Terror and the Kingdom of God: A sermon for Proper 7C

This sermon, offered at The Church of the Atonement in Fish Creek Wisconsin, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 7C in the Revised Common Lectionary. 

You can find those readings here

 

In today’s Gospel reading Luke the Evangelist drags us right into the middle of what, for the disciples and for Luke’s readers, would have been a real nightmare.

On the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in a country populated by a foreign people, people who looked different, who spoke another language, people who neither valued or observed their religious traditions and customs, Jesus and his disciples are confronted by a man, bloodied and bruised by the chains used to bind him, who can’t even speak his own name because he is so tormented by the demons that afflict him.

In just a few short sentences Luke has set up a horror story better than most of the movies we’ll find on late night TV.

Now I don’t know where a boat trip across the water to a foreign land, populated by people who look different from us, people who speak a different language and worship differently than us, people who have spent time among the dead bound by chains would rank on your hierarchy of horror…

Come to think of it… I guess there are a lot of people today who do in fact find that pretty scary prospect…

But the demons, I think that the demons we encounter in this story have to rank up there pretty high on our list of scary stuff.

Now, that may be a hard line to swallow, talk about demons in church can make Episcopalians pretty squeamish, but just let’s just run with this for a few minutes.

We could spend a lot of time talking about what Jesus and his contemporaries meant when they referred to demons. And we could spend a lot of time talking about what we mean when we say a person is tormented by demons, and yes we do still use those words… but I’m not sure that either of those conversations would result in consensus or even general agreement. I am however, willing to bet that we could all agree just what those demons, whatever they are, just what the demonic, whatever that is, do to people and to communities where they manifest themselves.

Luke describes it pretty well. This man that we encounter today doesn’t live in a house. He lives in the tombs. He is separated from his family, from the community into which he was born, and is living with the dead. If the demons weren’t enough to drive him from his home, to disrupt his relationship with the people around him, his contact with the dead makes him ritually unclean and so people now want to do everything they can to avoid him. This man’s demons, the demonic within him have alienated him, driven him from his community. They have ruptured his communion with the people whom he loves and whom we may suppose once loved him. That should sound familiar to all of us. We’ve all seen that happen. And we all know that it gets worse!

When Jesus asks this man his name he can’t answer. The best that he can do is offer the number of demons that were torturing him… Legion… “Legion” was a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman Army. Those demons, the demonic, had obliterated his very identity, he no longer knew who his own name, he had lost his sense of who he was. The demons had ruptured his communion even with himself.

And now unable even to utter his own name this man is alone, in the dark, living among the dead.

 

It’s important to focus on the effect that these demons have had on this man rather than on the demons themselves because it is the person, the child of God standing before him with whom Jesus is concerned. He is much less interested in the demons than he is in the person in need… And by placing the emphasis on the effect that the demonic has on people we are better able to see just what it is that Jesus is does in the midst of a terrible nightmare like this.

Luke tells us:

“Then the people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

Sitting at Jesus’s feet. In his right mind… By casting out whatever it was that was tormenting him Jesus has called him to remember who he was, Jesus has given him back his name, identity. He has restored this man to communion with himself and, as he sits there at Jesus’s feet, with God. In so doing Jesus has given him the opportunity to be restored to communion with his family, with his community, and with the world around him.

That’s not really surprising because that’s exactly what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to teach us a new way of being together, a new way of being in communion with God and with one another, a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Communion, community, establishing the kingdom of God… that’s what Jesus is about. Bringing God’s vision, God’s dream for creation to fruition here and now.

Confronted with this broken community and this man who was estranged, alienated, cut off from himself and the people around him… Jesus was bound to do something to reconcile them all, to themselves, to one another, and to God.

 

So now I have to ask… What do you think? Did it work? Was Jesus able to restore this person to the life God wanted for him? Was Jesus able to bring this tormented person back into communion with himself and with his neighbors?   The Gospel leaves that question unanswered. We know that the man, having been relieved of his torment, wanted to follow Jesus and Jesus sent him home to tell people all that God had done for him… but we don’t know how he was received by the people who had cast him out. Luke leaves us to wonder…

But while Luke doesn’t tell us the conclusion of the possessed man’s story… he does tell us something about the way the people in the city and the surrounding countryside responded to what Jesus had done. And their response leaves us with some pretty profound questions…

Luke tells us:

“Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”

Why weren’t they ecstatic that one of their own had been healed of the demons that tormented him? Why weren’t they celebrating the fact that someone who had been lost was found, that someone who had been living among the dead was now restored to life? Why in the world would they be afraid and ask Jesus lo leave? Why weren’t they lining up to bring others to Jesus to be restored to the life of the community?

Maybe, maybe it was that herd of swine that rushed down the steep slope and was drowned. Maybe the financial cost of saving someone, of rescuing them from the demons that tormented them, of restoring them to communion with themselves, with God, and with the community was just to high. Maybe they weren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice for someone else’s sake.

Maybe they were afraid of the way that restoring this person to the life of the community might change the dynamics of the community itself. How would he fit in? What would he expect from them? Would his presence in their midst call them to change? How were they supposed to relate to this person whom they had so recently tried to bind with chains?

