By your endurance you will gain your souls.

In seminary and in my first years after ordination, I served as one of the several preachers at St. John’s Church in downtown Washington, DC. Now there was a pecking order when it came to assigning sermons. The rector, which is Episcopalian-speak for the head priest, got the “big” texts: Christmas, Easter, Good Friday and the like. Then the assistants got assignments in order of seniority. Starting out, I was on the very bottom of the list, which meant that I often had to preach on the less desirable passages. In one year, I pointed out to the rector, three out of the four times I preached, the world ended (at least in the Biblical text I was assigned).

But I endured. Now I am the rector, and I confess, I had tried pass this text off to a guest preacher today. Then a couple weeks ago it dawned on me that this Sunday was to follow the election. I thought: “That makes it a pretty big Sunday. I better preach.” Then I saw the text, and then the election turned out unexpectedly. So what do we think, it the end of the world?

In response to this election, and in response to the Gospel of Luke, I want to offer you some poetry. Nayirrah Waheed is a young black queer poet. She comes from Muslim heritage. This is a very short poem from her collection *Salt*:

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

What Waheed is describing, I think, has something to do with the endurance by which we gain our souls.

I was a little surprised by all of the surprise on Wednesday. There were two candidates for president, but still many had not imagined this outcome. For many of my friends, there was a palpable sense of loss, hunched shoulders, hushed voices, tears. So many people were ready to celebrate the first woman president, a new world. Then that world didn’t come. The dream ended. It felt like loss. It was loss. And the sun came up the next morning.

In just a few moments we will begin praying for “Donald, our president-elect.” The man needs our prayers. He has accepted a job with impossibly enormous responsibilities. Our president-elect would have probably been much more comfortable launching “Trump News.” Instead, he will lead the most powerful, economically important, and strategically complicated nation in the world. He needs our prayers. The outcome of this election does not change that we pray for the president at Holy Communion. If it is hard for you, I encourage you to pray for him more fervently. This prayer is good for your soul too.

I understand the anger some folks are feeling. 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. But I can’t join in chanting: “Not my president.” I heard too much of that same rhetoric about President Obama. We live in a Republic, and Donald Trump won the election. He will be my president. He will be our president. We will pray for him.

Possessive pronouns are important in a democratic system. Possessive pronouns remind us to whom our government officials are accountable. The presidency does not belong to “him” it belongs to “us.” The Whitehouse is public housing. Our president, our governor, our elected representatives hold our government in trust, and they are accountable to us. We have a right to speak. We have a duty to dissent. We have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable. That responsibility doesn’t end with the election, it begins again each morning.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers that they will testify. After they arrest us, after they put us in prison, we will testify. Now if the prospect of prosecution makes you nervous, know that Jesus didn’t live in a republic like ours. We are better protected than Jesus and his original 12. That said, this church has a history of hiring priests who are rabble rousers. The late Reverend Emery Washington helped shut down I-70 in 1999. I met a number of you for the first time in the streets of Ferguson marching after the death of Michael Brown. Pastor Rebecca, who served as your assistant and your interim, how many times was she arrested? Jesus’ words shouldn’t come as news to us here.

When we disagree, we will bring our testimony to our newly elected officials, to our new governor, and yes, to our new president. Incidentally, this would have been true even if the election had gone the other way. We follow a savior who prophesied that his followers would stand up in the courts of justice. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God is what the Lord requires of us whichever party currently holds sway.

Some might say this sounds a little tough, to start out a political relationship with our new president-elect with dissent. Now is the time for unity, isn’t it? Part of the shock of this election comes from the rhetoric of the campaign run by Mr. Trump. Bigoted voices have been amplified in this country. On Friday night, I was with our youth group on a trip to the City Museum. Between climbing through caves and riding 10 story slides, we talked about the days since the election.

