Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Advocate for all

Ok, so we have a pre-Pentecost Gospel lesson for this Sunday, May 21. And it's a good one - like most passages in John's gospel, it's a good one! And it's especially good because we are still in the Easter season. Yes, it is still Easter and we hear the author of John's gospel recounting a portion of Jesus' farewell discourse as he prepares his disciples for his departure. In light of the Resurrection, in which all the Gospel accounts are written, we find comfort in Jesus' words as he promises that his followers will not be abandoned or orphaned (because we were given "power to become children of God" Jn 1:12). Jesus promises that he will give us another Advocate...another, because Jesus is our first Advocate, and in the wake of his departure from this earth, he will leave us another. He leaves us with the capital A Advocate, because it is the Advocate; the Holy Spirit. And we will have this Spirit - forever! 

So what do we do with this "power" that we have received to become God's children being left this most gracious gift in the receiving of the Spirit? I think if we begin by looking at God's work in the world we find that we are created to be drawn toward resurrection life. 

In the wake of the tragic stories we hear in the news of lives that have ended too short; whether by disease, murder, or neglect, we find the human spirit's drive toward life after death. Two examples that come to mind are the deaths of Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza and eleven year-old Houstonian Josue Flores. Timothy Piazza, as we have seen in the news now for several weeks, died at the hands of his negligent fraternity community after a senseless ritualistic hazing incident. After consuming far too much alcohol during a hazing activity called "the gauntlet", Piazza became very ill and fell down several feet of stairs and was all but neglected during his unconsciousness. Other students reportedly walked over his unresponsive body, among other tactics that were unhelpful in trying to help Piazza. It was a horrible incident that is under investigation, and one that ultimately cost this young man his life. yet, even in their grief, the family of Timothy Piazza have begun a foundation to raise money and help children who need them, acquire prostheses. This is what Timothy wanted to do: make prostheses for children in need, as well as service women and men. The foundation is meant to honor the life of Timothy Piazza as well as his dream to grant others access to quality of life.

Last year in Houston, eleven year-old Josue Flores was stabbed to death by a madman as he was walking home from school. The Flores family worked to make sure that this would never happen to another child again by advocating legislation to better fund transportation in higher crime areas of Houston. Last week, upon the first anniversary of his death, the “Josue Flores Bill”, SB 195, passed the Senate. It would provide more transportation funding to schools in high crime areas. 

Both of these tragic instances have caused the families to instill hope rather than lose hope. I believe God is active in the lives of people and this hope comes from our Creator, and I'd say further, the Advocate. Jesus promises that we will not be left alone. I believe there are infinite instances, including these examples, that Jesus made good on his promise. We are drawn not to wallow in death, but claim the life abundant that God offers in Jesus Christ. 

And while Jesus promises this Spirit anew, we do find evidence of God's spiritual presence with his people throughout the Hebrew scriptures: Deuteronomy 30:14 "the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." Isaiah 30:21 "And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Our drive to honor the life and legacy of those who have gone before, fits into the tapestry of God's intention and dream to reconcile and redeem the world.

I believe the work of the Advocate is very much at work in the world about us. And this Advocate that John writes about is translated in Greek as "Paraclete"; 'para' meaning "alongside". Jesus promises the Spirit who will literally be at our side; be with us in our daily lives. What great news for us this Easter season! 

In our liturgical acclamation of Alleluia! this season we give thanks and praise for the eternally resurrected life of our Lord Jesus and also for his most gracious gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate who abides in us, walks alongside us, and who will do so forever. 

Now, in light of of the promised life abundant and the coming of the promised Advocate, imagine if we came to church not for our own self-betterment or even for our own needs. Rather, what if we came to church thinking about how the world would be different because we came? The Piazza and Flores families were left with the choice to let grief take hold and paralyze them, or as grief took hold, to act...act for the good and security of others in the wake of their grief. Perhaps the word was near to them. Perhaps they heard the word saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” 

The lives of Timothy Piazza and Josue Flores cannot be brought back, there lives are in God's now. But the families have worked and are working diligently to ensure the safety and well being of other students and children. I believe this is as strong a Christian message as any.

