Monday, August 3, 2020

Being Fed In the Wilderness

'Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.'
--Matthew 14: 13-21

So the question on many people’s minds when they hear this story is: did Jesus really feed 5000 people?  I tend to respond to this kind of question with something the late spiritual author Rachel Held Evans once said, which is that I don’t know for certain if such a miracle DID happen, but I believe in a God through whom such a miracle COULD happen.  Whether we believe that the feeding of the 5000 literally happened this way, or whether we believe it is some sort of allegory, the story has a lot to teach us, particularly those of us who have felt cut off from being fed by our rituals and our communities during this pandemic.

An Eastern icon of the feeding of the 5000

It’s helpful for us to put this miracle in its context—and yes, it is a miracle, and I will get into why a bit later.  We don’t get the context in our selection this week, but this event takes place just after word has reached Jesus of the death of John the Baptist, his cousin and fellow proclaimer of the Good News that the kingdom of God had come near.  Several of Jesus’ own disciples—and maybe even Jesus himself—were followers of John, and no doubt many believed that the two teachers and prophets would bring end the Roman occupation and restore the land to the people of Israel.  The first indicator that this isn’t going to happen the way they think is John getting beheaded by King Herod.  We can imagine how such an event would affect those who had put so much faith and hope in John.

The crowds who were following Jesus no doubt included such folks, whom it can be assumed likely wanted to leave and isolate themselves in their grief.  Consider that for a moment:  an event of such great distress and heartbreak, which no doubt caused fear and panic, has occurred, and it has left a large number of people feeling helpless and uncertain about what their future holds.  All the while, these folks out in the middle of the wilderness are getting hungrier and hungrier. Doesn’t that sound a bit familiar?

We may not be able to point to one single event as the marker for the beginning of our suffering—such as the beheading of John was for these folks—but how many of us over the last 5 months have isolated ourselves in our grief?  There are folks who have cut themselves off from online church worship or given up on maintaining connections through platforms like Zoom because these efforts are not only boring and exhausting, but they aren’t providing a whole lot of hope that things will be different. 

This sums up our situation quite well.

This pandemic is an event of great distress and heartbreak, and it too has caused fear and panic, leaving so many of us feeling helpless and uncertain about our future.  Every day the numbers go up, or at least that’s the case here in North Carolina, and every day we just get hungrier and hungrier as we stay out here in this dessert.  We have more in common with that crowd today than we might have first realized.

It’s here that I want to say that I get it.  I’m with you.  All this time I have had to preach and hold church meetings virtually, and talking to a screen is really, really hard.  I don’t know when the pandemic will end, when we can come back together to worship publicly, and like many I see the rhetoric spewed from our leaders and the cries for change to our broken systems, and I want to do something, but I don’t know what that it is, which leaves me feeling helpless, as well.  It’s very easy during these times for me, for all of us I imagine, to just want to cut ourselves off from all of it, retreat into our self isolation, and let the grief and despair consume us.  What is the answer?

For us it’s Jesus.  And because, as the great mystic Teresa of Avila reminds us, Jesus has no hands or feet but ours, the answer is the Body of Christ, the beloved community that Jesus began; that is, each other. We lean on Jesus in our moments of distress, and we lean on each other, who are the very Body of Christ in the world.  And in these moments, we find comfort, strength, and hope for our future. 

This is what Jesus does in the story of the feeding of the 5000.  Looking out upon the grieving and hungry multitude, Jesus told his apostles, ‘You give them something to eat!’ And when the loaves and fish were brought to him he took them, blessed them, broke them, and gave them out, enough to feed everyone.  The distress and pain that had been felt after news of John’s death begins to fade, and to paraphrase Amy-Jill Levine in her Women’s Bible Commentary, the perverse image of John’s head on a platter is replaced by a banquet for the poor in spirit. 

Caraggio's Beheading of John the Baptist

Out of what looked like scarcity, Jesus brought abundance.  When the apostles distressed that they didn’t have enough and the people were so filled with grief, Jesus gathered them together and fed them.  He provides sustenance when all anyone around him can see and feel is deprivation.  That is a miracle, no matter which explanation we choose to believe.  

It is possible, I believe, for such a miracle to still occur.  If we were in a church building together, I would remind you that the actions of Jesus—taking, blessing, breaking, and giving—are reflections of the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and that when we say that great prayer of the Church, using those same verbs in our remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper as we share a morsel of bread and sip of wine, we are fed and made one with Jesus, and in that moment a miracle occurs. 

Saying that right now rings pretty hollow begins we cannot share Eucharist together.  Like that crowd, we are getting hungrier and hungrier the longer we are apart from each other and can’t share that meal.But here’s the miracle, brothers and sisters. I believe that such a feeding can still take place, though it may not look like what we are used to.  If you remember another version of this story—the one in John’s Gospel—you’ll recall a young boy who gives the loaves and fish—all that he has—to help feed the people. In that version the boy’s offering, which passes through Jesus’ hands, feeds the people.  

