Distorted Mirrors: What Our Candidates Tell Us About Ourselves

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Photo credit: cnbc.com – Getty Images

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I’m doing it. I am adding to the word count on the two people Americans are most tired of talking about. Fret not, though. I won’t bore you with my opining on their political positions, policies, or personal lives. I just want to ponder for a moment what our candidates’ very public moral and ethical question marks might say about where we are as a nation.

Consider a few previous presidents…

  • After a historic religious revival[1], a revolution, and inventing government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we picked a leader of self-restraint. One who stood for virtue and honesty. George Washington reflected our values.
  • In 1860 a single injustice cast a pall over America. We elected a single issue President with the resolve to oppose that injustice. Abraham Lincoln reflected our values.
  • In the 1930’s, with the economy crippled by the Depression. America chose a president who was crippled, yet courageous. Franklin Roosevelt reflected our values.
  • In the 1950’s, wanting to stand up against the spread of communism, we elected the general who won WWII. Ike reflected our values.

Many have fretted about what so and so’s beliefs and leadership will do to our future. But it seems our leaders don’t shape our beliefs as much as reflect them back to us.  If so, do you like what you see when you look into our collective mirror? While this may be cringe provoking, especially considering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings, is it possible that our candidates are simply our values and our behaviors staring back at us?

Perhaps we need to ask some hard questions about our ethics…how morally upright is our thought life and media usage? What about our conspicuous consumption…and fears…or the effects of millions of us cutting corners and winking away little dishonesties. What about the anger? Moses told the people, “Your sins will find you out.”[2]

Perhaps our candidates are just the public face of our private selves being found out?

We are fooling ourselves to think our candidates are “them.” The cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Surely our candidates moral peccadillos are, at some level, a reflection of our own weak moral knees and the fact that we no longer seem to spend much time on them.

What should one do when looking into a mirror and not liking what is looking back? Surely the answer is not to try to alter the mirror, but to fix what the mirror is reflecting. Perhaps the place to start is in the privacy of the voting booth. When you go into that booth Tuesday, I encourage you to see the candidates for what they are: Flawed humans who are a little too much like you and I for comfort. Say a prayer for each of them. Say a prayer for your nation. Then cast yourself upon the mercy of God. And when you leave that booth, go and love and serve, nurture and nourish each and every person you meet. That way, when we look into the voting booth shaped mirror four years from now, we might feel a little better about what we see looking back.

*“Where are we?” Link to Sermon containing this idea. Text: Hebrews 11:1-11

[1] The Great Awakening

[2] Numbers 32:23

 

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A Beautiful Mess: Can worship be contemporary AND liturgical?

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“What is a high church guy like you doing worshipping in a contemporary service like this?” It sounds like an ecclesiological pickup line, but her implied question was, “Liturgical and contemporary? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Here are a few ruminations on the subject of contemporary/liturgical worship by someone with a strong appreciation for chant and incense…

“Contemporary” worship, or “worship” understood as a block of contemporary songs, led by a musician and backed by a band, is a very late arrival, unknown before the charismatic renewal of the late 1960s. Prior to this, Christians either worshiped in the pattern of Word and Sacrament developed over the first four Christian centuries, i.e. “the Mass,” or in the pared down  “regulative principle” worship developed in the sixteenth century by our Reformed and Anabaptist brethren. The “regulative principle” says that only what can be prescribed from scripture is to be present in the church’s worship (such as readings, prayers, singing, preaching, and communion). The older traditions had a broader understanding, the “normative principle.” In the “normative principle,” whatever is edifying, as long as it is not explicitly prohibited (like cense, incense, and musical instruments to name a few) is fine. The charismatic renewal, taking the normative principle and running with it, brought a completely new idea: Worship that mimics current cultural performance forms…with historic theology even if no historic forms are present. This was a redefinition of worship, not as “scripture and sacrament,” but as “song then sermon.” Gone was the complex pattern of reading, praying, proclaiming, and responding to the Word, with singing the Word woven throughout. In were songs that sound like the music on one’s Spotify, grouped together in a “song set.” A contemporary worship service, since it has both feet in the current culture, is expected to have an element of “freshness.” In fact, if a “contemporary” service does not change playlists, genres, and instrumentation, before long it is no longer “contemporary.” It simply becomes a more recent “tradition.” Therefore, contemporary worship is umbilically tied to the contemporary Christian music industry, its’ source of new material. This goal of this form of worship is to allow the Holy Spirit to “speak” to the emotions. It is led by a song leader functioning as worship leader.

