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/

The Bottle Caps Man

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A parable of sorts

Growing up there was an old man who used to ask us kids the same question every day. We had no idea what he was talking about. More than four decades have passed, but when the crowd from the old neighborhood gets together someone will always ask, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?”

Central Phoenix was a very different place in the early 1970’s. The “busy streets” were still lined with trees that shaded the open irrigation canals. The ranch style neighborhoods built in the 50’s and 60’s were here, of course, but they were interspersed between what was left of family farms – old homesteads surrounded by the remnants of citrus orchards and horse, cotton, and dairy operations. An enormous farmhouse stood where the school bus turned off of 7th Avenue into our neighborhood. It had nine chimneys. We counted them when the bus went past.

The most coveted thing in our kid world was Bottle Caps – the brand new candy that looked like the metal top on a bottle of pop and tasted like the soda inside. Back then Bottle Caps came in flat foil pouches. They were larger, harder, and with nifty ridges that allowed them to hang on the end of your tongue when you stuck it at the other kids on the bus.

Bottle Caps were an early lesson in the economics of supply and demand – the only place you could get them was from the ice cream truck, a large white panel van with giant decals of frozen product on the sides. The truck would drive through the streets playing music over a loudspeaker mounted to the roof, a Pavlovian cue for kids to grab their nickels and dimes to buy Popsicles and ice cream cones and most everything else moms claimed would “spoil supper.”

The first time I heard the notes of the ice cream truck’s carnival music in the distance I didn’t know what it was. I was playing Kick the Can with the big kids when suddenly the shrubbery began to rustle. All over the street kids emerged from hiding shouting, “Run! We have to get there first!” I ran as hard as I could to keep up with the bigger kids.

We weren’t first though. An old man was already in line. Kids were positively downcast as they watched the man buy every single pack of Bottle Caps in the ice cream truck and stuff them into his bulging pockets. Kids began to shout, “No fair!” “You can’t buy them all!”

And I wonder, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

He wore an old cardigan sweater and corduroy pants and had the most piercing blue eyes. He turned those piercing eyes on us and in a faint Southern accent asked, “So you are upset that I have all the Bottle Caps?”

“Yeah!” Kids shouted in outrage.

“I suppose you want some of these?” He questioned, patting his bulging pockets.

“Yes!” I shouted, reaching over Mark Hickens in front of me.

He bent his head around Mark and looked down upon me. “You are very young. Do you even know what Bottle Caps are?”

“Not really.” I admitted.

He smiled and I couldn’t help but like the way his eyes lit up. “Bottle Caps,” He began, “are the tastiest candy ever invented. Eating them is like being able to chew on soda pop. Bottle Caps make you smile a smile that starts deep inside your tummy and goes from the inside out. How would you like to eat a candy like that?”

My eyes became wide. “Would I? You bet I would!”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The man pressed, “What would you say, young man, if I gave you a pack?”

Johnny Dodson said, “Aww, he doesn’t have any money. He’s too little.”  My head dropped in shame. The man lifted my chin and his piercing eyes held my mine. “I didn’t say anything about money. I said, ‘gave,’” he continued.

“FREE? Nobody gives away BOTTLE CAPS!” yelled Johnny’s indignant older brother.

“Well now, I didn’t say ‘free’ exactly either.” The old man moved his gaze to the group.

Now 10 kids were indignant, “What are you talking about Mister?”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

“Suppose I gave you two packs of Bottle Caps,” the man said turning back to me. “Would you promise to only eat one and give the other away to someone else?”

I was very confused.

He repeated the offer, “If I give you two packs of Bottle Caps, will you promise me that you will eat one and share one with someone else?”

I nodded seriously, “Yes.”

The man held up two green envelopes full of Bottle Caps, one in each hand. I grabbed them and wheeled to leave before he could catch me. “Remember,” he yelled after me. “One for you. One for someone else.”

He then turned to the crowd of kids, reached into his pockets fat with Bottle Caps and said, “Who else will promise to share a pack for a pack of their own?”

I probably don’t have to tell you that every hand shot up. By the time we left, the man’s pockets were empty.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The very next day we heard music and jumped on our bikes. When we got to the truck, that old man was at the front of the line again stuffing his pockets with all of the Bottle Caps. He saw me and said, “Hello son. Tell me who did you give your other pack too?”

“My little brother,” I said. “He was really happy.”

“And how did that make you feel?” He asked.

