Sermon, Pentecost Sunday
May 20, 2018 St John’s Episcopal Church
Good morning, beloved of God, and welcome to Pentecost Sunday. May the God whose Spirit is with us give us visions and dreams, and may that Spirit be unfettered in our hearts and minds, so that the whole world would hear our songs of joy, plans of peace and purpose of love. Amen.
We begin this morning lighting ten candles for the students who lost their lives in Santa Fe this past week. Ten points of light which represent our prayers for the healing of their families and the many injured by this latest school shooting in our land.
3. For the Human Family, Book of Common Prayer, pg. 815
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.
What a week and a weekend. This past week saw dozens of Palestinians gunned down in Gaza with hundreds more injured, and we pray for peace, reconciliation and a lessening of fear in Palestine and Israel. Then we began the weekend here in our own country on Friday with news of the school shooting in Santa Fe, TX, where 10 children lost their lives and at least ten more were injured in our epidemic of gun violence. CNN reports that this is the 22nd school shooting with casualties of this year, just 20 weeks into 2018. We can do the math, America; we are averaging more than one school shooting a week for the year. Then we had an amazing royal wedding, and for Episcopalians especially, and all who claim Christ, an exciting moment when our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached the Gospel of God’s love to literally the world. He gave witness on the world’s stage to God’s powerful love to remake us and remake all the world. What a rollercoaster of a week and weekend!
Maybe then we can relate a little with the disciples and crowds who are with Jesus in Acts 2 who have seen him murdered, seen him raised to life, spent time with him, seen him ascend into the sky, and now on the day of Pentecost, at the end of the Passover season, they experience an awe-inspiring event of God’s Spirit being poured out in flames and languages! Our heads would be spinning as well! Could we fault the onlookers for asking, “What in the world does all this mean?”
So, let’s take up that question, “What does all this mean?” Jesus had promised the coming of the Spirit, whom he called The Advocate or Helper in John’s Gospel, but that’s really just mechanics, right? That’s what happened, but what is happening? The Spirit, as Jesus promised in John’s Gospel, sounded more like an inner voice, enhanced memory, confidence and power. But the reality of God’s Spirit poured out in tongues of flame and roaring wind is moving and spectacular! The crowds hear this noise and gather around, they are called in, and they are amazed because they hear their own languages; God’s message made so personal and accessible for the people looking on, and they ask, “What in the world does all this mean?”
Let’s read that text again and a little further to begin hearing Peter’s answer to the question: Acts 2:2-24…
2 On the day of Pentecost all the Lord’s followers were together in one place. 2 Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting. 3 Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there. 4 The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.
5 Many religious Jews from every country in the world were living in Jerusalem. 6 And when they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. 7 They were excited and amazed, and said:
“Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee? 8 Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? 9 Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, 11 Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.”
12 Everyone was excited and confused. Some of them even kept asking each other, “What does all this mean?” 13 Others made fun of the Lord’s followers and said, “They are drunk.”
14 Peter stood with the eleven apostles and spoke in a loud and clear voice to the crowd:
“Friends and everyone else living in Jerusalem, listen carefully to what I have to say! 15 You are wrong to think that these people are drunk. After all, it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 But this is what God had the prophet Joel say,
17 “When the last days come, I will give my Spirit to everyone. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will have dreams. 18 In those days I will give my Spirit to my servants, both men and women, and they will prophesy.
19 I will work miracles in the sky above and wonders on the earth below. There will be blood and fire and clouds of smoke. 20 The sun will turn dark, and the moon will be as red as blood before the great and wonderful day of the Lord appears. 21 Then the Lord will save everyone who asks for his help.”
22 “Now, listen to what I have to say about Jesus from Nazareth. God proved that he sent Jesus to you by having him work miracles, wonders, and signs. All of you know this. 23 God had already planned and decided that Jesus would be handed over to you. So you took him and had evil men put him to death on a cross. 24 But God set him free from death and raised him to life. Death could not hold him in its power.”
Peter quotes a moving passage from the prophet Joel to illustrate that what has been witnessed is God’s Spirit poured out on the world, given to all; it’s God’s presence and the power of life over death, the power of Christ! Peter goes on preaching about Jesus and we see at the end of this chapter the beginning of the church, the teaching and baptisms that began a movement of worship, prayer and community that has weathered the storms of every age and generation down to us, today. “What does all this mean?” It means that God is speaking, to all people from all places. It means that God does not want to be contained, selfishly claimed or limited to a single people, language, place or kind. This Pentecostal scene is God calling everyone to the Table of Love where grace triumphs over guilt, life over death and community over division. The Day of Pentecost was a miraculous moment, in great part, for it’s inclusion and diversity. God demonstrated an amazing accessibility at Pentecost. The gift of tongues in Acts 2 are known languages… God is calling all people!