Some of our youth told me that at Ladue High School a group of white students this last week chanted “Trump Trump Trump” before one boy told his black classmates they should go to the back of the bus. I have heard similar, credible stories from around the country of human beings bullied since the election by teens and adults. Our fellow Americans are being targeted because of language, accent, perceived immigration status, skin color, gender identity, religion or sexual orientation.

As a citizen I demand an end to the campaign of hate that has wearied our nation and emboldened dangerous elements of our society. Our president elect, as he looks to unify the country, should repudiate these acts, this language. He should stand up against violence and hate. And whether he will, we must.

Last week we read from the Gospel of Luke the famous line: “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.

We must stare down hate. In this sense, turning the other cheek is not a meek acceptance of abuse, but an act bold defiance. Keep in mind, we live in a different context than Jesus. Sometimes the best place to face your abuser is not in the moment, but later, with other adults present, and sometimes even in court. In this sense, in our context, turning the other cheek may mean pursuing disciplinary or legal action against the offending party. Another person’s future safety may depend on your action against the abuse you face. Facing hate requires endurance.

Where are my teenagers? I am proud of you for standing up to hate in your schools. Do not let ugly comments go. Tell an adult. If they refuse to act, tell another adult. You can always come talk to me too. I know you already know this. I know you are already doing this. Thank you. Keep it up.

We must stand up against hatred. The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion will endure as a congregation which stands for welcome, for diversity, for community. Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you will continue to be welcome here.

I have a sense that Holy Communion has an important role to play in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Many of you have talked about this role as we’ve discussed our congregation’s Mission and Vision. Last week, at our adult forum I heard you describe our community as an important safe space in our divided world. I believe that many people in our city are looking for a community like Holy Communion. They may not know it yet; they may not have the words, but I think many people are hungry for what Holy Communion has on offer (and I’m not just talking about our cheap breakfast). People are looking to diverse communities that do the hard work of listening to one another and reaching out to their neighbors.

I know that this week I have been grateful to be your pastor. Gathering together to pray with many of you on Wednesday was a balm to my soul. As we gather financial pledges today, I hope you will be generous in your support of this church for the year to come. Your generosity will help us make Holy Communion more available for others. In response to the hate that has filled our social media accounts, our airwaves and our national conversation, people are looking for a community that counters the language of division. People are hungry for a church that tries to live Jesus’ call to justice, to love. People want to learn not just to tolerate differences, but to embrace diversity as God’s gift. I know this congregation well enough now to be sure that you will make room in our pews for ALL who are weary, for all who need a safe space, for ALL who want to gather to work for the kingdom.

I know there are others out there who won’t let the drumbeats of uniformity in Washington or Jefferson City become a distraction. America is great because of its diversity. Our country is richer because of the rich variety of people who claim the American dream. We will only know this dream fully when we stop merely “tolerating” the other. Only when the American dream can be described by black voices, women’s voices, Latinx, LGBTQ, disabled, Muslim, and other systemically oppressed voices, only when all American voices are honored our republic, will we begin to glimpse the great promise God has for this country. We have neighbors, we have fellow citizens who understand the value that we hold here, the value of diversity. We will work together.

I don’t want to paint a pretty picture for you this morning. I don’t want to pretend that this work will be easy. I imagine that the years ahead will be challenging. It may well get darker. There may be signs in the heavens. Still, Jesus encourages us. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.” Claiming your voice, standing up to power, working for justice, making room for those who our society leaves behind, these are not light work. Soul work hardly ever is. But, my dear friends, we are in this together. We will endure.

There may be earthquakes, but we will endure. There will be rumors, and we will ask hard questions. I will preach on the apocalypse again from this pulpit. In life, the world as we knew it, or imagined it, may end many times. We will begin again the next morning. Whatever happens our work remains the same. We follow Jesus out to be with those our society leaves behind. Our nation, our community, and our church needs you. We endure.

Love in the Time of Distraction

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” two central characters fall in love in the first pages. The young Florentino and Fermina carry out an ill-advised romance. When her father finds out, Fermina is rushed away to live with family in another city. But Florentino writes to the young girl, and their relationship continues.

