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.


What could be next?

An entire life can change in a moment, and certain moments can change an entire culture. I would guess that almost everyone in this room remembers where they were when they heard that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many of us remember the news, and the stunned silence of the days following.

Most of you know that I worked at an Episcopal church just across Lafayette Park from the White House before I moved to St. Louis. I came to St. John’s 10 years after the attacks, but when I was there, the staff and community were still talking about the days that followed. Particularly, they remembered the first service that St. John’s was allowed to hold afterward. Being that close to the White House meant that, for security reasons, no one was allowed into the church for several days. The blocks and office buildings all around the White House were cordoned off. 9/11 was Tuesday, people returned to work on Friday.

St. John’s holds a daily Eucharist at 12:10 for the folks who work in downtown DC. On a regular weekday there are 10 or 15 people in attendance. On Friday September 14, 2001 something like 1,000 people came to pray. The church only seats 800 or so, so people were seated in the aisles, and crowded round the outside doors.

I’m not sure what the text was preached that day, but our reading from Jeremiah would have fit well. As I noted last week, in the English language we use the word “jeremiad” to describe a long lamenting scolding speech. After our reading today, you can understand why. “A hot wind” comes after God’s “poor people.” The destruction that Jeremiah foretells may seem familiar to us. The quaking of the earth, the desolation of cities, this text could have been preached on that September day 15 years ago.

In the midst of Jeremiah’s awful speech, one line holds out a candle of hope for us. “The whole land will be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Yet I will not make a full end.

The task of prophets is often misunderstood. We tend to think of prophets as holy prognosticators, sooth-sayers. We imagine prophets predicting the future for kings. But that’s a slippery slope, and we might think they could tell young maidens when their prince (or princess) will arrive. We can misunderstand the prophets as God’s fortune tellers. Then we read their words and we think of them as really grumpy fortune tellers. But that was not exactly their role.

Jeremiah didn’t need a crystal ball to see what was ahead for Israel. Josiah the king was full of himself. Josiah was the head of a small kingdom, and he was the kind of guy who liked to poke the bear, politically speaking. Babylon was a growing empire to the North. Jeremiah had a sense something could go terribly wrong.

The task of prophets has two parts, the first is to unsettle a society. The prophets tell us, “Don’t get too comfortable.” Something is amiss. The prophets call people back to God’s law, back to justice and mercy. The prophets point out the uncomfortable hypocrisies of their day. Unsurprisingly, the prophets often don’t fare well.

But the prophets have another task, besides pointing out the nation’s sins. Prophets help us to imagine what could be next. That is the role of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity. Prophecy helps us imagine another way of living. Prophecy helps us move from lament toward rebuilding. Prophets help us imagine what could be next.

The whole land will be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

That Friday 15 years ago, life started to move back to normal patterns. And people were hungry for the prophetic transition. We went back to work, or to school, but I can remember several conversations with my friends and neighbors in the weeks that followed and they all centered around the same question. As we realized we hadn’t reached “a full end.” As we moved into this new reality, we were all asking: what will be different? I have a hunch that’s why all those people showed up for church. We were ready to get back to work, but we had a sense that something had to be different.

15 years later, I wonder what is different. We’ve tightened airport security. We’ve fought wars. We’ve survived more terrorist attacks. I wonder if we have yet fully let go of 9/11, if we’ve been able to step back a little from the edge. Tempers still seem to simmer, and racism seems to be on the rise since those days.

But is that all that is different? What can be different? I’m not sure, even fifteen years later, that we’ve fully answered the question. I hope we haven’t yet fully answered the question. Because I think it will take us generations to live into what “could be” next. After the desolation, what can we rebuild?

There’s a story coming out of North Dakota this week that is giving me a great deal of hope. A protest over an oil pipeline crossing ancestral Lakota lands might not seem a long way from threats of terrorism coming from the Middle East, but scratch the surface even just a little and you see questions in Middle East policy are bound tightly to questions about oil. The conflicts we encounter involving religion and race are also tied to questions of resources.