And speaking of those chains… If this person were restored to the community how would they live with the fact that they had, for years, tried to imprison and chain him? If it was actually possible to restore someone like this to communion with the community… why didn’t they seek help for him, why didn’t they do all in their own power to heal him? Why did they compound his misery by tossing him out and locking him away?

They were seized by fear and asked Jesus to leave. It seems pretty clear that the demons in this story were having an impact far beyond the individual person they were inhabiting. They asked Jesus to leave them.

 

Let’s be clear.

The threat posed by someone who is tormented by demons is real. That person may be a Gerasene who lives among the tombs or they may be a tortured, self loathing, hate filled person with an assault rifle. Either way, the immediate danger that person poses to us is real.

But the story of the people of Gerasene’s response to Jesus healing, Jesus restoring, Jesus reconciling someone who had been identified as a threat reveals an even greater danger.

God calls us to communion with God and with one another; a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like and that’s what Jesus came to bring.

The real danger in outbursts of the demonic and the terror they cause is that we will all become infected.

That rather than work for reconciliation and communion we will build walls that further divide us.

The real danger in moments like this is that we will hold tight to what we believe is ours, refusing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect ourselves and our children because we deem the cost too high. The danger is that we will pull back into our entrenched positions, allowing the status quo to continue to consume the innocent.

The real danger in a moment like this is that we will find ourselves too afraid to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves because someone has labeled that neighbor a threat.

The real danger in moments like this is that we will become so fearful and defensive that we refuse to examine our own culpability in our failure to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

If we succumb to these dangers then the Demons, the terrorists, have won. Demons and terrorists aren’t nearly as concerned with their immediate victims as they are with the ripple effect of their deeds. Their real goal is to infect entire communities with terror, fear, anger, and hatred; to disrupt our communion with one another and with God. To make us forget who, and whose, we are.

 

We have to remember who we are and whose we are. We have to remember why Jesus came among us and what he taught us. We have to remember the promises we make every time we renew our baptismal vows. We have to fight to keep loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves because…

Because the greatest danger of all,

in a moment like this

is that we will be so seized with fear

that we ask Jesus to leave…

 

Amen

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Loving God, Loving your Neighbor – a Call to Political Activism

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on March 8, 2015.

It is built around the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart. The commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes…  More to be desired are they then gold more than much fine gold. Sweeter by far than honey, than honey in comb Psalm 19).

I wonder how many of us have that sort of relationship with the law. Laws are designed to keep us safe, to protect our rights, to protect our property, to govern the way that we interact with one another so that we can be secure and that life might be predictable. But in the end I think we usually think of the laws as constraints, of ways to manage our behavior and the behavior of others.

The people of Israel had a very different vision of the law.   The law gives wisdom to be innocent, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes, is more to be desired than gold, and is sweeter than honey from the comb.   How is it that they could have such a different understanding of and relationship with the law? The wonderful Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman gives us some insight into the people of Israel’s relationship with the 10 Commandments. He says “These commandments might not be taken as a series of rules but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be practices by his community of liberated slaves.” A proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be practiced by his community of liberated slaves. So how can we understand the 10 Commandments in that way?

Take a look at the Commandments as they are printed in your bulletin in the first reading. I am the Lord your God brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, no images of God to come between God and God’s people. And we are not to use God’s name in vain, either to swear by or swear with. Our relationship with God is defined in these first three commandments. And then there’s this commandment that functions sort of as hinge piece, here in not quite the middle of the list… Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Set aside one day a week to bask in this relationship, in the light, grace, and mercy of God’s love, and to remember who you are and who God is.

On the other side of that hinge piece there are six Commandments that describe how we are to practice God with the people around us. You shall not murder, shall not commit adultery, shall not steal, shall not bear false witness, shall not covet… all of these proclamations in God’s own mouth of who God is and how we are to practice God. All of them are about our relationships with one another, and our relationship with God.

Mother Dorota read the summary of the law at the beginning of the service as we knelt to confess our sins and ask for God’s absolution.   The first and greatest commandment is this; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind, and strength. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This proclamation of who God is and how we are to practice God in the world is all about our relationships and the ways that we love one another.

It was with these words ringing in our ears and in our hearts that we gathered yesterday at noon at Christ the solid rock Baptist Church. Early in the morning an email had gone out from Linda Ketcham, the director of Madison Urban Ministry, asking clergy in Madison if they would contribute to the funeral expenses for Tony Robinson who was killed on the east side of Madison Friday night. In response to that request, as several of us were promising funds to help defray those costs, Pastor Everett Mitchell of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church hit “reply all” and invited the Madison clergy to join him at noon to pray together and to be in solidarity with one another and with the Robinson Family.

When I arrived I had a member of our parish with me who had asked for a ride. We met two other members of the congregation who joined us there. Leanne Puglielli who has, as she said yesterday, one foot at St. Andrews and one foot at Christ the Solid Rock was seated there waiting for us.   We said some prayers. We heard some details about the events of Friday night and Saturday morning that we didn’t know.   And then we were offered the opportunity to brainstorm together about how we might, as the community of liberated slaves in Madison, continue to “practice God” as we move forward together.

