Monday, June 29, 2015

Do Not Fear. Only Believe.

*This post is taken from my Sunday sermon on June 28, 2015 at Good Shepherd, Asheboro*

"Jesus said, 'Do not fear.  Only believe.'"
-Mark 5: 36

I’m a somewhat learned person.  I got a couple of degrees.  I know things about stuff.  It’s mostly useless, but I know things.  And I like to think that I have some pretty good common sense.  But I have to admit that as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have to throw common sense out the window from time to time.  Today is one of those times because our gospel gives us two stories of individuals who meet Jesus, and common sense is ignored. 

First is the woman suffering from hemorrhages.  She comes to Jesus not only because she is in physical pain, but her hemorrhaging means that she is perpetually unclean.  So, according to the law in Leviticus 15, she is to be shut off from worship of God in public and from the fellowship of her friends.  Common sense would tell her to stay home and not run the risk of being seen in public, for fear of a greater condemnation, one which was perfectly legal.  And common sense would most certainly tell her that simply touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment would not make her well. But she goes outside to seek Jesus anyway. Does that make any sense to anyone here?  It did to her.  And she is healed for it, even though common sense said otherwise, and even though the crowds around her were telling her to leave Jesus alone.

Speaking of leaving Jesus alone, that’s exactly what the people tell Jairus, the synagogue leader, to do when he gets word that his daughter is dead. All around the house are mourners, folks rending their garments and wailing,  It’s plain as day that she’s gone, so why bother Jesus any further.  Common sense says she's dead, and there is nothing more to do except mourn and pray that they'll see her in the Day of Resurrection.  Yet Jairus does not hear the folks preaching common sense.  Instead, he hears Jesus say those words, “Do not fear, only believe,” He follows Jesus into his daughter's room where he says in Aramaic, “Talitha kum,” –“Little girl, get up”—and she does.  

Two individuals meet the living God in Jesus, and common sense weeps in the face of this gospel.  Here we have a picture of the one of the great contrasts within the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a whole:  the contrast between fear and belief.  Over and over again the gospels give us glimpses of Jesus calling a generation steeped in fear—fear of Rome, fear of change—to step out of that fear, which common sense would say is justified.  Today the woman and Jairus both show us what happens when we do not give in to our own fears or the fears of our society, but we only believe.

But what is Jesus tellings us to believe exactly? That we can save folks from dying if we pray hard enough?  That if we believe in Jesus hard enough bad things won’t happen? No. God doesn't work that way.  God does not give us the bad stuff; the Wisdom of Solomon tells us God creates all things for goodness. Bad things still happen, and life still gets in the way.  It seems to me that Jesus is telling us to believe in something greater:  in hope, in the goodness and love of God that dwells in the midst of our fear and adversity, like that light shining in the darkness.  And how is it that we come to believe?  When encounter the living God in Jesus—as the woman does, as Jairus and his daughter.  And when we encounter the living God in Jesus incredible healing can occur, and that which our common sense says is not possible becomes possible, and our fears are abated.  We have the means by which to meet the living God in Jesus.  We call them sacraments, namely two:  the waters of baptism, where our old selves are washed away and we become a new person in Christ, and Holy Communion, where we reach out our hands, and Jesus is known to us in wine and wheat, where we partake in that which Ignatius called the medicine of immortality.  

When Jesus tells us to not fear, only believe, he is not promising an end to all the bad stuff that happens in our lives.  Instead, he is inviting us to meet him, and in doing so, to believe in something so much bigger than our own fears, bigger than our own pain. We’ve all been there. We were there last week. We’ve all lost loved ones suddenly, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We’ve all had our hearts broken and believed we could go no further.  We’ve all had our faiths shaken, and many of us have had our faiths totally shattered.   Still, there is the quiet voice of Jesus urging us to not be afraid, but to believe. Believe in a God that promises never to leave or forget us, a God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginations, a God who can turn death into an instrument of life.  The woman knew this God.  That’s why she went to Jesus when everyone and every instinct said not to.  Jairus knew this God.  That’s why he ignored those who told him his daughter was dead and followed Jesus. And we know this God.  It is the God we meet when we meet Jesus. 

