The Way of Jesus

Some of you saw an invitation I made this week. I invited a certain Missouri State Representative out for coffee, and to talk about Scripture. Representative Rick Brattin, from Cass County near Kansas City, stood in the Missouri House Chamber this week and said that religion makes

“a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”

That’s a quote, from a Missouri legislator, on the floor of the Missouri House, and He’s making a distinction between homosexual people and human beings. I want to take this man out to coffee. I would even offer to buy. I’m fairly sure coffee wouldn’t violate any ethics rules.

I’d like to talk with him about Scripture. As a Christian, as a preacher, I’d like to ask him not to propose to speak for me. As a gay man, I’d like to ask him to stand up for my rights, and the rights of others who stand on shakier ground if Governor Greitens does not veto this bill, SB 43 which was passed by the house, the bill Mr. Brattin was “debating.” (Click hear to contact Governor Greitens to ask him to veto).

This Bill would make it harder for an employee to take an employer (or a renter to take a landlord) to court for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability, age, you name it, the bill makes it harder to legally prove discrimination. The media has called this bill a “license to discriminate.” Representative Brattin’s remarks were in support of the bill and against and amendment.

So far my invitation has gone unanswered. After news of his words spread across the internet, Brattin’s public Facebook page came down. I’ve sent him an old fashioned letter as well. If any of you in the congregation have occasion to speak with the Representative, feel free to pass along my business card. I’m not exactly optimistic that he’ll take me up on my invitation, but I hope I’m wrong. We’re fellow Christians. Representative Brattin and I have different takes on Christianity. But we are fellow Christians. We understand the faith we have received differently. Since we haven’t yet met to talk about Scripture, I’m not sure about this, but I would venture to guess that we read today’s Gospel especially differently.

Jesus words today are famous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Some Christians read those words to mean, there is no truth, there is no life, there is no way to heaven outside of Jesus. Jesus is THE way. The definite article holds sway in this form of Christianity. This Christianity intentionally involves a level of anxiety. Outside the church, there is no salvation. I know that several of you, in our pews, are recovering from this kind of Christianity. For some of you, even hearing this passage of Scripture read aloud makes you a bit nervous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You’d like to get up right now, see if there’s coffee out there. You’d like to disengage.

I’m going to ask you to stay put. If we avoid scriptures like today’s Gospel. If we actively skip those pages in the Bible. If we turn away when we hear Christianity used to justify discrimination, we cede our faith to the forces of misogyny, bigotry, and homophobia. We need to reclaim our faith. We need to stand up for a more inclusive vision of Christianity.

When I read stories about Jesus, I read about the Son of God who turned over tables in the temple, furious about what God’s people had allowed their religion to become. I read about a man who constantly debated the meaning of Scripture with religious teachers. I read about a young preacher who spoke with authority when he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today this scripture has been fulfilled your hearing.”

I am not going to let fundamentalist Christianity have the last word on Jesus, because  our world needs the Good News, not the Fake news. We need the truth. We need the life. We need Jesus.

The early followers of Jesus weren’t called “Christians” they were called, “the way.” It has a sense of movement: “the way.” Our presiding Bishop is fond of calling us “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

I find that language compelling. I hear Jesus’ words today as words of comfort. The Gospel today comes from John’s long account of the conversation at the last supper. Thomas has just asked Jesus, “How will we know the way?” in response to Jesus telling the disciples he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas is filled with anxiety. Even though Jesus has said, “do not let your hearts be troubled,” the disciple can feel the tension of this night. Where are you going Jesus? How will we find you? Jesus says, “I am the way.”

In our church mission statement we say that Holy Communion: “is a welcoming and diverse community seeking to walk in the way of Jesus…” We chose that language specifically. Faith isn’t about a single choice. You don’t choose once to follow Christ and “poof,” your life is complete. Faith is a journey. We walk that journey step by step, day by day. There are constants: we gather week by week around the Eucharistic table. We say our prayers. We rely on the kindness of friends and strangers. But as much as there are constants, the journey is also constantly changing. The terrain shifts. Some dreams fade. Some companions leave us. What once seemed permanent and definitive turns out to be transitory. Yet we journey on.

Some of you know my friend James Croft, James the atheist. We’ve spoken together at Theology on Tap, debated the existence of God. James likes to tell me, regularly, that my version, our version, of Christianity is not the version in power. The Christianity James preaches against has long oppressed people, he tells me. I should just give up on Christianity. I once asked James if he was an evangelist for atheism. He claimed the title proudly. Yet as often as we talk, I am more and more firm in my convictions.