God continues to come in the Holy Spirit to encourage us and care for us and abide with us and walk alongside of us, showing us the way to abundant life in Christ. Not just for us, but for all people; beyond even the Church. May we hear him and follow him always. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Abandoned Water Jar

Lent 3A | John 4:5-42

You probably have heard what an exciting Ash Wednesday we had here at St. Christopher’s this year. Kind of sounds funny saying that doesn’t it? “Exciting Ash Wednesday.” Well, I think we did. It was the first official joint venture of St. Christopher’s parish and San Romero fellowship. We began at 7 in the morning – I sent one church member directly to Starbucks to pick up a couple of jugs of coffee – and Uriel Lopez and I started imposing ashes on drivers-by from all walks of life. By 9 a.m. we had placed ashes on 75 foreheads. While I had three other services to prepare for among other things, Father Lopez and his ministers continued their work until after 5 p.m. when they had imposed ashes on nearly 450 people! I think that is very exciting.

While some question the orthodoxy of “Ashes to Go,” others who affirm and support the effort, consider the notion that “instead of waiting for people to come to church; the church must go to the people.” It is, after all, intended for those who would not normally attend church, or who simply cannot because of work or other restrictions. Still, Ashes to Go is intended to be an evangelical tool; a way of making the church’s presence known beyond its walls; and our own San Romero, with God’s help and the people of St. Christopher’s great support, had a fantastic start for the new mission.

In the long gospel lesson this morning, Jesus seems to be doing the practice of “the church going to the people.” Last week, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, but today, we hear about Jesus out and about in a foreign land, Samaria, where one of the best stories in John’s gospel takes place: the woman at the well.

Today we hear a contrast in John’s narrative, where last week, the Pharisee and teacher of the Jews, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, we hear in this very next chapter, a Samaritan woman who meets Jesus in broad daylight. Symbols are important for John and should always be taken be taken seriously. The symbols we heard today: A woman from Samaria. Jacob’s well. Living water. An abandoned water jar.

Now the story goes that Jesus was tired from his journey and took a seat next to the well. Then, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, Jesus asks her to give him a drink, all while the disciples were away buying food.

I think it’s important to pause for a moment in this message today about the content of this passage in John. We hear today of a wonderful and significant story about the breaking in of God’s kingdom: everywhere. It is a story about a Samaritan woman, a foreigner, but about so much more. It is a story about the world being offered life through Jesus. It is about worship and it is about eternal life. It is about mission and reconciliation; not just to the house of Israel, but to the whole world. (And yes, the story eventually does lead to evangelism. That “E” word that Portia brought up last week.)

Taken at face value, we can get easily distracted by the prophetic knowledge that Jesus shares with and about this woman. There are many opinions out there about why Jesus discusses the Samaritan woman’s marital status. Opinions that assume Jesus is calling her out on a sinful life demonstrated through serial relations with many men are most irresponsible and cause us to miss the point of this beautiful story about the life and joy that Jesus offers the world. To understand the conversation about marriage, we should understand what John is trying to convey to us about what Jesus is up to.

So let’s explore the plight of our woman friend from Samaria. John scholar Cynthia Kittredge notes that wells are places of engagements. We know the woman is unmarried (which doesn’t mean she’s a horrible person), and that she has had serial marriages; but we don’t know why they ended. Perhaps she has been widowed once or twice; or maybe deserted by one husband or another. The text doesn’t say, nor does Jesus call her a sinner or pronounce any forgiveness of sin. [i]

Professor Kittredge in her book recalls the history of Samaria whose people have worshipped five false gods after the Assyrian captivity. Perhaps she is searching for religious truth, and if so, it is no wonder that Jesus tells her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” [ii]

In both scenarios Jesus is proclaiming good news. He is proclaiming the promise of salvation and reconciliation, security and life everlasting to a woman who needs to hear this news; indeed to a world who needs to hear it. Nowhere in this story does Jesus forgive her for any sin. Nor does he perform any miracle. There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.

This story, as with many stories we read in the gospels, have little to do with the focal character of the story and so much more to do with Jesus. Now that we have hopefully laid to rest the story of a judging Jesus who sees an outcast, an adulteress, or a woman to be most pitied, let’s now focus on Jesus, the Savior of the world who lives out a mission of salvation and reconciliation to all the world.

Now, the Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. The Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.

There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to and revered. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.

