True Religion

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  (BCP 233)

I just read for you again the prayer from the beginning of our service, the Collect. We pray one of this short prayers at each service on Sunday morning. The Collect helps us transition from getting here to being here, and introduces the Scriptures we are about to hear. Most of these short prayers are thousands of years old, like the one we heard today, and many of them bear the stamp of their first translator into English, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, like the one we heard today.

Cranmer was a poet, and a contemplative. He believed in the power of language to move the soul. For thousands of years, the priests had intoned the earlier version of this prayer in Latin. They asked God simply “to increase in us religion.” Cranmer added the word “true.” Thomas was Archbishop during the time of the Reformation, when there were several competing religions. He thought: “We might need to specify. Increase in us true religion.”

This prayer holds the genius of the poet. Because it makes us ask, what is TRUE religion? Cranmer wants you to wrestle, to pray for TRUE religion.

True religion doesn’t come easily. Take a look at Moses.

Now, you have to know where Moses finds himself for this story to make sense. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter last week, pulled out of the river in the basket. He grew up in the royal household. Moses knows privilege. Then something happened that changed Moses’ whole lot in life. But then he sees the way that the Egyptians are treating the Hebrews. He sees the injustice. Moses defends one of his kinsfolk when an Egyptian master is beating the Hebrew. Maybe Moses goes to far. Moses kills the Egyptian. He buries him in the sand. Then he runs. Moses gets out of Dodge.

Which is how he finds himself tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro. Now, this is not a comfortable place. Moses grew up in the palace.  He’s a bit of a city boy. Tending your father-in-law’s flock is not where you wanted to end up in the ancient world. (Working for your father-in-law is hardly ever where anyone wants to end up). Moses is on the lamb. He has no where to go, no prospects. He’s stuck.

Moses is out there, the Bible tells us, “beyond the wilderness,” and he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses.” Notice, God has to say his name twice to get his attention. God is persistent, even when humans are resistant. “Moses” God goes on: “I am the God of Abraham.” I am the God of Isaac and Jacob. God establishes continuity. Then God turns the page.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

This encounter with Moses shows us the something critical about our God. God is a God with a bias. God stands on the side of the oppressed. God works actively for the liberation of people from slavery, from bondage. God is a God who seeks out the least, the lost, the left out. The rest of the story of Exodus, in many ways the rest of the story of the Hebrew Bible, and the story of the followers of Jesus is a living out of this revelation of God to Moses: “I have heard their cry.” God is not a God who blesses the powerful and leaves the weak out in the cold. Quite the opposite. Here’s one of the tests of true religion: True religion responds to the cry of the suffering.

As the great theologian Howard Thurman once asked, What does your religion have to say to people with the “backs against a wall?”

“I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them.” This is where the passage gets really interesting. The story turns really fast. Did you catch it? God says, I have come down to deliver them. You could almost imagine Moses turning his head around looking for God. Where? Where are you? It will be a long time before Moses sees God. Instead God says, I have come to deliver them, so Moses, Moses I’m sending you. YOU go talk to Pharaoh. “Go Down Moses. Way down in Egypt Land. Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people Go.”

You sort of feel for Moses in this moment. God has just said “I am coming down.” Moses probably got excited. He was nervous to see God’s face, but I’m sure he was eager to see God’s action. He was eager to see God right the wrongs, to turn back the tide of injustice. And then God says, “it’s on you Moses.”

It’s a bit like what Jesus says to his followers this morning: “Take up your cross.”

I feel for Moses this morning, surprised by an overwhelming task from God. I also feel for Peter. Today we read Jesus’ harshest rebuke . “Get behind me Satan.” I feel for Peter this morning. If I’d been there, honestly, I probably would’ve been standing near Peter, nodding, agreeing with him, saying “Yes, yes, exactly.”

We come to this rebuke of Peter while Jesus is on the run (notice a theme). They’re on the road, getting away from the crowds. Jesus has fed 4,000 on the sea of Galilee. The Pharisees come after him. He escapes. He performs a healing of a blind man in the chapter before this reading, and tells the man “don’t even go into the village” because he’s afraid of the news getting out. When Jesus asked last week, “who do people say I am?” there are nerves behind that question. Peter last week got the answer right, for once. “You’re the Messiah.” And Jesus orders him to be silent.

