Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Right to be Scared": a sermon Pentecost 4 2015

Pentecost 4 2015, Year B
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond
“Right To Be Scared”

Lectionary Readings:
  • 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 (David defeating Goliath)
  • 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 (Paul listing his challenges and trials)
  • Mark 4:35-41 (Jesus calming the storm)

Giants, and Storms, and Tragedies, oh my!  We are looking at a collection of lectionary readings where there are some big baddies coming at the people of God.  And I could be pithy, and say that with Jesus in the boat, it will all be okay.  But our books of saints are filled with martyrs of the faith with whom Jesus was by their side and they still became martyrs.  This week’s news was beyond belief, and there are cries coming from every corner in response.  We are still reeling still from the racist murders in Charleston on Wednesday night.  God help them.  God help us.  There are times when it is right to be scared.

Our giants may not be literal, but Goliath was.  While this might be easily seen as a tall tale from the biblical account, Goliath’s name has been found on a shard of pottery and carved into a wall in his hometown, contemporary with David.  It is one thing to stretch the truth centuries later, but not when people could say, “I was there.”  Giants are real, literal and figurative.

Storms are real.  We experienced that last night.  It will be a while cleaning up the mess from it.  Luckily we had warning, but they can come out of nowhere.  There was a time a few years ago when my oldest daughter Selah and I were hiking North Mountain at Shrine Mont.  She was all of five.  It was her first time.  I knew it would be hard, but she was a tough kid.  We worked hard to get her all the way to the top, and she was a trooper.  The hike is a hard one, especially the second half.  And we made it all the way to the top, and as we did, the dark clouds came rolling in.  The mountain, you see, is so steep you cannot see the weather that is coming, and it most often comes from that direction across the West Virginia line.  She was a little nervous.  I was more worried for her than I was for me, and with the full faith of a child looking at her father, she asked, “We’re not going to get wet, are we?  We’ll be okay, right?”

Being the good dad, or someone trying to be the good dad, I did not lie to her.  “No, honey,” I said, “we are going to get soaked.  But we are going to be okay.”  Everyone else ran down the mountain, but her little legs could only go so fast.  The first hard drops came at the halfway mark, the cave, and she held my hand.  Big, fat drops were pelting us, and she started getting nervous.  I was more nervous about the thunderstorm directly above us, and there was nowhere for us to go but back to Shrine Mont.  And we just kept walking.  At the height of the storm, with the rain coming down horizontally, with the wind and the thunder cracking right above our heads we started singing camp songs.  We sang.  We laughed.  We got soaked.  After about fifteen minutes the storm had fully passed.  We were drenched, despite our rain jackets.  I asked her if she was wet.  “Even my underwear is wet.  Nothing is dry!”  And then she smiled.  I have never been more proud as a dad, and there have only been a few times when I have been that scared.  But she had that childlike faith, and it helped get me through.  And she may even go on a hike with me again, sometime.

Giants are real, and Storms are real.  And there are tragedies in this life.  As Paul described it,
(2 Corinthians 6:4-10) servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; ...We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
There are real problems out there.  And there are no guarantees.  When Paul is speaking of his problems, he is speaking from experience, not in hypotheticals.  He is speaking from a life dedicated to the Gospel of Jesus, and yet he did not have it easy, and yes, he even died for his beliefs.

And what makes it even more pointed when we look to all the readings of the day, every single one of these examples from Scripture points to people doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.  

David, the little shepherd, not the mighty king yet, was taking food to his brothers fighting in Saul’s army when he heard the taunts of Goliath against the Army of God.  Even as a young man, he was going to have none of that.

The disciples in the boat with Jesus, they were in the boat because Jesus told them to get in and go to the other side of the lake.  This was all Jesus’ idea!  THEY WERE DOING WHAT THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING!

And Paul, in all his wanderings and adventures after his Damascus road experience, he was following and fulfilling the call of God to his very best.  Yet the litany of bad stuff still took place.  All of these, and all of us, have a right to be scared.

Scary things are scary, and what may be scary for you, may not be scary for me.  Learning to respect our fears, to honor our fears, and to face our fears is what makes us adults.  

I would posit that one who is not appropriately afraid is either a fool, or incapable of loving.  The folly of youth, and one of the reasons they take such chances, is that they do not know or think through the possible outcomes for their actions.  Likewise, if one is incapable of love then one is incapable of loss, for they have nothing to hold and hence nothing to lose.  Fear lets us cherish our life and our loves.

In the storm, I knew I would be okay, but my fear was around my daughter and her safety, because I loved her.  She did not know how bad it was, but she knew I was with her, and would help her do the things that she needed to do.
(I Corinthians 13:11-12)When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Like my daughter looked to me, with faith and absolute trust, I need to be like the disciples who looked to Jesus, with that same faith and absolute trust.

