Acknowledging ‘White Privilege’

privilege and racismThe words ‘white privilege’ have been bandied around by pundits, the media and in general conversation, and while many of us accept that it exists, we are not sure what it means. The best definition of ‘white privilege’ that I have found came from a class in women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts:

a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.

The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.

White privilege is about not having to worry about being followed in a department store while shopping. It’s about thinking that your clothes, manner of speech, and behavior in general, are racially neutral, when, in fact, they are white. It’s seeing your image on television daily and knowing that you’re being represented. It’s people assuming that you lead a constructive life free from crime and off welfare. It’s about not having to assume your daily interactions with people have racial overtones.

White privilege is having the freedom and luxury to fight racism one day and ignore it the next. White privilege exists on an individual, cultural, and institutional level”.[1]

To quote African -American author, James Baldwin, “Being white means never having to think about it.

Many of us at Saint John’s benefit every day from our ‘white privilege’. We don’t even acknowledge that we have it, and indeed, enjoy a life that people of color can only dream of, but do not often attain. Life’s path is smoothed for us; the entire world is set up to give us every advantage, allow us to come out on the top. Moreover, we don’t want to talk about the fact that we are privileged, or even think that our privilege directly affects the lives of millions of people of color. We do not have to worry about whether our children will return safely as they walk home from school, or if they are driving, will they be stopped for the most minor of offenses and jailed. I have an African-American friend who does not drive in Bexley because the police consider ‘driving while black’ a reason to stop him. We don’t have that worry. And even if we are stopped by the police, we don’t fear that we will be assaulted or shot. We don’t have to teach our sons how to avoid harassment when they are doing nothing wrong. People don’t cross to the other side when we walk down the street, or hold tight to their purses when we pass by.

Racism is about much more than our feelings toward one another, or about differences that we can fix with talk of tolerance or color blindness. The story of race is an ideology of difference that shapes our understanding of ourselves, the world we inhabit, and the communities in which we live. Racial thinking assigns value to human beings who are grouped within artificial categories. We do not need to embrace contrived notions of racial differences, in the name of inclusion, but to examine to the depth of our hearts how we really feel about people of color. Tolerance is not acceptable; we must search until we can truly look at any other person as equal to ourselves. By minimalizing another person, we are dehumanizing not only them but ourselves.

In light of the murders and shootings of people of all colors in the past few months and most recently, we, may be appalled or anguished, but may not see these events are directly related to the long-standing racism in our nation stemming from slavery. Progress for people of color has been slow, and halting; cultural attitudes and habits have changed at a glacial pace. We think we have made progress, but we have become so used to the ‘racial divide’ in our nation, that in many cases, we do not even realize it is there! The sad and shocking thing is, these killings will continue. Too much of white America doesn’t see the problem. Many subconsciously believe that the shooting victim(s) “deserved it”!

None of this means the situation can’t change. However, until the white people in America can see clearly this injustice occurring, and realize the freedoms and values that we as Americans believe in are not available to everyone, it will continue. Until it tugs at our own sense of fairness and justice, a lot of white people in America will remain unmoved to act. Denying the impact of white privilege on this country’s judicial system creates more injustice, more inflamed rhetoric, more grief, more rage. . . and more deaths!

I saw a sign held by protester at a rally that said: ‘White Silence is Violence’.

Truly, if you do not listen to others who are not like you, keep silent when disparaging words are spoken, don’t hold people accountable for their discriminatory conduct, you are just as complicit in racism as those who hold a gun or burn a cross or lynch a man.

White people are in a position of power in this country because of a long-standing power structure that they control. In the opinion of many, much of the political unrest that we are now experiencing stems from the fact that we fear we are losing that control. Are we brave enough to use our ‘white privilege’ to correct that system or power structure? Are we, as white people, willing to do what it takes to stop the systemic murder of young black men, the institutionalized school-to-prison pipeline, the deep, bleeding wound that is racism in America. It is a hard pill to swallow that, in many ways, white people are the source of the problem and only we can change it! People of color may yell, scream, cry, plead or demand justice, but until we are willing to get really uncomfortable with our own participation in a racist society, nothing will change.

Don’t delude yourself that you do not have the power. You may say ‘I’m not racist — I have black friends! I’m a good person!” You may not be rich and you may truly struggle with daily aspects of your life. You probably are a good person, and you may have black friends. BUT, you still benefit from institutionalized racism.

Andrew Rosenthal, a writer for The New York Times, stated:

“The point of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is not that the lives of African Americans matter more than those of White Americans, but that they matter equally, and that historically they have been treated as if they do not.[2]

Speak with people of color, listen, to learn — or perhaps more appropriately, unlearn the racism that has been instilled in us by our country. . . and our churches.

It’s time for white people in America — especially the white American church — to start putting action behind our prayerful social media memes. The unfortunate reality is that America has a really big race problem, and it is white people must take the leadership to fix it. We, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, should be leading the charge, not arguing about the semantics of whose lives’ matter’.

