Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why Does It Matter That We're Christians?

My sermon for Proper 10 (July 10, 2016) at All Saints Indianapolis was significantly influenced by the Rev. Marcus Halley's post "What white churches can do about racism, aside from just praying". You should read it.




It has been just three weeks since the topic of a sermon in this church was mass murder. In the intervening time we’ve continued to hear reports of the deadly drumbeat of global terror: Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina.

And then this awful week: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile: black men killed at the hands of police for no comprehensible reason.

Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens: Five police officers, white and Latino shot dead by a lone black gunman, again for no comprehensible reason, as a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest ended with police and protesters taking pictures together.

And then the usual: The presidential statement, the usual suspects writing boneheaded tweets, then deleting them, families whose grief can only be made worse by having their loved ones’ terrible final moments streaming in an endless loop on the Facebook newsfeed.

And then the piles of
Thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers

Given the recent track record of thoughts and prayers i"n preventing such disasters, I think it’s fair to ask, "Why does it matter that we’re Christians?

A moment ago we heard one of the most famous stories in the Gospels or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jesus is talking with his disciples when a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus tells the lawyer that he already knows the answer, and the lawyer recites the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus confirms he has responded correctly: “Do this, and you will live.”

But then the lawyer goes on to ask:“Who is my neighbor?” Now this is not a genuine question. The lawyer wants to “justify himself.” He’s seeking the loophole that narrows down that list of neighbors to a manageable, finite, group of people, preferably a lot like himself.

So Jesus tells this story: robbers attack a man and leave him half dead on the side of the road. A priest comes along, sees the man, and crosses to the other side of the road, so he can pretend that he doesn’t. The same with a second passerby.

Then the third man, a Samaritan, finds the man, binds his wounds, puts him on the back of his animal, and pays for him to be cared for in an inn.

“Which one was this man’s neighbor?” Jesus asks.

The lawyer can’t even choke out the word “Samaritan.” Saying the name of a longstanding enemy of the Jews is too much for him. “The one who showed him mercy,” he says instead.

Which is good enough for Jesus: “Go and do likewise,” he instructs the lawyer.

Jesus is telling this story to the lawyer, but he is also telling it to the disciples. A few weeks prior to this encounter, Jesus and the disciples entered a Samaritan village, looking for a place to stay. They refused to receive him because he was heading for Jerusalem. The disciples were so offended that they asked Jesus if they could respond by raining down fire from heaven on them.

Jesus rebuked them and here he shows them why. It’s not just that Jesus is merciful (though he is); it’s that Jesus knows that enmity need not and should not be a permanent state. There is no heart that cannot be moved to compassion. And the ones who rescue us from dying in a ditch may be the ones we neither expect nor even want.

It feels like we live in tenuous times. There are prominent voices that want us to think that we have to make a choice between believing that racism is real, and deadly, and must be stopped; and that the police who put themselves at risk deserve our respect and support.

We’re in a "Civil War" blares the headlines of one newspaper. “Watch out Black Lives Matter; Real America is coming for you” tweeted one former congressman.

This idea that we have to choose whose life we’re going to value more: make no mistake - it is a lie straight from the pit of Hell. Pitting one against the other is the work of the evil one and we are not going to do the devil’s work.

Now we will choose a side:
We will choose the side of Jesus.
We will choose the side of the cross.

And I’m going to suggest four ways to make that choice.

First, pray. Now, when you pray, Do not be like the hypocrites who like to offer “thoughts and prayers” in official statements so they can be seen in public. They have received their reward.

Instead, pray as Jesus taught, in private and keeping it simple. Pray for God’s will to be done. Pray for bread. Pray for forgiveness. Pray to forgive. Pray that your heart may not be infected by evil.

Second, we should not be in the business, as the lawyer was, of justifying ourselves. When you do an internet search for Alton Sterling - you know how Google suggests things as you type? - the third result that comes up is “Alton Sterling Record.” That’s live evidence, in ones and zeroes, of people trying to justify themselves, wilfully blinding themselves to what is happeningb y convincing themselves that somehow a previous arrest or conviction is a reason for instant execution, with neither judge nor jury. Don’t let that be us.