Like Jesus, we are called to break down barriers and divisions to speak God’s word of life to others. How often do we allow ourselves to be surprised? The work we are to be doing within the life of the church is the work of transformation: for others and ourselves, from life lived in the world, to that of the spirit. (Remember Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus? “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”) Jesus now has two conversations in a row about living life in the spirit. He finds a woman who has been searching, and he knows this because the conversation he has with her keeps her attention.

He asks her for water – she says, “but you have no bucket”. He offers her water and when she drinks of it she will never be thirsty again; as the water that Jesus gives will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life; and she pleads for this water - “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And after the personal conversation they have, the nameless woman runs back to her village, leaving her water jar behind, and tells everyone that she has found the Savior of the world. Our lady friend here is not a sinner who needs fixing. She, as Professor Kittredge claims, is the hero. She is the first missionary in John’s Gospel and the first woman to proclaim the Good News.

And here, I believe, is the part of the story that witnesses to her transformation. In terms of John’s story and world, this nameless woman has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others.

And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind -- perhaps symbolic of all the difficulties and let-downs of her life – and of the physical world rather than spiritual - to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.

What, I wonder, holds us back from living into the future God has prepared for us and sharing the news of what God has done? What, that is, are the jars we need to leave behind, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water Jesus offers?

Perhaps it’s problems in a job or the difficulty of finding one. Perhaps it’s an unfulfilling or difficult relationship or a painful one. Perhaps it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Maybe it’s an illness of the mind, body, or spirit; or grief or anxiety or guilt or sadness.

It could be any number of things. But the woman left her water jar and ran back to the city, telling the people, “Come and see this man…” Perhaps she comprehended life in the spirit more quickly than Nicodemus did and realized she no longer needed the burden of doing things her own way and on her own terms, that is, clinging to her own water jar, because she now has everything she needs after her encounter with Jesus.

Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus who came searching for Jesus at night. Today we hear the story of the woman at the well who in broad daylight was found by Jesus. Jesus in this gospel is inviting us into a new reality, a new community, a new family. The person sitting next to you is your gift from God in this Jesus community. You did not come to St. Christopher’s on your own accord. Listen to the stories: you either came searching for Jesus in darkness, or he came and found you in his light. This place, this parish, this community, this family is God’s. Paid for by Jesus. It is Jesus who creates our fellowship and our community. So whatever reasons you have for being part of this faith community, always remember who called you into it; and remember that each one of us is a gift to each other. This is the identity of Jesus: the family of God, working together for the purposes of God’s kingdom.

The stories are written so that you get the feeling that you too are at the well listening to Jesus’ lessons and insights into your life, so that you too will abandon your water jar, then run and tell others of this Savior and invite them to “come and see”.

May you find and be found by Jesus again. May you come to the living waters. May you drink into your lives the ever-changing, ever-cleansing, life-giving and sustaining water that Jesus offers; then go and tell others what God in Jesus has done for you. Amen.

[i] Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs (2007) Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. New York, New York: Morehouse Publishing
[ii] Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs (2007) Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. New York, New York: Morehouse Publishing

Monday, March 6, 2017

In God We Trust (?)

In November of 1861, letters were written between the Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania and then Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase on the subject of inscribing “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage. The pastor thought that something was “seriously overlooked” on the coined currency of our nation, and by that he meant “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”

As a result, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto, in a letter dated later that month:

Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

Working out some tweaks in verbiage along the way, in 1873 Congress passed the Coinage Act and had the motto, “In God We Trust” inscribed on all coins. But the use of this motto over the years did not go uninterrupted. And the Act only included coinage. Paper currency did not have the motto, In God We Trust, printed on it.

It wasn’t until a law was passed by the 84th Congress and approved by the President in July of 1956, some 83 years later, declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto of the United States. In God We Trust was first used on paper money in 1957, when it appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. By October of the same year, In God We Trust was printed on every denomination of paper currency, and has been since.

I’ve found it curious over the years, why we continue to have this motto written on our currency. I wonder if this sentiment is really what is in our hearts: In God we trust.

