Sunday, August 22, 2021

Squeamish About Jesus

Image: Steve Baxter
Click for audio

“When…his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult – who can accept it?’ But Jesus…said to them, ‘Does this offend you?...Do you also wish to go away?’”

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

I was raised in a vaguely Quaker, but essentially non-religious household. The Eucharist wasn’t a part of my family’s life. Not only were we infrequent attenders at the Raleigh Fr
iends Meeting, but even if we had been, Quakers don’t do sacraments, at least not in the way we think of them. 

So when I first heard about communion when I was probably eight or nine, and the concept that Christians, and particularly Catholics, were consuming the body and blood of this Jesus Christ fellow, I was pretty grossed out.

I have company in my squeamishness. 

Among the various difficulties the early Christians faced, trying to practice their faith in the hostile Roman Empire, was the accusation that they were cannibals.

The accusation had its roots, of course, in the practice of the Eucharist, in which Christians asserted that once consecrated on the altar, bread and wine truly became the body and blood of Christ.

It isn’t altogether clear whether Christianity’s detractors believed that  the words of institution were actually effective at turning ordinary food and drink into actual human flesh, but really, the efficacy of the prayers wasn’t the point. What mattered was that Christians intended to eat Christ’s flesh and blood, whether or not they in fact managed to do it.

Objections to this body and blood stuff didn’t come to an end when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Written in the mid-1500s, The Thirty-Nine Articles, a foundational document of the Church of England that defined Anglican teaching in opposition to both the Roman Catholic church, as well as certain strains of Protestantism that challenged the social order and the supremacy of the state, asserts that transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic teaching that the bread and wine are truly changed in the Eucharist, “is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”

In 2014, the Association of Raelian Scientists published an ethically dubious study wherein they surreptitiously acquired consecrated hosts from a few different Catholic churches and tested them to see if they contained human DNA. Never mind that the Catholic church doesn’t actually teach this, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t.

This outcome, however, the authors assert, proves the falsehood of Catholic teaching – and is evidence for their point of view, namely that extraterrestrials created all life on earth, and that humanity will be saved when the United Nations gives UFOs special diplomatic status and some brave country builds a UFO embassy that must include a landing pad for a flying saucer, a conference room capable of seating no fewer than 21 people, and a swimming pool. But I digress.

What today’s Gospel shows us is that it wasn’t just ancient and contemporary detractors of Christianity or Elizabethan reformers who get squeamish about what Jesus says about his body and blood. It’s his disciples, too. Is what he says about the connection between eating his flesh and eternal life true? Do they even want it to be?

Not all of them, clearly. John tells us that “many of [them] turned back and no longer went about with him.”

And as for the twelve, Peter swallows hard and says, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That answer has a sort of, “We don’t know what this means, but we trust you, Jesus” vibe, which come to think of it isn’t a half-bad attitude to have. 

Now before I go any further, I should say a word about what The Episcopal Church officially teaches about all this. Our catechism says that the Eucharist is the sacrament in which “Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself,” and that “by faith” we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. So something serious is going on, and we believe that Jesus is somehow really involved and present, but we don’t try to put too much definition around what is essentially a mystery. Or as my friend Holli succinctly puts it, Episcopalians don’t believe in transubstantiation, but they don’t not believe in it, either.

The few paragraphs we read this morning more or less wrap up the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. If you read the whole thing you’ll find it to be an extended discourse on bread. And in this time when we’re still only receiving the bread when we take communion, we might as well focus on it.

The chapter starts with an account of the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd. The next day members of that crowd follow Jesus across the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus observes that they have followed him because they were hungry people who had eaten their fill the previous day. He advises them not to follow him for the perishable bread that grows stale and molds, but instead to seek the living bread, the bread that endures eternally. Eat the living bread, he tells them, and they will never hunger or thirst again.

And when they ask how to do this, Jesus tells them that he himself is that living bread that has come down from heaven, which leads us to this climactic moment, where Jesus finally says that to inherit eternal life, his followers must feed on his flesh and blood.

And it’s at that point the disciples are like, “Whoa there, Jesus, you’ve gone too far! This is a hard teaching – who can accept it?”

Hearing Jesus in the moment, his followers don’t yet have the context of the Last Supper, let alone the accumulation of millennia of tradition and theological contemplation. It’s no wonder they’re confused, or that some give up and walk away.

A challenge of being a human trying to have a relationship with God, or, I suppose, a challenge of being an omnipotent, infinite, and incomprehensible God in love with your finite and mortal creation, is that it is so hard for us to understand one another. God uses objects and symbols we can comprehend to tell us who God is. Things like bread and wine.

