Monthly Archives: August 2014

Lord, have mercy.

Sermon preached on Proper 15A (August 17, 2014) at The Church of the Redeemer, Providence RI. You can read the lessons here.  

Over the last several weeks, I have heard and seen one phrase more than any other: Lord, have mercy.

To watch the news, read the paper, to look at social media means being confronted by the violence, destruction, and hatred in the world around us. Planes being shot down; terrorist groups massacring men, women, and children; violence overtaking Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa; violence taking over the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t know about you, but as I watch the horror unfold it is all to tempting to turn the page to the next story, to change the television station, to scroll through my Facebook feed until I find pictures of cute little animalLHMs. This, however, is not a luxury that we can afford. We cannot as Christians – as human beings – pretend that nothing is going on and turn and look the other way. We must cry out – Lord, have mercy. This mercy is the cornerstone of our Gospel passage today.

This Gospel passage is a complicated and messy one. There is a demon, Jesus ignoring the cries of a desperate mother, annoyed disciples, a restrictive mission of Jesus, and the apparent insult of Jesus calling this woman a dog. There is far more going on in this Gospel than any preacher can cover reasonably in one sermon. But if we step back and look at the larger picture, it seems to me this Gospel brings forward one very key theme. God’s mercy transcends all boundaries that separate and divide humanity.

The Gospel begins, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” The religious authorities, the Pharisees, are greatly concerned with the purity codes – they are ever vigilant to not put anything into their body that is seen as unclean. Jesus is criticizing and chastising the official keepers of the Jewish tradition. They have become so concerned with following the rules and regulations that they have squeezed the life out of their tradition turning it into a tool of division. Jesus, in a seemingly crass way, calls them out saying that it does not matter what you eat. What you ate yesterday has been washed away in the sewer, but lies, hatred, and violence are not washed away. When those things come out of your mouth, it changes your heart. That is what we are to be concerned about these are the things that defile, that make a person unclean.

Now Matthew is writing to the church of his day, a church that is an increasing blend of Jews and Gentiles. It is an increasing blend of those who were raised within the structures of Jewish written and oral tradition and those who were excluded on the basis of the same tradition. It is a church struggling to figure out who is in and who is out, which rules to follow and which to ignore, what traditions to carry with them and what traditions to leave behind. The new Christians are trying to sort out their life of faith and so the evangelist recounts this hard-hitting message from Jesus. According to Jesus, purity or religious faithfulness is not about worshipping tradition uncritically. It is not about blindly following the rules and regulations at the expense of others. It is not about policy that segregates portions of the population. It is not about casting aside individuals as unworthy and less than.

For Jesus, religious purity and faithful discipleship are not measured by how many perfect attendance badges one earns for Sunday School, how often one has read the Bible form cover to cover, how many liturgies one goes to, how much money one contributes in their pledge, or how many A’s a person gets in seminary. Purity and faithfulness are shown ultimately by how the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ. It is marked by what comes from our hearts, the words we preach, the way we treat others, and how we care for the stranger and outcast in our midst.

For better or for worse, we live in a society based on power and privilege, a society where some are put down for the benefit of others, where the system does not treat everyone equally. We live in the midst of a broken system where only the extreme voices are heard. Moderation and compromise have been lost. The scariest part of this system is the boundaries it creates. If you do not act like we do, if you do not follow our rules, if you disagree with what we say, if you do not believe as we do you are not only wrong, but you are evil. This is the system I see at work when I look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A sysFergusontem that has been completely broken down and plagued by a “huge poverty of trust in the community.” The sides have been set, and the extreme voices are those that are being broadcast at the highest volume. The situation has escalated to extreme proportions and it is easy to confuse the images coming out of Missouri with those coming out of a war zone. This is the same system for which Jesus chastises the Pharisees.

A friend and colleague of mine is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He has been working tirelessly with other clergy, community leaders, and youth to stand peacefully in the midst of the violence plaguing their community. In one interview Mike had the following to say:

It’s so easy in moments like this to cast one side, one person, one group of people as completely good and the other side as completely evil and we have to resist that at all costs. But, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ and ministers of reconciliation and we stand with everyone. We have to call all of us to be those images of God that are our best selves.

