Where do you locate hope?

Where do you locate hope?

I know this is a dangerous Sunday to talk about hope. As soon as I ask that question, some folks here will say “I place my hope in Tom Brady.” Others will say “Matt Ryan.” And most everyone will say, “I’m just hoping Mike keeps this sermon short.” Well…there’s always hope right?

But I’ve found myself returning to this question again and again over the past weeks. Where do you locate hope?

I’ve been thinking about hope as I’ve listened to my more liberal/progressive friends try and gauge their reactions to the last few weeks. “Don’t worry, this new president won’t last very long.” “Impeach him now!” These statements are sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but in the spread between sincerity and sarcasm, I hear a sort of testing: “How long?” How long do we have to keep up the resistance? How long until we can stop showing up at protests. When can we stop all this writing and calling our legislators? How long? What moment, what change, will indicate that we’re done? A resignation? The rescinding of an executive order? What exactly are we looking for? Where do we locate hope?

My more conservative friends are asking a similar set of questions: How long are these liberals going to keep this up? Why can’t they get over it? What will be the sign that we were right? What will stop them? These are also questions about the location of hope.

Now, my job is to take a look at Scripture with you this morning, to open up our tradition in the church. I’m afraid our lessons this morning do not point to quick resolutions. There aren’t easy answers. For the Bible, hope is not a short-term project. For followers of Jesus, hope can be built on nothing less than Jesus’ dream. Our hope rests on the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s people find themselves in a state of grumbling. They have returned from exile, but their cities are in ruin. It seems that God is not hearing their prayers. In the theology of the time, the proper response to God’s silence was fasting. So all through Judea they put on sack cloth. They rolled around in ashes, and still, still, God did not hear their plea. Isaiah gives them a shocking reply:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah’s people want a quick resolution. They want God to hear their plea, to honor their fast. “It doesn’t work that way,” Isaiah says. You have forgotten your own kin. The people are suffering because the structures of society are unjust. If want God to hear your cry, if you want to “make Judea great again,” tend to the hungry, the homeless, the suffering. Remember the poor. You get a sense of the tradition Jesus develops in these chapters of Isaiah. For Jesus, as for Isaiah, God is especially attentive to the treatment of those who are lost, least, and left out.

So it is no surprise that the Gospel also complicates matters. “Be salty” Jesus tells his followers. “Let your light shine.” These passages are a meditation on the quality of discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t hide your light. The kingdom is coming, he tells them, but it’s not coming quickly. Steel yourselves. Be Salty. Shine.

Last week, as I listened to our hymns, as we read scripture together, it sort of dawned on me again how much of our Christian tradition is built for resistance. Our faith was made for times like these. Christianity was forged in opposition to an empire. When Roman citizens chanted: “Caesar is Lord” Christians responded, “Jesus is Lord.” The great moments of Christian history tend to be moments when Jesus’ movement inspired resistance, from the early martyrs to Francis of Assisi’s stand for the poor, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, to Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, Christianity is built for resistance.

There’s a reason so many Christian hymns found resonance on the underground railroad, and during the Civil Rights era. The best Christian music is written and sung by people who are able to name their present reality, to say: “this injustice is not what God dreams for us.” Jesus teaches about the kingdom, the coming reign of God, the world as it should be.

I said this realization dawned on me last week, that so much of our scripture, so many of our songs, were written for resistance. I knew that resistance was there. I’ve read Howard Thurman. My favorite theologians tend to be liberationists from Latin America. But over the past eight years, I wonder if my sense of resistance grew more diffuse. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the new president lately. I want to take a moment to think about the previous president, the role of the church over the last eight years.