I call on ALL congregations, but especially white congregations, to unite in protest, to refuse to stand in silence, to speak out against racial injustice, to examine our individual lives and attitudes until we understand our participation in racism, and wipe it from our lives!

We must build a society where we no longer see people of color bloodied and broken. . . or dead, due to racial violence.

We must ensure that our children do not take on the racial attitudes and habits that we were so subtly taught.

Join me in acknowledging, understanding and shedding the mantle of our ‘white privilege’.
 
 
[1]      The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA

[2]      Andrew Rosenthal, “The Real Story of Race and Police Killings“, The New York Times; September 4, 2015

 
Written for the Crossroads, Saint John’s Episcopal Church and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 18 July 2016

And Jesus Said, “I Tell You The Truth”

(John 14:1-14)

Every time Jesus wanted us to listen to what He had to say, He would say

truly I tell you“

or

verily I say unto you“

or

I tell you the truth”

All of Jesus’ parables use one of these phrases, as well as many of His teachings. He wants us to ‘get it’ – that what He was saying is important to us and to our salvation.

And Jesus performed all kinds of marvelous deeds: changing water into wine, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, raising the dead, making the lame walk again, driving out demons, feeding 5000 people with five loaves and two fishes, restoring the ear of the servant that Peter cut off, -things that we don’t see every day – things that people found hard to or couldn’t believe. But Bible tells us that these miracles are true -that Jesus did these things – and reminds us that He also said “I tell you the truth”.

In this day and age, we have a hard time finding someone who will tell us the truth. Events are sensationalized, we hear lots of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’, and some people just outright lie and expect us to believe them. It is very hard or almost impossible to know what is true anymore.

But there is one person who we can always believe – who speaks the truth to us, no matter what – and that is Jesus. “I tell you the truth” was, in fact, the essence of Jesus’ mission and ministry.

I tell you the truth,” Jesus says in today’s text,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1)

He said this to the disciples on the last night He shared a meal with them – the time we call ‘The Last Supper’. Can you think of anything more reassuring? More hopeful? More promising?

In spite of the betrayal by Judas and denial three times by Peter that would come in that evening, and the trial Jesus would be facing, he reassured this band of followers, saying

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1)

And He says the same thing to us!

We, like those disciples, have our doubts, weak resolve and often wander off the correct path. Jesus told the truth about the cruelty of people to others, the hatred that tears us apart, the shortcomings that bind us together more than any ties of nationalities, ethnicity, or politics ever could. But once again, Jesus reassures us:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)

Jesus’ “I tell you the truth“ revealed more about God, about that love and forgiveness that is offered to us; the ‘truth’ about God’s plan for salvation for each and every one of us. When Jesus told the ‘truth’ about God, it was never quite what we expected.

For those convinced they were righteous and blessed by their piety and goodness, Jesus warned,

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).

For those who put their faith in human efforts, in the power of the sword and political might, Jesus announced before the great Temple Herod had completed,

“I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another, everyone will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).

For those proud of their rigid oppressive religion, Jesus reminded them that there would be no grown-ups in heaven:

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

For those who said God could only work in certain ways and through certain people, Jesus told the ‘truth’ about a God who could work

wherever,

whenever,

and with whomever

God wants us!

Each and every one of us!

No matter what!

Jesus came to tell the ‘truth’, and this truth both surprises and sets us free – free for God to take us to places that we’ve never been before and couldn’t get to without God.

All we have to do is follow the teachings of Jesus.

Praise be to God!

 

Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 14 May 2017

 

 

 

An Unexamined Belief Is Not Worth Having

John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best-known Eastertide gospels – that of “Doubting Thomas”. We almost never hear the name of this disciple without the label of “Doubting”. Most people, no matter how non-religious, have heard about “Doubting Thomas”.

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. He is just a name in a list of the disciples (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:15), a faceless man among the twelve. It is in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then there are only 155 words about him. Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, that the writer of John created Thomas as a metaphor with a unique personality of “doubting”. His story has entered the vocabulary of the world and is even used in common conversation. People who doubt or question the status quo are called “Doubting Thomas”.[1]

Jesus admonished Thomas:

“Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27)

Jesus told Thomas to believe and accept His resurrection as true – to have “faith”.

What then is this “faith” we are supposed to have? Faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. It is, from a religious standpoint, a strong belief in God or certain doctrines based on spiritual apprehension, rather than proof. Jesus goes on to tell Thomas

“blessed are those who believe and have not seen”. (John 20:29)

In fact, not only Christians, but all human beings, really, live every day by faith.

  • We go to sleep assuming by faith that we will wake up.
  • We kiss our loved ones goodbye, having faith that we will see them again.
  • We drive to the grocery store with the faith that we will return home safely with our groceries.
  • We plant our gardens in the fall with faith that they will blossom in the spring.

And most crucially, we live every day knowing at some point that we will die, and that somehow it will be alright. But we cannot prove that, nor can we understand what really happens. These are all elements of “having faith”.

But does faith mean we do not doubt?

