gothemile

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?

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What will become of his dream?

The theologian Karl Barth once said that the task of a Christian is to hold the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. You interpret the newspaper with the Bible, not the other way ‘round.

This weekend the newspaper is thick. We have a president-elect making a great deal of news. The first African American president gave his last speech this week. And tomorrow we honor what would have been the 88th birthday of Dr. King.

Because I’m a preacher, I have to read ahead in the Bible. I knew we’d have these readings coming to us this Sunday as I watched the President’s speech, and the president-elect’s press conference. I had in mind that we would be celebrating Dr. King today, and I was thinking about Joseph’s brothers’ sneering words in the book of Genesis: “We will see what will become of his dreams.”

Joseph’s brothers are jealous. The young man has his father’s favor. He’s been given a beautiful technicolor dream coat. He has this gift of dreaming. He has not, however, at the age of 17 been given a gift for tact. (Few teenagers have the gift of tact, but Joseph’s lack is strong). He tells his brothers that he has dreamed that they will bow down before him. The brothers, shall we say, are not impressed. They plot to thwart the dreamer.

You know the story. Joseph isn’t killed, but sold into Egypt. Through his gift of dreams and interpretation, his station eventually improves. Joseph finds himself sitting at the right hand of the King, entrusted with Pharoah’s household. Meanwhile, back in the Israel’s land, a famine strikes. Joseph’s brothers come begging. They bow down before Joseph.

Dreams can be persistent.

You all know why this lesson was chosen. These readings are assigned for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, because brother Martin was famous for his dream. He had the audacity to dream, to invite a country to dream, for equality, for justice, for brotherhood. (Today we’d add sisterhood as well). Martin’s dream is taught to schoolchildren of every race today.

What will become of Dr. King’s dream?

This week’s newspaper witnessed a wide swing. President Obama and President-elect Trump are very different characters. You got a sense of the difference as Tuesday night’s speech turned to Wednesday’s press conference. These leaders campaigned from very different stances. “Yes we can” and “Make America great again” are vastly different ways of looking at our nation.

I can understand why so many people are uneasy. As I said to you the Sunday after the election:

I am nervous about the legislative and executive agenda about to be ushered into the halls of power. I am scared for some of my former immigrant parishioners who are permitted to work through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. I am concerned for members of this congregation who are insured through the Affordable Care Act.

In his “I have a dream speech,” Dr. King spoke of the sweltering summer heat. The march took place in late August, but Dr. King wasn’t just speaking about the sweaty swamp of Washington DC. King spoke of summer metaphorically. That summer protests raged across the South. As he shared his dream, he told the nation:

“This sweltering summer of…legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality…those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual…as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.”

As we embark on the adventure of “making America great again,” we cannot turn back. People marched, people bled, people died to guarantee freedoms. We cannot turn back. We will not turn back.

Dreams can be persistent.

Our country is great precisely because of the change that is possible in America. Just yesterday, Ellis and I went to watch “Hidden Figures.” The movie features the story of “colored computers,” black women who did the math that allowed our country to win the Space Race, to put a man into orbit. I encourage you to go see the film. It was remarkable. The crowd that gathered was also remarkable. The theater was full. For a movie about black women scientists, the theater was full. And it was full of white people.

America has changed. America is changing. We cannot turn back.

We have to keep dreaming brother Martin’s dream.

And we need to pray.

Some of you may have read that there’s a controversy brewing in our Episcopal Church about prayer and the incoming president. As is tradition, two prayer services will be held this week in Episcopal Churches.

On Friday, the President-elect, his family, and his invited guests will gather at my former church, St. John’s Lafayette Square, just across the park from the White House for a private prayer service. Almost every president since James Madison has had a service there the morning of their inauguration. (Kennedy went to the Catholic Cathedral.) Thankfully, St. John’s has not been a focus for controversy. The tradition is too old.

But the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral will also host a public service of prayer with the new president, to be broadcast on television, on Saturday. The National Cathedral Choir has also accepted an invitation to sing at the inauguration on Friday.

Some in our denomination would have us close the doors of our churches to these festivities. I can understand this point of view. The president elect’s campaign brought out some really negative elements of our society. Racism and hatred were emboldened following his election. Several mosques, synagogues, and even Episcopal churches were vandalized with words like “Trump’s America.” I can understand why some wish The Episcopal Church would boycott the inauguration.

I’m pretty close to many of the leaders in The Episcopal Church in Washington. I know the bishop, the priests, and the choir directors. I know that many of them swallowed hard as they took meetings with the inaugural committee. Big public decisions are never easy to make. I am glad I’m not in their shoes, and I won’t second guess their decision to participate. I was honored to be at St. John’s for the second inaugural service for President Obama. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. And I am glad that this week, I get to be in St. Louis, in “real America.” I am glad that on Saturday, I’ll be out in the streets with many of you in our Women’s March, in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.

I am glad not to be in Washington, but we all have to consider how we will pray these days.

As I said to you the Sunday after the election, we will pray for Donald, our president elect at Holy Communion. We pray for the president, by name. He needs our prayers. But, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church reminded us this week: prayer is not the same thing as cheering or declaring our support. Our Presiding Bishop went on:

“I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”

And Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

We will pray for Donald, but that’s not all we’re going to do. This coming Saturday, a group of us are going to meet up downtown for the Women’s March. If you want more information, get in touch with Kara Cummins, so that we can coordinate a meeting point and walk together. We will pray for the president, and we’ll march. In St. Louis, in Washington, along the US/Mexico border, wherever America needs dreamers, we’ll march.

What will become of his dreams? Dr. King’s dreams are still there to be dreamed. We’ve come close at times. Eight years ago I stood with 1.8 million people on the National Mall as the first black president was inaugurated. You could almost feel the earth shake. The world was changing. Still Dr. King’s dream was bigger than the first black president. The dream goes on.

What will become of his dreams? Dreams can persistent. Even when the newspaper looks bleak. Turn to the Bible. We learn that dreams are persistent when God’s people are persistent. God was there for Joseph. God was there for Moses, and Deborah, and Ruth. God was there for David. God was there for Peter and John and Mary Magdalen. God will be there with us, dreaming with us.

“This Little Light of Mine” we sing. “I’m going to let it shine.” How will you help keep the dream alive? How will you help the dream persist? Will you open your Bible and your newspaper? Will you allow yourself to be shaped, to be formed, and then to go make some news?

In the days, months, and years to come, a dream is at stake. The dream wasn’t just the dream of a single presidency. It wasn’t just the dream of a single preacher or a single movement. The dream is bigger. The dream belongs to God. God dreams of a world where justice rolls down like water. God dreams of a world where all God’s people are free from persecution, from violence, where all God’s people are free to love. God has big dreams.

Keep dreaming. Keep praying. Keep moving forward. Keep dreaming. Let your light shine.

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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.