Third, let’s not be too quick to cast ourselves in the role of the Samaritan. Let’s take a look at the parts of ourselves that are lying wounded on the side of the road. What kind of sickness is it that alienates us from others in suspicion and fear? What kind of blindness is it that can only see the evil of racism when it is presented to us in the form of snuff films automatically streaming on our Facebook feeds? Can we see that those crying out for justice for oppressed black communities, for police trying to keep order in a country awash with guns, are also offering us healing for our illness?

And then look at the Samaritan. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “The Good News to the hungry is bread.” The priest may well have been muttering thoughts and prayers as he passed by, but the Good News to an injured man is healing. It was the Samaritan who saw him and cleaned and bandaged the wounds and provided for him to be cared for in the inn.The Samaritan brought the kingdom of God near the man in the ditch.

What we speak and pray here is important, because by the grace of God our hearts are transformed. But just as we believe that Jesus Christ is truly here through the sacrament we will soon celebrate, so we are called to be truly there: out, seeing the suffering, not moving to the other side of the road, and not just identifying, but doing the practical things we can do to be the hands and feet of Christ bringing about the kingdom of God.

After the horrific killings in Dallas on Thursday night, there were a flood of images from Dallas - and elsewhere - of people coming out to embrace police officers and give them flowers in their apprehension and grief. Black and white, clergy and lay. Natasha Howell, a young black woman, recounted an encounter with a white police officer in a convenience store.

She writes:
"He asked me, 'How I was doing?' I replied, 'Okay, and you?' He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, 'How are you really doing?' I looked at him and said 'I’m tired!' His reply was, 'Me too.' Then he said, 'I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now is it.' I said, 'No, it’s not.' Then he hugged me and I cried."

In that moment:
Who was the Samaritan here?
Who was lying on the side of the road?

Who knows? But that’s a vision of the Kingdom of God, friends, And we have a part to play in bringing it near.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Field Guide to the Holy Trinity: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016


This is the sermon I preached at All Saints, Indianapolis, on Trinity Sunday, 2016 (Year C). Readings: Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31; Ps. 8; Rom. 5:1-5; Jn. 16:12-15. I pretty much ignored the readings but there's a lot of Bible in here anyway.



When I was a kid, our usual family vacation involved going camping somewhere: in the mountains of North Carolina, Montana, Wyoming, one night next to a stagnant lake in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

"It's secluded!" the lady at the tourist office chirped.

Indeed it was - we were the only ones there, and as the sun set we learned that the place had been forsaken by man, and perhaps God as well, and given over to the mosquitoes. It was miserable. The wolves started howling around midnight.

Anyway! These were mostly fun trips, and my M.O. in the pre-Internet, pre-smartphone, pre-Wikipedia era, was to seize the opportunity to be the family fount of knowledge. I would use my allowance money to buy as comprehensive a field guide to the local wildlife as I could find, so that on our hikes, whatever evidence we found of wildlife activity: tracks, nests, droppings, even occasionally the animal itself, whether it was bird, butterfly, moose, or bear, I would be equipped to tell you all about it. Its English name, its Latin name, its dietary preferences, mating habits, migratory patterns - all these fascinating details!

I could be an insufferable child.

It was, I'm afraid, in this same spirit, that after Mother Suzanne offered me the pulpit for Trinity Sunday, I, keenly aware that this Feast Day of the Holy Trinity is known less for celebrating and honoring the fullness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more for accidental heresy, incoherent philosophizing, seminarians and assisting priests deploying five-dollar words like "perichoresis" while trying to bring some life to the inevitable observation that "this is the only day the church celebrates a doctrine" - I thought to myself: challenge accepted. I'll show them what a layperson can do!

And I went out and bought myself a field guide. The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity.

One friend of mine suggested that I just read it to you. "Episcopalians love long sermons!" she said.