Now I’m sure that there are some people who would say that we were doing something wrong in gathering together. That what we were doing was entering into the world of politics and that the world of politics is not the place for the church. But if you strip away the pejorative baggage that gets associated with the word “politics” and think about it at its core politics is really all about the way that we relate to one another in the public square; how we are in relationship with one another, how we treat one another, and that is what the 10 Commandments are all about. God’s own proclamation about how we should “practice God” in the community is inherently a political statement.

One of the clergy stood up at that gathering yesterday and said that he thought the clergy of Madison should gather together in fellowship on a regular basis. There was a murmur of ascent in the room and as he passed me on his way back down the center aisle to his seat I stood up, extended my hand, and I said, “I’m embarrassed to have to say that I don’t know your name.” For the next half an hour we went around the room one by one and introduced ourselves and named the faith communities where we serve and worship. At the end of that period of introductions we were all profoundly struck by the number of faith communities who were represented in that place and the power that we have as the church when we stand together in that way. We wrestled with things that we might do, ways that we might address what happened on Friday night. And we knew in our hearts that together we can make a much larger difference then we can as individuals.

I think that there is a real temptation in the wake, in the chaos left behind after Tony Robinson’s shooting of Friday night to adjudicate the events of that night, to decide who was at fault, to lay blame. We will hear more about the events, more details will surface, and invariably blame will be assigned. But I think that we need to be very careful as those details emerge. This morning in the State Journal there is an article that describes four events in the last several weeks where the Madison Police Department have had guns trained on them, had bullets fired in their direction, and they did not respond with deadly force. Some of those events involved white people, some involved black people, some were in affluent neighborhoods, and some were in less affluent neighborhoods. We need to be careful that we do not paint with too broad a brush as we color the events of last Friday night.

But we also need to recognize and honor the fact that a young man, Tony Robinson, is dead. And a mother and a family and a community are grieving. And that in the wake of these events we are grieving too. I think that our grief needs to grow out of the conversation that we have been having here at St. Andrews and in Madison for the last year. The Annie E. Casey Foundation report, The Race to Equity Report, have cast light on the disparities in Madison and in Dane County. We have spoken of them often, both here in this pulpit and in conversations in the parish hall around the tables at the Sunday forum.   We know that there is an illness there is a disease in Madison and Dane County. The anger and the frustration and the rage that have erupted over Friday night’s shooting are evidence of that illness. And we dare not leave that illness unaddressed.

Another commentator that I read this week, in speaking about the 10 Commandments, had this to say, “Those who ignore the divine teachings do so at their own peril – not because God is standing over them with a hammer, but because the teachings describe the way of life. To ignore them is to wander into the ways of death instead, where God’s faithfulness can be of little help.” When we do not love God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves we are wandering into the ways of death. And the event that we have seen in this city over the last several days are the fruits of that wandering.

So what can we do there will be a letter from the Madison clergy, all of the people who attended the meeting yesterday and many who could not, including our own bishop who has phoned me and is anxious to lend his support to what we are doing here in Madison. That letter will go to the media, to the Mayor, to the Chief Koval, to anyone to whom we can deliver it. It will say that the church in Madison: Episcopalians, Lutheran’s, UCC, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, Jewish congregations, the Buddhists who were there yesterday, are all standing together and demanding that the investigation into Friday night’s events be transparent and just.

And even more importantly, demanding that we address the faults in the system that have led us to a place where the city erupts in anger, and suspicion, and frustration over an event like the one we experienced Friday night.

I saw a Facebook meme the other day, there’s this picture of Jesus in the Temple overturning the tables with a whip in his hand. The people in that picture looked pretty shocked, trying to get out of his was as the coins rolled across the floor, the tables piled in a heap. The painting didn’t portray them but I imagine that even his disciples were pretty surprised at his response to what he found in the temple. It had been going on for a long time. It was part of the status quo. When you arrived at the conclusion of your pilgrimage at the Temple you were required to offer an animal without blemish as a sacrifice. And even if the animal you left home with it the beginning of your journey was unblemished it would be very difficult to keep that animal in that pristine state on that long and difficult journey. So unblemished animals were sold in the temple grounds. When you entered the temple you paid a temple tax to help with Herod’s reconstruction program and you could not use the Roman coin because it was engraved with Caesar’s image. You traded your coin of the Empire for a coin that you could offer in the Temple one with that was not idolatrous in its very manufacture. So the need for these services seemed apparent. But something had gone wrong. The synoptic Gospels Matthew Mark and Luke tell us that there was some corruption. In their Gospels Jesus as you have turned my father’s house into a den of thieves. John doesn’t say that John has Jesus say, “stop making my father’s house a marketplace.” Whatever the reason the status quo was broken and in order to change it Jesus overturned some tables. That painting that I was telling you about of Jesus with the tables turned over and people looking shocked coins on the floor and a whip in his hand… the caption said, “the next time somebody asks you what would Jesus do… tell them that turning over some tables and chasing people with whips is within the realm of possibilities!”

We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That is a radically political statement… political at its core! In order to love in that way, to bring about the kingdom, the vision, the dream that God has for all of us… for Madison Wisconsin, for the county, for all of creation… we may need to raise our voices. We may even need to overturn some tables as we challenge the status quo and push on the people who have power to make the changes for which the Gospel cries. If we don’t follow Jesus into the Temple this Sunday and take up that cause, then we are not “practicing God” as his community of liberated slaves in the way that the 10 Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai calls us to live.

