"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Proper 17, Year B

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

We Christians love to criticize the poor Pharisees. They are the law-bound “bad guys” of the Gospels, the foils for Jesus’ clever repartee, the Jewish leaders whom the evangelists portray as driving our Lord to his death on the cross. In today’s Gospel, we watch the Pharisees go after Jesus based on their belief that their ritual actions can set them apart from the chaos and sinfulness of the world. They believe that they can find a place of peace and purity by following the teaching of God in all of its most intricate detail.
How we love to watch them squirm under Jesus’ keen eye and sharp tongue. We Christians know that it’s God’s grace that saves us, right? We know that God loves us and that Jesus died to make us holy and free. We’re not bound to the Law like they are. Or so we like to think.
Come to think of it, though, we Episcopalians sure do like our rituals. Try to imagine for a moment the church tradition that you hold most dear to your heart. Now, imagine that Jesus is blatantly ignoring it, saying that it doesn’t really matter in God’s eyes. Say his disciples are singing annoying praise songs instead of your favorite Episcopal hymns--or vice versa. Say the disciples are up at the altar mangling parts of the Eucharistic prayer, without Jesus saying a word. Say they’re leaving out the Confession of Sin, or forgetting to ring the Sanctus bells, or serving communion to non-Christians, or calling God “She,” or using grape juice in the chalice. Maybe they’re even dumping the leftover Host in the garbage can, heaven forbid! Whatever would bother you the most, big or small, pretend that is what Jesus is letting his disciples do in your church. Wouldn’t you want to confront him?
“Hey Jesus, why don’t you and your disciples follow our Episcopal traditions? You’re taking all of the sense of God’s holy presence out of worship for me! Go hang out with the Baptists or the Catholics if you want to do things differently! But don’t mess with my relationship with God.”
I think that we can hug our holiness just as tightly to our chests as do those Pharisees. Maybe we have more in common with them than we think?
Sometimes, can’t even integral Christian practices like prayer become ways that we try to control God and assure our own salvation? I have a friend who grew up being forced to join in a long family grace every night before supper, even when his family was out eating at a restaurant. All four children would have to hold hands and bow their heads, and their father would sternly pray a rote blessing in his loud pastor voice over the food, while at neighboring tables, heads would turn and other diners would roll their eyes. This pastor’s children felt that they were putting on a show, rather than offering sincere thanks to God. As adults, all of them now refuse to pray at the table. Now, I’m a firm believer in the practice of daily prayer, and in the importance of giving thanks as a family at mealtime for the blessings of our lives, but sometimes the form can overshadow the content. Sometimes the outward piety can throw a deadly damper over what the heart can feel.
And then there’s the Jerry Springer effect! Just flip TV channels, night or day, and you will be greeted by dozens, if not hundreds, of reality TV shows that portray the worst of human behavior. There are the shows where the incredibly wealthy tromp with a sense of entitlement through their dissolute lives. There are shows where ignorance and helplessness are held in derision for laughs. You can’t watch Jerry Springer, or Dr. Phil, or The Bachelor, or The Duggars, or Housewives of New Jersey, without saying to yourself, “Those folks are ridiculous. Maybe I’m not so bad after all. Maybe my problems aren’t so bad, either. Compared to those folks, I’m pure as the driven snow. The search for purity can be found in other places than in ritual hand washing.
The word, “pharisee” is from the root verb, “to separate.” The Pharisees, the “separate ones,” strove to improve their relationship with God by holding themselves apart from regular believers, by going above and beyond everyone else in their obedience to God’s commands. When Jesus tells them that product of their rituals ends up in the toilet, and that their impurity comes from the inborn corruption of their hearts, don’t you think that he might say the same to us? When we try to shore up our own sense of worth by setting ourselves apart from our fellow human beings, Jesus directs us back into the chaos of our own souls.  If you think that you will find favor in God’s eyes by comparing yourself favorably to your hapless neighbor or to the latest selfish reality TV star, warns Jesus, then you are fooling yourself. Look first to the evil that is in your own heart.
Back in 2003 when there was so much turmoil in the Episcopal Church over the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, I had a vision. I stretched out one Sunday afternoon on the sofa, exhausted by the anger and tension that I felt in church that day, and I saw in my mind’s eye a long, winding staircase, descending down as far as I could see. The stairs were packed with people, all treading fearfully and gingerly down the steps. We were all so closely packed together that we were terribly afraid of tripping and falling. With rigid postures, contorted features, hands grasping at invisible railings, we pushed our unwilling feet downward to a safe landing that no one could see or even imagine. Everyone was frowning, eyeing the others and waiting for someone to fall, waiting to point an accusing finger at anyone who might slip on the steps. We desperately wanted to give a name to our gloom, to be able to crow, “See, I am right to be afraid!” as someone else fell off into the darkness. I saw Adam and Eve on the staircase, too, fleeing Eden, their hastily-assembled animal-skin robes flapping against their bare ankles, their sin nipping at their heels. They were afraid. I saw ancient sailors on a wooden boat, gripping the mast and fighting the downward slope of the deck, convinced that they were arriving at the point on the map where the flat world breaks off into a dark void. Their legs shook with exhaustion and terror.  
Today’s Gospel, like my vision, seems a bit grim. It isn’t comfortable to look down into the darkness within our hearts. But Jesus is merely trying to push us into right relationship with God and with our neighbor, not to condemn us to darkness. What I came to realize about my vision is that the staircase never ends. It turns in a circle, a spiraling strand, both rising and falling like the waves of an ocean, around the heart of a merciful God. Our God is the same God of whom the Psalmist writes: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up … you are acquainted with all my ways.” Our God is the same God who loves us, darkness and all. The same God who sent his only Son into our lives so that he could know them even more intimately.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, explains that even Mother Theresa, that paragon of selfless love and virtue, once replied that she engages in her work of love because she knows that there is a Hitler inside her heart. “Does that shock you? [writes Taylor] It did not shock Jesus. He knows the full potential of our hearts for good and evil. He just wishes we knew it too.”[1]
          Jesus can see through the games that we play with ourselves, just as he sees through the religious games of the Pharisees. Don’t flinch from his piercing, yet loving gaze. The answer never lies in separation. Pope Francis has declared Tuesday, September 1 as “World Day of Prayer for Creation.”  I would like to end my sermon with a prayer for the earth, written by the Pope. It is a call for an end to the separation that we impose upon ourselves.
“All powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters harming no one … Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.”[2] Amen.
Royalty Free Stock Photos: Luxury Descending Wooden Staircase