“It was almost as fun as eating my own, Mr. Bottle Caps Man!” I replied, giving him a name that would stick.

He seemed amused by this new moniker and said, “That’s what I thought.” And then he looked around, “So, who can tell me about the person you gave your Bottle Caps to? If you tell me a story I will give you two more packs of this deelicious candy.” He said, his drawling reminding me just how like pop, which was just short of a forbidden substance in our house, they tasted. And again, the man went home without a single package of Bottle Caps for himself.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Every morning that summer the same thing happened. When we heard the music in the distance we jumped on our bikes, and tore through the neighborhood to beat that Bottle Caps man to the ice cream truck. And every day the old man with the twinkling eyes would be standing at the front of the line stuffing his pockets with the truck’s entire stock of Bottle Caps. And each day, as we finished our melting popsicles, the Bottle Caps man would listen to our stories and place two packs of Bottle Caps in each of our hands to share with others. And most days the Bottle Caps man went home with empty pockets.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Well, as all kids do, we grew up. And the Bottle Caps Man, he aged as well. He became a little slower. His shoulders stooped. He began to use a cane. But somehow he still beat the kids to the ice cream truck. One Saturday, though, after I was far too old for ice cream trucks, the kids arrived and the Bottle Caps Man wasn’t there. It was the ice cream truck driver who told the kids that the Bottle Caps Man had died. Needless to say, you’ve never seen quite so many young people at an octogenarian’s funeral.

At the funeral, much to our surprise, the ice cream truck driver stood up and gave the eulogy. That was how we discovered the secret to the Bottle Caps Man beating us to the ice cream truck all those years – the ice cream truck driver was the Bottle Caps Man’s son. The Bottle Caps Man had an inside line on the route!

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The son told us that in his early years, Bottle Caps sales kept his ice cream truck in business. When business picked up he told his dad that he didn’t need him to keep buying a case of Bottle Caps every day.  His father told him, “I don’t just do it for you. I do it for the kids.” The ice cream truck driver said, “My dad gave away a fortune in Bottle Caps, one pocket full at a time.” And as he said it, tears filled his eyes…and ours too.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The bottle Caps Man taught us that empty pockets can bring smiles. And he didn’t just teach the kids. Parents couldn’t help but smile too when they saw us sharing with each other…and, occasionally, with them.

And as I age, I wonder what kind of old man I will be. Will I be a man, like other old men, who sit in their house counting and recounting a carefully hoarded collection of my favorite “candy”…a collection that is neither useful for others nor joy producing for myself? Or will I live generously?

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

What we did not know was that the Bottle Caps man was teaching us about grace – that we drink from cisterns we did not dig (Deut 6:11), in a land given rather than toiled for (Joshua 24:13). We have been invited to drink from the spring of the water of life without cost (Rev. 21:6), receive an inheritance we did nothing to create (Heb 9:15), and enjoy a salvation purchased at another’s expense (1 Pet 3:18). We are, in every way possible, recipients of grace. Grace is an inexhaustible supply of the goodness of our God, a spigot that can only be turned off by refusing to let it run out on others.  It is a sweet gift that makes us smile a smile that starts from deep inside our tummies. There is abundance in the hands of the great Bottle Caps Man of our souls. Will you share it?

And, since they really are connected, I must ask you, one final time, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Ash Wednesday for Newbies

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Do not be surprised this week when your co-workers and neighbors appear with smudgy foreheads. You will be tempted to grab a Kleenex and help them rub out the vaguely cross-shapen smears. Resist this urge. They have not become hygienically challenged – It is Ash Wednesday!

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent, an archaic word for “spring,” came to refer to a season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year preceding Easter – Sort of a “spring training” for the spiritual life. Christians in the ancient traditions spend the 6 weeks before Holy Week in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember the greatness of God at Easter. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off.

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets (“repent in sackcloth and ashes“). Among Christians, the imposition of ashes associated with a 40 day fast began in the 4th century. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is a bit spotty. By the end of the 10th century, though, it was a long-standing custom in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lent. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the practice to Rome.

What do you do?

If you attend an Ash Wednesday service you will hear Holy Scriptures calling us to repentance read, have ashes imposed on your forehead with the counter-cultural words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and then go forward, empty handed, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Afterward people go forth to spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to recall the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

Why?

Contrary to common opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor  making belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  It is instead about mindfulness. When we think about God, well that is a good thing. By the way, Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision in his Son, Jesus. We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Can I come?

