Monday, June 25, 2018

Weathering the Storm

'When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”'
-Mark 4: 35-41

I know what ya’ll want me to write about this week…the priest’s honeymoon.  As most of you know I recently got married, and my wife Kristen and I wanted to use our honeymoon as a chance for a pilgrimage to Greece, so that we could see the sites and walk in the footsteps of the early fathers and mothers of our Christian faith.  In a word, it was amazing!  We are looking forward to sharing in greater depth and detail many of the places we went, what we saw, and the conversations that we had, but for now I will give you a bit of a preview.

The ruins at ancient Corinth.

Given that our weekly lectionary is focused on Paul's letters there, it seems fitting to tell you about Corinth, one of the cities we visited.  It’s still very much a lively city, and it has been for the better part of 5000 years.  While there we spent a good deal of time in the ruins of the ancient city of Corinth, where we saw the temple to Apollo and the agora, and even took part in a Portuguese mass being celebrated by a group of pilgrims from Brazil.  Somewhere in those ruins was the place where the Followers of the Way met, a misfit congregation made up of Jews, Greek-speaking Gentiles, rich folks, and poor folks, and all the while they could barely agree on anything—which is why not only Paul, but also Clement of Rome, wrote two letters apiece to this bunch.  Our modern ears listen to Paul’s words to the church in Corinth and figure they must have taken root at some point, but according to historical markers in Corinth itself, “St. Paul preached the Gospel here unsuccessfully.”  It’s true.  Corinth did not become a hub for Christianity in the ancient world the way Ephesus or Rome did, and by some standards it could be deemed a failure due to its in-fighting and the fact that neither Paul, nor Clement, seemed to get through to them.

This whole notion of what a successful church looks like really hit us when we visited the six monasteries of Meteora, which is the mountainous region of western Greece.  There was as a time when the mighty peaks were home to as many as 24 monasteries going back to the 12th century, but now six remain.  

One of the monasteries of the Meteora (pictures were not permitted inside the worship spaces, unfortunately).

At each monastery we visited the chapel, and the front room of each chapel was decorated with gorgeous frescoes.  When we looked closely, though, we were struck by images of men and women being beaten, torn apart by lions, skinned and boiled alive, beheaded, and other gruesome pictures.  These were the martyrs, all of whom died for their faith, all of whom could be considered failures.  In the Monastery of the Transfiguration, the largest of the Meteora monasteries, we not only saw these images but also a separate room, the ossuary, which housed the skulls and bones of many of the monks who had died.  It was jarring, to say the least.

You may hear these stories and be thinking why the Eastern Church has such a grim view of the faith: calling Corinth an unsuccessful venture, surrounding worshipers with gruesome images of the martyrs’ deaths, and making a room full of monk bones viewable to the public.  But truly, brothers, and sisters, it is not a grim view, but rather it is a particular orientation that the Church in the East understands.  It is not an orientation toward success as the western world, and indeed many churches in this country see it—that is, successful means physical growth, financial prosperity, and everyone being happy—but rather it is an orientation toward living lives of faith in Jesus Christ, day after day, through every kind of storm imaginable, in the hopes that in life and death one may become more and more Christ-like themselves.   

In our story from the first Gospel this morning we hear of a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee that was causing fierce panic among Jesus’ disciples.  So freaked out were they that they wondered if Jesus himself even cared that they were perishing.  But in the midst of the storm Jesus speaks the same word that he spoke when he drove out his first demon back in the beginning of this Gospel—he tells the storm “ πεφίμωσο,” which means, “Be still and silent.” It is only when those disciples orient themselves toward Jesus that the storm becomes bearable.  

Jesus calming the storm.

"Storm clouds are a-raging all around my door," said Bob Dylan, "I think to myself I might not take it anymore."  We experience the storms of our lives and say the same thing:  how long can we take it?  We meet those storms in or personal lives and wonder how long we can endure the storms of unemployment, addiction, the death of a loved one, or a disease?  We meet them in our communal lives, as well, including our churches, our towns, and our country. For the past couple weeks we have found ourselves in a particular storm of political and moral severity at the southern border of our country.  Many feel that this storm, like others that have come before,  is continuing to tear us apart, not unlike the in-fighting that plagued Corinth. Certainly a number of faith communities find themselves caught up in this storm, unsure of what to do. How long can we take it, some people are saying?  Will we be able to endure the next storm when it comes (and come, it certainly will)?  What are we to do as we feel like we are perishing beneath the tempest of morally righteous anger and political blame-throwing?  The answer actually lies in the way we worship.