I won’t give up on the Christian journey, on the way of Jesus, because I believe this way has something powerful to say in our world today. We live in a world where the old certainties are wearing thin. In the twenty-first century we encounter more of the world’s diversity in a day than our grandparents may have encountered across their whole lives. We hear up to the minute news from around the world. We live next door to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, and Presbyterians. We are working to make our public spaces, including our churches, more accessible to people with disabilities.

confirmation.jpg

Yesterday, at Christ Church Cathedral, as three members of Holy Communion were confirmed or received and became “official Episcopalians,” for the first time in my ministry I heard the Bishop forego the use of gendered pronouns as someone was confirmed. We are learning to welcome the transgender community. I believe that Jesus is standing in the midst of all of this growing awareness of diversity and smiling.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares to the wide and diverse city of Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Hold on that unlikely image a moment. Jesus casts himself as a mother bird. He longs to draw all the people to himself, but not as a scolding Father, not to stand over them and tell them how they were wrong. Jesus longs to protect, to nurture, to lead.

Today is Mother’s day, after all, and I find it compelling that Jesus chose such a feminine image for his own ministry. Jesus often defies stereotypes. Following that lead, at the end of the prayers of the people today I’ll pray a collect, a prayer for Mother’s day. This prayer pushes back against the “Halmark-ification” of Mothers’ Day, this singular image of what we hold up as “motherhood.” We’ll give thanks for all the women and men who have mothered others. We’ll pray for all of those who exhibit mothering virtues.

The prayer tries to capture the diverse experience of motherhood. Some of us delight in our relationships with our mothers. For others, the relationship is strained. Mothers day can be painful, for those whose mothers have died. Mothers day can be dreadful for women and men who have lost children, or who have lost pregnancies, or who have been frustrated in their hopes to have a baby. We’ll pray for them as well.

Happy #mothersday to all who express motherly virtues! #prayer #episcopal

A post shared by Holy Communion on Delmar (@holycommucity) on May 14, 2017 at 11:02am PDT

 

A word of advice if you know someone who is grieving on Mother’s Day, or really anytime someone is grieving. One of the worst things you can say to someone is: “God has a plan.” I know many folks who left church when someone from the leadership told them: “God has a plan.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say anything about a “plan” to his friends who are anticipating his death. There’s a subtle but important distinction. Saying to someone “God has a plan” makes it sound like God has some secret, unrevealed to the suffering. Saying, “there is a way, a way forward” that is a statement of faith, of trust. “There is a way,” invites forward movement. Jesus says “I am the way”  I am with you in the pain. I will be with you in the end. When you are ready, I will take the next steps with you.

That Jesus still has something to say in our world. Jesus stands with us in our pain, and offers us a way forward. Jesus stands in the midst of our growing diversity and longs to gather us together. Jesus stands before God’s people and declares that the oppressed should go free, the poor should be lifted up. That Jesus still speaks to me, still speaks to our world. That is a way that we can choose to follow.

As I imagine my meeting with Representative Brattin, I imagine that we would pick up coffee in a shop in Jefferson City and go for a walk. As we wander the streets of the Missouri Capitol, I’d like to talk with him about Jesus. I’d like to hear how following Jesus has helped him to become a better person, a better father, and I’d like to share my perspective as well. I’d like to tell him about all the diverse people I know, the mothers I know, the fathers, and the LGBT people who follow Jesus and find liberation in that following. I’d like to tell him about how for us, Jesus is also the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t know if he’ll accept my invitation, but if he does, I look forward to that conversation.

What do you make of miracles?

What do you make of miracles? Miracles may be a dangerous topic to cover from an Episcopal pulpit. We are the denomination with the highest number of advanced degrees per capita. Academics tend to avoid talk of the miraculous. Still, I do need to ask, what do you make of miracles?

Today’s story finds a disciple named Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles journey from Jerusalem. Jesus came near them, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” They stop in their tracks when he asks “why are you sad?” and the recount to him the story of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and the reports of the women (notice, the guys are lost and the women are ahead of them). The women say Jesus has been risen. Then this stranger opens the scriptures for them. They encourage him to stay with them that evening, and over dinner he takes the bread, says the blessing, breaks it, and gives it to them. Then they recognize Jesus.

Admittedly this story concerns the most mundane of miracles. These lesser disciples aren’t saved from a storm. Sadly, no water becomes wine. These disciples are not blind in the physical sense, yet somehow Jesus opens their eyes. We’ll come back to the Emmaus road in a moment, for now, let’s talk about miracles.