Over the past several weeks diverse Native Americans from across the continent have been gathering with the people of the Standing Rock reservation to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a pipeline that would start in North Dakota and pass between St. Louis and Springfield, before terminating in Central Illinois. Some of these tribes hold ancient grudges against one another. There were wars between Native Americans long before European settlers arrived, but this week the tribes have come together in support of Standing Rock. People are describing the camp as peaceful, hopeful, and fun. They are sharing food and good conversation. In a tense moment, some protestors were detained because the police thought they were talking about pipe bombs. Turns out they were getting out peace pipes. You can’t make this stuff up.

And the Native Americans have been joined by other young activists from around the country and around the world. Black Lives Matter organizers from St. Louis are up there in North Dakota right now. In their statement, they made a connection between drinking water in North Dakota and the lead contamination in Flint Michigan, which overwhelming affects black families.

Historically the sites for environmentally hazardous projects have often been located in the backyards of people of color and in the lands of Native Americans. The Standing Rock lawsuit asks why the pipeline was moved away from its originally proposed site closer to Bismarck, the capital city, which is 92% white. Native Americans have seen mining and pipeline projects pollute water for generations. Years ago the Native writer and politician Wynona Laduke asked:

“Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.”

She points out a difficult truth about the world that we live in. We are, all of us, culpable. We are literally invested, most of us, in oil companies, in polluters. Elementary school teachers and librarians, through their pension plans, own stock in weapons manufacturers. For the past few months we’ve been saying a confession here at church, unfortunately we’re not saying it today because we just changed the liturgy, but we’ve been saying it for months: “We repent of the evil that enslaves us: the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”

In 2016 “The evil done on our behalf” covers some mighty big bases. Our lives are caught up in deeply rooted and wide reaching systemic injustices. In response we could try and totally isolate ourselves from the system. We could go off the grid. We could ride bikes all the way to North Dakota, to avoid using fossil fuel, and we could try and live off the land. Well, you can do that. I don’t do well in the cold. Ask Ellis.

If we are going to choose to live in the culture, we have at least two ways of going about our lives. We can keep our heads down, consuming what we are told to consume, and not asking questions. Or, we can become critical consumers. We can ask questions about where a product came from, who raised our food. What were they paid? How are our choices affecting both the people and the planet? We can supplement our consumption by growing some of our own vegetables, or by buying them directly from a farmer. We may not be able to stop a pipeline entirely, but we can ask, “does it have to come so close to my neighbor’s drinking water?”

Back in 1977, in his book “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Barry, the poet/farmer, and cultural critic, asked:

How could we divorce ourselves completely and yet responsibly from the technologies and powers that are destroying our planet? The answer is not yet thinkable, and it will not be thinkable for some time—even though there are now groups and families and persons everywhere in the country who have begun the labor of thinking it.

I don’t know a better description of prophecy, to begin the labor of thinking the not yet thinkable, to begin the work of imagining the not yet imaginable.

One day our future will look incredibly different. I believe gatherings like Standing Rock should give us hope. When we can cross racial lines, religious lines, ethnic lines. When we can break bread together and laugh together, and protest together we begin that important labor of imagining the not yet imagine-able.

That is the real scandal at the heart of the Gospel this morning. The world around Jesus, represented by the Pharisees, can’t understand why he would break the taboos. Why would he cross the cultural lines? Why would he share his table with sinners?

As usual, Jesus tells a story to engage his opponents’ imaginations. God isn’t counting who is in and who is out, Jesus says. God is out on the road, looking for the lost sheep. God is too busy searching for the lost to notice these differences you obsess about. God is busy finding those who feel unloved, who feel alone. Those who you count out, God celebrates.

Fifteen years ago felt like desolation. Yet it was not a full end. Sometimes in life we all face moments that change us. We all face those times that irrevocably change our reality. Usually we can’t change the circumstances. It is the job of our faith, the job of the prophets, to help us to ask: “what can be next?”

