Never lose heart

Sometimes a preacher really has to work to figure out how to connect the Bible to today’s world. Sometimes the Gospel feels so culturally different, the times of Jesus feel so long ago. Sometimes we struggle to see the relevance of Scripture to our lives today. Then, every once and awhile, our calendar of readings assigns a text like the one we just heard.

“I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone…”

In my life I have never seen a political campaign season so palpably affect a society. After last week’s debate I know people who found themselves feeling exhausted, frustrated. This week many of us felt a state of depression about the state of our national conversation.

There are a lot of echoes between the widow and the judge and our presidential candidates. I’ll let you have fun finding your own echoes. Feel free to email, or tweet at me, tell me the parallels you can find. I’m not going to dwell in the details today.

The Gospel introduces Jesus story this way: “Jesus told his disciples…about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” I think the two are connected. I think faith is for times like these. I think prayer is for times like these. I confess, I still consider myself a novice at prayer. I know, I look the part, but I still have a lot to learn.

A few weeks ago at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, I picked up a memoir by Scott Cairns, a literature professor at Missou entitled “Short Trip to the Edge.” The book recounts the first of his many travels to a place called “The Holy Mountain.” Mt. Athos is in Greece, it is an entire State of the Country filled with nothing but Orthodox monasteries. The mountainous isthmus is ruled by a collection of monastic foundations. The Greek government really just provides light and power, the monks take care of the rest.

Cairns converted to Orthodox Christianity later in life. In the book, he describes the path of Christianity much the way our parable does today, as an attempt to learn to “pray always.” If you meet an orthodox monk, you might notice him carrying around a knotted loop of rope. He might be silently passing the knots through his fingers while repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Others say shortened versions: “Jesus have mercy” or even simply saying: “Jesus.”

An aside I know some of you have prayed a version that prayer. When I was learning to drive, my father often referred to the handles above the window of the passenger seat of the car as “Jesus handles.” He would often grab them as I braked hard and say, “Jesus!”

Returning to the Holy Mountain though, the simplicity of the prayer, the repetition, the tactile feeling of the rope in your hands, helps the prayer to be constant. Cairns tells his readers he wants to learn to pray constantly. He’s gladdened when he discovers himself falling asleep and waking up saying the words of the Jesus prayer. There is a desire to be a literalist about the Gospel’s words, to learn to “pray always.”

As I said, I’m a novice at prayer. I’m not sure I’ll ever fall asleep and wake up saying the Jesus prayer. But one of my seminary professors inspired me to continue to try to take prayer seriously. Mark Dyer taught systematic theology at Virginia Seminary when I was a student. Before he came to the seminary he was the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem Pennsylvania. He once got a laugh out of the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem by telling him that he was the bishop of Bethlehem. Church humor.

Before Mark was an Episcopal Bishop, he was a Roman Catholic benedictine monk. He always took prayer seriously. As a monk, Mark went to church six times a day to chant the office. Along with his brothers he sang psalms and bits of scripture day in and day out. Even after he left the monastery, Mark had a discipline of daily prayer. Even when he wasn’t in the seminary chapel, Mark would read from his prayer book in his study. He’d say the daily morning and evening prayers. When I was a young priest in Washington DC, Bishop Dyer was my first presenter when my young adults group started a program we called “Theology on Tap.” He spoke on the topic: “Monks and Beer.”

Mark told some funny stories about monks making beer, and monks drinking beer, but he found a way to present a life of prayer as an ordinary life. He told one more recent story. Mark talked candidly about a recent health scare. In the last years of his life Mark had heart problems, and at one point he needed an emergency bypass. He recounted finding himself on a hospital gurney, being rolled backwards away from the ER and towards the operating room. As the anesthesia began to take hold, without really thinking about it, Mark said he was surprised to find himself silently chanting some of the prayers from the monastery. He said that’s when he realized how much a life of prayer had shaped his soul. Mark died just two years ago, and is missed by many.