Jesus is nervous. Jesus explains to the disciples what is coming, and he paints a pretty ugly picture. Jesus explains that he expects to be hauled before the courts, to suffer, to die.

Peter doesn’t want that for Jesus. Can we blame him? He doesn’t want it for the movement he’s joined. Peter has just identified his leader as the savior, the messiah, the anointed one. Peter wants success. Peter wants it to look good. We don’t hear Peter’s words to Jesus, but I imagine they are something like: “Wait a minute Jesus, that suffering and dying stuff, I’m not sure I signed up for that. That’s not going to sell well.” True religion doesn’t sell well. If a faith doesn’t require some skin of your back, it isn’t Christianity.

These are heavy words, “take up your cross,” and I’m mindful that we’ve had an awful week. We still haven’t seen the full scale of the disaster in Houston. Even as the flood waters were rising, a group of Evangelical pastors were spitting homophobic and transphobic nonsense and saying they represented the one true faith. (All their sound and fury signifies nothing). Parishioners of mine in Washington DC got in touch this week. They’re nervous. These are folks who were able to secure good jobs, and come out of hiding because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, were terrified this week that they were going to lose their immigration status, be shortlisted for deportation to countries they haven’t seen since they were a few months old. We’re also still dealing with the trauma of the images that came out of Charlottesville, waking some of us up to the hatred that is alive and deep in this country. I know I’m not alone in thinking, “Oh God, what’s next?” How do you even respond when the new cycle just feels like body blow after body blow for people you love?

I’m going to ask you to read a book.

This Fall we’re going to try an experiment. We’re calling it “One Book, One Parish.” The assignment is The Rev. Dr. William Barber’s “The Third Reconstruction.” Barber is a black Baptist pastor, and the chair of the North Carolina NAACP. He was one of the architects of a movement called “Moral Mondays” challenging the North Carolina legislature. And he take the long view of history. He argues that we are at a turning point in this country. The First Reconstruction was after the Civil War. America was re-made when slavery was abolished. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights era. Today America is trying to be remade again. We have reached the Third Reconstruction.

I want us to read this book together, because I think it can help break the paralysis and the fear. Lately it feels like our whole country is playing defense. We’re standing up for some vision of history. We’re standing up to defend our neighbors from bias. As long as we are playing defense, I think we’re all losing. Rage won’t win the day. Rage isn’t enough. We have to get out of defense mode. We have to start moving forward toward a vision.

What is the America we want to see reconstructed? What is the city, the country, the world we want to live in? What does that look like? How can we get in the business of hope?

In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber tells a story about his grandmother. After cooking for her whole extended family on Sunday, but before the food was served, she and her nieces would take a little bit of food along with a little money and anointing oil. She’d say to young William in the kitchen “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” Here, in Barber’s words, was his response to his grandmother:

As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking—that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon.

I don’t know a better description of “true religion.” “We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” True religion is Houstonians volunteering boats and going to rescue one another. True religion is the Baptist and Muslim youth groups my friends in Texas saw working side by side yesterday to muck out houses as the waters receded. True religion can be radical. I heard some true religion from a Catholic priest on Friday, here in St. Louis at a rally to protect DACA, who spoke out and said our Christian vision of the world imagines a place for refugees and immigrants. We welcome the stranger in the Christian worldview. Where have you seen true religion lately?

Friends I have to brag a bit about this church. Amidst all the bad news we’re hearing, this church is on the front page of the paper. This church is proclaiming good news. There’s a story about our laundry love ministry. Every third Tuesday we’re getting to know our neighbors and spreading some Laundry Love. You’re invited. September 19. Come volunteer at 6pm. Go hope somebody.

I could go on and on about the work of hope I am seeing in this church. Reconstructing a house, meeting neighbors for a beer and discussion, doing the hard work of praying for one another. I am grateful, really grateful to be a member of this congregation. You help me see hope: Your hard work, your generosity, the love you show, it increases in me true religion every day.

God has heard the cry of the people. God is coming. Go hope somebody.

Abram’s God

Abram’s God is not like other gods. Stories from the ancient world often featured gods driving the narrative. Competing deities used humans as proxies to carry out their sibling rivalries. In the Fertile Crescent, it was thought that the irregular patterns of floods was caused by warring gods. Abram’s God didn’t play these kinds of games.

