Thursday, August 17, 2017

Persevere in Resisting Evil: Responding to Charlottesville

Like people all around our country and the world, I was horrified by the violence, the racial hatred, and the deliberate act of terror that killed Heather Heyer last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

I was particularly disturbed to see American citizens marching with Nazi flags and other white supremacist symbols while shouting slogans like “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” 

This is pure evil. And even more so when we recall how Americans of all races from the “Greatest Generation” made incredible sacrifices during World War II to eradicate the scourge of Fascism and Nazism from the face of the earth. Those brave Americans fought and many of them died to insure that all people - regardless of race, color, or creed - can live in freedom. 

The protesters who advocated for white supremacy last weekend dishonor the sacrifices of Americans who fought during World War II. They dishonor the sacrifices of Americans who struggled for liberty and justice for all in the Civil Rights Movement. They dishonor true patriotism and love of our country. They dishonor basic human values of decency, civility, and kindness. 

But as Christians, we must condemn this evil in even stronger terms. 

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with the Southern Baptist Convention, hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following on Twitter

“The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so.” 

And Bishop Jake Owensby of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana summed it up like this: 

“Racism is a sin. White supremacy is a racist ideology. Its presence in Charlottesville was undeniable. It is our responsibility as followers of Christ to denounce this hate and violence without resorting to hate and violence ourselves.” 

In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil.” White supremacy in any form is evil. It is an assault on the dignity of persons created in the image of God. It is an assault on the teachings of Jesus, who commands us to love one another as he loves us (John 15:12). It is a form of hatred that separates us from God. For as St. John the Apostle writes: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). 

We find the way to resist evil in the love of Jesus Christ. For the love of Jesus is stronger than hatred. It transforms enemies into friends. It overcomes even death itself. 

What happened in Charlottesville reminds us that this world is shot through with sin and evil. This world needs saving. It desperately needs to see the light and know the healing power of Jesus’ love. May we be that light and that love. 

As we seek to resist the evils of racism and white supremacy by faithfully walking in love as Christ loved us, I invite you to use the following prayer from The Book of Common Prayer

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.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

God's Job, Not Ours: Sermon for Proper 11A 2017

Gospel reading for Proper 11A

One of the things I love the least is yard work. I’ve never been a big fan of mowing, edging, trimming, raking, pulling weeds, ripping out vines, or cutting back branches - particularly in the summer heat.

Maybe it goes back to my high school years when I was tasked with cutting the grass during summer breaks. Including an orchard and a field, our yard was huge. Even with a tractor mower it could take 3 hours to cut everything. Not fun!

There was, however, one outdoor job I liked. And that was spraying the poison ivy plants that seemed to pop up everywhere. Living on a cotton and soybean farm, I had access to chemicals that were like weaponized Round-Up. You could spray a poison ivy plant and within a few hours it would be burned to a crisp. It became my mission to seek out and destroy all of the poison ivy on our property. 

I did a pretty good job. But there was collateral damage. In my zeal to eradicate every single poison ivy plant, I occasionally took out a few flowers, destroyed a tomato plant in dad’s garden, and maybe even killed a small tree in the orchard. 

Sometimes the eagerness to get rid of things we perceive as bad can cause harm. 

We see that point in Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the wheat. A landowner sowed good seed in his field. But at night, when everybody was asleep, someone came and sowed weeds among the wheat. So when the wheat started growing, the weeds were right there with them. Seeing what had happened, the servants of the master asked him if they could pull out the weeds. They couldn’t stand the thought of letting the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, co-exist. They were impatient to set things right. And they assumed the master would say, “Yes, by all means, purify my field of those evil weeds.” 

But instead, the master told them “no.” He noted that if the weeds were pulled, the wheat would be uprooted and damaged. They would destroy the crop. So instead of trying to set everything right, the master told the servants to wait. Be patient. Let everything grow until the harvest. And then the weeds can safely be sorted out from the wheat. 

Perhaps it comes as a surprise that the biggest enemy in the parable is not the weeds or even the person who sowed the weeds. It’s the impatient servants who assume they know their master’s wishes. 

The real enemy is acting as if we mere mortals are the ultimate judges who are so good and righteous that we can identify, sort, and wipe out the bad. 

If we apply this point of the parable to religious life, it’s not hard to find examples of well-intentioned persons acting on what they believe is God’s will in ways that cause more harm than good. Their desire to purify the church of sin or purge society of evil is sincere. They mean well. And the problems they pinpoint may be real. 

But how easy it can be to make a mess of things by acting on the desire to eradicate evil! And how far removed that desire can be from the will of a God who graciously “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). 

In contrast to our human, all-too-human impatience, Jesus’ parable portrays a God who is infinitely patient, gracious, and merciful. God is kind and loving to everyone, regardless of whether they are good or bad persons. God gives everybody time and opportunities to grow and change. For God takes no pleasure in the deaths of the wicked, but rather desires that they should turn from their evil ways and live (cf. Ezekiel 18:23 & 32). 

