Sunday, May 29, 2016

Grace in the Middle of the Road

Preached at Holy Trinity, Charlotte on May 29, 2016.

LUKE 7:1-10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

When did it happen? Jesus enters the town of Capernaum. There is a centurion there—a big-deal Roman soldier. And the centurion has a slave, who apparently means a lot to him, and the slave was near death. When the centurion hears that Jesus is there, he sends some of the Jewish elders to Jesus to see if he’ll come and heal his slave. So, they find Jesus and plead their case, telling Jesus that the centurion is a good man and he deserves this favor.

So, Jesus goes with them, but while they’re on their way, some of the centurion’s friends come to Jesus with a message. Despite the fact that the Jewish elders deem the centurion worthy of Jesus’ help, the centurion himself doesn’t. He doesn’t want Jesus to risk defiling himself by entering the home of a gentile. But if Jesus only speaks the word, he knows that his servant will be healed. Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s faith. And then, those who had been sent to speak with Jesus return to the centurion’s house and find the slave has been healed.

So, when did it happen? Jesus didn’t lay hands on the slave. He didn’t lay eyes on him. He didn’t even lay a word on him. And the slave was healed. When?

Sometime when Jesus was in the middle of the road.

Luke’s gospel is filled with acts of compassion that take place in the middle of the road. Right after this story, we read about Jesus in a town called Nain, and the body of a widow’s son is being carried in the street on a funeral bier. At the word of Jesus, the dead man was alive… right there in the middle of the road. Later, Jesus heals a hemorrhaging woman in the middle of the road. The same for a demon possessed man—the one where the demons ended up inside the pigs on the hillside.

Luke is the only gospel that includes Jesus’ parable about a man who has been beaten and left for dead when a Samaritan stops to help him, in the middle of the road. Luke is also the only gospel writer who gives us the parable of a young man who breaks his father’s heart by taking his inheritance and getting as far away from his father as possible. After he blows all his father’s money, this son decides he has no choice but to return home and beg for forgiveness. He goes over his groveling speech again and again as he makes the long journey home again, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Before the son has a chance to get the words out of his mouth, his father sees him from a distance and runs to his son, throws his arms around him and kisses him. Right there in the middle of the road.

It seems that the middle of the road is a symbol for grace, doesn’t it? The father in the story of the prodigal son doesn’t wait for his son to come to him. He doesn’t care if the son meets the right criteria before he welcomes him home. He doesn’t mind the fact that the son doesn’t deserve to be forgiven for the way he turned his back on his family. Before conditions are met, love is extended. That’s grace. Undeserved. Unconditional. Unexpected. And it happens right there in the middle of the road.

Now, you may think of the “middle of the road” as a political phrase, and although that’s not how I’m using it here, it’s actually not unrelated. Our nation is so polarized right now that it seems no one is standing in the middle of the road. We don’t want to have a thing to do with people who disagree with us, unless it’s to hurl insults and demonize them. The primary election has been a battle of extremes, indicative of our larger culture.

If there’s one thing I’ve become convinced of in the decades I’ve served as a pastor, it’s that there is something more important than being right, and God knows, I like to be right. But it’s more important to be loving than it is to be right. More important than planting my flag in the ground and taking a firm stand, is an ability to move to the middle of the road for a conversation. That’s what it means to be a person of grace. I may not always do that well, but I know it’s where following Jesus takes me. It takes me smack dab to the middle of the road.

That’s where one of the highlights of my time at Holy Trinity took me. It was a glorious day. I felt a lot like I imagine King David might have felt when he danced naked in the middle of the street bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Only it wasn’t Jerusalem, I wasn’t dancing… and I certainly wasn’t naked. We can all be thankful for that! I was riding on the back of a black Volkswagen convertible waving a rainbow flag at 100,000 people lining Tryon Street.

What I wore that day raised a bit of controversy. I have colleagues who strongly objected to the fact that I wore my white alb and rainbow stole, as if I were dressed for worship… well, worship in a church where the rainbow stole would be appreciated.

It was 2014, the year I was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that brought marriage equality to North Carolina, and I had been named Outstanding Ally by Charlotte Pride, so I got to ride up front like a celebrity. I debated what to wear that day. When I asked my fashion consultant, Linda Davis, she said I should robe up, and she was right.

For those who have been damaged by the hatred and scorn of the Church, my presence spoke volumes. I was a symbol of reconciliation for folks who had been pushed to the margins because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. When they saw me smiling and waving, dressed in the official clothing of a holy person, the Church had come to them right there on the buckle of the Bible belt—at the intersection of Trade and Tryon. They saw that there are Christians who aren’t asking them to change who they are before we approve of them. There are Christians who don’t just tolerate them as deviants. Never before had they seen a church person riding in a lead car like that at a Pride Parade. I knew that what I was doing was significant for the LGBTQ community. I represented the Christian church, and I was celebrating them as people created in the image of God. I was grace in the middle of the road.

This week on Facebook I saw the statement, “Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t step over a puddle for you.” It makes a lot of sense. Don’t give yourself to someone who isn’t willing to give anything to you. Why would you? That wouldn’t make any sense. And yet, that’s not the way grace works, is it? Grace is kind with the unkind. Patient with the rude. Loving with the judgmental and hateful. Grace DOES cross oceans for people who wouldn’t step over a puddle for you. 