No, surely faith does not preclude doubt. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they are troubled from time to time with doubts about what they they’ve been taught is true. Even the Saint Mother Teresa wrote of her doubts in her diaries, saying:

“[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak “

Even this holy woman had doubts, yet her faith was strong.

Doubt is defined as: ‘a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; a hesitancy to believe; not being certain about something, especially about how good or true it is.’

The writer, Frederick Buechner, put it this way, “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”[2] Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

I submit to you that being a “Doubting Thomas” and questioning life, especially its major events or problems, is not a bad thing. We should do it. When we ask ourselves difficult questions, we get answers that can deepen our faith and provide us with the tools we need to move to a more purposeful life and a closer relationship with God.

Indeed, we can learn a valuable lesson from Thomas: We must doubt and then move beyond doubt to faith. It is all right to doubt, but we must move beyond doubt.

Jesus told Thomas that those

who believe even if they have not seen are blessed.” (John 29:29)

Certain Christian doctrines and biblical stories simply seem illogical and flawed. They confound all reason and go against much of what we now know for sure, through science and experience.

So, what if we find ourselves with serious doubts. What should we do?

  • We can accept that doubt is normal and healthy for human beings. All Christians, sometime during our lives, have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out.
  • As I mentioned, doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to a greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretation and his doubting of their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took this further to his own excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God. Doubt often leads to deeper faith.

So, when we doubt, we begin to examine our lives to determine what is true, what is right, what is good for us. That is the human process – it leads to a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationship with eternity. And each one of us must travel that journey at their own pace and in their own time.

So, is there a real purpose for doubt in our Christian faith? ABSOLUTELY!

Doubt is what enables our faith to grow. Today’s gospel passage tells us this. In the beginning of the text Jesus has appeared to the disciples and they believed. They had to share it with others. Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, and when he heard what happened, he did not believe what they were saying. Thomas had little faith in what the disciples were saying because it was, frankly, unbelievable, and he needed more proof. Jesus was dead – he had seen him brutally tortured and murdered, he saw his lifeless body buried in a tomb.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the others when Jesus appeared. But surely, he was despairing – the one in whom he had put all his faith was dead. Yet, today we should be glad for his doubt, for we, like Thomas, did not see Jesus appear resurrected, and our doubt is much like his.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, however, Thomas was there and declared for all to hear,

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and place my finger where the nails where, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.“ (John 20:25)

Did Jesus chastise Thomas for his unbelief? No! He understood the reason for his doubts and said:

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27)

And Thomas believed!

Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death. Just as Thomas doubted, we feel compelled in our doubts to see for ourselves. Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured that what Jesus promised us is true – that life is eternal – that to live as He did, to follow His example of love, compassion, service, and forgiveness – this leads us to true life, here on earth and beyond – and that where He is eternally, there we will be also. Like Thomas, we all must seek, experience, meditate, and question until we come to understand, through confidence in the word of Jesus, that He is true, His promise is true, and we can believe in Him with all our hearts and minds.

I leave you with this poem, “Thomas, Undone”, by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

The un-ease you feel is not doubt.
It is hunger to go deeper.
You are not done yet.

Learn from Thomas,
who, when Jesus planned to go to Bethany
where they had tried to stone him,
said, “Let us go die with him.”

You want to see the scar of your betrayal
and how love bears it.

You want to touch the wounds
and enter the heart of The One
Who Suffers for the World
and lives.

Now, more than before,
you are ready to come and die with him,
let love undo you and begin again.

Don’t belittle your restlessness.
Let it lead you.
Reach out.

Even now he is saying your name. [3]

Let us pray:

Almighty and ever living God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: grant us the faith to truly and deeply believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found doubting. Empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it so others can know the grace of your salvation, your gracious gift of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 
 
Christ with Saint Thomas, Andrea de Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence (1467-1483)
[1]    John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, 2014
[2]    Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (Harper One, 1973)
[3]   Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Thomas, Undone”, Unfolding Light

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 23 April 2017

The Final Enemy, DEATH, Is No More!

Matthew 28:1-10

If life has a way of killing dreams, Christ’s resurrection has a way of bringing them back to life.

Life has a way of killing dreams, doesn’t it? You set out with high hopes – for your schooling, your career, your family, and your golden years. You have plans, aspirations, and expectations. But things don’t always turn out the way you expected. Plans fall through. People let you down. You let yourself down. Suddenly the life you’re living isn’t the life you dreamed of at all; or you find yourself in a place you never expected to be.

But we can have hope.

Hope.  

What is hope, anyway? Wishful thinking? Naive optimism? “Hope it doesn’t rain,” we say. “Hope the sermon doesn’t go too long.” (That is wishful thinking!) Emily Dickinson tells us:

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all”.[1]

The dictionary tells us that hope is “a desire with the expectation of fulfillment.” So hope begins with a desire for something good, but then adds the element of expectation, of confidence. Without expectation, it’s just a wish. And wishes tend not to come true. When we hope for something, we’re counting on it.