So fasten your girdles around you. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Take courage; follow our Lord, as we demand that we become a community that practices God together.

Amen

Saving Our Lives by Losing Them: a Call for Restorative Justice

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is based on the readings for the Proper 17 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This text is a transcription of the recording made at the 9:30 Celebration of the Eucharist. I have made a few adjustments in the transcription, mostly where my proclivity for compound run on sentences began to border on the absurd.  There is a link at the end of the text to the article by Charles Hefling that is quoted in the sermon.

Here is the recorded version:

 

This is a big weekend here in Madison just like it is in college towns all over this country. Students are returning for their second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth year of school. First time students are arriving on campus, finding their roommate assignments, making their way through the dorms, learning the layout of campus and where the dining hall is. It’s a tremendously exciting and terrifying and important moment in the life of any young person. I think it’s a very similar; it doesn’t matter where you’re going to school; it doesn’t matter who you are; there’s a lot that’s shared in this moment. But I think there’s something very different about college today than there was when I started in 1978. That year at Juniata College, a small private liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, room board intuition for a whole year cost a whopping sum of $4800. I don’t know that you could even get a meal plan for a year for that much money today! We had gone to great lengths to plan for a college education, to research, to find the right place to go, and then over the four years that I was there cost of that tuition tripled. It was almost $15,000 the year that I graduated. Sometime during my senior year I was home and we were having a conversation at the dinner table and someone said something that caught my ear and I asked for clarification and my father said “uh… no. I sold the sailboat.”   Really? So why did you do that? He looked very uncomfortable for second and then he said, “Well tuition has gone up quite a bit since you started school.” I felt all the breath rush out of me. I thought uh oh, now is to be mad at me. Now I’m going to find out what this really costs. I was stunned that he just went on… changed the subject. He almost looked embarrassed that it had come up at all. And I was flabbergasted by that. I really didn’t understand how that could have been; that this thing that was so precious to him was gone and he never even mentioned it; wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it had come up in this conversation.

I think I started to have some understanding of how all of that worked for him about 15 years later when our son Daniel was born. When we were expecting Daniel I went to church and I told all of these older men there at the parish that we were expecting a baby and there was almost a universal response from them. They would come up and put their arm around my shoulder and they’d go, “Oh man… Your life is about to change…” And I’d say “Yeah! I know! We’ve been trying for a long time to have a baby! We’ve planned for this and were prepared and I know what’s coming and I’m glad of it.” The Sunday after Daniel was born I went back to church and went back to the same guys and I said, “Oh man my life has changed! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Here I was with this defenseless infant who couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t clean himself, couldn’t clothe himself, or protect himself… I was responsible for him, and for all of the things that he needed.   And so suddenly things that I thought were mine, rightfully mine, had to get set aside. You know my sense that I deserved eight hours of sleep a night, the idea that I would get to choose when I slept, that I would get to choose when I ate… All sorts of things that I thought were under my control and mine to decide suddenly became his to decide. I had to give up things that I thought were important to me, that I thought made me who I was, in order to be a father to this child.

I think that my dad was doing much the same thing only on a different scale and at a different point in my life when he sold his boat. He was helping to launch me from college into the real world.

So Jesus in the gospel today tells us that if we want to save our lives we have to lose them. I think that as we consider the ways that we change, the ways that we give of ourselves for the people we love, we have some sense of what he’s talking about here. In order to be in relationship with those who are close to us we make concessions. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to change. We give up pieces of ourselves that we thought were crucial to our identity and who we are, and in doing so we find something much greater. We find a gift of life in the light that we couldn’t have expected or experienced until we were willing to make ourselves vulnerable and give up something in that way.

Now, I think that’s an easy thing to picture and this is a great metaphor to understand all this but it’s kind of limited because it’s easy to give of our life in this way for our children, our parents, our siblings, our family, our tribe, our community. It’s a little more difficult when it’s a stranger for whom we have to give. It’s a little more difficult when we are asked to change or to give up something for someone we’ve never met and may never meet again. We all know on some level how difficult this is and you see evidence of that in the way that we honor those stories and those moments. I can sit in the evening at 5:30 at night and watch 25 minutes of terrible horrible news from all over the world. But you get the last five minutes and the news anchor is going to show you something to lift your heart, and make you smile, and show you someone in the world who has reached out and done something spectacularly generous in giving for a stranger. Those moments we treasure and we value. They give us an insight into something that we claim and proclaim that is awfully difficult to do.

All right so take it another step and we see the limitations of this metaphor in describing what Jesus is talking about. It’s easy for your family its more difficult for a stranger. But what about for someone you don’t really like that much to begin with; someone who rubs you the wrong way; someone who you find to be challenging and difficult; or even someone who has hurt you; someone who you believe owes you the gift and not you them.   That’s where the story gets really difficult and that’s where we find ourselves finally able to circle back to the beginning of today’s gospel passage.

