You’ve maybe seen the story and the headlines floating around which declare that the NRA banned guns during the Vice President’s appearance at their convention. And many of us shared it right along to lay a zap on those bad NRA peoples… and even fewer thought to check it out. A few moments searching would reveal that those tantalizing headlines weren’t entirely accurate. And yes, I’m going to chide you for sharing them.
If you know me, then you know I’m no fan of the NRA’s leadership and agenda. I don’t believe they support the 2nd Amendment, but a dangerous and dishonest interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. I also find misinformation equally distasteful. In this day and age of so much information being shared, posted and promulgated, we must learn to fact check things and dig deeper! Or we look silly, dishonest and gullible. We like to make our opponents look bad, to score easy points, to zap’em and to “win.” Please. There’s more at stake than points in a political game of words and insults!
The truth of the story is that the NRA did not ban guns during Pence’s speech, but the Secret Service did. Why? To protect Pence, of course. The moral of the story is still the same… more guns in public do not make people safer, but in fact no guns make them safest. The government knows this. The Secret Service knows this… and safety is their job. But if we rush to make this a story about the NRA’s hypocrisy, then the really valuable and true lesson is lost, along with our credibility. We need a safer future, one with fewer guns in our public lives, one with sane and common sense gun legislation, and one with less misinformation banging around in our Facebook echo chambers.
Let’s do all we can to keep it real. Yes, those inaccurate headlines appealed to me, and yes they fit so nicely with my own worldview and assumptions. Too well, in fact, and that’s exactly why I didn’t share them. Instead, I checked the facts. Be blessed all, and be careful what you share!
Faith and our journeys of faith are interesting pursuits. As I begin to process my recent pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine I find myself exploring the ways that we often deal with faith and fact, certainty and hope. It seems to me that many folks spend a lot of time seeking fact, support for our faith ideas, certainty of what we have hoped. On the other hand some of us seem averse to fact, almost afraid of certainty, as though proof or even just pieces of proof might undermine faith itself. One thing the pilgrimage has taught me is a deeper understanding that faith and certainty are not opposed, forcing a choice of one or the other, but exist in balance, complimenting one another as we seek a nearer walk with God.
I was excited to visit some of the first locations of our pilgrimage, scattered along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which factored in the public ministry of Jesus. We stood on the Mount of Beatitudes where tradition has Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. We celebrated the Eucharist at Tabgah, the location where tradition says that Jesus broke the bread and shared the fish to feed more than 5,000 people in the crowds who followed him.
Then we came to the first of the stones on our pilgrimage, these black basalt stones which formed the base of the Jewish Synagogue in the ruins of Capernaum, a small city from the time of Christ. But this was not just any small city! Jesus based some of his public ministry from this city, and it was the hometown of one of his closest followers, Simon Peter. Here we pilgrims can touch the foundation stones of that synagogue where Jesus attended, see the streets and building foundations where he walked and shared life with friends. None of this proves that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected incarnate God, or any of the things in which I place my faith, but we were in the geography of the man! We came as close as possible to sharing space with Jesus, sharing those stones and touching a tangible moment with him.
It’s affecting to come from a completely spiritual experience of Christ and to move into a geographical awareness of him. The abstract becomes more concrete. Faith has a rootedness and an anchor in a place and time in a very new way for a pilgrim. Nothing proven, but certainly something gained.
Toward the end of our pilgrimage we again encountered some stones, the stairs leading to and from the home of the High Priest and the location of one of the trials to which Jesus submitted himself. We stood upon the stairs which Jesus would have walked. Yes, we walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, and I’ll write about that later, but these stairs, these stones! Instead of tracing a path, some meters above the stones on which Jesus walked, here we shared the very stones! Did Jesus walk these stairs? There’s no real certainty he did, but these are stones of his day, the very stones on which he would have walked to go and to and from the house of the High Priest. This is a tangible connection to Jesus the likes of which I have never before known, and it affected me more than I would have expected. A passage came to mind as I sat with these stones along the stairs… Luke 19:37-40 (CEV), “When Jesus started down the Mount of Olives, his large crowd of disciples were happy and praised God because of all the miracles they had seen. They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory to God.” Some Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, make your disciples stop shouting!” But Jesus answered, “If they keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.”
To be a pilgrim is to become one of those followers along the roads of Jerusalem, even to be one of the stones waiting to cry out if needed. We now share the witness, the song, the joy. Our faith picks up some concrete reality along these dusty hot paths. Nothing is proven, but there is a new kind of sharing with Christ. And with sharing comes gratefulness. I am so grateful to everyone who made this trip possible and the 42 pilgrims who journeyed alongside me. I thank Christ for walking our paths and sharing such beauty with us.
