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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Heritage

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.

The Federal gunline at Malvern Hill, the battle where my ancestor was killed.

Milton Hyman Boullemet served as a private in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Regiment and was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill during the Civil War. He also happened to be an ancestor of mine (my great, great, great, great uncle to be precise). When I was a child, one of my relatives compiled the letters he wrote home to his parents during the war and distributed the collection to members of the family. As a student of history, I was pleased to have this volume on my shelf, but I never took the time to read it until a few weeks ago. For the most part, Milton’s letters are fairly standard wartime correspondence: he reports on the weather, complains about “muddy coffee and stale bread,” and asks after his family. At the same time, there are elements of these letters that are downright shocking. For instance, Milton uses racial epithets casually, as if he doesn’t realize what he is saying, which may very well be the case. Moreover, I was dismayed to read that when it came to the Confederacy, Milton was a true believer. Though he was from the merchant class and had little personal investment in the institution of slavery, he regarded the South’s war effort as holy cause. One could rationalize that he believed he was defending his home or that he simply got caught up in the spirit of the times, but the fact remains that an ancestor of mine fought and died to preserve the right to own other people.

Our lectionary this morning appears to provide two distinct, even competing visions of the Christian life. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates the profound cost of discipleship: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is dramatic, sacrificial language; the implication is that a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ requires us to abandon everything we hold dear and give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. There’s a nobility in this vision of the Christian life. In fact, it is consistent with some of humanity’s oldest stories: we have always admired those who leave everything behind and devote themselves to a glorious cause. Certainly, this is one of the reasons my Uncle Milton volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Now, this story has a shadow side: single-minded devotion to anything can lead to division, where we reject those who either aren’t committed to our cause or aren’t committed enough. But it’s easy to rationalize that this is just part of the sacrifice that we are called to make as Christians. In the end, the most important thing is how we have committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The passage we heard from Romans seems to describe the Christian life in ways that are diametrically opposed to this sweeping, sacrificial vision. Instead of a call to martyrdom, Paul offers a series of straightforward and, frankly bland exhortations: “serve the Lord,” “persevere in prayer,” “contribute to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Paul seems less interested in the cost of discipleship than he is in the cost of maintaining the church. It appears that this passage bolsters the familiar narrative that Paul essentially co-opted the message of Jesus for his own purposes. Even if we don’t take it that far, this passage from Romans feels conventional, while the section from Matthew’s gospel feels revolutionary. Paul’s advice seems more focused on behaving correctly than on being who God has called us to be.

This is only a reasonable interpretation if we ignore Paul’s final exhortation: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This concluding remark places the entire passage within a larger context. Paul is not offering practical instructions about life in the church; he is articulating how to overcome the evil powers of this world. It’s noteworthy that Paul argues the way to overcome evil is by nurturing community: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, and outdoing one another in showing honor. Paul does not mention taking sides, digging in our heels, or shouting down the opposition. Paradoxically, he implies that overcoming evil is about transcending our divisions and striving to remain in relationship no matter what. In many ways, this vision of the Christian life is just as radical as the one outlined in Matthew’s gospel. While not a call to die for a glorious cause, Paul’s vision is more comprehensive: we are called to live out the gospel every day of our lives. Instead of a momentary, passionate decision, this vision invites a patient commitment to transformation. Moreover, it requires us to trust not in what we can do to advance our cause, but in the grace of God. This is precisely the same point that Jesus makes when he describes what it means to take up one’s cross. When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he is suggesting that our lives find their meaning, not in anything we accomplish, not in our sacrifice, but in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

In 1862, the year my Uncle Milton was killed in battle, the Episcopal Church held its General Convention in New York City. Though the Civil War was raging, the Convention kept to its usual business as much as possible. In its account of the proceedings, the New York Times reported “it was resolved…that all vacant seats of Dioceses not represented should be assigned to the delegates present.” While this seems like an insignificant piece of parliamentary minutia, it actually speaks volumes. Those “dioceses not present” were the ones in states actively rebelling against the union over the issue of slavery. Remarkably, General Convention made the decision that these rebels would simply be marked absent; it was assumed they would return. Indeed, two bishops from dioceses in the Confederacy were warmly welcomed when they arrived at General Convention in 1865. This is a distinct contrast with many other denominations, which split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War era. We can certainly criticize General Convention for not taking a more righteous stand against the injustice of slavery. And yet, we must also acknowledge that this was an earnest attempt by these representatives “to overcome evil with good,” to stay in relationship no matter what.