Jesus says if you want to save your life you must lose it but that’s buried pretty deep in today’s reading. The reading today starts out with Jesus telling his disciples that he must be crucified, die, and rise again. Jesus is talking about losing his own life and in the shock and dismay that the disciples express after that moment, after Peter likens himself to Satan and says “No Lord this can never happen to you!” Jesus tells us that we have to follow him and be willing to lose our life in order to find it. So I think at this moment we need to dig in just a little bit to see what it is that Jesus is losing.

Jesus dies on the cross at our hands. Now if someone were to harm us, to wrong us in some way, it would be normal, I’ll say natural for lack of a better word, expected for us to expect compensation.   Justice would say that we are owed retribution, compensation, even revenge.   And so punitive justice, retributive justice would say that we respond to that evil with evil because punishment is by its definition depriving someone of something they value: liberty, possessions, time, acquaintances, even their life.   Retributive justice, the justice that the world, in which the world deals, says that we repay evil with evil and we only repay good with good.

Jesus on the other hand places himself in our hands and allows us to nail him to a tree, to crucify him, to kill him. He experiences the very worst that we have to offer and instead of repaying that evil with evil he comes back and loves us anyway.

Now the Gospels tell us, Jesus has said himself, he could if he wanted summon 12 legions of angels who would fight for him and save him from this fate. He could have fled.   He fact in came over the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to face this conflict, to find himself in this moment. He didn’t flee, he didn’t fight, he didn’t summon a legion of Angels to rescue him. He repaid the evil that was done to him with good and broke the cycle of violence; violence to repay violence, to repay violence, to repay violence by showing us something different.

I think that this is so difficult for us because we want to be compensated. We want to find recompense. When someone wrongs us of justice calls for us to be repaid and it’s very difficult to forgo that compensation or retribution in order to find something different.

I’ve quoted from this article before and I’ll post a link to it when I post the sermon this afternoon. Charles Hefling in the Christian Century, March 20 of last year, has an article called “Why the Cross?” and he says,

“punishment by definition takes away from an offender something valuable – liberty, property, physical well-being, companionship, possessions. Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of deserved punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.”

He goes on to say that,

“If you choose to retaliate you perpetuate the evil by causing new injury” and he says “If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine”

the decision to forgive to forgo the righteous revenge, resentment, self vindication, righteous indignation is to rise above that retributive justice that perpetuates the cycle of evil and to participate in the justice of God which is restorative. Hefling tells us,

“If you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self vindication, and righteous indignation.”

This is what Jesus did on our behalf in coming back and repaying evil with good, loving us anyway; breaking that cycle of violence and showing us a different way; something that will build community, break down barriers and walls, and draw us one to another in a community that realizes God’s vision and dream for all of us. But it is an incredibly difficult crucified place to stand.

Now I just have to offer one caveat in all of this because I know that this passage has been used to cause great harm and I hear people say, “it’s my cross to bear in life.” I don’t believe that God inflicts suffering on us and I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer. God is asking us to be willing to give our lives in order that community might grow, that light and love might grow, that people will all be restored to light and life. But God is not asking us to sacrifice ourselves in order that someone may continue their abusive behavior, or that someone might continue down a dark path that doesn’t lead to life but leads to death. Jesus didn’t allow the crowds to throw him off the cliff when he returned to Galilee, to Nazareth and began to preach to them that, in him, the kingdom of God was fulfilled. He chose his moment in a way that would restore light and life to the world. He did not cast his pearls before swine and allow himself to be trampled into the dust.

Jesus does not call us to be doormats. Jesus does not call us to remain in abusive and life demeaning situations. But he does call us to be prepared to give up our own agenda, to sacrifice our own sense that we are central to this universe and to the world in order that other people might find themselves uplifted, might have what they need, and that we might ourselves break the cycle of violence that drags us all into the depths.

I had a conversation with Ken Stancer (our Music Director) this week. This was the day after an in-service for all teachers in the Madison public school system and he was very excited to tell me about a new program that is designed around restorative behaviors in the classroom. I thought this was a stunning statistic that he told me, and I’ll get this number wrong because I didn’t write it down, but there were somewhere in the area of 4,470 days of suspensions and expulsions in the Madison school system K through 12 last year. He told me that the graph that they showed the teachers said that 68% percent of those days were served by African-American males and that the remaining 32% were divided up equally between all of the other ethnicities and genders present in the school system. The school system is working to balance the need to maintain order in the classroom with the need to restore people to community and to attack the roots of those problems.   So if you pull a child out of class, if you send them from the room, you have to balance that act of justice with another act of justice that is designed to restore them to the community and to resolve the issues that resulted in their being suspended or expelled.

I want to applaud the Madison school system for this effort I want to commend this kind of thinking to all of us. We are called save our lives by losing our lives, by being willing to give to and for one another, to change and be changed by our interactions with one another much the same that we are willing to be changed by our interactions with the people that we love who are closest to us. We are called to this behavior because it has the potential to break that cycle of violence, to become a lamp shining on the hill, and to help create and bring to fruition God’s vision and dream for all of us.