We will meet the living God in Jesus today.  Right here at this table. And as you leave here you may meet Jesus as you dip your fingers in the baptismal waters at that door and be reminded of your bond with Jesus. But we will meet him even before then.  We will meet him when we turn to our neighbors and share the Peace of the Lord.  We will meet him when we look into the eyes of those standing beside and in front and behind us.  Because, brothers and sisters, you ARE the Body of Christ.  When you share the peace with your neighbor in a few moments, you’ll be sharing it with Jesus. When you speak a kind word to someone on the street, your speaking that kind word to Jesus.  And where you go, Jesus goes.  When folks see you, they see Jesus.  When you share the love of Jesus, the unconditional, uncommon kind of love, the fears of this world are abated, and all that remains is belief.  Share it with each other today, share it every day, bear each other’s burdens and fears, offer hope and belief in the face of fear and adversity.   Let others see the face of Jesus in you. You may be the only Jesus anyone ever encounters. Say those words to one another, and live those words for one another:  do not fear, only believe.

There are so many times I want to hear Jesus say those words to me. I want to believe.  I want to believe in something bigger than my own fear, my own pain, even when my common sense says otherwise. The times when I most believe, though, are the times when my brothers and sisters in Christ have reminded me of God's love for me, when they have raised me up out of the darkness pits of my soul and have cast out my fears and my pain.  Because in them I have seen the Lord Jesus.  And he is bigger than our fears, brothers and sisters.  Bigger than our pain.  And when we meet the living God in Jesus we know this to be true, even to the point that common sense gets thrown out the window! Go be Jesus, brothers and sisters.  Speak those words to one another. Show his perfect love that casts out fear because, as we know, love always wins.  And believe.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Christian Response to Charleston: "Peace! Be still!"

*This post is taken from my Sunday sermon on June 21, 2015 at Good Shepherd, Asheboro*

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:  'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.'"
--Job 38: 1-2, 4

"See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!  
In return--I speak to you as children--open your hearts."
--II Corinthians 6: 2, 13

"They woke him up and said, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace!  Be still!'  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm."
--Mark 4: 38-39

As yall have noticed, most of the time I prefer to preach down on the floor, so that I can look yall in the eye.  It always seems more intimate that way.  And I generally like to start sermons with an anecdote or joke, something that sets the tone and puts things into a perspective that most of us can understand. I hope youll forgive me, but I cant do those things today.  Not after the week thats past. 

By now youre all aware of what happened in Charleston, SC on Wednesday.  A young man, Dylan Roof, entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night and joined the congregation for their weekly Bible study.  About an hour into the gathering, he opened fire, killing nine people6 women and 3 men, including the head pastor of the church.  On Thursday he was apprehended here in North Carolina and now faces 9 charges of murder, along with a possessions charge.  And no doubt, everywhere you have turned this weeksocial media, tv, newspapersthere is an opinion, there is a desire for explanation, a desire to make sense of all of this. 

What is clear is that the actions of this young man were evil, that they were racially motivatedhe was quoted as saying during the shooting, You (black people) are taking over our country, and you have to go.  I have to do it.   And, according to his roommate, his goal was to begin a racial war. This was not an attack on the institutional Church--the young man was a faithful member of a local Lutheran congregation. So there is no question about what was going on here:  this was racially-motivated terrorism, a hate crime.  Plain and simple.  Still, in times like these we often look for someone or something to blame.  Its the gun industrys fault.  Its the education systems fault.  Its the fault of some sort of imbalance, some kind of unnatural disturbance inside this young man.  Its white peoples fault.  Its the medias fault.  It reminds me of the musical Into the Woods.  In the second act of that play, as the characters world is crashing down around them and loved ones have been killed, they sing a number called Your Fault, wherein each character blames another one for the troubles that they all face.

Asking ourselves how something like this could have happened is a rather pointless endeavor. Trying to find root causes often does very little, except to create hostility, finger pointing, and even greater division.  So what needs to happen?  How can there truly be healing, and what must our response be as Christians?

