Sunday, September 29, 2019

September 29, 2019 - Proper 21C

In the name of the God who is, and was, and is to come Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            There’s a tension in the Christian faith between what God has done for us, which is everything, and what our response ought to be. You see, when we say that God’s grace is the only thing that matters and that none of the burden of salvation is on us, sometimes we can slip into complacency. But if we overcorrect by claiming that our actions are what bring about our righteousness or the Kingdom of God, well, then we end up diminishing the finality, completeness, and grandeur of what God has done for us in Christ. The trick, as it almost always is, is to let the tension remain instead of trying to resolve it. Think of a piece of string between two points, without tension, there is nothing, but with enough tension between them, beautiful music can be made. Yes, faith rests solely on the grace of God, but like a tree with the roots of this grace in our lives there is an expectation of fruitfulness in word and deed.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

September 22, 2019 - Proper 20C

O God of healing grace, cure our sin-sick souls and make us whole that we might serve the world in your most holy name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” The down-trodden prophet Jeremiah asks that question of lament. This past Holy Saturday, in the homily I mentioned that we often overlook lament as a type of prayer. The Prayer Book lists adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition as the different types of prayer, but, in an error of omission, they forgot lament.
A prayer of lament is about expressing a sense of doubt, pain, grief, despair, hopelessness, or Godforsakenness. It is a prayer of brutal honesty and truth-telling with, or, even, against God. These laments are offered because there is a faithful assumption that when we boldly tell the truth that God will hear us. So often we avoid lament though – we don’t want to burden others with our problems, we want to appear strong and put together, we don’t want to admit our pain even to ourselves because we know that if we name it, we might fall apart. But as we will see through our faith and this Scripture, it is through naming the truth of brokenness that we receive the healing balm of God’s love.
Jeremiah is sometimes called “the weeping prophet,” because much of book that bears his name is a lament. Jeremiah’s ministry occurred between the years 625 and 585 BC, which was an incredibly turbulent time in Israel’s history. The Assyrian Empire had occupied the nation, but its power was fading. So King Josiah was able to restore the religious life of Israel and made restorations to the Temple. But Josiah died in a battle and was replaced with King Jehoiakim who abandoned all of these reforms and Israel was plunged into a time of idolatry, of ignoring widows and orphans, of making political alliances with idolatrous nations, of abusing the resources of the earth for quick economic gain, of abandoning the covenant with God. The end result of all of this is that by 587 BC, the Babylonian Empire would invade and crush Israel. Indeed, there was much to lament over.
The reason why we still read Scripture that is 2,500 years old is because there really isn’t much new under the sun. There is much to lament in our world right now – whether it was the 9/11 remembrances earlier this month, bullying in schools, the destruction in the Bahamas, a cancer diagnosis, an opioid epidemic, the plague of gun violence in our nation, the waning of church attendance across the country, or the impending environmental doom. Now I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the positive things in our lives because there are many things to be thankful for. But we’ve forgotten how to lament. Lament is not the same thing as complaining, or being hopeless, or blaming others for our situation. Lament is truth-telling, it is about acknowledging the fact that we are broken, that there is injustice and we do not possess the means of healing in ourselves.
Lament is a necessary and healthy part of faith because it prepares us to receive the restoring and healing grace of God. There’s a particular phrase in Christianity that I really don’t understand, even though I hear people use it all the time. When someone is struggling with something, you’ll often hear them say “I’ve turned it over to God.” I have no idea what that means. Maybe other people have more discipline than I do, but I can’t control what I think about. If I’m worried about something, I don’t have the ability to just say “That’s God’s problem now, so I’m not going to worry about it.” Again, if you’ve got the willpower to do that, God bless you. But for those of us who still struggle, prayers of lament might be the medicine that we need.
Lament involves us not pretending that the problem is gone because we’ve told God to take care of it, but lament is about continuing to name the fact that things are broken. Lament insists on God’s justice. Lament is about anticipating that God will heal us. And lament is about taking an active role in this salvation – now we might not actually be doing much to cause the healing, but by continuing to acknowledge the pain instead of pretending that everything is okay, we keep ourselves open to God’s gracious healing. Without lament, we might either forget injustices or abandon hope. The steady drumbeat of lament is crucial to our faith and prepares us to receive God’s healing balm.
I truly don’t know why it is this way, but healing comes through pain. The central message of Christianity is that God loved us so much as to become vulnerable and come among us as one of us, enduring the shame and pain of rejection and Crucifixion and then rose from the dead to open to us the way of everlasting life. Pain is central to the story of faith. So any version of Christianity that purports to be about receiving blessings, happiness, or living your best life now doesn’t understand the first thing about Jesus. Acknowledging pain isn’t being pessimistic, it’s being real. Lament helps us in receiving that healing balm of God.
But what is the balm of Gilead? Gilead is a region just across the Jordan River, it’s in modern-day Jordan. It was a place where medicinal herbs were grown and there was some sort of ointment that was made there that had healing properties. But what is interesting in Jeremiah’s question of lament is that he knows that he cannot look towards Jerusalem for this healing. Nor does he ask the religious or political leaders for their assistance. Some problems just can’t be solved by the people who created and are perpetuating the problems. And so Jeremiah turns his hope away from the authority figures. It’s a reminder to us that we might be looking for salvation in the wrong places. Jeremiah isn’t trying to find someone to make the problems disappear, he just wants a balm to soothe the pain and start the healing process.