For now, they announced Friday, the Department of Justice has halted the pipeline. Celebration broke out in the camp. I pray that our response can be as joyful, as faithful, and as hopeful as the protests up on Standing Rock. Though we may not yet be able to think of an answer. Though we may not yet be able to fully imagine our future, we can begin. We can ask, hopefully, prophetically, “what can be next?”


Who we are made to be.

If you come to one of our weekly Wednesday Eucharists you might see my favorite communion set. The plate and cup, or chalice and paten as we call them, are very simple pottery. I brought them back from El Salvador after watching artists shape them on a potter’s wheel. The artists worked in a cooperative shop in San Salvador called Shicali. Shicali was founded in the late 1970s by a group of disabled artists. Together they decided to create a shop and school for other disabled folks to learn a craft. The morning I visited, I watched a blind artist reach into a bin to find clay. He then felt his way to the wheel, while holding the hand of a blind boy. He was teaching the boy pottery.

The boy smiled as he felt the wet clay slip through his fingers. The experienced artist helped him to mold the clay, shaping it into a communion cup. Since I was spending the little over a week in town with a church group I was leading, I asked the woman minding the storefront if I could come back later and pick up the chalice, after it had been fired and glazed. She agreed, perhaps noting that any time they had a church group visiting, she might want to have an artist shaping church-wares, good marketing.

“Just like clay in a potter’s hands, so are you in my hand” says the Lord. Now, there’s no denying that Jeremiah’s reading takes a bit of a dark turn. Have you ever heard that term “Jeremiad?” It means a thorough haranguing because you’re doing something wrong. Jeremiah is famous for this sort of thing. The prophet is trying to get the people’s attention, calling out the injustice perpetuated by society. The prophet’s call is important, but don’t miss the image Jeremiah gives us for God. As a potter shapes the clay, so God shapes us. Don’t let the power God has to shape our identity get lost in the rest of the difficult text.

There’s difficulty in the Gospel this morning as well. I’m not sure if the committee that picks the readings for Sundays in church does this on purpose, but this lesson, “You can’t follow me unless you hate your family” seems to come up a great deal on holiday weekends. You know, when your family might happen to be in town, having a little together time on vacation. Maybe you even bring them to church to hear, “hate your brother and sister and mother and father.” There’s a difficulty in this reading. Jesus wants you to leave everyone and everything you know behind?

Groucho Marx once famously said that he wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have him as a member. The joke plays on our strange desire, as a people, to be part of something exclusive. When I lived in Alexandria, Virginia during seminary there was a bar so exclusive that it didn’t have a sign outside the door. There was just a blue light bulb, and you needed to know the password for the night to get in. I’ll admit, it was a thrill to be admitted upstairs, that is until I saw the price of a single cocktail. Exclusivity, it turns out, comes at a cost in a consumer society.

But that’s not what Jesus is looking for here. If you can’t see from looking around you, Holy Communion isn’t exactly an exclusive club. We’re not a community that thinks you have to look or act a certain way to be part of Jesus’ band. All are welcome, wherever you are on the journey of faith, whoever you are. All are welcome.

Jesus’ words are difficult words this morning partly because he reminds us that while ALL are welcome, not less than ALL of you is required. Following Jesus means putting your whole self on the line, your whole self. Jesus doesn’t just want your Sunday self. Jesus doesn’t just want the best parts of you. All people are welcome and ALL of you will be required.

The difficulty isn’t just family and exclusivity. The final line of the Gospel this morning, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” is tough. It is also badly translated. We’re not off the hook for possessions. They’ll be other sermons about those. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor,  after all, which may be why the translators chose to use “possessions.” But this line from Luke isn’t well rendered. The word “possessions” doesn’t appear in the Greek. What Jesus really says follows on his first statement. If I might be so bold as to offer my own translation, it would be this: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give over all that you are.”

What does it mean to give all that you are?