The coming of the Spirit fits into a scriptural pattern we see in the Gospels, as Jesus receives the Spirit descending as a dove at his baptism and the same great voice from that event speaks again at his Transfiguration on the mountaintop. I’m coming to think of this scene at Pentecost as another incarnation event, only this time the whole world is caught up in the arrival, the advent of what God is doing! It combines the two events from the Gospels… the Spirit comes visibly, now settling on the disciples, and this time humans speak out for God. Those people themselves, and we today, are caught up in an ongoing incarnation of God in this realm of earth as God’s Spirit is unleased and forever loosed upon us. We cannot be awakened to God’s Spirit without being changed by that Spirit, Pentecost-ed, welcomed, called, included.
I didn’t grow up in an American Pentecostal church tradition. Maybe some of us here today did. They are known for spiritual gifts and excitement, especially speaking in tongues. The Pentecostal tradition is a restoration movement which was actually started to restore something they felt was lost to the church, a miraculous and powerful feeling and experience such as the Day of Pentecost there in Acts chapter 2. I don’t judge my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, even as I admit that haven’t experienced Christian life as they claim, and I admit to having honest theological and textual questions about some of their doctrines… but one thing I would do, I would challenge their monopoly on the words Pentecost and Pentecostal.
As I read Acts 2:
1. When we bridge gaps between people, when we speak so that God is heard, we are Pentecostal.
2. When no one is left excluded from the table by prejudice and neglect, or human barriers of language, culture or tradition, we are Pentecostal.
3. When we proclaim the power of love that defeats death and robs the grave of it’s victory, we are Pentecostal.
4. When we recognize that God’s Spirit is with us, all of us, the entirety of the world, and we allow that Spirit to lead us into life by God’s will and purpose, dreaming and visioning what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, ourselves forgiven and ourselves forgiving, and the daily needs of the body and soul justly and mercifully shared out in plenty for all, then we are a Pentecostal people.
It’s a difficult juxtaposition when tongues of flame announce God’s love and presence in one context, and they represent our mourning a societal addiction to gun violence and murder in another context. And yet, the question, “What does this all mean?” is just as poignant. The answer is hopeful and powerful in each context, “Look to God. Look to God’s powerful love to change us and help us dream and vision a better world and to give us the courage to act and help make it a reality.”
I hear this diversity, inclusion and welcome ringing clearly in a favorite passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians when he wrote these words: Colossians 3:10-15…
10 Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. 11 It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
12 God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. 13 Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. 14 Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.
15 Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful.
I would leave you with a Pentecost message, today: Let all people hear the love of God and may we all be the voice of that love! Let there be no more barriers to our grace and openness to the varied and beautiful creation of this world whom God loves so very much. Let us not be blind to opportunities to speak of God’s love for the world around us, especially for those who would be most surprised by that love and by our sincere care for them.
As we move into a new week, having mourned so much among the joys of the last week, we will turn again in prayer, believing and hoping as a Pentecost people… praying from the Book of Common a Prayer, pg. 815…
4. For Peace
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn
but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the
strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that
all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of
Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and
glory, now and for ever. Amen.
I have waited and reflected a bit since my pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine before writing something about the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians. Recent violence in Gaza and the conflicting destructive messaging all around in my social media circles has compelled me to go ahead and get this written out. I want to be clear and I want to be irenic (peace-making) in what I say. I was deeply grieved and affected by what I saw in Palestine. I was moved by the daily plight of Palestinians in the West Bank having to navigate checkpoints and walls in their daily lives. I was moved by the stories of families and communities who were displaced and dispossessed in the late 40’s when Zionist armed forces removed them from their homes and lands and set them adrift. And what I personally saw was just in the West Bank, we aren’t even talking about the world’s largest open-air prison, the Gaza Strip.