So, here we go: "As such, they are strictly speaking 'binitarian,' so long as we keep in view that the term is a weak one, meaning only that the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity requires extrapolation from within the same conceptual framework..."

Ugh.

Look, friends. When the Creed of St. Athanasius, arguably the finest explanation of the Trinity (you'll find it on page 864 of your prayer book), contains the phrase, "the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible" and that's supposed to be helpful - well, any hope of me explaining the Trinity is lost.

But- why is it that when Mother Suzanne is censing the altar, when the choir chants "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit" all motion around the altar ceases, and most of us bow down?

Why is it, that when today, at the offertory, we sing hymn #370 - St. Patrick's Breastplate - an epic 3-page hymn that is nonetheless one of the greatest hits of the Hymnal 1982, we will do so with such enthusiasm?

Why is it, that when at the end of the Mass, the priest blesses us in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we take that blessing into our bodies as we make the sign of the cross.

Why?

Well, for hymn #370, its just straight up a great tune, and maybe it needs no further explanation. Maybe we bow or cross ourselves out of habit, or because everyone else is doing it, and that's ok. Don't worry about it if that's your reason.

But someone started it somewhere. And that's not the sort of thing you do in service of a philosophical construct or lifeless doctrine.

The Trinity matters because it testifies to the statement that is at the very heart of our faith: that "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." That in his time on earth, Jesus was God in flesh and blood, living, breathing, eating, working alongside us, and sharing our fate, all the way through the gates of death.

But there are some strange things about that.

If Jesus is God, when, after his baptism, "the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness" - what Spirit?

If Jesus is God, on the night before he died, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "remove this cup from me, yet not what I want, but what you want" - who was he praying to?

And if Jesus is God, how can he pray, "not what I want, but what you want?" Shouldn't the desire be the same?

And if Jesus is God, how can he describe himself to his disciples at this very moment as "deeply grieved?"

And if Jesus is God, and he planned this whole thing out, why does he cry out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Now, you don't need the Trinity to make sense of all this; early Christians tried to puzzle this out in various ways.

Some posited that God and Jesus were united in the flesh only temporarily, and that God vacated the premises before the crucifixion, meaning that the man who died on the cross was just some random dude - temporarily possessed by a spirit but returned to himself just in time to have one very bad day. Is that our God?

Some argued that Jesus's suffering and death were a sort of act - that Jesus wasn't even human at all, and only seemed to die - that this whole thing was some kind of weird object lesson in the form of an elaborate game of pretend. Is that our God?

And then there's the Trinity, the curious, confusing assertion of a single God, a single will, and yet three distinct persons. This is a doctrine born, as Derek Olsen puts it, of "the data" the first Christians gathered from their spiritual lives.

And its implication is this: that the incarnate Jesus can be trusted.

You see, this was no act. This was no elaborate ruse.

In the incarnation, the one, holy, and living God was with us. God the Son was fully God, and yet, fully human, was subject to an array of human limitations: the fear and doubt and agony while pleading in the garden, the pain and abandonment while hanging on the cross.

We cannot understand the Trinity, but I hope we can understand this:

When you look at this crucifix over the altar, see God the Son, the one God, dying at the hands of the empire.

When you look at this crucifix over the altar, see God the Father, the one God, whose heart is breaking.

When you look at this crucifix over the altar, see God the Holy Spirit, the one God, lighting a flame in the heart of the Roman centurion, and perhaps yours as well, to see through the death and despair of that moment to say, "Truly this man is God's son."

We may say that this day, the Feast Day of the Holy Trinity, is the day we celebrate a doctrine, but that is not the case.

Today we celebrate the fullness of God, the incomprehensible creator of all things, ruler of the universe, and yet comprehensible as one who knows grief and sorrow, self-sacrifice and death - and is possessed of a love stronger than death, a passion that reaches into the grave, snatching out its own dead self, joined to our mortal bodies - ashes, dust - and breathing into all of us, wounded creatures, wounded God, life anew.

This is our God: Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Spirit incomprehensible, who is "worthy to be praised by happy voices, and to be glorified through all the worlds." Amen.