Puffs of wind and resurrection hope: A Sermon for Proper 13C, 2019

El Paso. 20 killed, at least 26 wounded, but perhaps more because some of the wounded may have fled the scene fearing that if they sought medical attention they would be deported.

Gilroy Garlic Festival. 3 victims killed, 12 injured. In both cases the perpetrators were white supremacists bent on ridding the US of immigrants and people of color.

Dayton, OH. If you haven’t heard the news this morning, another mass shooting late last night. 9 dead, 16 injured.

These are just the latest in a long list of mass shootings; by some estimates 249 in 2019 alone. We are numb with grief; many of us outraged, angered by the fact that common-sense measures on gun control are blocked by craven politicians beholden to the money from the NRA.

While details on the shooter in Dayton remain sketchy, we know the motives behind the tragedies in El Paso and Gilroy. The shooters were white supremacists, racists, emboldened by a society in which such views have become widespread and unchallenged in the media. Were they Muslims, the full power of law enforcement would be marshaled against them; but as we’ve seen repeatedly, too many of those who wear uniforms in police forces and military share the views, if not the willingness to act on them publicly, of the shooters.

There are no words that can offer comfort; no thoughts and prayers that can ease our mind. The shocking reality of the violence; its seemingly endless recurrence, and the racism and hate that lie behind so much of it lay bare the moral rot in our nation, just as the unwillingness of politicians to address the carnage in any meaningful way, does the same. And we also need to look inside ourselves, to interrogate our deepest emotions and most deeply-held beliefs, to ask whether deep in our hearts we too shelter some of the same hatred and fear that unchecked and stoked lead to such heinous acts.

No words… I would like to stop now for a few minutes; to allow us silently to reflect on the events of the past 24 hours and the last week, to pray for the victims, to pray for our nation, and to listen to ourselves, to our emotions….

 

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

No doubt it was overwhelming for many of you to sit in silence just now. The horrific violence, the deaths of so many, the hate that we see reflected so intensely in social media, at rallies, and in the acts of shooters as in Gilroy and El Paso. We feel impotent, angry, fearful. And we wonder, where is God in all this? We wonder too, how as Christians are we called to respond and to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Hard questions without easy answers.

Our readings, the Psalm, the excerpts from Ecclesiastes, and the gospel all touch on death and on our legacies. From Ecclesiastes: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

From the Psalm:

For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

 

The gospel reading, first a dispute over an inheritance and then the parable of the foolish rich man, who stores up all of his grain so that he can “eat, drink, and be merry.”

I wonder how many of us are like that rich fool. We lead our lives, go to work, accumulate possessions, plan for retirement; look forward to the time, be it tomorrow or ten years from now when we can relax and take it easy.

I wonder how many of us are like that rich man. Do you notice how he thinks?

He’s faced with a problem. For whatever reason, hard work? Favorable weather? He has a bountiful harvest unlike any he’s had before. What will he do with all that grain? And so he says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

How many times in those few sentences does the word “I” appear? Here is a man blessed with abundance who thinks only of himself. What might he do with that abundance? Share it with the laborers who did all the work, even invite them to a celebration of the bountiful harvest? No, he thinks only of himself.

One could say the same thing of the writer of Ecclesiastes. In our reading, we hear the word “I” repeatedly and when he speaks of others, he speaks only of whether they deserve what he leaves behind, because who knows whether they will be wise or foolish. His response? All is vanity, literally, a puff of wind.

In fact, the rich man’s words, “eat, drink, and be merry” come from Ecclesiastes (8:15):

“So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

It’s advice we might like to take, especially on days like today when the news is particularly disheartening. It’s advice we might like to take, to enjoy ourselves, and ignore the suffering and injustice and all the evils in the world. We might like to close ourselves off from all of it, to claim it’s not our problem or there’s nothing we can do about it, that the occasional “thoughts and prayers” in response to radical evil and horrific violence is enough.

Now, I’m not about to disparage eating, drinking, and being merry. I’m as fond of celebrations as anyone. I love good food, fine wine, and don’t ask me how much dancing I’ve done this summer.