As I process what I saw and what I have come to hope for, let me be clear about a few things. I support the right of the State of Israel to exist, I support it as much as I support the existence a Palestinian State. I would support even more a single state which granted full human rights and civil liberties to all the people within it’s borders regardless of race or religion. Sounds down right American, right? This is my left hand most days now, pictured to the right, with my wedding band inscribed in Hebrew and my bracelet bearing the Palestinian flag and the word love. I choose not to hate either people, or to ignore the needs of either people. My desire is for a peaceful, secure home for all the people of that land. I am glad that the State of Israel was created as a solution to the global and historical problem of anti Semitism and existential threat to the Jewish people which culminated in the Holocaust. I am aware of and terribly empathetic to the needs of the that time which moved the international community to sanction and support the creation of the State of Israel. I have no ill will toward Jewish people or Israeli citizens.
Now let me be as clear on the Palestinian people. They are a dispossessed and disenfranchised people, expelled from their homes, some into exile in other countries and some into lives as exiles near or on their own lands. As a group they were forced into this situation by immigrating Jewish families and Zionist forces, at gunpoint, and their plight has been one of the great injustices of our age. Even as the international community has leveraged it’s great moral weight and power to end Apartheid in South Africa, it ironically has ignored the similar plight of the Palestinians and their systematic and nearly complete disenfranchisement under an invading and expanding power.
The State of Israel has not been a shining example of democracy in the Middle East, but along with it’s achievements and progress as a nation and a military power it has systematically destroyed a people, occupied and dehumanized them, and never extended them full citizenship in their own land or anything near equal representation. When speaking of the Israeli settlements and occupation of Palestinian lands Henry Seigman (past National Director of the American Jewish Congress) only a decade ago warned us that, “As a result of that ‘achievement,’ one that successive Israeli governments have long sought in order to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution, Israel has crossed the threshold from ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.” <— source The Palestinian people have been repeatedly removed from their homes and lands to make room for immigrating Jewish families, and with the newest settlement under construction just last year, they are still being displaced and dispossessed, today. That great injustice, met so often with war from without and terrorism from within, has been the foundation of all the death and hopelessness we see, today.
That is what we call a 40,000 foot view, from up in the clouds. Down on earth today we have Israeli settlements, Hamas, the PLO, checkpoints and walls of separation, Zionism, the War of 1967, the Oslo Accords, armed occupation and terrorism. We have a human rights mess of titanic proportions including the most recent demonstrations for the Right of Return in the Gaza Strip and the brutal, lethal military responses of the IDF. There is such an enormous difference in Israel and Palestine today between the Israeli cities and the cities of Palestine, an enormous gap in wealth, stability and hope. You can wine and dine in Haifa, Israel, and struggle to find basic affordable medical care in Nablus, Palestine, on the same day. And yet in both areas we find human beings, families, neighbors, communities seeking a future and deserving one. We must take a longer view to find a way to peace. Solutions are not found in one-sided histories or focus on any one day’s violence.
If you choose to unconditionally support the State of Israel continuing as it has, then you point to Hamas and speak of a sovereign state defending it’s borders. If you choose to unconditionally support the Palestinians, then you ignore the indiscriminate terrorism of Palestinian factions and speak of the State of Israel only as an oppressor and only as an occupier. I am asking that we change this narrative to speak unconditionally of human dignity and equity, and about the needs of the future. The security of the Israeli people is bound to the security of the Palestinian people. Justice and peace for both sides must be founded in an equity of belonging, an equity of civil rights, and an equity of human dignity. We citizens of the United States learned (and are still learning) this lesson in our own country as we deal with the deep and painful legacy and resurgent reality of racism and oppression in our own nation as we are still learning to live together. We eventually joined the international community and helped end Apartheid in South Africa… not by killing the white South Africans, but by demanding equity and taking economic and political steps to stop the oppression. We must do the same for the Palestinians. This is not about killing Jews or destroying the State of Israel, but about ending the oppression upon which it currently has anchored itself. This is about saving the both Palestinian people and the State of Israel, for their future security and peace are inextricably bound.
As we recognize that the State of Israel was established to protect the human dignity of the Jews, we must also as honestly recognize the great human injustice done to the Palestinian people in that establishment. That injustice is the foundation for the narrative of hate, violence, terrorism and displacement which we have witnessed for the past seventy years and this very day. A new foundation must be laid for the future because anything built on that kind of injustice will forever be plagued by the violence, confusion and loss of human dignity we have witnessed. As we work to help change this narrative we must also deal with our culpability as a nation. Our money has financed and backed the Israeli military for decades. We have ignored the injustices done to the Palestinian people. We have rationalized and sided with oppression, and that must change.
