Go the Extra Mile

What relationships have given shape to your identity? Stated more succinctly: Who has shaped you?

Many of us can point to a teacher who introduced us to our favorite subject or author. Many of us can recall a friend who recommended a style of music, or our favorite band. Sometimes to our chagrin, we’ll find ourselves sharing an opinion and then say, “O gosh, I sound just like my mother. She would have said that.” We are shaped, all of us, by our community, consciously and unconsciously.

In my previous gig, my old job, I worked for The Episcopal Church’s office for “Lifelong Formation.” I was the young adult and college-student specific minister, but I loved the name of the office “Lifelong formation.” No matter our age, or sense of maturity, we are, all of us, in formation. We have been formed. We continue to be formed.

So, how are you shaping up?

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “Be perfect,” like God is perfect. A priest friend in Connecticut recently wrote that while perhaps Beyonce wakes up “feeling ‘flawless,’ most [of us] rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” Perfection can seem unachievable.

I think part of the problem we have with this Gospel is a problem of translation. You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is “telos.” If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos. It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional. To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection. And according to Aristotle, in life, we don’t reach telos. Telos is the goal toward which we strive. Perfect, in this sense, is not the enemy of the good. Perfect is the direction toward which the good is shaped.

Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shaped people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shape people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have, the Sermon on the Mount. How do we preachers relate to our greatest Preacher?

In the great mosques each Friday, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Traditionally Islamic pulpits, unlike our pulpit, have stair-steps that face out toward the people. The Friday preacher climbs several stairs and turns around to look out over the gathered crowd. In the mosque, the preacher traditionally stops one step short of the top. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. The current preacher gives a sermon as a substitute. Formation belongs to the master.

With a similar sense of humility, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. Jesus turns his hearers’ expectations upside down. “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resit an evildoer.” “You have heard it said…love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words may seem foolish in today’s climate, but this is the perfection toward which Christians have sought to be shaped. Still, reading Jesus’ words today can create a sense of tension

I want to look into this tension for just a moment. Formation is happening all the times and it can happen when we are tense. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain to the edge of tree-line and seen the little bristly pine trees up high, you’ve seen tense formation in action. Pine trees that high up have raw bark on one side of their trunk and just a couple of branches pointing in one direction on the other. They look like little scraggly flag poles. Those sad trees have been blown into their shape by the wind. I bring them up because the winds seem mighty strong these days. Will you be shaped by incivility? Will you respond to hatred with hatred? Will you respond to mockery with mockery? Will you respond to cynicism with cynicism?

A few months ago I shared with you something I learned about Jesus’ words: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” That line can seem pretty pathetic, weak, but I once heard an African theologian explain how she read strength in Jesus’ words. She said that to turn the other cheek you had to turn your whole face. “Turning the other cheek” means looking your assailant in the eye. It means facing hatred with humanity.

Jesus strikes a similar vein of wisdom with another oft-quoted line from this sermon: “go the extra mile.” You may have heard that one before. You might have seen the words on one of those black-bordered motivational posters that seem to hang in ever Human Resources Office maybe with a picture of running shoes. Well, these words belong to Jesus, and they are as surprisingly radical as anything he preached.

“Go the extra mile” referred to a specific policy in the Roman Empire. Rome learned this tactic from the Persia, an earlier empire with great territorial ambition. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” references the power that a Roman Soldier had over anyone who lived in territory conquered by Rome. The soldiers marched across the empire on Rome’s highways, and they carried heavy equipment. When a soldier got tired or didn’t like the look on someone’s face, by law, he could impress a bystander to carry his pack for up to one mile, but no more. All along the road there were mile markers to facilitate this service to the Empire.

In this context, Jesus’ words, “go also the second mile” would have shocked his hearers. This policy was hated, understandably, by the occupied people. Being forced to march away from your work, to spend precious time and energy for no pay, was humiliating. Why would Jesus want to make it worse? As a tactic for calling the system of oppression into question, Jesus’ idea has legs. Can you imagine the Roman soldier, looking at the tired farmer who he has just marched a mile away from his field, as the man sets off another mile down the road. “You don’t have to continue,” he might blurt. The oppressor is forced to see beyond his prejudices. The soldier is faced with another human being, someone who is paying him a kindness, and he has to ask questions about the legal and social framework empowering some at the expense of others.

“Go the extra mile” read this way reminds me of another preacher, who stood just a step below Jesus. I’ve seen Dr. King’s words, his commentary on Jesus’ message on many signs and t-shirts lately, maybe you’ve heard these words too:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These days, I think we are having to become more conscious about the question: “who is shaping you?”

