the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Month: January, 2017

#alternativebeatitudes

A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5:1-12

When I sat down to write my sermon this week, I had an agenda. I had been struck by a new phrase that emerged out of last weekend’s interesting interactions between the media and the new president’s administration. Alternative facts spoke to me. I thought it a perfect encapsulation of a lot of aspects of our society today. The proliferation of so-called fake news on social media. The insistence of 24 hour news networks to have a political angle and bent, rather than simply reporting what is happening in the world. Even in personal relationships this concept of alternative facts speaks to our insistence of maintaining unhealthy relationships with friends or family. With this phrase, I had wanted to write a sermon about alternative beatitudes.

I thought to myself, how could I write a sermon that would point to the first actions of the new president, actions that I see as antithetical to the beatitudes, but he may classify as simply alternative beatitudes. Blessed are the rich, for they were ordained by God to be so. Blessed are the wall builders, for they isolate themselves from the world and horde everything for themselves. Blessed are the Americans, for dirty immigrants, particularly Mexicans and Muslims, are only here to steal our jobs and become terrorists.

I was, am, pretty proud of this. Quite clever of me, if I do say so myself. And, I am just as antithetical to the beatitudes in doing so.

There’s a temptation when we read or hear the beatitudes to play the victim. We want to be the descriptors that are laid out. We want to be the blessed. We want to say that these beatitudes speak of me, they justify me, they support me. I am the pure in heart. I am the merciful. I am those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. But are we really?

There are many among us who protest. There are many among us who resist. There are many among us who make our voices heard. There are many among us, myself perhaps chief among them, who flood facebook with petitions and smart articles for all of our like-minded friends to agree with. But, where is the actionable response to the injustices we see in our world? Have we really been persecuted? Have we really been pure in heart? Have we really been merciful?

I would argue that for most if not all of us, no, we haven’t. I was struck with a photo that went viral from the women’s marches last Saturday. Someone held a sign stating: “I’ll see all you nice white ladies at the next #BlackLivesMatter march, right?” This sign served as a stark reminder to me that we are righteousness fighters, when that righteousness is for us. But if we truly are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, we will not be filled until we fight for the righteousness of all. This is not to question the motives of those who marched, nor is it to say that the march was not an immensely powerful and positive force in this world on that day, instead I’m asking us to ask ourselves if we truly can live into the fullness of the beatitudes that Christ lays before us today. We have to know deeply that our actions cannot stop at one march, our passions cannot be limited to one topic, one group, if we are fighting for righteousness, because righteousness cannot be realized until all can be said to have it.

I know my heart isn’t pure. I experience a double-edged sword of rage and apathy when I hear news of actions that I cannot believe will (or will not) be made by our country. I rage because I cannot believe the idiocy, the unchristian-ness, the flat out evil I see being perpetrated. I want to fight. I want to win. And then the apathy sets in when I ask, who will listen to me, how will I make any difference, how can I possibly stand against the evil I perceive to be in this world? I want to hunger and thirst for righteousness, I want to fight for righteousness even as I am persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but it’s hard. It’s hard to devote your entire life to advocating. It’s hard to devote your entire life when it means that people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account.

And that’s the point. The beatitudes are not a checklist to be accomplished. The beatitudes are not a set of descriptors that we should try to shoehorn our own identity into. Because, when we do so, we will find that those who believe the exact opposite of us are also claiming that identity of peacemaker, righteousness seeker. So we, as followers of Christ, must consider the radical depth to which Christ calls out to us from the mount. We, as followers of Christ, must ask ourselves: how can we take Christ’s message from the mount and actually try to live into it?

And, I’m not sure I know the answer. I’m not convinced that I can know the answer until I see God, until I am filled, until I inherit the earth. A lot of what we do as Christians is a somewhat blind attempt at fulfilling a very exact way of life. A way of life that often runs counter to the lives that we have chosen to live for ourselves, even when those lives are filled with mercy, compassion, righteousness. And yet, we have to try. We have to try and live into this very exact way of life that we assured is the only path to salvation, to eternal life. And, that’s hard.