In the same way, each of us can feed one another whenever we bring whatever we have and let it pass through Jesus’ hands.  When we who are the Body of Christ feed others—both in actual food and in spiritual nourishment—it is eucharistic.  When we are able to support one another in our grief and distress and accept the call when Jesus says to us, as he said to his apostles, ‘You give them something to eat!’ then we can be healers and repairers of the breaches.  Out here in this wilderness we’re all just trying to get fed.  While we may not have the rituals to which we are accustomed, those that have nourished us for so long, we can still feed one another, and when we do, miracles happen. 

Mary of Egypt, one of the dessert mothers, never received Communion until the last day of her life, and said that while she was wandering around in the dessert, she was nourished each day by the Word, by Scripture and the presence of Jesus, the Living Word.  So how can we feed one another while we are out here in this wilderness? 

Saint Zosima gives Saint Mary of Egypt Holy Eucharist on the last day of her life.

We all have COVID fatigue and we miss our old routines, but rather than run back into them blindly or retreat into our grief, maybe we can consider how we, the Body of Christ, can be eucharistic people, who take what we have, bless it, break it open, and give it to someone who needs the love, forgiveness, and grace of Jesus in their lives.  If we can do that, then we will absolutely make miracles happen and transform our world.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Hope We Need Right Now

'Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.'
--Romans 8: 12-25

One of my wife Kristen's and my favorite tv shows is Supergirl.  Of all the entertainment casualties of the pandemic, losing the final episodes of this past season of Supergirl has really bummed us out because it was doing some great things.  The show is smart, witty, faithful to the spirit of its comic book origins, and very intentional with how it deals with contemporary issues.  

Supergirl, like her cousin Superman, hails from the planet Krypton and wears a red and blue uniform with a curvy ‘S’ emblazoned on the chest.  But on Krypton it’s not an ‘S’ but the seal of the House of El, Supergirl and Superman’s family crest.  It’s a symbol that, in the Kryptonian language, means ‘hope.’  Perhaps that is what makes the tv show so good, that despite all of the challenges she faces—both of the alien kind and the human kind—Supergirl always maintains hope, both in people and in the promise of a better tomorrow.  We both said that this is the show we need right now because it offers hope while not ignoring very real challenges that we face today.  And we both highly recommend it.

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl in the CW television series.

Our reading this week from Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals a lot with hope.  We might, at first glance, treat the kind of hope spoken of by Paul or Jesus as some kind of lofty promise that compels us to ignore the sufferings around us.  To be sure, I’ve known my fair share of Christians who look at suffering—either their own or the collective suffering of the world—and say, ‘Well, none of this matters anyway because my hope is in heaven, not here!’  That kind of hope CAN give us something to look forward to, but it does nothing to actually help us face the challenges of our present time.  The hope Paul gives to the Church in Rome is definitely not this kind of hope.  Rather, it's more like the hope that Supergirl gives, hope in something greater without dismissing the sufferings of the present.

Instead of offering some sort of pollyannic escape, Paul acknowledges the reality of suffering, and the pain of that suffering is expressed in groans—labor pains, Paul calls them, pains felt by the whole of creation.  Hope, then, for Paul, is born out of the disconnect between what is and what should be.  The agony of what is does not get denied, but instead is acknowledged, experienced, and lived through.     

Right now it can be said that the whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains for the better part of this calendar year.  COVID-19 came onto the scene, and creation groaned and cried out to all of us to stop what we were doing.  Humanity, meanwhile, has been doing our own groaning, some over being unable to work, some over having to stay stuck in their homes, some over being sick, and some over watching people die.  Meanwhile, all we have is time to sit and watch social media and cable news, and from this space an old, old groan has been heard once again, calling for justice for all of God’s people, and these groans, which were often drowned out prior to COVID, have joined together in chorus with all of the other cries coming from people and coming from creation itself.  These are all labor pains, I believe, and there is, there must be, something on the other side.  This moment right now that we find ourselves in is the moment when real hope is born. 

Desmond Tutu said that hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Martin Luther King said we must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.  


How could these two modern prophets speak of such a hope, of something that they could not see in their days of apartheid and Jim Crow, respectively?  Perhaps because they believed Paul’s words that we are children of God. 