Jesus uses the miracle of multiplying a young boy’s five loaves to feed the crowd by the seashore to communicate something about himself. He, the eternal Son through whom all things were made, is the very source of their mortal life. And then he asks us them – and us – to take a leap of faith, to follow him not to satisfy the hunger of their perishable bodies, but to find in him living bread to satisfy the yearnings of their imperishable spirits to be eternally united with their creator.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Jesus say, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” This teaching resists reason, but to those who can accept it, it rewards participation. Within the challenge of this claim is Jesus’s great promise to us. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul asks us to “put on the full armor of God,” as protection against all the evil powers of the world that seek to divide us from God and one another. Some commentaries note discomfort with the militaristic tone of this passage, with its shields and swords and bucklers, but I think in these days of violence and rage, whether at Kabul airport or a local schoolboard meeting, and as the pandemic continues to rage, we can appreciate the value of a good defense.

In the sacrament we receive today, Jesus promises to be truly present with us, as protection and shield against all assaults of the enemy, and to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Preached at St. David's Episcopal Church - Bean Blossom, IN on August 22, 2021 

Readings: 1 Kings 8:1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Ps. 84; Eph. 6:10-20; Jn. 6: 56-69

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Strategies of Hope

My unreasonably large Christmas tree: a strategy of hope.

Audio version

O Lord, arise, help us; and deliver us for thy name’s sake.

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

I see many familiar faces here, and I think most of you know me, but for those who don’t, my name is Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism. It’s my privilege to be with you again for your Consecration Weekend celebration this Consecration Sunday eve. Thank you to the whole Consecration Sunday team, and especially Kelly Nickson, for the invitation, and for your leadership.

Earlier this year, early enough that it was in the “before time,” I was flipping through the Book of Common Prayer, as one does sometimes, and came across a devotion I had never seen before.

It’s called “The Supplication,” and it’s tacked onto the end of the Great Litany, on page 154, if you have a prayer book at hand.

The instructions at the beginning of the service describe it as especially appropriate for "times of war, or national anxiety, or of disaster."

I began incorporating it in my personal prayer life as a way of praying for the country, for an end to its toxic politics that have divided and continue to divide our nation, our communities, even sometimes our families.

It wasn’t long before the prayer became a lot more relevant than I could ever have imagined.

 Here’s all you need to know about the Supplication. It is what it says it is: a straight up cry for help. It says we are in an awful mess, acknowledges that it might be of our own making, that we can’t get out of it under our own power, and pleads for the powerful God who delivered Israel from Egypt and Shadrach from the furnace to deliver us, too.

O Lord, arise, HELP US; and deliver us for thy name’s sake.

Here we are in Advent, this quiet season of expectation. Now you all know Episcopalians sometimes get funny about Advent. We'll say it’s about contemplation, or preparation, or waiting, or that it’s a bit penitential – sort of a Lent Jr., the time of year John the Baptist calls people a brood of vipers and says other impolite things that make us uncomfortable.

But whatever Advent is, it is definitely NOT CHRISTMAS.

I’m going to tell you a secret, though. This year, the weekend before Thanksgiving, we bought the biggest Christmas tree we could fit in our house. It’s 9 feet tall and we’ve had to put rocks in the tree stand to keep it from falling over. My husband strung it with 1,400 lights.

In her magnificent book, Advent: the Once and Future Coming of Jesus ChristFleming Rutledge writes about how Christians need to have “strategies of hope” to proclaim Christ in a suffering world.

Having an unreasonably large Christmas tree is one of my strategies for not allowing my faith in the power and promise of Jesus Christ to arise, to help us, to be overcome by the gloom and grief of this fearful winter.

Surely you have your own strategies of hope – I hope you do. Feel free to share them with one another in the chat.

This gathering, this Consecration Sunday-eve Saturday Night Live, is another strategy of hope.

Literally no one knows how to do a pledge campaign during a pandemic, and this year a lot of churches just aren’t putting that much energy into it. But you, St. Timothy’s, have determined that neither pandemic nor recession will deter you from this essential task of discipleship: of growing in generosity as you grow in your faith.

I call this an essential task not just because of the need to pay salaries and the Zoom subscription and maintain the building you will one day return to, though these are indeed good things. No, this annual ritual of communally renewing your financial commitment to the work God is doing among the people of St. Timothy’s is an opportunity to examine your lives and your hearts and put some things right.