I find it curious because we live in a culture and society that teaches, and well, preaches that our self worth is wrapped up in our own financial success. We are bombarded constantly with advertisements about what clothes to wear, what products to buy, and what vehicles we should drive. We are labeled as “consumers” by those who compete feverishly for the money that is in our bank accounts. In God We Trust. Do we even notice it on our currency anymore? This is especially difficult in a time when we use our debit cards and automatic payments for most of our transactions. But regardless of how we use our income, the question for me remains, ‘what does it mean to trust in God?’

The first Sunday in Lent always begins with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and nights. There he is tempted by the devil three times.

Jesus’ forty days in the desert echo Israel’s forty years there. Like the people of Israel in their
exodus from Egypt, Jesus is out in the wilderness, hungry and tempted. “If you are the son of God,” the devil says, “command these stones to become bread.” In other words, if you really are either royal or divine, prove it by using your power to your own benefit. What kind of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of showing off his power and feeding himself? What kind of king ever goes hungry?
In response, Jesus places himself not among the privileged few but among the ordinary people of God. Quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus replies, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for daily bread.

After his first failure to lure Jesus into misusing his status, the devil tries again, taking him to Jerusalem (“the holy city”), to the very highest point of the temple. This time the tempter challenges Jesus to prove his identity by throwing himself down and letting the angels rescue him.

In the final temptation, the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus will worship him. The implications are stunning. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. But Jesus orders Satan to leave, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

The temptation of turning stones to bread for food, the temptation to test God’s power to rescue, and the temptation to rule with power and influence, and his subsequent refusal of each, are not stories meant to set Jesus apart from us. Matthew does not tell the story to make us feel inadequate by showing us things that Jesus can do and we can’t. On the contrary! This story is meant to encourage us – because Jesus “was tempted in every way that we were, yet did not sin” reminds us that Jesus was tempted by the very things that we are tempted by, that is, dependency on our own doing and trust in ourselves by our own right. Matthew’s story of the temptations proves to commend the faith that is already in us.

The temptations of Jesus are not about that shady, sneaky devil that has nothing better to do than trip us up and make us bad people, not at all. These temptations are about Jesus putting his whole trust in God’s grace and love, intertwined in the life of Jesus that empowers us to do the same; with God’s help and grace.

Do you trust God?

Let’s go back to that first temptation in the Garden; the one that Adam and Eve blundered big time. The serpent offers Adam and Eve the promise of ultimate, God-like knowledge, at the outset of his exchange with the woman the serpent suggests that God is not trustworthy. The serpent begins, sowing the seeds of doubt, and then asserts, “You will not die,” contradicting the words of God.
Having undermined Adam and Eve’s confidence in God, the serpent then invites them to establish themselves -- that is, craft their own identity -- independent of their relationship with God: “when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Who needs God, after all, when you can be “like God” all on your own?

Now back to Matthew. While the content of the devil’s temptations include the capacity to turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, and the promise of power and dominion, each again is primarily about the devil trying to undermine Jesus’ trust in God. And I think the devil continues his work around us.

The question of whether we trust God is an important one. Because when we trust God, it shows; in our lives, in our dealings, and in our habits. It’s not to say that we won’t be tempted; we will be. Again, realize the consumer-driven culture that you and I live in. We are constantly being told that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, insured enough, or just simply not cool enough, unless we purchase “x”.

So we take matters into our own hands. And when we do, we believe that we must take control of our own lives. We nudge God to the side, and say that the stories we hear in church are nice, but we come to church for other reasons. When we take matters into our own hands we deny the promise of the trust we are to have in God that we made at our baptism. So we satiate our desires as we see fit. We test God to see if God will give us what we desire, rather than what we need. We seek reckless ambition to achieve status and wealth and to be accepted by others who have achieved the same.

David Lose writes inspiringly, “that Jesus resists [these temptations] not through an act of brute force or sheer will, but rather by taking refuge in an identity founded and secured through his relationship with God, a relationship that implies absolute dependence on God and identification with all others. Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.”

When we decide rather that we are not in control; that we are not owners of our lives and possessions, but that everything is God’s, then we don’t nudge God out of the picture of our lives. We place God at the very center of our lives. Why? Because we trust. And when we trust in God, we start seeing the world differently and acting accordingly.

When we trust God it becomes easier for us to follow his commandments; to love God and our neighbor, to put no other god before our God, to seek peace and justice among others, especially for the poor and those who differ from us, because we trust that God is in control and that God will work things out. To trust God is to love others.