Being children of God does not mean that we are free of suffering—just look at Jesus! But being children of God means we do not suffer alone or needlessly; we suffer together with one another and all creation, we suffer with a God who has suffered, all the while we live in hope of a redeemed and liberated world.  This redemption and liberation has already come in Jesus, in whom, Paul says, we have seen the first fruits of the Spirit—Jesus’ love, forgiveness, welcome, and grace.  Jesus has already won, already shown us what the fruits of the Spirit look like, but the creation still groans, and there is still hope that needs to be cultivated, still fruits to be yielded.  Yes, it’s the hope for the kingdom to come, but like Archbishop Tutu and Dr. King, it’s also a hope that allows us to look at the way things have been, the way things are, and say, “No!  This is not the way things should be!”  This is the very hope that Jesus gave, the good news he preached to those who were poor in spirit.  It’s the kind of hope that gets cultivated when we remember that we, too, are children of God, and if children, then heirs of the promise of glory that has both already come in Jesus and is still to come.

I believe that glory is on the other side of this suffering, and I take to heart Paul’s words to a suffering community in Rome and lean on them as good news for our country and our world right now.  The sufferings of the present time cannot compare with the glory about to be revealed, I do believe that.  However, we cannot think that the glory somehow erases the suffering or justifies it.  The resurrection did not erase or justify the cruel, cruel injustice of the crucifixion.  We hope for light at the end of this darkness, but we must not succumb to the false gospel that the suffering we have endured is good for us.  
Our prayer right now is to lean on the hope God gives us, so that we may have strength and courage to endure what we are experiencing now and work for a better and brighter tomorrow, one in which we have learned from the sufferings of our past, so that we may not repeat them.  This is the kind of hope that both keeps us from fully falling into despair while also staying away from any kind of apathetic acceptance of the pain we have endured. 

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is the thing with feathers; that perches in the soul; and sings the tune without the words; and never stops at all.  That sounds a lot like the Holy Spirit to me, perching in our souls, singing without words and never, ever stopping.  The Spirit is God’s agent of hope in a world that, right now, desperately needs it. 

Emily Dickinson

Look around you and you will find hope, but it is not the pie-in-the-sky, high, high hope.  It is the kind of hope embodied by those who refuse to accept sickness, death, and injustice as a “new normal.”  This is the hope preached by the prophets of old and by modern prophets like Archbishop Tutu, Dr. King, and Congressman John Lewis, who died this weekend. This is the hope Jesus gave to the outcast and marginalized.  And this is the hope we need.  There is light in this darkness, brothers and sisters, and there is glory on the other side that will be revealed to us, to which these present sufferings won’t even compare.  Our God has already won and will win again.  And our God has called each of us a beloved child.  

Congressman John Lewis

That belovedness does not keep us from suffering, but it does free us to see that our future does not have to be a repeat of our past.  So let your groans be heard and mingle with the very labor pains of creation, and from those cries may you find the hope to meet the challenges of today and ensure a glorious tomorrow.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Missing the Mark

"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
--Romans 7: 15-25a

If you look out the window of the oratory in our home, you will see a large target leaning up against a tree.  That is my wife Kristen’s target.  As some of you may know, my wife is a pretty darn good archer; in fact, one day, after she hadn’t shot her arrows for several weeks, she said, ‘I’m gonna go shoot,’ and she went outside, immediately shot a bullseye, and came back inside and said, ‘Well, I’m done.’

At least we know we won't starve when the apocalypse comes.

When she took up archery, though, Kristen taught me something that I had never known before.  Did you know, she asked, that the word ‘sin’ is an archery term?  As in, the thing that Jesus came to free us from?  Yes, it’s an archery term that was originated by Aristotle.  The Greek word is hamartia, which literally means ‘to miss the mark,’ as in an archer missing the target.  I must say, though, my wife rarely misses her target, so I guess that means she’s not prone to sinning…

All kidding aside, the word hamartia appears 141 times in the New Testament, and each time it gets translated as ‘sin.’  I know that some of you who read this blog have had experiences in church settings where the sermon each week is about nothing else but sin.  Perhaps you've heard sermons that sounded something like this:  Sin was brought into the world by the misdeeds of Adam, Jesus died to save us from sin, but sin continues to exist, and it is up to us to fight it by avoiding what we perceive as sinful behavior and going to church regularly.  Does that kind of message sound like some of your experiences?

But here’s the thing:  the desire to stay away from sin so fiercely is often counterproductive and can unintentionally lead us to sin.  We create lists in our heads of dos and donts, what is and is not sinful, which reduces our faith journey to just being about following a set of rules, and our relationship with God and one another ends up just being legalistic.  God then becomes a great big judge in the sky to fear, rather than a partner with us to love and who shows us how to love.  This isn’t what sin, what hamartia is about.

Of the 141 times hamartia shows up in the New Testament, a quarter of those appearances are in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul knew that avoiding sin wasn’t about just following a set of rules, but instead it had to be relational and contextual.  If it’s just about following laws, what do you do when those laws get complicated and confusing.  He says in chapter 7, verse 22 that he delights in the law of God, but he sees in his members another law that is at war with the law of his mind, making him captive to the law of sin.  That’s four sets of laws he’s talking about!  How could he possibly keep track of it all and avoid every single pitfall? He can’t.  Nobody could. 

