Saturday, June 17, 2017

Proper 6A

As per usual, readings appointed for this Sunday can be found here 


Hope Born of Suffering

I have noticed a dramatic shift, well, dramatic to me, in my preaching the last several months. As I have felt myself overwhelmed by political upheaval, as people debate the nature of truth, as gun violence continues to claim lives, as our Federal government prioritizes American well-being at the expense of the earth and our international relations, as the deep divisions in our country and in our world have been exposed and in some cases dug even deeper…my preaching has changed.

But, in a fashion that surprises me…the more afraid I am, the more theological my sermons seem to have become, the more out of control our government and political structures seem…well, the more likely I’ve become to set at the center of it all our allegiance to the King of Creation over and above any allegiance to state or country. So, I’ve focused on exploring the nature of God in Christ and our relationship within…and have not specifically called out specific events.

I shared this shift with colleagues, largely because I had become concerned that I wasn’t spending enough time talking about the “real world” and our fears within it. But, and this is the critical but…in a world where truth is defined by party alliances rather than fact and where security is prioritized over community, our theology becomes the place in which we can ground ourselves in why all of this matters, all of this, in this moment, in this world.

When we explore the nature of God in Christ and our relationship within…

We are given a tool with which to consider how we AS CHRISTIANS are called to engage.

And, so, with Christ at the center, the world pressing in, and our calling to go forth…

We are asked to hear the scripture and to consider where our collective and individual understanding of God’s call to us will meet the needs of the world. When we gather in community, we do so for fellowship, we do so for comfort, we do so for strength, we do so for music…but fundamentally all of that exists because of our apriori commitment to the praise of God. And, in this gathering we do the work of deepening our knowledge of God—a knowledge, that then deepens our understanding of God’s call to us. Prayer, scripture, study, and our life in community—all set the stage for what we do next and how we as Christians are called to react to the newspapers, the twitter feeds and the news updates pinging on our phones.

And, the lens by which I hear those push notifications, the buzzes and the dings that interrupt our thoughts and demand our attention, is that of hope. Hope, as articulated in the passage we hear today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Saturday morning, I re-read these lines I had written on Thursday. And, in light of the failure to convict the man who killed Philando Castile, I read them with a sense of outrage.

Where is the hope manifest? Where is the hope now? Where is the hope when, in an age of live streaming, people can be killed in front of us and their killer remain free?

How dare we speak of hope?!

When persecution is sustained and maintained by those in positions of authority, how dare we speak of hope?

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he was writing to people he had never met—people living in a community which had already experienced the first government mandated persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian in the year 49.

And, so, when these words were read aloud in the early church, they were read in the midst of communities that had first-hand experience of state persecution.

State mandated persecution in the year 49, targeting early Christians. State mandated persecution in the year 2017, targeting people of color. How dare we speak of hope?  

We dare, we dare because suffering is the context out of which hope is born. And, so we cannot speak of hope unless we speak of suffering.

So, we hope in the midst of suffering.

But, hope is not a passive thing. Because, the Christian response to suffering is a mandate to accept and extend the gift of compassion.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”

Jesus sends them forth with compassion. Compassion is the first step. Compassion is what motivates and drives the disciples out into the world. Compassion. Not just for the disciples but for the lost. For those who wondered where their place was within a culture in which worth was defined by gender, by tribe, and by reputation.
He had compassion. And, so too must we begin with compassion. With stepping out into the broken world knowing that we do so out of the divine calling to heal the broken. To repair relationships and work towards unity so that all may gather together knowing the love of the God who first loved us.

So, where will the compassion take us? Where will we go knowing that there are broken and hurting people who suffer persecution just outside our doors? Where will we go with hope born of suffering?

I myself cannot answer these questions for you. But what I can do, is set this story within the context of the theological understanding we have been given through our study of scripture, our prayer, and our fellowship.

Hope is born in suffering. And, so to speak of hope is to name the suffering. To speak of suffering is to pursue the hope.

To pursue the hope is to trust in the love of God given freely to each and every human being in creation. A love that keeps us praying. A love that keeps us hoping. A love that casts out fear.

My words thus far have been my own, but I wish to close my sermon with wisdom from Dorothy Day who wrote in her “The Reckless Way of Love” the following,

“Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife, which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, "What else is the world interested in?" What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved. And not just in the family but to look upon all as our mothers, sisters, brothers, children. It is when we love the most intensely and most humanly that we can recognize how tepid is our love for others.

The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too, because it is a foretaste of heaven.”

Dorothy Day wrote these words in the late 1800s and they speak what I need to hear in the 2017...

