he deliberately trying to distract us with this grotesque and unusual story? Or did Mark simply like to write gory thriller novels on the side? Whatever the case, these questions cause me to reflect on how easily distracted we are. So often we are attracted to the provocative details and miss the point.
If we pull back from the gory details a little bit, what we see in this gospel text is nothing that we don’t already experience today. Here we have a political leader who is blinded by lust, power, and greed. Here we have a political leader who is willing to sacrifice the truth just to keep his place atop the power pyramid. Here we have a young woman, who is still basically a child, being used as a pawn in the political system. Here we have a constituency who is blind to the truth because they are so in love with their political leader.
The only difference is that today we are a little more discrete in how we go about serving John the Baptist’s head up on a platter, in how we go about sacrificing the truth in favor of maintaining power and control.
While this scene from Mark’s gospel gives us insight to the perverse and corrupt nature of King Herod’s reign, the underlying theme speaks to how earthly power makes us human beings weak. As Churchill famously said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts completely.” Even our favorite earthly king in our biblical texts, King David, couldn’t resist the temptation power breeds.
However, the difference between David and Herod is that David repents. David does not send for his guards to behead the prophet Nathan after Nathan convicts David of his sins. Likewise, Nathan is a little more gracious in how he confronts David with his sin. Instead of rebuking him in public, like John the Baptist does to Herod, Nathan pulls David aside in private and tells a parable that allows David to confess his own sin.
Ultimately, for all of us, the question that begs to be asked is, “Am I more interested in self-preservation or God’s transformation?” Am I more interested serving the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that call us to serve me and my needs, or the kingdom of God, a kingdom that calls us to serve them and their needs? If we are honest in how we answer these questions, then I’d imagine we’d all have a lot to confess when we are called to repent in just a few minutes.  
Now that John the Baptist is decidedly out of the picture, Jesus can come onto the scene more fully. If you remember back, John the Baptist struck fear in our hearts when he announced the coming of Jesus. John described Jesus as the one who will come with winnowing fork in hand and clear the threshing floor and burn the grain with an unquenchable fire. However, in the next few verses in Mark’s gospel, we see a different Jesus – or at least John’s metaphor is misleading. If I had to pick a different metaphor for Jesus, I’d say – sounds like a lion, looks like a lamb.
We see a Jesus who leads with compassion because he sees a people who are like sheep without a shepherd. We see a Jesus who blesses the little we have and makes more than enough for everyone. We see a Jesus who calms the storms of our lives. We see a Jesus who touches and heals the lame and broken hearted. Finally, we see a Jesus who rules by the law of love – not the law of religion.
It’s not what’s on the outside that counts – its what’s on the inside. Jesus wants your heart – not your rigid attention to the details that so often distract us from the purpose of God, a purpose that is enacted by loving God and loving neighbor indiscriminately for that is how Jesus loves us.
Unlike John and John’s prediction of Jesus, Jesus convicts us of our fallen nature through his loving kindness toward us. This is the detail of the gospel that we can’t afford to miss. St. Paul pleads with the Romans not to miss this detail, he asks, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
Today’s gospel lesson not only sheds light on Herod’s unwillingness to repent but also on the failure of John the Baptist to convict Herod of his sin and call him to repentance. While John the Baptist is a pivotal player in making way for the gospel of Jesus Christ, John has done all that he can do. His life was as grizzly as his death. He has drawn enough attention to Jesus – to do anymore would be a distraction to the true message of the gospel.
The threat of hell, fire, and brimstone might strike fear in our hearts but only the loving kindness of Jesus can call us to true repentance, transform our hearts, and make in us something new. The hell, fire, and brimstone churches of the world might describe, in provocative detail, the sinful nature of humanity but that kind of witness doesn’t leave room for the loving kindness of Jesus to leads us to new life.
Opening this month in theaters is a documentary on Fred Rogers called Won’t you be my neighbor?  The documentary sheds light on the genius of Mr. Rogers and his ability to proclaim the gospel message to children on public television. When the government threatened to cut funding to the program in 1969, Fred appeared before a senate committee to advocate for the program.
After Fred read his powerful statement, the toughest senator of them all replied, “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy but this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps in two days. Looks like you just earned your $20 million.” In the end, Fred’s loving kindness won the senator over just like his loving kindness won over millions of children in the years and decades to come.