Saint Paul, who understood that sin was relational, not legalistic.

The harder we try, the worse it gets.  Paul says he doesn’t understand his own actions, that he does what he knows he shouldn’t do, what he doesn’t even really want to do, and he doesn’t do the things that he knows he should do, the things his heart tells him to do.  How often does this happen to us?  Even when we want to do good we end up missing the mark.  Consider a time perhaps when you thought to do something nice for someone, but instead of doing something that they would have appreciated, you did for them something you appreciated—like giving them your favorite DVD as a birthday present. 

Another common example is when you withhold the truth from someone because you think it will protect them, only to realize once they’ve learned the truth that it wasn’t nearly as harmful as you keeping it from them.   In both of these examples, the intention is not to hurt someone, but, as Paul shows us, sin can infect the heart of even the best of our intentions.  In those moments, we very simply miss the relational mark.  We sin.

Take Paul, for example.  His intentions were actually good when he was persecuting the followers of Jesus because of what the law told him to do.  He believed he was doing what was right.  It wasn’t until Jesus knocked him off his horse on the Damascus road that Paul realized how wrong he was.  Just because he thought he was doing good, didn’t mean that he actually was.  Sin is about impact, more than intention.

This is something that I have noticed is quite hard for folks.  How many of you have ever been in an argument with someone you care about after you said or did something hurtful, and your response was, ‘But I never intended to hurt you.’  That may be, but the intent doesn’t justify the behavior, which still has a harmful impact. 

An example from my own life would be that I grew up in a part of the country where the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia—what most of us call the Confederate flag—would routinely fly in people’s yards and appear on my classmates’ shirts at school.  I know from my own conversations with some of those folks that they would say that it was never their intention to promote hatred, but that doesn’t really matter when an entire population of people experience that image as a symbol of slavery and oppression. 

We are seeing those kinds of conversations happening right now, and the more we use our intention as a crutch—or the intentions of our ancestors—the more we miss the relational mark, the more we ignore and silence the voices of those who are telling us that they are being harmed, and the more we sin against one another.

This, I suspect, is what is at the heart of sin: an inability to accept when someone has told us that our behavior has caused harm, which then prevents us from learning from those experiences and growing in relationship with God and one another.  When we think of sin in this way, then yes, we are all sinners because we are all guilty of this on a daily basis.  It isn’t always helpful to just think of sin as the big list of ‘Thou shalt nots’ that we find in the Book of Leviticus because such lists can’t name every context and can’t cover all the relational nuances of every possible situation. Maybe, then, we can start thinking about our sins in those relational terms, accepting that we will miss the mark, but even when we do, there is a solution

What that solution is not, I must say, is shame.  Shame is different from guilt, as Brene Brown reminds us.  Guilt says that we have done something wrong, while shame says that we ARE something wrong, fundamentally.  We can feel guilty without going to a place of shame.  What shame does is make the moment about us, preventing us from hearing the other person and accepting our wrong-doing because it keeps us at the center of everything. If we are to move beyond our sin, we must move beyond our shame, beyond our need to protect our own image. Sometimes our shame can seem overwhelming, leading us to a place of extreme defensiveness. 

Still, for others, shame manifests in an extreme case of beating oneself up because they feel like the worst possible person. Even Paul fell prey to shame—he exclaims in the reading, ‘Wretched man that I am!’  But he follows it with ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’  Jesus frees us from shame and gives us the gift of grace to move beyond our sins, turning ourselves away from our past behavior and committing to being different.

This is what repentance is about.  The Greek word is metanoia, and it literally means ‘to turn oneself around.’  This is the solution.  We will continue to miss the mark, but we don’t have to hide behind our intentions or go to a place of shame.  This is true for individuals, for the Church, and for our country. 

If we are ever to deal with our sin, both personal and collective, we must repent.  We must accept when others tell us that our behavior has been harmful; we must admit and own that harm; we must turn ourselves around and desire to repair the harm we have done and that has been done on our behalf and work to restore the relationship that has been damaged; and we must embrace the gift of grace that Christ gives each of us.  The news of Jesus is good, the burden of Jesus is light, and all of us who are weary and overwhelmed can come and find rest in him.

Monday, June 29, 2020

How Long?!

How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day? *
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;

4 Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.

5 But I put my trust in your mercy; *
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.

6 I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; *
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
--Psalm 13

 What I love most about the Psalms is that they cover the entire range of the human experience.  Every single emotion that we feel can be found in the Psalms, from the loudest shouts of thanks and praise to the deepest groans and wailings.  Normally, if we were gathered in the church together, we would sing the Psalm, led by a cantor, which is an ancient custom that goes all the way back to even before the time of Jesus.  But whether we sing them or say them, the Psalms are beautiful reminders that all of our feelings and experiences are precious in the sight of God, and Psalm 13 really captures that because it is a Psalm that speaks to where we are.