But all is not vanity and a puff of wind.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was crucified because he preached release to the captive, good news to the poor, because he challenged injustice and oppression, because he turned over the tables of money-changers and proclaimed love of enemies.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry was vindicated by his resurrection—evidence to us that God is working new things in this world, defeating evil and calling us to imitate Jesus by loving our neighbors, proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captive.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, and as Paul writes in Colossians, whatever we might want for ourselves, whatever goals we might have, whoever we are, we are being remade in Christ, our selves are being transformed, made new creations, “according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

In Christ, may we be remade and renewed, that we lay aside our differences, our anger and despair. Living in the power and hope of resurrection, may we follow him in loving our enemies, proclaiming the good news, and challenging the rising tide of hate and violence that surrounds us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayers for the victims of white supremacy, islamophobia, and gun violence

Once again, we are confronted with the worst of humanity: white supremacists killing people while they gathered for worship. This time in Christchurch, New Zealand. May we pray for the victims, for peace and reconciliation, and to turn hearts of hatred to see the humanity in all people. May we all renew our efforts to overcome hatred, to build a world and nations where all residents can flourish and differences in religion, race or ethnic background, sexual orientation are seen as strengths to be celebrated, not differences to be destroyed.

Some Prayers:

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 260)

A Prayer for the Whole Human Family.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 815)

A Prayer for Social Justice.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

Prayer for Victims of Terrorism

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Responding to Parkland: Lament and Action

Bishops United Against Gun Violence have issued a statement and a call to lament and to action:

In the wake of this massacre, we believe God is calling us to understand that we must not simply identify the social and political impediments to ending these lethal spasms of violence in our country. We must reflect on and acknowledge our own complicity in the unjust systems that facilitate so many deaths, and, in accordance with the keeping of a holy Lent, repent and make reparations.

I’ve posted repeatedly about gun violence and offered resources to learn more, take action, and pray in response to this national crisis. You can learn more by clicking on the “gun violence” tag.

The resource page at the Wisconsin Council of Churches is a good place to begin.

A Broken Nation, A Broken World, Our Broken Hearts: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2018

There may be no day quite like today. It is a day on which the church observes one of its most solemn days, certainly its most penitential days as we mark our foreheads with ashes and begin the season of Lent. All the while, around us in the secular world, and in our own lives, many of us will go about the business of Valentine’s Day, celebrating love and relationships, enjoying romantic dinners, and above all, chocolate.

And while our minds may be elsewhere, thinking of Valentine’s hearts, in a few minutes we will read together the words of Psalm 51:

“The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit,

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

There’s nothing wrong with that juxtaposition. There’s nothing wrong with coming here on this day, reciting the powerful words of the litany of repentance and Psalm 51, hearing the words that I will say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and returning to your daily lives and relationships. We live complicated and conflicted lives and even as we seek to grow spiritually, we also have jobs, and families, and relationships, and other matters that demand our attention and time.

I began writing this homily yesterday and continued working on it this morning, thinking about the challenges of understanding ourselves as we stand before God on this day. We are called to remember who we are, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, that we are created by God, in God’s image, yet that we experience ourselves as fundamentally broken, far short of the human beings God intends us to be, needing not only to confess our sins and repent, but to experience God’s never failing grace and mercy, and God’s power to remake us, recreate us, in God’s image. To use the language of Psalm 51 that we will recite in a few minutes:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure,

Wash me, and I shall be clean indeed;

Blot out all my iniquities,

Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.

I was writing these words, pondering the meaning of this day as I heard reports of yet another mass shooting at a school in Florida. According to the Gun Violence Archive, this is the thirtieth mass shooting in the US this year, the 9th mass shooting at a high school.

And as I reflected on this horror, on our willingness to stand by as we watch the carnage, I turned from the penitential psalm 51, to the more ominous words of Joel. We are, as a nation, a culture, a people, at, or even beyond, a turning point. With the violence and hatred in our midst, the racism, the attacks on immigrants, the sexual assault allegations that have struck at Hollywood, Corporate America, the Church, and yes, the White House, we are witnessing the collapse not only of our institutions, but of our moral fiber, our civil society. We have never been in more need of the message of Ash Wednesday, never more in need to be honest with ourselves as individuals and as a nation, that there is evil at our very heart, evil we need to repent and turn away from.

There are in these two readings two very powerful verses that move me deeply—the first is from Joel,

“Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.”

There have been times over the years that I have been nearly in tears as I approached the altar—times of personal crisis, tragedy in our congregation or in my own family. But more often I have been near tears because of events in our community, nation, or world. Sometimes, the tears were tears of grief or mourning, often, especially recently, they have been tears of anger and frustration. Such tears can be a sacred response to events in our lives and world—the tradition of lament, of calling out to God in times of distress, and giving voice to our doubts, fear, and anger is one of the most familiar forms of the Psalms. We see some of that language here in Psalm 51.

But the other powerful verse that has deeply moved me over the years, perhaps entered into the marrow of my faith, my understanding and experience of God, is from Psalm 51:

Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.

For me, this verse speaks not only of suffering and lament, of the consequences of sin, and the effects of punishment, but that in the crucible of this experience of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, we come, at the end to a place of joy and gladness, having experienced the miracle of God’s forgiveness, grace, and steadfast love.