You see, one of the reasons people get squirrely about money is that it is one objective way of measuring the choices we have before us and the choices we have made. Money influences the home you live in and the car you drive.

Look at your financial life and you’ll probably see some things you’re proud of and grateful for: the way you care for your children or an elderly family member, your education, the mortgage that allows you to be in a home you love, giving to a cause you care passionately for.

But you might also find things you’re less proud of, a trail of transactions linked to some vice or addiction, the burden of debt from a past emergency, or frivolous purchases you now regret.

Your finances aren’t the story of your life, but they’re a story of your life. What story do they tell about your faith? Where does God rank when you look at your bank statement?

The biblical standard for giving is 10% of your income. That’s simultaneously kind of a lot but also kind of not. Certainly it’s big enough, though, that if you’re tithing, you’ll notice. And there’s a reason for that.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, your money leads your heart, not the other way around. Giving is a strategy of hope.

"A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'"

Generous giving is a way to pave that highway, by giving away some of our choices, and handing them over to God. Giving is an invitation to God to smooth out the rough places in your heart and your life.

Tomorrow you will make your commitments together, even if distantly. Some of you will come to the drive-in pilgrimage. Some of you will receive visitors. And some of you will use mail or email to make your commitment.

I invite you to pray about what commitment you will make tonight. Generosity is rarely a cause for regret. Even if you’re not ready to give 10% today, think about what percentage of your income you’re giving today, and consider whether you can grow a step in gratitude, faith, and hope.

And hope indeed is coming. 2020 will end in a few weeks. This pandemic will one day end, even though we don’t know the day.

Consider too, that the first babies conceived in lockdown are now being born. New life amid the devastation of this year.

And soon we will celebrate the birth of another baby, the one who has saved us and is saving us still, and who we believe will come again. We do not know when that day will come either, but it will come.

Christ will arise. Christ will help us. Christ will deliver us safely home.

Sermon preached at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, Indianapolis (via Zoom) - December 5, 2020.

Readings: Is. 40:1-11; Ps. 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Pet. 3:8-15a; Mk. 1:1-8

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Led into temptation

Sermon preached at St. John's, Speedway, March 1, 2020 (Lent 1). With both the annual meeting and the Great Litany happening, I kept things brief. I owe the emphasis on the angels in this text to a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. at a preaching conference sponsored by the Christian Theological Seminary's Ph.D. program in African-American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric in the summer of 2019. Before hearing his sermon I hadn't paid much attention to this detail.


Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart. (Ps. 32:12)

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

Here at St. John’s, you use the contemporary form of the Lord’s Prayer. I approve. My home parish of All Saints does, too. I prefer it to the traditional version, mainly because it forthrightly asks that our “sins” be forgiven, rather than the more elliptical “trespasses.” I like it when we say what we mean.

I also find “save us from the time of trial” to be more compatible with my conception of God than “lead us not into temptation.” Because what kind of God leads us into temptation, right?

Well, that would be our God, apparently - because this morning Matthew tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. God did lead Jesus into temptation - so that turn of phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is born of Christ’s own experience.

Does this make God cruel? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I wonder instead, if, as Jesus’s earthly ministry really kicks off, what we’re seeing is the Holy Trinity figuring this incarnation business out. This may be a test of the limits that being fully human, with all the appetites  and pleasures and exhaustion and inconveniences and relationships that being human entails, places on God the cosmic Son, through whom all things were made. Can God, divine yet subject to human hunger, go the distance in the desert? Can God, divine yet subject to human pain and fear, commit to the way of the cross?

For the devil’s part, he’s got a sophisticated temptation plan, targeting both Jesus’s humanity and divinity. Better yet, he hopes to entrap Jesus in the words of scripture. After forty days in the desert, Satan finds Jesus to be a famished man, and reminds him of God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness.

“You’re the Son of God, right? Why don’t you do that manna trick again?”

Failing there, Satan snatches Jesus away to the top of the temple, and from that dizzying height above Jerusalem, goads Jesus to prove himself, as if being the Son of God is synonymous with being an unusually virtuous daredevil -

“Shoot yourself from a cannon, walk a tightrope over the grand canyon, throw yourself from the temple, Jesus - show me your power to save.”

And failing there again, the devil tries to sell Jesus the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Worship me,” the devil says, “and I’ll give you all these kingdoms, with their power and palaces, jewels and splendor.”

Jesus responds: “Away with you, Satan, I worship the Lord - you, Satan, have nothing to give me, and to you I have nothing to prove.”

And that is when the angels came.