A couple of weeks ago I was back at Virginia Seminary for the annual convocation, and I was asked by Mark’s widow, Dr. Amy Dyer, to join a group that was telling stories about Mark around the lunch table. The story I just told you was what I shared with the group. I’m a novice at prayer, but I’ve had some really great teachers.

The seminary is in Alexandria Virginia, inside the Washington DC Beltway. While I was there, I also had the chance to visit the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. As an American, you have to go. If you have the opportunity, take it. The museum begins underground, telling the progression from slavery to freedom. Down in the basement there are fragments of a slave ship. You see a child’s shackles. As you move up, you begin to see glimmers of hope. There’s Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal. There’s posters for rallies, and copies of Dr. King’s speeches. As you make your way back to the ground floor there is a wall sized photo of President Obama taking the Oath of Office.

Above ground there are more exhibits, and one in particular captured my attention. The exhibit focuses on black schools, black colleges, black social organizations, and black churches. The title of this exhibit is simple: “Making a way out of no way.” Making a way out of no way. There are exhibits about African American midwives, about black fraternities and sororities. Artifacts, photos, and videos tell the story of how faced with exclusion from institution, faced with systemic racism, faced with day to day bigotry, black communities came together, educated one another, and built social capital.

The church features prominently. Back when I lived in Washington I spent quite a lot of time in Smithsonian museums. Never have I seen so much religion in one of the National museums. It did my heart proud. “Making a Way Out of No Way”, and the historical sections below make it clear: the Black Community in this country learned to survive, learned to thrive, through prayer. How did they make a way where there was no way? They prayed, constantly, ceaselessly. They prayed with their voices and with their feet. And through that prayer and that persistence, they found a way. And where there wasn’t a way to be found, the black community made a way.

That’s the story of the widow. I heard a preacher once call this widow a saint. “Santa Persista” he called her. She is persistent. Faced with a tyrant. Faced with a man who is so self-involved, so unjust, that he does not fear God, does not respect anyone, she finds a way. That judge might have been caught up in his own image of himself. That judge might have been so focused on himself that he couldn’t hear her pleas, but she wasn’t going to let him off the hook. She persisted. She didn’t lose heart.

Hear the Good News: be persistent. Faced with injustice, faced with depression about the state of our world, be persistent. Keep knocking. Keep asking for justice. Keep looking for hope. Even when the leaders seem callous, uncaring, self-involved, keep praying and keep demanding justice. The Bible isn’t only relevant to ancient culture. Faith is for times like ours. As much as they were for his disciples, Jesus words are words for us today. God will grant justice. God does hear prayer. Pray, pray without ceasing. If you are busy praying, you will never lose heart.


St. Francis Day: Love without Judgement

When I was a little kid, I loved St. Francis day. I got to bring my dog, and my lizards, and my hamsters to church. My mom, loving parent that she was, made me pick from among our many pets. We could only bring the dog and one other creature. That was difficult for a 8 year old. And, for whatever reason, mammals always got my preference. I don’t know why. But I loved getting to bring my pets for a blessing.

I know there are some kids at Holy Communion that are looking forward to having their pets blessed, having their pets at church. So, I’m okay with leaning into the strangeness of this tradition. Sometimes God hides the truth from those of us who think we are clever, and reveals it to those who are children or childlike. I’m okay with letting the animals come walking down the aisle, one Sunday a year. After all, it’s probably not even the strangest thing we do around this church.

As I lean into this blessing liturgy, I find a real comfort in the idea. We will be blessing the animals that are a blessing to us this morning. We will be thanking God for giving animals into our care. Have you ever seen that bumper sticker: “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am?”

There is a certain reassurance to owning an animal. Animals look to us for comfort, for an ear scratch, probably most of all for food. We can be cynical and believe that’s all our animals want from us. But I think there’s something more.

Sometimes you’ll hear Christians arguing that animals don’t have souls. Well, don’t they?