I want to share a couple of stories with you this morning about Abram (who would later receive the new name Abraham). One story we already read this morning, the other two are not in the Bible, but that’s okay. The Rabbis knew them. Rabbi Hiyya, who lived in the third century, told a story about young Abram, before God told him to “Go!” to the promised land.

Abram’s father Terah did good business in his hometown of Ur as a clay idol statue salesman. His father sold little clay gods. The whole family apparently worked in the theology business. One day, Terah left young Abram in charge of the store. Abram, full of righteous anger, smashes all of the clay statues. When Terah returns, the boy has placed the stick in the hands of the largest idol. He tells his father that a woman came to offer food to the gods, and they argued over who would eat it first, until a fight broke out and destroyed one another. Terah rolls his eyes and says to Abram, “son, they’re just statues.” Abram responds, “then why do you worship them?”

Abram saw things differently. For Abram, to use the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, “there was a God out there beyond ‘god.’” The God of Abram was not confined to some clay vessel, not tangible. More than our opening hymn this morning, I can imagine Abram singing, “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise. In Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” There is a God out there beyond god.

We are children of Abram. Along with our Jewish sisters and brothers, and our Muslim sisters and brothers, I believe when God took Abram out for an astronomy lesson, we are the stars God was talking about. Abram’s vision of a God out there beyond god took hold. Our God cannot be contained in clay vessels.

We live in a day when there are many Evangelical Atheists. Think about that term. You may have friends or family members that wonder about your sanity for spending your Sunday in church. (Also I’m willing to bet you probably have other friends or family members that think you’re crazy for worshiping in THIS church. Well, crazy loves company. They don’t call us Holy Commotion for nothing.) The Oxford Scholar Richard Dawkins has been on a very public campaign against belief in God. His most famous book is called “The God Delusion.” Dawkins isn’t alone. Bill Maher on HBO, Christopher Hitchens, God rest his soul, even Steven Hawking, the great Cambridge cosmologist, has come out against God. Are we crazy?

You may be surprised to hear this, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we are crazy for believing in God, for trusting in God, sometimes like Abram and Sarai, despite the evidence. A theology professor of mine, Dr. Maria Pilar Aquino, used to say: “Atheism is irrelevant, because you have to specify exactly which god you don’t believe in.” She often went on to say that when atheists talked about the god they didn’t believe in, she usually didn’t believe in that god either.

See, I think the “New Atheists” are a bit like young Abram. They’ve got a bat in their hands and they are smashing the clay statues. I have to say, as a member of the clergy, as a representative of the religious establishment, I can sympathize. In the church, we’ve put up a lot of little clay men over the centuries and said, “that’s God!” Religion needs a little smashing now and again.

This is an aside, and maybe it is impolitic, but if your god thinks you shouldn’t be allowing your children to participate in the Girl Scouts, double check. You may have an idol on your hands. Time for some smashing. Incidentally, I’ve offered any Girl Scouts that need a home after this last week to come to The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion. We will welcome you.

It’s not just the news from this past week about the St. Louis Archdiocese questioning its relationship with Girl Scouts let’s be honest, time and again human-run religious organizations have set up clay idols. I can understand why some people are turned off by all the little gods we have running around. As the 16th century Italian monk and astronomer Giordano Bruno said to the church at his heresy trial: “Your god is too small!”

I’m about to tell you a secret. There’s a trick to this theology business. It’s a lot easier to talk about a small god. It’s often easier to make a clay statue for a small god than to describe the God of Abram, the God of Jesus. Wrapping your mind around “The God out there beyond god,” that’s difficult. But a word of advice: never settle for a small god.

Eventually Abram grew up, and he began a journey with his wife Sarai (later known as Sarah), his nephew Lot, and his father Terah, who had apparently forgiven him for smashing all of the merchandise in the shop. They head for the promised land, but initially, they only make it halfway there. The family settles in Haran, where Terah dies. After his father dies, God calls Abram again: “Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you, and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…” Abram is 75 when God calls him, not a young man.

There’s another story from the Rabbis know that isn’t in the Bible. The story picks up as Abram is about to leave. You see, the people of Haran tried to get Abram to stay. They protested Abram leaving. They camped at the city gates and tried to convince him to not to go. Abram was a wise old leader in Haran, trusted, his counsel was sought. Why was he headed off into the wilderness, especially at his age?