More than anything else, this kind of response requires the humility to recognize that sin is never somebody else’s problem. This brings me back to my Uncle Milton. As much as I would like to disavow him completely, he is part of my heritage. I had an ancestor who fought for the right to own people. This is part of who I am, and it is important I acknowledge that it is shameful, as much as I would like to deny it. And yet, if the gospel teaches us anything, it is that we are defined not by what we or our ancestors have done, but by what God has done for us, for all of us. For this reason, the Christian response to hate and bigotry cannot be to destroy those who would advocate such things; it must be to preach repentance even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness, all while putting our trust in the boundless grace of God. This is the “true religion” our Collect refers to: the ability to trust the power of God’s grace to transcend our divisions and transform our lives.

Delight

The Super Bowl was played a few days ago. While the play on the field was certainly thrilling to watch (though perhaps not for Atlanta Falcons fans), the most memorable moment for me occurred prior to kickoff. Just before the National Anthem, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones (the Schuyler Sisters from the original Broadway cast of Hamilton) sang “America the Beautiful.” To put it mildly, their performance was spectacular. Like latter day Andrews sisters, their close harmonies reflected their obvious chemistry, and their creative arrangement breathed new life into Katharine Lee Bates’ powerful poem. Much has been made of the fact that Soo, Goldsberry, and Jones made the lyrics more gender inclusive. Though this was laudable and worthy of notice, I was even more compelled by a reaction from the sidelines. Right after Goldsberry and Jones sang “sisterhood,” the camera cut to Dan Quinn, the head coach of the Falcons. He was grinning broadly, clearly delighted by what he was hearing. When he noticed that he was on the Jumbotron, he quickly composed himself and assumed a “tough football coach” scowl. For a fleeting moment, however, Dan Quinn could not contain his delight.


Delight is a word that has fallen out of fashion over the years. In part, this is because it became a mere synonym for “happiness.” Delight, however, is about much more than mere pleasure. The psalms suggest that those who are righteous “delight in the law of the Lord.” Though one does not generally think of a law as something to take delight in, it is important to remember what the law represents to the psalmist. The Law was the symbol of God’s claim on Israel, the reminder of God’s persistent faithfulness. Taking delight in the Law involves recalling the fullness of our relationship with God, recognizing that God’s love endures all circumstances. Those who truly appreciate the nature of this relationship cannot contain their delight.

There is a discipline to delight. Delight requires conscious recollection, a willingness to look past our current frustrations and see the potential for good wherever we go. We live in serious times. Some might argue that delight is a luxury we cannot afford. But delight is not incompatible with seriousness. In fact, the only way we can be serious about the tasks before us is if we take delight in them. In this time of outrage, frustration, and anxiety, I pray that we will take time to be delighted, remembering that we are defined not by our present circumstances, but by the love of God.

Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

At the end of every calendar year, social media and other internet sites are generally overrun with articles, tweets, videos, and other posts reviewing the year that is coming to an end. This year, the vast majority of these reflections have had a distinct and consistent theme: imgresnamely, that 2016 was the worst. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. This year saw the Zika virus, terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year saw economic collapse in Caracas, political disaster in Ankara, and humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. This year saw the deaths of Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, and Prince, to name just a few. This year saw arguably the most contentious election in this country’s history, one that devolved into a nightmarish carnival of fear, resentment, and despair. As we come to the end of this difficult year, it is hard not to buy into the notion that this was the worst year ever.

