hope

Where do you locate hope?

Where do you locate hope?

I know this is a dangerous Sunday to talk about hope. As soon as I ask that question, some folks here will say “I place my hope in Tom Brady.” Others will say “Matt Ryan.” And most everyone will say, “I’m just hoping Mike keeps this sermon short.” Well…there’s always hope right?

But I’ve found myself returning to this question again and again over the past weeks. Where do you locate hope?

I’ve been thinking about hope as I’ve listened to my more liberal/progressive friends try and gauge their reactions to the last few weeks. “Don’t worry, this new president won’t last very long.” “Impeach him now!” These statements are sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but in the spread between sincerity and sarcasm, I hear a sort of testing: “How long?” How long do we have to keep up the resistance? How long until we can stop showing up at protests. When can we stop all this writing and calling our legislators? How long? What moment, what change, will indicate that we’re done? A resignation? The rescinding of an executive order? What exactly are we looking for? Where do we locate hope?

My more conservative friends are asking a similar set of questions: How long are these liberals going to keep this up? Why can’t they get over it? What will be the sign that we were right? What will stop them? These are also questions about the location of hope.

Now, my job is to take a look at Scripture with you this morning, to open up our tradition in the church. I’m afraid our lessons this morning do not point to quick resolutions. There aren’t easy answers. For the Bible, hope is not a short-term project. For followers of Jesus, hope can be built on nothing less than Jesus’ dream. Our hope rests on the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s people find themselves in a state of grumbling. They have returned from exile, but their cities are in ruin. It seems that God is not hearing their prayers. In the theology of the time, the proper response to God’s silence was fasting. So all through Judea they put on sack cloth. They rolled around in ashes, and still, still, God did not hear their plea. Isaiah gives them a shocking reply:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah’s people want a quick resolution. They want God to hear their plea, to honor their fast. “It doesn’t work that way,” Isaiah says. You have forgotten your own kin. The people are suffering because the structures of society are unjust. If want God to hear your cry, if you want to “make Judea great again,” tend to the hungry, the homeless, the suffering. Remember the poor. You get a sense of the tradition Jesus develops in these chapters of Isaiah. For Jesus, as for Isaiah, God is especially attentive to the treatment of those who are lost, least, and left out.

So it is no surprise that the Gospel also complicates matters. “Be salty” Jesus tells his followers. “Let your light shine.” These passages are a meditation on the quality of discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t hide your light. The kingdom is coming, he tells them, but it’s not coming quickly. Steel yourselves. Be Salty. Shine.

Last week, as I listened to our hymns, as we read scripture together, it sort of dawned on me again how much of our Christian tradition is built for resistance. Our faith was made for times like these. Christianity was forged in opposition to an empire. When Roman citizens chanted: “Caesar is Lord” Christians responded, “Jesus is Lord.” The great moments of Christian history tend to be moments when Jesus’ movement inspired resistance, from the early martyrs to Francis of Assisi’s stand for the poor, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, to Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, Christianity is built for resistance.

There’s a reason so many Christian hymns found resonance on the underground railroad, and during the Civil Rights era. The best Christian music is written and sung by people who are able to name their present reality, to say: “this injustice is not what God dreams for us.” Jesus teaches about the kingdom, the coming reign of God, the world as it should be.

I said this realization dawned on me last week, that so much of our scripture, so many of our songs, were written for resistance. I knew that resistance was there. I’ve read Howard Thurman. My favorite theologians tend to be liberationists from Latin America. But over the past eight years, I wonder if my sense of resistance grew more diffuse. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the new president lately. I want to take a moment to think about the previous president, the role of the church over the last eight years.

