BELIEVING THINGS, PUBLICLY

I’m tired of political partisanship and really sick and tired of the way the nasty game called politics has taken over our discourse today.  Military deployed and foreign service workers are facing real-life terror and we talk, at home, about how those situations will impact the presidential election!  Worse still, it’s infecting our communities.  If it’s buzzing in St. Mary’s County (population: 100,000+), it’s making it to the grassroots.  And, these days, the roots are pretty toxic.  That’s why I’m putting together an autumn adult formation series having to do with faith and public life.  I’m still lining up the details and inviting local elected officials and I don’t yet have a compelling title, but that’s not the most pressing thing.  It’s the focus that matters.

Some Vestry leaders helped me think about this the other day.  Initial reactions ranged from fear (“You’re going to invite them?”) to doubt (“You’re going to ask an elected official to not talk about himself?”) to half-hearted blessing (“Good luck!”)  Over the course of our conversation, however, they helped reaffirm my motivation.  For Christians, it’s not about the what.  It’s about the why.

Plain and simple: it’s not about the election.  It’s about the outcome.  Whether we come out of this election with any chance at healing depends on the depth of conversation we have now — whether we learn to give thanks to God for the blessings of this nation and, yes, the unique blessings of a cacophonous democracy; whether we also learn to love those who think differently than we do.  The church, the Body of Christ, has a very profound stake in that.  In fact, the faith-based community might be the only community today who has any stake in moving people beyond partisanship to places of genuine healing.

Each session will be a conversation with a local public figure — an elected official or, in some cases, persons seeking election.  We’ll form community in ways only the Body of Christ can: mingle together, pray together, speak and listen openly, and ask God’s blessing on our nation and one another.  The series will conclude with an Election Day Thanksgiving Service, held on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 6 in which we gather for worship and song and praise.  We’ll thank God for this country, thank God for the blessings of democracy, thank God for those persons who will be elected by the people, and thank God for those persons who stood faithfully for election and did not receive the majority.

In so doing, what if we noticed that public policy is actually a worthwhile discourse, but politics helps no one?  What if people of faith entered the fray, not to win one side of an argument, but to “chill out” and sanctify the conversation by our presence and prayerfulness, to proclaim our faith in God’s Kingdom, and to affirm that there are lots of folks, like us, who care more about the healing of our communities and the common good than about winning points or polls?

A Vestry member said that it’s impossible to separate a politician from their politics.  What if people said that about Christians?  What if we wore our faith so transparently that every breath we make and every action we take bespeaks Jesus, the Son of God, whom the powers of this world crucified but, in the majesty of God, rose and redeemed the entire world?  I get the internal resistance.  Personally, I don’t like being lumped in “conservative” or “liberal” categories — no thanks to some of the loudest Christian voices who so quickly line up with divisive, secular causes.  I get it.  So where’s the Christian voice who humbly asserts faith in another Kingdom, namely God’s, and, in turn, focuses on healing the common good, not winners or losers in electoral politics?  In Christ, we transcend political categories. What if we, disciples of Christ, came to believe that God cares so much about the common good and health of our local communities that whenever our elected officials gather to debate a matter of policy they ask themselves, “I wonder what the Christians would say, whether we’ve listened to the people and are offering a message that will heal, not divide?”

At the end of the conversation with St. George’s Vestry, their initially half-hearted blessing turned into a full-on endorsement.  “Do it, Greg,” they said.  Honestly, their doubts may have remained.  To be even more honest, some of mine do, too.  I don’t know if we can heal these pointed divisions and I don’t know if we’ll be able to sanctify the conversation in the eyes of God.  But I know someone should, and I believe our faith gives us the tools to do it, and I pray that we have God’s grace to do it well.

WHAT WE’VE HEARD ABOUT THE ROAD TO HELL, AND WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE WAY OF LIFE

The timing couldn’t be better.  In 1 Kings 3, Solomon ascends Israel’s throne after his father, David.  He goes to worship the Lord and asks for wisdom, for the gift to discern between what is right and what is wrong.

The timing couldn’t be better, for if you think it’s bad now it’s gonna to get worse.  In just a few weeks, it’ll get even noisier.  The Republicans are going to meet in some city and the Democrats in another.  They’ll have a great big rallying cry, and we’ll be overwhelmed with campaign promises, attack ads, and reasons to vilify one and love the other.  It’s going to get worse, much worse. That’s why it’s particularly nice to think about Solomon’s wisdom.  Would that more public servants appeal to God for wisdom.  Would that more who enter the fray of politics pursue humility, grace, and a desire to serve the common good, above all else.  The timing is quite perfect, indeed. 

