Go the Extra Mile

What relationships have given shape to your identity? Stated more succinctly: Who has shaped you?

Many of us can point to a teacher who introduced us to our favorite subject or author. Many of us can recall a friend who recommended a style of music, or our favorite band. Sometimes to our chagrin, we’ll find ourselves sharing an opinion and then say, “O gosh, I sound just like my mother. She would have said that.” We are shaped, all of us, by our community, consciously and unconsciously.

In my previous gig, my old job, I worked for The Episcopal Church’s office for “Lifelong Formation.” I was the young adult and college-student specific minister, but I loved the name of the office “Lifelong formation.” No matter our age, or sense of maturity, we are, all of us, in formation. We have been formed. We continue to be formed.

So, how are you shaping up?

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “Be perfect,” like God is perfect. A priest friend in Connecticut recently wrote that while perhaps Beyonce wakes up “feeling ‘flawless,’ most [of us] rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” Perfection can seem unachievable.

I think part of the problem we have with this Gospel is a problem of translation. You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is “telos.” If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos. It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional. To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection. And according to Aristotle, in life, we don’t reach telos. Telos is the goal toward which we strive. Perfect, in this sense, is not the enemy of the good. Perfect is the direction toward which the good is shaped.

Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shaped people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shape people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have, the Sermon on the Mount. How do we preachers relate to our greatest Preacher?

In the great mosques each Friday, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Traditionally Islamic pulpits, unlike our pulpit, have stair-steps that face out toward the people. The Friday preacher climbs several stairs and turns around to look out over the gathered crowd. In the mosque, the preacher traditionally stops one step short of the top. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. The current preacher gives a sermon as a substitute. Formation belongs to the master.

With a similar sense of humility, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. Jesus turns his hearers’ expectations upside down. “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resit an evildoer.” “You have heard it said…love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words may seem foolish in today’s climate, but this is the perfection toward which Christians have sought to be shaped. Still, reading Jesus’ words today can create a sense of tension

I want to look into this tension for just a moment. Formation is happening all the times and it can happen when we are tense. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain to the edge of tree-line and seen the little bristly pine trees up high, you’ve seen tense formation in action. Pine trees that high up have raw bark on one side of their trunk and just a couple of branches pointing in one direction on the other. They look like little scraggly flag poles. Those sad trees have been blown into their shape by the wind. I bring them up because the winds seem mighty strong these days. Will you be shaped by incivility? Will you respond to hatred with hatred? Will you respond to mockery with mockery? Will you respond to cynicism with cynicism?

A few months ago I shared with you something I learned about Jesus’ words: “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. It means facing hatred with humanity.

Jesus strikes a similar vein of wisdom with another oft-quoted line from this sermon: “go the extra mile.” You may have heard that one before. You might have seen the words on one of those black-bordered motivational posters that seem to hang in ever Human Resources Office maybe with a picture of running shoes. Well, these words belong to Jesus, and they are as surprisingly radical as anything he preached.

“Go the extra mile” referred to a specific policy in the Roman Empire. Rome learned this tactic from the Persia, an earlier empire with great territorial ambition. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” references the power that a Roman Soldier had over anyone who lived in territory conquered by Rome. The soldiers marched across the empire on Rome’s highways, and they carried heavy equipment. When a soldier got tired or didn’t like the look on someone’s face, by law, he could impress a bystander to carry his pack for up to one mile, but no more. All along the road there were mile markers to facilitate this service to the Empire.

In this context, Jesus’ words, “go also the second mile” would have shocked his hearers. This policy was hated, understandably, by the occupied people. Being forced to march away from your work, to spend precious time and energy for no pay, was humiliating. Why would Jesus want to make it worse? As a tactic for calling the system of oppression into question, Jesus’ idea has legs. Can you imagine the Roman soldier, looking at the tired farmer who he has just marched a mile away from his field, as the man sets off another mile down the road. “You don’t have to continue,” he might blurt. The oppressor is forced to see beyond his prejudices. The soldier is faced with another human being, someone who is paying him a kindness, and he has to ask questions about the legal and social framework empowering some at the expense of others.

“Go the extra mile” read this way reminds me of another preacher, who stood just a step below Jesus. I’ve seen Dr. King’s words, his commentary on Jesus’ message on many signs and t-shirts lately, maybe you’ve heard these words too:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These days, I think we are having to become more conscious about the question: “who is shaping you?”

Who do you “friend” on Facebook? Who do you “follow” on Twitter? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who do you watch on television? In a political climate that seems to reward bragging lies and hate speech, in a social media world that rewards salacious rumors and outrageous headlines with more clicks and “likes,” it is easy to become blown about by the winds.

