the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Month: March, 2015

a sermon on the third sunday of lent

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

To be acceptable in the sight of the Lord God is something that we all strive for. Much of the work we do, from attending adult forum to serving on a church committee, even just making the conscious decision to wake up on a Sunday and come to Church, is done because we want to be seen as acceptable in the sight of the Lord God. God gave to Moses an easy to follow social contract so that we may be acceptable in God’s sight. Follow this simple framework for living, we are told in Sunday School, and you will live an acceptable life in God’s sight. But, from the word go, we’ve struggled.

It’s not so much that we struggle because we don’t care, or are entirely ambivalent about the very basic terms with which we should treat each other, but I think we struggle because we try too hard. We put too much pressure on ourselves, on our own abilities, and we begin to shut out God, moving away from our position as co-creator with God into one where we are trying (and flailing) to be the creator, to be the one who knows what is needed in this life.

When Jesus walked into the temple, his Father’s house, and was faced with the profanity that was occurring therein, the usurping of God’s very house for the betterment of individual men, he didn’t walk out shaking his head, with his hands raised and say “Well shoot, there’s nothing I can do about that.” Instead Jesus took action to not only drive out the livestock, but overturned the tables and drove out those who were profaning the holy. He didn’t do this for himself or by his own will, rather he did it through the power and authority given to him by God to cleanse God’s own temple. Jesus is trying to re-establish the social contract we have been given, and it is up to us to see that through to fruition.

To do so, we must drive out the profanity from our own lives so that we can again celebrate in the holy. We need to stand up and drive out from our own lives those things that prevent us from entering into our relationship with God. We need to flip some tables.

But flipping tables takes a lot of courage, and it’s hard to have that courage when you don’t know the outcome. I know that I often shy away from pressing issues that matter to me. Sure, I can talk a big game, act indignant, and even enact some minor changes behind the scenes, but I often shy away from addressing the profanities of my life head on and in the open. I tell myself: It’s just not worth it to upset the status quo, to challenge someone when I “know” that they will be protected, and better yet, it’s just 2 more months to graduation and then I’ll never have to see that person again, so why does it matter?

But it does matter.

This is what Jesus is trying to illustrate to us today with great passion. It does matter that people, actions, things, profane the holy and distract us from the purpose of our life. It does matter when the status quo works to protect the profane, rather than actively works to eradicate it. It does make a difference when we stand up to someone or something in our life, even when we know we will be free of it in a short amount of time. by allowing it to slide, we are not answering the challenge that Jesus is laying down today. By allowing it to slide, we insure that the profane remains protected after we are gone, and this allows it to continue to impact others. Jesus did not ignore the profanity of the temple even though he knew his time was short on this world, and neither should we.

It matters, but even this knowledge is not enough to give us courage. Knowing that it matters is only half of the battle. I know that the profanities in my life matter and that I should do something about them, but something still holds me back. This vital piece that is missing is the courage to stand up. It takes courage to stand up, because standing up is isolating. It takes courage to stand up, because standing up draws attention to ourselves, our insecurities, and our own faults. Unfortunately, we lack a distinct attribute of Jesus’, we are not perfect, and therefore we are as subject to perpetrating profanities as we are to being impacted by them. This reality often serves to hold us back, because we do not want to put our own faults out in the open for all to attack. We remain on the sideline because we are scared that in standing up, we are opening ourselves up for an even greater attack that will distract from the profanity we are hoping to drive out.

On page 218 of your Book of Common Prayer you’ll find the collect of the day. This collect, or prayer, is offered today to encourage our own actions in response to the readings we have heard. I want to re-read this collect with you right now:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This prayer right here is our answer in seeking courage. We pray to God today that “you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” because it is so obviously true, and we need that power of God in order to “defend from all adversities…and from all evil thoughts.” When we turn to God to give us courage, we are filled with God’s power to stand against the profanities of our life. Our courage must come from God, and our knowledge that the power of God is right there waiting for us to turn to God for help is only built through an active relationship with God.

And, this is where we can fall short, leaving the opportunity for courage sitting just beyond our grasp. When we are not actively engaging in our relationship with God, we are not actively engaging in our very selves. We are God’s creation, but we are so much more than that. We are co-creators with a God that has given us so much possibility to influence creation that the possibilities are literally endless. But, it’s hard to keep this relationship strong when we are working 70, 80 or more hours a week. And it’s hard to keep this relationship strong when we choose sleeping in and hitting brunch instead of making a 10:30am service on a Sunday.

I know it’s hard to keep the Sabbath holy.

Secret clergy person confession: I also don’t like waking up early on weekends.

Sure, in a sense it is my job to wake up and be here, but that doesn’t mean I have to be engaged. No, I have to choose to be engaged even if, for one reason or another, I’d rather crawl back under the sheets. And, confession time again, I don’t always succeed in being engaged. There are other things that weigh on my mind and take me away from this place, even while I am struggling to stay engaged in what is happening. And that is ok. Because the simple fact is that I am trying to be engaged with God. I am actively working on my relationship with God. I may not experience a profound moment of faith every Sunday, but every time I engage in the service, partake in the Eucharist, and talk with the gathered faithful, I am built up a little bit more in my relationship with God, and my courage to stand for that relationship and drive out the profanities in my life is bolstered little by little each and every week.

This courage also helps me address the fact that I struggle with the reality that sometimes the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart simply cannot be acceptable in God’s sight, because when I say them or feel them, they’re not even acceptable in my own sight so how can they be acceptable to God?