"Lex orandi, lex cretendi," the old Latin saying goes—"the way of worship shapes the way of belief."   It’s sort of the unofficial motto of the Anglican Communion.  If you want to know what Anglicans believe, come and experience our worship. Each Sunday—including this past one—we read from the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we process the Gospel book itself into the congregation. Everyone stands for the reading of the Gospel, something we do not do for the Old and New Testaments. As the book passes by everyone in the congregation turns and orients themselves toward the Gospel.  It is a physical action that is something we do so often that we don’t even think about it beforehand.  It’s in our DNA. But it’s more than physical. It is an emotional, mental, and spiritual orientation toward not only Jesus' words but his life, his death, and his resurrection. It is this orientation toward Jesus that allowed the church in Corinth to continue—in spite of modern historians calling it unsuccessful—and it is this orientation toward Jesus that made it possible for the martyrs to face their deaths and for the monks to house their bones as a testament to their faith  because success is not about growing numerically or being vindicated in our opinions—whether they be social, political, or religious—no,  Christian success (oxymoron though that may be) means continuing to live into the faith, continuing to become more Christ-like, no matter what storms rage around us.  For like those disciples in the boat, if we orient ourselves toward Jesus we can hear him say, "Why are you afraid?"  There is no need to fear anything when our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies are oriented toward Jesus. This is how Paul can write to the splintered community in Corinth and commend them for all that they have endured:  hardships, beatings, imprisonments, and hunger, and how he can be crazy enough to say to them that though the world says they have nothing they actually possess everything.  They possess Jesus Christ!  So did those martyrs on those frescos.  So did those monks.  And so do we!  No matter the nature of the storm, when we orient ourselves toward Jesus we can endure and continue to live out our faith.  That is our goal, our mission, even unto our deaths, because THAT is what success means to a Christian.  

"If you weather the storm through the wind and the rain, you can still ride a bike with a rusty old chain," wrote another singer-songwriter.  "There’s life on the other side of the pain," she wrote further, "but you’ll never ever ever be the same."  Jesus is there in the storm with us, though he may be on the cushion, he is still there.  He is there in the storm of your life.  He is there in the storm at the southern border.  He is there as he was  with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, as he has been with every Follower of the Way who has felt like they are perishing.  When we orient our whole selves in his direction, toward the way of Jesus, the way of love and mercy and the goodness of God, we too can weather any storm, we can find life on the other side, but we will never be the same, for we may find ourselves becoming just a little more Christ-like.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

For the Love of Jesus

I don’t have a meme or a soundbite.  There isn’t anything snarky that I can say, no takedown that I am able to throw out there on social media or from the pulpit.  All I have right now is a heart that is broken and a spirit that is shaken, and all I can do is weep with the rest of the Body of Christ.  

While away on our honeymoon in Greece my wife Kristen and I had limited access to wifi and thus could not keep up regularly with the goings on in the world.  Yet when we occasionally were able to post pictures of our travels we saw scenes from home showing what was happening at the US-Mexico border.  The hot-button topic of immigration had, it seemed, reached a boiling point with the implementation of the so-called “zero tolerance policy” that was literally ripping children from their parents at the border, placing them in cages that hearken to the forced encampment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.  We were both sick over what we saw, and as we sat in the Grotto of St. Paul, outside the ruins of ancient Ephesus in Turkey, we looked upon the frescos of Jesus and saints like Paul and Thekla, and through our tears we prayed.  It was all we could do.  

I did not preach this past Sunday due to having just returned from that trip, but I was blessed to hear our retired deacon do what deacons do best:  preach truth to power.  He named the sins of hatred that have infected the hearts of many alleged followers of Jesus of Nazareth and compelled us not to give in to such rhetoric, but rather to focus on the mustard seed moments, those tiny morsels of grace and love that, when watered and nurtured by God, grow mightily and conquer such hate.  I am grateful for my brother’s words that day, but as I return to the church office and my regular routines there is much that troubles me about what is happening in our country, and what’s more, how far we are from doing anything about it.