Question the value of that formation. If you find yourself anxious because of what you are reading in the paper, or on some blog site. if you find yourself angry in response to a news story on the radio, hit pause. Go and find some good news. Facebook won’t point you there. Twitter won’t raise these items up to the top of the feed. You’ll have to go and look.

Read some poetry. Pick up a collection of Dr. King’s sermons. Take the time to reconnect with a friend or spiritual advisor over the phone or better yet over a meal. Take a walk down in Tower Grove Park and keep an eye out for the owls. Look for good news. Open up the Bible. Go and find THE good news, the Gospel. Spend time with Jesus, the master preacher. If you’re on your smartphone clicking through articles and getting angry before you even get out of bed in the morning, well you’re already starting the day so many steps behind Beyonce. Get intentional about your formation.

A number of us gathered on Wednesday night as we continued our conversation about “Faith and Activism.” We read an article by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. His writing focus on the connection between political activism and contemplative prayer. Richard says, unless we are deeply formed, all our activism is likely to burn us out.

That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.

“Go the extra mile.” These words from Jesus ask us to question our operating assumptions. If you really want to “resist” systems of oppression, Jesus says, surprise the oppressors with persistence, with kindness, with service, with love. Be formed, deeply formed, by life-giving love.

This isn’t easy work. We won’t get there alone. Perfection isn’t a goal that any of us can reach on our own. To stretch in that direction we will need to be intentional about our formation. We will need solid communities who know how to support and challenge one another, communities like Holy Communion tries to be. We will need friendships. We will need worship. We will need to return again and again to Word and to Table. We will need the words of Jesus. To reach for perfection, we will need to ask: who is shaping me?

How do Christians approach other faiths?

How do Christians approach other faiths?

This morning we have a strange story before us. Magi come from “The East” to bring gifts and honor to the Infant Jesus. We’re used to thinking about “three kings,” but the text doesn’t give a number. We settled on three because there were three gifts. Since one of the gifts was gold, the magi became kings. But the text uses a simple word “magi” as in “magic.”

My good seminary friend The Rev. Matthew Wright pointed out in the weekly email to his congregation that “Magician” is a word often used in Scripture for condemnation. Magicians, astrologers, practitioners of sorcery were “outsiders” to good Jews.

So today we are confronted with a surprise. These magicians recognize the true light. They follow the star and it leads them to the infant Jesus. Not only that, but they know that Herod, the leader of the Jewish people, is not to be trusted. These magicians are able to discern truth. Matthew’s story would have surprised Jesus’ religious contemporaries. God’s people were suspicious of outsiders.

Which brings me back to my initial question: how do Christians approach other faiths?

Perhaps some of you were brought up in a Church tradition that taught “exclusivism.” The idea is probably the best known Christian opinion. Exclusivism holds that no one outside the Christian faith can be “saved.” Exclusivists tend to have a very “after-life focused” vision of salvation as well. Christians go to heaven. Everyone else goes to the other place. Some versions of Christianity even teach that you must ascribe to their particular brand of Jesus-following if you’re to hope to see the inside of the pearly gates.

When I was in college, one of my theology professors, a particularly wry-witted nun and Pauline scholar sent us home with a final paper. I don’t remember the assignment exactly, but I remember the topic a friend chose to write about. This 19 year old college freshmen was going through a particularly evangelical season, and he had been arguing with the professor all semester as she brought an academic approach to Scripture. For his term paper, he argued that Mother Teresa was in hell. The writer he cited claimed we knew this, definitively. My friend showed me the paper when he got it back. I’d never seen someone write “F” in bright red all the way across a cover page before. I believe she also wrote the words “lies and heresy” across the front.

Now, that may seem harsh, and it was. He ended up re-writing the paper on a completely different topic with academically rigorous sources and passed the class. But I tell the story to illustrate a point. Perhaps the most loudly heard voices in Christianity have held similar opinions to my friend and his paper about Mother Teresa. The “exclusivist” vision of Christianity has held sway.

I’ve not had the chance, but someday I’d like to sit down with an exclusivist and ask “What do you do with the Magi?” How do you account for this story in the Gospel? These mystical heretics from the East that come to pay homage to Jesus are but one moment in Scripture that make me uncomfortable with the exclusivist claims.

Karl Rahner, the German Catholic theologian, had another approach. Rahner coined the idea of the “anonymous Christian” in response to the old question: “What about someone who dies having never heard of Jesus?” Rahner replied that it was possible for someone to live a Christ-like life without using Christian language. Since Rahner’s time, others have applied this formula beyond Rahner’s original question about someone who hadn’t heard of Jesus. They see this way of thinking as an “Inclusivist” way to look at faith. We don’t have to feel bad for our good Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends. If they live good lives, in the end, God will count them as unwitting Christians, and explain it all to them after they die.