St. John’s, today we stand just within the threshold of Lent, and we are called to a fast, 
or the assumption of some special act of devotion. I won’t ask what yours is -  that’s a matter for you and God.

But what does your fast mean? Your decision to give up chocolate or alcohol, coffee, diet coke, Netflix or shopping may please God - I don’t know - but that’s not the main thing. It’s a practice for a thing yet to come: a time of trial we may not be spared, a temptation into which God may lead us.

In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that we be saved from that time of trial, or not be led into that temptation, as the case may be, and most days I believe God will honor this request. The world has temptations enough to challenge us without God dragging us into more.

And when I think about what it means for one of us to be led into temptation for the greater purposes of God, I think of a college friend of mine who became addicted to methamphetamine and now works to bring other addicts to freedom, a career that carries the risk of relapse. It’s holy work. God leads him daily into temptation.

For Jesus the time in the desert and the temptation of Satan is a dry run for the crucifixion. When the moment comes, in the agony in the garden, despite expressing his desire - “let this cup pass from me,” he is able to say “not my will, but yours be done,” and so face the cross and the grave.

We may not be called to such heroics. But we prepare ourselves during this holy season so that we too can be ready, practiced, when God has need of our discipline.

But don’t forget the angels. As Jesus’s fast in the desert concludes there are angels waiting to revive him. And as his even greater fast - where he empties himself of all life - comes to an end on the third day, within the tomb there is a spark like the first glimmer of the dawn, and an angel appears to roll the stone away and announce to the women the world’s release from the power of death, and the assurance of new life.

Trust that it will be the same for you. Be blessed in your fast. The angels are coming.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Increase our Faith

Sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Crawfordsville, Oct. 6 2019
Readings: Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Audio file

Given the toxicity of our current cultural and political moment, it’s a surprise that forgiveness, of all things, was in the news this week.

In the Dallas courtroom where jurors weighed an appropriate sentence for Amber Guyger, an off-duty police officer who entered Botham Jean’s apartment, believing it to be her own, and killing him, believing him to be an intruder, the victim’s brother, Brandt, offered her his forgiveness, and even more unusually, a hug.

This moment has attracted no small amount of attention, commentary, and controversy. After all, this took place following the all too rare conviction of a white police officer in the all too common killing of an unarmed black man. So to put it mildly the case carries a lot of baggage.

So there are people questioning whether Brandt Jean has the right to offer his forgiveness, especially considering that he represents, willingly or not, the families of all of these other victims who have received no justice. And there are people questioning Guyger’s deservingness to be forgiven, given that her conviction carries the weight of so many police officers who have killed but not been convicted, especially given that her 10-year sentence is far lighter than the 98 years it might have been.

The most pointed critiques are directed at us, mostly white people of good will, who run the risk of seeing this tender moment between two people, and sentimentalizing it, interpreting it as a sad and terrible story tied up with a neat bow, and mistaking it for racial healing writ large, breathing a sigh of relief that maybe we have been forgiven our complicity in a system that oppressed people because of the color of their skin, and that maybe we don’t have hard work to do after all.

The sociological points these critiques raise are valid –  especially that last one - but while Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger  do stand  within the larger context of race relations in the United States, they are also real flesh and blood people, one with blood on her hands and a sentence to serve, the other facing an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table, who have to figure out in their own lives, “Ok, what’s next?” And for Brandt Jean, apparently, what he needed to do to get to what’s next was forgive.

When the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” it’s right after Jesus demands this of them: “If the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

“Increase our faith!” More like, “Are you kidding me?”

Now, when the number seven appears in the Bible, we all know that it’s a number representing wholeness or completeness, so it could be that Jesus is just using the number for effect here, and doesn’t actually mean seven times in one day, because really,  that’s like a coworker sinning against you pretty much every hour on the hour during the course of a workday. So for the sake of argument let’s just say Jesus means three, which is a much more reasonable number of sins to forgive in a twenty-four hour period. We’ll get a pretty good example of that a few chapters on, when three times in just a few hours, Peter denies Jesus before he is sentenced to death.

Huh.  Cutting down the number of sins you have to forgive doesn’t actually make this teaching any easier. Forgiving even one time is hard, really hard. Increase our faith, indeed.

What we can take from the disciples crying, “Increase our faith!” is that they actually want to do this – they hear this “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9) and long to respond - they do want to follow Jesus.

But they also know their own hearts.

What do you suppose the disciples are asking for when they ask for more faith? I’d venture to say  they’re asking for something to make the task of forgiveness easy.