In a short television series on the BBC Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford biologist and author of “The God Delusion” interviewed then Archbishop of Canterbury, another sometime Oxford professor, Dr. Rowan Williams. If you’ve ever heard an interview with Dawkins, you know he doesn’t let folks get many words in edgewise. In the midst of the interview the atheist interrupts and accuses the archbishop, saying if you believe God got creation right in the first place, and does not need to regularly intervene and bend the laws of physics, ”how do you reconcile that with [miracles which] look to some of us like cheap conjuring tricks?”

Archbishop Williams responds graciously. If you view God as something outside messing around with the works, you are in danger of the “conjuring tricks model,” he admits. But you can also think of a miracle as a sort of “opening moment” where the “underlying action of God breaks through in a fresh way.” He talks of a miracle not as a “suspension of the laws of nature” but as “nature itself opening up to its own depths.” Miracles are not where God is moving in from the outside tinkering, but rather, where the surface tension breaks, and God’s action, always present, bursts through.

Dawkins is unconvinced. Maybe you are raising your eyebrows as well. Theologians like Rowan Williams traffic in nuance and poetry. We don’t make a lot of time for nuance and poetry these days as a society. Miracles don’t square neatly. Sometimes it is easier to just move on, keep moving down that road. Get to Emmaus. Sometimes though, we are caught off guard.

I believe I once saw a miracle. Now, before you get too excited, before those of you from Chicago email my former professor, know this wasn’t some cosmic level miracle. This wasn’t a massive show like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No laws of physics were suspended. The miracle I witnessed was mundane. If you stood next to me, you might not have agreed that a miracle occurred. But I believe it was a miracle.

In 2007 I led my first pilgrimage to El Salvador from the University of California, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about that trip because next month I’m taking our first group from Holy Communion to the country. The group I brought back in 2007 was tiny, just 4 students. Three of them were girls, so I decided it would be a good idea to have a female co-leader. I asked my friend Lyra to come along. She and I had spent the previous year as volunteers with The Episcopal Church in Honduras, another Central American country just next-door to El Salvador. Lyra spoke Spanish, and could navigate which foods were safe, and what bathrooms to steer the girls toward.

The week went largely as you might expect. We visited the tombs of the Salvadoran martyrs. We worshiped in local churches. We talked with leaders working for justice. On our second to last day, we were touring a little village of concrete houses in a place called El Maizal. These homes had been recently built by Episcopal Relief and Development for folks displaced by natural disaster. Most were still unoccupied, but we walked up to meet a woman whose family had just moved into a completed building. As our host introduced the residents, my friend Lyra’s face burst into a wide smile. Her expression was mirrored by the new homeowner. Lyra rushed up to give her a hug, and they both cried as they spoke. Lyra stayed there, talking with the woman, holding her little daughter. She hung back with the family for several minutes as our group kept walking through the little town square.

One of the students asked me: “How did Lyra know that woman?” I said, I didn’t know. I remember being surprised seeing them interact, it was like the scenes at the end of that movie “Love Actually” in the airport, when the families are reunited after a long journey, and they greet each other outside airport security with such joy. I assumed Lyra must have known her back in Honduras, or there was some connection.

Months later, I remembered the moment. I happened to be visiting Lyra up in San Francisco, and I asked, “how did you know that woman in El Maizal?” Lyra said, “Mike, it was the strangest thing. I didn’t know her at all. But when I saw her face, I was overcome. I felt like we were long lost sisters.” Lyra, like me, is also the child of an Episcopal priest. She’s had a bit of an on again off again relationship with church and faith, but she said that moment, she knew something deep, something true was happening. She recognized something divine in a stranger, a woman, a refugee. Something broke through.

As I said, this was a pretty mundane miracle. But even as I remember it now, I get goosebumps. I can’t say that if you stood there with some sort of scanner, you’d pick of electronic waves that prove the existence of God. No, Nothing like that. I can say that for a moment, in a dusty settlement built by Episcopalians, a little town called El Maizal, it felt like my friend’s eyes were opened, and those of us nearby caught a glimpse.

On some level, shouldn’t every meeting of strangers be like what I just described? If we are all, each of us, created in the image and likeness of God, shouldn’t we greet strangers as long lost relatives? Jesus tells us, if you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, stand with the oppressed, you clothe, feed, and stand with me. Shouldn’t every encounter with a stranger help us to glimpse God and God’s Kingdom? I say I believe I saw a miracle in this nuanced sense. I think somehow my friend Lyra was ready to see God’s presence in a stranger. I think somehow that stranger was ready as well. They encountered one another on a deeper level than most of us access each day.

As miracles go, mine is a small one. I’ve prayed for bigger. I’ve wished that a parishioner would be healed from cancer. If I had the power, I would have raised several folks who died. It turns out we priests don’t have magic powers. I can’t conjure a miracle at will, much as I would like to do.

