a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 15, Friday, March 17, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Kingdom to “Kin_dom”: O Jesus, how I love You and Your Kingdom! Still, You know that for years I’ve prayed and preached using the word “kin_dom” (always begging Your pardon for my impertinence!).[1] Yet You know I’ve never meant any disrespect, but rather alway intend the highest act of honoring You and Your call to me to follow You, to see You more clearly. For You, as I have come and continue to come to know You, through Scripture and through the daily revelations of Your Spirit, are alway less monarchical and more relational; less One to lord Your superiority over us and, as You manifest Your supremacy in Self-sacrificial service, more One to share Your saving grace with us; less King and more Kin.

O Jesus, if You don’t mind, I’ll continue to pray to You saying, “kin_dom” (though, yes, when I read Your Word in public worship, I’ll stick to the text and say “kingdom”), for as I, through the strength of Your Spirit, continue to follow You, more and more, I see that You call me to be kin, too, to all people of whate’er race or clan, culture or creed, philosophical disposition or political determination, and at all times.

O Jesus, this is a hard calling; the sort of which that can get one killed, if not literally, surely metaphorically, though no less truly in self-denial, dying to one’s self in the face of difference, at times, dissent. But, then again, You already demonstrated the extent – unto death – to which Love goes in loving.

So, O Jesus, in Your Name and for Your Sake, kin I am to and for the whole world. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] The first time I used the word was in a sermon entitled Kin_dom on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2000. Based on the appointed gospel, Luke 3.1-6, recounting the ministry and message of John son of Zechariah, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” , I preached, in part: “John’s vision…is…about the coming kingdom of God  (although I prefer the word, “kin_dom”, being less monarchical and masculine, more relational and inclusive). A world of righteousness, right relating; justice, fair dealing; and compassion, shared living in suffering and joy…”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 14, Thursday, March 16, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news” (and) “Follow me” ( Mark 1.14-15, 17a)

On the Kingdom of God: O Jesus, You came proclaiming that in You, Your life and Your ministry, God’s Kingdom had drawn nigh. Still, the Kingdom seems (at times, I fear, is) afar off. Kingdom-evidences in this strife-torn, sorrow-worn creation are sometimes hard to see, at least, for me.

Yet, blessedly, O Jesus, guided by Your gospel-light, with the spiritual sight of imagination, Kingdom-visions are not hard for me to seek. With the eyes of faith, I behold banquets where none hunger and all are welcome; festivals where none are poor, all attired in silken robes of equality’s wealth; where shackles lay shattered and prisons uninhabited, for liberty’s economy hath bankrupted all criminality and made charity the universal coin of the realm; where hospitals stand shuttered and dark and graveyards empty, for sickness and death are no more.

Ah, O Jesus, hearing again, hearing alway Your call, “Follow Me,” I see anew that I, in the strength of Your Spirit, in my daily being and doing, am to help usher in Your Kingdom-day; in the hungry and naked, the imprisoned and the stranger, the sick and dying, feeding and clothing, visiting and welcoming You.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Matthew 25.31-40: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

my Lord, what a morning!

thinking

a personal reflection on inauguration ceremonies and the Women’s March on Washington…

This morning, I watched the live television broadcast of the inaugural prayer service. In commemoration of Donald John Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States and America’s praised and prized peaceful transfer of power, a few thousand folk gathered under the towering pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ceiling vaulting of the Washington National Cathedral. There, for an hour, they listened to numerous voices praying and singing in varied traditions of faith and hymnody, all celebrating the glories (and summoning all people to recommit to the promotion of the causes) of peace and justice.

This morning, I also watched and through this day continue to watch live news coverage of the Women’s March on Washington (and around the globe!) as hundreds of thousands (millions?) of women and men gather to proclaim that “women’s rights are human rights”, to protect the dignity of women and girls of all ages, anywhere and at any time, and to protest any infringement on the sanctity and security of women’s rights. And, as is true of all marches to (and all marchers who) proclaim, protest, and protect, numerous are the causes, varied are the interests that call people forth. Hence, under the towering, flying, vaulted banner of women’s rights, many peoples and concerns gather in blessed solidarity; among them, Native Americans and colored folk, immigrants of whatever legal status, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual, and asexual (acronymically rendered as LGBTQIA) – in a word, any and all who historically have been and unto this day are marginalized, thrust to the widening circumference of our society far from the centers of power and influence and, thus, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, disenfranchised, divested of their Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the words of that grand Negro spiritual:

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

This song is a commemoration of God’s deliverance; a celebration of the coming of that eschatological end-time when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression finally are defeated. Still, in this day and time, when all is not right, when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression are ruefully alive and unrepentantly unwell, I think, feel that “morning” can be supplanted by “mourning.”

On this day, in prayer and song, by watching and marching, I commit anew to live and labor so that, even in this world, before God’s Kingdom come in its glorious fullness, mourning’s veil is lifted, however slightly, by the morning’s dawn.

O God, Thy kingdom come?

O’er these past few days – provoked, perhaps in equal parts, by my slower-than-I’d-like recovery from surgery, the seasonally mood-affecting, melancholia-inducing dreary winter skies, and my quintessential and abiding inner psycho-shadow world of pessimism – I’ve been dwelling a lot on the pain and sorrow of this world.

Early this morning, I had a dream or perhaps a semi-conscious alternate-vision that, upon fully awakening, continued to speak to me in the following meditation on Luke 14.12-14.

I turn away from the world;

my eyes tired,

my vision teared

by the avarice,

malice

and all-too consequent sadness

I see.

 

Adrift on the rhythmic pulsing of my yet hopeful heart,

I fantasize,

visualize

a far off place…

 

There!