Pray for peace. Mourn the dead. Speak for the future. Help change this narrative of violence and conflict to one of restoration and reconciliation. I’d like share some amazing voices I have recently heard met, and from whom I am learning about a future of hope…
Rev. Naim Ateek who recently spoke in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at St. John’s Episcopal Church and said, “The God we believe in loves justice and all people equally.” I agree. He’s an Anglican Priest, a Palestinian, an author, a theologian and no enemy to any human being. His books can found on Amazon right here!
Sabeel is the foundation for peace and dialogue which was established by Rev. Naim Ateek.
FOSNA is the Friends of Sabeel North America and offers ways to be involved with Sabeel and a peaceful way forward in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.
Jewish Voice for Peace is an amazing Jewish voice for our time! They are a great resource for our peace studies.
I wish I knew an easy, concrete answer to making peace in the Middle East happen today or tomorrow. I don’t think that such an easy answer exists, but I do fully believe that a secure, peaceful and joyful future for both Israel and Palestine does exist. We have to change our thinking and telling of the narrative, and speak and act for that peace. We have to give each other the grace to grapple with these emotionally charged issues and events, and stay committed to arriving on the other side together. We must at all costs avoid the voices of one-sided extremism who call us to violence and to hatred.
On a personal note… I love my many Jewish friends. I love and appreciate our shared religious roots and I abhor the anti Semitism and history of racial discrimination that Jewish people have faced around the world, and sadly often at the hands of my sisters and brothers in Christ. You matter to me. The safety and security of people in the State of Israel matter to me. I also love my Muslim friends, a group which has grown in recent years and months to include Palestinian friends of both Muslim and Christian faiths. Your lives matter to me and the future joy and security of the Palestinian people matter to me. Never think that I fall on one side or the other, but only ever strive to be on the side of human dignity, something that each and every one of us possesses in equal measure by God’s grace. Renouncing oppression, disenfranchisement and violence is our way forward, a way to peace that will never be purchased with rockets, bullets, bombs or walls. The sooner we can help our respective faith communities, social groups and governmental leaders change the narrative, the sooner we can take real steps toward the future that we all need and deserve.
Ok, white people. It’s getting a little embarrassing out here. A string of recent events have caused some of us to scratch our heads and wonder at the audacity of your racism. You do know that when non-white people do stuff you don’t like them doing (like sitting, napping or having a cookout) that your dislike and racism does not criminalize their behavior, yeah? You know that, right? Because when you don’t, that same racism calls the police for no reason and even might put on a uniform and a badge and start assaulting grandmas and learning your life lessons the hard way… and that’s when we have to have a chat. Come on. Going after a grandma?
Wait, it’s not just adults and senior citizens… some white people will shoot at a black teen for asking for directions! We cannot look away. This is a stunning white sin on display, shameless and feeling very entitled. I wonder how many of our gallery of racist rogues linked above were at church, today? How many of them will claim Christ and a Christian life? I know I linked all the above stories, but let’s stop for a moment and say their names: Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, Lolade Siyonbola, Kenzie Smith and Ms. Campbell.
I totally understand the feeling that many white people get when these videos start popping up on Facebook and our news channel of choice, “Hey! That’s not me! I’m not like that! I’m not racist!” I mean, I’m not one of those rifle-toting Swastika-wearing (very fine people) nutters like those we see on TV and the internet! Well, good. But these episodes remind us that in all times and all places people of conscience who have a voice must speak. We all need to speak out in every social platform available to us: white supremacy and racism are wrong. Some may have the uncomfortable job of telling coworkers, friends and family to stop their racists language and behavior around us: don’t back down. Every time we remain silent we further enable racism and violence against our non-white neighbors, friends and family. This is an all-hands-on-deck, white people!
“The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, 11 January 1907 – 23 December 1972
The white sin of racism passed from generation to generation will not stop until white people stop it. We can’t legislate it away. We have to change white culture, white society and white people. No more excuses. Not being racist is not enough. We need a war on racism. We need a war on racism because non-white folks need to sit down sometimes, might become fatigued while studying and need a quick nap, and will surely enjoy cooking out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
“Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us… each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful.”
Colossians 3:10-11 & 15, St. Paul
All of us, white people of faith especially, must be loud and clear in our condemnation and opposition to racism and white supremacy. There is no other way for us to be but loudly, clearly and completely opposed to this historic and tragic sin. Our weapons are love, grace and truth. Say it peacefully and say it civilly. But for the sake of all our beloved non-white friends, family and neighbors: say it!
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.