Now, I’ve just given you a summary, which is dangerous to do with a German theologian. Rahner’s own brother said that it was better to read Rahner in English translation than in the original German, because then at least one person had already struggled to interpret Rahner’s dense text. But the summary, I think, is fair as one approach from Christians to those of other faiths. Do we see good people of other faiths as wrong in their choice of language, even if their actions are ethical?

I raise the question about other faiths today partly because we are performing the second half on an inter-religious wedding. Brian and Meg were supposed to be married by a priest and a rabbi together, but then the priest wasn’t able to attend. Now, this is an atypical couple in many ways. Most people don’t get married during a Sunday service. Most brides who show up pregnant try to hide their bellies.

But Meg and Brian are a-typical in other ways as well. It is rare that you find an inter-religious couple who so consciously practice their faith. When they started coming to Holy Communion, Brian and Meg were intentionally alternating weekends worshiping twice a month with Central Reformed Congregation, and twice a month with us here. Brian volunteers with a program for kids in the judicial system in St. Louis. He listed me as one of his references. I had a good laugh when one of the volunteer coordinators called me to ask about Brian. I had to say, “No we don’t let Brian teach Sunday School.” Then I had to quickly qualify: We didn’t ask him to teach because it would be a little awkward for him, as a Jew, to have to explain Christian teaching to the little ones. I gave him a glowing reference.

Knowing practitioners of other faiths, like Brian, I simply cannot identify with the exclusivist claims that some Christians make. I also have a hard time with Rahner’s idea that good people are really Christians anonymously. I find that pretty presumptuous.

Partly, I’m less anxious about the question of other faiths because the Christian teachers I have learned the most from have tended to emphasize salvation as a question of the here and now more than “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Howard Thurman, sometime chaplain at Boston College where he taught a not-yet Dr. King, argued in his seminal book “Jesus and the Disinherited” that a religion focused on the afterlife does little to change the circumstances of people who live with their “backs against the wall.” He saw in Jesus a revolutionary figure interested in turning over the status quo in this life. Salvation was a much a question in the here and now as in the afterlife.

But the question of other faiths still beckons. My mentoring rector in Washington DC, The Rev. Luis Leon used to say: “I am a Christian because it is in Christianity that I have seen the light shining the brightest.” Those are carefully chosen words. We could use more carefully chosen words coming from Washington. There is an emphasis on subjectivity in the sentence: “Christianity is where I have seen the light shining the brightest.” There is also an acknowledgement that I have seen the light shining in other places.

Many of us have wonderful interfaith friendships. I have been privileged to attend Friday Prayers in Istanbul’s blue mosque with Turkish Muslim friends. I’ve whirled with Dervishes in Tribeca. I’ve danced with neighbors Simchat Torah as the scroll of Scripture surrounded the synagogue. I’ve sat silently for Zazen in a Buddhist Temple in San Francisco. I’ve even shared a feast with self-identified pagans for Samhain. I’ve been privileged to catch glimmers in many faith traditions.

Among the many deaths of 2016 was a scholar of world religions: Dr. Huston Smith. His book “The World’s Religions” is widely assigned by professors of religion, and it is good enough to read even if you’re not in college anymore. He studied and befriended people of other religions across his life. He famously introduced the Dalai Lama to the West. Smith said he remained Christian. For him, “God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.”

Smith’s work helped us see a way of being Christian that did not study other faiths for the sake of forming good arguments against them. Huston Smith gave us permission to be dazzled by other religions. For him, faith was a journey, an adventure.

These magi are adventurers, journeyers. You get the sense they’re working on a hunch by following this star. You know the old joke about the wise men, yes? How do we know there were three wise men and not a wise woman? Well, if there had been a woman they wouldn’t have arrived so long after Christmas. They would have stopped and asked directions. The joke betrays scripture a bit, because sometimes the detours are the important parts of the journey. Without detours, you miss the adventure.

Encountering the magi, these mystical figures from the East, I ask. How do you approach those of other faith? Do you hope to prove them wrong? Do you come with fear? Or do you come, like the magi approached the baby Jesus? Can you encounter another faith with a sense of adventure?

Turn the question back on Christianity. Is your faith an adventure? We live in a time of growing “secularism.” That is to say, more and more people are leaving “the church” leaving “the faith.” I suspect that for many of them exclusivism plays a role in the decision. Fewer of us want to be part of a club that doesn’t admit Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths. We’ve seen too much light in our neighbor’s practice to shut them out.

I wonder as well, if we saw faith less as a series of rote beliefs and exercises, could it be more compelling? What if our faith looked more, felt more like the faith of the magi? Could we set off, dazzled by the light, not exactly sure where the journey will lead? Do we dare to offer our gifts, to open our hearts, to follow a star that will lead us home by another road? This year, will you come on an adventure of faith?

The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.