But hope is more than a word – without it, we die. When a team loses hope, the game is over. When a patient loses hope, death is crouching at the door.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, survived years in the Nazi concentration camps. He noticed that prisoners died just after Christmas. They were hoping they’d be free by then. When they weren’t, they gave up. He learned that as long as prisoners had something to live for, a reason to press on, they could endure just about anything. But once they lost hope, they quickly died. Fyodor Dostoevsky said that “to live without hope is to cease to live.”

Bobby Knight has a different take on it. Bobby Knight is the legendary basketball coach who led the Indiana Hoosiers to three NCAA tournament finals; he was also famous for throwing chairs and chewing out officials, players, fans, and anyone in the vicinity. According to Bobby Knight, “hope” is the worst word in the English language. He says it’s foolish and lazy to tell yourself that “things are going to be all right.” They will only be all right if somebody steps up and does something.

Hope needs a reason. Something, or someone, that can get us to a better place. Without a reason, hope is just wishful thinking.

But for us, ‘hope is a who; hope is not a what, or a when, or a why. Hope is a “who.” Things don’t get better just because we want them to. They get better because somebody does something. Hope is always embodied in a person. Hope is a ‘who.” Somebody wise enough, strong enough, good enough, to get us to a better place.

And Jesus Christ is that someone. His resurrection proves that he is stronger than any setback, any failure, any loss, any disappointment – any fears. If life has a way of killing dreams, Jesus has a way of bringing them back to life.

That’s not to say we always get what we want, or that every bad thing can magically be un-done. Life doesn’t work that way. But it is to say that God can and will do something good with our future. Hope is the confidence that God can and will do something good. Hope is the confidence that God can and will do something good – in this life, and the life to come. Wherever you find yourself in this morning, whatever pain, loss, or disappointment you may be dealing with, God can do something good with it, or in it. That doesn’t minimize the pain or loss or evil of it. It simply means the story isn’t over yet.

In this life, we can find joy, beauty, forgiveness, healing, purpose, restoration, and the reality of God’s presence in our lives every day. In the life to come, we can look forward to reunion with those we have lost, the restoration of all creation, and to eternal life with God and one another in worlds beyond our imagining.

Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it’s confident living. It’s facing the future knowing that God can and will do something good, in this life, and the life to come.

Probably, the most unnerving thing in all our lives is the fear of death – we don’t what is going to happen, It is a fear that we will go into “nothingness’, a big black hole. What we are now and will become will disappear like dust in the wind.

We hope that it will be like Heaven, where we meet with our friends and family who have gone before us. That we will suffer no pain, have no disabilities, have no reason for weeping and mourning.

Fear of death is a morbid, abnormal or persistent fear of one’s own death or the process of dying; a “feeling of dread, apprehension or anxiety when one thinks of the process of dying, or ceasing to “be”.[2]

It’s a fear that somehow we will die before we have reached our hopes and dreams. . . that we will leave things unfinished. It can be irrational and often debilitating, keeping us from achieving our hopes and dreams.

But by Jesus” crucifixion and resurrection He conquered the most fearful thing of all – DEATH.

We have been promised by Jesus:

And after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am. (John 14:3)

Death can no longer hold us in constant fear!

If you should find yourself in a tough place right now, have the courage to stay in that place and invite Christ to meet you there. If you know who’s dealing with pain, disappointment, or loss – share hope with them. Ask them how they’re doing. Listen to them. Be with them. Pray for them. And when the time is right, point them toward the resurrected Jesus. Because life has a way of killing dreams, but Jesus has a way of bringing them,

and us,

back to life!

Phillip Brook wrote his “Easter Carol” reminding us that death is no longer:

Tomb, You shall not hold Him longer,
Death is strong, but life is stronger
Stronger than the dark, the light;
Stronger than the wrong, the right;
Faith and hope triumphant say;
Christ will rise on Easter Day.

While the patient earth lies waiting
Till the morning shall be breaking
Shuddering beneath the burden dread
Of her Master, cold and dead,
Hark! she hears the angels say;
Christ will rise on Easter Day.

And when sunrise smites the mountains
Pouring light from heavenly fountains
Then the earth blooms out to greet
Once again the blessed feet;
And her countless voices say;
Christ has risen on Easter Day.”.[3]

Jesus Christ is the death of Death!

Let us rejoice and be glad!

Amen
 
 
[1] Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers”, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
[2] Farley G.: Death anxiety. National Health Service UK. 2010, found in: Peters L, Cant R, Payne S, O’Connor M, McDermott F, Hood K, Morphet J, Shimoinaba K. (2013).
[3] Phillips Brook, “The Easter Carol”, Christmas Songs and Easter Carols (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1903)

Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 16 April 2017

To Serve as Jesus Served

John 13:1-17, 31-35

On the evening before He died, Jesus was aware of the shame and agony that awaited him. This night on which Jesus shared Passover with His friends, has come to be marked by the Christian world as “Mandatum/Mandate”, or “Maundy Thursday” because Jesus commanded his followers to remember Him and continue His teachings. In total love, Jesus wrapped a slave’s towel around his waist, dropped to his knees and began one of the most menial tasks of the culture at that time: washing the dirty feet of his friends. It was the humiliating work of a slave, not the dignified work of a Master, let alone the Son of God.