Yes! You can find an Ash Wednesday service at any Episcopal/Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. Services are usually offered multiple times per day. You do not need to be a member. Everyone is welcome. Although in Roman Catholic churches there are requirements for receiving communion, and Episcopal churches ask you to be baptized for communion, everyone can receive ashes.

I invite you, come to church this Ash Wednesday!

Where is Your Help? A Sermon for a Shutdown America

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
 From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, 
who made heaven and earth.   (Psalm 121: 1-2)

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I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

As a month-old baby I was on the floor of the 1964 Republican nominating convention. My father was campaigning for Barry Goldwater. Democrats were ruining America. So we were Republicans.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

In college I read that Winston Churchill said, “Any man who is under 30 and is not a liberal, has no heart…” The heartless were ruining America. So, in college, as a young man with a heart, I became a Democrat.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Upon graduation I became a teacher in a Christian school. I was popular with students and parents, but not the administration. I was, you see, too liberal. I am not sure I really knew what a liberal was, but I did know they were what was wrong with America. Mr. Churchill said, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” Not wanting to be brainless, I became a conservative.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

I embraced conservative talk radio as I moved to Wickenburg, Arizona. Wickenburg is, after all, a very conservative town. I, however, worked for a liberal church. They were clear that what was wrong with America was conservatives. So I began listening to liberal talk radio.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Eventually I realized that listening to angry people angrily telling me that the other guys are evil and that our only hope is in their political solutions was making me…angry.

im so angry i made a sign picketer

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

In Luke chapter 23 we read of Jesus’ trials. It is a vivid portrait of political chaos. In the first twenty-five verses, one can feel the tension as the Prince of Peace and Lover of our Souls, in the grip of angry religious people, is turned over to fearful political power. You can sense the confusion of the political leaders unable to figure out what to do with a hot potato Messiah.

Politics has always had a strange relationship with Jesus.  On this day they played ping-pong with him: Jesus is taken to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Wanting to avoid the blood of an innocent, Pilate, sends him to Herod, the ruler of Jesus’ home region, Galilee. Herod, sensing the religious elite’s ire, sends Jesus back to Pilate – all in order to figure out how to kill the God-man voluntarily laying down his life.

And yet today we continue to naively wait for our salvation to come from political systems.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Have we not made politics a Hunger Games for a dreadful America? We watch on tv and the internet as Americans point fingers and tear one-another down in a peculiar form of entertainment. The only winners are giant media conglomerates who have what they want: our eyeballs.

And we willingly play along, litmus testing one-another: Are you for or against immigration reform? Obamacare? Life? Marriage equality? After we litmus test each other, we try to convert one another to our position. Now I am not saying that political ideas are unimportant. I am asking why we are convinced they must divide Christians. After all: Politics do not and never did save. If it did the most political groups would be the most generous groups, the most open-hearted groups, the most joyful ones. Am I the only one who notices that the more politicized one becomes the angrier they appear? I don’t do many absolutes, but here is one: Political philosophies and agendas are NOT the Gospel.

We humans are conversion machines. We want to change people’s minds about everything: where to buy shoes on sale, what smartphone to use, who to vote for. So I ask, when you lift up your eyes, where is your hope set?

So be a good citizen: be informed and vote a Christ-surrendered conscience.

Be a good citizen: be charitable to those who do not share your convictions, assuming they too are people of good will.

But remember also that, If you claim the name of Jesus, you are a citizen of a King who said his Kingdom is NOT of this world.

And when you convert someone, make sure it is to the thing that matters most.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Perhaps America and Christianity once shared values. But cultures bob like an unmanned boat on the ocean. America is changing. Some of these changes will make us more just. Some will surely make us less so. One evidence that America and Christianity are, in some ways at least, increasingly at odds is shown in the way people today become angry when the church attempts to discipline them. One hears, “What I am doing is not against the law. Who is the church to tell me what to do?” The implied message is that God is not our authority, America is. Perhaps this was always so. Perhaps cultural change is revealing something that was always there, that many of us confuse an idol wrapped in Stars and Stripes with the Living God.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Have you noticed that valuing biblical principles is not the same as loving Jesus? I can want a biblical lifestyle without being captivated by the one that book came to reveal. I can live a “biblical” morality and remain my own functional deity.