“How long, O Lord?!” the Psalm begins.  They say that this Psalm was constructed by David when he was running from King Saul, who was trying to kill him.  But this Psalm could just as easily have been written by any of us, am I right?  How long, O Lord?!  How long before we can gather with our church folks in prayer, and song, and Sacrament?  How long until the scourge of COVID-19 is repelled from this land?  How long must we see those sick and dying before people stop thinking only of themselves and start wearing their masks?  How long can we hear the cries of the poor and neglected, the most vulnerable in our society, whom we have been so quick to forget?  How long will young black men have to walk down the streets in fear that they will at best be accosted by law enforcement and at worst killed be for being ‘suspicious’?  How long before our country finally recognizes the sins of its past—which are still systemic in our present—and commits to changing its narrative?  How long, O Lord?!

Psalm 13 is a Psalm of lament, of deep wailing and crying out in grief.  There are many Psalms of lament; perhaps the one best known to some of us is Psalm 22, the one that Jesus himself quotes on the cross when he says, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ These Psalms deepen our faith and our humanity.  They get us to look at ourselves and the world around us and force us behold those things that we don’t really want to behold.  They help us deal with reality by preventing us from ignoring our various existential crises.  These Psalms deal with what Howard Thurman called the “contradictions of life,” because they begin with an acknowledgement of pain and finish with a reminder of God’s goodness and love.  They are examples of faithful prayers that meander, and they inspire our faithful lives to evolve. 

Howard Thurman, author of Jesus and the Disinherited, understood the power of the Psalms.

There is a pattern to Psalm 13, as well as any other Psalm of lament, a formula that they all follow:  the begin with an address, then a complaint, then a petition or prayer, followed by a confession of trust in God, and finally a promise of praise.  This Psalm begins with a strong address—How long, O Lord?!—a cry of desperation.  The complaint that’s raised here is the grief the David feels and the fear of his enemies triumphing over him.  Then comes the prayer for God to look upon David, to answer him and give light to his eyes.  Verse 5 offers the confession of trust in God’s mercy, and the last verse is a promise that David will continue to sing to God and praise God’s name.  This is the pattern of all Psalms of lament, but because of how short Psalm 13 is we can see that pattern quite clearly:  address, complaint, prayer, confession of trust, and promise of praise. 

At first glance this seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?  David offers his pain to God, and then very quickly he moves to a place of praise.  But we don’t know how long it took him to construct this Psalm, do we?  He very well could have written the opening verses that speak of crying out to God and accusing God of forgetting him when he was hiding out from Saul in a Judean cave somewhere, only to not finish it until he was certain his life would be spared.  Reading passages in the Bible often gives us the sense that it happened all at once, but that is rarely the case.  David may have been in that place of deep despair and frustration for a really long time.

Nevertheless, the Psalm comes back to an acknowledgment of God’s goodness and mercy.  In verse 5, after making his complaint and offering his prayer, David says, ‘But I put my trust in your mercy,” as if to say, “Yes, this pain I feel is real.  And yes, right now, God, you seem so far away from me that I am having trouble finding you.  But I still know that you’re real, and I will still sing your praise.”  

Yes, David laments and gives his despair and desperation space to exist.  He gives voice to his worries and complaints and acknowledges his fears and anxieties, while at the same time he keeps moving through all of it, landing at last in a place where he can offer God praise.  This Psalm is a journey, and David—or whoever wrote it—understood that the only way to get out of a place of pain and get to a place of praise is to go through all of that stuff. 

This is what 12-step programs understand and why they repeat the mantra “the only way out is through.”  Personally, I cannot think of any modern institution that understands the spiritual journey like 12-step programs, at least not in the western world.  Anyone who has been through such a group can speak to the importance of acknowledging one’s pain and grief, how it matters that those experiences are given voice, and how wading through the muck is the only possible means by which a person can get to a place of praise.  A great many of us are so stuck in our current culture of shame, where we are always taught that the answer to “How are you?” is “Good,” or “OK,” but never the real truth because who wants to hear that?!  Sometimes we just need the permission to cry out, to be frustrated, to ask God, “Where are you?!” Psalms like this one give that permission and remind us that all of our feelings and experiences are held in God’s hand, even when God feels so very far away.

Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, understood the power of giving voice to our pain.

Right now is a time of lament, and we need some Psalms to sing and cry out in these times.  We need to be able to offer our pain and sorrow to God, for it is only in doing so that our fears can be transformed into hope.  I wonder what might our lament Psalms sound like right now.  Perhaps something like this...

Address:  When will you come to help us, O Lord?!  Complaint:  We are lost, lonely, and in pain, held captive by the dual pandemics of virus and racial injustice!  Prayer:  Give us courage and hope that this is not all there is, that light and love are on the other side.  Confession of trust:  Though you seem far away, yet even still, we love you and put our trust in your healing grace and mercy.  Promise of praise:  We will sing your praises in the midst of our sorrows. 