So Jesus dangles that in front of them – the idea that even a tiny amount of faith, the size of a mustard seed – or, if you’re not really a culinary type and don’t work with mustard seeds a lot – the size of an ice cream sprinkle – then yes, apostles, with that much faith you can effortlessly relocate shrubbery.

Now let’s set aside the experiment we could run to test whether all of the faith gathered in this room
is enough for us to set up a pretty sweet landscaping business. I just want to ask whether any of this makes sense.

Let me rephrase this gospel, using the definition of faith found in the Letter to the Hebrews.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen!” The Lord replied,  “If you had the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen the size of a mustard seed,  you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

“Assurance and conviction the size of a mustard seed” doesn’t have quite the ring to it that “faith the size of a mustard seed” does, which makes me think that the familiarity of the phrase obscures for us what Jesus is doing here. He isn’t saying if you just have a tiny bit of faith you can do really big things with ease. Instead he’s disarming the apostles and setting them up for his real answer, which is what a slave can expect when coming in from the fields, not ease and a seat at the table, but continued labor in the master’s service.

In essence, Jesus is saying there is no easy way to do this – to forgive, or to engage in the other practices of the Christian life. You have to put in the work. You have to embrace the practices of discipleship, and you have to practice them.

Not quite a year ago, I was with some clergy and lay colleagues at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. One of our group had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and was preparing to undergo surgery on returning to Indiana. She asked if we would pray with her before we returned home. We went into an empty chapel, and Canon Kristin prayed aloud while we all laid hands on our friend. One of us sang a hymn.

It was a beautiful, powerful moment, and in reflecting on it, it occurred to me that the beauty and power of this healing moment wasn’t borne of chance, but of preparation.

You see, you don’t pray beautifully to the Lord in a friend’s critical moment without being practiced at prayer. You don’t sing beautifully in praise to God in hope of healing without being practiced at song. To be a generous when someone you love really needs you to be generous requires you to already being practiced at giving. To have scripture as a shield in time of trial, requires already spending time with God’s holy word. To forgive the grave sins that tear apart families and societies, so that we can be reconciled to one another and to God, we have to practice forgiving each other’s petty sins, even seven times a day. And we have to practice repenting of those sins, too.

If Jesus’s instruction to just stop complaining and do the work seems a little harsh, go ahead and play forward what happens if you just obey. Consider its rewards. What is it like to be a community of disciples here in Crawfordsville, where prayer and praise pour forth like springs in the desert (Isa. 41:18, para.) where God’s eternal word in scripture is etched into our hearts, where generosity is as natural as breath, and where by the grace of God the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, mercy and wholeness turns again and again and again to the end that each soul that enters these doors be renewed, and that healing comes to this hurting world.

That sounds like a place where the Spirit is active. As canon for evangelism, I am fury bound to remind you that sounds like a place you might invite someone into.
 That sounds a lot like the kingdom of God.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Yet Older Way

Image: "Sparrow" by GorFor, distributed under a CC BY license.

Sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Indianapolis
September 15, 2019

Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28Psalm 141 Timothy 1:12-17Luke 15:1-10

Audio File

Good morning – I know many of you, but for those of you I don’t know, I’m Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism. I bring you Bishop Jennifer’s greetings. It is my privilege to be among you today. Thank you to Amma Susan for the invitation.

I hope you will indulge me as I read the passage from Jeremiah again:

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-- a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.

In 2002 I quit church. I didn’t have any particular thought or premeditation behind it. It’s just one Sunday I didn’t go, and then the next, and before I knew it I was just a person who didn’t go to church any more.

I hadn’t stopped believing in God, exactly, but clearly my relationship with God had changed. God was now more of an idea I held, rather than the ground of my being with whom I cultivated an active relationship.

That is, until January of 2004. Late in that month there was a massive winter storm one night, coating Indianapolis with two or three inches of ice.

“Don’t go outside,” the radio cautioned, but I was an invincible twenty-something, still, so I left my apartment building downtown, going out the back door and into the alley, and made it all of three steps on the slick ice before losing my balance and crashing down. As I attempted to get back up I noticed that something was very wrong with the angle of my left foot. I realized I wasn’t going anywhere, and began to shout for help.

As it turned out I had a triple fracture in my ankle, requiring surgery and two nights in the hospital. I have metal plates in there to this day.

Now at the time, I lived downtown but worked in Carmel, and was going to school at night at IUPUI in pursuit of an MBA. And I had just broken my left ankle…and the car I drove was a stickshift. I may have been up from the alley and walking around on crutches, but I still wasn’t going anywhere.