Have you noticed that we often want moral absolutes for others, and moral flexibility for ourselves? Perhaps we don’t want grace, as much as we want permission?

Have you noticed that we can spend hours on media coverage and opinion shaping but very little time actually with God?

So I implore you – leave the politics, leave the anger, and leave the “principles.” Walk away from them to pursue Jesus’ presence and joyfully extend the Good News of God’s grace.

Consider what grace does: Grace forgives and welcomes…it cleans up our lives…it creates a community that embraces those at the fringes, and it causes us to love those whose lives aren’t yet in its grip. Grace is also supremely unfair and only made possible by the grossest of injustices.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

Grace has only one source. One deadly, costly source: a cross. At that cross, on that old hill, we are all on equally slippery footing. There is no need to argue about who lives closer to the sun: We are all so far away that it matters not. At the Cross, and the cross alone, the grisly price of God’s grace, was shed for you and for me. It bids us to look for our salvation from one place and one place alone.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    

            From where does my help come?

                         My help comes from the Lord. 

*This post was yesterday’s sermon on Article 37 in a series at St. Jude’s Church on the 39 Articles of Religion, the foundational theological statement of Anglicanism. The topics were set in March. It was an ironic accident that the Article on the Christians relationship to the state came up this week. Scripture: Psalm 121, Luke 23: 1-25. The text of the 37th Article in contemporary English is:

“The power of the Civil Magistrate extends to all men, Clergy and Laity, in all things temporal; but has no authority in things purely spiritual. And we hold it to be the duty of all men who are professors of the Gospel, to pay respectful obedience to the Civil authority, regularly and legitimately constituted.”

Article 37.003

Todd, adoption, and a briar patch: Glimpses of God at work

Broken_glass

Facebook gets a lot of grief, but I have a confession, I like Facebook.

It allows me to peek into people’s joys and struggles, rejoice and grieve with friends, and spurs me to pray more. I keep in touch with people I would never see.

One of those I would never see is Todd. We went to elementary and high school together. We were never really close. Todd and I didn’t run in the same crowd. I always appreciated Todd. He was kind to a girl with special needs once in 6th grade. Kids were not nice to people who were different back then. But Todd was. No one can remember the girl’s name even though she went to our school for two years. We just called her “Gomper,” the name of a local program for kids with disabilities. She had a neck brace and her head seemed too small. Social Darwinism was the rule of the day and we all wanted to be part of the crowd. Make no mistake, the crowd” was the one above you, not the one below. So no one talked to Gomper. Some talked at her, but only if they were getting social mileage at her expense. Not Todd. One day Todd stopped a spring loaded door from smashing Gomper. Some kids were waiting to see it happen. They were upset with Todd.

Thirty years later Todd hit me up on FB. I was having a bit of a bad week when his friend request came. I asked him why he had looked me up after all these years. His answer stunned me: “You were the only cool kid who was nice to me.” First of all, I wasn’t actually a cool kid. I was more associated with cool kids. Second, I was not aware that I had been nice to him at all – my lack of social awareness is not a new thing.

I closed my laptop and reflected on my life – my history and the events that have shaped me. It dawned on me: Although I have inadvertently been a jerk to a few on my journey, I  go out of my way to be kind to people. Looking back this seemed odd since I really didn’t have much spare social capital. As I sat wondering why I had spent the better part of a life giving status away, it dawned on me: I  know what rejection feels like. And I don’t want others to feel it.

I realized that there is something Gospel happening in me that I did not expect: God is redeeming my dysfunctions. The great act of redemption, or as the last centuries preachers called it, “the great doctrines of the cross” do involve God forgiving the penalty of sin. But God is also healing the pain of sin. Over the course of my life, with the help of good friends, God, and time, the deep wounds have healed over. The scars are fading. The stories I tell about the lack of hope under the surface of the snarky and attention seeking teenager I once was, feel like I am telling someone else’s stories.

But here is the big surprise, God has not taken away the power of sin in my life. That one God is doing something very different with: redeeming it. Through the fierce grace of the crucified and risen one, the Holy Spirit is reclaiming and transforming my dysfunctions, the sins committed upon me and by me, the ones that held sway over how I saw myself and how I behaved – those are the places my life is actually having the most impact. And that, I am learning, is “thy Kingdom come.”