Jesus knew that he was dining with Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him three times. Yet he knelt before them and gently washed their feet anyway, modeling for them and for us a radical love that goes far beyond one’s worthiness. In this kind of love there is not only a willingness, but a plea for reconciliation – for broken relationships to be made whole again. The creator of the universe, through Jesus, willingly humbled Himself to reach out to the hearts of those who have fallen away and become lost, who would deny and kill Him. This is the sacrificial love of service..

William Gladstone, a member of the British parliament in the mid-1800s, announced the death of Princess Alice to the House of Commons. With the announcement, he told this story. The little daughter of Princess Alice was seriously ill with diphtheria. The doctors told the princess not to kiss her little daughter because that would endanger her own life by breathing in the child’s breath. Once when the child was struggling to breathe, the mother, forgetting herself entirely, took the little one into her arms to keep her from choking to death. Gasping and struggling for her life, the child said, “Mumma, kiss me!” Only thinking about her dying child and without a thought for herself the mother tenderly kissed her daughter. She got diphtheria and soon after Princess Alice died.[1]

Real love forgets self. Real love knows no danger. Real love does not count the cost.

The gospel text today is about this kind of love:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you; that you also love one another.” (John 13:34).

Take note that love is not an option for the followers of Jesus. He says,

“A new commandment I give to you”. (John 13:34)

Not a suggestion, not a recommendation. A COMMANDMENT! This is not just a command to love our families or those who love us, not to try to love others, but to love everyone the same way that Jesus loves us.

“Love one another, just like I have loved you;” (John 13:34)

There is no way around this commandment of Jesus,

Love one another.” (John 13:34)

Why does Jesus command us to love? He gives this commandment because there is a part of every one of us that rebels against the idea of pure, unconditional love. Despite the example that we have in Jesus’ total and unconditional love for us – there is a part of us that says such love is out of place in the world in which we live. There is a part of us that says “sure, loving others is great – up to a point”

Isn’t that what we do all the time?

We draw a line and say, “That’s how much we are prepared to love the next person”. We draw a line and say, “That’s how far we are prepared to do a kind deed for someone else”. We draw a line and say, “Those are the people we are willing to love”.

We are happy to love a selective way. We are comfortable with love that doesn’t make us extend ourselves to strangers, unpleasant or funny-looking people, unkind or uncouth people, mean or vengeful people, people who make us feel uncomfortable.

But that is not the commandment! What Jesus says is quite plain. We should love others in the same way that Jesus loves us. He loved the unclean, the demented, the socially outcast; He loved the righteous and powerful who would kill Him, and the weak and fearful who could not even defend Him. His love is a complete giving of Himself as friend, teacher, Son, healer, and finally in His death. We see that on the cross.

He had no thought for His own safety, but put his own life at risk. He was prepared to risk pain and suffering, even death, because in His love for us, He would not deny the truth or the way to eternity He was showing us.

His love is a genuine, honest, compassionate love for everyone, all the time. His love is not turned off and on by fleeting passions, or emotional highs.

He drew no line and knew no limits.

And that is how he commanded us to love – totally and sacrificially.

Do you know why it is that we find it so difficult to love as Jesus commanded? This kind of love goes against our human nature; it goes against all human reasoning and logic. It is unreasonable to love those who are cruel, mean, arrogant and spiteful, murders and thieves, those who in no way deserve it. We may pity the poor, the lonely, the deranged, the unclean, but LOVE them. That is too much to ask!

To love totally and unconditionally requires us to become involved in other people’s live, to be bound up in the their needs and sorrows. It takes time, it takes commitment, it takes listening, it interrupts our schedules. Oh, we might manage it on the odd occasions but loving everyone unconditionally and sacrificially all the time, that is a tall order. But that is what we are commanded to do.

To love as Jesus commands us means that we need to immerse ourselves in His life example and teachings, and to let the love of Christ enter our lives and empower us to love, serve and work together. As we come to realize our place in God’s family and cast off everything that is opposed to love – the impatience, selfishness, greed, indifference, and fear that so often compel us –  we, instead,  will be led by His Spirit in everything we say and do.

There is a story about a man who had a huge boulder in his front yard. He grew tired of this big, unattractive stone in the center of his lawn, so he decided to turn it into an object of art. He went to work on it with hammer and chisel, and chipped away at the huge boulder until the ugly stone became a beautiful running deer. When he finished, it was gorgeous, breath-taking.

A neighbour asked, “How did you ever carve such a marvelous likeness of a deer?”

The man answered, “I just chipped away everything that didn’t look like a deer!”[2] 

Before we come to the Eucharist table tonight and every time, we are urged to go and resolve any bad feelings and arguments we may have with others. If you have anything in your life right now that doesn’t look like love, then, with the help of God, chip it away!

If you have anything in your life that doesn’t look like compassion or mercy or empathy, then, with the help of God, chip it away!