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of angels (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997), 105.
[2] Found on a bookmark and attributed to Pope Francis!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Standing in the Margins

 The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 6:10-20

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Pray  … for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel … Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. Amen.


In the exhibit hall this summer at General Convention, they were giving away buttons, my kind of buttons: They said “Love wins!” And “Black Lives Matter!” And “Episcopalians Against Gun Violence!” I gathered them up like free candy and pinned them proudly to my name tag. They were my divine armor, my social justice armor. I thought that they were from God. They made me feel strong, part of the crowd. They were my weapons against the terrible demons of racism and hatred and violence and pollution. I felt virtuous and wore them proudly—for awhile, at least. Soon, my name badge grew so heavy with these weighty social issues that I started to get a stiff neck. Really! In pain, I peeled off my armor and found freedom, once again. Why does armor have to be so heavy, I wondered?
As the mother of two sons with European relatives, I’ve toured more than my fair share of castles boasting medieval arms museums, so I know something about heavy armor. Whenever I look at those heavy coats of thick-chained mail, those metal helmets with tiny slits for eye-holes, those shields as tall as a man’s body, and those clunky lances and swords that I probably couldn’t lift above my knees, I wonder how medieval armies ever did any fighting. How did they even move around? The armor, of course, was all about protection. It was defensive. In fact, if a knight in shining armor were to fall off of his horse, he would not even able to stand back up again by himself. He would lie vulnerably on the ground like a turtle on its back. He couldn’t even put on his armor or take it off without help. Now Roman armor was certainly less heavy and all-encompassing than its medieval counterpart, but it is still meant to keep its wearer safe—or at least to envelop him in a protective shield that feels solid and inviolable.
Many Christians like the idea of heavy armor that will surround them in battle. The author of this letter to the Ephesians is probably a disciple of the apostle Paul, rather than Paul himself. He is writing to a group of Christians who are living as a persecuted minority in a late first-century world far more oppressive than 2015 America. The Ephesians know the armor of the Roman soldier all too well, for it is a commonplace reminder of the might of Imperial Rome, found on every street corner and marketplace.  They know that following Christ puts them at odds with Rome’s power, as well as with many of their own family and friends. Their faith puts them in a precarious position. These Christians need a strong reminder that God, not Rome, holds true power. They need to know that they are not alone in their struggles. In this context, the metaphor of armor seems an apt one. Where we might want to feel wrapped in God’s love, or held in God’s hands, someone facing martyrdom in a Roman arena might well prefer a strong defensive shield. This text is, for them, deep reassurance that, no matter what, we creatures follow a God who has triumphed over death and sin. Even though things might look bad right now, God is in control.
I have more difficulty understanding a common American desire for heavy Christian armor. Our text from Ephesians is one of the foundational pieces of scripture used by believers in “spiritual warfare.” These contemporary Christians take its language literally. They sharply divide the universe between a dark realm, presided over by Satan and his army of demons, and a realm of light, controlled by God and his angels. Their imaginations delight in describing real heavenly battles between these two superpowers, with human beings as targets and pawns in a larger cosmic struggle. They warn that any backsliding or chink in your faith armor will be a place for the demons to enter and capture your soul as booty. Jesus, in this context, is a mighty warrior. Christian life is a battle against evil—evil that can be pinpointed in one’s political enemies. One of the many “spiritual warfare” sites on the Internet proclaims: “The New World Order is coming! Are you ready? Once you understand what this New World Order really is, and how it is being gradually implemented, you will be able to see it progressing in your daily news!! Learn how to protect yourself, your loved ones! Stand by for insights so startling you will never look at the news the same way again!”[1] I want to distance myself from this common interpretation of our text. I don’t believe that such a fear-filled, victim-based world-view is what Jesus has in mind for us.