That’s why Jesus spent so much time in the middle of the road, from the beginning of his life. when his parents traveled to Bethlehem… to the years of his ministry when we see him compassionately meeting people where they are… to the end of his life when he is greeted by a cheering crowd waving palm branches as he rides into Jerusalem… and then finally, when their cheers become jeers, and he carries his cross through the streets. It all happened in the middle of the road.

And that’s why we’re called to the middle of the road as well. Because that’s where grace is found.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Two Letters

During worship today, two letters were read. Both were written by me. They were read to two different congregations. One was written to my beloved Holy Trinity in Charlotte. May 15 marks the 11th year of my first Sunday with them, to the day. Like this year, it was Pentecost 11 years ago, too.

In my first sermon at Holy Trinity, I talked about how most of the people who were going to become a part of our faith community weren’t with us yet. That turned out to be true. Today, when I placed communion bread in the hands of all who came to the altar, I thought about how the overwhelming majority of those hands weren’t present with us when I began my ministry at Holy Trinity. Over the past 11 years, the Holy Spirit has been actively calling, gathering, and enlightening those who make up our congregation today.

I can’t begin to tell you what this congregation has meant to me. I have always loved the people I’ve served as a pastor, but I’ve never felt loved in return the way I've felt it from them. Because of their love, I’ve blossomed as a pastor and as a person. That’s why it was so difficult to read my letter to them at the end of worship:
When I came to serve you 11 years ago, we had no idea where God was leading us, but we trusted that he would guide us along the way, and he has. Now God is leading us in a new direction. Over the past year, I have come to realize that I have accomplished what God sent me to do at Holy Trinity, and the time has come for another pastor to move forward with you.
I have always sought to be open to the Spirit’s call. It’s what brought me to serve as your pastor, and I have never doubted that call in the time I’ve been with you at Holy Trinity. In the same way, now the Spirit is calling me to serve another congregation. No one could be more surprised by this than I am. I did not seek this call, but it found me, and I am convinced it is of God.
On July 11, I will begin my ministry as senior pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson, Maryland. My last Sunday at Holy Trinity will be June 19. Between now and then I hope we will have the opportunity to honor and celebrate the ministry we’ve shared through the years even as we express this difficult good-bye.
It’s painful to leave the church family I’ve grown to love and the deep connections I’ve had with so many of you. Please know that this isn’t easy for me. Although endings like this are a kind of death for us, we can rejoice that our God specializes in resurrection. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for you and for me in the years ahead.
This is the thing I hate most about being a pastor. It’s my calling to love the people I serve, to form deep relationships with them, to invest myself in the community without holding back. And yet, I’m temporary. A time always comes when I walk away and another person walks in to take my place. It’s brutal. I wish there was a way I could take dear friends from Charlotte, colleagues from the NC Synod, and most of all the people of Holy Trinity with me. But that’s not the way it works.
Also this morning, God’s saints at Ascension in Towson, MD, heard a letter I wrote to them:   
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit swept over Jesus’ followers like a mighty wind, and they were never the same again. As we worshiped together on May 8, did you feel the Spirit moving among us? I certainly did. It was a morning of apprehension, expectation, and excitement. For me, it meant finally meeting the congregation that I have been learning about over the past few months.
The more I experience the people of Ascension, the more I realize what an extraordinary congregation you are; I am beyond humbled that you have voted to call me as your next senior pastor. Your vote affirms a call from God that has become clear to me through the process of discernment with your Call Committee. With joy and gratitude, I accept that call. 
I look forward to the adventure in faith that God has in store for us together. Although we can’t foresee where that adventure will take us, I’m trusting that God with guide us along the way and great things will be accomplished for the Reign of God through us. 
Despite my eagerness to join you in Towson, bringing closure to my current ministry and relocating my home will take some time. I plan to begin serving with you on July 11. Until then, please know that you are on my mind, in my heart and most certainly in my prayers.
Every emotion I’m capable of feeling has been thrown into a blender. At any given moment, I’m in a shock, I’m grieving, I’m giddy with anticipation, I’m scared, I’m delighted. It’s all there. Lately, there have been days when I’ve wondered if I may be going completely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. At other times I’m convinced I can’t do this; I’m tempted to pull the plug on the entire process and retreat into my safe cocoon. But by now I have a track record with this sort of thing, and I’ve learned that this is how it feels when I’m being called by God to step out boldly in faith. When God opens a door and invites me to walk through it, I can’t refuse. To me, that would be like slamming the door in God’s face. And the thing is, whenever I’ve walked through a door that God has opened for me, I’ve never regretted it. I know this is one of those times.
And so, today in worship, two letters were read to two congregations God has called me to serve. One is as familiar to me as a cherished book I’ve read so many times that the cover is worn off, and the other is a rare edition I have yet to crack open. One has become a part of who I am and the other pulls me toward who I have yet to become. One has led me to the other.
To some people, the letter I wrote to Holy Trinity may read like any resignation, and the one I wrote to Ascension may sound like a typical letter of acceptance. But to me they are so much more than that. They are love letters. And I hope that’s the way they were received.