Anglicans may not be better worshippers than other Christians, but we probably think about it more than others. The Episcopal church, founded by Queen Elizabeth’s shoehorning of Catholics and Reformed Protestants together and telling them to pray the same words, have the freedom to embrace a wide spectrum of practice. Given our origins in state mandated, “Can’t we just all get along?” it should be no surprise that worship in the Episcopal church is informed by all three streams of Christian worship tradition: Word, Sacrament, and Spirit. In worship, Anglicans believe we are to be formed by God’s Word, fed at God’s table, and filled with God’s presence. Those three streams can come together in a worship service that can be without music, or undergirded by organ and choir, or driven by a band. That is why it seems to be perfectly appropriate for worship to be informed by the charismatic stream of the church. “Filled with God’s presence” is, after all, one of the three streams. The sad and frustrating part is that relatively little of contemporary worship seems to include being formed by God’s word, and nearly none, fed at a Eucharistic feast. Rather, worshippers get an “application based message” and (snark alert) the table of narcissism containing a loaf of “tear off a little Jesus-to-go.”

In the intersection of theory meets practice, at St. John the Divine, we have traditional liturgical services and contemporary liturgical services. You will notice they both have “liturgical” in common. For us, it is important that our contemporary services be contemporary while remaining scriptural, liturgical and sacramental.  In other words, we are intentionally embracing all three streams. We are not simply chasing the contemporary culture. Liturgical worship, based around Word and Table, is meant to be formational and sacramental. It puts words on our lips, and thoughts on our hearts. It allows us to participate in worship, not just through the singing of words unheard over other’s amplified voices, but through movement and joined prayers. It both preaches the Gospel, and feeds us on the living presence of the God made flesh in Holy Communion. So we use contemporary music and instrumentation, but we maintain the ancient Christian pattern of worship.

But more than liturgical, three-streams worship, whether contemporary or traditional in musical genre, is sacramental. Sacraments, if you remember your confirmation class lectures, “are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 857). A sacrament is not merely a picture of something, they actually create what they portray. In the same way kissing does not just demonstrate your love for your special someone, kissing them actually creates more love as you do it. So sacraments too create what they signify. Baptism brings us into the Kingdom of God, it is not merely a portrait of it (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12). And Eucharist is the meal of the eternal presence of God. It does not just look back to the Last Supper, or just look forward to the marriage Supper of the Lamb in the end of time (Revelation 19), it brings us to the eternal now of Jesus Christ, each and every time we participate in it. In the Eucharistic feast, time and eternity meet.

So we blend the musical genres of the current culture within the ancient container. A liturgical contemporary service, with one foot in the ancient church and one in the culture is values driven (around liturgy as formational and sacrament as reality) and data supported.  It asks, “What things in our culture work with  our values and theology?” Here are a few interesting cultural trends we are seeing:

-Higher tech and higher touch (greater use of technology, yet more personal).

-Respectful yet comfortable in style (including teaching how and why we worship).

-Increased use of art and artfulness (no longer church in a “big-box”).

-Use of symbols: Crosses, tables, baptismal, kneelers…things that say “holy space” to those looking to experience faith.

-Worship as a whole-body experience: sitting, standing, and hand raising…but also kneeling, crossing, and bowing.

-Use of lighting to give variations in vibe and mood during the service.

-Using the Christian year to immerse the family of God in the story of God.

-A wider variety in our musical offerings, what Paul calls, “hymns, psalms and spiritual songs.” (Eph. 5:19) And a wider variety in vocalizations and instrumentation. (You might get an oboe or viola or a mandolin and a djimbe.)

