life

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.

Who-is-my-neighbor

Who is my neighbor?

 

“Who is my neighbor?” This lawyer’s question brings us a radical story from Jesus this morning. “Who is my neighbor”

Jesus’ answer is a story that has become one of his best known teachings. On the surface the message of the Good Samaritan seems simple: be kind. Show mercy. The very name “Samaritan” has even become shorthand for mercy ministries in the church. I’ve worked in churches on both coasts, and I’ve known “Samaritan ministries” that have done everything from taking care of the homeless to providing health insurance. “Good Samaritan,” the words go together in our minds today. But, as a Canadian minister once said, “A text without a context, can become a pretext.”

The words “Good Samaritan” together would have shocked Jesus’ lawyer. The man can’t even bring himself to say “The Samaritan was his neighbor” at the end of the story. He says, “the man who showed mercy.” “Samaritan” was a bad word in Jesus’ day. Samaritans were the “outsiders” the “other” to the Jewish people. We’re not entirely sure why, but Second Kings eludes to an idea that the Samaritans took advantage of the Jewish Exile and occupied the land.

It’s hard to come up with an equivalent label to “Samaritan” in our own context, partly because we’re so divided. But try this on for size. If Jesus was at the Democratic National Convention later this summer and a lawyer asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus might tell this story about the priest and the official passing a beaten man on the side of the road. Then Jesus would shock them and say “An NRA member and Fox News host walking home from a tent revival happened upon the man.” Or if Jesus was at the Republican Convention he might surprise them by saying, “a socialist Muslim migrant came by after a protest, and cared for the man.” This parable is radical because Samaritans weren’t the good guys. Yet somehow, Jesus causes this lawyer to question. Jesus invites him to expand his neighborhood to include the outsider, the enemy.

Who is my neighbor? This is a question we desperately need to ask in America today. We have survived a miserable week. Waiting to board a plane Thursday in London, coming back from three weeks abroad, I saw first the video of Alton Sterling and then the video of Philando Castile being killed by police officers. Friday morning, I awoke back home in America, to hear that five police officers had been killed in the line of duty at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

This week I have seen expressions of worry from black friends. Hugs have been a little tighter sending a husband or a son out for the day. “Please come home again” has taken a prayerful tone in some families. It’s not just my African American friends who are terrified. Police families may know the fear well, but they’re feeling it especially after Dallas. This has been a miserable week.

There is a danger this week, that we will retreat to our little camps. When we are driven by fear we can tighten our wagons, and work to actively keep outsiders out of our figurative neighborhoods.
Who is my neighbor?
How often do we, like Jesus’ lawyer, think we know exactly who we count and discount as neighbors? How often are the “sides” clearly demarcated? How easily do we divide people into camps?
I can’t even talk to her, she’s a Trump supporter.
I had to unfriend him, everything he posted praised Obama.
She’s just an angry black woman, I can’t listen to her.
He’s a white straight man. He can’t even see his privilege.

We do violence to our community when we divide. When we see a label instead of a person, we refuse a basic truth. We are all, all of us, created in the image of God. All God’s people have equal value. We are all neighbors.

The violence of our divisions became visible and deadly this week. First to Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I believe most police officers truly want to protect and serve everyone. Undeniably, there are police officers out there who operate from a place of overt unchallenged racism. The text message chains exposed from officers in San Francisco last year, filled with racial epithets, were not an isolated phenomenon. We need to require anti-bias and anti-racist education for our police officers. Such training is required for ministers, for teachers, and for all sorts of other professionals. It makes sense to require our public safety personnel to learn about diversity and anti-racism. But while overt racism is a problem in the police force, I don’t think anti-racism work would have necessarily saved the lives of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.

Overt racism isn’t the only race problem we have in policing. More subtle and in some ways more powerful forces are at work around race. Systemic racism plays a huge part in the interactions between police and the public. For years the policies and practices of our country have divided people based on skin color. For decades we kept people with white skin and people with dark skin from being neighbors. Today on the books it is illegal to deny someone housing based upon race, but in practice black citizens are still more likely to live in predominately black, predominately poor, violent, “inner city” neighborhoods with failing schools.

Even the best meaning police officers aren’t eager to be assigned patrols in black neighborhoods. Officers often describe feeling “on edge” in these areas, and that stress can lead to bad judgement, even by officers who don’t hold overtly racist opinions. Conscious or unconscious, overt or systemic, race plays a part in how people are policed, and how people perceive policing in our country. Our neighborhoods are not created equal, and they are policed unequally.