Mike’s words apply not only to the situation in Missouri, but to this Gospel passage as well. We cannot cast people aside and continue to create boundaries of separation. We must be ministers of reconciliation. We must pray that the mercy of God descend upon the people of Ferguson – and all places of war and violence – and wash away the defilement in our hearts. It is this mercy that will lead to understanding, and it is only through understanding – not violence – that peace will prevail.

As soon as we finish hearing about Jesus taking these Pharisees to task, we hear of the encounter of Jesus and the unnamed Canaanite woman.

“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus ignores her, and the disciples are UCWclearly annoyed. They want her sent away out of their sight. Jesus claims his ministry as one “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” A ministry not meant for her. But, the woman does not stop. She kneels before him and begs, “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ responses is one that catches me off guard each and every time I hear it, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus seemingly insults the woman. (It should be noted that “dog” was a common name Jews gave to Gentile pagans). But even this insult does not stop this woman. She said in response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus has a change of heart, he listens to the pleas of this woman, recognizes her great faith, and heals her daughter.

What I find so striking about this encounter is that it is not Jesus who takes his mission to the Gentiles. But rather, it is this Gentile woman that goes after Jesus. In taking the initiative in this encounter, the woman crosses countless societal boundaries. Again and again she violates boundaries of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession. She must even contend with Jesus’ reluctance to violate the ethnic boundary, but nothing will stop her from obtaining the mercy and healing of God for herself and her daughter.

This woman believes that she and her daughter are people who should benefit from God’s work in the world. She is willing to go against every boundary established in her societal context. Jesus recognizes her unending desire for the mercy of God, and names it her faith – her great faith.

Part of the challenge of this passage is that Jesus does not act as we expect he should act. Jesus is the one who constantly breaks down barriers of power and privilege. He is the one who corrects the disciples when they say, “surely you can’t be serious about helping that person.” He is not the person who lives in step with those boundaries. Yet that is what he seems to be doing here.   Now some commentaries I read this week say that Jesus is being tongue in cheek following the first few verses of this passage, while others said this is a moment where Jesus is caught “with his compassion down.” But, I think the motivation and reasoning of Jesus’ actions are irrelevant to us. What we must struggle and wrestle with is that Jesus does not act as we want him to. We must recognize that we do not control the timing or direction of the spread of God’s mercy.

This Gospel passage leaves us with far more questions than answers. I know that it leaves me in an uncomfortable place.

Despite hatred, violence, and prejudice the boundaries of God’s mercy are stronger than any barrier we can put in place. In witness to the depth of human misery and suffering we cry out, “Lord, have mercy.” When it seems that everything, even the church, stands in the way of God’s mercy we must persist. Like the unnamed Canaanite woman, we must not take silence, no, or insult as the final answer. We must continue to shout, beg, and plead for God’s mercy to come into the world. We must act as reconciling agents working to break down every barrier that divides: barriers of race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, geographic location, and political affiliation.

As my friend Mike said, “[This] is the long term work of the Church, to build relationships of love and respect with everyone so we can bring people together and say let’s listen to everybody and look at who God is calling us to be.”

In a world of division and enemies, we must adhere to enemy love: To refuse to live in the “us and them” paradigm, to refuse to battle for the destruction of our enemy. We must work to make sure that all voices are heard, that every single human being is valued as the beloved child of God that they are.

This is a parish that knows how to do this work. It is a parish that has been at the forefront of every fight for inclusion in The Episcopal Church. In light of this history, and our call as Christians to break down the bonds of oppression and the barriers of violence, I wonder what dark place this community is being called to next. What defiled, toxic, and unwanted place is Jesus calling us to follow him? Who are the outcasts and those deemed unworthy of God’s mercy that we can stand up for and shout for until they too know the mercy and grace of God. My friends, our work is not done yet. May we join with those in Missouri, Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa, and with the unnamed Canaanite woman in proclaiming, “Lord, help me. Lord, help us. Lord, have mercy.”

AMEN

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Life is hard

Sermon preached on Proper 12A (July 27, 2014) at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI on the occasion of my final Sunday as the Director of Ministry.  You can read the lessons here.  

Life is hard. There is no way around it. Life is simply hard. For me, and maybe for you, today is hard. There is no way around it. Today is simply hard.