“Don’t leave. We need you here” they say. Abram looks out at them and gives his answer. He says, “you don’t need me. No one is indispensable to anyone but God.” No one is indispensable to anyone but God. There are two sides to his statement. One is obvious: no one is indispensable. “You don’t need me in Haran. There are other wise leaders.”

In that way, we see that Abram really is wise. I have the privilege to work with a number of you who have come to an age of wisdom. And I’ve learned to listen for a particular marker of wisdom and leadership among my retired and retiring friends. I’ve heard the phrase a number of times lately, it goes something like this. “I looked around one day at the team I had worked so hard with for so long, and I realized, they don’t need me.” That’s wisdom. There’s a certain freedom in that statement: “they don’t need me.”

No one is irreplaceable at work. Really. No one. Like it or not in a year, we’ll have a new president of the United States. Everyone is replaceable in their work. There is wisdom and freedom in figuring out that you can be replaced.

But there is another side to Abram’s statement: “no one is indispensable to anyone but God.” To God, Abram is indispensable. To God, you, people of Haran, and you, people of Holy Communion, are indispensable. Who you are matters. What you choose matters. How you love matters. Again, Abram is reframing God for the people of his time. The gods of his day were small in their intentions. They used humans to further their own petty plots.

The God of Abram was a different sort of God, beyond all those gods. Abram’s God was big enough to love and care about, to need each and every human life. Subtly Abram told the people of Haran, you don’t need me, you need God.

David Foster Wallace, the late author and post-modern literary critic, gave a famous commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago. Commencement addresses are full of advice for graduates, and Foster Wallace gave advice reluctantly. He was a postmodern, and postmoderns do everything reluctantly. Here’s part of his address, try to hear it with Abram’s idol smashing and his loving words to the people of Haran in mind.

“here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid,a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

We haven’t come that far from the ancient world with all the small Gods. This is what St. Paul is warning the Philippians of this morning. “Don’t let your god be your belly.” Don’t live the default settings offered to us. This is why Jesus tells the pharisees Jerusalem kills the prophets. We still live in a world that traffics in small gods. We live in a world that profits on fear and keeping gods small.

Following the God of Abram was and is a radical choice. If you feel unsteady at times, know that the patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets are with you. They all come to God with questions. Before you try out Abram’s method and cut open any animals, call me. But know that God can handle the questions. God can handle your doubts. God is with you, inviting you, to Go!, have an adventure. Trust in God, because God is out there, beyond all of the minuscule images that are often offered.

Out there, looking out at those stars, Abram caught a glimpse of his heritage. You and me and the millions of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims that call Abram our Father, and Sarah our mother. All of the people on our planet who seek a bigger God, they are all children of Abram. And at the same time, the God who is beyond God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (to quote Thomas Merton). We may need to smash some idols. We may need to leave behind the city we’ve called home. But God is with you. Just ask Abram.

Religious Radicals for Welcome, Diversity, and Justice

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” That last sentence makes me chuckle a bit, given what has come before in our Gospel this morning. “His winnowing fork is in his hand.” “You brood of Vipers.” Don’t brag about Abraham. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” That is good news?

All this may seem a bit much this week. We are getting close to Christmas after all. This week we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of joy. This is joy week. We need a break from all the preparation. We need a pause from all the rush. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us came to church this morning because we needed just a few quiet moments in this busy season. So why today are we dealing with all this extreme rhetoric from John the Baptist?

John the Baptist is a radical, perhaps THE most radical figure in the New Testament. As Canon John Kilgore reminded us last week, in Mark’s Gospel we hear that John lived apart from the community. He covered himself in camel fur and ate locusts and wild honey. John was a little odd. He was all fire and brimstone. I know that some of you at Holy Communion are here to escape fire and brimstone. I know that many people come to the Episcopal church because we eschew such drama. The Episcopal tradition has not historically been a John the Baptist sort of place. Well, I am not hoping to disappoint you, I promise not to start thumping a Bible, but I think our world needs religious radicals.

Our world needs religious radicals, today more than ever. You may be thinking, “Mike, do you know what you’re saying? ISIS is parading across Syria and Iraq abroad. So-called-fundamentalist Christians are attacking civil rights at home. How can you say we need religious radicals?” And I say to you, we need religious radicals, because what passes for radicalism, what passes for religious fundamentalism has almost nothing to do with the faith we share. What passes for religious extremism has nothing to do with the good news, the Gospel.