When I say “we” I mean folks like me; that is, white, middle-class Christian folk.  The truth is that the current situation on our border does not directly affect most people like me.  I live in a state that is not on the border and preach to a congregation that does not have a single Spanish-speaking person in it.  Since returning from the honeymoon no one has asked either my wife (who is also a seminary-educated minister) or me what we think of what is going on down on the border.  Furthermore, there is little outrage over the fact that the current administration in Washington is citing Scripture (badly, I might add) to condone their policies and the procedure of separating children from their families.  If anything I am seeing social media post after social media post from folks like me—again, white, middle class Christians—showing no compassion for these children and citing passages of Scripture (again, badly) that they claim as grounds for such behavior.  And all I can wonder is which Jesus they actually know.  

When he was still the bishop of my diocese, The Most Rev. Michael Curry (you know, the Royal Wedding guy) told us clergy to be mindful of something:  “There is a difference,” he said, “between Jesus and JAYSUSUH!  The former comes preaching the Good News of love for God and one’s neighbor, but the latter comes preaching judgment and condemnation.”  Too many of the folks like me seem to prefer the latter.  That is the only explanation that I can come up with for how anyone claiming to follow the Way of Jesus of Nazareth can possibly condone the actions of the current administration.  Such actions have repeatedly denied the humanity of refugees and immigrants, even though Jesus’ own family lived as refugees in Egypt, and has touted the power and authority of the state over that of one’s own conscience, even though Jesus himself was killed by the state for an unjust cause.  Thus, all I can reckon is that such folks who support such actions are not actually followers of Jesus, but rather of JAYSUSUH!  

For if one were to truly follow Jesus one would hear his words echo in his or her heart:  “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matthew 25)”, “Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6)”, “Give to anyone who asks of you (Matthew 5 and Luke 6)”, “Whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9)”, and I could go on.  At the core of these and all of Jesus’ saying is the clear message that to love God and to love one’s neighbor is the greatest of all commandments, meaning that love is the foundation of everything that it means to be a Christian.  If there is no love, there is no Jesus.  Again, to quote Bishop Curry:  “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about Jesus of Nazareth.”  Truth.  

But what is most unsettling to me is the willingness of many alleged Christians to go along with a sinful administration simply because they are in power and because St. Paul once wrote to a frightened congregation in Rome, which was teetering on the edge of extinction, to follow those in authority for the sake of their own survival (Romans 13).  What such folks fail to remember, however, is that their allegiance and loyalties and identities do not lie in authority figures, nor in America itself.  To be a Christian means that Christ, and Christ alone, is our identity.  There is nothing else!  This is what Paul means when he says “there is no male or female, slave or free, Greek or Jew, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3).”  Jesus Christ, the living embodiment of the love of God, is the ONLY allegiance to which we pledge ourselves.  To put the laws of government, or even the words of St. Paul, above those of Jesus Christ is heretical.  Period.  

I do not expect much to come from this blog post; after all, I do not have the sway or the celebrity to affect any serious change with it.  But I am a priest in Christ’s holy catholic and apostolic Church, tasked with preaching the Gospel in word and action, no matter where I go and no matter to whom I go.  This post may bring you a sense of hope, and for that I am glad.  It may also anger you, and for that I do not apologize.  It is time that Christians everywhere take back the sacred and holy name of Jesus and take back the truth of his Gospel:  that love is the only way.  We will not succeed by flinging mud at one another, and we will not succeed in any sort of political coup or uprising.  This is not the way of Jesus.  Instead, the way of Jesus is the way of modeling love for others, even if they are incapable of accepting it.  This is what I will continue to do, with God’s help.  

For those still unsure about how to feel over the recent goings-on along the border, ask yourself if any of this is of Jesus.  If the answer is no, then outrage is a perfectly acceptable thing to feel.  But what you do with your outrage is much more important.  Do not give in to the temptation to repay evil with evil.  Put your outrage into action.  Call your representatives and tell them to live the way of Jesus; after all, they’re all supposedly Christians.  Keep modeling love, even when someone is hurling insults your way and preaching a false gospel about security or some other made-up excuse.  And whatever you do, pray and preach with abandon and with the fire and passion and love of Jesus Christ.  

I leave you with the only thing I could think to pray this morning when my wife and I did Morning Prayer.  Here is the Prayer for the Human Family:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son:  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and peoples may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

—The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 815