Sunday, February 26, 2017

Help! There's an Elephant Sitting on the Baptismal Font!

Preached on Sunday, February 26, for the people of Ascension Lutheran, Towson MD.

This is an unusual Sunday for me because I’m not preaching directly on the text for today. Instead, I’m feeling compelled by the Spirit to address our context. That context is the nexus between the Sermon on the Mount, entering the season of Lent, and the negative drain of the world around us that is sucking us into a downward spiral of us against them.

For the past four weeks of the Epiphany season, we’ve been in The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve talked about how God’s Reign is a counter-cultural experience that Jesus calls us to be a part of.  It differs radically from the values of the world around us in the way we treat one another, ourselves and even those we perceive to be our enemies. 

Week after week we’ve heard Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and you have respectfully listened in as I’ve wrestled with those words out loud from the pulpit. And week after week, while we’ve made our way through the Sermon on the Mount, there’s been a big ol’ elephant in the middle of the room, sitting right on top of our baptismal font. Have you noticed it?

Now, I don’t mean to use that image in the political way. The elephant is not the GOP. The elephant is the thing that we’re all aware of, but it makes us so uncomfortable that we choose pretend it doesn’t exist.

The elephant I’m referring to is the divide between us regarding partisan politics. I know some of you cringe when you hear the word politics from the pulpit, but to ignore politics is to ignore what’s going on in the world around us. And when we ignore what’s going on in the world around us, what we do in this place becomes completely irrelevant. 

I didn’t think it could get worse than it was during the presidential campaign, but over the past few months, the political divide in our country has grown wider. I’ve had this sense that it’s become the unspoken subtext of every sermon I preach. I don’t even bring it up, and many of you assume I’m talking about it. Especially as we’ve been cracking open the meaning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. 

But Jesus teachings are never about endorsing a political party or a specific candidate. They are about turning away from the ways of selfishness, violence and injustice, and toward the Reign of God, which is where Jesus tells us true life is found. 

Face it, if the world around us followed the teachings of Jesus, it wouldn’t be in a such a mess.

But here’s the thing. We’re Jesus people here. We may not always get it right, but we’re a part of this community because it is our hearts’ desire to follow the way of Jesus. 

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and that includes us, that other people will know we’re his disciples by the love we have for one another. Think of our congregation as a little love laboratory. We’re practicing love with one another so that we can also share that love with people outside our community. In other words, if we don’t get it right here, we’ll never get it right out there…

I know that many of us have trouble with conflict. We may choose to avoid it, or deal with it sideways, rather than head on. As followers of the Jesus Way, that’s not how we deal with conflict. We don’t just ignore it, or agree to disagree. Because when we do that, we may be okay on the outside, but we’re harboring evil in our hearts. 

That’s why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not enough just to refrain from murdering another person if you’re thinking the worst about them in your heart. 

Jesus teaches that when we’re at odds with one another, instead of trying to stick it to them, we turn the other cheek, we go the extra mile, we pray for them. And then there’s that part about making peace with one another before we bring our offerings to God. Within our community, we’re always about the business of reconciliation. We can’t seek a right relationship with God when we are in a wrong relationship with one another. 

As followers of Jesus, that means we have to deal with the elephant. We can’t march on through the season of Lent as if it weren’t there. 

Some people in our congregation support the policies of our President, some of us support some of his policies, and others have trouble seeing how he’s capable of doing anything good. Some of us are cheering his leadership, and some of us are scared to death. That is what it is, and we aren’t going to change it. But what’s of concern for our community is not the way we think and feel about our president, it’s the way we think and feel about one another. 

We all share the pews on Sunday mornings. We raise our voices in song together. We exchange the peace with one another. We eat and drink at the same table. And we do all this while we avoid looking one another in the eye. 

There’s an elephant in the room when we gather together. And it’s not going to go away until we address it. 

Christ calls us to be reconciled with one another. The way to reconciliation is not by avoiding conflict, or agreeing to disagree. The way to reconciliation is through understanding. We need to listen to one another. We need to feel free to express ourselves, knowing our words will be respected and received in love. We need to open our minds and our ears – listening to those who don’t see things the way we see them. 

Right now, our world is so polarized that this seems impossible. But we’re set apart from the rest of the world. We’re a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, God’s little love laboratory on York Road. Because we’re in Christ, we can do something the world is incapable of doing. And we can model what reconciliation looks like, as a shining City on a Hill. 

So, I’m challenging us to be reconciled with one another as God’s people. Choose to do something during the Lenten season to better understand those who seem so far away from you right now that everything within you is telling you that you need to remain as far away from them as possible. 

Lent is not about giving up chocolate. It is about reconciliation-- restoring relationships. Our relationship with God, our relationships with one another.

·         We can repent of our demonization of others.

·         We can have a meaningful one-on-one conversation with someone we’ve been avoiding.

·         We can seek forgiveness from someone we’ve wronged.

·         Most of all, I hope we can grow in our awareness that, within Christian community, it is always more important to be loving than it is to be right. 

Now, some might be quick to tell me that people in Baltimore don’t do that. Or people who grew up in your family don’t do that. But I will be quick to say that how we were raised, or where we’re from, or the way we’ve always done it is completely irrelevant. As followers of Jesus, reconciliation is exactly what we do.

To help with the process, next Saturday morning at 10, we’re offering an opportunity. We’re going to have a time for listening and understanding.

Our time will be structured. There will be guidelines. You will have the opportunity to say as little or as much as you feel moved to say. The purpose of our time together will not be to argue or to convince others that we’re right and they’re wrong. The purpose is reconciliation. It is to a time to listen and to understand. We will never agree about everything. But you don’t have to agree with someone to understand where they’re coming from. You don’t have to agree with someone to love them. 