I confess, when President Obama was inaugurated, I remember worrying a bit about all of the fuss. I worried that we were letting ourselves off the hook because we’d gotten such a man elected. There were celebratory posters and ice sculptures all over DC that January. The DC Metro (Washington’s Subway) even made a Metro-card with the President-elect’s face on it. When we inaugurated the president, it was with great fanfare, huge celebration. At the time, it was easy to see the celebration as a natural embrace from the highest majority black city in America of the first black president. Still, I remember some disquiet in my heart, some of which was there because the president-elect was saying “what’s the fuss about?”

I worried a bit more after the inauguration when the new president was pleading with his supporters to keep up the movement, to call their senators and congress-people. The president asked people to show up, to participate in the democratic process. Somehow it seemed the energy that got him elected dissipated soon after he was in office. I worry that for many of us, at least subconsciously, the election of President Obama served as a sign that we had “arrived” in the world for which we had hoped. Did we get complacent? Eight years ago, did we elect a president, or a savior?

That question may seem unfair, but it gets to my question about the location of hope. I am wondering if some of the hand wringing these past weeks since President Trump’s coming into office has come from displaced hope. It was easy to rest a great deal of hope in President Obama, even if he asked us not to trust his ability to bring change, but to hope in our ability. Still, it was one of my favorite artists Shepard Fairey who created THE poster of Obama’s campaign. The image simply featured Obama’s face, and the word “Hope.” As Christians, is there another way? Could we work with a politician while still locating our hope in an agenda far beyond that of any political party?

I’ve shared with you before the story of the friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Nelson Mandela, that nation’s first democratically elected president. Both men separately received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in ending apartheid and forging a new inclusive nation. For decades under the apartheid government, Bishop Tutu advocated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. And in 1990 Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of the Archbishop.

It came as a surprise for Mandela when Tutu refused to join his political party, the African National Congress. But Tutu felt that he could not, as a church official, publicly identify with any party, even Mandela’s. For Tutu, the only loyalty he could profess was to God’s kingdom. Until the kingdom of this world became the kingdom of our God, no one party, no one movement, no one issue could define the hope of the Church.

Bishop Tutu’s faith was forged in resistance. He grew up unable to swim in the ocean at “whites only” beaches, unable to study in “whites only” schools. Tutu developed a suspicion of government, even a government run by one of his close friends, a member of his own tribe. When I try to conceive of what Jesus means when he tells his followers they are the “salt of the earth,” I can’t come up with a better image than Bishop Tutu explaining to President Mandela that he plans to keep an independent voice, in case he needs to stand up to the new government for the sake of the Gospel. That’s pretty salty.

So I return to my initial question: where do you locate hope? In the coming weeks, months, and years can we be wary of easy answers? When it comes to hope, can we play the long game? Can we persist against the desire for this all to be over? Can we overcome complacency? Can we build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ faith and righteousness?

If we do, our hearts will be restless. As St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.”

Placing your hope in the Kingdom of God gives you perspective from which to move. Placing your hope in that coming Kingdom where ALL God’s people are welcomed, where ALL God’s people are valued, placing your hope there gives you incentive to keep moving, gives you incentive to stay restless.

Will your restlessness help move you from sorrow to action? Will you stay salty? Will you let your light shine? Will you loose yokes and let the oppressed go free? Will you clothe the naked and house the homeless? Will justice be the fast you choose?

How long do we resist? Well Christians, if we place our hope in God, we resist until the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

We locate our hope in the Kingdom of God.

micah68

Do Justice.

Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon was the second woman ordained to the order of bishops in our church, and she used to say that Episcopalians love this verse Micah 6:8. “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Episcopalians love this verse, she said, but too often they get it backwards.

Episcopalians tend to DO mercy, and LOVE justice.

Isn’t that true?

I was at a meeting of leaders from around The Episcopal Church in Eastern Missouri this week. The room was a mix of ordained folk lay leaders telling stories about their church’s impact on the community. The questions that prompted the discussion was simple: “What difference would it make if your church no longer existed?” Who would notice? That was the question.

