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.


Martin Luther King, Mountaintops, and Unfinished Business

This morning is about mountaintops and unfinished business. The story we have from the book of Numbers is a bit strange. Numbers may have taken its name from all the lists of specific instructions in the Book. In chapter 28, God demands exactly one tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil. Before you ask, I’m not sure how many hin are in an ephah. I’m glad I’m not a priest in the time of Numbers. I’m not very good at math. You can understand why don’t often read from Numbers in Church. This reading is not from the regular calendar of readings. Let me explain why I chose to include it this morning as we remember Dr. King.

The story narrates the last moments in the life of Moses. God says to the prophet, you will go up to the mountain and see the promised land, but you will not enter it. God explains that Moses, even Moses, rebelled against God’s word. Now, that’s good news for you and especially for me. If even Moses wasn’t perfect, there’s hope for us all, even the preachers. None of us are perfect. Moses goes up to the mountaintop, and he sees the promised land, but he will not enter that promised land.

Some of you know that Ellis and I took a short vacation after Christmas down to New Orleans, and on our way, we stopped in Memphis. If you haven’t visited the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, I commend it to you. The museum is impressive. I’d like to organize a pilgrimage there for our youth at Holy Communion to visit. The museum is built into the former Lorraine Motel, site of the martyrdom of Dr. King.

Martin came to Memphis in 1968 to support the strike of the city’s sanitation workers. For Dr. King, the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for economic justice, they were the same struggle. He preached his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he died. The sermon finished eerily with these words:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Brother Martin put himself in Moses’ shoes. He saw the promised land. This was the particular genius of Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, he was an organizer. Yes, he was a protestor, but above all, Martin was a preacher. We remember his actions, but more than that we remember his words. We remember his Dream. Martin Luther King Jr.’s genius was an ability to evoke and summon a better world.

Martin’s mountaintop vision was not primarily informed by his knowledge of the law, nor by his nimbleness as a politician. Martin’s vision was rooted in his faith. Martin believed in the work of Moses and the work of the prophets. He listened to the deep promises of scripture, to God’s promises of freedom, equality, and abundance. Martin’s vision went beyond the concept of legal equality. When the Civil Rights act passed, Martin didn’t sit down. He didn’t rest on his laurels. The vision was bigger. The view from that mountaintop meant he had to keep working. He had unfinished business.

We could use some of Martin’s mountaintop vision today. The recent discussions about race in this city and this nation have left very few people feeling satisfied. The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial chapter once told his congregation:

If you want to stop a conversation in this republic, introduce the subject of race. Even enlightened folks such as yourselves will soon find it edgy, non resolvable, difficult and bringing out feelings that you would rather not have on display…Dr. King argued that as long as black people were denied their full participation in the American dream, the American dream would always be the American dilemma…There will never be a peaceful moment in this republic until we have made peace with our racial animosities and have turned the dilemma into the dream.

I’m with Dr. Gomes, and I believe we need the mountaintop dreamer, perhaps more today than ever before. Too many of us are living an American dilemma. Young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. More than 10 million immigrants are living in this country without papers, their labor exploited, their undocumented status leaving them no legal recourse. Schools with the worst funding are often in the poorest neighborhoods because we tie education funding to property taxes. I can’t list all of our dilemmas. We’d be here all day. I know many of you have are spending and have spent your lives and your careers working in the midst of one dilemma or another. We seem unwilling and unable to find political solutions to the political components of these problems. We are in desperate need of some mountaintops. We need some dreamers.

All over our country tomorrow, plays will be staged. Documentaries will be screened. We will meditate on the “Life and Legacy of Dr. King.” What is Dr. King’s legacy? What is it? Is it desegregation? Is Dr. King’s legacy the election of the first black president? Surely these are a part of the legacy of the Civil Rights era. But I wonder, is Dr. King’s legacy bigger? One day will we consider Dr. King’s legacy bigger than we see it today? I believe Martin’s is a dream we have yet to fully realize. Dr. King’s legacy is tied up in a great deal of unfinished business.