I’ve had several things on mind for my first follow up post to “Why am I still a Christian?” Those several things were completely derailed by the school shooting in Florida. We must do more than pray, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray. We must believe in more than the new status quo of gun violence, and that means we all need some time searching our souls, engaging in conversations and building stronger bridges between diverse communities in our society. Can our faith add meaning to this dialogue?
Let’s talk about some meaning in life. Growing up in church I remember the Beatitudes as regular Sunday School material, but somewhere along the way to adulthood we seemed to leave that section behind. Other than good material for kids to memorize, I can’t honestly say I recall our giving too much energy to this passage of Jesus stating some of his core values and beliefs about the world. His beliefs about what the world should be.
Blessed. Blessed are… In this short passage Jesus begins a sermon full of pretty radical content with a framework for what constitutes blessing, or what should constitute blessing. Jesus mentions eight things, eight conditions or states of life, which we should view as conditions of blessing. We know what blessing means, even if we don’t use the word except when someone sneezes. Blessing means gifted, having a reason to celebrate, happy, and it is well-wishing, empowering, a desire for someone’s good or betterment. So here they are, the states of life which constitute blessing, from Matthew’s Gospel: 1) the poor in spirit, 2) those in grief, 3) the humble, 4) all seeking justice and rightness, 5) those who show mercy, 6) those who work to keep their intentions pure, 7) all who work for peace, and 8) those who suffer for doing right in the world. There’s a ninth one at the end that usually stands alone in scholarship as it feels far more focused on the audience with Jesus that day than a broader universal blessing. We’ll stick with the generally accepted list of eight.
Can we hear these as value statements? Is this Jesus expressing a worldview? He seems to be reversing the way we think about getting ahead in life, what we want from life and how we share this life together. Too often we trade mercy and justice, peace and rightness for dominance, winning and revenge. Too often we avoid the hurting, close our ears to the grieving and make a wide detour around folks who need us most. These statements of blessing first and foremost call us to lift our eyes from our own small worlds and see more than just our own interests and pursuits. We must look to the people around us in mercy and with humility. We don’t turn away from people in grief or our hurting neighbors. We seek peace, for all people. We desire justice in the world, and we work to make that desire a reality.
Jesus has a clear message and meaning for our lives. His value statements in Matthew’s Gospel show us a picture of people trying to work with God to make a world that’s more livable, more fair and deeply healing. How would my daily decisions and life choices be different if guided by these values? And when I find myself grieving and in need of mercy, what a state of blessing I might be in if I’m surrounded by people who are following this vision of the world? The world will still have grief tomorrow, and human lives will need mercy, humility and justice. What Jesus offers us is a pattern of mind and belief which enables us, invites us, to co-create a world with God that heals and unifies. I want the world that Christ visions for us, wants for us and calls us to help realize.
“In great and small matters cause no harm,
and do not become an enemy instead of a friend.”
Yeshus Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus 5:15-6:1
“For we are what he has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Paul, Ephesians 2:10
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48
I’d like to start with a confession, and then an admission. First, I’d like to confess that 2017 was a tough year for me, and I often vacillated between feeling neglected by God and neglectful of God. I was riding the struggle bus, front row. In a tough year like that it’s hard to pray, and I didn’t pray like I wish I had. In a tough year like that it’s easy to let one’s emotional desolation color all things, even the blessings, in a shadowed undervalued light. My admission is that I am still devoted to my Christ, to the call that God placed upon me so many years ago to be a servant of the world and the church. I’m ready to get off that struggle bus and begin again to serve and share life in a close-knit community of faith. But as I started this new year a question occurred to me and continued to feel very relevant for this time in my life: Why am I still a Christian?
It’s not a bad question. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, by conscious choice, since my baptism when I was fifteen years old. That’s almost 33 years… my 48th birthday is next month. For the vast majority of my adult life I have been employed by churches in different positions of ministry and service. I’ve studied Christianity and other religions, and I have had many deep and wonderful relationships in and outside of the church. I have left the church tradition of my youth, pastored outside of all the established denominations, and eventually landed a few years ago in the Episcopal Church. For the last three years I’ve worked for Apple (full-time for the last two years) as a retail store technician, salesperson, trainer and most recently in store leadership. Two years out of ministry and after a rough year in 2017, I’ve been feeling very unemployable in ministry. At this moment I don’t have any firm path or prospect back into the religious vocational calling of my life.
Maybe we should start with a couple of reasons I don’t accept for why I’m still a Christian, after all these years and after so many recent disappointments. Reasons which are not accurate for why I’m still a Christian: 1) “I’m paid to be a Christian.” Nope. No one has paid me to be a professional religious person for over two years. I don’t think that was ever a reason why I was a Christian, but it’s worth mentioning that my paycheck does not depend on my faith. 2) “I have to be a Christian because all other religions are so wrong.” Nope. I’ve been leaning over the years toward something that many would call a form of universalism, though I would not say I’m a universalist. I’m not a Christian because I think that Jesus wins the grand cosmic religious competition, because I don’t think religions are intrinsically in competition.