The only way to move forward through this, or any crisis, for that matter is through honestly and openness.  Hiding from truth, rather than naming it, never helps.  We can only begin to help and heal when the truth is faced, when we name destructive behaviors, when we admit to the wounds we have inflicted and own the wounds that have been inflicted upon us.  As Brene Brown said:  when we deny the story, it defines us; when we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.  And our story in this country, sadly, is that we have an epidemic of gun violence that is not seen in any other civilized country on the face of the earth.  And we have a racial divide that we pretend has been fixed since 1865 but that is still so very deep and so very wide. We are killing our brothers and sisters.  But lets not talk about that; lets find out who is to blame.  Liberals, lets blame Conservatives.  Conservatives, lets blame Liberals.  Lets do everything but actually name what is going on here:  we are killing our brothers and sisters, and our Lord continues to weep every time we do it.  I tell you, if the racial divide or the overwhelming violence is ever to stop, we Christians, who follow the suffering servant named Jesus, must be willing to talk about these issues and cry out for them to come to an end.

I know this is not easy for you to hear.  Its not easy for me to say.  Believe me, I would much rather have preached on something else, standing down there on the floor, telling a funny story.  But thats not what being your priest is about. Nor is it what being a Christian is about. Its not always rainbows and unicorns and songs of joy and feeling happy all the time. Sometimes its about going to the difficult places, for you and for me. Thats why Im preaching from the pulpit today.  I owe it to you, my brothers and sisters, to stand in this pulpit, this symbol of my authority to preach the Good News, and go to that difficult place with you.  And trust me,  Im right there with you.  But, believe it or not, there IS Good News in all of this.

Sometimes I have to just shake my head at the grace that comes from our lectionary, our pre-selected Sunday readings.  There is tremendous freedom, on my part, to not have to pick readings week after week, but it can be really hard when the lectionary selections dont offer much on which to preach.  But then there are days like today, when the grace of the lectionary speaks volumes to that difficult place that you and I find ourselves in.  God speaking to Job, who can't take it anymore.  Paul calling the Corinthians, and us, to open wide your hearts, reminding them, and us, that Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.  And Jesus calming the storm. 

First, the Good News in Job.  Weve all heard that saying, the patience of Job, but what we tend to forget is that Job reached his breaking point.  After so many tragedies had befallen him, Job called out to God and cursed the day he was ever born.  Our reading today is part of Gods response to Job, and while it makes God sound like a self-righteous jerk, the Good News is that deep despair and anguish is something we all face, and it is only in confronting God with his own pain, naming it, rather than trying to cover it up, that Job is eventually brought to wholeness.  That is the Good News from the Old Testament.

In his second letter to Corinth, Paul recounts the pain and frustrations, the persecutions, the beatings, of so many of his fellow Christians.  His words that now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation, reflect his hope that Jesus would return any day now.  And while that hope of his was not realized, those words can speak to us today.  Now IS the acceptable time, the acceptable time for honesty, the acceptable time for our own admission of pain, the acceptable time for forgiveness, the acceptable time for love, the acceptable time for unity in Christ.  That is the Good News from our epistle.

And then theres Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.  As a storm comes up his disciples are terrified, and yet with three words:  Peace!  Be still! he calms the waters.  These same three words are used by Jesus back in the first chapter of Mark when he cast out his first demon.  Peace!  Be still!  Jesus does not combat the demon, or the forces of nature, with brute force or anger, but with calmness and serenity.  He calms the storms of the disciples own fears.  And he is still calming storms.  With gentle words, he is still calming our storms of our own lives, of loved ones killed, of jobs lost, of hearts broken.  He is still calming the storms of our country, of division , of anxiety, of confusion, of torment. He is still calming the storms of Charleston, Columbine, Connecticut, and so many other places.  That is the Good News from our Gospel.