Jesus tells us that he must be crucified and die and rise from the dead, and he tells us that we must walk in his footsteps and be willing to lose our lives in order to find true life. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to hang on that same cross. But we need to be ready and willing to follow him, to recognize others’ needs and rightful demands, we need to be willing to take ourselves out of the center of our own spinning universe and to stand side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in this community and beyond, to call for an end to the violence, to pray for and demand peace, and to bring all of God’s creatures into the light where we ourselves long to stand.

Amen

 

This sermon is indebted to Charles Hefling and his article “Why the Cross” published March 20, 2013 in the Christian Century.  You can read his article here.

I also made extensive use of Hefling’s article in my sermon for Good Friday 2013.

Praying in the Face of Tragedy

Dear Parish Family,

Suzanne, Daniel, Jacob, and I want to thank you all for your prayers of care and support as we have worked through the shock and grief we experienced at the death of Suzanne’s brother Gary.    It has been a difficult week for all of us.  Your prayers have been a great source of comfort.  We are on the road today and expect to arrive in Madison late tonight.

Prayers have been especially important this week as the horrific images of the bombing in Boston have confronted us once again with the consequences of human fear, hate, and alienation.  We have prayed for those hurt and killed by the blast and for the families and friends of those who were injured or killed.  We have uttered prayers of grief for the loss of innocence, for a diminished sense of security and safety, for a senseless act that has turned a day of celebration into an occasion of national mourning.  We have prayed for those who, because they were there, have been there, or know someone who was there, carry invisible scars and wounds that may take years to recognize, address, and treat.  And because we follow a crucified Lord, the God who died at our hands to show us that nothing we can do can ever separate us form the love of God, we have even dared to offer prayers for the perpetrators of this horrific act.

On Monday night, the day of my brother in law’s funeral, as I sat in front of the television in my mother in law’s living room I posted the Prayer for the Human Family from page 851 of the BCP:

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

 

I hope that we will all find the grace and courage to offer this prayer in the face of tremendous hurt, anger and frustration.  It is in moments such as this that this prayer is most needed.

Having then stood with Christ, having prayed for the whole human family, we are able to offer our prayers of thanksgiving.  We offer thanks to God for moving in this world though the hearts and hands and feet of the people who, having felt the concussion generated by those blasts, turned towards that horror and ran to the aid of those who had fallen.  We offer prayers of gratitude that God has placed in our hearts a care for one another that enables us to rise above fear for ourselves and to join with God in the work of healing and reconciliation.  We give thanks for the witness born by the first responders that the Light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it.

Now we pray for strength and courage; for the ability to see and hear those in our midst who are hurting, afraid, or discouraged and to be present with them as they tell their stories.

We pray for the  strength and courage to stand our ground, to refuse to be drawn into the darkness of fear, retribution, violence and revenge; to take our place with the crucified Christ knowing that it is only through bearing the cross that we experience resurrection.

We pray for the strength and courage to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves as we strive for justice and peace among all people respecting the dignity of every human being.

We pray because we know that we can only fulfill these promises and vows with God’s help.

Our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Steven Miller, has written a reflection on the tragedy in Boston. You can find it here.

The rev. Dr. Jonathan Grieser, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison has published a collection of prayers on his blog.  You can find it here.

The Rev Jonathan Melton, Chaplain for the Saint Francis House Episcopal Student Ministry at UW-Madison has written a reflection on his blog.  You can find it here.  

And finally, our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is in Okinawa, Japan for the Second Worldwide Anglican Peace Conference, called for prayer following the explosions, and offered the following prayer:

Gracious God, you walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. We pray that the suffering and terrorized be surrounded by the incarnate presence of the crucified and risen one. May every human being be reminded of the precious gift of life you entered to share with us. May our hearts be pierced with compassion for those who suffer, and for those who have inflicted this violence, for your love is the only healing balm we know. May the dead be received into your enfolding arms, and may your friends show the grieving they are not alone as they walk this vale of tears. All this we pray in the name of the one who walked the road to Calvary. Amen.

 

Amen,
Andy+
Sent from my iPad

This is What God’s Law, God’s Justice Look Like: A Sermon for Good Friday 2013

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Good Friday, March 29th 2013, is based on the readings for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

There is a dream that we cling to, one that we long to see come to fruition, a dream so powerful and life giving that we have pursued it for as long as we can remember.  That dream goes something like this”

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”
(Isaiah 11:6-9).

We long for a world where all things, all people live in harmony, where peace reigns and where God is always present.  But it is important to remember that this dream, this vision does not originate with us.

This is God’s dream, God’s vision for creation, for all of humankind and for all things.  God, the one who spoke all things into being; God, who created order from the void, the chaos; God who gives light, life, and meaning to all things; this dream, this vision of the created order comes from the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

This is God’s wish for us.

“They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”

And to that end…

“from the primal elements God brought the human race, and blessed us with memory reason and skill.  God made us the rulers of creation.  But we turned against God, and betrayed God’s trust, and we turned against one another…  Again and again God called us to return.  Through prophets and sages God revealed God’s righteous law” (BCP p. 370).

But we are a stiff necked and rebellious people.  Again and again we put our own needs, our own desires ahead of God’s dream and ahead of the neighbors we have been called to love.  Our need to be “first,” to be in control leads us to exploit the people around us as we seek our own benefit, the advancement of our own agenda and needs, as we seek what looks and feels to this world like power.