Why still be a Christian? I’m going to be breaking this into several blogs for while, sort of a Lenten expedition for myself. Yes, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! In short I have been looking at a few ideas, answers to my question: journey, experience, meaning and witness. We won’t necessarily take them in that order or hesitate to add to the list. On April 8th I’ve been invited back to the pulpit at St. John’s Norwood to preach, and the Gospel passage that day is from John 20 when the Apostle Thomas touches the wounds of his resurrected Lord. He previously rejected the witness of the women and men who had seen Jesus and demanded his own evidence. In our passage Jesus graciously allows Thomas to feel his wounds and then gives a blessing for all who accept the witness in faith without demanding a touch of their own. Today, we have the question of what to do with this amazing witness. The graphic I chose to include with this blog post is an example of meaning, the meaning that faith can give to words and decisions, to life.
Why I’m still a Christian is also a great question in view of my coming pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in April, just 65 days away! I will be walking where Jesus walked, and seeing places and landscapes central to the lives of those early witnesses who still speak to us, today. I’m going to blog my exploration of this question to help myself hear my own thoughts, to gain clarity and hopefully to hear from you as well. May God bless your 2018, and may all our efforts to be faithful and authentic be pleasing to God and enriching for us and the world around us.
Sermon of Jan 21, 2018 St John’s Episcopal Church
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20, NRSV
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
This passage is a narrative of calling as Jesus goes place to place calling out to everyone “the time has come” and to some of the locals “follow me.” When was the last time you waited on a call? You just sat and watched your phone, checking for missed calls again and again? Today, it seems like that’s all I’m doing, getting calls or calling someone… I’ve even caught myself calling one of my sons in their room on their cell phone… have you been there? Instead of yelling or heaven forbid going to the room, I phone them.
Anyone remember life before cell phones? Before even pagers? When I was a kid we had, I think it was, an enormous brown 1975 Ford LTD. My dad’s car. We kids just roamed the neighborhood like a pack of hyenas, no iPhones, no GPS, no Google Maps. If my dad wanted me home he would go out and honk the horn on that Ford LTD a few times to call me. And pity me if I didn’t make it home in under 15 minutes. I knew that horn. I left what I was doing, so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go. And I get a little bit of the same feeling here in Mark chapter 1 when Jesus says “follow me” and people drop what they’re doing “so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go.”
It reminds me also an East African proverb we learned a long time ago, “To be called is to be sent.” The wisdom being the recognition that if someone with authority or purpose calls for you, it’s with the intent to send you, to use you, to give you something to do. Jesus seems to be calling with the intent to send.
I’d like to chat about Mark’s Gospel for just a moment, because over the years of preaching, it’s sort of become, if not my favorite, one Gospel that I immensely enjoy reading and preaching out of… this Gospel is a masterpiece of sorts. Mark begins, unlike other Gospels with their birth narratives and cosmic returns to the beginning of all things, with a simple statement… here begins the good news.
This good news is bound up in calling and proclaiming: 1) first with John the Baptizer, the voice crying in the wilderness, 2) then in the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus, 3) with Jesus himself who takes up the role of proclaimer as soon as John is arrested and silenced, and 4) eventually in the sending of the disciples to proclaim the message by chapter 3. Mark’s Gospel is an action story, robust with message, meaning, miracles and often a cyclical return to themes and words. Jesus says follow me many times and by the third chapter he appoints twelve apostles to be sent out to proclaim his message.
When my father would honk that horn, he wanted me for something, he was calling me for a reason… it’s dinner time or I had chores to do, or it was simply late and time to be at home. As my father called me for a reason, Jesus called followers for a reason, and we share a similar call, today. We hear it many different ways and we are called in many different situations, but being called is being sent. We who answer to call to enter the kingdom of God accept a call to ministry, as Jesus told them by the water that day “to fish for people.” A focus on the work of God, a call of ministry to the humanity around us. We may not all fish, but we share this call to be aware of the people around us, and follow the lead of Jesus.
We Are All Called
We’re not called to something burdensome, but to shared work and joy of ministry. In a section of our Book of Common Prayer called An Outline of the Faith, we find some the same kind of language wisely used to speak of our calling. I invite you to look into this Outline of the Faith, it begins on page 845, and we’ll be reading at page 855 under the heading, The Ministry.
Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Who are the ministers of the church? Who is called? We are all called! Does is surprise you that our ministry is described before the work of a bishop, priest or deacon? The very next question goes deeper… we represent Jesus, in his steps and voice, we bear witness, do the work of reconciliation, and share life together in the church, according to our gifts. No cookie cutter, pre-fab, “only my skills are needed or your gifts desired” but we all come together in our diversity to do ministry. We are each called as we are and fit into the work of Christ. On the next page we find the duty of all Christians: to follow.