Human beings have experienced objectively worse years. There was 1348, when the Black Plague arrived on European shores. Less recently there was 72,000 BC, when a volcano in Sumatra exploded with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs, resulting in the near extinction of the human species. Clearly, 2016 could have been much worse. Yet, it was an exceptionally difficult year. I think the main reason is that this year was so full of uncertainty. Nothing worked out the way we thought. Election results around the world defied the expectations of pollsters and prognosticators, the people who are supposed to be able to tell us what is coming. Traditional times of celebration were interrupted by terror and despair. Even the celebrities who died tended to be people whose presence signified comfort and stability: we lost veteran character actors, musical iconoclasts, and TV moms and dads, people we imagined would always be there. It’s no wonder Merriam Webster’s word of the year was “surreal.” This was a year of confounded expectations, one in which many of us experienced a profound sense of dislocation.

Rather than dislocation, tonight’s gospel reading begins with an almost radical sense of continuity. Luke begins the Christmas story by telling us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is one of the narrative quirks of this gospel. Luke loves to let us know who was in charge when the events he describes took place. This is about more than providing historical context. The world of Luke’s gospel was one in which the personalities of those in power had a profound effect on the lives of those they governed. The fact that the emperor could send people to their hometowns on a whim is evidence enough of that. Moreover, it was a time when rulers stayed in power for a very long time. By mentioning these world leaders, Luke strongly implies that the world is unlikely to change any time soon.

In the midst of this political stability, however, an angel proclaims to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” The angel tells the shepherds that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes represents something entirely new in the world. Moreover, the angel uses a politically loaded term to describe the birth of Jesus. The word we translate as “good news” is the same word that was used to announce when the emperor had a son. It referred to the birth of a new king. According to Luke’s account, the birth of this child represents a challenge to the present order. And yet, not much changes politically after the birth of Jesus. Augustus remains the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The sanguine expectations of the angels appear to have been confounded. Our refrain of “glory to the newborn king” seems tinged with irony. In this gospel reading, it would appear that we are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation.

But this reading ignores a small yet crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. After the shepherds left the babe alone with his parents, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart.” theotokos_3_500Though Luke could be describing the pride that every parent feels when her child is adored by strangers, there is a much more powerful dimension to this statement. By pondering these things in her heart, Mary ensures that the affairs of the world, no matter how dispiriting or dislocating, will never diminish the good news of Jesus’ birth. This is that good news: unlike those leaders that history has mostly forgotten, Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is the one who rules our hearts. While this may seem saccharine, even trivial, it is actually of monumental importance. It signals that God’s claim on us transcends every circumstance.

For this reason, I think that the most powerful expression of the Christmas gospel can be found in the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer. The opening anthem includes these words: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” These words do more than comfort the bereaved: they demonstrate how the gospel frustrates the powers of the world. Most tyrannical regimes coerce obedience by threatening death. But, if we can say with confidence that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die, we have nullified the tyrant’s ultimate threat. The gospel we proclaim tonight is deeply and quietly subversive because it insists that those who claim worldly authority have no real power over us, that the only power that truly matters is that of the babe lying in the manger.

No matter how many times we may hear it, the birth of Jesus is always news, because the bad news is always changing. In the midst of a world that is filled with uncertainty, we must treasure this good news, confident that Jesus Christ is the one who rules our hearts.

Winning, Losing, and Becoming Saints

Sermon on Luke 6:20-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

cubsIt finally happened. After 108 heartbreaking seasons, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. When the Cubs were last champions of baseball, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were major geopolitical powers. The first Model Ts had just begun rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines in Detroit. In the 108 years between Cub championships, Pluto was discovered and subsequently lost its planetary status. Even the venerable tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch didn’t begin until almost thirty years after the Cubs’ most recent title. In other words, it has been a very long time since the Cubs were winners.