The “what” though, is not nearly as important as the “why.” We will continue to shift and nudge things to remain connected to our culture while staying faithful to our scriptural, liturgical, and sacramental values. In doing so, we are attempting to honor God by praising his name (Ps. 145:21), while creating biblically faithful, outward facing disciples who reach the next generation with the Good News of Jesus.

Why I dropped church and joined The Church

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A German Mass during WWII

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*A repost from 2013 as I think about contemporary liturgical worship this week.

I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. Oh, I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. But no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered The Church, as in, the Church historic. In historic Christianity; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures, and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come. I first came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and working toward final justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures, and challenged me to serve. Now, though, in The Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In The Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described The Church of The Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils, over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were the missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride, the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of The Church. In The Church, the old theological battles are not forgotten, so they do not need to be refought.

I realized that I could never truly connect with the relevant church simply because it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was all so “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins gently and asks me to change instead. In The Church, when one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me, or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In The Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70’s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church. I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite leaves them hungry, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in his Apology in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship, a mystery in which the words and movements all tell a story. And, ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of The Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the service offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

 

 

Game Shows: The True Cross in a “like” culture.

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Have you noticed how fuzzy the idea of “truth” has become? Things are no longer “true” in any objective sense. They are, as Stephen Colbert said, “truthy” – true enough…ish. Sort of. Our social media usage illustrates this. We no longer live our lives. We curate them, packaging the bits we want others to see. We crop out the ugly for public attention. The “like” culture has blurred the line, not just between truth and “truthy,” but also the line between actual life and media. This blurring may have been started by Alan Funt on the old tv show, “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera played jokes on ordinary people, and when the joke was revealed, host Alan Funt would pull off his disguise and deliver his catchphrase, “Smile, your on Candid Camera!”

One of the people to fall victim to Alan Funt’s blurring of real vs media was Alan Funt himself. In 1969 Alan Funt was on an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami when the flight was highjacked. The highjacker held the stewardess at knifepoint and demanded the plane fly to Havana. When passengers noticed Alan Funt seated near the highjacker, they began to applaud. When the man disappeared into the cockpit, Funt tried to explain that this was not television.  According to the Radio Lab October 15, 2015 podcast episode, “Smile My Ass,” when the passengers didn’t buy it, Funt attempted to enlist a priest sitting in first class to explain the situation. The priest didn’t believe him either. They took him seriously, though, when Cuban military boarded the plane. When we resort to packaging our own truth, how are we to know what we can actually believe in? This is where the Feast of the Holy Cross comes in…

The year was 326. Constantine, who became emperor in the wake of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution” (303-311),  was betting his empire on upstart Christianity. Unlike other religions, the Christian faith depends, not on creed or philosophy, but upon a historical event: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Christian message is that death has been conquered and humans reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus (2 Cor 5, Col 1:22, 1 Cor 15:1-8). But Constantine needed to know if the story was true. He sent the one person he could count on to go see the Holy Land and confirm or deny the historical reports: his 78 yr old mother, Helena. Helena arrived in Jerusalem and found no tomb. Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jesus’ burial place two centuries earlier and built a temple to Aphrodite on the location, inadvertently marking the place of Christ’s passion in perpetuity. When she asked whether or not the events in the New Testament actually happened, surely she would have met others her age who would say things like, “Well, my great-grandpa was healed by Jesus, does that count?”

Tradition tells us that Helena had Hadrian’s temple torn down. In the rubble they found three crosses left over from before the destruction of Jesus’ tomb in 130 CE. Consider that 130 date: a century after Jesus’ resurrection, a mere 3 decades after the death of John, the last living apostle. Legend has it that to identify “the true cross,” Helena had a sick woman approach the three artifacts. Upon touching the third she was healed. The “true” cross was left behind to adorn a church Helena commissioned to be built on the site. The Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, marks the bringing of that cross outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day after the church’s dedication (335 CE) so that the community could see it. The cross was removed when Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the crusades, and bits of it were distributed all over Europe. By the 1600s John Calvin would remark, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” Helena also saw the place of Jesus’ birth, the location of the feeding of the 5000, and many other sites of Jesus’ life, marking them with state sponsored Roman churches.