If you have hatred or prejudice or vengeance or envy in your heart, for God’s sake, and the for the other person’s sake, and for your sake, get rid of it!

Ask God to chip everything out of your life that doesn’t look like tender heartedness and love.

In John, we are told

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

Do people see the light of Jesus shining through you?

To love as Jesus loves us seems way out of our reach. To let love rule everything we say and do, may seem impossible. We fail again and again, but we MUST never give up. Our failures mean that we need the love of Christ more than ever before. We need His unconditional, never-failing love to forgive us for our lack of love and create the potential for us to love unconditionally and totally  all the time  as we are loved totally and for eternity.

So, on this “Mandate” Thursday, let us re-dedicate ourselves to love – to loving one another, those near and far, friends and perceived enemies, as Christ has loved us – to love in sacrifice and service, in joy and thanksgiving that Jesus came to this Easter to show us Truth, Beauty, and Eternal Love.

 
 
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, 13 April 2017

[1]   Pastor Vince Gerhardy, “To Love as Jesus Loves Us”, SermonWriter.com
[2]   Ibid

Celebration and a Sense of Doom

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:8-11)

We celebrate Palm Sunday today – the day that Jesus made a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. . . and the beginning of a week that brought denial, betrayal, a trial, crucifixion and finally, resurrection.

This coming “holy week” is the culmination of Jesus’ life – the reason He came as God’s son. We experience a wide range of emotions as we move through the week.

It is the time of the Jewish Passover – a time when people came home to celebrate with their families. It was a holiday then, and still is today, a time to be with family and celebrate with the Passover meal.

If you use your imagination for just a moment, you can feel the press of the people as they gather along the road from Bethany to Jerusalem. You can smell the dust, and the donkeys, you can hear the crowd. You can see the brightly colored holiday clothes of festive pilgrims gathering in Jerusalem.

You can feel the excitement in the air; you may find yourself climbing a tree to break down a palm branch, and then straining to see through all the other waving branches. Off in the distance, a muffled roar, indistinguishable words, then a cheer, and then a chant: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!” You may even find yourself shouting

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9)

Soon the road was jammed with pilgrims and locals alike. They joined the disciples in laying their cloaks across the path to show Jesus honor. They broke branches from the palm trees and waved them in the air, and spread them on the road. While the cloaks and the palm branches make this a procession fit for a king, the cheers of the people were even more significant.

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9)

It was a great celebration!! People were happy and joyful, celebrating life.

But it was also the last week of Jesus’ life.

In the jubilation of Palm Sunday, we forget that in a few short days Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, tried, abandoned, whipped, spit upon, slapped, scourged, tortured with a crown of thorns, mocked, ridiculed, and ultimately nailed on a cross. And the same crowds that had sung “Hosannas” at his arrival, would shout “Crucify Him!” – and ask Pilate to release Barabbas and put Jesus to death.

Their love for the Lord was shallow and based entirely on their hope of what exciting things he could do for them. In their confusion, and anger, and fear, those who on Sunday had welcomed Jesus as their new messiah, by Friday had turned on him, disappointed in Jesus and their continued lives under the Roman rule. So tired of all they could not control, they cried out for vengeance they could control. If Jesus would not be their king and free them, then they might as well get rid of Him.

Jesus knew that the end of his earthly ministry was near. It was time to do what he had come to do. It was now or never; he was ready to be obedient to God, and to accomplish the purpose set out for him. The road on Palm Sunday was not a road to freedom. It was the road to sacrifice. It was not the road to power, it was the road to humility and humiliation. It was not the road to fame, it was the road to death. It was not the road the crowd thought; it was the road God had planned.

None of us knows just how long each of our lives will be, how much time we have left. Every time we learn of someone who dies young, we are reminded of that.

None of us can know all that the future holds. We don’t know how long we will be on this earth. But we can know that God has a purpose for us. He calls us to love him and love others with the kind of love that He showed us when he sacrificed His only Son. He calls us to speak out the truth, to reach out our hands, to hold out our hearts.

And he calls us to do that now. When we think we are not ready to make a commitment, that is the best time to do it. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He just wants us to try. . . try a little each and every day.

And that day is now.

We don’t know how many more days there will be. We cannot afford to miss even one.

It is time to try to live our lives in the way Jesus taught. We are to

“Love one another as we love ourselves” (John 13:34-35)

Jesus gave his life for us; we can do no less to honor Him.

Let us pray:

Creator who loves us dearly, thank you for sending Jesus to be our redeemer. No matter how, or where or when we worship you, we want to do it to honor you and not ourselves. May we reflect Jesus’ passion and share in your grace. In the name of the Son of David we pray. Amen.

 
 
Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 9 April 2017

LESS BUTTER, MORE GUNS – Are these Christian Priorities?

As Christians, we will be judged by how we support the care of God’s creation; Jesus repeatedly taught us to work for peace and to care for the people of the earth.

How we allot and spend our combined resources – our budgets – are moral documents, reflecting our values. The proposed state and federal budgets reflect few of the religious values that our Savior taught, or for which our churches proclaim they stand.

