Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted. With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. As a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him. If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, Jesus seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like this. We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community. There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues. In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can move on with our lives and live in harmony. But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel. But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles. Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.” Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

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What I Like about Texas

Sermon on Genesis 45:1-15 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.  Audio for this sermon can be found here.

haskell-texasWhen Sarah Beth and I arrived in Texas three years ago, we knew that life would be very different than it was where we came from. Nothing, however, could prepare us for the Texas phenomenon that is Dairy Queen. Within the first few days of our arrival, we started to notice commercials that included the jingle: “DQ: that’s what I like about Texas.” This was surprising to us. After all, we have Dairy Queens where we come from; the notion that Texas had a cultural monopoly on the fast food chain seemed a little bizarre. But we gradually came to realize that there is a reason that Texans like to call Dairy Queens “Texas stop signs.” Where we grew up, you could generally assume that you would only find Dairy Queens in communities large enough to support a restaurant. Around here, there are towns without traffic signals and with populations that consist primarily of cattle that boast outposts of the ubiquitous franchise. Eventually, I came to appreciate the unique position that Dairy Queen has in the cultural (and physical) landscape of Texas. You might even say it became one of the things that I liked about Texas.

Those Texas stop signs, however, are not all I have come to like about Texas. I like how Texans think about the weather. If it’s 96 degrees in August, more than a few West Texans will make a comment about the cool weather. If it’s below forty in January, most West Texans will wonder when they should start building their igloo. And it doesn’t matter how torrential or diluvian a storm may be, West Texans are always excited when it rains. I knew I had become truly acculturated to Texas when I drove home from San Angelo in a terrifying, Old Testament thunderstorm, one in which the rain was coming down so hard that I could barely see past the hood of the car. Instead of saying, “Boy, I sure hope this lets up soon,” all I could think was, “I’m sure glad we’re getting all this water!”

I like Texas place names. From the painfully obvious Lawn to the gloriously exotic Zephyr to the impossibly pleasant Happy to the downright surreal Blanket, there is something magical about what Texans name their towns. Moreover, I like the way that Texans pronounce their place names. There is something endearingly arrogant about pronouncing Tuxedo “TUX-eh-doh” or Mexia “Muh-HAY-uh.” I suspect that the strange pronunciations are simply a way to make sure that visitors are easily identifiable, like the poor Yankee driving through Mexia. Pulling into a restaurant, the gentleman asks the woman behind the counter, “How do you pronounce the name of this place?” After looking at him incredulously for a moment, she carefully enunciates, “DAY-REE QUEEN!”

I mention all of this because I have come to like, even love this strange land that is so different from where I grew up. I mention all of this, because this place with its funny place names and strange attitudes about the weather has become home.

UnknownToday we hear the story of someone else who has found home in a strange place. We’re all familiar with the story of Joseph. He was beloved by his father Jacob, who showed Joseph such preferential treatment that his brothers jealously sold him into slavery. Joseph ended up in Egypt, where he used his ability to interpret dreams to impress those who had power over him. Eventually, he became a councilor to Pharaoh after accurately predicting a worldwide famine and advising the Egyptian ruler to prepare accordingly. As a result of this preparation, Egypt becomes the only place in the region where food is readily available, which brings Joseph’s hungry brothers from the land of Canaan. When they arrive in Egypt to purchase food, they are brought before Joseph, but no longer recognize him now that he is clothed with power instead of the coat with long sleeves. Ironically, Joseph now has power over the same men who once threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. And we see Joseph wrestling with whether he should use this power to exact revenge on his brothers for their duplicity. He hides his identity from them and toys with his brothers, accusing them of being spies and insisting that they bring little Benjamin, whom they had left to tend the meager flocks in Canaan, down to Egypt. Eventually, however, we arrive at the story we heard today, when the writer of Genesis tells us that Joseph “could no longer control himself” and reveals his true identity to his brothers. Before they are overwhelmed with the guilt that has been festering for years, before they can even apologize, Joseph forgives his brothers and tells them not to be distressed. He forgives them because of what he has been able to accomplish in Egypt, because of the lives has saved and the hungry people he has fed. Joseph tells his brothers that God has used their malicious intent to make a positive impact on the world. Indeed, Joseph makes this abundantly clear when he tells his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Joseph was able to look back on his experience of being a stranger in a strange place and understand that God had called him to be there.