Was Helena’s cross the “true cross”? Who knows. Are the fragments distributed around the planet pieces of that cross? Probably not. But the Feast of the Holy Cross does tell us that the places Jesus walked are there – as described in the New Testament. There were worshippers, people whose lives were still being changed by the power of Jesus’ actions on the cross, still gathering where their great-grandparents had been gathering since the resurrection. And, especially in light of repeated persecutions, there is no reason for people to have begun gathering and commemorating in those places were the stories they told their children not true.

In this age when the line between truth and truthiness is blurred, there is another old game show that is a better model for us: Groucho Marx’s, You Bet Your Life. The truth is that you and I can bet our lives on Jesus Christ and his great acts of salvation on our behalf. And while we don’t have any kind of a sure claim to the “true cross” we have rock solid knowledge of a Gospel that is true. The places described in the Gospels are as described in those Gospels, because the Gospels are the narratives of dependable witnesses.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”   -‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Do I matter?

The encouragement of an obscure Saint.

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On Wednesday morning, groggy with sleep and sinus infection, I stumbled into the chapel vesting room to prepare for the 7AM Eucharist. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a splotch of a red on the liturgical calendar. Red indicates the commemoration of a martyr, in this case St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles. Bartholomew, tradition tells us was martyred by being flayed. He is portrayed in art with a knife in one hand and his own skin in the other.

Think about Bartholomew for a moment…Allow the great childhood Sunday school stories of Bartholomew fill you. Ponder all you know of Bartholomew from your personal Bible study…

Is your mind flooded with remembrances of this great saint? Are you overwhelmed with gratitude at the anecdotes of his faithfulness? Or does your mind, like mine, draw a TOTAL blank?

We drew a blank because a Biblegateway search reveals no information about anyone named Bartholomew in the Bible outside of his being listed among the twelve in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). We know nothing about Bartholomew from scripture. But we do know the fruit of his life: Bartholomew, tradition tells us, was the evangelist of the Armenians – The one ethnic group in the middle east to have successfully resisted Islam and wave after wave of persecution from every direction.

Bartholomew may have lived anonymously and died tragically, without a word or deed of his life recorded. But 2000 years later the results of what he did and said are still bearing fruit. The Armenian people, the subject of genocides and persecution, are sustained by the faith learned from Bartholomew the obscure.

Life, for all of , includes the tragic and painful. You may toil in obscurity. But the fruit of a life given away in service to our Lord Jesus points others to him not ourselves anyway. The legacy of a Christian is not our words, but his…not our deeds but his on our behalf. The example of St. Bartholomew tells us that a life given away for the Master always bears fruit. And always, always, matters.

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*Bartholomew may be the apostle identified as Nathanael in John 1. Nathanael is the apostle that when Philip went and found him to take him to Jesus said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” When Nathanael went with him to Jesus,  Jesus said, “There is an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Nathanael responded, “How do you know me?” When Jesus told him he saw him sitting under a tree miles away, Nathanael responded with an astounding statement of faith, “You are the son of God, the King of Israel.”

Unraveling racism – Naming our Samaritans and traveling our Jericho road

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(A sermon. 7/10/16)

What a week.

You may be wondering: Will the church address the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas? Will we go there? Spoiler alert: Yes.

Although I successfully resisted the urge to engage in Facebook activism, I cannot avoid last week’s events from the pulpit – we have to “go there” because at this moment in America our problems are simply outside of the realm of mere secular solutions. We have a spiritual sickness, so the church has to talk about it.