I also chose our reading from Numbers this morning, because of what Moses does after God tells him he won’t get to the promised land. Standing there on that mountaintop, Moses had a request for God. “Appoint someone to lead them. Don’t leave them like a sheep without a shepherd.” Moses knew there was unfinished business. He knew the people Israel were still a mess. It wasn’t that long since they had grumbled to God for more food even after receiving bread from heaven. These are the people who set up a golden calf. They needed a leader. There was unfinished business.

Moses’ legacy would pass on to Joshua. Joshua would take them to the promised land, but even when they arrived, the battle wasn’t over. There were walls that need to tumble. The dream always goes on, always. The book of Numbers doesn’t give us Joshua’s thoughts on following Moses, but I imagine the initial exchange between Joshua and Moses to be a bit like Mary and Jesus in our Gospel this morning. “It isn’t my time yet.” Even Moses wasn’t sure of himself when God first called. Taking on the mantle of leadership, taking up the unfinished business, can be difficult, it can be painful.

A word about leadership: Some of you may have read a bit about The Episcopal Church in the news this week. Our Presiding Bishop  Michael Curry, who we pray for every week, needed our prayers especially this past week. He sat down with his fellow senior bishops at Canterbury. The Episcopal Church belongs to a worldwide body called the Anglican Communion, and every few years the most senior bishop of each autonomous church is invited to meet with the other “primates.” In this case “primates” doesn’t have to do with monkeys, but with the latin word “primus” or first. All the top bishops gathered at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The primates voted overwhelmingly to issue a Communique which critiqued The Episcopal Church for our decision to marry people of the same gender. The American and international news media  had a field day with the bishops’ statement. They made it sound like we were being kicked out of the Communion. On social media, some Episcopalians got very angry. Friends of mine from seminary wrote, “Forget the Communion. We don’t need them.” Social media really isn’t the place to go for enlightened discussion most of the time, even among priests. I want to clarify the situation just a bit. We aren’t being kicked out of the Communion. In some of the International Councils we may, for a period of three years, have a voice but not a vote. And I believe we need to stay at the table. We need to use our voice.

As he left the gathering, our presiding bishop said this:

 it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed.

It was a painful week for some of us. It’s painful when your family does not understand your sexual orientation, or your church affiliation. It can feel lonely, and alienating. But let’s be real. The Episcopal Church is pretty unique for our position on these matters. There aren’t many churches that offer traditional weddings, with all of the ancient trappings, for same-sex couples. We’re doing something new here. We’re doing something out of the ordinary. Many of us believe this is prophetic work. And so we have to stay at the table. We have to stay in the councils, and in the discussions, because we have to be able to share the dream.

I don’t want to make it out like we’re taking such a great risk. There are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender African Christians. They risk persecution, incarceration, and they even risk their lives. They are the real dreamers. They are real the mountaintop prophets. They need us to stay with them as allies in the unfinished work. I am proud of our church, and I am committed to staying at the table with other church leaders around our city and around the world. I believe we have good news to share, that God creates people with all sorts of orientations and gender expressions, and God loves them all. All.

The late, great, David Bowie once said “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” What do you hear? When you climb up on the mountaintop, what do you see?

Howard Thurman was a groundbreaking theologian and minister at Boston University’s chapel. He preached almost weekly to college students, those great dreamers. He even preached to a young, not yet Dr., King. Thurman often said in his writings and his sermons, “A person speaks in his [or her] time with his [or her] life. It is all that [you have], all that is given to [you,] and therefore it is all that [you] can give.” What will your life say? To what dream will you give your life?

Giving your life sounds glorious. I’m convinced our brother Martin was able to keep perspective in his life, partly because he wasn’t too worried about the accounting of his legacy. He didn’t waste energy with anxiety about how many hin or ephah the historians would measure for him. He simply had faith his dreams would count.

Martin also didn’t believe the dream belonged to him. His vision was a glimpse of the hope God has for all of us. On the last night of his life, in Memphis, Martin looked out over the gathering of church folk, activists, and sanitation workers. He told them about the Promised Land. He knew that long after he was gone, they would keep working on his unfinished business. Martin Luther King knew that his unfinished business was God’s unfinished business, and he could count on the people of God to keep leading the way.