When we trust God we more easily share our money and possessions and for the right reasons! We don’t use money to get our way or withhold money when something happens that we disagree with. Money should never be used as a weapon. Yes, I speak of the very money that has printed on it, “In God We Trust,” but too often it seems that it is the money that we trust, not God. So we grip tighter. So instead when we give as Christians, we do so generously, because we are God’s children and we trust that he is in control and will make all things right.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. We began this holy season on Wednesday, but we begin anew today. We begin once again to look into our own lives and wonder how we can begin to trust God more. Jesus was not given special powers so he could ward off the evil one and continue on his merry way. No. Jesus trusted God. He trusted God when he was tempted, which was probably many more times than just three, he trusted God when he was betrayed, he trusted God when he was arrested, and he trusted God even to his death.

And during this season of Lent we are reminded of God’s grace all around us. The ashes on our foreheads from Ash Wednesday remind us more than that we are dust, but that we are God’s children. We are called to self-examination, but we are also reminded of God’s grace and love and forgiveness. May our focus this Lent not be our shortcomings, but rather the abundant grace that God continues to offer us in Jesus.


Monday, February 20, 2017

A Workable Trajectory

In the blockbuster movie, Hidden Figures, a little known story is told about a group of African-American women who helped NASA accomplish space travel. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film focuses on three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were part of NASA's team of human "computers." This was a group made up of mostly women who calculated by hand the complex equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn to travel safely to space. Through sheer tenacity, force of will, and intellect, they ensured their stamp on American history—even if their story has remained obscured from public view.

In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt needed to ensure the growth of the federal workforce. He issued an Executive Order which banned "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin" (notice that gender is not included). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NASA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers. As you might assume, African-American computers were paid less than their white counterparts and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. [i]

In the film, Hidden Figures, human computer Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, was shown running back to the west campus several times a day just to use the rest room; the colored rest room; 45 minutes round trip. Of course her boss, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, was growing more and more frustrated with this woman who, hired to help with John Glenn’s trajectory, kept disappearing for long periods of time.

One rainy day, Mr. Harrison confronted a soaking wet and frustrated Ms. Johnson saying, ‘Where are you disappearing to? Where do you go all the time? I need you here!’ And her loud and rebellious response (you’ve gotta watch the film) caused Mr. Harrison stop what he was doing, go over to the west campus with an iron crow bar, and proceed to batter down the “Colored restroom” signs in front of all the employees. When the sign came crashing to floor Harrison said to all present, ‘There won’t be separate bathrooms anymore. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.’

This moment in the movie stood out to me as much as any other meaningful and moving scene, of which there were many. You see, the Jim Crow culture of separate but equal, caused a problem for everyone. This stands as a good example of when one person, or group of people are treated differently or even oppressed, we are all affected. We all pay a price. The work that NASA was doing, and does, put lives at stake. Especially early on during the so-called space race when so much was unknown and unprecedented. The work Katherine Johnson was doing for these astronauts was so vital to their safety and protection of their lives. Her main job leading up to and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the trajectory calculations. Having her continually leave the control room to use a restroom a half mile away and be absent from crucial duties simply because of the color of her skin was ridiculous, irresponsible, and detrimental to the mission. It is documented and included in the movie, John Glenn himself requesting that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories. He told the head engineer, “Get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go." You need that woman in the room!

The scripture readings for today are completely wrapped up in our worth. God declares that you and I have worth. That those who differ from us have worth. St. Paul reminds us that we are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in us. These are beautiful and remarkable words; ones that tell us that we are of invaluable worth, but they are also words that demand something from us. If we are a holy people; God’s temple, then we are only so if we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are a holy people; God’s temple, then we are only so if we not only forgive, but love our enemies.

Jesus teaches unprecedented mercy and forgiveness: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you…” These are not instructions that undergird or encourage individualism, but rather instructions for those who live in a godly community; a temple that is holy and glorifies God.

Jesus then culminates this part of his teaching, which goes on for the next couple of chapters, by telling his disciples, and as always, the reader and hearer of this message, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, before you make up your mind that this is impossible and you shut your ears to the instruction of being as perfect as God, there is some good news here. It doesn’t let us off the hook, but a deeper understanding of this teaching is quite wonderful.