We lament a nation that will not protect its children from the gun violence and hatred. We mourn the senseless and meaningless of so many; grieve the trauma of those who survived shootings and will be forever marked deep in their souls by the horror. There is so much in our world and nation that we regret, and mourn, and lament.

Sometimes, our faith falters, we wonder whether God still hears our prayers or acts in our world. Sometimes, our words seem empty, our gestures meaningless, the knees we bend in supplication futile attempts to invoke God’s mercy and action. Sometimes, perhaps most of all today, we identify with those hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes for making a show of our fasting, for drawing attention to our almsgiving, for praying publicly and loudly.

This day, of all days, calls us to remember—who we are, where we came from, whose we are. Today is a day to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Today is a day to lament, and weep, and mourn, a day to grieve for the dead and injured, to pray for those whose lives have been shattered by gunfire.

Today is also a day to repent, to ask God’s forgiveness and to experience God’s love, grace, and mercy. I hope that this evening as we remember that we are dust, and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, that we experiencing the transforming power of God to remake us in God’s image that our broken bodies may rejoice.

May this day, may this Lent be a time when we experience anew God’s power to transform and change us, and being changed, may we help God bring change to this broken and sinful world.

Church Shootings and the peace of Christ

This past week, I facilitated a workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Council of Churches on the topic of gun violence. Members of the Council’s Peace and Justice Commission had put the workshop together hoping to provide resources for clergy and lay leaders to help them talk with their congregations about the constellations around gun violence: domestic violence, mental illness, toxic masculinity, suicide, etc, Our goal was to begin to educate ourselves and others about ways to talk about gun violence in our congregations that get beyond the current polarized debates and see gun violence as a pastoral issue as well as a public health concern.

We included a few items about how churches might respond to the possibility of an active shooter. In fact, participants in the workshop were most concerned about that issue and we spent a lot of time exploring questions around preparedness for an active shooter and balancing our values of openness and welcome with the need for security.

In the workshop, I provided some information about the rise in shootings at houses of worship as well as results of studies examining past incidents.

There have been a number of articles in recent weeks that take a closer look at the dynamics behind church shootings most are not random. The largest number of shootings are related to robberies. Other significant factors include the shooter’s feeling unwelcome or rejected by the church (17% in one study) and mental illness (11% in that same study, cited by CNN)

A recent CNN piece published after the Texas shooting included results from two recent studies:

Drake counts 147 church shootings from 2006-2016. Looking more broadly at all violence at allhouses of worship, Chinn has tallied more than 250 incidents each in 2015 and 2016. Through August, there had already been 173 this year, according to Chinn.”

 

Among the shooters’ motives cited in those studies:

  • Over 25% robberies
  • 17% shooter felt unwelcome at church, or had been rejected
  • 16% domestic violence
  • 14% personal conflict (not family related)
  • 10% mental illness
  • 9% religious bias

The set of resources we offered is available at the Wisconsin Council of Churches website:  It is a work in progress and will be updated.

Two recent articles by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today explore important aspects of the issue. On domestic violence: Kate Shellnut, “A Top Reason for Church Shootings: Domestic Abuse” Christianity Today, November 7, 2017

Among the statistics she cites:

And on the relationship between “God and Guns” in the minds of many conservative Christians: Kate Shellnut, “Packing in the Pews: The Connection Between God and Guns” Christianity Today, November 8, 2017

As I said in the interview, balancing openness and welcome with the need for safety is an important issue. More important, however, is that we remain true to our call to follow Jesus Christ and to share the love of Christ with the world. In a nation awash with guns, where violence seems to be the first recourse in any conflict, our faith in God must overcome whatever fear we might have, and our witness to Christ’s love must include being agents of reconciliation and models of other ways of resolving conflict and building community.

 

Being Transfiguration in a time of violence: A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

Today, August 6, in the church’s calendar is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the major feasts of the life of Christ and because of that, when it falls on a Sunday, it supersedes the regular lectionary readings for the day. That explains why we are reading lessons from Exodus, 1 Peter, and the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of Matthew and the readings from Genesis and Romans we’ve been having.

It creates something of a problem for the preacher because there’s another Sunday each year when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). So it was only a few months ago that we heard Matthew’s version of this story. That we read this story each year on the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is appropriate because the themes of this story are a fitting transition between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and reflect the story’s position in each of the synoptic gospels. It comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, after Jesus’ first prediction that he will be crucified and his invitation to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Luke deepens the connection between transfiguration by stating, just a few verses later, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, after this mountaintop experience, Jesus begins his final journey that will end on another mountaintop—Calvary—with his crucifixion.