I’ve said before from this pulpit that I believe animals can be some of our spiritual teachers. At least one of the early church teachers agreed. In the first centuries of the early church, Abba Xanthius, one of the desert fathers said: “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.”

St. Francis of Assisi, the strange young man we celebrate with this strange blessing ritual today, fought hard against his society’s sense of normal. He sang to the birds of the air, and ministered to the lepers and poor. This rich young man gave up his status, and worked to rebuild his society. He saw the Sun as his Brother, the Moon as his sister. He saw all of creation as a fellow-creature, a relative. As I read this difficult Gospel passage, I can’t help but think of Francis.

Jesus often had to contend with the ambitions of his disciples. He regularly overheard them as they argued. Who was going to run the temple when Jesus took over Jerusalem? Who was the number one disciple in Jesus eyes? Could Jesus promise that one disciple would sit at his right and the other at his left hand? Human ambition was rife, just like it is today.

Jesus often told his disciples that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Become like little children, he’d say. The place of the disciple is not at the right hand of the host, but serving, sometimes thanklessly.

Truthfully, very few followers of Jesus have ever really taken Jesus seriously on this teaching. Francis was one of them. He saw the wealth of the people around him. He saw the opulence of the church, and it made him uncomfortable. He wanted another way to live.

So Francis served. He started by rebuilding a little neglected church. Then he started caring for the lepers, the hungry, and those who were left behind in his society.

And Francis understood something. When you look at the world with eyes for service. When you look at the world not asking, “how can I be recognized,” but instead, “how can I be helpful?” When you look at the world that way, you are looking at the world upside down. You see the world from a totally different perspective.

This, I think more than anything, is what Jesus wanted for his followers: a different perspective. You don’t have to be dogmatically religious. You don’t have to be fixated on money or power. Life is bigger than those pursuits. Real joy can be found, you just have to let go, change your viewpoint. Be of service.

A dog is better than me, because he loves without judgement. So much of our judgement, if we’re honest, is a game of comparison. We judge others so that we can lift ourselves up. I know I do it all the time. I compare the car I drive, the house I live in, the success of my church to my neighbors. I’d say that I compare clothes, but that’s a little niche in my case. Clergy collars are pretty standard from one brand to the next.

In this way, animals can be good spiritual teachers. Our dog Oscar, he really doesn’t care whether we buy him a name brand chew toy. Some of you know that I’m a frisbee player. When Oscar was new, I bought him a few fancy dog frisbees. He’d catch them once or twice, but then he’d get bored. Drove me crazy. What drove me more crazy was that he couldn’t get enough of sticks. Regular old, grows on trees, free as the birds, sticks. He loves them. Can’t get enough. Will chase them all day.

He loves without judgement.

And there’s a freedom there.

We often talk about salvation in church. Sometimes that sounds pretty “pie in the sky” to me. I sometimes wonder if Jesus offers salvation in the here and now. I wonder if our happiness. I wonder if the health of our society and the health of our planet, I wonder if all of that would improve if we could learn to love without judgement. If we could see the world from a different perspective, the perspective of Francis and Jesus, if we could be (even just a a little more ) the people that our pets think we are.


The Life that Really is Life

I take the title for this sermon from the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the letter to Timothy: “The life that really is life.”

It’s a compelling turn of phrase: “the life that really is life.” What does it mean? What is this life that the early church writer would have us seek after?

Be contented. If you have food, if you have clothing, be contented. Don’t let the anxious waves of greed overtake your life. Don’t let money worry your minds. “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.” So don’t be anxious about money. Don’t worry about money. Don’t give money that power. “For we brought nothing into this world, so we can take nothing out of it.”

That last phrase I quoted has been taken surprisingly literally by certain saints. Next Sunday we’ll celebrate St. Francis, who famously stripped himself of his fine clothing, handing his wealth back to his father before heading off to live among the poor of Assisi. In the early church St. John Chrysostom had to encourage Christians to clothe the dead, “for modesty’s sake” because they were being literalists about these verses. They wanted to bury their loved ones, as the book of Ecclesiastes has it, “naked as we came.”