Just yesterday, my bleeding heart skipped a beat when I heard about the Kentucky county clerks girding themselves with divine armor in protest over marriage laws that they consider to be against their Christian beliefs. “Withstand.” “Stand firm.” Wear the “belt of truth.” “Keep alert.” “Persevere.”  Those who oppose the new same-sex marriage laws see their protests in the light of these Pauline admonitions. Stand up for your beliefs! Don’t cave into the ways of the devil and the world! I wonder: Is there a difference between the clerks’ refusal to issue marriage licenses and the stance of those who demonstrate for Christian causes to which I am more sympathetic, like freer emigration laws or an end to payday lenders?
Are all of our “causes” perhaps much heavier than the armor that God wants to give us? After all, isn’t Christian power supposed to reside in vulnerability, rather than in brute strength? In the weakness of the Cross, rather than in the might of the sword? As many of you know, I’m a fan of psychologist Brene Brown and her work. According to Brown, it is fear that causes us to “armor up,” to cover our vulnerable souls with all kinds of ingenious armor. Brown says that we all tend to wear three kinds of armor, none of which are good for us: We don the “twenty-ton shield” of perfectionism; we wear the practice of “foreboding joy” that prevents us from enjoying happiness and success for fear that they will disappear; and we put on the practice of numbing that uses food, alcohol, or Facebook to block out our uncomfortable feelings.[2] Brown tells us to set aside our armor, to enter the Arena of Life in such a way that our true, vulnerable selves can be seen and shared. Shouldn’t we Christians, too, be talking about putting away our armor, rather than layering some more on?
A closer reading of our text, however, shows that the shield that God offers us is the opposite of the false armor that we wrap around ourselves, the armor that Brene Brown wants us to put down. Lifting the armor of numbing from our hearts, God wraps us in Truth, instead. God gives us God’s Word with which we can cut through the foolishness of our lives.  Taking away perfectionism, God puts us in right relationship with others and with our deepest selves.  Removing foreboding joy, God grounds us in peace and saves us with Christ’s healing touch. So protected, we are freed not to fight, but to persevere when life becomes difficult. We gain the strength not to disparage others, but to pray for one another: to pray at all times, in all places. God doesn’t give us armor that we can hide in. God’s armor paradoxically opens us up to relationship with God and with one another—relationship that is sewed tight by the threads of continuous prayer.
As I took off my buttons that day at Convention, I was reminded of Catholic priest Gregory Boyle’s brilliant words. The strategy of Jesus, he writes, isn’t to take the right stand on issues. It is rather to stand in the right place—to stand with the outcast and with those on the margins. For example, Jesus doesn’t seek rights for lepers; he touches them. He doesn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He is the outcast. He doesn’t fight for improved conditions in the jails. He says, “I was in prison.” Jesus just stands, just as today’s epistle counsels us to do. And as he stands there with the outcast, the Left screams at him, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” The Right cries, too, “Don’t stand with those folks at all!” And both sides decide that Jesus needs to die.
As Boyle explains, this same Jesus now asks us, “’Where are you standing?’ And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, Jesus asks us again, ‘Are you still standing there?’” [3] Our text from Ephesians reassures us, “Stand firm there on the margins with Jesus, and all will be well.”

[1] http://www.cuttingedge.org/news/n1503.cfm
[2] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly.
[3] Gregory Boyle, Tatoos on the Heart (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 172-173.


[1] http://www.cuttingedge.org/news/n1503.cfm
[2] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly.
[3] Gregory Boyle, Tatoos on the Heart (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 172-173.