It’s hard to be perfect. It’s hard to always live into an ideal that really only a handful of people in the history of existence can be said to have made inroads into, living the type of exact life that Christ lays out before us today. We are broken. We are imperfect. We are not the merciful. We are not the pure in heart. We are not the peacemakers. At least, not all the time, not when others challenge us and our only way we see to fight back, to stand up, to subvert, is to go dark, to give into those baser instincts.

But, Christ still stands before us. Christ still reaches out to us, sheds his light into those dark places and leads us back out into the light. Christ assures us. Christ empowers us. Christ acknowledges the work we do, the passion we have, the heart we put into it all, and knows that even in our brokenness, even in our failure to truly become one with the identity that these beatitudes lay out, we try. And, it is in our trying that we meet Christ. It is in our trying that we can begin to see the power of Christ at work in this world. It is in our trying that we begin to be filled, we begin to see, we begin to inherit the earth.

Following Christ, truly following Christ, is not easy, and if anyone ever told you that it was, they were lying. It’s not easy to follow Christ because we are destined to fail at it. It is not easy to follow Christ because we are conditioned to react in ways that ultimately run counter to what Christ has left for us. And yet, through the amazing, life-altering, reality-shifting gift that is God’s grace, we can’t help but try to follow Christ. We can’t help but work to see righteousness realized for all. We can’t help but try and be the peacemakers, even in the face of insurmountable odds. We can’t help but try because God’s grace is present here, and we want to share that Good News with the world, and we especially want to share that Good News with the world, when we ourselves are coming up short.

It makes sense, to me at least, that in our near future the beatitudes will become a way marker of sorts for many people. That is a mistake. They are not a checklist for Christians to insure they are doing everything right. Rather, they represent what would be the best of us, if we could somehow achieve such heights. But, we can’t. And, that’s ok. As long as we’re willing to try, and in trying recognize that we will likely fail in our endeavors, from not enacting the change we see needed to using tactics and speech that forgets the humanity of our so-called enemy. And, it is in this failing that we will experience God’s grace. It is in this failing that we will see the Good News lived out in our lives. It is in recognizing these failings as our own shortcomings laid out in the light that we will meet Christ in this world, and it is where we will truly begin to understand what is offered to us today in these beatitudes.

Amen.

follow me

A sermon preached on the third sunday after the epiphany at the 10:30am service

Matthew 4:12-23

Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Immediately they dropped their sole source of income, their life’s work, their identity, and followed a man who simply said to them “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And again, he called to two more, brothers, and they immediately left their boat, left their father, and followed him. They not only left their way of earning income, catching food for themselves as much as for those in their community, they leave a job in the middle of working it. They leave their father, standing in the boat, wondering how he is to finish mending the nets, how he is to haul in these nets full of fish when he is down two workers. They leave their father wondering why his own sons would abandon him. They leave stability to follow a man who has a simple message: follow me.

These first of the disciples give up everything to follow Christ. They give up their very lives to follow a stranger, because something about this man speaks to their soul. They give up their stability, their means of income, their means of eating, they give up their families, in order to follow a man, a healer, spreading a good news wherever he goes. And the question becomes, what do we give up to follow Christ?

It is hard in this place at this time to picture what we give up to follow Christ. This is due to the simple fact that being Christian in America, particularly white Christians in America, is a very protected identity. One does not have to give up their status in society, their job, their family, in order to be a Christian today. This is not to say that some do in fact have to do these things to be a certain type of Christian in today’s society, but ultimately, you are still in a comfortable place, experiencing a comfortable religious identity, that does not ask you to give up much in order to follow.