Yet somehow, people came out of the woodwork. A rotating team of three people got me from my apartment to my office, and then from my office to IUPUI, and then from IUPUI back to my apartment. More importantly, perhaps, my 2004 New Year’s resolution was to quit smoking, for real this time. This fall came just as I was about to cave in, but now, suddenly, I couldn’t go to the grocery store or drug store or anywhere without being supervised by a friend, and they were not going to let me get away with buying a pack. They carried me through the most difficult part of kicking that addiction and I haven’t touched a cigarette since.

As I reflected on my circumstances I began to perceive this as a time that God was particularly active in my life. I mean, I’m not saying God actually broke my ankle – but I am saying God didn’t let that injury go to waste. Despite my abandonment God had not abandoned me. This experience showed me how much I was surrounded by people who cared for me. And not only did the injury in my ankle heal, my lungs did, too, and the piece of my will I had given to nicotine became my own again.

In thanksgiving for this miracle, this lost sheep started going back to church, and, obviously, I’m still here.

It is dangerous for us to ascribe any particular disaster to the hand of God. The discernment of a divine message in suffering is properly reserved solely to the one who suffers. To do otherwise, to be a faith that valorizes victimization, is a corruption that makes cruelty the condition of grace.

But it is the prerogative of a victim to interrogate the meaning of his or her own pain, to inquire whether God has a message that could not be conveyed any other way. As a member of the people of Israel whose kingdom has been swept away in the triumph of Babylon, Jeremiah had standing to interpret why God had allowed the defeat of the kingdom of his own chosen people. And in it, Jeremiah did discern the hand of God at work.

A wind is coming from God from the heights over Jerusalem, not a refreshing breeze, nor even the sort of wind that clears trash from supermarket parking lots; it is a wind too strong for that. And in contrast to
the Spirit of God moving over the face of the deep at the beginning of creation, this breath from God seeks to destroy.

The reason, God says, hurling insults at the chosen people, is that they are foolish, stupid children, wise only in the ways of evil, ignorant in doing good.

This is a harsh restatement of something God says a few chapters back in Jeremiah’s text, That “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13) In other words trusting their own skills over God’s gifts – with the results you would expect.

And that sin in turn is just another permutation of that first sin in the garden, the one that is our common possession as humans, when Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation “to eat [the fruit], [so] your eyes will be open, and you will be like God.” (Gen. 3:5)

God’s punishment for the betrayal in Eden is to cast Adam and Eve from the Garden.

God’s punishment for this betrayal is a near-total undoing of the first chapter of Genesis: cities fall, flowering fields turn to desert, the birds flee away, and all the stars are snuffed out. The earth remains with quaking mountains, a desolate ruin.

In the destruction of his beloved kingdom, Jeremiah discerns the voice and the will of an angry God: “I have spoken, I have purposed, I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”

And yet within this menace is a kernel of hope – for God also says: “I will not make a full end.”

The wrath will come, but: God will not make a full end.

For this is a wrath born of heartbreak: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me, That they went far from me?” (Jer. 2:5) God asks, abandoned by his beloved people.

Did you ever have a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point in your life, and so you cleared out the picture frames and photo albums, and these days, I guess, your social media feeds, too, but just tucked one or two pictures away in a drawer as a token of the good moments that were, the possibilities that might have been? That’s sort of what God’s doing here.

This great wave of destruction Jeremiah describes – the smoldering battlefield – may feel a bit far off to us here in 2019. But one of the commentaries I refer to frequently, The Interpreter’s Bible, which I inherited from my grandfather’s library, was published in 1956. And to its authors, this passage was very real. They had just experienced the cataclysm of two world wars and the growing menace of the atomic age.

And now, here in Indiana – how far away is calamity, really? California wildfires wipe whole towns off the map. Schools, nightclubs, Wal-mart parking lots become killing fields. In this city school bus stops turn into murder scenes. And this week we observed the anniversary of an attack that killed thousands, and covered lower Manhattan in dust and ash.

Even if the nature and scale of these disasters don’t match the picture Jeremiah paints, surely the corruption of our current age does. The human tendency to trust ourselves more than God has left us vulnerable to the enemy’s snares. We have been assailed by the malaise of materialism, which leads us to see wealth and mistake it for virtue, and to see poverty, and mistake it for sloth. Politicians and pundits fan flames of division that seek to turn hearts to ash. And God will allow this to happen to those who have ceased to feed  on “the words that fall from the mouth of God,” (Deut. 8:3) but instead pursued worthless things, and become worthless themselves. (Jer. 2:5) Beware: “those people” may well be us.

This is not a forecast of destruction, but if it came, would it be unwarranted?