 

Where

the poor & bloated-bellied hungry,

who e’er are the last and least,

at banquet tables feast;

and this world’s finest and first

make haste

to offer service,

treating them

as royalty,

at their feet, genuflecting, calling them,

“Your majesties!”;

who, though alway too humble by half,

unwilling to suffer the obeisance of eternal equals,

bid their servants join them at table…

 

Where

the broken-bodied gambol through verdurous fields;

their disabilities

yielding to everlasting energies…

 

Where

the blind stare unblinking

admiring

their reflections

sans all imperfection;

their mirrored smiles confirmation

of their long-harbored, secret conviction

that they’d like the way they looked

if e’er they, as now without end, could see.

 

But here

in this world, there –

save for bright-hued visions

of imagination,

the hopeful phantasms of my soul’s desperation –

remains a far off (inaccessible?) destination;

perhaps no terminus at all, for one can’t get there

from here.

 

Then I think, no, I was, I am blessedly wrong,

for there

is ne’er

far off, but alway near,

and truly appears,

however partially,

here

whene’er

I or anyone acts,

however imperfectly,

on faith

in God that Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done

on earth.

going out to see John

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

Today, I seek to enter and inhabit, live the scripture. I invite you to join me.

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About three years ago, I first heard about John. All Jerusalem was abuzz about a man who came out of the wilderness, preaching repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk. My people know that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the Messiah’s coming to restore Israel to glory.

the-voice-in-the-desert-la-voix-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Curious, I went out to see John. I wasn’t alone. Multitudes from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan gathered on the riverbanks.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

He was something to see! Bony, yet brawny. His hair, long, unkempt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” Though gone a thousand years, our sacred history describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah’s return to announce the Day of the Lord[2] when God intervenes in human history to set things right. Elijah…John…close enough!

It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years ago, Isaiah, with those same words, declared the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and return to the Promised Land.[3] But now the Roman Empire holds us captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, I dared to hope for liberation!

Some Pharisees and Sadducees were in the crowd. Odd seeing them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. John saw them and all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” he screamed. Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve! Terrible thing to call someone, especially our most respected people! Nevertheless, he said: “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen, but it’s not enough to be upright in outward behavior. You must be righteous in your inward being and, in this, you aren’t faithful and true to God. Vipers!”

saint-john-the-baptist-and-the-pharisees-saint-jean-baptiste-et-les-pharisiens-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

In the past, others came from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t say he was a prophet, he acted like one! And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling ascetics, the Essenes, and then only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah, whose sandals, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never promoted himself, always pointed beyond himself. What humility!

I’m a skeptic, but I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift of truth-telling. And I went to him, begging, “Baptize me!” With strong hands, John plunged me into the water, holding me under, finally letting me go. Gasping for air, I didn’t know if my life had turned around, but I did see it pass before me! Yet I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.

Then nothing happened. Well, something happened, but nothing good. King Herod arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John. Just before that a man from Nazareth, Jesus, came to John to be baptized. Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, raising someone from the dead. People called him Messiah and followed him, expecting God’s kingdom to come. Then the Romans crucified him.

Promises, hopes, like all before and since, come to naught. I wondered then, I wonder now, why did I bother to go out to see John?

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John burst onto the first century Palestinian scene with incandescent temperament and intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.

Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps because his message of repentance resonated in human hearts. People knew that they were soul-sick, in need of healing. They knew that they, even at their finest, falling short of their best, were in need of help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining envisioning who they were destined to become, needed hope. In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of truth and new life. Not happy-ever-after-fantasy, for given what we know of the world and ourselves, life was not, is not like that.

John spoke truth. About new life through repentance, our turning around to face anew God and ourselves and our reality. All of it. Our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears – love and hate, assurance and fear, trust and betrayal, communion and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death. New life that lives in the power of the paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything will not, cannot destroy us, for we are a part of something greater.

John proclaimed and died for the truth of this reality, preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, who not only proclaimed, but personified the truth of God, for which he was crucified. A crucifixion that led to a resurrection. A resurrection that is the foundation for a community of life-giving love. A community for two millennia through which people have sought to live the life of God and in which we gather today going out to see and to hear John to be reminded afresh of how real and new and true the life of God is.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Voice in the Desert (La voix dans le desert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] 2 Kings 1.8

[2] Malachi 4.5

[3] Isaiah 40.3

promises – a Lenten reflection

Jesus taught his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…be rejected…and be killed…(then saying) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8.31, 34)

The Republicans, sweeping last fall’s mid-term elections, claiming both houses of Congress, declared that political gridlock would end.

A promise I found hard to believe.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives, beating by bare hours a partial shutdown deadline of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), settled on a one-week funding extension. The reason DHS is the latest in an interminable rack of political footballs? Immigration reform. The Republicans link DHS money as a prod to force the rollback of President Obama’s November 2014 executive orders that protect millions of undocumented persons from deportation.

Political, partisan gridlock, it seems, remains firmly in place.

In November 2016, America will elect the 45th President. Potential rivals, several Republicans and fewer Democrats, have begun honing their campaign messages and stump speeches, those on-point distillations of the their political platforms, all replete with pledges of better solutions to vexing problems and cures for what ails America and the world.

Promises I find hard to believe.

Jesus, in his campaign proclaiming the near presence of God’s kingdom, promised no ready resolution to every problem, but rather his unconditional engagement with the world and all of its suffering. Jesus is a Messiah without the delusional grandiosity associated with a messiah-complex. Jesus is real. So real that what he says about himself, he applies to those who would come after him. As a follower of Jesus, I have come to know that what he says is true. In this problem-plagued world, all is not right and well. It hasn’t been. It is not. And, I suspect, it ne’er will be. Still, in taking up the cross of service to help assuage the suffering of the world, I have known the grace and mercy of courage and endurance, love and forgiveness unconditioned by any length of time or any depth of need.

His promise I believe.