A part of Fred’s genius was his ability to make people want to change not by demanding they be different, but by claiming they were already different. After every show, he sang, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
Likewise, when we are baptized as infants, we are affirmed as children of God not because of our accomplishments, but because in Christ we are made worthy of love and value. And the provocative nature of the gospel tells us that nothing can change our worth in Christ Jesus – nothing can separate us from the love of God.
And when we are reminded of this declaration of God’s unchanging love toward us in Christ, how can we not immediately feel that we have fallen short of God’s glory, how can we not immediately feel that we are not who God says we are in Christ? Again, remembering the words of St. Paul, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
Like Mr. Roger’s does in his show, the Church, by Jesus’ command, doesn’t call us to internalize and suppress these feelings until they explode into destructive behaviors. The Church does a disservice to the gospel when it shames those who have sinned.
For as St. Paul also said, “Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
 Instead of internalizing our sin, instead of denying the weakness of our flesh, instead of being distracted by the sins of others, we are called to name our feelings of unworthiness and anger and sadness and fear through the gift of the confession. The loving kindness of Jesus calls us to our knees and invites us to be vulnerable and name our weaknesses before a God whose property is always to have mercy.
And when we find the courage to fall to our knees, we discover where true power comes from. We discover true power is found when we are set free from the burden of not only our sins but the sins of others. We discover true power is found when we are set free from allowing the inevitability of sin and death control our lives.
The power God gives us in Christ Jesus binds us to something stronger than sin and death. The power God gives us in Christ binds us to a life where the truth will set us a free, to a life that makes clear the most essential detail of the gospel of Jesus Christ – a detail summed up in the prayer of the psalmist, “mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Amen.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Shake It Off!

I remember well my 10-year high school reunion. Except for the handful of friends I kept up with through college and beyond, I had lost touch with most of the 272 classmates in my graduating class. There was Facebook, of course, so, I remained “friends” with some through social media.
            Oddly enough, I was looking forward to the event. Would we all look and act the same? Who would still run in the same friend circles? What kind of jobs would we all have? Who would be the ones with children? Again, because of Facebook I already knew some of these answers.
            Anyway, I remember talking to a classmate named Melissa. While we weren’t close friends, our friend circles often overlapped during high school. As we began to catch up, we asked the normal questions. How are you? How’s your family? Etc.
She finally asked, “So, what do you do?” I told her I was an Episcopal Priest. I could tell by her facial expression that she was waiting for the punchline. When there was no punchline, she anxiously said, “No, really? What do you do?” Again, I told her I was an Episcopal Priest. She tried not to laugh but she couldn’t help it.
I couldn’t blame her though. How could the Jack who threw the biggest party of senior year be a man of the cloth? How could the Jack who couldn’t go three minutes without sneezing preach a 10-minute sermon? How could the shy and reserved Jack teach a Bible study let alone lead a parish? I was “Just” Jack not “Father” Jack.
            In today’s lesson, we see a similar story play out when Jesus returns to Nazareth. Like my friend Melissa, the people who knew Jesus as a boy keep waiting for the punchline as he teaches in the synagogue. But there is no punchline. Jesus keeps preaching, “Repent. The kingdom of God has come near.”
The people who knew Jesus as a young boy can’t fathom how that same cute little boy could now be a prophet who is mighty in deeds of power. How can that same rambunctious teenager now be a healer and miracle worker? How can the same kid who ran away from home at age 12 now be the one who is to gather the flock of Israel back into the household of God?
After it becomes clear that Jesus will not be able to minister to these people, he says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown.” Jesus is amazed at their unbelief. Following the rejection in his hometown, Jesus shifts gears in this ministry.
He follows the same advice he is about to give to his disciples. He shakes the dust off his feet and moves onward. In the gospel according to Mark, this is the last time we see Jesus teach in a synagogue. Jesus turns to his disciples and sends them out two by two. He sends them out among the Gentiles, among the non-churchy people.
Like the shift in Jesus’ ministry, I sense a shift in our ministry here at St. Paul’s. By the end of the summer, we will finally be finished with this major portion of our preservation plan. As I reflect in prayer on the conversations I have had with the Vestry, with members of the community, and with many of you, I feel that God is calling St. Paul’s to pivot in a different direction. I feel God sending us back out into the community now that we have taken care of our house.
