Monday, June 27, 2016

Steep Hills: Understanding the Severity of Our Relationships

"As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, 'I will follow you wherever you go.'  And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'  To another Jesus said, 'Follow me.'  But he said, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.'  But Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.'  Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.'  Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.'"
--Luke 9: 57-62

My dad used to bike cross-country.  He's managed to do all 48 continental states in a continuous loop, which is pretty cool.  Dad tells the story that on one of those trips--the first one, I believe--he was going up a long, steep hill near the Virginia-Kentucky border and passed a house where an old man was sitting on the porch.  The man hollered at Dad, "Nice day for a bike ride, ain't it?"  Dad said, "Yeah, only this hill's pretty tough."  The man replied, "Yeah, but if there were no hills, we'd all be riding bikes." 

Now that is wisdom.  Sure, it's obvious, but it's poignant.  If we ever want to accomplish something we must be willing to put forth the effort, work at it, and tackle the hills.  Too many times we see those hills, and we say, 'No thanks.  I can't do this!'  The first time I ever rode bikes with Dad from our house into town, which was a 20 mile round trip filled with tough, steep hills, I told him I never wanted to do that again.  It was too hard, it was too much work.  But the things in life that really matter are the things that take the most work. 

Chief among these, I think, are our relationships.  What is life without relationship?  There's a reason that there are two people in the creation story, and that's because we were never really meant to go through this life on our own. Think of your most precious relationships:  a partner, a friend, a child.  Could you possibly imagine NOT being in relationship with that person; after all, being in relationship is one of the most fulfilling pieces of life.  That other person helps fill the holes in our lives and we do likewise for them.  Still, being in relationship is also one of the most challenging pieces of life; it takes hard work, it takes a willingness to face the steep hills and keep pushing forward.  It isn't easy but it is rewarding.

Our relationship with Jesus is the same way.  Luke tells the story of three individuals who all have a desire to follow Jesus and be in relationship with him.  The first says he will follow Jesus wherever he goes.  WHEREVER!  Sounds like he's making a promise he knows he can't keep, which is certainly something most of us have done in our relationships.  We can almost see Jesus shake his head.  He all but says, "You got no idea what you're getting into."  He reminds the man that foxes and birds have homes but Jesus doesn't.  A life with Jesus is a life of wandering, a life without the comforts of home and the routine that this man has come to enjoy and take for granted.  Is he truly ready to be in relationship with Jesus if he doesn't understand that to follow him means giving all of these things up?

The second man says he wants to follow Jesus but first he must bury his father.  It's important to note here that this line does not necessarily mean that the man's father is dead or dying. This was a common turn of phrase in the east, one which someone would say when they needed to stall for time. Once a person's parents were gone, then the person would be free to pursue their own dreams, but until then the person would be subject to the parental figure. Thus, what the man is staying to Jesus is, "Hang on!  I'm not ready.  I'll let you know when I am."  Jesus' response is basically, 'No, it doesn't work that way.  You either want to or you don't.  You don't get to stall for time.  Let the dead bury their own dead." 

And a third time a man says he will follow Jesus but first he wants to go back home and say goodbye to those he loves.  Jesus tells him that no one who puts hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom, meaning that if you try plowing a field by looking behind you, you'll inevitably veer off-course.  One cannot move forward into the future while looking back or hanging on to the past.

None of these three would-be followers understands the severity of entering a relationship with Jesus.  The first doesn't see that to follow Jesus means letting go of the comforts and routines that he has known for so long.  The second wants to put Jesus on hold until he finally makes up his mind.  And the third wants to look back and hang on to something because he isn't completely willing let go of his past.  Simply put:  they are not yet capable of facing the adversities that go along with entering into a relationship with Jesus.

Relationships are hard.  When we first enter them we are often starry-eyed and it's crazy exciting.  But over time that excitement fades, maybe a little, maybe a lot.  Doubts start to creep in sometimes, and we begin to question if we made the right decision.  This certainly happened to Jesus' disciples, and it happens to us. I've doubted and questioned and stalled at various points in my relationships.  I'm sure some of you have done that.   Eventually, though, we come to an insurmountable hill, and we have a choice:  keep moving forward one step at a time or turn back around and quit.  Those of you who understand just how much effort it takes to make a relationship work are the ones who keep moving forward.  You understand that, yes, you're going to make mistakes, yes you might end up wounding each other, but you have known how to forgive one another and keep climbing those hills together. To borrow a phrase from the You Mumford and Sons song, Thistle and Weeds, you understand what it means to "take the spade from one another's hand and fill in the holes you've made."  That's what relationship is about.  It's not about everything always being wonderful and happy and exciting, rather it is about moving forward together toward a new reality in which both of you are changed for good. 