Many people say that when a person prepares a sermon, what they are really preaching is what they need to hear most. When I first read the lessons for today, I was less than amused. What was being said is exactly what I did not want to hear. But, in a way only possible by the Spirit, today’s lessons could not have been more appropriate. These lessons are exactly what I need to hear, and I hope that they provide a similar encouragement and support to you.

I wonder how many of you thought today’s Epistle – the lesson we hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans – sounds familiar? If 1 Corinthians 13 – love is patient, love is kind – has become the lesson for weddings, today’s lesson from Romans has become the favorite text for funerals. There is something incredibly profound for those who mourn in this lesson. “For I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” One of the most important pastoral privileges is to stand with those who have been weighed down by the power of death and cannot proclaim with Paul, “No, these things cannot prevail.” When we are surrounded by death, when we face the painful reality of being separated in this earthly life form a loved one – it is easy to see how moving these words can be, that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God. But, this message and the power of this lesson, goes far beyond the liturgical setting of a funeral.

Separation is a genuine issue in our lives. Each and every day with each and every decision we make we are faced with the reality of separation. To chose one thing inherently means we leave behind something else. This leaving behind is a source of great pain in life. One cannot become an adult without leaving childhood behind. One cannot raise children without the full expectation that they will go away and leave us behind. One cannot become postulant and go to seminary without leaving a parish community behind. At the very heart of what it means to be human is separation from those things and those people we love. This is the genius of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Paul writes eloquently about the powers that cause separation. Paul understand this conflict, he understands the cosmic forces that cause separation. He understands leaving behind a way of life in order to follow God. So Paul lists the many forces at work in the world around us. Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angles, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, and anything else in all creation.

Hardship is the first thing listed, and as such it is easy to overlook and pass by it without a second thought. This is something we should not overlook, because hardness of life is a struggle that presents itself to us each and every day. Life is hard. We must make difficult decisions, do things we do not wish to do, be faced with circumstances we have never been prepared for, leave behind things and people we have come to know and love. The best pastoral care we can extend to one another is to stand along side, to be a companion along the way, to help each other find ways through the hard stuff of life.

From hardness Paul goes on to talk about distress. Let’s talk about a frequent force in life. When we cannot complete all that we want to finish, when we do all that we can do and it is still not enough, when we are unable to figure out what we need to do next, we are in distress. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever not been able to accomplish everything? Have you ever felt that what you have to offer is never enough? Have you ever felt that no matter how hard you try you can never accomplish those last few things on your to-do list? I know I have. I know that I will not get to those last couple of emails, phone calls, or meetings I hoped to as your Director of Ministry. This distress, this seeming failure, can easily overwhelm and over take us.

Paul moves on, from hardness to distress and distress to persecution. The prevalence of persecution makes this force especially significant. The violence done to women and men as a result of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, physical ability, political affiliation, and so on. The violence committed for no other reason than the continuation of more violence and hatred. Maybe you have been victim to this violence, to this persecution and oppression. I know there are people in our midst, people we may not even realize, who have experienced the devastating pain of being named other – of being cast off and set aside.

One of the saddest things about this type of violence is that we are the creators of such boundaries. We are the ones who create the status of other. It is our duty and responsibility to recognize where we build up and sustain societal expressions of power and privilege. We must recognize that we benefit from someone else being put down. We must recognize that the Church is at times, the worst offender of naming someone other.

These forces are completely overwhelming, and have seemingly tipped the scales completely over. How easy it would be to just let these forces of separation knock us over and become further participants and bystanders to their work in the world. How easy it would be to accept that this is just the way life is. But, Paul – this great apostle to the gentiles, the apostle to you and to me – reminds us that this overwhelming reality is not the last word.

In the midst of all this, it is remarkable that Paul proclaims, “NO!” Shall these things prevail? Shall these things have the capacity to undo us, to undo the most central element of our lives – God’s love? No! Paul is convinced, and we should be too, that nothing will ever prevail against God’s love. The conflict of the powers is engaged head-on, and the victor is God’s love. It is God’s grace, power, and love that will have the last word, that will overturn all the binds and oppresses us, that will flip the scales in the other direction – the direction of the true nature of creation the nature of the Kingdom of God.