So, brothers and sisters, knowing that there is still Good News--always there is Good News--what is our response?  What do we do now?  We do what we Christians are always called to do: we put everything in the context of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now we stand in the the hope of the Resurrection.  Its real.  It has to be!  We pray.  We pray for an end to turning a blind eye and blaming, and we pray for accountability and truth-telling.  We pray for the repose of the souls of the nine martyrs of Emanuel--as we did at 10:00 this morning, joining Christians around the country as we rang our bells and prayed for them all by name--and we also pray for Dylan Roof, like them a child of God.  We pray, in the name of the one who said, Father, forgive them, that Dylan may know Resurrection.  We come to this table of reconciliation, our own and that of the world, praying not only for solace but for strength, and for the grace to see Jesus in the brokenness of our world, just as he is broken here before our very eyes, and to know him in our own brokenness We acknowledge our own pain and anguish, and, like Job, give it God, even screaming it if we have to, leaving it here at this altar.  Because we understand that our God is not docile and is big enough to hold all of our emotions. And we reach out to our brothers and sisters and name our own short-comings and whatever evil we have done or that has been done on our behalf. They say the Sunday morning church hour is the most segregated hour in America.  I tell you it does not have to be that way.  And in that hope I plan to reach out to local AME and AME Zion congregations and partner with them in the work of Christs body for the reconciliation of Christs broken world. 

So while this week has been one of tremendous anxiety and pain, do not go from this place discouraged.  Go with the truth of Resurrection.  Go knowing that love always wins over hate, even if we cant see it. Go having been nourished by Christ so that you may serve our brothers and sisters in Christ beyond these walls.  Continue to pray for Charleston and all areas of unrest, not repaying evil for evil, and not giving in to our human need to place blame or our desire to cry out for vengeance, but by placing all our pain, all our emotion, into the hands of Jesus, who was the first to weep on Wednesday, who reminds us that if we live by the sword, we will surely die by the sword; he who is constantly making all things new, and who is still calming storms. In him is our hope, and we shall never hope in vain. 

May the martyrs of Emanuel pray for us all:
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Tywanza Sanders
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
DePayne Middleton Doctor
The Rev. Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

Monday, June 15, 2015

Planting Seeds

*This post is taken from my Sunday sermon on June 14, 2015 at Good Shepherd, Asheboro*

"Jesus said, 'With what can we compare the kingdom of god, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.'"
--Mark 4: 30-32

I was a pretty loud kid and could be pretty annoying (just ask my sister).  Somehow I got As and Bs consistently in most subjects, but I would routinely get Cs in conduct, usually for talking too much.  I was the kid constantly quoting movies and tv shows in school and never shutting up.  Not much has changed, actually.

I know I could be a nuisance to many of my teachers, especially my fourth grade teacher Ms. Bailey.  I drove her nuts!  But Ms. Bailey managed to do something that none of my previous teachers could do.  Rather than seeing my need to talk all the time as a flaw, she saw it as a gift.  So she invited me to be in a play for an academic and arts competition called Odyssey of the Mind.  I played a cockroach, and while we came up a little short in our competition, I received an award for my performance.  It was all because Ms. Bailey saw something in me and invited me to share my gift. She planted a seed in me that began a love affair with theatre that has lasted to this day.  It started out as something small, something rather insignificant, but I can tell you I would not be the priest I am today had it not been for Ms. Bailey encouraging me to share my gift for public speaking.  

Most everything has a small beginning. Yet through encouragement, diligence, hope, and love, the small beginnings become huge.  That is the gospel Truth for us today.  When someone asks Jesus to describe the Kingdom of God, or rather what the coming of the Kingdom of God will look like, he tells them the famous parable of the mustard seed.  Understand that the mustard seed is not literally the smallest of all seedsorchid seeds, for example, are smaller than mustard seeds.  But Jesus audience understood the meaning anyway.  The mustard seed begins life small, rather insignificant, and yet it grows lush and strong; its branches stretch out, and birds flock from all over to rest in them. This image would have made plenty of sense to Jesus audience because trees were often used as allegories for strong empiresEzekiel equates Gods kingdom with a noble cedar, under which every kind of bird will live. The tree is the empire, the branches the nations and kingdoms of the empire, and the birds the people from all over who find a home in the empire.  And what empire is greater than the kingdom of God?  It all starts, though, with a seed.