It’s easy to imagine that we can neatly classify the world into two camps: the good and the bad. And that we are among the good and have the godlike power and mandate to set all things right. But things are not so simple. For as one writer notes, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 

That’s a powerful insight. It serves as a reminder that instead of pointing a finger of judgment at anybody else, or blaming external circumstances, I need to take a hard look into the depths of my own heart. Rather than getting fixated on the sin and evil of the world around us, Jesus invites us to look with courageous honesty at ourselves. And he warns us that all too often we may see “a smudge on [our] neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on [our] own” (Mt 7:3, The Message). 

For the truth is: I am just as capable of sin and evil as any other person. And I can’t change anybody else. I can’t change the world. 

But, with God’s help, I can change the world in me. I can change the world in my heart, where the decisive battle between good and evil wages every single day. 

That change comes through repentance. It comes through naming, confessing, and forsaking the wrong desires and sinful actions that draw us from the love of God. 

It comes through the humility of accepting that we are not superheroes who can single-handedly purify the world of evil and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

That’s God’s job, not ours. 

Our job is to trust and obey. 

Our job is to trust that all things are in God’s hands, and that in the end, God will sort everything out and set all things right. And our job is to faithfully obey God’s commands summed up by Jesus as loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

Regardless of outward circumstances, we can live with confident hope. Not because of what we do. But because of what God has done, is doing, and will do. 

For in Jesus Christ, God has overcome death and the grave. A new creation has begun. The kingdom has come near. We have been reborn as sons and daughters of God. God’s saving love has been poured into our hearts as a gift that cannot be earned or deserved. And knowing that in the end God will right all wrongs, we can rest secure in that love for all eternity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Church Buildings Matter

Church buildings matter.  Architecture speaks.  And a church building can be a factor in attracting and even converting people to the Christian faith.

Empirical research backs this up, as a recent article in The Telegraph attests.  "One in six young people are Christian as visits to church buildings inspire them to convert," reads the headline.  Here's an excerpt:

One in six young people are practising Christians, new figures show, as research suggests thousands convert after visiting church buildings.   
The figures show that more than one in five (21 per cent) people between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus, and 13 per cent say they are practising Christians who attend church.   
The study, commissioned by Christian youth organisation Hope Revolution Partnership and carried out by ComRes, suggested that levels of Christianity were much higher among young people than previously thought. ... 
Around 13 per cent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures. 
The influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.

This is very hopeful and extraordinary news!

I shared this article with a friend who serves as a priest in the Church of Ireland.  He wrote back to say that this report has been getting a lot of attention in his neck of the woods, not least because it challenges the assumptions driving youth ministry and evangelism for the last decade.  

Too often the assumption seems to be that in order to reach young people and the unchurched, we have to downplay, minimize, or even jettison key aspects of the Christian faith. And so traditional doctrine, liturgy, music, church buidings, etc., come to be seen as impediments.  

This research coupled with data on church decline, suggest that this assumption is just wrong.  What if we can do a better job of evangelism by living more deeply into the traditions we have inherited, including church architecture that speaks of the transcendent in a world flattened out by suburban sprawl and smartphone screens?  

While it's true that the Church cannot be reduced to a building, this research serves as testimony to the incarnational truth that buildings (like bodies) matter.  Sacred space can speak the Word just as ceremonial, ritual, sacraments, and preaching do.  

A quote from Roman Catholic priest Romano Guardini comes to mind:

When you step through the doorway of a church you are leaving the outer world behind and entering an inner world.  The outside world is a fair place abounding in life and activity, but also a place with a mingling of the base and ugly.  It is a sort of marketplace, crossed and recrossed by all and sundry.  Perhaps "unholy" is not quite the word for it, yet there is something profane about the world.  Behind the church doors is an inner place, separated from the marketplace, a silent, consecrated and holy spot.  It is very certain that the whole world is the work of God and His gift to us, that we may meet Him anywhere, that everything we receive is from God's hand, and, when received religiously, is holy.  Nevertheless, men have always felt that certain precincts were in a special manner set apart and dedicated to God.  [quoted in Patricia S. Klein, Worship Without Words: The Signs and Symbols of Our Faith]

Fr. Guardini is right: walking into a church is like stepping into another world, a space that speaks of another reality, a world that is bigger, more mysterious, and more beautiful than much of what we experience day to day. 

There's a hunger for that "inner world," that sacred space that's set apart from the frenetic world of information and calendar overload.   And while it's certainly true that in our evangelism we need to go out and meet people where they are, we do well to not overlook or downplay the riches we have to offer inside sacred space where the mysteries of the Gospel are offered in Word and Sacrament.