What we need is the radicalism of John the Baptist. The people ask John, “What should we do?” Listen again to his words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors not to steal. He tells soldiers not to extort the people, to be satisfied with their wages. That was John’s radicalism. Treat one another like human beings, treat one another with dignity because all are created in the image and likeness of God.

The word radical comes from the Latin “radix” or root. To be radical is to be rooted, to know what holds us up, to know what gives us life. Over the past several months, your vestry has been leading a process at Holy Communion asking questions about our roots. What are the values and vision we share?

We’ve been asking three questions of parishioners. We’ve done so in small groups in homes, in forums between the services, the youth group and I even shared a lunch in the park. Vestry members have met one on one for coffee or a meal with members of this parish. We’ve been focused on the same three questions:

1) What brought you to Holy Communion?
2) What keeps you at Holy Communion?
3) In five years, what do you want your neighbors to know about Holy Communion.

The questions were simple, almost deceptively simple. The questions helped us get to our common ground. These questions helped us export our identity, our roots. The answers we received have begun to shape a conversation about our mission as a congregation. We have identified three values we heard above all the others:

We are a congregation rooted in the values of Welcome, Diversity, and Justice.

To me, those values are more valuable because we heard them from this community. The vestry didn’t sit in a room and make them up, they came from our conversations together. Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, these are our roots. Friends, those words are radical.

To be a faith community shaped by welcome, diversity, and justice is a radical calling, especially in our world today. In a culture of fear of the other, welcome is radical. In a city that is divided along racial and ethnic lines committing to a church where we meet on common ground with people of diverse skin colors, economic statuses, gender identities, ages, sexual orientations, among other difference, coming together as a diverse community that’s radical. And in a society that stresses individuality, working for justice for our neighbors is radical.

In the weeks and months that come, we will have a chance to continue this process of dialogue. I have just sketched a few of the things I think we mean when we say we are committed to Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, but I don’t have the last word. Holy Communion isn’t that kind of church. We are asking YOU to dream with us. If welcome, diversity, and justice are our roots, what will we grow together? What ministries, programs, and priorities will we bring to life? How will we live these radical commitments?

There’s a story of St. Francis told by the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff. The year is 1216. The great cathedral of Perugia is the setting. Boff tells us, “Lugubrious Gregorian chants rise [from the choir]…The solemn *Planctum super Innocentium* is being sung.” The body of Pope Innocent III lies in state before the altar. Innocent had risen to become the most powerful monarch in Europe. The Church had become the most powerful institution on the continent, but death catches up with us all.

The pope’s body is clothed in finery “furs, jewels, gold, silver, and every symbol of double power, sacred and secular.” But around midnight, as the deceased pope lies alone in the darkness, thieves break into the cathedral. They strip the pope bare. After they make off with Innocent’s rich clothes, legend tells us, a crumpled figure, rises from a dark corner where he was huddled in prayer. “He takes off his worn and dirty tunic, a tunic of penance that his friend Pope Innocent III had authorized him to wear in 1209… and he covers the naked body of the pope with it.”

Innocent III and Francis were both huge figures in the faith of their time. Innocent was the pope, the most powerful figure the Catholic church had yet known, but save for the medieval scholars in our midst, very few of us could talk about what Innocent valued, what he held dear. What were Innocent III’s roots? I couldn’t tell you. Francis is another story. Children today can talk about his love of animals and his respect of all of creation. People of many faiths today are inspired by his call to care for the poor. Francis was a radical, and his roots speak continue to speak to us today.

When they write the story of Holy Communion, will they write about our silver chalices and our beautiful stone building or will they write about something more radical? Will they tell stories of a community that was rooted in the teachings of Jesus? Will they tell stories of the ways we welcomed the stranger, and even the stranger stranger? Will they laugh as they marvel at the ways we brought such diverse people together to worship and to learn? Will they talk about our work together for justice?

I think our city and our world are hungry for the kind of radical Christianity I have heard described by the people of Holy Communion. We are weary of the visions of religion that are readily available. We are tired of what passes for extremism and fundamentalism. We are hungry for the Good News proclaimed by John the Baptist, proclaimed by Francis, and proclaimed by this unique congregation in University City.

This Advent, how will we be religious radicals?