Don’t misunderstand, my life hasn’t been horrible. But it hasn’t been a bed of roses either. Maybe more of a briar patch: Green yes, but some sharp stuff there too. But God is taking my brokenness and using that which caused the most pain to bless both me and others. Here are a couple for size…

-I was an unwanted child. Given up at birth. Today I instinctively look for the neglected in a room.

-My dad, whom I love dearly and have a good relationship with today, was busy. He eventually left our family for another woman. God is redeeming that too: Being a man my children can do more than love, but like and respect is a true joy. The value I place on remaining close in head and heart with Kari was birthed in the briar patch of infidelity.

-I grew up outside the faith, outside of the message of God’s relentless grace. I first heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as a fresh high school graduate at a Young Life camp in 1982.  It was all I could do to keep from standing up in the middle of 300 students and yelling, “Tell me more!” It was too good to be true, this message of God’s unearned favor. Favor purchased not by my ability to get the attention of my father, but by the Father’s attentiveness to the world to gift his son. This son offered himself on a cross, as St. Peter says, “the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.” God is redeeming even my lack of knowledge of him: To this day I cannot speak of Jesus’ passion without tears in my eyes. I am still grateful to my toes for the hope God brought me through his passion.

My deepest wounds have taught me that all is grace.

Or could be if we would allow it.

Don’t mistake me. I am not winking away pain. I’m not pretending that the hard things didn’t hurt. They did. I have seen too much pain, wept with too many who have been harmed, and sat with too many in death. But those things are being transformed by a God who stared death in the face, took everything death could dish out and handed it back saying, “not today, sir.” For the high price paid by Christ and offered freely – How could I possibly respond to God with anything but the “thank you” of my life? How could we, as  family of grace possibly do life without room for others?

So I give grace. To a fault. I get burned. I get ripped off. I have to be mindful not to expose those under my care to dangerous people. I give too much grace. How can I not, so much has been given to me? Living in the desert I only discovered a few years ago that my favorite food, blackberries, grow on briars. It seems appropriate somehow, God bringing all that tart sweetness from a bramble.

In the movie “Prince of Persia” there is a scene in the desert. The prince is marching across a wasteland into the enemies’ territory. The captured princess (and love interest) is frustrated at his foray. She mocks him. “You even walk like one, the arrogant walk of a prince of Persia.” Dastal, the prince, confesses his secret, “I wasn’t born  a prince at all. I was an urchin.” It was an era without social mobility, so amazed, the princess asks, “How?” “I don’t know,” Dastal responds, “He chose me. He found me and brought me into his home. He is all I have.”

Gratitude. Dependence. Loyal love. Those are what knowing that he was adopted gave Dastal. It is what my welcome into the Kingdom, by our adopting God, has given me. It is what God offers you. On Ash Wednesday we say, “Remember we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” This is not medieval self-abasement. It is remembering who we are and whose we are: chosen, adopted children of the King. It is about remembering so that we  live a Eucharistic (“thanksgiving”) life.

I give grace because I have received it. And the grace I give will never begin to equal the grace I have been given. Partially because when we extend grace, more grace if given. Have you experienced grace, the absolute unearned love of God showered upon your heart? Have you experienced the reality that John describes: “To all who receive him, even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.”

There is an undeniable brokenness that comes with being human. And, lest we forget, life reminds us all sooner or later. We can deny it. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. Tough it out. But why? Our pain has been purchased. Redeemed like a soda bottle bought back by the corner grocer. There has been a transaction on your behalf. You aren’t just God’s child by birth. You have been chosen and redeemed on a cross. You have been adopted as God’s own: a prince/princess of the Almighty, called into relationship with the entire Holy Trinity for all eternity. You have been given a task and a mission to accomplish. God desires to give each of us grace, and through us, to extend that grace.

For you to be someone’s Todd.

And for someone else to be yours.

So there is no such thing as the unwanted in God’s economy.

No such thing as being Fatherless.

No such thing as a life without a high and holy calling.

But we can live like there is. Some here are walking away from their adoption. Some are keeping the Father at arms length. For you I have one question: ARE YOU NUTS!

There is an expression that kids were using a few years ago. “Are you pickin’ up what I am layin’ down?” God sent his son to lay his life down for you. So that you could have life. Are you picking up what he laid down?

It is specifically through brokenness that God brings forth beauty. But God is no bully and only works when our brokenness is surrendered.

Empty briars or ripe berries? Orphaned or adopted? Sin that so easily entangles or pain fiercely redeemed? The “yes” of your life by faith makes all the difference.