So what is this Kingdom of God, to what should we compare it? The kingdom of heave is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea. Mustard and yeast, a thief and a merchant.

If we take a second look at the characters we find in this rapid-fire list of parables, you might be struck by the fact that they are a little shady, subversive, and corrupt. Mustard is a weed a farmer would pull from a field, but here God’s empire is compared to the mustard seed, starting very small but growing into a shrub. Yeast, the agent that bloats and rots corpses and what a woman would clean from her house in preparation for Passover, is a positive here. God is fermenting the kingdom of heaven within the world, just like the woman mixes – or spoils – flour with yeast. What about the man who finds the treasure in someone else’s field? He sells all that he has, gets rid of every possession, in order to buy that field. By the way, he doesn’t tell the current owner that there is a treasure on his property. What was he even doing digging around someone else’ field in the first place? His action is a theft.

Now merchants were not highly regarded in biblical times. Their motives and everything they did was suspect. This merchant, however, puts himself out of business to make the ultimate purchase. Once one has sacrificed everything to make the ultimate purchase, there is nothing left to buy and sell.

These parables elevate convention-subverting persons and things to describe discipleship in the kingdom of God. Whatever else they mean, these parables hint that God’s kingdom – and therefore good citizenship in God’s kingdom – is fundamentally different from Rome’s. It is fundamentally different from the secular culture around us.

These parables present a radical challenge to us living in the United States, where the Christian faith is predominantly a middle-class, convention-supporting religion. While church going does no occupy the same mainline practice as it once did in the 1950s, we still operate under a mainline mentality. These parables challenge what it means to be a mainline mentality by asking what is means to prepare – to be trained – to be a disciple fit for the kingdom of God.

The church’s work in every age is to form disciples who value contemporary equivalents of weeds, yeast, thieves, and merchants. We are to value that which is cast aside and use it to proclaim the Gospel in our midst. We are to put our own greed aside to help those who have nothing – to realize that we are called to give up some of our power so that those who have been put down can be raised up. We are to shed everything of this world that binds us so that we can obtain the ultimate possession. We are to take that which we wish to deny in ourselves, that which we have been told is wrong, bad, evil, and no good and use it to build the Kingdom of God.

It is easy to think we are not good enough, that we have not done enough, that we do not know enough, that we are not worthy enough to do that which we have been called to do. To think we have no place being a business owner, a teacher, a community member, a parent, a spouse, a priest, that we have no business being a seminarian. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the forces at work in the world that try to do nothing more than tear us down. It is easy to allow those forces to do that work, to believe the world when it tells you that you are not rich enough, pretty enough, fast enough, or smart enough to carry out your work. But when all this gets in our way, we join our voices with Paul and proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God – that nothing can separate us from the reality of the goodness of our creation. We remember that the Kingdom of God does not subscribe to the wills and understandings of this world, because that which the world names a weed, God uses to build the kingdom.

We live in a world based on fear and scarcity. In a world where we are told there is not enough to go around. But I wonder, what would it mean for us to live without fear? I wonder what it would mean to live a life of abundance? If God’s promises are true, if Paul is correct, than nothing will ever stand in our way. If we truly believe the Good News of God in Christ there is always enough to go around, there is no reason to live a life of any fear, anxiety, or scarcity. If we trust in God, God will have the last word and the Kingdom of God will prevail. This is the work set before us, this is what we are called, implored, begged to do.

As followers of Jesus we are called to participate in God’s work in companionship with others, walking alongside them as equals. We are to reach out to the world God so loved, the world far outside our Church doors, the world that may not know the story of Jesus and of God’s unconditional love for humanity. We are to tell the world of God’s power over death and all that separates us from the life abundant God offers.

Together as Director of Ministry and congregation we have begun to do this work. We have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, given the gift of joy to those in despair in ways that I still cannot even begin to comprehend. Together we have trained to be disciples of Jesus. Thank you for trusting me to lead you in this ministry, thank you for joining in being a weed in this world, thank you for counting me as a member of this truly blessed community.

My friends, life is hard. Each and everyday we make decisions that cause us to leave behind those people and things we know and love. But in the midst of all this we have no reason to fear, and every reason to rejoice.

AMEN

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