I confess, when President Obama was inaugurated, I remember worrying a bit about all of the fuss. I worried that we were letting ourselves off the hook because we’d gotten such a man elected. There were celebratory posters and ice sculptures all over DC that January. The DC Metro (Washington’s Subway) even made a Metro-card with the President-elect’s face on it. When we inaugurated the president, it was with great fanfare, huge celebration. At the time, it was easy to see the celebration as a natural embrace from the highest majority black city in America of the first black president. Still, I remember some disquiet in my heart, some of which was there because the president-elect was saying “what’s the fuss about?”

I worried a bit more after the inauguration when the new president was pleading with his supporters to keep up the movement, to call their senators and congress-people. The president asked people to show up, to participate in the democratic process. Somehow it seemed the energy that got him elected dissipated soon after he was in office. I worry that for many of us, at least subconsciously, the election of President Obama served as a sign that we had “arrived” in the world for which we had hoped. Did we get complacent? Eight years ago, did we elect a president, or a savior?

That question may seem unfair, but it gets to my question about the location of hope. I am wondering if some of the hand wringing these past weeks since President Trump’s coming into office has come from displaced hope. It was easy to rest a great deal of hope in President Obama, even if he asked us not to trust his ability to bring change, but to hope in our ability. Still, it was one of my favorite artists Shepard Fairey who created THE poster of Obama’s campaign. The image simply featured Obama’s face, and the word “Hope.” As Christians, is there another way? Could we work with a politician while still locating our hope in an agenda far beyond that of any political party?

I’ve shared with you before the story of the friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Nelson Mandela, that nation’s first democratically elected president. Both men separately received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in ending apartheid and forging a new inclusive nation. For decades under the apartheid government, Bishop Tutu advocated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. And in 1990 Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of the Archbishop.

It came as a surprise for Mandela when Tutu refused to join his political party, the African National Congress. But Tutu felt that he could not, as a church official, publicly identify with any party, even Mandela’s. For Tutu, the only loyalty he could profess was to God’s kingdom. Until the kingdom of this world became the kingdom of our God, no one party, no one movement, no one issue could define the hope of the Church.

Bishop Tutu’s faith was forged in resistance. He grew up unable to swim in the ocean at “whites only” beaches, unable to study in “whites only” schools. Tutu developed a suspicion of government, even a government run by one of his close friends, a member of his own tribe. When I try to conceive of what Jesus means when he tells his followers they are the “salt of the earth,” I can’t come up with a better image than Bishop Tutu explaining to President Mandela that he plans to keep an independent voice, in case he needs to stand up to the new government for the sake of the Gospel. That’s pretty salty.

So I return to my initial question: where do you locate hope? In the coming weeks, months, and years can we be wary of easy answers? When it comes to hope, can we play the long game? Can we persist against the desire for this all to be over? Can we overcome complacency? Can we build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ faith and righteousness?

If we do, our hearts will be restless. As St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.”

Placing your hope in the Kingdom of God gives you perspective from which to move. Placing your hope in that coming Kingdom where ALL God’s people are welcomed, where ALL God’s people are valued, placing your hope there gives you incentive to keep moving, gives you incentive to stay restless.

Will your restlessness help move you from sorrow to action? Will you stay salty? Will you let your light shine? Will you loose yokes and let the oppressed go free? Will you clothe the naked and house the homeless? Will justice be the fast you choose?

How long do we resist? Well Christians, if we place our hope in God, we resist until the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

We locate our hope in the Kingdom of God.

Marriage Equality and the ongoing work of justice- a sermon for the 12:10p Holy Eucharist

“There is no longer Jew or Greek.  There is no longer slave nor free.  There is no longer male and female” today we can add to St. Paul’s list: today there is no longer “same-sex marriage” and “opposite sex marriage,” at least in the eyes of the Federal Government.  Today is indeed a historic day for our nation, and today we need to pause, to celebrate, and to give thanks.