At one point in the romance, the young Florentino proposes marriage. Fermina, hesitant, asks for more time. Florentino sends passionate letter after passionate letter asking for her answer. Finally she responds, with a note scribbled on a scrap of paper from a school notebook: “Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.”

In the novel Florentino is the hopeless and hapless romantic. Fermina ends up a pragmatist, so much so that she does not marry Florentino, but instead chooses a young doctor. She doesn’t feel the same passionate love as Florentino, at least not at the degree he feels the burn. So she chooses Dr. Urbino and knows her future will be secure. Plus, her father approves.

This balance of the romantic and the practical features strongly in our Gospel text this morning. Mary and Martha, the two sisters with very different viewpoints. Some of you heard me preach a sermon earlier this year, where I wondered exactly how Mary was different. If Mary was alive today, would we diagnose her? Would we say she was on the autism spectrum? Or had a learning difference? Textually, I’m not sure you’d be far off in exploring that possibility.

If so, it makes Jesus’ words this morning radical. If Mary was intellectually different, it would also make his decision to take her side pretty characteristic, pretty Jesus-y. This was the guy who told adults to act like children. He ate with outcasts. He spent time with lepers. He told the people to take care of the poor. Jesus conspired with women. It seems very in character for Jesus to tell a disciple that her intellectually different sibling has chosen the better part. Jesus points us to unexpected teachers.

I have to confess, I do feel quite a bit for Martha in this story. We do a lot of hosting at our house, which both Ellis and I love to do. But I know well that the last moments of meal preparation, after the guests have arrived, can be a stressful time. My inner Christian feminist wants Jesus to stand up and continue the conversation as he helps Martha and Mary in the kitchen.

This morning, though, I want to take a slightly different tack. The traditional interpretation of Mary and Martha is allegorical. The sisters are taken as representative characters who stand for different ways of approaching Jesus and the world.

Jesus is invited into the house of Martha, the sister of his friend Lazarus. Martha busies herself with preparations. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. She listens to his words. Martha, not listening, barges in and tells Jesus to reprimand Mary. Make her help me, she demands. Jesus responds, “you are distracted by your many tasks. Mary has chosen well.”

Now, there is a danger in an allegorical interpretation. We could try and simplify this reading and say simply, “Be like Mary, not like Martha.” You need more contemplation and less action. Prayer is what Jesus wants, not work. That’s tempting, especially in summer when we try and keep church and sermons a little shorter. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

I think the allegory here is not in contrasting the two sisters quite so directly, but rather looking at that word “distraction.” Jesus does not assume that Martha is wrong. Action is not unnecessary. Jesus wants his dinner, after all. He doesn’t say that she has chosen badly. He says simply: “You are distracted by many things.”

When we pull away from the binary, wrong verses right, Mary vs. Martha, and we hear “you are distracted by many things,” the Gospel might get a little less comfortable. I know it does for me. How easily could Jesus say these words to me? In fact a spiritual director or two of mine *has* said these words to me. “You are distracted.”

We live in a world that is full of distraction. The satyrical newspaper “The Onion” carried a headline a few years ago proclaiming “Americans spend 90% of their waking hours staring at glowing rectangles.” If you think about it, it’s frighteningly close to true. Now, I’m no luddite. I’m not going to say we need to trade in all of our technology, but I do wonder whether our media environment means we are more and more prone to distraction. How many of us feel phantom vibrations even when our phone isn’t in our pocket?

We have gone from a society where precious few were constantly “on call,” doctors, policemen, firefighters, to a world of smart phone owners who are never free from work. I worry that such distraction can be toxic to our inner life. Prayer, relationship with God, takes cultivated attention, and we give a lot of our attention away. Did you hear about Pokemon Go this week? The game is addictive. I’ve been playing. So has Ellis. It is fun, one you can quickly lose hours of your life and huge amounts of phone battery. But the game can be a little worrying. People are so distracted staring at their phone screens and virtual reality that they’re walking into objects, and getting robbed in actual reality. You’ve got to have some balance.