Everyone has a perspective. Here’s mine: First, I have strong admiration for the police. Police officers risk their lives every time they put on the shield. I played high school basketball with the Phoenix Chief of Police. Even as a kid he was smart, tough, level headed and fair. I have friends who work difficult beats. I have friends in vice and friends on SWAT. A friend renting our home in Phoenix starts the police academy next month. I love, respect, and appreciate every officer I know personally. And I respect and appreciate the job police officers do to protect us all every day.

And…I also did urban ministry in Phoenix’s I-17 corridor. As “the white guy” on our church staff, I know a dozen people who have been “sweat” – stopped for things like tail lights being out when they weren’t. I have friends who spent the night in jail for non-offenses that would raise your eyebrows. Our preacher, Dijuahn, in an incident eerily similar to Philando Castille’s, was shot multiple times by an officer who panicked when Dijuahn told him he was carrying a gun. Dijuahn lived, though. He did nine years in prison for the officer’s mistake. So I have experienced both sides of this tension. If there were easy answers we’d have found them already.

How do we begin to unravel this mess we are in? Luke 10:25-37 is a good place to start.

Look at how a well-meaning religious person can be part of the problem…

v25 And behold, a lawyer (an expert in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – “the law”) stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” in the first century was not a ticket to heaven, but was rather viewed as a quality of life here and now that would simply never end. This lawyer starts with the right question: “How do I have the life I was meant to have? How do I have that quality of life that only comes from God?” He starts in the right place:

1) He has the right question.

v26 Jesus says to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ Jesus asks.” v27 The lawyer quotes the summary of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Not only does this lawyer know the right question,

2) He has the right source of authority: the scriptures-God’s revealed truth. And,

3) He has the right answer: love.

And (Jesus) said to him, v28 “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus confirms that Loving God and loving your neighbor as a result of your first love, love for God, is life-giving.

And here it gets interesting: v29 But he…desiring to justify himself… (The human default is the desire to justify ourselves, to try to prove to God how lucky he is to have us on his team.) V29 he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (It is difficult to even read the question without an attitude. The man is trying to figure out how little he can do. He is trying to lower the bar on love.)

So our man has the right question, the right source of truth, and the right answer. Unfortunately, he also gets a few things wrong… He has:

1) The wrong motive (v25) “to put Jesus to the test.” And now,

2) The wrong method (v29)“to justify himself,” and,

3) The wrong attitude (v29) “Who exactly is my neighbor?”

Unfortunately, half-right in the Christian life usually leaves us with a life that is all-wrong.

And have you noticed that when we are half-wrong we are usually 100% convinced we are all-right?

Breaking through our self-deception

When someone was self-deceived in the bible, Jesus would often sneak around their internal defenses with a story. He does that in Luke 11:

v30 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… I have been on the road to Jericho. I was nervous. It’s a rocky downhill descending 3500 feet in elevation, an 18-mile ambush opportunity. If this were a Western movie, the road to Jericho is where the stagecoach would get held up.

“A man fell among robbers, who strip and beat him, leaving him half dead.” (all quite predictable) v31 A priest comes along. He saw him and passed by on the other side.” v32 Likewise a Levite,” (who assisted priests, ie. A person active at the church.) “when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side.” That is what smart people do. The bleeding guy is probably a set up. Be safe: walk by on the other side. And now, just when you would expect a nice Jewish layperson, Jesus throws the curveball…

v33 But a Samaritan…” A SAMARITAN! Jews and Samaritans helping one another? Simply unthinkable. Samaritans were the remnants of lower class Jews not considered important enough for the Assyrians to exile when they had conquered Israel eight centuries earlier. Then they intermarried with the invading Assyrians and Babylonians. The Samaritan/Jewish thing was a racial, cultural, tribal, religious, and class conflict beyond our experience.

Yet it is the Samaritan who… “came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. v34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (oil speeds healing. alcohol is antiseptic.) “he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. v35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ v36 And then Jesus asks the obvious: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

Don’t be the well-meaning religious person who inadvertently becomes part of the problem. Ask yourself: #whoismyneighbor? #whatisyourjerichoroad?

It is on the road to Jericho where fear, security, and realism butt up against faith, hope, and love.