The stories told were largely about feeding ministries, school supply drives, rental assistance, clothing ministries. We do a lot of mercy in The Episcopal Church. Mercy is good. Love mercy.  But I wonder how many churches, how many Episcopalians, are doing justice. I know that I am more comfortable when I am doing mercy than when I am doing justice. I’m better at mercy.

Doing justice is difficult work. It’s costly. Justice takes time, and energy. Doing justice often involves tears and loss. Doing justice often means arguing with a neighbor, maybe in your street, maybe in your pew. Doing justice can be divisive.

Dom Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, was famous for his work among the poor. He was also famous for his observation: “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a Communist.”

Justice and mercy are tied together. Mercy tends to immediate symptoms. Justice digs at the roots, at causes. Justice takes time. Justice takes patience. Justice can be infuriatingly slow and imprecise.

As we hear these words from Micah about “What the Lord requires” we are gathered after our Annual Meeting as a parish, a time when we look at our values, when we take stock. In my report to the meeting I talked about the ways we are meeting goals set by the vestry in conversation with members of the parish based on our three values: welcome, diversity, and community.

In the coming weeks and years, I wonder will our goals need to shift? The change in Washington is seismic. The tone of our national conversation has shifted so quickly. The world around us is changing and fast. What does this change mean for our goals, for our purpose, for our mission as a congregation? What does the Lord require?

A couple of thoughts, based on early observations:

Now, perhaps more than ever, our values matter. Together we discerned three values for Holy Communion. We value: welcome, diversity, and community. Creatively, our mission statement describes our church as a “welcoming and diverse community.” I wonder whether those words got more political last Friday. We are a people who pray in The Episcopal Church. We are a people of a prayer book, and that prayer book invites us to pray for our country, and our leaders. How are we to pray?

I will pray for our country in these coming days, these coming years. I will pray that we learn again to be community, that we heal the wounds of division sown through a long, embattled, and at times vulgar campaign. I will pray that we will come together as a community. In the words of our prayer book, I will pray that God might “break down the walls that separate us and unite us in bonds of love.” But if we don’t come together as a nation in the coming years, here at Holy Communion, our values require that we learn to come together, that we build bridges not walls. Here at Holy Communion, our value of community, a value that challenges us to build up the body of the church and reach out into our wider neighborhood, that value of community means that we must seek to bring people with different backgrounds and viewpoints together. We will break bread together, sacramentally, and over everyday kitchen tables. We will get to know our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. We will talk with people with whom we disagree. We will come together as community.

I will also pray that our country embraces diversity. The American people was never one race, one ethnicity. Americans are a people made strong by our different genders, orientations, abilities, religions, colors. We are stronger because we have so many perspectives. I will pray that our leaders embrace the full breadth of human diversity we are blessed with in America. But if our national leaders do not live into America’s promise, Holy Communion must continue to embrace diversity. When necessary, we will learn to check privilege. We will listen for the voices being silenced in wider society. We will learn to live together and see one another as sisters, brothers, children of the same God.

And I will pray that our country welcomes all. A year ago, I was at a rally for Syrian refugees here in University City. St. Louis is a city that has profited from an influx of new citizens. There were signs that said: “Bring them here.” We know what a benefit a refugee people can become for an area. We’ve been blessed by our Bosnian neighbors in recent years. Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation spoke to the rally and said: America’s welcome to refugees is our BEST story as a nation. Those words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That is America’s Best story. I will pray our leaders tell our greatest story, our story of Welcome. But if they don’t, well Holy Communion’s story of Welcome may have to get a little bit bigger.

We’re good at welcoming strangers to our church. Visitors often tell me how people made sure they knew where to sit, where the coffee was. They were invited to Theology on Tap, or to the next Guild meeting. We are a welcoming congregation. But our welcome may need to get bigger.

I’ve spent most of this sermon on one verse from the prophet Micah. The Gospel is also one of the Bible’s greatest hits. The Beatitudes, Jesus’ surprising list: “Blessed are the poor of heart. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers.” His list is so surprising. What we miss this morning in this well known list is the setting for Jesus’ sermon. Just two verses before Jesus sits down on the mountain with his disciples, the Gospel tells us: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them…When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down.”