Let’s come back to the story of Katherine Johnson and her mathematics for a workable trajectory for John Glenn’s travel in orbit. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. For example, the telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches.[ii]  The telos of NASA’s mission in 1962 was to bring John Glenn and his crew back to Earth safely. Telos, could very well be used synonymously with trajectory.

If our trajectory is realizing the kingdom of God, which Jesus describes at the onset of this fifth chapter of Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount, then the equations or formulas we must follow include loving our neighbors as well as our enemies; welcoming those who are not our family and friends; to go the extra mile for another; to pray for those who wish ill of us. These are examples of the steps we must take to meet our destination; to meet our goal, which is the Kingdom.

Katherine Johnson wrote these elaborate equations on a huge chalkboard in that NASA control room. Our huge chalkboard must include endless equations or examples of acts of love. Striving for the Kingdom, practicing acts of love and mercy and peace are what Jesus is telling us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, get on the trajectory that leads you to love and charitable thoughts of others. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says in many of his great sermons, “If it ain’t got nothing to do with love, then it ain’t got nothing to do with God.” And he’s right. If it ain’t got nothing to do with love it doesn’t belong on our road map.

From the collect for 7 Epiphany, Let us pray.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue. In Christ’s Name. Amen.

[i] Blitz, Matt. (2017, February 3). The True Story of “Hidden Figures” and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA
[ii] Lose, David. (2017, February 14). Epiphany 7A: Telos.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Going Beyond

In the gospel lesson Sunday (Matthew 5:21-37), Jesus revisits and teaches on the law or the commandments given to Israel by Moses (in Matthew's gospel, Jesus parallels Moses in several illustrations). In his continuing address to the disciples, Jesus teaches that while the law is binding, our hearts should go an extra distance. Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment..." Following Jesus bids us to go deeper than just keeping rules and laws. Jesus teaches us to examine our hearts and keep our motives pure.

Today, the church remembers Thomas Bray, an English parson who came to the colony of Maryland around 1800 to educate clergy, laity, and children in the ways of the faith and of the Church. He founded thirty-nine lending libraries in the new world, as well as several schools, and raised money for missionary work.

Upon his return to England, Thomas Bray was appalled at the condition of English prisons and raised public awareness of the problem. Again, he raised money to help fund ways to alleviate the misery of inmates. He organized Sunday "Beer and Beef" dinners in the prisons as well as proposed prison reform. 

The example Thomas Bray sets for us in light of the gospel of Jesus is that he goes beyond the rule of law to care for the sick and those in prison and took the initiative to affect change for those suffering. Not just visit the imprisoned, but improve their lives and conditions, following the charge to "respect the dignity of every human being" as our Baptismal Covenant states in the Book of Common Prayer. As an Anglican, Bray would hold fast to this theology.

Go the extra step to follow Jesus. Rather than merely refrain from violence, be kind to others. Rather than following basic precepts of your own faith, take the initiative to make someone else's life a little better. In doing this, we will find immeasurable grace, and the peace that passes human understanding.

Encouraging Others

It seems that regardless of what community to which we belong, including the church, people can and will be exposed to some kind of criticism or disapproval. Imagine a place where this doesn't exist. Imagine a place where people can come together, honor each other’s strengths and gifts and not just forgive their shortcomings, but embrace them. I imagine such a place.

So today I want to encourage people in faith communities, work places and homes, to encourage one another. Not so we can just go smiling off into the sunset because it made us feel special for a moment in time, but because encouraging others is life changing, can uplift and renew a culture, and it’s biblical.

Encouragement goes straight to the heart. In fact, the word itself comes from a combination of the prefix, “en” which means “to put into” and the Latin root “cor” which means “heart”. When we are encouraged, our hearts are strengthened (not really our blood-pumping organ, but that part in us that is tied to our soul and to our personhood). When our hearts are strengthened, we become resilient and ready to be vulnerable with one another. In other words, I think when we feel encouraged and supported by one another, we can fully enter into God’s work in the world and become stronger people and a better community.