It is on the road to Jericho where we confront our fears and our prejudices – where I decide if I will do what is smart and safe or what someone else needs me to do.

It is on the Road to Jericho where love is put to the test.

I wonder…at what point did the lawyer who had it half-right realize that his motives, methods, and attitude where all-wrong?

I wonder…at what point on our Jericho road you and I will confront our Samaritans?

What should we do when we, like the lawyer, begin to realize, that for all we have right in life, we still lack that quality of overwhelming, overflowing joy that Jesus spoke of?

What you should do depends on where you are. First, do you know Jesus Christ? Have you allowed him to be your justifier, or are you still looking for life on your own? If so, the hard to hear truth is this: There is only one source of eternal life, only one who justifies – Jesus. There is only one truly Good Samaritan. Only one, who, having compassion, crossed out of his way, all the way from heaven in fact, to us. One Great Samaritan, who, as unlikely as it sounds, binds up our broken hearts, who takes us, battered and bruised by life and pours the wine of his presence and the oil of his calling upon us…who takes us to his own home, at great personal cost, and keeps returning by placing his Spirit permanently within us when we place our trust in him. So, if you do not yet know Jesus Christ, come to him this morning by faith. Surrender your life to his healing, uplifting, love-giving presence. Because otherwise you will, ultimately, serve the world from pain.

Have you already experienced the touch of the master’s hand? If that is you, I implore you, courageously seek, name, and turn from your fears. Acknowledge your Jericho Road and name your “Samaritans,” the “other” in your heart. Our nation’s hope is not to be found in justice but in love. And love and fear never occupy the same space. Why is this so important? Because,

when 13% of America is convinced that it is open season on them, it is a fail for 100% of us.

Only those filled and led by love, freed from the grip fear, can hope to overcome four centuries of earned distrust. So I ask you, who are your Samaritans?

I’ve had my share of “Samaritans” – people I have feared over my life. Since my dad was the realtor for the Phoenix Suns, I grew up in a uniquely multi-ethnic environment for a middle class kid. But I had lots of other “Samaritans.” Lots of roads I avoided. Mine were communists, illegal aliens, and gang members.God has stripped those one by one as I watched people from those groups experience the mercy of God and the same life-change that I experienced. They became friends. It is amazing the way “perfect love casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18)

This week we had Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Not morally equivalent acts, yet acts that will always be connected in our consciousness. In the wake of the horror you may be tempted to retreat to slogans or party lines. Or, alternately, to take a silent detour through “nice,” and avoid traveling the Jericho Road altogether.

Church, refuse the easy way. Don’t allow the dangers of the Jericho Road to cause you to question, “Who is my neighbor?” What Jesus taught is simple: If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor.

Here are a few small simple neighborly things you can do: 1) Smile and say, “hi.” 2)  Build friendships outside of your ethnic and social group. 3) Ask people outside of your group to tell you how their experiences. Listen (without judging or attempting to correct their impressions).

Because If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor. So, Christian, don’t lower the bar on love. Or, as Jesus told the lawyer, “You go, and do likewise.”

And as you go remember, “love” is still the right answer.

You will be tempted to go driven by the heart breaking needs you see around you. As counterintuitive as it seems, resist that urge. Because if you allow the world’s need and your desire for justice to drive you, you will end up bitter and broken. Anger is a parasite that cares not on whom it feasts.

So go. But go centered in the deep and wise love of God. Go loving God’s world with the overflow of God’s love in your life. G0 with the hope that the one whose love is redeeming you can redeem them. Go in the majesty and power of the one described by an anonymous second century disciple of John who explained the transforming love of Jesus to Marcus Aurelius’ tutor Diognetus like this….and I quote:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us…the one love of God…took on Him the burden of our iniquities, and gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those ones which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desires to lead us to trust in His kindness, (and) to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.

                                                                                     (Chapter 9, Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus)

Amen.

(If you would like to listen to the version preached it is here: http://www.sjd.org/sermon/07-10-16-contemporary-sermon-by-the-rev-matt-marino/