There are times in all of our lives when we find ourselves in strange places. We are in a strange place when a new child comes into our life. We are in a strange place when we face health challenges we have not experienced before. We are in a strange place when we move from the comforts of our parents’ house into a freshman dorm. We are in a strange place when we lose a spouse to divorce or death. And of course, we are in a strange place when we start a new job in a new place, miles from home and family. There are two options we have when we are in these strange places. On one hand, we can close our eyes to reality and pretend that these strange things are not happening to us. On the other hand, we can open ourselves to possibility and see our time in these strange places as opportunities: opportunities to grow, to do good, to learn something about ourselves. This is what Joseph did in Egypt, and it is what we have tried to do here in Abilene. With your help, your guidance, and your love, Sarah Beth and I have grown as a couple and a family, tried to do good as leaders in the Church, and learned how to be Texans.

Now, the sometimes painful reality is that we are never in these strange places forever. Notice what Joseph instructs his brothers to tell their father: “You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there.” This must have been a source of incredible relief and comfort to Jacob in his old age. Throughout the book of Genesis, we have followed this family on their long journey toward the land God promised to them. They have been nomads and refugees with no place to call their own. All of the significant moments of Genesis take place on the road. And here, Joseph seems to announce that his family’s long journey has finally come to an end, that his brothers and their descendants will have place to call their own in the land of Egypt. We all know, however, that this does not end up being true. After all, the defining event in the life of the Jewish people, in the life of Joseph’s descendants is the Exodus, the escape from Egypt, the continuation of that long journey begun when Abraham set out from Ur into an unknown future. Joseph himself recognized that his family would not be in Goshen forever. Before his death at the very end of Genesis, Joseph instructs his children to carry his bones with them when God eventually calls them to leave the land of Egypt. The heritage of our faith is built not on permanence, but on transition. Our faith teaches that we will never be in one place forever, that we are on a journey, moving toward what God has promised to God’s people.

Unknown-1Sarah Beth and I are in touch with this bittersweet reality right now. As we prepare to say goodbye to Abilene and to the Church of the Heavenly Rest, we are aware how truly wonderful this strange little place is. As one outsider has put it, Abilene is remarkable place, not because it has mountains (it barely has hills) and not because it has the ocean (it barely has water). Rather, Abilene is special because of the quality of her people. This particularly true of the people of Heavenly Rest. This is a place that is a sign of the transcendent, a place whose architecture, music, and liturgy radiate beauty in a world that is hungry for it. This is a place that cares for those who are vulnerable by feeding them, clothing them, and telling them that they are loved. Above all, this is a place that makes people feel that they have come home, whether they are from Texas, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Connecticut.

In just a little while, we will gather at that altar, that altar which includes stone from Mount Sinai and Solomon’s Temple, stones that remind us that our faith is not limited to one place, that we are in communion with God and with one another wherever we may go. As we gather at that altar to celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we will be celebrating, not only with those who are gathered here this morning, but also with those who are gathered around Eucharistic tables around the world, from Abilene to Canterbury to Lubumbashi to Pennsylvania. We will be celebrating not only with those who are still with us, but with all those who have gone before us, from Willis Gerhart to Conrad Bratton. Every time we gather around the Eucharistic table, we are at that table with everyone who has come to know and everyone who will come to know the abundant love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. As we go through our lives of journey and transition, it is at the Eucharistic table that we find our true home, the place where we are in true communion with God and one another, the place that is a foretaste of that great family reunion, the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world in the creation that will finally be renewed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We love you and will miss all of you dearly. In the meantime, we are confident that we will always have a place to call home here in Abilene, and ultimately, that’s what I like about Texas.

Balance

This morning, I bought a breakfast burrito from my favorite spot in Abilene.

imgresThose of you who live in the area are probably familiar with the wonder that is La Popular.  Indeed, this well-named local chain of hole-in-the-wall burrito shacks seems to be one of the more popular eateries in town.  If ever I mention to someone that I went to La Popular for breakfast, I almost always get a knowing smile, no matter who the person is.  And this is because La Popular’s appeal transcends a whole variety of boundaries.  Whenever I stop by, there are people from all walks of life waiting for burritos: blue collar and white collar workers, English speakers and Spanish speakers, civilians and military personnel.  A visit to La Popular is an opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds and celebrate the diversity of our community.