Perhaps the first step in our call to drive out the profane from the temple is really a call to drive out the profane that we ourselves perpetrate. The courage we are given through our relationship with God enables us to stand up against our own shortcomings, and gives us the power to get ourselves right before we take on the larger issues we face. When we cleanse ourselves, we further bolster our courage because we have seen firsthand how the power of God can enact change. This firsthand, personal, intimate experience serves as a catalyst to take on the systemic profane we find in our world.

When we live into the social contract that is provided to us by God, we are accepting the fact that we are co-creators here in this world with God, and it is our duty to stand up against the profane that is corrupting creation. It is true that we are prone to struggle with this call, particularly because it is hard to use the courage that is given us through a relationship with God. But when we commit to working on our relationship with God, committing to the social contract that has been laid down, we commit to bettering ourselves by driving out the profane we ourselves perpetrate, which in turn bolsters our confidence in grabbing that courage that God is readily willing to fill us with when we face the profane of the world. So today, I am telling you, drive out the profane knowing that God is there supporting us.

on kelly gissendaner and the danger of christian entitlement

(note: for those not familiar with Kelly’s story please follow this link for a very brief rundown on events: 

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/02/ga-woman-put-to-death-in-husbands-murder/24286007/)

Over the past few days my facebook and twitter feeds have been exploding with messages and news links about a woman in Georgia who is facing execution. #KellyOnMyMind has come to dominate the Christian social media landscape, and pictures of prayer vigils and calls to sign petitions (http://action.groundswell-mvmt.org/petitions/governor-deal-use-your-power-to-stop-the-execution-of-kelly-gissendaner) make up every other post in my newsfeed. This is good and important because capital punishment in any form is simply wrong. Particularly, as Christians, we cannot be proponents for an act wherein someone’s life is taken away from them. Kelly is guilty, but that should not mean that she is put to death. She does owe society and the family of the victim whom she caused to be murdered a debt, but that debt is not her life.

And, as Christians, we should applaud and support the reconciliation and powerful witness to faith that Kelly makes day-in and day-out in the prison where she is incarcerated. Reconciliation is one of the most important tenants of our faith. Reconciliation is the example we are given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, calling us to live into the gospel of love and forgiveness.

However, the way that Kelly’s pending death has become the new cause du jour in Christian circles causes me to pause and question what the real motives at play are in reacting so loudly for her.

The following is a list of all people who have been executed in the United States since January 1, 2015: Andrew Brannen, Johnny Kormondy, Charles Warner, Arnold Prieto, Warren Hill, Robert Ladd, Donald Newbury, and Walter Storey. These men range in age from 41-66, 4 of whom were white, 3 black, 1 latino. 0 of whom inspired a nationally trending hashtag.

Not only did these men not inspire a hashtag, their names are as anonymous to your average Christian as any person in the correctional system.

But why is this?

Were these lives not as important to stand for when they faced imminent death?

What about their story allowed for the common apathetic “There’s just nothing I personally can do about it” response from most people, including most Christians?

Most articles I read about Kelly point to one specific fact about why she, in particular, should not be put to death. To quote an article from sojo.net: “Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state’s use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.”

This type of argument is a dangerous road to head down.

If we are promoting a Christian faith, and the realities of reconciliation, and the chance for rehabilitation in prison, then we must promote that reality for all who are facing the death penalty. If we really feel this strongly about the death penalty, we should have been advocating with just as loud a voice when Andrew, Johnny, Charles, Arnold, Warren, Robert, Donald, and Walter faced their executions this year.

So, why Kelly? What makes her life so important to become a national touchstone?

I feel that there are two elements at play, that if we actually reflect back on what is happening, we will acknowledge our own shortcomings and may have the opportunity to extend this conversation when Kelly is no longer here to serve as a rallying cry.

First, the big piece that has been held up as the primary reason for staying Kelly’s execution (apart from the fact that capital punishment is wrong) is her rehabilitation, specifically her Christian conversion, theological and pastoral work. Kelly is a great example of how prisoners can experience rehabilitation and truly become changed individuals when faced with the stark realities of the lives they lived that led to their incarceration. I’ve experienced these transformations first-hand when doing prison ministry, being more inspired and moved by those men than I ever thought possible. However, there is a danger in using her Christian identity as a primary reason for a stay of execution. Her identity as a Christian does not mean that she should receive any preferential treatment. Her identity as Christian should not be why Christians across the country are coming to her defense. Her identity as Christian should not be the rallying cry against capital punishment. When we allow this identity to bleed into our reasoning, we run the risk of advocating for the cessation of the death penalty, but only insofar as it relates to other Christians. If we do not stand up as loudly for non-Christians as we do for Christians, then we run the risk of escaping into our entitlement, failing to push the societal norms that have begun to become familiar in our country.

Second, is an interesting aspect that crops up in passing in many of the articles. It is Kelly’s gender. Many articles are sure to mention one line in particular, that Kelly will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Kelly’s gender should not matter when we talk about ending capital punishment. When we discuss her case, and her punishment, in terms of her gender, we play into the tired stereotypes that permeate our culture. Women (as a whole) are not inherently weaker than men, they are not inherently more gentle than men, and they are just as capable of perpetrating acts of evil as men. Just because men much more commonly commit these acts, does not change the very real fact that women commit them as well, and that they have the power to commit them.

So, why does the 9th person set to be executed in the United States in 2015 all of a sudden inspire a groundswell of support?

We need to seriously consider this question and reflect on why we have become so passionate about fighting the death penalty for this one particular human. If her Christian identity and her gender are big pieces to why she has caused such an uproar, we need to seriously consider how this reflects on our experience of entitlement in this country.

We should be standing this loudly against capital punishment for all who face this terrible relic of an out-dated justice system. And, we must ask ourselves, will we still be standing this loudly after Kelly is dead?