In my own experience of giving up, I still found myself surrounded by a support system that protected me from experiencing the utter break that the earliest disciples are depicted choosing today. Many of you already have heard this part of my story, but for those who haven’t, I did not always plan on being a priest. In preparation to pursue law school, I worked for two years as a paralegal with the federal government. And I left that position, I left that full-time salary and benefits, to take an internship role with a small 9-month stipend and a room in a house, because I knew that ministry was where I was called, I chose to follow Him. But even in making this choice, in giving up all the success I had experienced in those two years, I was safe. I never went hungry. I never was left wanting for better. I made a mission trip to Kenya and toured Europe for nearly a month, I tried out skydiving, I made road trips to attend concerts. Even in giving up everything I had, I still was comfortable. It’s true that in this decision, I was giving up friendships as I moved half-way across the country, but new ones formed that I never thought I’d have. It’s true that I gave up financial security, but I gained happiness and joy and a path to seminary and again finding financial security in a new vocational call. So, even in my own experience of giving up to follow Christ, there was a safety net to allow this to happen, and that’s because we live in a time where following Christ’s call should not be hard.

And yet, we constantly ignore this call for the sake of our own comfort, for the sake of our own frustrations, for the sake of our own hurt and pain, forgetting that it is only through Christ that we can experience redemption, that we can experience reconciliation and salvation.

Active voices in the Church world (predominately liberal voices, both Episcopalian and not) have been vocally decrying the involvement of the National Cathedral in hosting the Post-Inaugural Prayer Service this past weekend. They are angry because they do not want their Church, their identity as a Christian associated with the incoming administration. They do not want people to hear the words “Episcopal Church” and think to themselves, “Oh, that place that welcomed in President Trump,” as if hosting a prayer service that has been ongoing since 1933 all of a sudden becomes a political statement. And yet, that’s what these voices want the Cathedral to do. They want the National Cathedral to make a political statement that while we are a house of prayer for all people, that doesn’t include certain people, and it certainly doesn’t include President Trump. But here’s the rub, when Jesus calls out to the disciples and says follow me, he doesn’t say, follow me at your earliest convenience and only choose the parts you like about following but ignore the rest. No. Following Jesus means giving everything up and following him.

This is not to say we cannot protest or rally. This is not to say we cannot be vocal in our dissent or our approval. This is not to say that we cannot call out the authorities, both political and religious, of our time. But, we also do not get to decide who we want to pray for. We do not get to shut our doors in the face of someone simply because we do not like them. We do not get to shut our doors in the face of bigots, sexists, racists, islamophobes, homophobes, the people we disagree with, the people we despise, for if we did, the church would be an empty and lonely building.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in addressing this controversy surrounding the prayer service, wrote: “So, should we pray for the President? We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord. If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way of prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.”

“His way must be my way, however difficult.”

This is the lesson of Christ put forth in the Gospel today. This is the lesson of Christ that we often forget in our churches today. If we are truly to follow Christ, dropping our nets at his call to simply follow me, then we must be willing to see the need that is present in our world to spread the good news of Christ to all peoples, no matter how much we may dislike them.

Bishop Curry continued in his response: “I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.”

Thus we are tasked with an uncomfortable call. The call to follow Jesus, a call to unselfish, sacrificial love, is not an easy one to meet. The call to leave everything in order to follow him, is not a part of our understanding of how faith works in the modern age. And yet, that’s because our faith has been watered down. The actual call that Jesus makes to us, as evidenced here in calling the first disciples, is demanding. It is exact. It is perhaps too hard for us to even achieve today. But that’s precisely the point. Following Jesus is not supposed to be easy. Following Jesus is not supposed to make you feel good all the time. Following Jesus is about hearing the good news, spreading that good news, and knowing that in doing so, you are committing to seeing this out regardless of how hard it may be, regardless of how much you don’t want to do it for someone.

When Jesus calls out to you to follow him, what is your response?

What is your response when you truly accept all that is being asked of you when he says simply, follow me?

Amen.