Can we make mindful decisions about how to interact with our devices? A priest friend recently told me that he has decided not to look at social media before 10:30 in the morning. He was in the habit of waking up and looking at his friends’ posts before he even got out of bed. He discovered that it was often making him anxious before his day even started. He decided instead to read the Bible or some other spiritual writing right after waking up. He says it has helped him get grounded in the early morning. He can save news and opinion from his social networks, which can be distressing, until he is more fully awake.

Several years ago my sister encouraged me to challenge the default mode, to change my settings around email. She set up her email so that she COULD access it on her phone, or on her computer but so that neither device would give her a reminder for every message. The default setting with a buzz or ding for every email was just too much, so she changed her way of interacting. In her words, “I want to check my email, I don’t want my email to check me.”

For some of you, the smartphone and Facebook are not your distractions, but I bet you can fill in some blank.” I would have more time for prayer, more time for silence if only I spent less time doing ____” The responses I shared from my friend and my sister are, I believe, creative ways to engage a world that offers constant distractions. Jesus’s words to Martha are a reminder, we are the stewards of our time.

We are the stewards of our time. Think back on your last week, your last month. Another way to think about Jesus’ teaching this morning is to ask yourself. Are my priorities reflected in the way I spend my time. Is my time showing what matters to me? If we are going to find time for prayer, time to read the Bible, time for meditation, time to share a meal with a loved one, time to reach out thoughtfully in service, we have to overcome ever multiplying distractions. If it was true for Martha, how much more true are Jesus’ words in our own day?

Distraction obviously exists on a personal level, but it has social resonances as well. How often are we distracted as a society? As I watch the political cycle these days I am troubled. How captivated are we by bluster and bluff? Are we asking political candidates questions of substance? Are we too content to be distracted by sideshow antics? There are social justice ramifications when we become distracted.

To illustrate this point fully, I have to stop avoiding the prophet Amos. Our reading this morning is really bleak, and just wait for next week. Amos wasn’t what you’d call a “Feel Good” prophet, a prophet like the Isaiah we read near Christmas. This is no “comfort comfort ye my people.” Amos vividly prophesies death and destruction.

In these next weeks as we read Amos, know that there is a direction to Amos’ lament. At the end of the book, the people *will* rebuild the ruined cities. God’s justice will return to Israel. But Amos’ words today are intentionally confrontational. Amos is trying to get his peoples’ attention. He is trying to rise above the distraction.

The Israelites have become so distracted by the pursuit of wealth that they are willing to defraud and enslave. They’ve been so distracted by wealth, they are asking God, “When will the sabbath day be over, so that we can get back to trading.” They even say that they want to “buy the poor for silver” in the words of our text today. Do they not hear their own words?

It is little wonder that God tells them to be silent. It is little wonder that the famine Amos prophesies is a famine of hearing God’s word. The people have been so caught up in *doing*, they haven’t reflected on their actions. The people have stopped taking time to listen for God’s voice of justice, to remember their story, and to reflect. Action without contemplation is dangerous.

You need both action and contemplation to follow Jesus. One without the other can be ineffective and yes, it can be dangerous. But balance is possible.

At the end of “Love in the Time of Cholera” Fermina and Florentino do get together, in the later years of their lives. She has had a reasonably happy marriage. He has had many lovers. But when Florentino discovers Fermina has become a widow, he courts her again, and they argue about whether to renew their relationship. Eventually he writes her another letter. She reads it:

“It was a calm letter that did not attempt to do more than express the state of mind that had held him captive the previous night. It was as lyrical as the others, as rhetorical as all of them, but it had a foundation in reality. Fermina…read it with some embarrassment because of the shameless racing of her heart.”