Despite their long history as baseball’s loveable losers, the Cubs were actually favored to win it all since spring training. Between a potent offense, a lights out pitching staff, a savvy front office, and a sagacious coaching staff, Chicago was the team to beat this year. Indeed, they dominated the competition, winning 103 games during the regular season. Nevertheless, more than a few people considered the Cubs underdogs as they entered the postseason. Despite their dominance during the regular season, many wondered whether the Cubs could overcome their long history of losing. This is to be expected in baseball. The fact is that the worst teams win games from time to time; the best teams occasionally suffer a loss. As a result, baseball fans are required to be comfortable with failure. They can’t get too exercised about wins or losses. Baseball teaches its fans to take winning and losing in stride. More than any other sport, baseball recognizes that both winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

The Beatitudes in the gospel according to Luke provide a sharp contrast to their more famous cousins in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew records eight “blessed are” statements. Luke, on the other hand, balances four blessings with four corresponding woes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus declaims, but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, but woe to you who are full.” Luke’s point seems obvious: those in the first group are in good shape; those in the second group have work to do. To co opt the language of the day: those in the first group are saints; those in the second group, not so much.

This interpretation, however, misses a crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. In his list of blessings and woes, Jesus uses the word “now” half the time. Moreover, there is a precise rhetorical symmetry between the blessings and the woes. Not only are there exactly four of each, they are set up in direct contradistinction to one another: blessed are you who are hungry now; woe to you who are full now; blessed are you who are weeping now; woe to you who are laughing now. While this temporal detail may not seem all that significant, it is actually the lens through which we are meant to read Luke’s Beatitudes. As we noticed a moment ago, our first inclination is to assume that each blessing and each woe describes an existential condition: there are those who are hungry and will remain hungry, and there are those who are full and will remain full. By adding the word “now,” however, Luke signals that these conditions are actually temporary: those who weep will someday laugh, while those who laugh will someday weep. These beatitudes, in other words, are not a catalog of who’s blessed and who’s cursed, who’s in and who’s out. When read together, they provide an honest description of the human condition. Jesus tells those who are listening that if they feel poor, they shouldn’t get down on themselves too much because a day will come when they will feel rich. Meanwhile, those who feel rich shouldn’t get too cocky because a day will come when they will feel poor. In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus articulates what baseball fans understand implicitly: winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

Now if this is where Jesus concluded, Luke’s Beatitudes would not be terribly unique or all that earth shattering. In fact, they would fit very nicely into the traditions of Zen Buddhism, which encourages adherents not to get too excited about positive experiences or too depressed about negative ones. But Jesus doesn’t end with this this list. In fact, Jesus makes a crucial rhetorical turn. After describing how winning and losing are part of the human experience, he offers a corrective: “but I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus outlines the stark inevitabilities of the human condition, the weeping and laughing, the hunger and satisfaction, the winning and losing, and then shows us how to transcend them. To be frank, the way Jesus recommends transcending the endless cycle of winning and losing looks an awful lot like losing: loving your enemies? doing good to those who hate you? turning the other cheek? Jesus must think we’re a bunch of saps! Yet there is a crucial difference between losing because of circumstance, losing because someone got the best of you, and losing because you have chosen a different path altogether. That’s exactly what Jesus offers. Jesus invites us to live as though binary categories he describes don’t matter. Instead of being imprisoned by the uncertainties and vagaries of the human experience, Jesus encourages us to take control of our lives by surrendering control to God. Jesus calls us to transcend the binary categories of this world with a third way, a way that’s not about winning or losing, but is shaped by a profound sense that we belong to God no matter what.

This past Friday night, the 233rd Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania gathered for Eucharist at the Cathedral. richard_hookerAmong many other things, we commemorated the life of Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian who lived during the late 17th century. In the face of the bitter controversy between those English Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and those whose allegiance belonged to the Reformed theologies of Luther and Calvin, it was Hooker who conceived of the Anglican middle way, a sense that the Church of England could embrace both the catholic and reformed religion. Hooker believed the Anglican vision could transcend binary categories. In the words of the collect for his feast day, Hooker was given grace to “maintain the middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” This is the third way that Jesus describes in Luke’s gospel. This third way is not about splitting the difference or making the best of a bad situation. It is about transcending binary categories altogether. It is about lifting our hearts above the bitter controversy and tribal allegiances that are so destructive of our common life. Jesus calls us to reject and transcend every binary category: rich and poor, winner and loser, even life and death. The path to sainthood, (the path that Anna is embarking on this morning), the path that we are called to walk, is about recognizing that winning and losing do not matter and understanding the only thing that matters is that we belong to God.