Jesus, Paris, and the Prophecy of Justice

For a number of years, in the scholarship about Jesus, it was popular to regard him as a “prophet of the end times.” Passages like our Gospel today from Mark chapter 13, and the verses that follow are Mark’s “Apocalypse.” Jesus describes the end times in detail.

We’re not unfamiliar with this kind of prophecy in our day. Before I moved to St. Louis, I worked at a church just across Lafayette Park from the White House. Boy, we saw and heard a lot of prophecy in downtown Washington. We had our own prophets of doom. There was a homeless man who walked around in nothing but short cut off jeans. He had dreadlocks down to his waist and varied a big knotty walking stick. We called him Moses. Sometimes Moses and his friends held signs about the end times pointing to a specific Bible verse, like our reading from Mark. Prophets don’t just prophecy in Washington DC. I’ve seen would-be prophets here in St. Louis, on the Arch grounds. The end is always near.

As I said, there was a move in Christian theology to see Jesus like the guys at the Arch. Toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, it was fashionable to talk about Jesus as primarily an apocalyptic prophet. Johannes Weiss was the most influential of these scholars, but the influence stretched to Albert Schweitzer and more recently to the Jesus seminar: scholars like John Dominic Crossan, and popular writers like Bishop Spong. Thinkers who focus on the end-times prophecy can even wonder whether Jesus and his followers were disappointed when the end time they predicted didn’t come about.

I don’t think Jesus was a disappointed prophet. While I agree that Jesus talked about the end of the world, that the Bible as a whole can be pretty apocalyptic, I think this argument misses the point. Yes, Jesus imagined the end times. But for Jesus, the apocalypse wasn’t the end. Jesus central message is not “the end is near.”

Jesus is interested in what happens next.

In today’s Gospel, one of the disciples turns to Jesus and marvels at the Temple. The stones are huge. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, and seen the wall that remains of the temple complex, you know this disciple is right. The stones are HUGE. The buildings were massive, bigger than anything these country bumpkins from Nazareth had ever seen.

The theologian James Alison is surprised by Jesus’ indifference toward the temple. In Jesus day, the building was a source of pride and of meaning for Jews. Faced with the power of the Roman occupying force, the temple stood for God’s continuing presence with the people Israel. Those huge stones, the giant buildings, they were reminders that God was bigger than Rome. But Jesus doesn’t care. They’ll tear it down, he says. Don’t be fascinated by this place, by this stuff. The temple isn’t what lasts.

This would have shocked his contemporaries. Jesus’ words could be seen as blasphemy. God was thought to dwell physically in the temple. Jesus’ words could be seen as treason. As I said, the temple was a source of national pride. But Jesus didn’t worry about the temple. He didn’t want his disciples to spend energy on the building, on the debates. He didn’t want them to go through angst if it was destroyed (as it turned out, about 40 years after Jesus’ departure, the temple would be razed by the Romans in response to a Jewish revolt). Jesus doesn’t want them to dwell on the destruction, he wants them focused on what’s next.

My favorite telling of the end times comes in the Gospel of Luke. We’ll actually read Luke’s “little apocalypse” in a couple of weeks at the beginning of Advent. In Luke’s version, Jesus tells his disciples. When you see the signs, when you see the signs in the moon, in the sky, when you see the signs: LIFT UP YOUR HEADS. Lift up your heads. You might expect Jesus to say something else. The end is coming! Duck!

But no, Jesus says, “Lift up your heads.” Or, as Mark has it, these signs are just “the birth pangs.” Jesus doesn’t want us to dwell on the destruction. Jesus doesn’t want us to marvel at the stones. Look for what is next Jesus says. Destruction is commonplace. It was true in Jesus time. It’s too true in ours. Disciples of Jesus focus on what is next.

This “lifting up” of our heads. This stance of expectation and hope, it’s not easy to come by in our world. Our a world that puts a lot of energy into the stones. You can probably tell, I’m reading the stones as figurative, more than literal. We put a lot of love into stones. One of the best explanations of sin that I know comes from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine talked about sin as dis-ordered love. Sin arises when we get our loves out of order.