But I have seen families come together and reconcile deep hurts around a hospital bed. I’ve witnessed nurses and doctors helping a patient to die well, with little pain, surrounded by care. I wonder whether we might count those moments as a kind of miracle.

I once heard the Buddhist teacher Thich That Hanh talk about Jesus, and the Kingdom of God. Jesus spent much of his ministry teaching about the Kingdom of God, this blessed reign of justice, of peace, of love. The Buddhist monk said, Christians often get frustrated wondering “Where is God’s Kingdom?” He said, we misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not available to us, but that we are not available to the Kingdom.” What is the groundwork? What is the preparation? How can we be ready to have our eyes opened?

Scholars who study this story about the Road to Emmaus notice an interesting pattern to the text. It reads like our Sunday morning Service. First Jesus and the Disciples read Scripture together. Then they share the sacred meal. The scholars say there is a Eucharistic pattern to this story. This road to Emmaus shows that the early community was already worshiping, much like we do here at Holy Communion each and every week. First we break open scripture, then we break the bread.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus when they saw him doing what he had done in his life. He offered them a blessing. He offered them food. He offered himself to them. He taught them. There in the mundanity, there they glimpsed Jesus. Each week I tell you something scandalous, something nigh impossible to believe: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” Each week the worship of this church asks you to suspend your disbelief, and to receive Jesus. Here in the Scripture. Here, at the table. Here, in this motley crew of a congregation we ask you to meet Jesus.

We believe that this work is formative. Worship prepares us to receive God, to be ready for miracles, even mundane miracles. That’s why we don’t make the kids leave the service for some more entertaining Sunday School. That’s why, if and when we start a children’s chapel, it will look like a more interactive version of what the adults are doing. We believe that worship forms us, readies us, as it readied Cleopas and his companion, to see Jesus.

Shakespeare’s clown Lafeu in “All’s Well that End’s Well” famously muses: “They say miracles are past.” Do you agree? What do you make of miracles? Is there room for poetry? Is there room for nuance? Is there room for God still in this world? I hope so. I’m still looking. Whether you’re on the road to Emmaus, or El Maizal, or you are just headed down Delmar Boulevard later. May you be prepared to encounter the miraculous, even in the most mundane moments.

Doubt, in Good Measure

Today there’s no escaping Thomas. Our Gospel story centers on a particular character, Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin, but you know him by another name: Doubting Thomas.

How do we handle doubt? This morning, I want to try and make a distinction between “doubt” as a thought process, and doubt as a posture. Doubt as a thought process, I believe, is crucial for faith. Doubt as a posture can become toxic.

Doubt as a thought process, I’ll say again, is crucial for faith. Without doubt, can you really have faith? I don’t think so. If you know something, beyond a doubt, you have certainty. The Episcopal Church is a sacramental church, which is to say, we celebrate mysteries. What happens to bread and wine on that altar? Somehow Jesus is present. “How?”, you might ask, and I’ll likely respond: “It’s a mystery.” What will happen later this morning when we baptize Mira Carol Powell? She’ll be marked as Christ’s own forever? “How?,” you might ask, and I’ll respond, “it’s a mystery.” Sacramental Christians believe in ancient signs, in tradition, in marking the time and the stages of life. And we do it with mystery.

Sometimes in our Pilgrimage classes, like the one that will start here next week, I get a little pushback. These classes are designed for folks who are new to the Episcopal tradition, or to Christianity. They’re also designed for anyone who is asking questions, exploring doubts, wondering how this faith and church stuff might work for them. I get pushback in part, I think, because much of the church has been in the business of certainty. The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican tradition where we find our roots, has had to hold too many diverse positions together to be certain about much. We’ve argued about the Bible, Bishops, the Eucharist, women, LGBT people, race, colonialism. We try and hold diverse people and perspectives together. So we look to mystery. We say our prayers together, even when we have questions, especially when we have questions. I believe this is one of our strengths as a tradition today.

The Episcopalian Madeleine L’Engle, famous for her children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” wrote in ways that challenged her readers. She wanted them to ask questions about God, family, even the nature of the universe. Her most famous book was rejected by countless publishers before it found a home. The publishers initially told her the questions were too big, the themes were to heavy on science, for a young audience. The book went on to win the Newbery Medal.

On one of her book tours, a child asked L’Engle about her faith. She said, “Do you really believe without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe with LOTs of doubts and I base my life on that belief.”

L’Engle brings me to the distinction I want to make about doubt. There’s a difference between acknowledging doubt, thinking through questions, looking for evidence, and adopting doubt as a spiritual posture.