I just put together a Psalm of lament for these times, and I encourage you to do the same.  Take some time to pour out your grief over everything these last 4 months have brought us, and give voice to your experience.  Cry out to God with your pain, knowing that the only way out of it is through it, and see where it takes you. Maybe you would even like to share them with each other, just to let someone else know they’re not alone in their pain and frustration. 

Psalms like Psalm 13, and the one I've come up with, and the ones you may construct in the coming days, are not just about giving voice to the groans and wails of our hearts—though that is very significant, especially in our time—but they also renew our sense of hope because they always come back to trust in God and the determination to keep praising and loving this God who not only gives us these emotions with the understanding that we will feel them and use them, but who has also felt them, who has also lamented from the cross, cried for a dead friend, and asked for strength to get through a time of trial.  Therein lies the hope, in a God who has gone through all of this and who goes through all of this right alongside us.  

May you take heart this week, knowing that you have permission to lament and grieve, and that your crises do not go unheard by our loving, liberating, and life-giving God!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Liberation from Security

“[Jesus said,] 'Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father, 
and a daughter against her mother, 
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.'”
--Matthew 10: 34-39

Don’t ever say that God does not have a sense of humor; after all, on Father's Day we heard this Gospel where Jesus says to his 12 apostles that he has come to pit fathers against children and that anyone who loves their father or mother more than him is not worthy of Jesus.  I wish I could say that I intentionally picked this reading just to mess with all of you, but that’s just the hand of God at work in our lectionary.  It sure made me laugh, though. 

We might hear Jesus say these words and immediately think that he’s somehow anti-family.  That’s not what’s going on here, but for anyone out there who likes to talk about so-called ‘Christian family values,’ this passage does undermine that sentiment.  The truth is that Jesus isn’t really a champion of ‘family values.’  Instead, he has what we might call ‘kingdom values,’ and very rarely are those two ever the same thing.

Last week we heard Jesus call and send forth his 12 apostles, and in this passage, which picks up after that, we hear him warning them what it really means to follow him as a disciple and to be sent forth by him as an apostle.  In short, it means being willing to lose everything that they think is important.  At the top of this list is family. 

But consider what that would have meant in Jesus’ time.  Even more so than now, family meant security in first century Palestine.  One’s survival and prosperity were deeply tied to one’s family; that is, after all, the whole point of marriage at this time: to insure the name and legacy survives and that the two families become prosperous.  All of this was tied to the need for security, to feel comfortable, at ease, content, and not at all fearful.  The goal in life, then, was to find one’s security and to hold onto it by any means necessary. 

This is a concept that is not bound to distant years in Palestine; this is still very true in our time.  Every single day we make decisions based on the question:  how can I maintain security for me and mine?  This extends out beyond our nuclear families to our religious communities, our social circles, and especially to our broader, national identities.  Furthermore, very often when the primary motivation of an individual or a particular group of people is their continued security, other people suffer.  We need only look at Jesus’ homeland today to see how the need for security has resulted in human rights violations, or better still, we can look to the history of our own country, where laws were passed just after the Civil War that prohibited the rights of freed black people because white folks were afraid that they would rise up and seek revenge for the sin of slavery.  The need for security always seems to result in hardship.

This is what Jesus has come to upend. The point of his message is to separate us from all of those things with which we have overly identified to the point that we can only find our sense of comfort and security in them—our sports teams, our jobs and their benefits, our churches, our political parties, our family names and reputations, our national pride, our privilege and cultural ignorances, and every other idol in our lives that we keep holding onto, thinking that our identity lies in them.  Jesus ain’t got time for that!  This is what Paul when he says, “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God is Christ Jesus (Romans 6: 11).”  It means letting all the rest die so that Christ is our only identifier, and when Christ is our only identifier, then we can give up this false pursuit of security because we know, to borrow Jesus’ own words, that to lose our life for his sake is to find it.  There is no need for security when we are alive in Christ.

The fallacy of security is also tied the gospel of scarcity.  When we believe that there isn’t enough for everyone, we get scared, we hoard, we refuse to share, and we ignore the needs of others.  Since the days of Jesus those in power have lied to society’s poor, pitting them against each other and telling them that only the laws and legislations set forth by the rich and powerful will keep them safe.  Jesus calls out those lies for what they are and shows us how they are grounded in fear, but perfect love, his love, as we know, casts out that fear.   

Maybe we need to hear this Gospel now more than ever because we have been held in the grip of fear, and in these last days we have seen just how right Jesus was. In the before time, the long, long ago of February, we clung to all of those other identifiers that we thought protected us from seeing the world for what it really is.  We ignored the regular, day-to-day injustices of our lives because we had all that other identifiers in our lives to distract us and give us a false sense of security.