Who do you “friend” on Facebook? Who do you “follow” on Twitter? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who do you watch on television? In a political climate that seems to reward bragging lies and hate speech, in a social media world that rewards salacious rumors and outrageous headlines with more clicks and “likes,” it is easy to become blown about by the winds.

Question the value of that formation. If you find yourself anxious because of what you are reading in the paper, or on some blog site. if you find yourself angry in response to a news story on the radio, hit pause. Go and find some good news. Facebook won’t point you there. Twitter won’t raise these items up to the top of the feed. You’ll have to go and look.

Read some poetry. Pick up a collection of Dr. King’s sermons. Take the time to reconnect with a friend or spiritual advisor over the phone or better yet over a meal. Take a walk down in Tower Grove Park and keep an eye out for the owls. Look for good news. Open up the Bible. Go and find THE good news, the Gospel. Spend time with Jesus, the master preacher. If you’re on your smartphone clicking through articles and getting angry before you even get out of bed in the morning, well you’re already starting the day so many steps behind Beyonce. Get intentional about your formation.

A number of us gathered on Wednesday night as we continued our conversation about “Faith and Activism.” We read an article by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. His writing focus on the connection between political activism and contemplative prayer. Richard says, unless we are deeply formed, all our activism is likely to burn us out.

That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.

“Go the extra mile.” These words from Jesus ask us to question our operating assumptions. If you really want to “resist” systems of oppression, Jesus says, surprise the oppressors with persistence, with kindness, with service, with love. Be formed, deeply formed, by life-giving love.

This isn’t easy work. We won’t get there alone. Perfection isn’t a goal that any of us can reach on our own. To stretch in that direction we will need to be intentional about our formation. We will need solid communities who know how to support and challenge one another, communities like Holy Communion tries to be. We will need friendships. We will need worship. We will need to return again and again to Word and to Table. We will need the words of Jesus. To reach for perfection, we will need to ask: who is shaping me?

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.

What is Faith? Part two: Keep the Faith.

This morning I’m continuing a series I started last week. I’m asking the question: What is faith?

As I said last week, the nature of the church seems to be changing, as is the nature of our question. Faith used to be a given. It’s changing some places faster than others. Down South, people still often ask you WHERE you go to church. They don’t ask IF you go to church. The question has been, and this used to be true across quite a bit of our country: “Where do you go to church?” It was roughly equivalent to the St. Louis question. “Where’d you go to High School.” Church was a given, and where you went to church said something about your social location. I grew up out West, and then I lived for a long time in California. Out there people don’t ask “Where do you go to church” Instead they ask, surprised, “Wait, you go to church?” Question mark.

Faith is not a given anymore. Questioning your faith doesn’t make you a pariah the way it used to. Now, as a professional preacher, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think the decline of “given” faith might be a good thing. Questioning your faith, that can be a very good thing. If you have doubts, hold on to them. Don’t let go to quickly. Doubts are important. Doubts cause us to ask questions. I don’t think God wants us to simply swallow the faith we’ve been handed. God wants us to wrestle. We are created with the capacity for reason. If you have doubts, embrace them, work them over, ask why. The view of God and the world that emerges, the faith that comes, through wrestling doubts is often subtler, more durable, and more useful in a crisis.

The Gospel this morning is heavy for a summer morning. Really all the readings are quite tough, but the Gospel is particularly hard. Jesus is angry. “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Exclamation point). It’s a strong statement. I think Jesus is trying to wake people up. Do you think this is simple? Do you think God, in your lifetime, is just going to clean up all of the messes? Jesus needs you to doubt that kind of simplistic faith.

The Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker coined the phrase that Dr. King often quoted and refined while he worked for Civil Rights:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

God’s work can sometimes feel painstakingly slow. The work of liberation often takes much longer than it should. Faith is for the difficult times. Faith is for the hard slogs. There’s a reason our Presiding Bishop’s favorite tag line is “keep the faith.” Often we need reminding.

Then there are moments of breakthrough. Moments after climbing out of the pool this week, Simone Manuel looked at a camera and said, “All glory to God.” She is the first African-American woman ever to win an Individual Gold medal in swimming. Now, when athletes express religion on TV, I always get a little nervous. Tim Tebow used to make my eyes cross. Faith in athletics usually seems to come when the touchdown is scored or the game is one. Faith, it seems, is for the victors. The kind of religion that is most often displayed during professional sports doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt.

But Simone Manuel both praised God and questioned the status quo. She later went on to say that her medal meant a lot, “with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.” See, a few years ago, Simone wouldn’t have been allowed in a public pool in St. Louis. She wouldn’t have been allowed to train. There’s an old stereotype that African Americans can’t swim. Well, it’s hard to learn when you’re not allowed in the pool.