In this critical hour, when the institutions of government and the values of our culture have so utterly failed to yield the beloved community that is God’s intent for this world, the church faces a particular challenge.

But what is the church to do? It can feel hopeless when the church
has lost its social standing: whether due to the hateful and hypocritical
excesses of Christianity’s loudest voices or the general winds of secularization. Our old ways of doing things, of making Very Important Statements to a world that is no longer listening, simply don’t work.

So we need to go to a yet older way to receive strength for these times.

Consider Jeremiah’s birds. Israel’s cities are destroyed. Its fertile fields have turned into wastelands. The stars are dark.

But the birds are not destroyed: Jeremiah tells us they have fled. Which means they have somewhere to go.

Like Noah’s dove taking wing over the waters of the great flood in search of dry ground, these birds have departed their roosts, flying through smoke and over sand, in pursuit of a safe place to call home.

And I am convinced that they found one. In fleeing God’s wrath, they have flown toward God’s mercy in the most intimate way. As the psalmist writes: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts.” (Ps. 84:3). These tiny birds nest in the shadow of God’s altar, hatching eggs and teaching fledglings to fly.

And so the effect of God’s wrath is to bring creation closer to its creator.

This shouldn’t surprise us. When God created the heavens and the earth and the garden of Eden, God descended to walk the gardens in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). God descended into a burning bus to make Moses the promise of freedom. The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on Pentecost. God descended to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and even though he died by our sins, he refused to allow death to be the end. And at the very end, John’s Revelation tells us, God’s holy city, the New Jerusalem, will descend to earth.

So the testimony of scripture is clear: God desires a relationship with us –
HERE – and if the effect of concern for God’s judgment is to drive us to make like a sparrow and fly to the warm, dry shelte of God’s altar where we can abide in God’s love, so much the better. God wants us there, under the shadow of his wings.

In a few moments, we will turn our attention to this holy table, where in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the gift Jesus left us so that we can stay in companionship with him, God is waiting to meet us.

Approach with courage, for you are stepping forth to encounter a God with the power to level cities and lay waste to mountains. This God expects something from us: to be God’s emissaries, hands, and feet, proclaimers of the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ. But not one of us is fully worthy to stand before him.

When God called the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah protested in his unworthiness, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,” and an angel touched his lips with a burning coal (Isa. 6:5-6) to prepare him to declare the judgment, love, and liberation of the Lord.

Now you, come forward bravely and humbly. In these simple elements of bread and wine, God reaches out to purify your heart, strengthen your soul, and unite your will to the divine will. This communion contains within it the power to make rough places smooth, crooked roads straight, to bring down mountains and to raise the dead – and, to ignite in you a flame of love powerful enough to heal this broken world.

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

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Good Samaritan

Race cars roar outside, as St. John's Speedway worships inside Brickyard Crossing.

Sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after Pentecost (July 14, 2019) at St. John's Episcopal Church, Speedway IN. Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

Audio file

Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, mother to us all. Amen.

Twice in recent days, I have come across one of those inspirational quotes that you see all the time on Facebook or Instagram artfully displaying the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.”

We’ve all probably had these words spoken to us at one time or other when we’ve been in grief or hardship, and we have probably spoken them ourselves as well. They’re meant to be comforting, but at best they gloss over the complexity of human existence in a world whose forces are ultimately out of our control, and at worst they ascribe malevolence and evil to the great ruler of the universe, whoever that may be.

But given its presence on greeting cards, inspirational posters, jewelry and keychains, “Everything happens for a reason” is as much an industry as a sentiment. So it’s not going anywhere, and it will remain a go-to phrase indicating sympathy and a sort of casual spirituality, part of the cultural background noise in the midst of grief and sorrow.

But what caught my attention in the two made-for-Instagram social media posts was not the phrase itself, but the attribution.

As near as I can tell, no one knows who first said, “Everything happens for a reason,” so I was surprised to see two posts that attribute the quote to scripture. One says it’s Genesis 50:20, and the other says it’s Psalm 37:5. I’ll let you look these up on your own later, but - spoiler alert - “Everything happens for a reason” is a boneheaded paraphrase of either verse.

I don’t know who created these posts - they just sort of seem to have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain in Facebook feeds and on Pinterest boards, but I do worry about the character of their creators’ faith, one that squanders the riches of scripture by shoehorning it into a shallow and sentimental secular platitude.

We run a similar risk with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The risk, fortunately, is not the scripture is outright misconstrued as in the “everything happens for a reason” stuff.