Our relationship with Jesus is  just like this because it is the model for every relationship we have.  Being in relationship with Jesus is hard and requires a ton of effort. We will make mistakes and wound him, but as we say in our baptismal vows we will repent and return to the Lord. Our relationship with Jesus takes work.  It takes work to put the needs of someone else ahead of our own.  It takes work to love our enemies.  It takes work to even get up on a Sunday morning sometimes and come to church and worship as part of a community of believers. Our relationship with Jesus is not about everything always being wonderful and happy and exciting, instead it's about a journey together with Jesus to the cross, to the place where our old selves can die daily and we enter a new reality with him in which we are changed for good. 

Those three guys who wanted to follow Jesus simply did not understand relationships.  May we learn from them.  May we be reminded that relationships require us to give up some of our comforts and routines; that they mean making hard decisions and not forcing the other person to wait for us, only to have the opportunity pass us by; and that we cannot truly move forward and commit to them if we are constantly focused on the things that are in our past.  It's all true for our relationships with our partners, our families, our friends, and, yes, even our relationship with Jesus. So today may we remember that those things that are important take hard work.  Let's put in that work, put forth that effort, and when we face those steep hills in our relationships may we keep moving forward, with one another and with our Lord, one step at a time.

I eventually got over those steep hills in Virginia and joined Dad on a bike trip in the summer of 2007.  This was taken outside Millbank, SD, part of a 140-mile trip we made over two days.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Naming Our Demons

"There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
--Galatians 3: 28

"Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  Then Jesus asked him 'What is your name?'  He said, 'Legion!'; for many demons had entered him...Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned."
--Luke 8:  29-30, 33

We Christians are a radical bunch.  We have the gumption to actually claim that all of the social constructs that humanity has built up around itself are, in fact, pointless.  None of it matters because of Jesus, because of the one who unites all humanity together into one family by his life, his death, and his resurrection.  To believe in Christ means that you're part of something bigger than yourself and your lot in life, bigger than the boxes that society puts people in.  In Christ there is no east or west, as that great spiritual says.

This is the great statement of the early Christians reflected in Paul's Letter to the Galatians. In the days before Nicea gave us a nice and (somewhat) neat definition of what it meant to be a Christian, the early Church stood in this hope that no matter where you came from, no matter what your standing in society, you had a place in this Church because Jesus loved you.  Radical stuff, right? 

Actually, society wasn't really that different back then.  Society expected men to have their roles and women to have theirs.  Those with the money or the birth rights were the big deals with all the power.  The poor were neglected, only called upon to fight the battles that the big deals waged with one another.  Society had a label, had a place, for everyone, and the social constructs erected were meant to keep people in their place, and by doing so made folks like Gentiles, slaves, and women less than human.  Then along comes Jesus,turns the whole thing on its head, and in Paul reminds the folks in Galatia that it is this Jesus who removes all of those social constructs.  In Christ, Paul writes there is no slave or free, there is no Jew or Greek, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  The old Jewish morning prayers that Paul knew so well called for a man to pray to God first thing in the morning and thank God for not making him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.  So to make such a bold claim in his letter was the equivalent of Paul completely shattering this social construct.  Pretty radical for his time, right? Sadly, though, it' still pretty radical today. 

We hold up this great line of Scripture, and we sing hymns that claim in Christ there is no east, west, north, or south, and we tell everyone of Jesus as the great unifier.  Look at us Christians; we believe in a world without labels!  Unfortunately, when we look at the world we see labels, boxes, social constructs.  We see a world that doesn't want to push against such constructs. Last week reminded us that, in spite of our hopes for unity, we still have a long, long way to go.  Fifty people were killed in a gay nightclub in Orlando last Sunday.  Fifty beautiful children of God.  Some gay, some straight, some men, some women, some transgender, some Hispanic, some African Americans, some white, all children of God, gunned down.  They were in the nightclub, the place of sanctuary that welcomed and loved them when the world didn't.  They had pushed against the social constructs, demonized by the one who murdered them.  What's more, the one who killed them, again because of the social constructs of our time, has been demonized not for his actions but for his religion and the fact that his parents were immigrants.  