Examples of Augustine’s sense of sin are easy to come by. In my own life, I love my family more than I love getting my way, but sometimes when I don’t get my way, I behave as if that is more important than my family. Ask my sister, or my husband. Sometimes I get these loves out of order. I act as if getting my way were more important than family. Indeed, your preacher is a sinner.

I make light, but the consequences can be very dark. What we saw Friday night in the streets of Paris, was dark, was sinful. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to explore the events in Paris in the light of Augustine’s “disordered love.”

The American Muslim Scholar Omid Safi likes to point out that The Quran begins differently than the Bible. In the Quran we do not begin with “In the beginning God created.” The Quran doesn’t begin with God’s resume like our Bible. The Quran begins with God’s names: “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly Tender.” That is where Islam begins. The men who committed these acts of terror professed a love for God who is named All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly tender.

Loves out of order can become terrorism. When people talk about “Fundamentalism” I confess I get confused. The fundamentals of Islam, the fundamentals of Christianity, the fundamentals of Buddhism and Hinduism, and Judaism, the fundamentals are compassion, prayer, tender-heartedness, justice and love. Those are the fundamentals. Human beings sin when they order other loves in religion above compassion. When we elevate our need for power and control, when we artificially lift up a desire for surety in the system, when we put a need to be right over a need to be merciful, God help us.

As our new Presiding Bishop put it a few weeks ago: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” When religious people get our loves get out of order, we find ourselves in a state of sinfulness, missing the point. And we can find ourselves in the midst of tragedy.

“What are you focusing on?” Jesus asks his disciples. Ignore the temple stones. The symbols of power aren’t the point. Don’t get caught up on those buildings, those stones. When you hear them falling, pick up your heads. I think Jesus talked about the end times, because the world around him was ending. The centuries of Jewish rule of Jerusalem was ending. Rome had come to town. Sure, the Romans still allowed the temple to function, for a time, but the world as Jesus’ people had known it was about to change.

It was true in Jesus’ time, and it is true in our own. We know of earthquakes caused by our own exploration for fossil fuels. We see the temperature of the planet changing. We see atrocities carried out in God’s name across our planet. We see signs. The world as we know it ends all the time. But to Jesus, what we might see as the world ending, these signs are birth pangs for something new. Jesus was focused on what was next.

Jesus told his disciples: Seek first the Kingdom of God. Don’t worry about the temple. Don’t worry about it. Seek God’s kingdom. God’s Kingdom is what is next. Seek that place where all the children of God know of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s tenderness. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” Build the Kingdom. In the midst of tragedy, get to work. In the midst of fear, go love your neighbor.

We saw glimpses of that kind of love in Paris. As Friday night went on, Parisians started lighting up Twitter with the hashtag #porteouverte “Open Door.” People who had no where to go after the attacks, people who were stuck out in the cold streets, unable to return home, used the words to ask for a place to shelter. We saw the love in response. For every tweet that asked for help, hundreds and hundreds of Parisians were offering an open door without being asked. In the midst of tragedy, Paris took to Twitter to express loving their neighbors by opening their doors.

Jesus invites his followers to move past a captivation with symbols of power, a captivation that ends in destruction. Jesus isn’t a prophet of doom, but a prophet of hope.

Jesus invites us to lift up our heads, to see what is being born. Another world is possible, is coming. We can learn to treat one another with respect. We can learn to overcome ancient divides based on race, class, skin color, religion. We can right past wrongs. We can learn to see one another as created in the image and likeness of a God who is “All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly Tender.” Following Jesus invites us to believe in that world, and look for that world, even in tragedy.

In order to see that world, we have to pay attention to the ordering of our loves. Do we live our lives in a way that shows our priorities? Do our actions demonstrate that we Love the Lord our God with all our mind and all our heart and all our soul? and that we Love our Neighbor as ourselves? In response to all that is happening in our world, Jesus invites us to consider what we love first, and to act out of that love.

Jesus wasn’t a disappointed prophet, because Jesus’ end game wasn’t the end times. For Jesus, the end was love, was justice. Even in the midst of tragedy, Jesus says, keep your heads up, look for the Kingdom of God being born. Justice is coming. Mercy is coming. Compassion is coming. Justice, Mercy, Compassion, love, that is the prophecy of Jesus.