the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Month: May, 2017

one of our own

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, preached at the 8am service

John 17:1-11

Fair warning: I’m going to be discussing an important interfaith understanding today and I want you to know that a) I have a point beyond the mini-points I make throughout, and b) this will tie into today’s gospel reading if you promise to follow along.

Now, with that warning out of the way, I’m going to make a statement that I think many, if not all, of us here today would at the very least agree with: I respect Islam and its followers, a group of people known as muslims.

Islam and Muslims are a constant topic on our news cycle, this past week in fact marked the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and prayer. But more often the news reflects stories of attacks on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries (including here in Spokane earlier this month on a family that are members of St. Stephen’s just up the hill), attacks on Sikh men (or our very own Sikh Temple here in Spokane) because they “look” Muslim, the proposed travel ban to restrict entry in this country for people from predominantly Muslim countries (including blocking families who put their life on the line to serve as interpreters and guides for our military in their home countries), or the use of the phrase “Islamic Extremism” or the fact that “Terrorist” is nearly instantly defined in many people’s minds as a brown foreigner from the Middle East (even if most acts of terrorism that have occurred on our soil were perpetrated by white men), or perhaps most shockingly this past week in Portland where two men, Ricky Best and Taliesin Meche, were murdered when they stepped between a man verbally attacking two women for their muslim appearance, it’s easy to understand why my opening statement of “I respect Islam” has become a radical thing to express, especially from a pulpit. But why should it be so radical? What has happened to our understanding of the world that fear and hate have flourished towards a different culture and a different religion?

During the refugee crisis with the travel bans this spring, one of the statements from the administration was that Christian refugees would be allowed in, I assume meaning if they could pass a test or something proving their worth as “one of our own”. Apart from the dangers of a religion test to enter a country with no official religion and in fact the right to express any religion firmly ensconced in the most revered of the constitutional amendments, what I want to know is why people don’t think muslims who practice Islam are not “one of our own”?

First, for clarification, in case this is new information, I want to clarify that those who have been labeled “Terrorists” by media and government are not “Islamic Extremists”, they are radical religious fanatics who represent a departure from the organized faith tradition known as Islam. This is the same as saying members of Westboro Baptist Church (those who protest military funerals, holding up homophobic signs decrying homosexuality) are not practicing Christians, the Ku Klux Klan does not represent the teachings of Christ, or Madonna practicing Kabbalah does not make her an Orthodox (or even Reformed) Jew. So, with that understanding, when we speak of practicing muslims, those who actually follow the teachings of Islam laid out in the Quran, I again have to ask, how are they not “one of our own”?

For all of the differences we share between us, theology and interpretations where we agree and disagree, we also share common ground. We have fundamental differences for sure, our understanding of faith and our experience of God in relation to us as creation are both similar and vastly divergent, but we share so much if we simply stop and look at each other face-to-face. We both draw our roots (together with Judaism, of course) from the first prophet, Abraham. And we both recognize the prophet Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the final prophet in Islam before the prophet Muhammad receives the word of God in the form of the Quran. Jesus is referred to as Messiah, sent to guide the Children of Israel with a new revelation (starting to sound familiar?). As the most mentioned person in the Quran, Jesus takes a very prominent role in the understanding of faith, named “Spirit of God,” “Word of God,” “Messenger of God.” Many miracles are attributed to Jesus, and he ministers to the Children of Israel. Jesus is known as a Muslim, meaning he was one who submitted to the will of God. Now there are differences, for example, there is not the same understanding of crucifixion and death, but they do keep the tradition of the Ascension, believing Jesus was raised alive to Heaven, to await the final battle of good vs. evil. And this is important information to know, because the words and actions of Christ are echoed by the prophet Muhammad throughout the Quran. We cannot divorce the historical and cultural contexts during the writing of the Quran, but we also cannot ignore how similar teachings about faith and how to follow God exist throughout both of our traditions.

And so today, when we hear Jesus speaking to us from the Gospel of John, we have to understand what is being said and who it is being said for. John serves in many ways as the divine gospel, in that the divinity of Christ is John’s greatest thrust, influencing our understanding of Jesus as deity, but not informing our understanding of Jesus historically. This is not a bad thing, John provides for us a firm foundation for our faith and is one of the earliest to describe the life of Christ in the manner of a faithful follower that has been greatly impacted by Christ’s life and example.

It is with this historical context of John and of Islam that we must read verse 3 of today’s lesson: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

There are many pastors and priests out there who will read this verse and declare it as proof that the only true religion is Christianity and everyone who has not personally accepted Christ into their hearts will be spending an eternity in the hell fire. Furthermore, they will use this verse as proof that those muslims over there are sinful heathens that simply need to know Jesus in order to turn their lives around and start living the right way (which for some unknown reason closely resembles a version of America that has never really existed but most closely resembles a, very, segregated and idealized version of a Christian-only town in the rural south circa 1950). But, they miss the point because that’s not what Jesus is saying in John, and historically this interpretation makes no sense.