The thing about a balm is that it doesn’t erase our wounds, rather it heals our pains and promotes healing. Redemption and healing will come from the balm of Gilead, but the scars will remain. The healing balm of God’s grace will not erase the fact that we have reasons to lament, but it does promote healing. You all have heard me quote the famous line from Julian of Norwich before – she writes that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” At the core of my faith and hope is that sense of trust in God’s love to be a balm that will make all things well.
But in a conversation with one of you about that line, I clarified that even though all will be well, it doesn’t mean that all will be easy. Central to Julian’s writing is an abiding trust and hope that is rooted in the Passion of Jesus. Throughout her writing, Julain notes that healing comes despite and through pain. At one point she writes, “God wants us to know that he keeps us equally in joy and in sorrow, and loves us as much in sorrow and joy.” It’s not that God loves us when things are going well and ignores us when things are going poorly, but God is always with us. And then she writes that “The love that made Jesus suffer his Passion so far surpasses all his pain as heaven is above earth, for his suffering was a deed performed at one time through the working of his love, but love was without beginning, and is, and ever shall be without end.”
The thing about love is that it doesn’t always fix everything, it doesn’t take away pain, it doesn’t erase wrongs, but love promotes healing and transforms despair into hope. Of the things that Julian heard Jesus say to her in her visions was that he willingly and joyfully endured the pains of the Cross and would have suffered more gladly had it been necessary. Only love can do that. And this is what makes Jesus our great physician and what makes lament effective. The person who hears our lament is none other than Jesus Christ who suffered on the Cross out of love for us all. As we see in the Cross, his love is limitless, and while not all pain can be avoided, all pain can be transformed. But it takes bold and honest lament to open ourselves to the power of love to heal us.
We all need the balm of God’s love in our lives and in our world. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the power of this healing balm of God’s love is found in the African-American spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead.” You’ll notice that Jeremiah asks a question: “Is there a balm in Gilead?” and this hymn proclaims that, indeed, there is a balm in Gilead. The hymn dates back to a song sung by enslaved Africans in this country. There were under no illusion that slavery would end overnight or that the whips would stop cracking at their backs. But they had such tremendous faith in the power of God’s love to make all things well that they were able to sing, in the face of pain and persecution, that there is a balm in Gilead. They knew more about the power of the healing balm of Jesus than I probably ever will. We also see this spirit of hope that comes through lament in what is sometimes called the “Black National Anthem,” the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It includes the inspiring line, “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died… we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast. Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” The witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have endured so much shows us the power of lament to name injustice while anticipating God’s redemption, and that ability to lament with hope is what sustained a people who endured so much pain.
It is with their example in mind that I want to say something about the process of lament that we’ve been undertaking at St. Luke’s over the past year. We haven’t called it lament, but a lot of the work that we’ve been doing around Becoming the Beloved Community is lamenting. We’ve been naming the sin of racism and anticipating that God will transform our hearts and heal our sin-sick souls as we seek reconciliation. The Beloved Community framework that was given to us by Presiding Bishop Curry’s office has several components to it, and the place that we’ve begun is a phase called “telling the truth.” This truth-telling is where lament begins.
Over the next several months, these laments will be voiced. On October 20, we’re going to premier an incredibly powerful video series that we produced which captures the voices of five African-Americans, three of whom are members of this congregation, telling the truth about their experiences of growing up in Salisbury in the Jim Crow era. I’ve watched a first draft of the video and I’ll tell you that it really is lament – there were moments when I was on the verge of tears to hear the pain that people I love experienced, there were moments when I was angered that such injustices were tolerated, and there were moments of hope where I saw the balm of Gilead healing wounds and doing the work of reconciliation.
Then on November 8, 9, and 10 we’re going to have two national leaders, Catherine Meeks and Will Willimon, at St. Luke’s to help us in lamenting the role the racism has played in our society. And on January 19, the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend, we’re going to have a presentation by a historian that we’ve commissioned to explore this parish’s history as it relates to slavery and race. In all of these events, truths will be told. Some of these truths will be inconvenient, some will be uncomfortable, and some will be disturbing.
A crucial part of truth-telling is truth-hearing. I ask you, starting today, to start praying for the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts to hear these truths as the laments that they are. Some of the truths you hear you might not agree with – and that’s okay. Someone else’s experience of truth doesn’t have to be your experience of truth, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s their lament and we need to be prepared to hear those laments. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament, so in preparation for these events, you might start reading through the book of Psalms and see the power of honestly naming what is broken as a means of preparing those wounds for the healing balm of God.
This work of Becoming the Beloved Community begins with telling the truth and lament because there are wounds that are still festering, that are not yet healed. This injury cannot be ignored, but has to be named with the expectation that God’s love can make all things well. We lament as a commitment to the process of reconciliation and healing. Never underestimate the importance and power of lament, of naming what is broken, because with God as our healer, indeed, “there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”