This is what social constructs, labels, and boxes do to people, they dehumanize and demonize them. That's an interesting word, isn't it?  Demonize.  What is a demon, anyway?  We have a tendency to think of demons as something personal.  An addiction is often seen as a demon.  A mental illness that we can't control without professional help is a demon.  Depression, anxiety, those things that seem to keep us from living into our true selves are all portrayed as personal demons.  Certainly we have all experienced some demons in our lives.  They are absolutely real!  But today I wonder if we might consider the larger, systemic demons that we deal with, namely the demons of the social constructs in with which we dwell.  These are the systems in place that have, for generations, sought to keep certain people in power while others are denied basic human rights.  They are all about maintaining order and the status quo, but Jesus?  Oh, Jesus was about anything but the status quo! And we're reminded of that in our gospel.

An icon of the healing of the demoniac called Legion.

We all know the story of the demoniac.  He is beset by demons, Jesus exorcises him, and he goes away telling everyone how great Jesus is for curing him.  But have you paid attention to the interaction between the man and Jesus?  He says that he is Legion because many demons had beset him.  This makes sense, but there is a reason why he is called Legion, and not Mob or Crowd.  That word, Legion, no doubt reminded the gospel audience of the Roman legion, which numbered about 6,0000 men.  The legion was a visible symbol of the oppressive occupancy of Rome and the complacency of the religious authorities to go along with them.  The legion embodied the many systemic demons that the Jewish people faced day after day, and it made sure that the status quo remained in tact. They robbed the poor for pocket change and mercilessly beat those who could not defend themselves.  So it is not just for poetic effect that the demon bears the name of Legion.

Yet the demon is exorcised  How?  The text says that Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to leave the man, but that doesn't seem to work.  So what does Jesus do next?  He gets the demon to say its name.  Even today in the exorcism rite, this is the first thing the priest does:  get the demon to say its name.  Because once you know someone' name, you can call them out, you can have a sense of control over them.  This is the reason we give names to pets, so that they'll come to us when we call them.  Jesus asks the demon its name, and only then is he able to send it out of the man.  This is how demons are exorcised, by naming them.

If we wish to exorcise the demons of our own social constructs, those systemic ills that have plagued our society for far too long, which reared their ugly heads yet again last week, then we must name them.  If we seek to just maintain the status quo, then these demons will continue to torment us, resulting in tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.  Nothing will change.  We must name the demons if we are ever to hope to exorcise them.  The demons are our time are named:


Events like Orlando have been too common in our world, and they persist whenever we decide to just bury our heads in the sand, lie to ourselves and say there is nothing we can do, and just keep on maintaining the status quo.  Let's stop that trend!  Let's live our lives as if we actually believe Paul when he says that all are one in Christ Jesus!  Let's name the demons that have plagued our society, and let's exorcise them!  Let's stand together against violence, let's march together with our gay and lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters, let's call on elected officials to create legislation promoting equality, let's stop the narrative of fear, let's put away our crass jokes that poke fun at others (and aren't even actually funny to begin with), and let's put the dignity of every human being ahead of social constructs. and the status quo. 

Yes, our societal demons are many, and they can seem as overwhelming as a Roman legion.  Still, when we name our demons and have the courage and grace to stand with Jesus as our guide and guard, we can defeat them, as radical as that seems.  It CAN be done, but we have to make the choice to name them and work together to end them. After every act of violence like the one in Orlando I pray that this will be it, this will be the one that causes the scales to fall from our eyes and wakes us up.  That has been my prayer all week.  

Name the demons, brothers and sisters.  Name them, and exorcise them, and change the whole wide earth!

Monday, June 13, 2016

For Orlando

This weekend I attended the wedding of two beautiful young women that I had the privilege of ministering with in my previous call as curate of the Episcopal cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky.  The two of them were filled with so much love for each other, and that love was palpable in the wonderful gathering of family and friends who came to lift them up and stand with them as they made promises to one another in God's house.

As news broke that a gunman had killed 50 people at a club in Orlando early Sunday morning, I thought of my friends Ellie and Caroline.  They could have been among those folks.  I thought of a good friend who performs regularly in drag shows at her local bar.  She could have been among those folks.  I thought of my faithful gay and lesbian seminary classmates who showed me what it means to live with pride and to preach God's love with abandon.  They could have been among those folks.  I thought about all of my LGBT brothers and sisters and non-binary folks who have changed my life.  They could have been among those folks.  I thought about them and cried.  How long, O Lord, how long??