My fear today is that we are not going to face the problems that Charleston calls us to face.  My brothers and sisters were murdered for the color of their skin, people who were doing the right thing at the right time.  This has been classified as a hate crime, and yet it is something more.  It is evil, and we live in a world where there is evil.  I am called to preach a Gospel where love conquers evil, but that Gospel also reminds us that there is a price to that overcoming of evil.  9 brothers and sisters in Christ paid that price.  And I must ask myself what difference will their sacrifice make?  When this storm of hate came into their church, was Jesus in that boat?  Can Jesus calm this storm?  I believe he can.  I heard the voice of Christ in the bail hearing when the relative told Dylann Roof that she forgave him.  She will never see her mother again, but Jesus was in the boat with her when she forgave him.

Jesus is in the boat with us, too.  I believe that he expects us to be a part to end the the hate and violence in our city and in our country.  All lives matter, it is that black or white.  It cannot be more clear.  

Can Jesus slay the Giant of hatred?  I believe he can.  A friend of my boasted on Facebook of how he would volunteer to pull the switch for Dylann Roof.  But more death and more hate CANNOT be the answer.  Jesus promised us that what we sow, we will reap.  Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

My other fear today is that I may want to dismiss that Dylann Roof is my brother, too.  I can easily dismiss him as crazy, or raised to hate, but he is white like me.  He lives in the same  country as me, where systemic racism is still a major factor.  He was angry and grieving the loss of white privilege.  It is as mature an argument as two kids fighting over who got the bigger half of something.  As much as I want to claim the Charleston martyrs as my brother, I must look into this young man’s eyes and claim him as my brother, too.  That creates another storm.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked God.  And the implicit answer in the text, and the implicit answer in the newspaper is YES!  Yes we are.

There are Giants.  There are Storms.  There are Charlestons.  

In the popular Game of Thrones, both the book and the show, young Prince Bran asks his father early on about fear.  
“Bran thought about it. 'Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?' 'That is the only time a man can be brave,' his father told him.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

In our fears of these days, when the headlines drip with hate and violence, I need to remind myself that Giants can be slain, and Storms can be calmed.  I also MUST remind myself that I must be in the boat, as well as picking up stones to slay, though the Storm be raging above, or the Giant be taunting and slandering me and my God.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers were early Christian monastics, often living alone in small huts in the desert to be able to commune with God.  Often they would weave baskets or other simple tasks to pay their meager expenses, and they would be disciplined enough to be able to pray the entirety of the Psalms daily.  When you read the Psalms, often there is language of God slaying the enemy or smiting the evildoer.  To the monastics out there claiming and praying the Bible’s prayerbook daily, one might ask what enemies do they have?  What evildoers do they know who should be smited?  Their answer was that they were the enemy.  They were the evildoers.  Those parts of themselves not fully converted to the Gospel of Christ.  In these days, may we do the same.  Before we point fingers, what parts of us does Jesus need to calm?  What shadow down deep hides a Giant which needs to be slain?  What part of us is a scared, pathetic, racist 21-year-old afraid of the world changing and acting insane to keep things the same?

Today, find some way to make a difference.  We all can do something.  We all must do something.  This will happen again.  There were even threats to a memorial service being held in our very city.  Evil is real, but it does not have the final word.

Giants can be killed.  Storms can be calmed.  The deaths in Charleston are not, MUST NOT BE, the end.  Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

"Find What You Are Looking For?": Pentecost 2 2015

Pentecost 2 2015 June 7, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal
“Find What You Are Looking For?”

I have had a lot of jobs along the way.  Many different and varied jobs, all of them fascinating in their own way, all of them hard for what they attempt.  I have told stories of working at the mall, and I have been a frequent shopper enough to know very well the phrase “Can I help you find something?”

In that way, I feel like I am still in Sales, helping people find what they are looking for.  And people are funny.  So many of us have no idea what we are looking for.  We know we want something, we just do not know what.  Even harder are folks who know what they want, even if it is not what they need.  And some, the rare few, get to that happy place, the Promised Land.

When my kids look in the fridge with the door open, I urge them to know what they want before they open the door.  But they are like me, and most of us, so often, they have no idea what they want.  They stand there, letting all the cold out, or the heat in, I guess.  Pondering what it is they want.

All of us, we just know we want something.  The phrase “I’ll know it when I see it.” comes from United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio.  He did not want to set parameters that someone could find their way around on allegations of obscenity or pornography, and very clearly set this common sense standard. “I know it when I see it.”  How many of us use that standard in our longings, in our searches for our heart’s desires?  We know we want something other than what we have, we just do not know what it is.

If only our searches were as simple as my kids’ looking for something in the fridge, but alas, we still have not found what we’re looking for, to borrow from U2, the Irish rock band.