Let’s look for a moment at Solomon.  He shows wisdom with that whole baby-splitting episode, so good for him.  Yet it should be noted that when he asked for wisdom he was already king, so it’s not like he needed more wealth or power.  And Solomon has an interesting track record as king.  Whereas his father, David, was a charismatic builder – the one who gathered the formerly tribal-minded people into one nation, expanded the kingdom, and was beloved by all, even in spite of his less-than stellar behavior – Solomon didn’t have his father’s grace and statesman’s touch.  Over the course of his rule, Solomon built the grand things David didn’t: that magnificent and costly Temple, for one.  Solomon expanded Israel’s power even more than his father, marrying countless women as part of his international relations with local kings and princes, pursuing wealth and prestige beyond the borders of Israel.  Solomon taxed the people heavily, forced them to work unceasingly, and nearly broke their backs.  By the time Solomon died, the divide and animosity in the kingdom was so great that he was the last monarch of the unified country – thus was Solomon’s inability to remain wise, humble, and gentle.

Even the one who humbly prays for wisdom doesn’t wind up having it.  I don’t mean to say that seeking wisdom is not good practice; rather, it is.  I’m suggesting that that’s not enough.  I suspect that once you enter that world and get seduced by power and privilege and wealth and prestige it’s really hard to look back and remember those other values of humility and grace, the care for the common good and looking out for the little man.  This happened, no doubt, to Solomon as he was entertained in the courts of his day.  This happens in every state capital and in our nation’s capitol, today, as fresh-faced lawmakers, intent on doing good, also get led down a rosy path.  Desire to serve and intent to remain wise is just not enough.

God saw all of this, in time, and God grew frustrated.  God gave us everything – minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve; resources and opportunities and desire; all the right tools and perfect moments to make His kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.  And we squandered it and messed it up, time and again.  So God grew frustrated, but also remembered He’d never again destroy this creation, hence the rainbow in the clouds.

So God determined to re-write history, and re-order the path of human life.  God did a most unexpected and radical thing, and came upon earth as one of us.

God gathered followers and friends, and one day after they fed thousands of people with just a few loaves He told them about real bread, the bread of life, the bread that keeps on giving.  He told them they needed to eat that bread, and drink the cup of life.  He went on to say that they needed to eat His flesh, and drink His blood.  Some others were standing nearby and they heard Him and thought, “Now what is this craziness?  Not only is that contrary to the Torah, to drink the life-source which is blood, but it’s just downright gross.  What is he talking about?”  To which God responded, looking into the eyes of his followers and friends: “Don’t pay attention to them, to those cynics and doubters.  They don’t understand what I’m talking about because they keep looking beyond themselves to someone else who will fix their problems.  They’ll never get around to looking at God – who is the closest, most intimate one you know and already know, the One who already knows you, from the inside out.  They’ll never get around to looking within, where God is already dwelling.”

And that’s what they remembered, years after He was gone.  They remembered how close they were to Him and how close He was to them; how intimately He knew them.  They knew that they wanted to do nothing more than root their lives in Him, and feed on him and drink from his life so that they may have the only thing worthy of being called real life.

God lived as one of us and became human so that humans can become divine.  God re-oriented the whole of human history and rooted Himself in the world so we would root ourselves in Him, and cease to look beyond or outside or to another for answers again, but within — in that deepest, holiest place where the Kingdom dwells already, made sacred when He became and thus blessed our nature.  That’s the lesson in its fullest truth:  that when God become human, redemption already happened.  And the path to new life is to be rooted in Him, the one who became rooted in our experience, as well.

Now, pause.  And return with me to the world beyond the Body of Christ.

As those Republicans meet in Tampa and while the Democrats meet in Charlotte in the weeks ahead, the danger is that you and I will come to believe their messages – that you and I might start believing, somewhere in our heart, that so-and-so has the right idea, and that good intentions lead to good results and, subsequently, that the opponent is a nasty person with awful, no good ideas that will tear down this nation and everything we value.  And you might not only believe those things but you’ll let it infect your lifestyle and your relationships, and you’ll get opinionated and cranky and stop getting invited to cocktail parties.

Don’t let that happen, to you or your life or your heart or your relationships.  Don’t let that happen for it’s a losing game.  The answers are not outside.  The answers are not in another’s good intentions, and the fault isn’t that other one’s bad intentions.  Rather, root yourself where God chose to be planted – in our very flesh and blood, where there is already the food and drink of real, unending, worthwhile life.  It’s within you already, which is where the promise is already offered … in you.

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From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 19 August 2012, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary).  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

PUTTING BACK TOGETHER A ONCE-SHATTERED WORLD

Take apart the word ‘remember’ and it literally means to put back together, to re – member.  It implies that something is broken.  It carries with it associations of gentleness, tenderness; that which was once destroyed is re – assembled, re – membered.