At the same time we cannot ignore the role that firearms played in this week’s deaths. At least purportedly, both officers fired because they believed the man they had stopped was reaching for a gun. As I said, I saw those videos in London. While we were there, I was reminded that the majority of police officers in the United Kingdom don’t carry guns. They don’t have to. The UK has some of the lowest gun ownership rates per capita in the world. Criminals are unlikely to have access to a firearm, so most police don’t need guns to do their job. In the United States many police organizations have endorsed gun control precisely because our police officers would be safer if there were fewer guns on the street.

Gun control could have made a big difference in Dallas. If you have been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Services, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you have had complaints of domestic violence, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you have a diagnosed mental illness, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you’ve been on a terrorism watch list, you should not be able to be a gun. Our streets would be safer. Our communities would be safer. Our police officers would be safer.

If we want to make meaningful progress around policing and race, I believe we must literally disarm the conversation. If black lives matter, if police lives matter, we have to stop the flow of guns onto our streets.

It is impossible to see someone as your neighbor when you’re worried about what they might do with their gun.

This disarmament, this conversation, will take time. We spent centuries exploiting the labor of black bodies in this country. As a country we spent decades keeping black bodies out of white neighborhoods. It will take a long time to unpick this knot. History will remember this week. Will we remember this week as a week when we realized we needed to reach out to our neighbors and worked to change the systems that divide and oppress? Will we remember this summer as the season we finally got serious about gun control?

As I thought this week about neighbors and policing, a funny realization came to me. I am one of those white kids that grew up in the suburbs. Part of that privilege means that I don’t remember police officers on the streets as a kid. But I do have a vivid childhood image of a police officer. He was on TV, specifically, he lived in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.
Mr. Roger’s theme song may be a bit like the story of the “Good Samaritan.” We’ve heard “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor” so many times, the message may have worn a little thin. But Mr. Rogers, who was an ordained Presbyterian minister, found ways to teach Jesus’ radical lessons.

Officer Francois Clemmons was played by an actor who was also named Francois Clemmons. He was the first black character to have a recurring role on an American children’s television show. In an NPR interview this year Clemmons recalled Fred Rogers approaching him after hearing him sing in church to say, “I have this idea you could play a police officer.”

Clemmons wasn’t eager at first: “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

But he came around. In 1969 Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers recorded a scene that on the surface seems incredibly simple. As camera zooms in Mr. Rogers is sitting with his feet in a wading pool on a hot summer’s day. He invites Officer Clemmons to take a break from walking his beat to join him. Simple, until you
remember that this was 1969. In St. Louis black kids weren’t allowed in the white pool. They sing a song together and then Officer Clemmons has to get back to work, so Mr. Roger’s helps him dry his feet. Pastor Rogers found a way to sneak the washing of feet into his television show. Radical.

Officer Clemmons quietly challenged the children who watched the Mr. Rogers show. For the white kids in the suburbs, he challenged the idea that they shouldn’t be sharing a pool with a black people. For the black kids in the city, he presented them with a friendly singing police officer, someone you could trust to keep you safe and teach a valuable lesson. The friendship on screen told kids “This black man, this police officer, he is my neighbor. He can be your neighbor too.”

Who is my neighbor? This question is at the heart of this painful week. Who is my neighbor? This question is at the heart of our journey as followers of Jesus. Do we have the courage to see beyond our assumptions, our cliques, our prejudices? Do we have the courage to expand our vision? Please, won’t you be, my neighbor?

 

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Orlando: It is time to Unite against Gun Violence

This morning I preached my last sermon before vacation at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, in the greater St. Louis area. I’m going to miss this community over the next few weeks. We are a community that knows something of gun violence. Black men and women lose their lives routinely here to guns. Many families in my congregation have felt the effect of this scourge.

This morning’s news from Orlando hit home for me. As a gay man, I’ve been out dancing in clubs like Pulse. I’ve been surrounded by the throngs of other partiers. I know how hard it can be to make your way out of the club. The news was terrifying.

NPR announced that the events of this morning make the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub the deadliest in US History. My whole adult life mass shootings have been a reality. I was in high school in Colorado when Columbine happened. I was a young priest for Newtown.

I have a hope this morning that something can change. We’ve seen the staggering ability of the LGBT community to organize for change. Marriage equality came faster than any of us could have expected. We are seeing change happen fast.

It is time to unite. It is time for gay men (and everyone else in the LGBT community) to join the fight to end gun violence. It is time for some common sense reforms to our gun laws. It is time to stand up to religious bigotry in all of its forms, and work so that bigotry cannot be armed. It is time for us to build a coalition between LGBT activists, faith leaders, and black mothers and to bring the political will and know how to this fight. It is time.

I pray that today is a turning point, that we will see a real and concrete move toward reform. It is time.

I close with this prayer from All Saints Pasadena:

We pray for the victims, their families and for all victims of violence; for an end to the scourge of gun violence in our nation and for healing of the disease of homophobia that infects our nation and our world. God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.