We can faithfully live out the life Jesus is calling us to embody, and strengthen our community for the sake of the work Christ calls us to be about in the world. It’s the only faithful way to remove the elephant from our worship space so we can get our baptismal font back.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Resist, yes!

A couple weeks ago, I had chapel with the four-year-olds in Ascension’s nursery school. I've been teaching them Bible stories that every kid oughta know this year. This particular day we were on the story of David and Goliath. Since Goliath was the ultimate bully, I seized the opportunity to talk with them about bullying, and that's how I introduced the story.

“Does anyone know what a bully is?” I asked. Several kids raised their hands.

“A bully is when somebody takes your toys and won’t give them back,” one little boy said.

“That’s true,” I said.

Well before I knew it, we had jumped down a rabbit hole. Someone else talked about how a bully breaks into your house in the middle of the night and they steal all your toys. And they all had ideas to share about that. About burglar alarms, and what they would do if someone broke into their house, and how they would keep them from their toys. My point had been totally derailed.

But I sensed that the kids were genuinely afraid of someone breaking into their house in the middle of the night and stealing their toys, so I said something that, in hindsight, I know wasn’t the smartest thing to tell a room full of four-year-olds. I said, “I don’t think anybody is going to break into your house at night, but if they did, the last thing they’d be looking for is your toys. They would take computers and T.V.s and jewelry. But not your toys.”

First of all, what I said did little to allay their fears. And second of all, I was reasoning with them as if they were adults. Not a great response on my part.

But what I really took away from this little conversation is that, for them, the most valuable things they owned were toys. And the worst thing someone could do to them was take their toys. That was their greatest fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator, isn’t it? How often does fear drive our decisions as adults? We may not be afraid of someone taking our toys, but we’re afraid of them taking our families, or our jobs, or our standard of living, or our way of life. And our behavior is driven by a fear of losing something that is valuable to us, something someone else may take from us.

We have a name for those we fear, that name is them. From a very young age, life becomes a struggle between us and them.

We don't all have the same them that we fear. Them may be the government, or people who don’t look like us, or people who worship a God we don’t recognize, or people who disagree with us, or people who aren’t from around here, or protestors in the streets, or Republicans, or Democrats… Who is them to you?

The word resist has been used a lot these days by people who oppose the direction our government is taking us as a nation. I’m tuned in to that resistance, although I have some problems with its effectiveness as a method for true change. 

For starters, I know that whenever I am resisting them, it contradicts who I’m called to be as a follower of Jesus. The Jesus way of being in the world is not about us and them. In God’s Reign, us and them does not exist. We have no need to prove ourselves superior, to keep those who aren’t like us as far away from us as possible, or to act vindictively toward those who would do us harm. (Yes, I’ve been spending some time in the Sermon on the Mount.)

My other problem with the resistance is practical. As long as our resistance is focused upon them, and we demonize those who disagree with us, we widen the great divide that threatens to destroy us as a nation.

Resist, yes. By all means resist. But what we need to resist, above all else, is not them. It’s them-ing. I’m convinced that until we stop them-ing others, we’ll never truly find a way out of this mess we’re in.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Catching a breath

We're three weeks into the new administration and I'm exhausted. I've been sleeping fitfully at night and when I'm awake, I "stay woke." Whatever I'm doing, I have one eye on a screen.

I'm becoming addicted to outrageous news. I scroll through Facebook and Twitter, seeking it out, always looking for my next fix. There is a raging fire within me, and I'm stoking it with angry posts on social media. I don't have to look hard to find fuel for my flames. 

Has this become my new normal? I don't like what it's doing to me. It's distorting my perception of reality, and it's turning me into a downright cranky person. But I can't look away because I feel that would be irresponsible. I need to be vigilant, and I need to speak up and act out when the most vulnerable among us are being trampled on. I couldn't face myself in the mirror if I did otherwise. Nor could I dare to call myself a follower of Jesus. So, ignoring the truth isn't an option for me. 

I might also try to escape it, but it seems that it's become too pervasive for me to do that either. Recently, when I asked someone what I was missing in the movie La La Land, I was told that people have been drawn to it because it's a great escape in a time of turmoil. It didn't work for me. The whole time I was watching it, another film was running in my brain. Escape isn't going to get me through these days. 

What I can do is pause to catch my breath from time to time. I can practice contemplative prayer, allowing the burdens that have taken over my thoughts to float on down the river for a bit, while I open myself to the presence of the Holy. I can take time for the arts, releasing my own self-absorbed state to encounter the reality other people experience. I can get down on the floor and see through the eyes of my two-year-old grandson, who still trusts that the world is loving and good. And I can seek out moments of beauty and kindness in the likes of humanity. They really aren't that hard to find. 

On the other hand, just yesterday I decided that I was going to post something positive on FB. One that would help us all catch our breath for a moment. It was the photo of a pitbull, who had become so protective of a chihuahua at an animal shelter, that when he was adopted, the new owner had to take them both. The photo was enough to melt the hardest of hearts; it invited us all to take a collective breath, no matter how we might feel about the political state of our country right now. 

The comments were all what I expected, "Aw, shucks, isn't that sweet!" That was exactly what I was going for. *breathe*

And then, at the end of the day, a friend wrote: "Love it! If only that kind of affection were contagious to humans and we could spread it to Washington!"

I had to laugh. Yes, breathing is difficult these days. But I'm in it for the long-haul, and I plan to catch a breath whenever I can.