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 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.

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.