The sub-title to my blog is "wishing and working for a world transformed."  Okay, it's a cheeky play on my love of Transformers, but it's actually true.  I do wish and work for a world transformed.  I want to see a world where the love of God in Jesus Christ is what stirs our hearts into action, rather than the man-made barriers that we have erected between us.  I wish for a world where no one will bat an eye when two people commit their lives to each other.  I wish for a world where people do not have to live in fear.  That is my prayer, and it is one that I will not stop offering to God, in spite of the hatred, the bigotry, the violence, and the fear-mongering that I see all around me.

Ultimately, we have a choice.  We have the choice to live in fear or love.  Fear is what killed those 50 folks in Orlando--fear of LBGT people.  Fear is what causes us to find a scapegoat--fear of Muslims and immigrants.  And fear is what is keeping us from doing anything about it--fear of losing our freedom to own firearms.  It is all about fear.

The writer of the First Letter of John tells us that "perfect love casts our fear" (4: 18).  This is the love that Jesus embodied for us.  It was a love that welcomed anyone and everyone who came to him,  a love that echoed the dream of the prophet who longed for a world where swords were beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2: 4).   This is what he gave us, this was the work he charged us to do.  And quite frankly, brothers and sisters, we did not listen!  We chose fear over love, and because of that choice some of God's beloved, beautiful children are dead, an entire branch of the family of God is being blamed, and humanity once again refuses to turn its swords into plowshares.

This is a tragedy.  It is a hate crime.  It is an act of terrorism.  It is also, sadly, nothing new.  But that doesn't mean we stop praying and working for a better world!  Christians, especially, are called to stand up to a world that beats them down and continues to tell them that this love thing won't succeed.  We know better, though.  We know that love always wins, that Jesus has already won, and that he will win again.  As our Presiding Bishop reminds us, the Jesus movement keeps going forward, and there is NOTHING that will stop it!  Bigotry won't stop it.  Violence won't stop it.  None of the excuses will stop it.  Still, that does not give us a pass to just sit back and do nothing.  We are partners with Jesus in this crazy love thing, and it is up to us to transform the world into something that looks like what Jesus spoke about.

If we really want that, though, there is work to be done. We cannot remain quiet.  We must stand up for those who have been beaten down for so long, namely our LGBT brothers and sisters.  We must renounce hate, bigotry, and violence.  We must show the world a better way, a way of plowshares, not swords.  Dietrich Bonheoffer summed it up when he said, ""silence in the face of evil is evil itself."

We have the choice.  I choose to use my position to speak up, even though I know there is always more that I can do.  I choose love over fear, and I pray that you will, as well.  Whether you are a member of my congregation, a fellow minister, or just someone who saw this post on a friend's social media page and thought about checking it out, I pray that you will choose love over fear.  Stand up!  Speak loudly!  Preach with abandon!  Show the world that NOTHING will stop the Jesus movement because to be rooted in Jesus is to be rooted in love.

So for the martyrs of Orlando, who were killed simply for being the beautiful people God made them to be, I pray.  For those with hate in their hearts, I pray.  For a nation and a world that puts human lives ahead of the right to so easily own a device meant to destroy those lives, I pray.  For the grace to stand up and do something, I pray.  For a world truly transformed, I pray.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Christian Hope: Life After Death

"The son, the mistress of the house in Zarapeth, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.  Elijah said to her, 'Give me your son.' He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.  Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried out to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again.' The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived."
--I Kings 17:  17, 19, 21-22

"Jesus went into a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out.  He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow.  When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, 'Do not weep.' Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still.  And he said, 'Young man, I say to you, rise!'  The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother."
--Luke 7:  11-15

There is a running theme throughout these readings from this past Sunday.  Did you catch it?  Of course you did!  You're smart people!  But just in case you didnt, the theme is life coming out of death.  In I Kings Eijah, the great man of God as he was called, brings a widows son back from death.  In the Gospel Jesus does the same thing, raising another widows son, this time in the town of Nain. There is always life after death. 

You might be wondering why these readings arent used for one of the first few Sundays after Easter; after all, thats the single biggest day in our Christian lives, and its a day when we remind ourselves that death is not the end.  It wasnt the end for Jesus, and it wont be the end for us.  It might make more sense for readings such as these to have been used right after the Resurrection, so that the could really hammer home that point about life after death.  So why save these readings till now, a whopping 10 weeks after Easter?