I was living in San Diego in 2008, when a California Court first ruled that the State should not discriminate against same-sex couples in the issuing of marriage licenses. I heard the news as I was on my way to the pool at the University of California, San Diego, where I was working at the time.  Halfway through my third lap I started crying, and I had to sit up on the side of the pool for awhile and weep.  The tears surprised me.  I don’t cry easily.  But that afternoon, for the first time in my life, I was living in a jurisdiction where my love was treated equally under the law, and I was surprisingly overwhelmed.

In the year and a few months that followed, friends got married, and today, again their marriages are held as valid, not only in the eyes of the State, but in the eyes of the Federal Government, and that is something to celebrate.  Good friends of mine, a married couple about to deploy with the military to live in Japan, will get to live ON base, rather than off base.  My friend  Captain Matthew Phelps will be able to share his house on base, his medical coverage, and his visa with his husband Ben.  Today we give thanks, to God, who made us all, loves us all, and who dreams for a day when all of creation  is free from oppression.

But today we read the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday as well, and we hear that Jesus “set his face on  Jerusalem.”  His pursuit is relentless.  “Don’t look back.”  “Go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”  Today we will pause to celebrate.  Today we will ring our church bells and give thanks that we are steps closer, but we won’t look back.  We will set our faces forward.  We follow a savior who won’t stop until we’re in Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city where people are not denied their right to love, or their right to vote.  Today we give thanks, but we know that we still have a lot of work to do.Image

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  Today we celebrate Jesus, the King of Glory.  It makes sense to celebrate Christ the King today, the last Sunday of the Church year.  This Sunday often falls just after Thanksgiving, and there are so many vibrant, loud, flashy, hymns that might just keep those of us who are still in a bit of a Turkey coma awake through church.  So today we’ll sing good hymns, we’ll celebrate Christ the king.  But where is Christ’s Kingdom?

Where is this kingdom Jesus spent so much time talking about?  Where is Christ King?  Can you find this place on a map?  The hymns we’ll sing today are great for folks tuckered out by tryptophan and too much shopping, but the Gospel text really is not.  We have this strange back and forth between Jesus and Pilate that turns into a philosophical discourse, and it all just seems a little too much.  There is a lot going on in this little dialogue, too much to unpack in a single sermon, but I think by paying attention to the question of “where” we can get an important window into what exactly is going on.  

You might have noticed that I asked Gini to read a couple of extra verses at the beginning of the Gospel text.  I promise we’re not in a conspiracy trying to make church longer.  I think the introduction, which speaks to where this dialogue takes place, is important.  The temple authorities bring Jesus to Pilate’s palace, to the praetorium, the house of the Gentile governor, but they stop on the front step.  They can’t go in, or they will become ritually unclean.  They sort of toss Jesus in to Pilate, like you’d toss food into a lion’s cage, and stay on the outside.

I want to stick on this point for a moment, because it is not something common in our time.  In the first century Jewish worldview, Geography was sacred.  Certain spaces were considered sacred.  Others were profane.  If you grew up in this culture, you knew not to enter a gentile’s house if you planned to sit down at your mother’s passover table later that day.  This concept is foreign to us, as it would have been to Pilate, and I think that this helps us to understand the exchange between Christ the King and Pilate the governor.  Pilate seems perplexed, and eventually gets exasperated with Jesus, who won’t answer his questions.  For Pilate, the question “are you the King of the Jews?” had geographical importance.  Do you claim to be King of this territory, this land where I am governor, where Caesar is Lord?  If Jesus claims this land as his kingdom, Pilate has a case against him.  

But Jesus gives this cryptic answer: “My Kingdom is not from this world,” and it sounds as odd today as it sounded then.  We can almost see long haired, hippy Jesus saying, “my kingdom doesn’t obey the constraints of time and space man.”  We can understand Pilate’s frustration, but we have to see the backdrop.  Jesus is not the only one behaving strangely, by Roman standards.  Pilate also looks on as Jesus’ accusers stand at the edge of his steps, refusing to come in because of their odd ideas about space, time, the holy and the profane.  