There’s another detail in the story that points ahead to the crucifixion. There’s only one other time that Luke says the disciples fell asleep. On that later occasion, as he faced crucifixion, Jesus asked his disciples to stay and watch with him while he prayed. Luke tells us that after praying, Jesus came back to them and found them sleeping, “because of grief.” This time, the disciples were “weighed down with sleep but they stayed awake and saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Whatever positive spin we might put on the disciples’ behavior here is likely negated by Peter’s response to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make booths…” No doubt, you’ve heard sermons criticizing Peter’s response, his lack of understanding, his desire to prolong the experience. But there other ways to think about it. “Booths” is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, which was in part a commemoration of the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.

And there are all sorts of echoes of Exodus here. Not just in the presence of Moses, the location on a mountaintop. There is also the presence of the cloud and the bright light, which were associated with experiences of divine revelation, including at Mt. Sinai. The word “Exodus” also appears, in Luke’s description of what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah—his “departure”—the same Greek word, eksodon is used. In the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, “exodus is one of the primary examples of God’s mighty acts on behalf of God’s chosen people, and it’s likely that Luke wants his readers to understand Jesus’ departure or exodus in similar terms, as God saving God’s people.

It may be, then, that Peter’s desire to erect booths is not an example of his misunderstanding, but that he wants to worship in this place, to be present with Jesus here, to learn from all three of these men. While the primary point of this story is about Jesus, a confirmation of his ministry, his calling, his identity as the Son of God, the Chosen One, this story may also be about discipleship, about following Jesus.

Jesus took his three favorite disciples, in Luke, the first three disciples he called, Peter, James, and John, up this mountain to pray. They had been with him all along his journey. They had seen his miracles, listened to his teaching, his first prediction of his suffering and death, and his call to them to take up their crosses and follow him. Now on top of this mountain, they saw his glory and wanted to prolong it. Whatever it meant, whatever they experienced, there was more to do; they could not tarry, but the four of them went back down the mountain and soon began that last, fateful trip to Jerusalem. And they kept silent about all that they had seen that day.

We, all of us, are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples. In our complicated world, with our complicated lives, it’s never quite clear what discipleship means. Is it enough to come to church from time to time and worship, to experience the beauty of God, to catch sight of God’s glory, if only momentarily and partially? I was speaking this week with an elderly couple who are unable, because of health issues to attend Grace. They expressed their deep sadness about missing services, for it was not just the community they lacked, it is the experience of awe and transcendence that they miss, and can find in no other place in their lives.

Worship, the experience of God’s glory is an important part of following Jesus but there is more to discipleship than that. When Jesus came down the mountain, he returned immediately to his ministry of teaching and healing, of proclaiming and bringing into being, the reign of God. And that is precisely what we are called to do as well. Our experience of God’s glory transforms us as well as we do those same things proclaiming the coming of God’s reign, and in our actions and lives, being agents and examples of God’s glory in the world.

The mount of Calvary looms over the mountain of Transfiguration; the cross casts its shadow on Christ’s transfigured face. Our observance of the Feast of Transfiguration occurs in a divided city that has experienced unprecedented violence in recent months. We have seen, as I’m sure you know, 10 homicides already this year, tying the record for the most murders in a year in Madison. Our city is more divided than ever. Our elected leadership is quarreling over what to do in response to this crisis and community leaders are frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhoods most affected by the violence are living in fear everyday and mourning the deaths of friends and family.

We, most of us, watch the news reports, read about them in the papers or on social media, but few of us have experienced the ripples of that violence ourselves. Oh, we may know where the events occurred, we may have stopped at the gas stations or convenience stores where incidents took place, we may even live within earshot. But most of us live in a completely different world. There’s a map on Madison.com that plots all of the significant incidents of gun violence in the city since May. Only one of the some 50 total occurred in the downtown, near westside or near eastside. It’s another piece of evidence showing how divided our city is.

As followers of Jesus, called to share the good news of the coming of God’s reign, called to break down the barriers that divide us, we are called to be agents of Christ’s reconciling love in this world. A group of us, the Creating More Just Community task force, has been engaging on issues of racism and inequality for the last several years. We are working on a new initiative to build relationships with our neighbors across the street at the Capitol, and shared information about that effort with you last week.

Now, I am calling us to engage in that reconciling work in our city. The violence we are witnessing is a symptom of something much deeper, of hopelessness and despair, of broken families, broken lives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking part in conversations with clergy and community leaders to see how we at Grace can work with others to heal our divisions, to bring an end to violence, and to spread the glory of Christ’s love in our city.