But little black girls in swim classes today have a role model, a now multiple medalist.  You know what, it’s not just little black girls who can look up to her. She’s a champion for all God’s children to admire. To swim that well, given what she’s faced took faith. It took guts.

Now, stay with me. I’m going to turn now. I want to spend some time this morning talking about the faith of another woman of color. Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin. (It also happens to be Ellis and my anniversary of our legal wedding, on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, which always makes me giggle.) St. Mary the Virgin, the mother of Jesus.

Now don’t worry. I used to preach about Mary in a historic Episcopal Church in Washington DC. On the outside of our early American building were six inch tall letters that proclaimed that we were “PROTESTANT.” I know that some of you believe yourselves to be an a Protestant Episcopal Church. I still preach about Mary. I love Mary. She is an amazing example of faith.

Somehow in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Romans ended up with Mary. Catholics are supposed to adore Mary, and Protestants are supposed to be suspicious about her. Have you seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun?” The scene where Diane Lane’s character talks about Mary? She buys this big villa in Tuscany, and in the master bedroom, the headboard of her bed includes a giant icon of the Virgin Mary. At first she’s not thrilled about Mary standing watch over her bed. She’s newly single. Who needs a judgy Mary in your headboard? But then one night Lane’s character is woken by a violent thunderstorm, and finds herself grateful for Mary standing with her, “knowing full well I’m not a Catholic.”

So, if you find yourself drawn to Mary that is okay. Really.  You don’t have to start praying the rosary if you don’t want to.   But if you want to, let’s talk. I think Mary is one of the most helpful images of what it means to have faith. Mary helps us understand that real faith takes risks. Somehow a pregnant teenage girl, a girl who could have been stoned to death because she was not yet married and was pregnant, somehow this young girl kept the faith. In the midst of it all, Mary found a way to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, to allow her spirit to rejoice. Mary had a faith that wasn’t easy, it wasn’t simple.  Her faith was deep enough that she knew, she knew that the socially unacceptable child she would birth would knock the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and the poor.

Laurie Gudim, a lay Episcopalian from Fort Collins, Colorado wrote a few years ago on a blog I sometimes follow, the Daily Episcopalian, about Mary. She wrote out of frustration about the passive, submissive vision of Mary we so often hear.  We don’t need that fake Mary, she wrote:

We need the real Mary. We need her guts, her willingness to turn aside from everything her family had planned for her….We need the Mary who went on to live a multidimensional life: being a wife and raising children in the home of her spouse, a man who also listened well to God. We need to envision her having bad days and screaming at the kids, being terrified and mortified, feeling powerless and enraged. And then we need to envision her moments of wild, exuberant joy… how she hummed as she baked bread early in the morning, how she laughed with her girlfriends and cousins – and how she raised Jesus and his siblings in a boisterous Jewish household, teaching Jesus what she could about love.

Mary lived what was in many ways a very ordinary, very difficult life. In the midst of that life, her faith allowed her to see God’s hand at work. For Mary, Jesus was not some benign smiling shepherd. Jesus was gritty. She knew. She changed his diapers.  She was there when they executed him. I think we need the faith of Mary, gritty faith. Real faith. Faith that sees you through the difficult and ugly moments of life.

The letter to the Hebrews this morning finishes a long section on the faith of our ancestors. It includes that great phrase, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”  Our faith is the faith of Mary, the gritty faith of a young unwed mother. Our faith is the faith of Simone Manuel, who overcame history and the odds and won gold. Our faith is the faith of Oscar Romero, the faith of Desmond Tutu, the faith of Dorothy Stang, a nun murdered by Brazilian ranchers for her activism to save the Amazon. Our faith has been shared by countless saints and sinners, remembered and hidden, who have kept faith in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Our faith is shared by countless women and men who have changed the course of history, who left behind a world that was a little more loving, more peaceful, more just.

When he described faith as “the opiate of the masses” Karl Marx was not describing these folks. The saints of God are gritty.  Their faith is real. As St. Augustine said, it should not seem small that we consider ourselves part of one body with people of faith like these. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “their adventure of faith opens a way for us.”  We are surrounded by the faithful lives of so many who gave not less than everything.

Jesus’ words this morning are not simply the grumpy words of a beleaguered prophet. Jesus words remind us that faith is not only about peace and comfort. Faith often comes with doubts. God can handle your doubts. And faith sees you though the difficult times. Faith is for those who, with God, are bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Jesus’ words remind us that faith is gritty, that faith is real. Keep the faith.