I think the main reason that La Popular’s appeal cuts across cultural boundaries is not for any existential reason, but rather because the burritos are really, really good.  The tortillas are some of the best I’ve ever had: soft and chewy with just the right levels of flavor.  The filling is always savory and delicious, and the little containers of salsa are so good that they should be illegal.  But the best aspect of La Popular’s burritos is how well constructed and balanced they are.  Each contains just the right amount of filling and is folded in such a way that your chorizo and egg (or whatever you ordered) almost never falls out of the tortilla and onto the floor.  It’s marvelous to watch the cooks assemble these burritos: they place spoons into the containers of the chorizo and egg mixture, pull out exactly the same amount every time, place the filling into the middle of the tortilla, and fold the tortilla with utter commitment and not a moment of hesitation.  The resulting burritos aren’t over- or under-stuffed; they are perfectly balanced and delicious.

We sometimes get caught up in the notion that our lives of faith don’t really count unless we are doing as much as we possibly can.  We sometimes feel obligated to attend every educational opportunity at church, to go to worship services three or four times a week, to make sure all of our reading is somehow devotional, and to listen only to sacred music.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but we need to be careful that our faith lives do not become overstuffed.  We must be careful that our devotional practices serve a purpose, that they move us toward a more intimate relationship with God, and are not mere obligations destined to end up on the floor.  In other words, our spiritual lives should be balanced.  At the same time, it does not make any sense for us to engage in these balanced spiritual practices halfway.  Like the cooks at La Popular, we must engage our lives of faith with utter commitment and without hesitation.  As you use this Lenten season to examine your spiritual lives, I encourage you to discern those spiritual places where you might be both balanced and committed.

Nostalgia

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

My favorite part of the house I grew up in is the second floor hallway.  The walls of this hallway are completely covered in photographs: ornately framed pictures of milestones like weddings, births, and baptisms from many generations and simply framed photographs of more mundane events like pool parties, Little League games, and dinners with old friends.  I think that my favorite photograph on the wall, however, is a grainy image of my great grandmother when she is in her late seventies.  In the photo she is wearing a carefully tailored dress with a subtle print and her silvery white hair is drawn into an elegant bun.  At the same time, the photo captures this tiny woman heaving a basketball at a backboard with all of her might.  In the picture, the ball is hovering a foot or so from her outstretched hands and she has a look of pure joy on her face.  I love this photograph because it shows a side of my great grandmother that I never knew.  By the time I was old enough to remember her, my great grandmother had had a stroke and could no longer talk very clearly.  During the final years of her life, she was essentially confined to a high-backed chair in her living room, having lost the youthful exuberance she exhibited that day she decided to shoot a basketball.  This photograph that hangs in my parents’ house, then, is a reminder of who my grandmother once was, a reminder of the exuberance and energy she once had, and it always makes me a little nostalgic.  It makes me want to go back to the way things were, back to a time when my great grandmother could talk coherently and move around and presumably play power forward for the Dallas Mavericks.  The thing is, this photograph makes me nostalgic for a person I didn’t really know.  It makes me nostalgic for a situation that might have been completely unique (after all, I don’t know of any other time that my great grandmother played basketball).  It makes me want to go back to a time that may never have existed.  This is the tricky thing about nostalgia; sometimes we want to go back to a past that we have completely imagined.

350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThis dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today.  Generally, when we read this story from John’s gospel, we focus completely on Thomas.  We read it as a warrant for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as a way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  We hold up Thomas as an example of either healthy curiosity or hardheaded skepticism.  We point out that Thomas has a change of heart when the resurrected Lord presents himself to the uncertain disciple: Thomas goes from saying “I won’t believe unless…” to “My Lord and my God.”  This is a perfectly appropriate way to approach this familiar story, but this interpretation ignores the vast majority of the people involved.  When Jesus first appears, he appears to the rest of the disciples.  It is what happens when Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples that is crucial for us as we strive to understand the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s important for us to remember where this story takes place in John’s gospel.  We always read this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the week after Easter, and I think this deceives us into thinking that a significant period of time has elapsed since Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty.  But this is the very same day.  Instead of going out and proclaiming that Jesus, who had been crucified, was no longer in the tomb, that he had been raised from the dead just as he promised, the disciples were hiding in the same room where they had met before Jesus had been betrayed.  They went back to where they started, because they weren’t sure what to do.  Naturally, they were frightened, and confused, and apprehensive; no doubt they had heard Mary Magdalene’s story of seeing the risen Jesus in the garden and they weren’t sure what to make of it.  In their haze of confusion and grief, they returned to that place where Jesus had explained everything, where he had had all the answers, and they locked the door.  The disciples did what so many of us do when faced with uncertainty; they returned to a familiar but imagined past, comforting themselves in the uneasy certainty of nostalgia.