            Mark spends nearly 400 of the 11,000 words in his terse gospel describing the violent death of John the baptizer.  The events are eerily similar to Jesus’: both are executed by officers of the state who would like to let them live; both are killed for reasons which are downright silly and, for that reason, all the more awful; both are brutally murdered because of the assaults of mad people.  Also, in both stories, the followers do not retaliate; instead, they take the bodies, wrap them in cloths, and lay them in a proper burial.  The followers re – member their beloved leader – returning love for love once shown, and demonstrating to the authorities through acts of gentleness that those in power have already brought judgment upon themselves. 

            The similarity also carried into the lives of those first century Christians who received this story called ‘good news.’  They, too, were suffering their own passion-tides simply because they practiced unconditional communitarian love, worshipped a universal God, and followed the Way of Jesus.  They, too, are victims of violent people who exact dehumanizing torture and death in a sick, mad world.  You know very well what it means to live – and strive to live well and whole – in a violent world run by deranged people.

            We cannot control this world, or stop violence.  We re – member, the gospel tells us, so the better angels of our nature will grow.  We re – member, as well, so the nastier demons of our nature will not take root, lest we, too, become yet another fatality to the starving madness of this broken and sinful world.  That is why we remember.

            I’ve had two experiences which remind me of this truth. 

MATTHEW SHEPARD
Dec. 1, 1976 – Oct. 12, 1998

            In 2002, I helped lead a group of high school Episcopalians to the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE), held that summer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.  Four years earlier, Matthew Shephard, a young gay student at the university, was tortured and murdered by two local Laramie men.  They robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured Matthew, tying his near-lifeless body to a fence in a remote field.  A cyclist found his blood-soaked body 18 hours later, thinking at first it was a scarecrow tied to the fence.  This horrifying case brought national and international attention to hate crimes, and continues to be a sobering example of the violence we can do to one another.

            There is no memorial in Laramie to Matthew Shepard.  In town, one afternoon, one of those with us got a cold shoulder when she asked a local man where the farm was where Matthew lay dying.  I’ve learned that that struggle is ongoing: yes, in 1998, community leaders expressed appropriate sadness and disgust about the murder, but the town has resisted establishing a memorial.  Local residents successfully petitioned the city to change the street names leading to the field where Matthew was beaten, hoping that people would go away.  The summer I was there, a local man pointed out to us the general area of the field.  All I remember seeing was a long stretch of fields and a fence line in the vast distance.  Laramie did not feel, to me, like a healed place.  Our nation, likewise, isn’t healed, and I honestly fear that vicious hate crimes against gay and lesbian people will be met, in some cases, with some people, by indifference, ignorance or, worse, endorsement and support.

            How have we re – membered Matthew Shepard?  How have we, as a people, looked upon something that is truly horrible and taken the body down from that fence, wrapped it in love, and shown to a world which feeds on violence that, according to our good news, love defeats hatred, gentleness trumps ignorance, and care establishes justice?  The answer, in this case, is we have not.

            My second experience was a time in which I saw my father cry.  When I was 15 years old, I came out East for a family wedding.  The day after the wedding, we visited some of the memorials in Washington, DC, in particular the Vietnam Memorial.  At the deepest part of the wall, I was next to my father, running my hand over some of the names, thinking about who they were, when I turned to continue down the line and saw tears on his face.  It is a powerful memorial.  It was good for my dad to cry, as countless others have at that wall, because these were his friends and promising young men from his generation.  I’ll bet they were also tears of exhaustion, of being given the opportunity at long last to grieve a particularly painful moment in his adult formation, for at the very moment he was becoming an adult – getting a job, getting married, starting a family – this country was being torn apart, relationships chosen or broken on the basis of ideological stances, a people ripped apart from its insides.  There has been much healing since the Vietnam Conflict, evidenced by the ways in which we unambiguously support our troops in the current conflicts.  I would suspect that that wall has had a lot to do with that healing.

            Terrible events happen in the world, and we are powerless over systemic hatred, bigotry, and injustice.  But we are not powerless over the ways in which we respond, and in that response lies the only hope of an emergent, profound Kingdom that is not of this world but is, rather, God’s.  And that is why we remember.  That is why we take the body that was abused, pistol-whipped, beheaded, suffocated on a cross, or broken by words or threats and wrap it gently and lay it in a place we will remember and visit again, even if it is a memory we don’t like to face, especially because it is.

            On a night seething with violence, He did it himself, after all – washing feet, embodying servanthood, expressing kindness, demonstrating love, taking bread, pouring wine and saying “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Put back together that which was broken, or soon will be, and He will be there, mending those once-shattered shards, healing the world from within.

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Taken from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 15 July 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be downloaded here.