“And so, in the fullness of time God sent God’s only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill God’s righteous law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace” (BCP p. 370)

But…

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10,11).

And so…

“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried” (The Nicene Creed).

And,

“By his blood, he reconciled us.  By his wounds we are healed” (BCP p. 370).

By “his” blood he reconciled us?  By “his” wounds “we” are healed?  How can that be?  How does that make sense?

He was,

“Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin.  To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners freedom; to the sorrowful joy” (BCP p. 374).

So how does this death, the death of one who bore no fault, no shame, who lived without sin, reconcile and heal us?  Why is that that we sit here today, at the foot of the cross, an instrument of torture and death – prepared to claim and venerate this moment as our own?  What sense does it make to say that this innocent man died for our sins?

We are the ones who are at fault.  We are the ones who have betrayed God’s trust and turned against God and one another.  We are the ones who should bear the consequences of our choices, out actions, our betrayals because we are the ones who have fallen into sin.

How does this make sense?  Let’s think back a little, to the Gospel of John to that well beloved passage people so often quote,

For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him my not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Now push on to the next verse, one that is extremely important as we consider the cross,

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Jesus came into the world, preached, taught, showed us the way to heaven and then died for us, for our sake, in order that the world might be saved.  “Saved,” that our offense, our betrayals, that our sins be forgiven that we may live in the light of God’s love.

That our sins might be forgiven…   “Forgiven” think about that word for a minute.  What does it mean to forgive?  If I have been wronged then I am entitled to justice.  I am entitled to redress, to compensation.  If I have been wronged I have a right to demand that the one who has harmed me pay a penalty for the indignity to which they have subjected me.  If I have been wronged then it is only fair that the person who has offended me suffer the same hurt that I have experienced.  We would call that fair.  We would call that justice.

To forgive means to forgo the satisfaction that is due the injured party.  To forgive is to receive the hurt, the offense, the injury without retaliating and without nurturing the wound or fostering a grudge.  To forgive is to be willing to suffer at the hands of those who have wronged us and to refuse to inflict suffering in return.  To forgive is to step out side of the “eye for an eye” approach to life and to enter instead into a mutualistic relationship that is transformative for both the offender and the offended.  To forgive is to risk being changed and to risk the possibility that the future might be different than the past.

We have fallen short of God’s vision, God’s dream for creation.  Left to our own devices we have become stuck in a cycle of violence that consumes the lamb, the kid, and the fatling; returning violence for violence, escalating and multiplying the hurt, building pain upon pain.  We have created the world in our own image and our need for power and control has loosed bears who rend and destroy, lions who devour the innocent, and adders who seem to strike without warning or mercy.

God came into this broken world, not to condemn us for our failure to live in God’s light and love; not to demand justice, compensation and ransom; but to lift us out of the darkness by putting an end to our endless cycle of rage, retribution, and violence.  God came into this world to offer us forgiveness, something that would “fulfill God’s law and to open for us the way of freedom and peace” (BCP p. 370).

To fulfill God’s law…  It doesn’t make much sense to us because God’s law and God’s justice don’t look much like ours.  But this is what God’s law, God’s justice looks like…  It looks like Jesus, God on a cross.  God’s law, God’s justice is a love so great, so deep and so wide that it is willing to suffer; to endure hurt, wrong, and betrayal.  God’s law, God’s justice is manifested in a willingness to forgive in the hope that we will choose the way of freedom and peace.  And that transformed by the gift of forgiveness that has been given to us and by the demonstration of the power of love over sin and death we will begin to live out our vocation as the church, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP p. 855).

Amen.

This sermon is indebted to Charles Hefling and his article “Why the Cross” published March 11, 2013 in the Christian Century.  You can read his article here.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

This sermon draws on the readings appointed for use on the Second Sunday in Lent.  It is focused on Luke 13:31-35.

You can find those readings here.

Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Israel under his wings like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings…  Is Jesus really talking about… chickens?

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.  I don’t know a lot about chickens.  In fact, the summer after I graduated from college, the little bit I do know about chickens only served to cement my status as a “city kid” with my co-workers in central Pennsylvania.  Having spent the whole summer trying to disabuse them of that notion I completely blew it one day when, confronted by my first flock of live chickens I stood there, fascinated, trying to figure out where the drumstick was!  A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

I don’t know a lot about chickens but I do have a pretty good idea of what happens when a fox gets into the hen-house.  a Fox in the hen-house means panic, voices raised in terror and pain.  A fox in the hen-house means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.

And when a fox enters the hen-house there is nothing a Mother Hen can do but rush to her chicks defense, sacrificing herself to save them from the jaws of the destroyer.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is responding to a group of Pharisees who have come to tell him that Herod wants him dead.  Jesus’s response to that threat is dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life.  But the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Jerusalem, tell us that there is a greater threat here than the one posed by Herod.

Jesus is pointing out that the children of Israel have a choice to make and that they have, for a long time, chosen to follow not the loving mother hen, but the fox!