For example, on Saturday, July 14th, St. Paul’s, along with members of the other downtown churches, will be sent out among the community in Ward 3. The tangible work is to clean up vacant lots and debris in the area. But the spiritual work is to connect with the neighborhood around us.
The spiritual work is to let the community know that the downtown churches care about the community around them. The spiritual work is to lift the community up through acts of service and love. The spiritual work is to put our faith into action.
Jesus calls the disciples to put their faith into action when he sends them out two by two. He tells them to take nothing for their journey. He tells them that if they are rejected, then shake the dust off their feet and move on. Essentially, Jesus tells them to take only the faith they have been given. Nothing else is needed.
And yes, this is an incredibly vulnerable feeling. We as Episcopalians are more comfortable sharing our faith through actions and deeds rather than with words. If we are asked to use words, then we open our prayer book. While this isn’t always a bad thing, there are times when picking up the prayer book isn’t an option (there is an app for that, though!).
For example, I read a story recently of a clerk who worked at a bookstore. She was an Episcopalian. A Jewish man walked into the store, greeted the clerk, and asked, “I would like to know about Jesus.” The good Episcopalian pointed the Jewish man in the direction of the Christian books section. The Jew replied, “No, don’t show me more books. Tell me what you believe.”
The clerk recalls, “My Episcopal soul shivered.” The woman took a deep breath and told the Jewish man all she knew about Jesus. The story doesn’t tell us how the Jewish man responded but that’s not the point. The point is that the woman didn’t have any props to articulate her faith. She didn’t have any books. She didn’t have pictures. She didn’t have resources.
All she had was her own experience with the Christian faith. And this is what gives credibility to our witness to Jesus Christ. Not our books, not our stuff, not our intelligence but our personal stories about how the love of Jesus’ has touched our lives. How has the compassion of Jesus Christ breathed new life and hope into your life, especially when things got tough? The answer is your credible witness to Jesus Christ.
When Jesus sends us out to be messengers of the kingdom, in both word and deed, he is telling us that we have all that we need. We don’t need any props. We don’t need sophisticated language or theology. We don’t need hammers and shovels. While these things might be expressions of our faith, they cannot replace the faith that is already in us.
Jesus is telling us that we don’t have to hide behind our stuff – our prayer books or our pocket books. We are called to commend the faith that is already in us. We are called to share our own experience with the living Christ through our own words and our own stories, and these are the stories that shed light on the power of the gospel. And if we are rejected or laughed at, then we recall what Jesus said to the first disciples. Or in the words of Taylor Swift, "shake it off!"
And remember, we are all a work in progress. The ways in which we articulate and act out our faith today will look different three years down the road. I look back at sermons I preached three years ago and say, “I wrote that!” Sometimes the exclamation refers to some nugget of wisdom I didn’t know I was capable of thinking. Most of the time the exclamation means, “I can’t believe I made someone listen to that.” I’m sorry!
Our job as Christians isn’t to be perfect in our faith. Rather our job is to follow the perfecter of our faith – Jesus Christ – the One who is led by a spirit of compassion. Our job as Christians isn’t to convert as many people as possible with sophisticated tactics and programs. Rather our job is to be faithful and trust that our relationship with Jesus – the One filled with compassion – will foster deep and life-giving relationships with those around us. And if that doesn’t happen, what do we do? Shake it off and move on!
I saw a church sign recently that said, “compassion is love in action.” In all that we do or say, our witness to Jesus Christ is a witness to the compassion that he first showed us. That’s who Jesus is. Jesus’ authority is rooted in his compassion for a lost and lonely people.  
It is Jesus’ compassion that makes miracles happen. It is Jesus’ compassion that grants healing and wholeness to broken lives and broken communities. It is Jesus’ compassion that draws the people into the household of God. Jesus’ compassion is the source of his power and authority.
So, for us, as members of St. Paul’s, we can’t assume our Christian witness is made credible because we’ve been around for over 180 years. We can’t assume our Christian witness is made credible because we were voted best church in 2015. Rather, the only thing that makes us worthy and credible messengers of the gospel is the compassion we know in Jesus Christ.
As you are sent from this place today and every day, may your life bear witness to the power of a faith that finds its credibility and power in the One who is full of compassion, in the One who is love in action. Amen.