Yesterday a crowd of thousands gathered in downtown St. Louis, one of many such crowds in cities around the world, to march in the name of science. One of the signs held high in the march in St. Louis was on the Post Dispatch’s homepage last night. It had a picture of a Bible and a caption that said, “This is not a Science Textbook.” I thoroughly agree.

Have you ever been disbelieved? Especially if you were telling a story that was important to you? We typically think of children in this kind of situation. A young person tells a story, and the adults all nod their heads and then someone turns and says, “but that’s not possible.” The child is frustrated and disheartened “but you HAVE to believe me,” she says. No one is swayed. Have you known that kind of disbelief? Have you been so disbelieved?

Many in our society have used the Bible as a tool for dis-belief. Scientists who have spent careers refining data, pushing the edges of discovery, almost unanimously agree about human-caused climate change. And they have been disbelieved. The Christian tradition has been used to sew doubt in the validity of science. Many Christians have taken a posture of doubt toward science. They call themselves climate “change skeptics.” Our country is making some dangerous gambles on policy enabled by this doubtful stance. Yesterday the scientists took to the streets.

Scientists would tell you, doubt in the right measure is important. You have to question your hypotheses, you have to look for the evidence, but when you’ve heard the science and you doubt anyway, that’s doubt to a different degree. These folks tend to call themselves “climate change skeptics.” But that kind of doubt, that posture of doubt, is not just skepticism it’s cynicism. That kind of doubt can be toxic to your soul.

Now many climate change skeptics, would say they are distrustful that government can do anything about the science. That is the sort of cynicism I worry can be toxic. When science and government have worked together, we’ve gone to the moon. We funded cures for diseases like polio. Government, in a democracy, is the people acting together. Cynicism would have us say: “why bother? you can’t fix it anyway.” Cynicism leads to inaction, depression, an inability to make change.

Scientists, as a whole, and I know, it’s dangerous to talk about groups of folks as a whole, but the scientists I know tend not to be cynics. Folks who spend their lives testing theories, looking for answers, they tend toward hope. They want to try and conserve our planet, or, if there’s too much damage done to save a particular system, to find ways to help us adapt and live with the change. Scientists also tend to drive folks nuts when they get down to the bare bones of what we can know. Push a scientist or a theologian too hard and they both start talking about “mystery” and they’ll have the same wistful look in their eyes.

Which finally brings me around to Thomas. You did know I would make it back to scripture. Didn’t you? In the Gospels, today’s story is Thomas’ big part. He’s been mostly offscreen, a name in a list of Jesus’ followers. No other action centers on Thomas, but he does have a couple of lines before today’s story.

Late in the Gospel, Thomas, sensing the danger ahead as they approach Jerusalem, says to his fellow disciples. “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Thomas has a sense of what is to come. A few chapters later, Jesus has said told them Thomas is right, he will die, and he’ll go to his Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says in response, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says to Thomas that famous line, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Thomas had given his life to this Jesus. We don’t hear the story of Thomas’ call in the Gospels, but whether he was a fisherman like Peter, James and John, or a tax collector like Matthew, we can presume Thomas gave up his way of living to follow Jesus. And his few words in the Gospels give us the sense that he’d given his heart as well. Thomas was all in. So it would make sense that Thomas was disappointed, grieving, depressed. I can understand why he might have avoided that upper room at first. He’s not ready to jump at this sign of hope. He’s been burned. So Jesus meets him. “See the scars. Know that it’s me.” Only then Thomas will say, “My Lord and my God.”

When I hear Jesus’ words, “don’t doubt, believe.” I hear Jesus imploring Thomas: “Don’t become a cynic.” Don’t let life and loss drag you to a place that is hopeless. Faith is not so much ascribing the right constellation of ideas. Faith is a posture toward life. Jesus doesn’t want Thomas to check his brain at the door. Jesus doesn’t say: “believe despite the evidence.” Jesus says, “here I am.” Jesus wants Thomas to choose life, to choose hope, to choose resurrection.

As Christians, we say we are “Easter People.” When we baptize someone we say, “you are Risen with Christ.” New life is always possible. Your life can be new today. You can lean toward that “indescribable and glorious joy” Paul talks about. The nineteenth century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.” How can your life be new today? How can faith help you lean, through the doubt, to new life?

“I believe with all sorts of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” Doubt, in the right measure, is crucial for survival. If you can’t hold doubt, you can’t handle mystery, and what is life if not mystery. So doubt, in good measure. But be careful, because too much doubt can bruise your soul. When you adopt doubt as a permanent posture toward life, you can push away important data. You can push away good news. You can push away faith. Be careful.

Can you believe with all sorts of doubts? Can you, like Thomas, base your life on that belief?