Coming together in old age, Fermina and Florentino balance one another. The romantic has become more measured. The practical woman who just didn’t want any eggplant in her marriage has a heart that will race.

In love as in the spiritual life, we need to balance both poles, the contemplative and the active, the romantic and the practical, Florentino and Fermina, Mary and Martha. As whole people can we pay attention to Jesus in prayer and in deed? We live in a world that is hurting. Can we focus on the One who yearns to bind up the broken, to make all of creation whole? Can we learn to let go of some of the distractions and follow Jesus?

Practicing Lent: Service and Justice

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: Justice is a sexy word these days. Many congregations boast of their “social justice” programs. But I think it’s important to make clear that there is a difference between “justice” and “mercy.” Even Scripture draws a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament book of Micah we read, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The Christian community is called to do both of these; extending mercy and acting for justice. But they are not the same.

Before moving to Washington, DC I worked for a congregation that had an incredible feeding program for the urban poor in San Diego. On Sunday afternoons, this program could feed hundreds of people. And while this work was good and deeply Christian it was not justice, it was mercy. It was a noble and charitable act extended by privileged Christians to those with much less. It’s something we’re called to do. Even Jesus said that we are serving him when we serve others in this way. This is mercy. Not justice.

To seek justice is to seek change. Feeding the urban poor of our city, who while disadvantaged were far from starving, was a good practice but it was not changing the situation of those without a home, with nothing in the foreseeable future that might change their financial situation. Seeking justice changes the future of those without enough. We, as people following the way of Jesus, are called to do both.

Mike: The former assistant bishop of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, used to say that Episcopalians loved that quote from Micah, but we got it backwards. We often love justice and practice mercy. When you first moved to DC, I was a priest at St John’s Lafayette Square, a congregation that was engaging in justice work around housing the homeless. The work was slow. It involved tense meetings with city council members and organizing voter turnout to show political power.

Before I go on, I should point out that St. John’s is most famous for its role as the “Church of the Presidents.” Every US president since Madison has worshiped at the congregation, at least once or twice. People dress up for church. St. John’s can be a fancy place. The homeless are welcome at St. John’s, but we would ask someone who came regularly to try and shower before they came to church. When you are working with a population that faces mental illness and substance abuse, setting “ground rules” can be important. There is another Episcopal church just a couple of blocks away that is known as a “homeless church.” Most of the parishioners at the early service are housing insecure, and they have a big feeding ministry every Sunday morning. Sometimes people referred to Epiphany, the other church, as a more “justice oriented” church. I always had a hard time with that, St. John’s was working with the Interfaith organizations that were trying to get at the root of the problem and house the people that Epiphany served.

Jason: Every congregation–indeed, each individual–has a particular charism, a unique calling. Some are passionate about works of mercy, while others are just as passionate about working for justice. Both are deeply Christian and all Christians are called to do both; offering relief to those in need and changing the systems that create the need for relief. All at the same time. At the core of the practices of mercy and justice (what we are categorizing as “service”) is a call to relationship with the “other.” Since the most ancient of conversations between God and the Hebrew people there has been a unique distinction of God’s people: they were always called to consider the outsider, to offer basic human dignity to those that others may not. Who is our “other”? Make it personal, who is your “other”?

Mike: There’s a quote from Australian Aboriginal Organizers from the 1970s that I find really compelling. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I shy away from the service and mercy paradigm sometimes because it can be “paternalistic.” After “serving” the poor, I can walk away feeling like I have proved that I am a good person. But the boundaries between service and justice are permeable. Often, through long time mercy work, I have known people who built relationships with someone who might be called “other:” a social worker who befriended a client, a priest who ended up serving as the godmother for the children of an undocumented immigrant couple. Relationships that are formed in service, if we let them, can transform us. We can realize that without “the other” we are not whole. When we do so, I believe, we get closer to that reality that Jesus described as “The Reign of God,” and Dr. King described as “The Beloved Community.” To get there we’ll need both service and justice.