The tradition of the church dictates that during a funeral we cover the casket or the urn. Holy Communion has very beautiful very simple silk coverings for this purpose. Historically the funeral pall is a reminder that we are all equal in death. These days you can spend a small fortune on a coffin, but if you’re buried from an Episcopal Church, no one will know. Whether you’re in a fine oak casket, or a simple pine box, people only see the cloth that belongs to the church, the same pall covers us all.

So don’t worry about money. Now, I know that the letter to Timothy’s words may seem foolish, even impossible. I know that some in this congregation have dodged calls from collection agencies this week. If money is a big worry for you right now, I’d encourage you to sign up for the Financial Peace course that is starting here in a couple of weeks. There are some real practical steps you can take to get out of debt. Some of you don’t share the same immediate concerns with money, but you have a lot of “shoulds.” “I should be doing this or I should be doing that.” Well, at least for this morning, let go. Don’t worry.

My rector in Washington had a saying, and you’ll hear it quite a bit around here as we start our 2017 Pledged Giving Campaign in the next weeks. “Money is a very powerful tool. If you can give away some of your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give away any money, it has power over you.”

The rich man in Jesus’ parable has given his power over. His wealth has blinded him. He feasts, he wears rich robes, but he is not characterized as generous. Day by day he passes by Lazarus, hungry outside his gates. So, Jesus says, Lazarus and the rich man died on the same day. Lazarus is comforted by Abraham, while the rich man is tormented in Hades.

The parable makes it clear that the rich man loved his wealth, but loving wealth is problematic because, as we’ve established, money is just a tool. You can’t really love a tool. By focusing on his wealth, the man has become self-centered. He is so self-centered that even in death he still treats Lazarus not as a person, but as a means to an end. He doesn’t ask Lazarus, “Could you please help?” No, he asks Abraham: “Send Lazarus.” Nevertheless Abraham says, Lazarus can’t cross over to you.

Here’s my big question about the parable: (It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with since hearing Scott Ragland give his interpretation of the story to our Youth on Wednesday Night). I’ve been stuck with this question:

Who built the separation between the rich man and Lazarus?

Jesus doesn’t say, “God has declared.” No, just that “a great chasm has been fixed.” I want to ask, who fixed the chasm? Who enforced the separation? In the first half of the story, it is clear, even if unspoken. The rich man has made sure there is a wall and a gate surrounding him and his feasts. He’s invested in that security. My wonder is, are the two connected? Did the man dig that chasm for himself in the afterlife when he built the wall during his life?

Perhaps tellingly Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall” is often quoted for the phrase: “Good fences make good neighbors.” But that’s not the sense of the poem at all. These words belong to the “neighbor,” and the poet says he wants to ask “*Why* do [good fences] make good neighbors?” and he continues

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

If only the rich man had asked to know what he was walling out. If he had been able to know and help Lazarus, would he be in torment? If he hadn’t been shut up inside, centered on himself, could another outcome have been possible?

There is a discomfort in this parable for our world today. We are investing a great deal in separation. Republicans and Democrats don’t talk to one another. The wealthy and the poor don’t often go to the same schools. Our neighborhoods continue to be segregated. Physically, economically, psychologically, we live in a world with a lot of walls.

When we do not see our fellow human beings. When we keep them on the other side of the gate, the other side of the wall, we deny a fundamental reality. We deny that “they” are like “us.” As they say, “denial” isn’t just a river in Egypt. We deny the truth of our common humanity to our peril.

We’ve seen evidence of that peril this week. This week many of us watched video footage of the deaths of both Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher. These two black men were killed by police officers, and the officers claimed they thought the men were armed. I want to be clear: I don’t believe that police officers take a decision to pull a trigger lightly. I don’t. Even given the history of systemic racism within our police forces, I don’t think the police find it easy to take a life. But the videos raise questions that cannot be ignored.