The folks who put together the lectionary are a lot smarter than me.  Still, I suspect that the reason these resurrection readings are used now, during Ordinary Time, is because this is when we need them most.  We all know the Easter story, after all, which means we're not likely to forget it when that great festival day comes around.  It's during the non-Easter times that we most need to be reminded of the reality of resurrection. This is the narrative of our faith, something we need to hear over and over again.  There are two great narratives told by the people of God through Holy Scripture.  For Jews the narrative is liberation.  Whether it is from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, or the Romans, Jewish history is a constant reminder that God will always deliver Gods people out of bondage and into freedom.  For Christians the narrative is resurrection, the promise that death is not the end.  We are baptized into Christs death and resurrection, and just as we know that we will share in death with him, we also know we will share in resurrected life with him.  Not only do we see this in literal resurrections--such as Jesus, Lazarus, or the widow's son in Nain--but we see emotional and spiritual resurrections in individuals like Peter, Paul, several Roman soldiers, and the Ethiopian eunuch.  God is always bringing goodness and life out of the worst set of circumstances.

This is the hope in which we stand as Christians, and it is the hope that has sustained the Church for thousands of years.  Without this hope the Church may very well have faded into the obscurities of history long ago, but thanks to those who have kept that hope--the hope of life always coming from death--the Church has survived.  Chief among those who have kept this hope are the martyrs, those who have died for their faith and whose blood, it is said, is the seed of the Church.  If you follow Good Shepherd on Facebook and Twitter you know that each day we commemorate a particular saint and give you a background of their lives.  Last week we had three consecutive days in which we honored martyrs. 

We honored Justin Martyr (and no, that wasnt his real last name).  Justin was a great writer and philosopher in Rome in the 2nd century.  When faced with either renouncing his Christian faith or being beheaded, he chose the beheading.  

Icon of Justin Martyr.

The next day we honored Blandina and her companions.  In a time when it was believed that Christians practiced cannibalism, incest, and other kinds of debaucheries a group of Christians from Lyons were rounded up and fed to the lions.  One of the group was Blandina, a slave, who, as she was being tortured said nothing except, I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile in us.  

St. Blandina of Lyons.

And the day after that we honored the Martyrs of Uganda, killed in 1886.  The king, Mwanga despised Christians because they put their loyalty to Christ ahead of loyalty to him and his government, so he resolved to not only make association with Christians illegal, but to completely wipe out Christianity from his land.  He then had a number of Christian men, women, and children executed by firing squad.

The Martyrs of Uganda.

It was the hope of life after death that sustained each of these as they were led away to their deaths.  They all knew that their mortal bodies would be destroyed, but each one held on to that promise that God would somehow, someway bring goodness and life out of their deaths.  Justin may have been beheaded, but his writingsespecially those about how Christians worshipsurvived and became the model for our own forms of worship today.  Blandina and her friends may have been tortured, but it is said that as she was tied to a post being devoured by lions, the on-lookers saw not Blandina, but rather Jesus himself standing there, and they left that arena changed forever by the experience. And while Mwanga killed those Ugandan Christians, their example of singing hymns and praying for their enemies as they walked to their deaths had the opposite effect from what he had intended, and within a few years Christianity boomed, and Uganda now has the largest Christian population of any African nation.  

They all knew that life always comes after death.  We may not be called to stand and die for our faith as they did, but we are meant to still hold on to that same hope, that God can and will take the worst set of circumstances and use them for instruments of life.  Not only must we hold on to that hope for ourselves, but we must be willing to cultivate that hope, plant seeds of that hope, among our brothers and sisters.  There are so many out there who believe that life is not worth living, so many who feel that their current lot is all that there is, that it wont ever get any better.  We who know the resurrection truth know better.  We know that God is always able to bring life out of death.  That is the power of grace. That is the grace that worked through Elijah and Jesus as they brought those boys back to life.  That is the grace that sustained Justin, Blandina, and the Ugandan martyrs as they were led to their deaths.  It is that grace that will bring meaning and life out of the worst of circumstances.

So to answer that earlier question:  why have readings like these 10 weeks after Easter Sunday?  Because we need them now, perhaps more than any other time of year.  As things slow down, as we fall back into routines, we need to know that that promise of resurrected life is not going anywhere, that it is always there.  We always need to be reminded that God will bring life from death.  So hang onto that hope in your own life.  Cultivate that hope in the lives of those around you.  Because we know, just like those martyrs, just like Elijah and Jesus, we know that the words of the Psalmist are as true now as they were then:  weeping may spend the night, but joy always comes in the morning!