And, this said,

Let us love intensely and humanly. And from this place of love turn suffering into hope.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Feast of Pentecost

An Ode to the Spirit We Can’t Control
Early on in my adult life in ministry, I served as the Youth Outreach Worker for an inner-city Cleveland congregation. Within the context of my role, I was charged with helping to facilitate the participation of children in the traditional liturgy of the Episcopal Church.  
Simple enough? Not quite. Any given worship service included 20-30 children, 20-30 children who arrived at church unaccompanied by any adults. We had 2 year olds in the care of 8-year-old siblings, elementary schoolers eager to tell us about the fight or the gunshots or the yelling, teenage boys showing off their new tattoos, baby mamas who were babies themselves and baby daddies who were just beginning to shave. They came, they came to church, they came hungry for care, hungry for food, hungry for a community in which they could trust that they would be safe.
But, they were also hungry to share their gifts. And, so they told us in word and deed how they sought to do right in the world—they told us about fledgling loves; about those moments in which they sought, for better or for worse, to enforce their own sense of right and wrong; little girls puffed up in pride as they scolded the toddlers in their care, and teenagers stayed late helping us clean and stack the folding tables and chairs. They brought their hunger, and they brought their gifts too.
So, like the disciples—the children gathered for safety, rejoiced together at the love made manifest, and stood in anticipation of a freely given.
Hunger and gifts joined together—joined as one voice with the prayers and the creed, the hymns and the acclamations. Joined together as one body in the standing, the kneeling, the sitting and the going.
The did like we do, here within these walls at St. Clement’s, and as is done throughout the Episcopal Church.
But, liturgy is the work of the people. And, in this case, the people were mostly children. And, so every service was shaped by the work of these little ones. And, so, no matter how hard I worked to try and conform the children to the liturgy—it was the liturgy that conformed to the children.
It was within this context that I learned to accept that anything could happen—even while I despaired that anything could happen.
Erika was 5 or 6 years old when I first met her. She was the kind of child you would describe as spunky, and she was clearly the leader of the small tribe of girls who accompanied her.  She had no problem speaking up, and she had no problem telling you what for.
One night just prior to worship, she approached me with earnestness.
“I want you to know…sometimes, the spirit catches me and I cry—so don’t worry if I cry, it’s the spirit taking over me…”  The other girls around her nodded in all earnestness.
She fully, and whole heartedly had faith that God’s Holy Spirit would overwhelm her--and, she wanted to prepare me for the possibility that she would be a vehicle by which the Spirit would make itself known.
This child was prepared to welcome the gift of the spirit--to welcome the wind, the fire, the ruach adonai, the breath of God, no matter where that Spirit would take her.
I envied her faith, I envied her openness--and at the same time I remember my own unease as I looked into her eyes. My rational mind, my general rejection of woo, my own sensitivity to not making a “scene” was quick to discount and reject her easy embrace of the manifestation of the spirit in her life.
Yet, I nodded along in agreement indicating my acceptance of her truth and the possibility of the Spirit.  But, if I am to be honest, I kind of hoped that the Spirit wouldn’t show up—that we could just worship like we’d planned without interruption or irregularity. What if we lost control?
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions...It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares, they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
I must confess, in our Pentecost planning, we didn’t plan for what we would actually do if tongues of fire alit and a wind throw open the doors. The ushers carry only bulletins—carefully proofread, with double checked page numbers, and consistent formatting. But, the Spirit is no respecter of form and no copy editor can define the margins by which the Spirit is manifest.
Manifest in ways that we cannot control. Manifest in ways that comfort and call us. Manifest in the intangible truth of the love that brought us here. Brought us here together—for baptism and bread, fellowship and prayer.
Baptisms of infants and small children demonstrate quite well our lack of control—and when I met with today's baptismal family, we discussed how little control we have over what happens today. We can’t keep the baby from fussing. She might get hungry at an inopportune moment or have just fallen asleep when we assemble at the font. What we can do, however, is love her no matter what, baptize her into the household of God that will help to shepherd her in a life of faith, and trust that God’s got this and we as heirs of the Spirit are together in this place of chaos and grace.
God’s got this, God’s got us, and that we’ve got each other.
And together we have the Spirit, freely given. And, in a world that feels out of control and with the daily papers bringing grief and worry, the Spirit serves to both comfort and empower us with the peace and the power of Christ--the power to forgive, the power to love, and the power to serve.
So, we gather to prepare for our calling, but not for the sake of controlling the outcome, but for the sake of welcoming the gift of the spirit--welcoming the wind, the fire, the ruach adonai, the breath of God, no matter where that Spirit might take us. From this day to the last, God’s gift will remain…
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”