Muslims know the only true God through Islam, because it is the same God that John writes of today. It can’t not be the same God when we share our foundation on the first prophet Abraham.

Muslims know Jesus, they know him differently than us, but John knows Jesus differently than even Mark knows Jesus (to use the earliest gospel as a counterbalance).

So, how are they not “one of our own”?

Why do we insist on hate and fear?

If we simply stop to look at each other, if we start to bridge the chasm that has erupted between us because of cultural and historical misunderstandings that have been allowed to perpetuate and permeate our respective cultures, we will see we are way more alike than we are different. If we simply stop to look at each other, we will see Christ reflected in the faith and actions of a muslim man, woman, or child, not because they are trying to become Christian, but because Jesus is the most highly revered prophet of the Quran, apart from the prophet Muhammad himself.

When we look at our interpretations of the words and actions of Jesus that we find in our gospels, it’s important to remember that there exists a greater context into which we enter. Christianity is not an insular faith with no connection to anything else in the world. We grew out of Judaism, our messiah was himself a devout Jew. And, we share the prophet of Jesus with Islam. We share an understanding of the great role that Jesus played as a messenger, as the Word of God (an understanding which we get from John’s Gospel). This is why it is so short-sighted to read the words on the page and declare that there is only one faith in one God that can only come through Christ, and that’s Christianity, because it simply doesn’t actually pass muster upon closer examination. This is not to say I don’t think Christianity is a very good way through which to connect both with Jesus and God, but I find it hard to say it is the only way, when I know that it really isn’t in practice.

I want to leave you with this: these past few weeks we have honored the post-resurrection time of Christ among us and now is the time where Jesus has ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father following his ministry among us after the resurrection. As we set out to follow in the footsteps of Christ and do his work, with our Advocate the Holy Spirit alongside us, I want you to ask yourself: does Jesus care more about me converting people to being Christians, or about reaching out and helping my neighbor, all my neighbors? And, what does your answer mean for you today? Amen.

an advocate

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, preached at the 5:30pm Saturday and 10:30am Sunday services

John 14:15-21

The ministry of Jesus, the ministry which we as followers are called to live into both individually and as a church, is an active, engaging, moving ministry, not static, stuck, in place. Unfortunately, many churches are described today as static, stuck, in place, either too afraid to venture too far out into the community, to actively engage, to move into the life of the community, or too assure of their understanding of their place that they fail to grasp the fact that the life and ministry of Christ that we must model, is one of a public preacher who did ministry where it was needed most, which was rarely in the synagogue. And, in this active, engaging, moving ministry of Jesus, is a grounding of faith in an authentic relationship building that only comes from seeing each person for who they are, creations of God known by name. Part of the disconnect that has occurred from the lessons of the gospel and the practice of the church, is an understanding of  the reality of what has been given us for the task of doing Christ’s ministry here and now. When we hear of Christ in us, we picture Christ as a part of us, drawing inspiration and power from this reality. But this concept does not fully encapsulate what we have among us. By speaking of only Christ within us, we fail to grasp how God’s presence is truly amongst us.

Jesus names today the Advocate who is to follow. This Advocate, whom we better know as the Holy Spirit, is promised to be with us forever. And, it is important with how the Advocate is introduced. Jesus does not say that the Holy Spirit, amorphous mist creature with questionable intent, is amongst us forever. The Holy Spirit is the Advocate that is with us forever. An advocate who stands besides us and fights with us. An advocate who fights on our behalf. An advocate who is every much a partner in doing the work and ministry of the church as it is a defender and protector of us as we strike out to do this ministry. This is important imagery because it serves to help us in understanding how we may be successful in doing an active ministry that is out in the world, rather than a static or even passive ministry that is solely focused on an insular understanding of what it means to be church. The advocate stands with us forever, ready to be with us as a partner in our ministry and a defender for when that ministry is hard, when that ministry touches us deeply in our souls, when that ministry forces us to call the church to task for being too concerned with its (supposed) imminent demise, that it fails to understand what we have been promised through our faith in Christ, fails to understand that our faith cannot die, even if the church dies around us because it can’t get out of its own way.

In truly understanding the role of the Advocate in relation to our own call for ministry in and of the church, we can begin to build real ministries that make real impacts on our community and on our world. It is faith in the Advocate that must drive us to do the work that is left for us. For if we accept that the Holy Spirit, in the form of the Advocate, is with us, then the ministries that lay before us are not simply accomplishable, they are necessary to make a real impact on the lives of those who need us to be doing this ministry, as much as we need the ministry to remind us of what it truly looks like to follow Christ.