Kids these days…

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Over the last few years, what one might call the “kids these days” genre has proliferated on the internet. It seems that every few weeks, there is a new article, video, or blog post that decries the entitlement, ingratitude, or laziness of the younger generations. While some of these raise legitimate concerns about how young people are interacting with the world, the vast majority have a tedious and scolding quality. For one, these manifestos often fail to describe reality. The best example of this is the frequent complaint that “kids these days don’t read anymore,” when the younger generations actually read more words more frequently than anyone in human history. Moreover, these complaints about the self-centeredness of “kids these days” are, ironically, awfully self-centered. The fact that individuals armed with nothing but an internet connection and an opinion can presume to lecture an entire generation of people for their perceived failures is a sure sign of narcissism. Of course, it’s not the inaccuracy or the egotism of these complaints that make them problematic. It is their assumption that any shift in the way we experience the world is automatically wrong. While we may rightly remember the “good old days” with fondness, nostalgia is often a way of avoiding the uncomfortable truth that we are called to conversion. Indeed, our eagerness to criticize “kids these days” may well be a sign of our refusal to do the work of self-examination.

It would appear that Jesus has adopted a “kids these days” attitude in today’s gospel reading. After only one of the ten lepers he heals returns to give thanks, Jesus complains, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Jesus seems to be channeling Miss Manners, or Emily Post, or a parent dutifully encouraging her child to write a thank you note to his great aunt. “Kids these days never say thank you anymore,” we might imagine him writing on his Facebook page. It seems that Jesus has a clear expectation of what one should do when one is cleansed from leprosy.


codexaureus_cleansing_of_the_ten_lepers

As a matter of fact, the Jewish Law had a clear expectation of what one should do when one was cleansed from leprosy, which was to be examined by a priest at the Temple and make an offering to God. Under the Law, a priest was the only person with the authority to declare that a person no longer had leprosy. So when these ten lepers go to show themselves to the priest, they are headed off to get their clean bill of health. This was much more than a formality. According to Leviticus, those who had leprosy were required to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, live outside the city walls, and cry out, “Unclean, unclean” as people walked by. People with leprosy were utterly excluded from society. The only way they could be reintegrated into the community is if an agent of the Temple pronounced that they no longer had the skin disease. It’s no wonder that the lepers whom Jesus healed made a beeline for the Temple; they were thrilled that they were all about to get their lives back and return to the community.

Well, almost all. Luke tells us that the leper who prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him was a Samaritan. This is not an insignificant detail. We all know that Jews and Samaritans have a long history of not getting along. To the Jewish people, Samaritans were covenant outsiders: they did not share the promise Abraham and were not numbered among God’s chosen people. In practical terms, this meant that Samaritans were discouraged from having table fellowship with Jews, and, more importantly, were not allowed in the Temple. As the other nine lepers trot off to receive their clean bill of health and return to society, in other words, this Samaritan realizes that he will remain excluded from the community. Since he is unable to show himself to the priest, he returns to Jesus to thank him for making him clean, even though he can never be considered clean according to the Temple tradition.

The Samaritan’s quandary makes Jesus’ concluding declaration profoundly resonant: “Your faith has made you well.” Versions of this statement are repeated so often in the gospels that it is easy to lose sight of its impact. But it is important for us to recognize how revolutionary this proclamation is. In this statement, Jesus fundamentally rejects the authority of the Temple system. Jesus implies that belonging to the people of God is not contingent on the accident of our birth or our adherence to a tradition or the mediation of a religious authority. Instead, Jesus insists that we belong to God on the basis of faith.