But COVID didn’t care about any of that and tore right through it.  Lately, we have come to realize just how empty all of those identifiers really are:  sports teams—what sports?!—our jobs and their benefits—how many of us have been laid off and how many “essential” workers still don’t have a living wage or health care??—our churches—some may be, foolishly, coming back together, but we’ve had to relearn that our buildings are meaningless if the real Church, the people, are sick and can’t come together. The wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world has been brought to its knees, in large part because of the false gospel of scarcity that said we couldn’t take care of everyone who is sick.  The veil has been lifted on that false gospel. And by the grace of God, since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we have been shown that the institutions in which we have placed our sense of security in this country are deeply troubled and in need of reform. 

People are starting to see the illusion of security that all of those things gave us in the before time, and for the Church this time right now is a new prophetic call for a moral revival, as the scales from our eyes are at last falling away, and all those identifiers and the security and scarcity they embody are being seen for what they are.

Jesus was trying to get his apostles to understand that to be a part of this Jesus Movement, to identify with him and to pattern their lives after him, meant total surrender of everything else.  There’s no such thing as a part-time disciple or quarter-time apostle!  Our world is filled with distractions, filled with promises of power, prestige, and possessions that all lie to us and tell us that we can find our needs met and find our security in them.  Jesus called these things Satan: anything that lies to us and pulls us away from our true identity .  If we want to maintain this false sense of security, then by all means we can keep relying on those other identifiers, or we turn to Jesus.

If we are really serious about Jesus and being a part of the Movement that he started, then that means letting our sense of security die with those other identifiers, so that he may be our only identifier.  It means making our lives images of his own, seeking justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God; proclaiming that—despite what we see—this is the year of the Lord’s favor, as we don’t just preach good news for the poor but we mobilize ourselves to bring that good news and be repairers of the breaches.  His words about renouncing family mean simply that we must elevate Jesus’ life and message above everything else in our lives.  

Yes, it’s risky and often costly, just as Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Oscar Romero, all of whom stood up to oppressive systems that provided people with a false sense of security, all of whom were killed by those systems. We may be asked to take a risk ourselves, but in the end it is always worth it because, while we may lose our false life, we will gain our real one.  This is what it means to live into our ‘kingdom values,’ to really be alive in Christ Jesus.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Where Is Jesus [and Our Privilege] Sending Us?

'Jesus sent [the Twelve] out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment."'
--Matthew 10: 5-8

One of my spiritual heroes is Will Campbell.  He was a Baptist preacher, but he never had a congregation.  He was a white man who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement; in fact, he was the only white person present when Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.  He wasn’t the kind of person who was front and center for photo ops, but he was always there at protests for integration in Arkansas or at sit ins in Mississippi, always just showing up and working behind the scenes.  In the summer of 1964 Will heard black activist Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee speak. Stokely told the white folks in the crowd that, while their efforts at sit-ins and marches were appreciated, what they really needed to do to affect change was to refocus their efforts on educating their fellow white people, the very folks in positions of power and influence. Will took that literally and started having conversations with members of the Ku Klux Klan, figuring, as he said, that they needed to hear the message of freedom and equality, maybe more than anyone else.  Will died in in 2013, but he wrote extensively on his days as, what he called a bootleg preacher, so I encourage you to check out his books—Soul Among Lions, Brother to a Dragonfly, and Forty Acres and a Goat, to name a few. 

Will Campbell, bootleg preacher.

The Gospel reading this week makes me think of Will Campbell.  After he calls the 12 apostles—and let’s remember that an apostle is someone who is sent out, which is different from a disciple, which is someone who follows—Jesus gives the 12 some specific instructions, the first of which is this:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

Their mission is to be sent out among their own people, to the folks just like them, and to preach this message of Jesus, a message of radical hospitality, of salvation for everyone, and of the truth that God had made all things, and all people, clean. The ones that need to hear it most are the very people who, at that time, were denying it.  The towns where these folks are most prominent are the ones to whom Jesus sends the 12 on their mission. 

What Jesus is doing here in this initial sending forth of the apostles gets echoed in the words from Stokely Carmichael that Will Campbell heard, which led him to do the work he did among the Klan.  Stokely was doing for Will what Jesus was doing for the 12 apostles, sending them to their own people; those are the very ones who need the message the most because those are the people who have created and maintained the social systems and structures that have denied the inherent goodness and basic human dignity of other groups of people, based on their racial, social, or religious standing. 

The hardliners in Jesus’ day—the Saducees and some of the Pharisees and scribes—were determined to keep their laws in place, thinking that the laws were fair.  Well, they were…for them.  But what about the Gentiles?  What about women and foreigners? What about the folks on the outside, the folks whose lives didn’t appear to matter much to those in the positions of privilege and power?  Jesus’ message offered good news for those kinds of folks, but the ones who really needed to hear that message were the hardliners, the ones who could actually stop the cycle of oppression because they were the ones holding on to those oppressive systems. 