If we think about the history of the Church, we find rather small, insignificant people planting seeds that sprout beyond measure, showing us the glory of the Kingdom of God.  A nomad and his barren wife coming from Ur of the Chaldeans are told they will the parents of many generations and become the ancestors of not one, not two, but three of the world's great religions.  A Palestinian carpenter and rabbi, seen by many as a nobody, changes the way the world experiences God.  That rabbis followers, scared that their religious authorities will kill them, step out on a spring day and speak with power about Gods mighty acts and give birth to the Church.  And down through the years the names of Julian, Luther, Wesley, Cranmer, and today with Borg and Merton, all showing us new ways to connect with the Living God.  In all of these cases, God began with a small seed, with someone that, at the time, likely seemed insignificant.  And yet from them sprouted new understandings about God, and the world was changed.

Still, sharing the Good News, planting that first seed, can be scary.  Anytime we try something new, anytime we step outside of our comfort zones, it is scary.  And yet, when we take a risk for the Kingdom, when we dare to plant that seed and let the Holy Spirit nurture it, some pretty amazing things can happen. We begin to matter in ways we never thought possible.

Brothers and sisters, understand this:  what you do matters!  Every little gesture, every kind word, every action that you take, especially when it is on behalf of the Lord Jesus, matters.  You came to church.  You showed up.  You could've stayed home or played golf, but you came, maybe to experience God in some way.  That action, just getting up and showing up, matters. Those of you who serveushers, lectors, eucharistic ministers, choir, acolytes, organist, altar guildit matters. All of you who share your gifts in church and enhance our worship of God and help us grow in our common life in Christ, what you do matters. Or maybe you invited someone to church, someone who has been disenchanted with the Church, so you said, 'Come and see what we're all about.'  That matters.  Maybe you enoucraged someone to offer their gifts in service to God here in this place.  That matters.  Furthermore, every little action you take out there, beyond the walls of the church, matters.  Reminding someone that God loves them.  Sitting with a brother or sister in prison, in a nursing home, or a hospice house, just so they know theyre not alone.  Simply listening to someone tell their story.  Your actions, no matter how inane you may think they are, those actions matter.  Because those actions are planting the seeds of the kingdom. 

Our goal, brothers and sisters, is not just to plant a few seeds in our churches or even our local communities.  Our goal is nothing short of Gods will being done perfectly on earth as it is in heaven, borrowing words from a prayer that I think y'all know.  That is the goal for the entire universe, that the Kingdom of God become a reality here.  It begins with a seed.  It begins with something as small as Ms. Bailey suggesting I be in a play.  Now, how is that planting a seed for the kingdom?  Because, as Irenaeus said, the glory of God is a human being fully alive. So when you do that which gives you joy, that which makes you feel so alive, you are glorifying God.  And when you encourage someone to do that which they love, when you see a gift in someone and invite them to share it, you ARE planting seeds for the kingdom, which will grow beyond your wildest imagination.  Ms. Bailey planted a seed for the kingdom in me.

The last play I was inthank you, Ms. Bailey was called Tick…Tick…Boom!, by Jonathan Larson, who did Rent.  The closing number for that show is called "Louder than Words."  And one of the lines is:  "why should we blaze a trail when the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting."  Its easy to just sit back, to say it is what it is, to believe we have nothing to offer, to think that our seed is small and insignificant, to think that we dont have the ability to change the world.  We do.  YOU do!  With every action you take.  Imagine if we all planted just one seed of encouragement, of change, of hope, of love.  Imagine what those seeds could grow into, and how far they could stretch. Imagine every person, finding rest in the branches and finding sustenance from the fruit. Plant your seeds for the kingdom, brothers and sisters.  Do not be discouraged, thinking that your seed is too small.  Everything has as small beginning.  But it all starts with one seed.  It all starts with you. Plant your seed and see what happens.  See what happens when you let the Spirit nurture those seeds.  Watch the world be transformed.  And watch the kingdom become a reality. 

With the cast of the Aiken Community Playhouse's performance of Tick…Tick…Boom!, performing the closing number, "Louder Than Words." 

Monday, June 8, 2015

We Are Family

Most folks know that I am a baseball fan and something of a baseball historian.  One of my favorite teams in the history of baseball is the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the most colorful teams ever assembled.