In our searching, we have this vague feeling of whatever it is is out there.

Blaise Pascal, philosopher and theologian, talks about these deep longings:

"What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."  Blaise Pascal, Pensees

The God-shaped hole in all of us, as Pascal alluded to, may be what we seek.  Many theologians have stated this over the years, whether Bill W.’s Higher Power as the 12-steps rely on, or as St. Augustine phrased it.  “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”― Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
While many may not know what they are looking for, a goodly number runs the other way.  The other extreme is just as bad, if not worse.  Sometimes, we think we know what we need and we say we know exactly what we want, and we could not be more in the wrong!
Instead of staying in the tension of the journey, the run to surety and comfort.  This is the underlying cause of fundamentalism no matter what the religion or the political party.  That need to be in the right, and going to the point of obsession over it is the reality that we see in the headlines on a daily basis now.  ISIS, Tea Party, Christian Right, New Atheism, whatever the stripe, the people who need the surety find comfort in finding something, giving themselves a handle to abate their fears.
This is no different than the reading from I Samuel, when the leaders of the nation of affiliated tribes let go of their long tradition of being ruled by judges and corrected by the prophets.
I Samuel 8:6-7 But the thing displeased Samuel when [the leaders] said, "Give us a king to govern us." Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.
God’s people looked around, and all the other nations around them had kings.  They felt inferior.  Their tribal leadership approach seemed outdated and old-fashioned.  We are looking at the point in history when monarchy was the cutting edge of political thought.  Monarchy was the be-all and end-all of the way things could be.  As God made clear to Samuel, God was the one being rejected, not Samuel.  In fact, they called on Samuel’s spiritual authority to anoint the newly chosen king, Saul, and if you follow your biblical history, we know what a winner this guy was. [Sarcasm]  The people saw what they wanted to see, and so they found what they desired, even though it was a horrible choice.

When I was in graduate school, many of my friends in the program were planning on going into consulting, or were sharpening their skills as they already were consultants.  We were repeatedly extolled to go into every situation fresh, and to try and take our own blinders off before making conclusions or stating errant generalizations.  It summed up well this way, “If the only tool in your toolkit is a hammer, every problem is a nail.  If the only tool is a screwdriver, every problem is a screw.”  

The nation of Israel’s leaders said they wanted a king, so they went out and found themselves a king.  Like the old adage, be careful what you wish for, you just may get it.  Just as bad as not knowing what we are looking for, is deciding in advance what we are looking for and not slowing down till we find just that.  During staff training at Shrine Mont we repeatedly say to our staff, “Be open to outcomes.”  

When we are open to outcomes, God can do miraculous things, things can be far better than we ever realized or worked towards.  God’s possibilities are far greater than our hopes, far greater than our dreams.

When we define the outcomes, we put blinders on ourselves.

Jesus family, like everyone else, wanted a Messiah, but not like this.  In our Gospel reading for the day, we have the story that too many people want to avoid.  Too many people want to sweep this one under the rug.

Jesus was teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Word had gotten back to Mary and Jesus’ siblings that, “He has gone out of his mind.”  And it would have been their job to get the man back home.  

Scribes, down from the Capital of Jerusalem, started saying in response to this obvious sign of authority (they would have said flagrant) that Jesus had power over demons because he was the Lord of Demons.  

Mark 3:22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."

Interesting sidenote, the term they use here is Beelzebul, a slightly off transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic slur of the Lord of Flies, or the Lord of Dung.  They have even found golden fly statues in Philistine archeological digs.  King of Filth might be an appropriate modern translation.  If you remember the young adult novel by William Golding entitled Lord of the Flies, it comes from this term as the boys on the island devolve to their most base selves.
So we have his family saying he is crazy, and we have the religious leaders saying he is the Devil himself, but those who were gathered around him that day were willing to look beyond the easy assumptions, those that are open in their outcomes, and were able to see something more.

This story so closely parallels a passage from C.S. Lewis’ talks during World War II that became the classic, Mere Christianity.  He says here,
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The people there in the room with him were not the only ones who found something more.  You see, Jesus was finding and growing his Church.  The word we translate as Church comes from the Greek for “the called-out-ones.”  Here he even calls those his true family.

Mark 3:31- 35 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.   A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you."  And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Jesus knew what he wanted, AND he was open to the outcomes of how God would do it.

We can wander aimlessly, not having a clue and hoping to found what we are looking for eventually.

We can get impatient, and decide on a course of action, any course of action.  We all have heard the cliche, “Don’t just stand there, do something.”  God may very well be screaming back to us, “Don’t just do something, STAND THERE.”  We do not need to rush, but we do need to be open to God.

Let us wait, dear brothers and sisters.  Let us wait on the Lord.  As Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  May we be counted among them.  Amen.