In this place, we are on the verge of becoming so insularly focused that we will forget that the church was not established as a bastion of believers but rather a hospital for sinners. We will forget that doing the work of Christ, means actually doing real active work. Individuals in this parish are following the call of Christ to do the hard work that is ministry, but how is this place, this unified group of believers that we call church, modeling that example for more to follow?

I’m not saying that this cathedral needs to solve all of the world’s problems, but there is no reason why we can’t solve (or at least work towards a solution for) one or two very direct and pressing problems for people in our immediate community. In fact, there are two ministries, one directly tied to this place and one directly tied to the people of this place, that we really need to be backing with our fullest support, in the form of people doing active ministry and in the resources we can allocate to ensuring they continue, and not just continue but thrive.

Family Promise of Spokane is one of (and perhaps is) the only organizations that does not separate families who are experiencing homelessness and job loss. It’s a novel idea that shouldn’t be so novel. Removing the stress of being separated from family enables program participants to find homes, find jobs, and get back on their feet. St. John’s is one of many participant churches in this program, but if we’re truly to be the Cathedral for Spokane, as was an original hope and vision for this place, then we need to be one of the leader’s for this program, not one of the places that can barely scrape together enough volunteers to sleep overnight. It’s not that hard to spend a night on a cot, well it is, it is a cot after all, but spiritually it’s not that hard when you have the power of the Advocate standing with you as you enter into this work.

West Central Episcopal Mission stands as a beacon of light in a world of dark for many in the West Central neighborhood of Spokane. Being able to procure a hot, home-cooked meal on Wednesday nights is one thing, but being able to do so in community with neighbors, with volunteers who see you and treat you as an equal (for we are all equal in the eyes of God), is something else entirely. This ministry has gone through a re-birth in many ways in the past year, and while it may still be finding its ultimate future direction, the Wednesday night dinners continue unabated. It’s hard to do ministry in-person with people who are on the complete other side of the socio-economic scale. It’s hard because our insular wedge of society tells us that these people are at that other end because of poor life choices, because they are criminals, because they are unable to live in “polite society.” It’s hard because we’re afraid that we won’t know what to say, we won’t know what to do, we won’t know, so we won’t go. But through the Advocate we need to be reassured that we do in fact know how to interact with people who are economically, socially, different from us, because (spoiler alert) that’s all that is different between them and us. They are real people who want real conversations, real relationships, real connections, realness that we all seek out in our lives.

It is in engaging with these two ministries as a church, a unified group of believers, not simply as individuals, that we can move the needle on the injustice, pain, suffering, and hunger that seems to permeate throughout our society. It is in engaging with these two ministries as a church, not simply as individuals, that this church, you people unified, will become a model of active engagement in the world, standing in stark contrast to the insular static monolithic building on the hill that many view it as. When we shift into an active place of outreach as a church body–and I feel like I need to keep emphasizing this part because I want you to know that I do see each and every one of you making a difference as individuals but I don’t see that same difference being recognized with “St. John’s Cathedral” as the leader–when we make this shift we will draw others to us because they will see a place where Christ’s life and mission is still actively being lived into today, here and now. St. John’s Cathedral should not only be thought of as that big beautiful church on the hill.

And I know some of you disagree with me on this point. Some of you believe that church is a place for spiritual comfort, not a source of civic engagement and leadership. I hear you and I respect that opinion, but I challenge you to ask yourself why can’t it be both, and why wouldn’t we want it to be both? I believe that in being both, we will more fully live into the model of life and ministry that Jesus Christ has left for us.

Today we gather on the Sunday before Ascension. On that day, Jesus leaves us for a final time, leaving us to go about doing the work that he has left for us to accomplish. We have the blueprint for doing that work in the life and ministry of Jesus as described in the gospels, as fought for by the Apostles, by Paul, Peter, James, and John. And, in today’s gospel we are reminded that in addition to the blueprint for doing that work, we also have an Advocate among us. An advocate who is among us to fulfill a promise that even as Jesus goes to be with the Father, the Holy Spirit continues to be present with us, to fill us, to encourage us, to defend us. If we accept this reality for ourselves, if we accept this reality for our gathered community of believers that we call church, then we (both individually and as a unified church) cannot help but become part of the active model of ministry that Christ so clearly laid before us. We cannot help but move out of the static, afraid, state of being that we (both individually and as a unified church) often find ourselves in. When we accept the reality of the Advocate among us, we accept the reality of the promise of Christ that is fulfilled through his death and resurrection, and accept that God is continually present with us, forever.

Amen.