We tend to misunderstand what this means. In the popular imagination, “faith” is usually synonymous with “belief.” If “faith” is just “belief,” however, it assumes that our membership in the community is somehow predicated on our affirmation of God’s existence. This doesn’t seem to be what is happening in the passage we heard from Luke’s gospel. The lepers do not make a statement of belief before they are cleansed. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus, it is not to say, “I see now that you are the Messiah.” Rather, it is to offer thanksgiving and, more importantly, to recognize what God has done in his life. There are many places in the New Testament where faith refers not to belief, but to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul suggests that it is Christ’s faith, his faithful obedience to God’s purpose, that saves us. When Jesus tells this Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus is referring to the Samaritan’s recognition that he had been transformed by God. This moment of recognition is nothing less than conversion. While the other lepers went off to be declared clean according to society’s standards, the Samaritan realized that he was defined, no longer by what society valued, but by the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.

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Life is about more than this.

This invites us to do the hard and important work of self-examination and conversion. It’s awfully easy to assume that our faith is portable, a tool that we can pull out when we need encouragement, but can otherwise keep in storage. When faith is relegated to this utilitarian status, we can continue to live as though we are defined by what society values: how much money we make or how many degrees we have or how many people follow us on Facebook. When we understand faith as something that informs and enlivens everything we do, however, we experience the same conversion the Samaritan experiences. More than anything else, conversion is a shift in our perspective. It is a recognition that we are defined not by what society values, but by the grace of God, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. This recognition empowers us to change the way we experience the world: to put away resentment and entitlement, to give up our nostalgic desire to go back to the “good old days,” and to live our lives animated by a profound sense of gratitude, a faithful acknowledgement that everything in our life is a gift from God.

“So that we may be like other nations”

To watch video excerpts of a forum presentation of this topic, please click here.

In 1787, the representatives to the Constitutional Convention who gathered at Federal Hall in Philadelphia were determined to strengthen the federal government while avoiding a monarchy at all costs. portrait_of_george_washington-transparentUnfortunately, their conversation about checks and balances was complicated by the presence of George Washington. To say that George Washington was well respected in the early days of the republic would be a colossal understatement. He was the presumptive choice for President and was already known by many as “The Father of his Country.” Even as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention discussed a hypothetical executive whose power was limited, in other words, they knew that at least the first president would become nothing less than an American monarch. Indeed, before Washington set off to assume the presidency, his friend James McHenry told him, “You are now a king under a different name.”

As he made his way from Mount Vernon to the temporary capital of New York, Washington was greeted as a conquering hero at community along the route. For his part, Washington was deeply concerned about the expectations of his people. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote anxiously. “I fear if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment into equally extravagant censures.” Washington, in other words, recognized that no human being could possibly be everything that the American people hoped for. Nevertheless, the American people were so eager to locate their hopes in one person that they seemed willing to jeopardize their grand experiment in self-government.

This desire for a king is nothing new. In fact, it is central to the biblical narrative, especially to the the Book of Samuel. The pivotal scene of this book occurs when Samuel appoints his sons as judges over Israel. Though Israel had been governed by judges since the death of Joshua, the elders of the people approached Samuel and said, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” The elders were anxious about the direction of their nation and hungry for change. Aware of their frustrations, Samuel warns his people about the implications of their request:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

The old prophet’s point is clear: his people have no idea what they are asking for by demanding a king. Though Samuel alerts his people about the perils of monarchy, the people of Israel are adamant: “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Their logic is almost paradoxical: Israel not only wants a king to save them from their enemies; they also want a king so that they will be like their enemies.

Israel’s desire for a king is much more than a political preference; it is the ultimate act of idolatry. The LORD says as much when Samuel prays in frustration: Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Israel would rather put their lives in the hands of a human being than trust in the God who redeemed them from slavery. Israel’s desire for a king signals a fundamental change in its identity: from those who have been chosen by God to those who choose a God for themselves. Their determination to have a king, in other words, led them to forget who they were.


imgresThis is an unusual election season: not just because of the bombastic rhetoric, not just because one of the candidates is a former First Lady, and not just because the other party’s nominee is a political neophyte. This election cycle is unusual because many people have invested all their hopes in their chosen candidate. Though this is always the case to some extent, 2016 has charted new territory. We have moved from “Which candidate would you like to have a beer with?” to “Which candidate will you trust with your very sense of self?” Indeed, not since the early days of the republic has the line between electing a chief executive and anointing a monarch been so faint. Whereas George Washington was exceedingly apprehensive about his countrymen’s desire for a king, both campaigns have been pretty cavalier about it this year. Of course, the Republican nominee has enthusiastically embraced this desire, announcing that he alone could solve the challenges facing our nation and declaring, “I am your voice!” Though the Democratic candidate has been more circumspect in this regard, the fact is that her entire campaign has hinged on the idea that she is the only viable option. For many, including the candidates themselves, the people running in this presidential elections have become the agents who will rescue us from despair and uncertainty. We have been so eager to put our trust in these presidential candidates that we are at risk of forgetting who we are.