The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates

There were pitchers like Kent Teckulve, with his dazzling knuckler and goofy glasses and Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter on LSD.  They had a formidable offense with hitters like 'Mad Dog' Bill Madlock and Dave 'The Cobra' Parker.  And they were led by a fun-loving, power-hitting first-baseman named Willie Stargell, whom everyone called Pops.  The team was a close-knit bunch, so much so that the theme song for the team that year was We Are Fam-i-ly by Sister Sledge.  That song didn't just refer to the players but to everyone who called Pittsburgh home.  What made them a family was not blood or kinship.  Instead, what made them a family was their common experience, the common experience of love for the game, the city, and the team.  That common experience inspired them in their common goal, which was winning the World Series, which they did over the Baltimore Orioles.  That team, those fans, they were beautiful example of what a family could be.

Pops Stargell on a t-shirt from the 1979 season.

Family.  What makes a family?  Certainly it isn't blood.  The Pirates taught us that.  And today, we see Jesus give us a new definition for family.  We find him early on in his ministry, having just called his 12 apostles and dozens (if not hundreds) of others as disciples, as followers.  Now all of them are gathered with Jesus around a table for a meal.  Meanwhile, Jesus' own mother and brothers and sisters stand outside and try to get in, possibly to share in the meal and meet Jesus' new friends.

This, however, is when Jesus does something highly unorthodox:  he doesn't acknowledge his blood family.  Instead, he motions to the table.  "Here," he says, "are my mother and my brother and my sisters."  Who were those folks sitting at that table?  Maybe he was referring to the apostles, those uber-pious men who have stained glasses painted for them and are revered as saints.  But if we really think about the folks Jesus hung out with, we can see a different group sitting at that table.  Prostitutes sat there.  So did public drunks.   Cripples.  Foreigners.  These are folks that Jesus' own people would have surely said had no place at the table, and yet these are the folks Jesus welcomes, the folks that he calls his family.

Here we see the radical nature of Jesus' ministry and how he turns the world on its head.  By the societal norms of his time none of these folks should've been allowed at the table with him. They were unclean, sinners.  Jesus, though, flies in the face of his own societal norms and not only welcomes them but calls them family.  Because what makes a family, Jesus says, is the common experience of love.  And whoever loves God, according to Jesus, has a place at his table and a place in his family.

Practically every church community considered itself a family.  Well, I'm going to clue you in to a little inside information.  Every single one of these families, when it comes time to call a new rector, says the same thing:  we want to grow.  We want our family to grow, they say.  And that's a good thing.  More people means more energy, more hands and feet to do the work God has called us to.  More people means that the communities, the families, we love will endure.  Yet more often than not, what those church families mean when they say "We want to grow" is this:  we want folks who are like us.  We want folks who look like us, act like us, vote like us, have similar paychecks to us.  So when the time comes to call another rector, those communities look around and wonder, "Why didn't we grow?"

I'll clue you in to another piece of inside information.  All of those church families can grow.  They can if they are willing to let their table look like Jesus' table.  If they can look past the labels that we all place on one another, then they'll definitely grow.

There are people out there who so desperately long to hear that Jesus loves them, and they long to be invited to his table and be fed by him.  They are all around us, and if you and your church family can look past the labels we put on one another and the barriers we erect between us, then your church family will grow.  And it will thrive.  Because it will look like Jesus' family.

I call the folks in my church my brothers and sisters because that is what they are.  But it's not because of blood.  I'm not related to anyone.  I'm not from here originally.  And while I am souther, my accent doesn't sound exactly like theirs--it has more of a mountain twang to it.  What makes us brothers and sisters is our common experience of love for God in Jesus Christ and our worship of him as our Lord and Savior.  And that common experience empowers us to achieve our common goal--just like those Pirates in '79 who had a common goal of winning the World Series.  Our common goal is to go into the world and share that love, so that we may make disciples of Jesus Christ and may grow his family.