John tells us that while the disciples were locked in their nostalgic fortress, Jesus appeared among them in the evening on the first day of the week.  Most translations don’t get this exactly right; in Greek, “on the first day of the week” is actually “on the eighth day.”  Now we all know that according to Genesis, God created the world in seven days, and so seven days is the normal pattern of creation.  The way that Jewish calendar was structured was based on a seven day cycle, which is why our calendar is based on a seven day cycle; when we get to seven we go right back to one.  But John signals to us that something entirely new has happened on this day, on this eighth day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  When John uses this phrase, we get the sense that there is something brand new and unprecedented happening, that a new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  On the eighth day, Jesus shows up among the disciples, who are clinging to what they had known before, who are holding fast to their understanding of the old creation with its uncertainty and violence and degradation and Jesus informs them that all of that is passing away by saying, “Peace be with you.”  This is not the mere absence of conflict; this is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace that proclaims the reality of the resurrection and transforms the world.  Jesus then sends his disciples.  The resurrection is not a private event that is to be shared only among Jesus’ closest associates; it is meant to change the world.  The presence of Jesus among his disciples informs them that the old ways of doing things are passing away and that a new creation is coming into being.  Jesus sends his disciples out into the world so that they can live new lives of transformation and change the world in the shadow of the resurrection.

And yet a week later, a week after the eighth day, a week after the disciples had been given that peace which the world cannot give, a week after Jesus had commissioned them, a week after the resurrection, they’re back where they started, back in the upper room with the door locked.  Were they not listening?  Were they not paying attention?  The resurrection of Jesus meant that everything had changed and the disciples went along nostalgically pretending that nothing had changed at all.  They were in the same place doing the same things.  No wonder Thomas doubted!  The most important event in the history of the world had happened and the disciples acted as if it were business as usual.  They wanted to go back to the way things were and pretend that the world had not changed forever.  But Jesus returns, poised to commission the disciples, poised to send them out to proclaim the transformative power of the resurrection, no matter how long it took.  Jesus returns to shake them from their nostalgic devotion to the past and remind them that God has done and is doing a new thing through the resurrection.

We have just concluded that season of self-denial and fasting known as Lent.  And let me tell you, there are few things that the Episcopal Church does better than Lent.  We’ve got incredible liturgies, engaging educational programs, and glorious music.  We all work a little harder, sit up a little straighter, and pray a little longer.  We expend so much energy working on our personal holiness that by the time Easter rolls around, we are all completely exhausted.  After the marathon that is Holy Week, the most that some of us can do is say, “The Lord is risen indeed” and then take a long eighth day nap.  Gradually, we go back to the way things were before Lent: we spend less time in prayer, we are less focused on how we use our time, and we once again neglect our relationship with God.  In some ways this is understandable; it’s difficult to maintain Lenten intensity 365 days a year.  And yet, it’s important for us to remember that all the things we do during Lent, all of the prayer and discipline and intentionality are meant prepare us for something.  imagesEaster Day is not meant to be a finish line at the end of a marathon; it is meant to be a launch pad, an opportunity to do something completely new. After all, while Lent only has forty days, Easter has fifty!  The season of Easter is meant to be a time when we proclaim the resurrection with our whole beings, when we live transformed lives that are a part of the new creation that God inaugurated on the eighth day.  And so during this season of transformation and resurrection, I invite you to discern how you might live this resurrection life and how you might make the resurrection known to others.  Can you volunteer to drive for Meals on Wheels or to cook for Breakfast on Beech Street or to be a mentor to a local student in need of guidance?  Can you visit an elderly relative in their home or call your mother every day or write a note to a friend you haven’t seen in a long time?  Can you think of ways that we as a church community can make the new creation a reality right here in Abilene?  We must not be tempted to return to those familiar and nostalgic places, to those upper rooms in our lives where we can lock the door against a changing world; we must be willing to live lives transformed by the resurrection, and we must obey Christ’s call to proclaim that God has brought about a new creation in Jesus Christ.