This raises important questions for us as people of faith. The Christian faith teaches that we cannot ultimately locate our hope in any human being. What happens when, in our eagerness to support our chosen candidate, we fail to remember that God is the sole source of our life and salvation? Moreover, how can we faithfully engage the political process in this season when we seem to be collectively forgetting the words of the psalmist: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help”? If we are to faithfully engage the political process, I believe there are three primary tasks before us: discernment, empathy, and prayer.

Discernment

Discernment is a crucial discipline of the Christian life. As Christians, we are called to be realists and recognize that we do not live in a perfect world. Thus, the central task of Christian ethics is to weigh the goods in conflict when faced with a decision. No decision is perfect or without negative consequences. Discernment, however, allows us to make a judgment based on the information available to us and shaped by a sense of God’s Providence. I believe that faithful discernment will lead us to one of four options in this November:

  1. Choose one of the major party nominees on their merits.
  2. Choose one of the major party nominees on the basis of the other nominee’s faults.
  3. Choose a third-party nominee or write in a candidate.
  4. Sit out this election.

All of these are principled choices if they are the result of faithful discernment. I would, however, like to offer a few words of caution. If you choose to vote for a third party candidate, take care that your argument does not boil down to “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Though it’s hard to argue with that logic, it’s also important to remember this fundamental assumption of the Christian faith: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To put it bluntly: every one of us is evil. There is no morally pure choice in any situation, particularly when human beings are involved.

Furthermore, keep in mind that sitting out this election does not liberate us from the decision-making process. Unless we are ineligible to vote, we are participating even if we stay home on election day. In other words, while not choosing may very well be the principled path in this election season, it is still a choice.

f8ead6054a219b93848c0d77df2909c6Finally, I would warn against what one might call the “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” phenomenon. This refers to the bumper sticker that was popular around 1975, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after receiving the electoral votes of every state except Massachusetts in the previous election. Those who had this sticker on the back of their cars were making an obvious point: we bear no responsibility for the current state of our nation. Nevertheless, one of the consistent themes in the New Testament is that we are both responsible and accountable to one another. We function in community; we do not have the option of existing in isolation.

There is another important aspect of discernment. This has been an election of clickbait headlines and sensational stories. As Christians, one of our primary responsibilities is to decide what is truly worth our attention. Be cautious about where you get your information, and take care not to get swept up in the sensationalism that has driven so much of the coverage of this election.

Empathy

When we wake up on November 9, the election will be over and we will have to find a way to live peaceably with one another. It’s important for us not to assume that everyone who makes a different choice for President is stupid or wrongheaded. We all have reasons for discerning the option we have chosen. With that in mind, I want to commend to you an “exercise in political empathy.” At the end of July, Scott Gunn, the director of Forward Movement, posted the following on Facebook: “Please try to list one positive reason why someone might vote for the presidential candidate you do NOT support.” Give this a try. Write down your reason. The point is not to change your mind, but to recognize that we all see the world differently.

Prayer

It is easier to be empathetic to all of the candidates and their supporters when we pray for them. In 1 Timothy, the author urges “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Pray for the candidates by name. It is one of the ways that we remember that those who have stood for election this year are, like you and me, ultimately dependent on God for their life and salvation. 

More importantly, prayer is the way we acknowledge God as a true reality. It allows us to recognize that our salvation does not depend on a presidential candidate or any other human being. In the end, prayer allows us to recognize that God is our king. Acknowledging that God is our king empowers us to entrust our lives and the life of the world not to a human being, but to the God who created and redeemed us.