The love of Jesus peels away the labels and crumbles the barriers.  It did so then and does so still.  All of the labels we have for one another (male, female, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, liberal, conservative) are all gone now.  Because at the Table of the Lord, where Jesus is both the host and the food, we are fam-i-ly.
A modern icon of Holy Communion, showing Jesus' radical hospitality.  (Source:  Unknown)

In the Episcopal Church we believe that whenever we share in Holy Communion we are doing so with every person we love but see no longer.  That's because Communion is happening all the time in heaven.  Sometimes we hear how nice it would be if our table could look like that table, where every person has a place.  But we need not gaze longingly at heaven and hope for the day when our table looks like that one because we have the capacity to make it happen right now!  All it takes is reaching out to our brothers and sisters on the margins.  Reach out to your homeless brother.  Reach out to your gay sister.  To your transgender brother.  To your sister who is struggling with substance abuse.  To your brother on food stamps.  Reach out to your family who have been pushed to the fringes and welcome them home to the table and to their family.

So come to this table.  You who have much faith, you would like to have some more, and you who have none at all.  You who have been often, and you who have not been for a long time, and you who who have never been at all.  You who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have succeeded, and you who have failed.  Come.  It is Christ Himself who invites us to meet him here and makes us a family.  We'll save a seat at the table for you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Seeing the Face of Jesus

During my first few weeks at General Seminary back in 2009, in the midst of serious transition and confusion, there was something I missed maybe more than anything:  breakfast.  I had not had a good breakfast since leaving home, and our refectory only provided lunch on weekdays, nothing more.  But there was a group, small but faithful, who helped put breakfast together for classmates.  It wasn’t much—some cereals, juices, and fruits—but the gesture was lovely.  I was touched that fellow students would get up early to put together breakfast for those of us hurrying off to class after Morning Prayer.  The group was called the Saint Blandina Society.

I had never heard of Saint Blandina (whose feast day is today), and I imagine many of you have not, either.  Her story is not a particularly happy one. 

In the ancient region of Gaul, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Christians were fiercely persecuted, especially in places with considerable Christian populations.  One such place was Lyons, where, in AD 177, Christians were prohibited from public life, from marketplaces and baths.  Slaves were taken into custody and forced to give up their Christian masters, telling officials that the Christians were involved in incest and cannibalism.  These actions roused the whole city to the point where a group was rounded up and taken to the public arena.  There they could either denounce their Christian faith or be put to death by wild beasts. 

St. Blandina

Blandina, a slave, was among those rounded up, along with the Bishop of Lyons and his deacon.  As Blandina was being tortured, those gathered in the public arena saw in her visage the image of the crucified Jesus.  In this slave who was giving her life for her faith, those around her saw the image of their Lord.  And though Blandina was killed, along with her companions, her witness lives on.  It is the very witness of Jesus, of the One who said, “Father, forgive them.”  Like her Lord, Blandina never denounced her faith, never muttered a harsh word to the officials, and because of this the image of Jesus shown brightly out of her, even as she was being killed.

The Saint Blandina Society at General Seminary was aptly named.  They were the face of Jesus for their fellow classmates, offering hospitality and conversation, especially for those of us who were new in their midst.  This is our call.  Perhaps not to be publicly executed for our faith, but certainly to be the face of Jesus. He has gone back to heaven, and while we may not see his face, others can and will see the face of Jesus in us through the power of the Holy Spirit that has come among us.  She may have lived over a century after Jesus’ ascension, but Blandina heard these words and lived them.  And because she did, others saw Jesus in her. 

The world longs to see the face of Jesus.  If you don’t bear the face of Jesus to the world, who will??   All too often, because we live in a much different world from Blandina, we Christians become complacent, lazy.  We go to church on Sunday and say hello to one another, but Jesus is the furthest thing from our minds when we exit our red doors.  The visitor in our midst longs to be welcomed, to be shown hospitality, to have conversation, to know that he or she is being cared for. But it is not just the visitor inside our walls that wants to see Jesus.  The world around us cries out for the kind of love that Jesus preached and lived—the kind of love that sets the captives free, that preaches truth to power, that sets the world on fire.  The world is poor, hungry, cold, and lonely.  The world is fractured and in pain.  The world is, perhaps, not all that different from Blandina’s time, after all.

Will you be the one to show the face of Jesus to the world?