At the federal level, the proposed budget eliminates school lunches and HeadStart programs, funding for programs for the elderly such as ‘Meals on Wheels’, and drastically reduces money for environmental protection a clean-up. Also significantly reduced is funding for foreign aid and diplomacy, and for Medicaid which provides healthcare for some 30% of our neediest poor and elderly.

The billions of dollars removed from Medicaid will be transferred, instead, to a 10% increase in military spending (the U.S. already spend more than any other nation on earth on armaments) to a Pentagon renown for waste and fraud. Some of this money will also go for tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens in our nation.

At the state level, the proposed budget only has a 1.9% increase over the current budget. Funding for education (early education, primary, vocational and college) programs has not been increased to meet the 2.7% rate of inflation. School districts will be penalized for a decrease in enrollment, although classroom costs will not change. Severe decreases in funding for vocational training for those students who are not college-bound practically eliminates the possibility that students graduating can obtain training to become productive citizens.

In the Ohio budget, tax cuts proposals include benefits for the upper socio-economic class, while significantly increasing sales tax and local income taxes, which negatively impact those with lower incomes.

The Ohio Department of Aging, which provides services to the elderly, receives no additional monies, although the percentage of elderly Ohioans living on fixed incomes and in need of these services is rapidly increasing. With the decrease in or elimination of Medicaid funding at the federal level, essential preventive healthcare measures and addressing the critical opioid addiction problem in Ohio will go unfunded. No additional funding for non-physical healthcare, will lead to more and more crises for the homeless and those suffering from addiction and mental illness.

As stewards of God’s creation (Genesis 1:28), elimination of major portions of the Environmental Protection Agency should cause great concern. As the effects of global warming becomes more apparent, we need to take additional measures to ensure the quality of our air and water and earth, rather than ignore this growing world crisis.

Yet money for border walls to separate us from one another and for life-killing weaponry is being proposed!

Is this really what we as a nation stand for?

    when I was hungry, you canceled my food stamps;
    when I was thirsty, you diverted lead & coal into my water;
    when I was sick, you tripled my insurance rates;
    when I was in prison, you enslaved me to corporations;
    when I was a stranger with brown skin you deported me;
    from the lonely you took away social programs;
    from the elderly, you took away meals & medicine;
    from the workers, you took away legal protections;
    from the young, you took away school funding;
    from the victims, you took away shelter;
    instead of diversity, you encourage intolerance;
    instead of caring, you encourage isolation;
    instead of equity, you encourage military excess.

It is our obligation, as people of faith, to do everything within our power to call our senators and representatives to account for their votes on these budget decisions. There are many things individuals can do: make telephone calls, visit legislative offices, write letters and send emails to elected officials, and write letters to the editors of your local papers.

Yet, is this enough?

Perhaps more importantly, what are we- the members of Saint John'<uls – going to do to provide leadership to our city and state reflecting our priorities? Jesus’ voice must be our voice. We, as a church, can have an important influence. What are we going to do?

We should hold the clergy responsible for talking and preaching about these issues, reminding us that we are responsible for the world we live in, and we need to be vigilant to see that no one is left behind.

This is not politics! – it is caring for our world and the people in it.

 
 
Written for Crossroads, Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 19 March 2017

Do You Want ‘Living Water’?

    So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:5-42)

I have just proclaimed one of the longest readings in the liturgical year. I will have to admit, after such a long and rich Gospel, I had the inclination to say ‘Amen’ and sit down.

But, this reading contains a lot of food for thought. Today, I want us to explore further the meeting of Jesus and the woman at the well and the new life He promised her and all of us if we follow His teachings.

During the course of his journeys, Jesus traveled from Judea to Galilee, by way of Samaria. We are told that Jewish travelers preferred to make a detour that could take days to go around Samaria in order to avoid contact with Samaritans who were pagans and sworn enemies of the Jews.

This stereotyping by the Jews of Jesus’ day of the Samaritan woman, and all Samaritans, as unclean and to be avoided at all costs is a lazy way of lumping together all of those who come from a certain class, or a certain occupation, or a certain race, and attributing to each individual the same characteristics as the group. Although some things may generally be true of a group, it is not specifically true of each person in that group.

And such stereotyping – as prevalent today as in the time of Jesus – bring with it offenses against our fellow human beings that are cruel and abhorrent to the Christian life!

Prejudice. . . Discrimination. . . Segregation. . . Racism. . .

Our society cries out against such offenses—as well it should! Regrettably, all of these negative attitudes were as much a part of the Jewish and Samaritan cultures as they are of ours today.

Prejudice judges a man’s character by his outward appearance. Discrimination deprives a person of the right to have all the benefits of the society. Segregation deprives a person of the right to belong fully to that society. Stereotyping deprives a person of the right to be fully the individual they were created to be. Racism deprives a person of the rights inherent at their birth.