Sunday, September 15, 2019

September 15, 2019 - Proper 19C

In the name of the God who finds the lost. Amen.
            “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” In our modern context, it might seem like the opposite of that is true. Many people find faith to be antiquated superstitions and younger generations aren’t walking away from religion as much as they’re not even engaging with it in the first place. Atheism is no longer a concept, it is the fastest-growing religion in America. So for much of society, they look at the church and they say “How foolish and silly that all is.”

Sunday, September 8, 2019

September 8, 2019 - Proper 18C

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Melt us, mold us, use us, fill us. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Amen.
            Nearly every Sunday, the foundation of the sermon is one of the passages of Scripture that is read. On some occasions, it might be a prayer, hymn, or part of the liturgy that the sermon is based upon. But today I’m going to preach about something that I never, ever thought that I’d preach a sermon about. Today’s sermon is about the bulletin.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

September 1, 2019 - Proper 17C

Loving Father and Creator of all that is, by the grace of your Spirit give us humble hearts that we might be exalted to the Kingdom of your Son. Amen.
            Over the past five Sundays, the readings and sermons have pointed us towards the Kingdom of God. The refrain of this sermon series has been that the Kingdom of God is not a place, rather it is a reality, an event. Furthermore, the Kingdom is not something that we enter only after death; instead, the Kingdom is a present reality and a future promise. The Kingdom of God is what was inaugurated through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of God the Son, the Kingdom happens in the world that was purposefully and lovingly created by God the Father, and it is continually unfolding by the power of God the Holy Spirit.