Jesus’ words this morning, perhaps Jesus’ most famous teaching, the beatitudes are taught in response to his encounter with suffering Syrians. The irony is strong today, as our new president has declared Syrians are ineligible for entry to these United States. So I stand in this pulpit today, with the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and leaders in every denomination I can count to say, this ban on refugees is unChristian. What does it mean to be a people who follow Jesus today? What does it mean to be a Christian who believes in “Welcome” today? I wonder if our church is being challenged to inhabit that value more fully.

Just this week, two of our parishioners started work on the house our congregation owns just behind the church on Gannon street. While we are in early stages of demolition, and planning, we are dreaming about whether that house might one day house a refugee family. What if “welcome” doesn’t just mean making sure a visitor to worship knows where to find a bulletin?

Maybe we won’t be able to partner with an organization to welcome a refugee family. That may be impossible in the coming years. Maybe our house will welcome an undocumented immigrant who has received a deportation order. Maybe welcome will mean coming with them to immigration court. Maybe we will welcome a mother who has escaped domestic violence. Maybe we will do justice when members of this congregation show up as character witnesses to help her keep her kids.

I will pray for our country in these coming years, and yes, part of that prayer includes praying for our elected leaders. The prayers we use here at Holy Communion have the form of praying for OUR President and OUR Governor by name. We pray for “Donald our President and Eric our governor” just as we prayed a few short weeks ago for “Barack our President and Jay our Governor.” We don’t shift the wording because the office holders have changed. Let me say one thing about why. I think the word “our” is important in our prayers.

As I said to you the Sunday after the elections: “Possessive pronouns are important in a democratic system. Possessive pronouns remind us to whom our government officials are accountable. The presidency does not belong to “him” it belongs to “us.” The Whitehouse is public housing. Our president, our governor, our elected representatives hold our government in trust, and they are accountable to us. We have a right to speak. We have a duty to dissent. We have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable.” The word “our” reminds us of our responsibilities around these office holders. Doing justice may find us in the streets and in the courts in the years to come, as we demand that our leaders, the leaders we pray for, hear our voices, take us into account.

I don’t know all of what will be required of us in the years ahead as we seek to do justice. I do know that members of this congregation are already asking important questions. I was amazed by the number of folks who showed up at the Women’s March, here in St. Louis and even in Washington DC. I was thankful for the group that gathered in our lounge last Sunday to talk about the “next steps.” We will continue to gather, and to welcome those from beyond our congregation who want to ask with us, “how can we LOVE mercy and DO justice?” I know that sometimes, you may need to push me as your priest. I am really comfortable doing mercy. But I get a sense that doing justice requires more.

I will say, by way of conclusion, that at least at Holy Communion, I fully expect that the years ahead will also include a healthy dose of of laughter, and of fun. You can’t go far at Holy Communion without hearing someone laughing. Whether it is the Guild giggling together over a funny observation someone made about the Bible or one of the books they are reading, or the youth playing flashlight tag and running through the hallways in the dark, there is a sense of fun in this church. I pray that the laughter continues as long as I serve as your rector. I have a sense it will.

As I typed up this sermon, I was wearing a bright pink hat with pointy ears, knit for me to wear in last weekend’s march by a member of our congregation. I look ridiculous wearing it, but it is warm. Even as we do justice, may we never forget to be playful. If our church disappeared, I hope part of what our neighbors would miss would be the laughter, the joy. I don’t just say that offhand. The last requirement from Micah is to “walk humbly.’ Laughing is key to humility I think. If you can’t laugh at yourself, can you really be humble?

As we seek to be a welcoming and diverse community, may we always be playful learners. May we continue to learn to do what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

13407008_10101244033019896_4811700993866231848_n

The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.