The teaching here is about identity. To follow Jesus, we need to know what we’re in for. To follow Jesus is to be lost to the world. It is to give ourselves away. The Jesuits have a good way of describing what Jesus is talking about. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps is the Catholic forerunner of our Episcopal program “Deaconess Anne House,” in North St. Louis where several young adults live together in a church-owned house for a year. They volunteer in nonprofits and churches around the city and spend a great deal of time together in prayer and discernment. The motto of the Jesuit volunteer corps is this: “Be ruined for life.”

Spending a year of your life in service to others, spending that year praying, and discerning, and reading the Bible, they reason will ruin you. It will ruin you for living just to make a profit. It will ruin your ability to bring a lawsuit against a neighbor who is encroaching on your lawn. You’ll be ruined for life in a world that focuses on the bottom line and on individual rights over the common good. So, they tell young adults, much like Jesus tells his followers, “count the cost.” Brooklyn Payne, one of our young adult members just landed this week in Panama with the support of this congregation to spend her year in The Episcopal Church’s international service corps. When she gets back, we’ll have to ask her if she’s ruined.

This is the tension that Jesus is really naming this morning. His word choice is odd, “hate your brothers and sisters…hate life itself” is a strange way to name the tension, but I believe this is it: There are multiple claims on our identity. We all exercise different identities. We are mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers. We are workers, and some of us are bosses. We are citizens, and hopefully we are also voters. We are consumers, and millions of dollars a year goes into defining that identity for us. There are so many layers to our identity.

But there is only one identity, only one, that merits a total claim on us. Think about it. No child wants the totality of their parent’s identity. It may seem like it when they’re toddlers, but by the time children become teenagers they want less and less from their folks. No sister wants all of who you are. No boss wants their employees to bring their FULL self to work. Good employers want their workers to have a healthy life outside the office. The only identity that merits ALL of us, is our identity before God. When we let other people define us, we tend to shrink in our sense of selves. When we allow God to shape our identity, we have a tendency to expand our horizons.

Just listen to the psalm this morning:

For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

I like to call Psalm 139 the “Runaway Bunny” psalm, from the children’s story about the little bunny who tells his mother he will run away, and his mother assures him that if he runs away, she will follow. The principle is the same. God pursues us. God is present to us. God is always with us. God knows us better than our family, better than our lovers, better than we know ourselves.

We belong to God. Jesus’ difficult words this morning are not about creating an exclusive club. In America it often seems the opposite. Christianity often seems defined by its exclusivity. In his latest book “The Great Spiritual Migration,” Brian McLaren asks: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” He goes on: “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”

I am not convinced that Jesus would recognize a great deal of American Christianity. Jesus would probably shake his head at our religious institutions the way he shook his head at the institutions and officials of his own day. When people here tell me they have difficulty with this teaching or that teaching, when folks say to me, “I have issues with the Creed” (the one we’re about to say), I often smile. Following Jesus means putting all of who you are on the line, for the sake of God’s loving welcome for all people. Any system of belief that has been used to exclude can give rise to doubts when we conceive of Christianity as a “just and generous way of life.”

When I serve Communion using that chalice I brought back from the potters’ shop, I think back to the teaching that was going on in that studio in El Salvador. Down there the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply. There are few wheel chair ramps in the developing country and even fewer accommodations for people with visual impairments. The older artist didn’t lecture the boy about proper technique. He guided the little fingers over the clay, you could see the adventure and the promise ahead. A child who had few prospects suddenly had found a path, a potential way through life, a calling that could help him be of useful, even to make art. But the teacher didn’t tell him with words, he helped him discover that way with his own hands.

Often where the world sees a social problem, God sees a beautiful work of creation. All of us belong to God, and All of who we are is shaped by God. Christianity isn’t just concerned with the ideas in your head or the club you belong to. Following Jesus, it turns out, leads us on a journey that demands our full participation. If we are present, we can discover more deeply how to love, how to live justly. We can even discover who we are made to be.