This is why Will Campbell worked among the Klan.  They were the hardliners—the folks who were determined to keep legal segregation now, tomorrow, and forever. Will never stopped being a part of the sit-ins and marches with his black brothers and sisters, but he also understood that as a white person, he needed to be in relationship with other white people who could affect change on a systemic level, and he needed to call the oppression out and get white folks like him to understand the role they had played. 

He also understood that it wasn’t just the Klan that was the problem; in fact, he knew that the Klan was a by-product, a symptom of a much larger system of oppression, and he was very often critical of institutions that supported and benefited from such a system.  He was known to say the following at more than one university at which he was invited to speak:

 “This institution right here has contributed, wittingly or not, to incomparably more bloodshed and misery, done more to maim and murder, than the whole lot of poor old country boys in sheets holding cross burnings in rented cow pastures.  Now then, the Klan may be more bigoted than the ‘children of light’(that is, the children of the Enlightenment, the educated class), but they’re not more racist because racism is in the structures, the system in which we are all bound up, and we’re all basically of a Klan mentality when it comes to our own structures and our own institutions.” 

Ouch!  Those are harsh words to hear, but it doesn't make them untrue. Few of us may know active Klan members, but we all are caught up in structures and institutions for which we are fiercely loyal, and which often uphold and maintain systems of oppression. Until we can accept that, and until those of us in the positions of power and privilege, those who can affect the necessary change, accept that and are willing to do something to break the cycle of oppression, we cannot know real freedom and equality.

The past three weeks have, I believe, been among the most important in our country in the last 50 years.  The death of George Floyd has galvanized us to address the systemic oppression that is very real in this country, leading a great many of us, including folks in our own church, to ask:  what can—or should—we do?  Some of us have protested.  Some have shared insightful articles on social media.  Some have had watch parties and conversations around the documentary 13th and films like Just Mercy.

The Netflix documentary 13th is currently free on YouTube.

One example that I would like to lift up to you today is our sister Angie Kratzer, a teacher and member of Good Shepherd.  Angie has given me permission to share with you some of the work she has done through her Facebook page, and she invites any and all of you to go to her page or send her a message and be a part of the conversations that she has been having.  These conversations take the form of simply telling our stories—for Angie that story includes being the white mother of a black child.  So far her conversations topics have included:  White Privilege, the Confederate Flag, Black Lives Matter, microaggression, and terms like bigotry and institutional racism. These are not easy topics to discuss, that’s for sure, but Angie is wading into those difficult waters, and she is doing so primarily by asking her black friends to speak to their experience and for her white friends to simply listening.  In doing so she is educating her white friends by lifting up the witness of her friends of color.  All of this is done in safe and open conversations. This is what the work looks like, and I’m quite proud of our sister for showing it to us, and I commend her Facebook page to you.

Where is Jesus sending us? If we are serious about doing the work of dismantling unjust and oppressive systems, and if we’re determined to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ that proclaims the dignity of every human being, then those of us who are part of the majority population must go to the people like us, for it is up to those in the majority to change if those in the minority are to truly be treated with equality.  It was true in Jesus’ time, and in Will Campbell’s time, and in our time. 

This is how we address systems of oppression and how we affect change.  If those of us in the majority can recognize the role folks like us have played—whether directly or indirectly—in the systemic oppression of others, and if we can understand the ways we have benefited from those systems, and if we are willing to change, then this world can truly be transformed into something that more closely resembles the kingdom of God.  Dr. King said the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but as, Richard Rohr reminded us in one of his daily meditations last week, it depends on our participation.

I wonder what are the ways that you can affect that change.  Who are the folks that need to hear from you?  What are the kinds of conversations that you can start with people?  One of the ways our church is looking to do that is to encourage everyone to watch Just Mercy and then join us for a Zoom conversation about the film at a date and time that we will announce in the coming days; Just Mercy, by the way is free to rent during the month of June on Amazon Prime. Perhaps you could start up a Zoom book club.  Read White Fragility, The New Jim Crow, or America’s Original Sin, all of which speak to this important moment in our lives.

The film Just Mercy is free to rent on YouTube and Amazon Prime this month.

Jesus sent the apostles out to be laborers in a harvest that was plentiful.  Now is the harvest time, and the Church—the people, remember, not the building—the Church are the laborers.  So ask yourself today:  what can I, what can we, do?  What conversations can we start?  Who are the people, like us, that most need to hear this message from Jesus, a message that offers good news to those who are oppressed and calls for repentance on the part of those who have played a role in that oppression?  I encourage you to share those thoughts in the comments on this blog, or on your own page—as Angie has done—or even send your thoughts to me, and let’s have a conversation and work on something together.  Now is the time, my friends.  Where is Jesus sending us?