Here is where I find a fundamental disconnect. Many of the voices that loudly defend the police refuse to listen to those same police officers when they write firearms legislation. Here in Missouri our legislators just overrode the Governor’s veto to pass some of the loosest gun laws in America. Without a permit, without formerly required training, on January 1 most Missourians will be able to carry a concealed firearm.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said to the Post Dispatch the new law “will leave (citizens) less safe, and make the job of law enforcement more difficult and put our officers in danger.” Right there, that is a disconnect. Police officers representing their unions stood with black mothers whose children have been killed and asked the legislature not to override the veto, but they were walled out. Their voices were denied, and as a result, likely, gun violence is going to get worse here in Missouri before it gets better.

We divide ourselves to our peril. We wall one another out to our peril. If we are going to make a difference. If we are going to stand against gun violence, we will have to build unlikely coalitions. More police officers will have to stand with black mothers. LGBT Latinos, friends of those who died at the Pulse Night club, will need to stand with moms and dads in Burlington, Washington, and Newtown, Connecticut. Republicans will have to listen to Democrats, and vice-versa. The rich will have to spend time with the poor.

All that standing together, you may say, sounds hopeful and incredibly hard to pull off. You might even say it sounds impossible. Well, it will be, as long as we stay divided. So buck the system.

Can I make you a promise?

Here it is: the wider your circle of friends, the wider and deeper your community, the more rich your life will be. I promise you. When you break down walls. When you form friendships across economic lines, cultural lines, political lines, language barriers, when you reach out to your neighbors, you will discover something incredibly beautiful.

Jesus was often disparaged for the company he kept. “This fellow shares his tables with sinners.” He ate with Samaritans, Women, Romans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes. He gave away his time freely to the “them.” In the Gospels we read that his disciples were also scolded for having too much fun. Tells you something, doesn’t it.

As I conclude, I want to return to “the life that really is life.” You see, it turns out, you can’t buy real life. And you can’t defend it either, not with a wall, not with a gun. None of us knows how much time we will have, so seize it. Make a new friend, someone wildly different than you. Work with that friend to make a positive difference in our world. Be generous.

Generosity is not the purview of the wealthy. There are people who can give lots of money away who are not generous. You can give a lot of money away and still be a jerk. Then there are people who simply share out of the little they have, but do so with their heart and soul. That’s generosity. Generosity is more a measure of your spirit than your pocketbook.

So spend time with your family, spend time with your kids and your grandkids. Invest that time, but be generous with your time as well. Get to know your barista. Know the name of the person who cleans up your office, know the names of her kids. Take some quiet time, that time you can’t afford, take it. Sit quietly. Read scripture. Close your eyes and be silent. Pray for people you know who need prayer. Pray for those who you barely know as well.

When your cousin signs up for a marathon to beat leukemia, throw in that $20, and smile when you see the picture of her crossing the finish line. Do the same for your neighbor’s kid. Give some money away to fund a scholarship program or a tutoring program. Whether you have a little to give, or a lot, make a point to keep up on the progress of the kids involved. The key to seizing this life is generosity. Whether you are rich or you are poor, you can be generous.

On a Sunday afternoon sometime, come with the volunteers from Holy Communion to the Trinity lunch program. Serve some barbecue and some lemonade. Get to know a neighbor who is hungry. Roll your eyes with him about the Rams leaving St. Louis. Listen as he tells you about his time in the armed services. If being with someone who lives on the streets makes you uncomfortable, you’re in good company, lean into the discomfort and listen.

It turns out that all around us there is life, all of the time. There is joy and sorrow. There are tough days and beautiful moments. All around us, all of the time, the life that really is life continues. You can’t buy this life with wealth. You can’t defend it either. To seize this life that really is life, God simply invites you to cross the divide, to be generous.