But this is a super well-known story, and we can sometimes be too comfortable in thinking we know what it means. Even outside the church, it has cultural currency in the naming of countless hospitals and other non-profits, and has even worked its way into our legal system, in the form of Good Samaritan laws that protect those who in good faith offer aid to an injured person from being sued in the event that such aid should cause unintentional injuries or other damage.

In American culture at large, the Good Samaritan is a helper, a healer, very often a hero - the sort of person we might aspire to be.

But Jesus tells us the Good Samaritan is a much more mundane kind of person: a neighbor.

Now, I might just be overly picky about vocabulary here, but I don’t think so. The trouble with the conception of the Good Samaritan as a heroic figure is that we can easily enough absolve ourselves of the responsibility to be heroes. I mean, who am I to be one? But it’s hard to say you don’t have the responsibility to be a neighbor, when pretty much by definition, you are one.

Not that that stops the lawyer who kicks off this story from trying. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

This is not a genuine question. As a student of the law, the lawyer has in his mind the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which sets the standard for how you should treat your neighbor: by leaving the edges of your fields unharvested, so the poor and the foreigner can have enough to eat, by having honest business dealings, by telling the truth to one another, by paying wages promptly, by judging fairly in the event of disputes, by seeking reconciliation rather than revenge.

Luke tells us the lawyer asks this question not out of genuine curiosity, but “to justify himself.” In other words we can safely assume that in his life perhaps he has had dishonest business dealings, or has held grudges rather than pursue forgiveness, has lied or held back wages - he wants to get off on the technicality that the people involved weren’t neighbors. Maybe they weren’t Jews, or they were foreigners, or Roman occupiers, so he’s held to a relaxed standard of behavior, he hopes, until Jesus gives him the gold standard of a neighbor in the form of the enemy dwelling in their land - a Samaritan.

Think back to the Gospel two weeks ago. It’s only been about 30 verses since Jesus himself was refused entry to a Samaritan village, and his disciples asked if they could destroy that village with fire from heaven.

And it’s not just the lawyer who has looked for a way out of the responsibility toward the neighbors we love, and the neighbors who make us uncomfortable, and the neighbors we despise, that God lays upon us.

Many of the early church fathers gave the story an elaborate allegorical interpretation. In one version, the man making the trip from Jerusalem  (representing heaven) to Jericho (representing earth) is Adam. The robbers stand in for sin, the priest is the law, the Levite stands for the prophets, and the Samaritan is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus drops Adam off at the inn, which stands for the church, and promises the innkeeper he will come again - the second coming. (Origen, Homily 34.3, paraphrase)

It’s actually pretty elegant, and there’s nothing wrong with viewing the text this way, unless you assert, as some have, that the allegorical reading is actually the truest reading of the text.

Because then you’ve just done what the lawyer did: found a way to avoid loving neighbors you’d rather not see, let alone love: Indifference built on a scaffolding of pious intellectualism.

That can’t be the way of our church, least of all now, today, when migrant families are being ripped apart, and ICE raids fill communities with fear; when friends and neighbors live in the grip of addiction; when children in this city go to bed without mattresses and sleep on the floor.

The law of love that Jesus describes in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not an abstract sentiment but concrete action: meeting a man down in the dust, binding his bloody wounds, heaving him on a pack animal, carrying him to an inn, putting up a little of your own money to see that your neighbor is cared for. It’s a messy business.

It’s no wonder we put so much effort into avoiding it.

Even though I’m not a big fan of the elaborate allegorical reading of this parable, there’s nothing wrong with spending some time with it, as long as you keep it in the appropriate perspective. Because there’s one thing it gets really right: the concept of the church as the innkeeper - the place where a wounded soul can heal.

Because “Love God, Love Neighbor” is the heart of what we’re supposed to be about in our time here on earth - and if it were easy - well, we’d have a much shorter Bible, for one thing, because that business is covered in the first five books.

But it’s not easy. Being busy makes it hard. The need to make a living makes it hard. The blindness of sin makes it hard.

And let's face it - for as much as we might like to cast ourselves in the role of the Good Samaritan (set aside whether or not we actually want to do it), just as often we're the guy in the ditch.

And so God gives us the church, this inn where sinners can heal, and week by week be restored to the image ff our gracious, loving creator. It is a credit to you, St. John’s, that even over all the uncertainty and change of the last year and then some, you have faithfully continued to gather to ready your hearts for the transformation and salvation our Lord Jesus Christ promises to us.

"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."

“Surely, this commandment is not too hard for you,” Moses says, “Nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Do this, and you shall live.