Herod Antipas, the fox who wants to kill Jesus, rules Galilee as a client sate of Rome.  He is a traitor, a collaborator, a participant in the oppression of his own people.  He is also the son of Herod the “Great.”  It was Herod the “Great” who had the innocents slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the newly born King of the Jews that the Magi were seeking.  Herod the “Great” had his own children executed for fear that they were plotting to steal his throne.  So, Herod Antipas came from a long line of people willing to do anything, including killing their own chicks and the chick of others to maintain their hold on status, rank, privilege and power.  You would think that a threat from this man would be enough to grab the attention of an itinerant preacher as he makes his way through Herod’s domain and yet even here, with his life threatened by the “fox,” Jesus keeps himself focused on a much larger concern.

When Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, and laments the history of Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), we realize that the “fox” he is referring to is something bigger than Herod Antipas, first century Palestinian Jew.  Jesus is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stands in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for creation.  The “Fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need and want, to subjugate others to our agenda, to marginalize and to ride roughshod over the poor, the weak, and anyone else who doesn’t have or can’t wield the power that we think we have and deserve.  Jesus is telling us that the “fox” is already in the hen-house and that there is a choice to be made.  Are we going to align ourselves with the fox in the hopes that we might be spared by the preservation of the status quo, that we might be allowed to continue to run our own corner of the hen-house; or are we going to cast our lot with the mother hen who has been trying for so long to gather us under her wings and shelter us from the power that would destroy us?

There is a choice to be made and, given the choice between the fox and the Mother Hen the fox might seem like a better choice.  On the surface the Fox seems more powerful and attractive.  The Fox offers perks and benefits, privilege and status, rank and recognition.  The Fox would seem better equipped to defend itself and us.  Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.

But there is that little problem with putting your trust in the Fox.  The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger.  When we finally wake up and take stock we will see that some of us are missing, or injured, trampled into the hard scrabble of the hen-house floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage.  Once we have let the fox into the hen-house there is just no telling who might be deemed disposable, be discarded, be left out or even go missing altogether.  Yes, the fox is powerful, but in the end, no one is safe when there is a fox in the henhouse.  But here Jesus is, telling us that our hen-house is “left to you,” another way of saying “left desolate” because we have refused to shelter in the shadow of the wings of the mother hen.  Why are we so unwilling to turn our backs on the fox and cast our lot with the love of the Mother Hen?

It is a frightening thing to reject the fox.  It is even more frightening to step into the shadow of the Mother Hen’s wings because, as Jesus is pointing out when he shifts the definition of “fox” away from Herod towards a view of the systems and structures that dominate and shape our lives, the choice we make will ultimately define the way that we live together.

In an article published by the Christian Century in 1985 Barbara Brown Taylor, one of our most gifted and treasured preachers asked,

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”

Hmmm…  one of our most gifted and treasured preachers asked?  That quote didn’t end with a question mark.  It ended with a period.  But then, the question in this morning’s story about Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t end with a question mark either.  Did it?  The question was implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, and living in the world.

Jesus is asking us to turn from the way of the fox; to stop participating in structures that oppress, crush and destroy; to recognize that the fox under whose standard we stand will not recognize our past loyalty and support but will destroy as all without regard or distinction.  Jesus is asking us to take courage from his example; to have faith in God’s love and promise; and to stand, as he did, wings spread, breast exposed, and to gather his children under our wings.  To fly at the fox in defense of the weak and the poor the widow and the orphan, the forgotten stranger, the marginalized, the other…  Jesus is asking us to gather under the shadow of his wings and to let him rescue our humanity from the hard scrabble of the hen-house floor.

Amen.

Ask not where God was. Ask instead where we were as our children were dying…

In her Christmas Letter to the Diocese of Washington DC Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde writes:

In the aftermath of the violence that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we would be made of stone if our faith in a loving God didn’t falter. “Where was God?” we ask. “How could God let this happen?”

Yet the more compelling question isn’t where God was last Friday morning, but rather, where we were. As St. Teresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body on earth but ours. Ours are the feet with which he walks, ours the hands with which he blesses, our the eyes with which looks on this world with compassion.”

And she calls us all to action”

In the days before Christmas, please write or call your congressional representatives, Senators, and President Obama. Express your grief, concerns and longing for an end to gun violence.  You don’t need to be an expert; our strength is in moral and spiritual clarity. Speak from your faith and love of children. Invite your family and friends to do the same. Here is how you can contact them: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml

If you’d like to speak of specific action, there is an emerging spiritual and moral consensus that the following steps need to be taken:

1. A clear ban on all semi-automatic weapons and large rounds of ammunition

2. Tighter controls on all gun sales

3. Mental health care reform, including improved care for our most vulnerable citizens

4. A critical look at our culture’s’ glorification of violence.

This is the kind of leadership that the church and the world are looking for as we make our way through the Wilderness, the devastation, of into which we have been thrust in this season of Advent.

Please add your voice to the growing call for an end to the violence.  Demand sane gun laws that close the background check loopholes and allow people access to battlefield weapons and large capacity ammunition clips.  Demand that We begin a conversation about the realities of mental illness education people and removing the stigma that surrounds the illness and those who seek treatment.  Demand that access to mental health care be improved for all people.

The Gospel calls us to protect the poor, orphans, and widows, the cold, the hungry and the homeless.  We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  The Gospel calls us to action.  It is time to walk the walk.