Prejudice against anyone who is different divides, isolates, and ostracizes people. It is the mark of an ignorant mind that perceives itself to be enlightened., who thinks they are better than someone else. Prejudice has its root in ignorance, faulty sense of reality, and leads to further ignorance.

In 1 Samuel 16:7, we read:

    For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7).

We are reminded that those who judge according to outward appearance are foolish – that we do not see people the way God sees them.

Jesus took the direct route to Sychar, which was a town near Jacob’s Well. Here, in this little inconsequential village, Jesus stopped, tired and thirsty in the midday heat. His disciples had left him alone to go buy food. Only a Samaritan woman was there, drawing water from the well. Jesus did not see the Samaritan woman as anything more or less than a human being at the well.

In this time, every drop of water used in a household had to be carried from the local well. I wonder how many times the Samaritan woman had trudged to the bottom of the steps cut into the rock, filled her heavy earthenware jars, returned up the steps, and carried the water home. The fountain was the hub of every village. The strong younger women of the household normally did this task, but the Samaritan woman was no longer young, and since she was carrying her own water, she must not have had younger women in her household to do this heavy task. Scripture suggests that she was drawing water during the hottest time of the day – maybe because she wanted to avoid meeting the townspeople. . . one might guess because of her multiple marriages, she was an outcast in her village, a woman discriminated against and possibly segregated from the rest of society.

Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for something to drink, and here begins the longest conversation recorded between Jesus and any person. Given the role of women in that culture, it is quite surprising that this conversation happens with someone who was a woman, and a non-Jew. The woman herself was certainly surprised when Jesus spoke to her, because Jews and Samaritans simply did not have anything to do with each other. The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us just how much these two peoples avoided one another, and how biased each were toward the other.

But, we are all of one blood; Acts 17:26 tells us

    And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth

One race cannot be better than another because all of us were born from the same ancestors.

“The Samaritan Woman” is not given a proper name, which is not unusual in John’s gospel – there are a number of people who are unnamed by John. Among these are the Beloved Disciple, the Paralyzed Man at the Pool, the Man Born Blind, and the Royal Official. These were real people with their own names, identities and stories, but leaving them nameless heightens the symbolism in their stories. We could all be one of those persons.

Once again, we learn that Jesus was different from all other men; he taught and lived a life devoid of the prejudices of his culture. Jesus never thought of the ancient enmity between Jews and Samaritans, and began talking to the woman about ‘living water’.

But the Samaritan woman had a feeling that Jesus meant more. She questioned him. Jesus explained that when people drink ordinary water, they get thirsty again. But He knew of a water that gave eternal life. Needless to say, this caught her interest, tired as she was of carrying water daily. She asked Jesus for some of this ‘living water’.

Jesus spoke to her as an intellectual and social equal, and she responded in kind. Jesus told her that very soon none of false rules that society had developed to divide and hurt others would matter, because the Messiah was coming, and he would change everything. In fact, he said,

    “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:26)

The story of the Samaritan woman, once again, shows us that Jesus cared about every person, regardless of gender, race, or station in life.

This teaching, that we are all brothers and sisters, equal throughout eternity, is a great part of the ‘living water’ which he came to give us, and to bring that love and caring for all persons into our lives is to drink of the ‘living water’.

The Samaritan woman was transformed by her meeting with Jesus – just as we all can be. She believed Jesus was truly the Messiah, the Anointed One. She immediately repented of her past misdeeds and went back to tell her friends and neighbors how she met Jesus and His offer of life-giving water.

In many ways, this story tells us that there is a well of grace ready to refresh all souls parched by sin and suffering. Jesus came to serve those who still need both physical or spiritual healing. He offers new life to all; He came to give ‘living water’, which is like a stream that bubbling within us and will pass from us to other people as we share His love, enveloping them in the spirit of Jesus.

The Samaritan woman does not appear in the Bible again. But Saint Augustine and most Biblical scholars later use this example to describe the spiritual thirst of the human heart for goodness and truth and unconditional love – that thirst is not fully quenched until people are in the presence of God forever.

Take a few moments and think about:

  • Are you thirsty for that ‘living water’?
  • And what attitudes and cultural prejudices may be stopping you from fully experiencing it?
  • Are you ready to accept this ‘living water’, making the changes, in your life, great and small, that will allow you to drink more fully?
  • Where can you find that ‘living water’?
  • Are you willing to do what you must to receive the ‘living water’?
  • Are you ready to
    love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31)
  • Are you ready to accept that ‘living water’?

A pastor/poet friend sums it all up in his ‘Spring of Life’:

    O Love, thou spring of life,
    well up in me.
    Gush up from deep within,
    receiving, glad, and overflowing,
    giving life, the breath of God
    that mortal life nor heart cannot contain,
    life rooted deep beneath the earth,
    above the stars.
    Run deep, pure water of your grace,
    pure flow of living energy,
    that I may flow with love
    each day, each breath.
    O Love, thou spring of life,
    well up in me.[1]

Amen.
 
 
[1] Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Spring of Life”, Unfolding Light
 
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church of Worthington and Parts Beyond, Worthington, OH; 19 March 2017