St. Paul uses words like “encourage” and “build” when he speaks to his newly formed congregations in the early church. He admonishes his churches to encourage one another and “build each other up” because he knows the devastating results that can happen otherwise. In Pauls’ time, it was hard to be a Christian, or Christ follower. Christians met in private homes and were typically “underground” assemblies so that the authorities wouldn't detect them. Paul, before his conversion, was one of these authorities that with glee would arrest, and bring to trial, followers of the Way.

Today, we may not be arrested for following Jesus (however, when one stands for justice for the hungry, homeless, or disadvantaged, contemporary Christians have been known to spend a night in the slammer), but this does not mean that being a Christian isn't a challenge. It’s a big challenge! We live in a culture that is becoming less and less churched and where people are giving more and more into the ways of the world and of their own ambitions and personal goals; usually in the pursuit of high salaries and powerful positions.

By the time we make it to church on Sunday morning (if we can garner the energy to do so to begin with!), we are in need of a recharge, an uplifting experience, and a community that loves and supports us. St. Paul tells his church people in Thessalonica, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing...respect those who labor among you...esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves...encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (5:11-14).

Today I ask the people of St. Christopher’s to accept a stewardship season challenge: Encourage someone. Encourage a fellow church member as often as you can between now and the culmination of our stewardship season on November 6. Of course, we should continue after the 6th, but maybe, just maybe during this campaign entitled “Living Generously”, we can begin a cultural shift and create a culture of generosity and encouragement, and leave behind a culture of criticism.

*Here are seven ways I found that we can encourage one another:

1. If an encouraging thought comes to mind, share it! It may not have the same effect if you wait. Don't let shyness hold you back. Instead, form a new habit: “Encourage one another daily” Heb 3:13.

2. When you introduce someone, add a few words of praise for the person’s abilities or accomplishments. It's encouraging to be praised in front of others.

3. When someone is discouraged or hurting, offer specific, practical help. If you ask, “How can I help?” the person might be at a loss to answer. It may be better to ask, “Would it help if I…” or say, “I would like to…”

4. In a digital age, write a handwritten note to compliment someone or to share a positive word.

5. Write someone a note to tell them that you're praying for them.

6. If you’re part of a church group, Bible study or fellowship, be committed to showing up. Your presence encourages others that they are part of a community of faith and that they are not alone. The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together...but let us encourage one another” (10:25).

7. When you see someone making positive changes in their lives, affirm them.

8. Tell people how they’ve encouraged you!
If we take on the challenge to Live Generously and encourage one another and not be critical, I promise the result will only be positive. This is part of our stewardship: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:12). Are we willing to take on this challenge?

*(Source: “19 ways to encourage others”

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Feast of St. Matthew

This is the first of what I plan to be a weekly message to the members of St. Christopher’s. My goal is to reflect on the gospel message of the previous day with the attention on our call to follow Jesus. This first submission, however, is inspired by the story of Matthew, the tax-collector-turned-apostle, written on this, the feast day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. He was an abhorrent tax-collector, yet Jesus sought him out and called Matthew to follow him. Matthew, a most unexpected character is called to follow Jesus. I believe the conversation around following Jesus and committing our life to him is lacking in many faith communities. Sure, we worship and attend various social activities in our churches, but how much of this work is focused and dedicated to serving Jesus? As of the morning that I wrote this, I read this devotional from the Forward: Day by Day devotional booklet, by the Rev. Jonathan Melton:

“My only job, the only thing I ought to be about, is proclaiming the glory and joy of the holy and undivided Trinity. It is very easy to forget this most important fact about my vocation. No sooner do I pray to be a person of peace than I am swearing at the copier or lamenting spotty wireless [phone connections] – as if the astonishing and animating Trinity depends in any real way upon those amenities.”

It can be difficult to keep Christ at our center – or even “the glory and joy of the holy and undivided Trinity” – in the midst of our busy lives. We have bills to pay, children and grandchildren to give time to, our health to maintain, difficult people with whom we work, the list goes on. Our lives are distracted. Our cares are many. But God is present. Christ is present. And God wants to be, and joyfully desires to be, in these various and mundane occurrences in our daily lives. Jesus is calling us to follow him. Like Matthew, Jesus calls us despite our own feelings of treachery, brokenness, inadequacy, or distance from God.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. – Matthew 9:9

Get up and follow Jesus.