Pilate is the governor of the Palestinian territories, and he can draw a map of the land under his charge, but where he sees rocks, trees, water rights and mineral resources, the Jewish people see something else.  They look at the map and they see the sacred stories of their ancestors.  They see places so holy that to enter them is to risk your life, and places so profane that walking through can send you into exile.  This is the reason the conflict in Israel/Palestine today is so intractable.  To the Jewish people, and to the Palestinian people, the land is enchanted.  Resources and stories are layered together in the contested sacred terrain.

Sunset on the Sandias
Sunset on the Sandias, New Mexico

When Jesus says, “My Kingdom is not of this world,” this is the backdrop.  Jesus speaks to Pilate, looking at the map of his territory, and Jesus sees another map, an enchanted landscape.  In Washington, we do not often have a strong sense of this enchantment, but I just came back from New Mexico.  I spent the week of Thanksgiving, as I often do, with my father’s family outside of Santa Fe, in that State they call the “land of enchantment.”  If you’ve never heard New Mexico called the “land of enchantment,” ask someone from New Mexico why they call the State by that name.  If they are anything like my dad, they will go on and on about the natural beauty, the sunsets, the food, the history, the native cultures, the history of the missions, the spirituality.  Maybe it is the thin air up there, but the people of New Mexico are really sold on their State.  The land is enchanted.

After awhile the enchantment grows on you.  When I stepped out of our rental car in Santa Fe that first night last week and caught the first whiff of that winter air, it was magical.  The air is literally fragrant with the smoke of piñon and the smell of mountain sage.  Religion and Ethics Newsweekly did a piece on Northern New Mexico a few years ago, remarking on the number of spiritual communities that have come to the high desert to set up camp.  Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Benedictines, Sufis, even some wild-eyed Presbyterians, they have all come to this enchanted land to find a “thin space,” a place where the veil between the material and the spiritual world is a bit thin.

Which brings us back to Pilate, and Jesus’ strange talk about his Kingdom not being of this world.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk has said of Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom: “It is not the the Kingdom of God is not available to us, but that we are not available to the kingdom.”  We are not available to the Kingdom.  Pilate sure isn’t.  “What is truth?” he asks.  Pilate is a cynic.  How often do we cynically dismiss the spiritual side of life?  Cynicism is poison to faith.  Cynicism is poison to spiritual experience.  Cynicism is poison to love, and light, and hope.  Cynicism blocks out the Kingdom of Jesus.

If we follow Jesus’ logic, the kingdom of God is available, is not limited to a sacred space like Israel or New Mexico, is not limited to a specific time.  The Kingdom is available here, now.  Our world is enchanted, we’ve just been to busy to notice.
Here before Pilate, Jesus is vulnerable.  One of the hard truths of the spiritual life is that for the Kingdom of God to break through, we have to be broken open.  Sometimes that breaking open is painful, but we have to be broken out of our cynicism, out of our routine.  Jesus is a vulnerable king, and the way to his kingdom is through vulnerability.

Of course there are moments when the Kingdom breaks through, when it is so inescapable that we can’t fail to see Jesus’ reign.  Sometimes the poor are fed.  Sometimes the lame walk.  Sometimes the blind see.  Sometimes alcoholics recover.  Sometimes people finally ask for forgiveness from one another.  Sometimes forgiveness is given.  Sometimes political parties come together to get work done to help the vulnerable.  Sometimes people fall in love.  The Kingdom breaks through.

Where has the kingdom broken through in your life?  Have you glimpsed this other-worldly place of peace, of joy?  Sometimes Christ’s Kingdom breaks through, but I wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be here, week after week, if you didn’t think we could make our own approaches to the Kingdom of God.  Prayer, worship, giving, pilgrimage, there are many maps to Jesus’ Kingdom, many different spiritual practices that seek to bring us there.  Each of them seek to open us, to help us to glimpse the enchantment in each moment, to glimpse the map of Christ’s Kingdom each and every day.