Q. What is the duty of all Christians?
A. The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
The Apostle Paul uses some of the same language of reconciliation when speaking his ministry and ours, but I’ve always enjoyed the way he described this calling and sending to the church in Ephesus, when he says:
“But God, rich in mercy and loving us so much, brought us to life in Christ, even when we were dead in our sins. It is through this grace that we have been saved. God raised us up and, in union with Christ Jesus, gave us a place in the heavenly realm, to display in ages to come how immense are the resources of God’s grace and kindness in Christ Jesus. And it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you’ve done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”
Ephesians 2:4-10, The Inclusive Bible
We are God’s work of art. I don’t know about you, but I can look around, go to work, read the news, talk to people, see all the things happening in the world, and I can get a little depressed at the dysfunction, discord and deep needs around me. I can get both depressed and a bit overwhelmed. But the calling changes things. The calling reminds me who I am. Remembering the call refocuses me back on the good, the good God has intended and the good of which we are capable and the good needed by the world around us. The calling comes through to each of us to move us fully into this kingdom, this movement, of God’s grace, God’s love and God’s kindness. And the calling sends us, rejuvenated and made more whole, to share these blessings with an often hurting, bruised world.
Not everyone goes fishing… the disciples we find in the scriptures who are answering the call range from vocations like fishing to tax collecting, a physician like Luke, or a religious leader like Paul, benefactors like Theophilus and Phoebe, and church leaders like Prisca and Aquila… men and women of varied means and backgrounds who answered the call according to their many gifts and abilities.
I would love to be a kid again and hear that horn honking in the distance, hurriedly gathering up my Star Wars action figures and toys and saying my goodbyes to friends to head home. I hope that today I can hear every challenge to goodness as a call, each challenge to justice and fairness as a call, every cry of pain and plea for mercy as a calling to be the work of art God has made me to be. The call is there. Today. We are called and we are sent.
I pray that we as a people, as a church, take this calling to heart and cast our nets of love, kindness and healing among the people of the world, in all our variety and diversity of our gifts and our backgrounds. I that pray we answer the call to do the good works God has intended for us as a way of life. Let nothing distract us or sidetrack us or divert us from the call to make goodness our trade, justice our vocation and God’s love our pattern of life.
I will end with a prayer from the Apostle Paul for that church in Ephesus, from Ephesians chapter 3, a prayer for you and I as well, again from The Inclusive Bible:
“I pray that God, out of the riches of divine glory, will strengthen you inwardly with power through the working of the Spirit. May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To God – whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine – to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.”
I’m making a renewed vow of journaling in the coming year, and I’m inviting anyone along who wants to join me. I used to be a daily, consistent writer of my thoughts, prayers and dreams, but somewhere along the way I stopped. It’s time to start, again.
Why journal? I could mention a couple of things: 1) journaling helps with critical thinking and reflection, 2) it engages our mind and body, multiple senses working together, and 3) it helps us stop.
I’ve experienced all that in the past. Journaling helps me frame my thoughts and it creates a safe space to go deeper in personal reflection. I also like the feel of paper and a fine pen in my hand. It creates a quiet space, a refuge from all the hustle and hurry of the day. When I plan to journal and invest the effort to make a special space and time for journaling it becomes a respite, a place of healing and quiet in my hectic schedule and unrestful days.
What to journal? You can always journal your thoughts and prayers. You can keep a record of your thankfulness. You can track and explore your plans and dreams. I’m going to be keeping two official journals in 2018, one for my thoughts & prayers and one for my plans & schemes.
When to journal? When it’s valued. When it’s easy. When you can. That’s the reality we all face… journaling needs to be a valued practice, given it’s own space and an investment of materials. Pick a good journal, treat yourself with a trip to the bookstore and and get a good one. Do you like a fine pen? Do you not even care and keep $.29 ballpoints? It all works. When should you journal? Do have more time at the beginning or close of a day?
How to journal? Make it a habit, write daily. Write something: consistency. Look, I’m no recognized journaling expert, but this is what I have found in my experience: I need to do something every day to make it a habit and maintain it, and that means writing something, anything, each day. I will write something even if I’m writing the sentence, “Today, I got nothing.”
Why two journals? You may only want to carry one journal around for the year, but I have a bunch of stuff on my mind. I have now been out of full-time ministry for two years. I didn’t expect to still be out after two years. God and I need some time to chat and explore stuff in the new year. That’s a journal all to itself. The other one? I’m feeling creative and I have some projects in mind for 2018. Projects are great, but I need a journal, lists and captured creativity to help me get some of them finished! Let me know if you’re journaling and how it goes! Hold me accountable and ask me how it’s going!