Kingdom

Almighty God, great above all gods,
in your hands are all the nations of the earth,
and none is beyond the reach of your authority, nor of your grace.
Look with compassion upon your people here, we pray,
that we may learn to live peaceably with one another;
that we may learn even to love one another;
that we may be delivered from temptation,
from powers and principalities;
that we may be guided by your wisdom,
humbled by your mercy;
fastening our wills to your cross,
that most base and beautiful, bewildering symbol of our salvation.
For the sake of your glory
and the coming of your kingdom we pray.
Amen.

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What a difference a day makes

Tomorrow, Friday January 20th, will be the fifth anniversary of my swearing in as a citizen of these United States. The federal judge who administered the oath made it clear that this was, indeed, an oath of office: we were signing on for a lifetime of public service.

We sat lined up in a beige box room like a selection of crayons labelled “flesh tones,” a polyphony of accents, dialects, and demographics, and heard the voice of authority invite and instruct us, as those who had benefitted from the values of diversity and acceptance, to wield our new mandate to work for the equality, the dignity, liberty, and justice of each of our new neighbours.

Citizenship, he told us, is a legitimate vocation, and the only excuse we needed to fight injustice, and to defend those truths which we hold to be self-evident.

I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; [and] I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

Our work as citizens, he told us, is to make the country better. We were being admitted to that vocation in faith that we would actively serve one another, promote each other’s interests above and beyond our own. That we would respect the life and liberty of those whom we encountered, without prejudice or discrimination, on an equal foundation to the one which we ourselves now enjoyed as citizens. That we would offer our gifts and inspiration for the good of the commonwealth.

Our failure to do so, to live up to our high calling as citizens would bring him personal disappointment. Like a good teacher, or a beloved leader, he appealed to our our pride, our gratitude, and our puppyish eagerness to please.

By faith, I understand those values of service, of equal dignity and justice to stretch far beyond these borders; still, it is a privilege to have received the imprimatur of the federal government (and today’s president) in advocating, arguing as fiercely as may be necessary for them at home, always in the pursuit of peace, goodwill to all.

For a few weeks after the most recent general election, I posted daily on social media one positive action toward peace and justice each day, and ended each entry with the question, “What shall we do tomorrow?”

As I look forward to the anniversary of my swearing in, and I remember the oath that I made five years ago, the question is posed once more to I, me, and myself:

“What shall we do tomorrow?”

 

[updated 1/19/2017]

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Never mind the reality

One of the features of British television that our teenaged children enjoyed discovering on family visits is the alternative panel show. Characterized by wit, rude humour, and outright sarcasm, they are a guilty pleasure. One such show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, opens with a round called “Indecipherable Lyrics.” A popular song is played and the audience instantly realizes how distorted and incomprehensible the lyrics are. The panelists are charged with filling in the guttural sounds with actual words, and encouraged to sing their inventions along with the original.

(I wanted to link to a clip here, but they’re all a bit rude, and I don’t want to offend.)

There is a human tendency to make patterns and meaning out of rhythm and rhyme, whether we understand what’s going on or not. Whether we have really worked it out or not. Whether we have truly listened, made a discerning effort at filtering fact from fiction, or not. Whether we believe the evidence of our own ears, guts, and hearts, or not.

I don’t know whether it was the news, or the fake news, or Twitter, or the grizzlies that got me thinking of that show. It happens with biblical interpretation all the time, any preacher knows. Or perhaps it’s just me. But if the shoo shoo be doo fits …

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Timeless

One of our Lay Preachers had the pulpit this morning, which is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. She used two of his prayers to frame a sermon which relied mostly on his words, spoken during the March on Washington over fifty years ago. It was sobering to realize how timely and relevant his message was this morning. It was inspiring to hear him overcome the weight of history and its slow, slow progress to insist upon hope.

This afternoon, we gather again with others from the community at our sister church along the street for an annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr King and his service to Christ and to this country. My charge is to offer prayer for our youth.

Eternal God,
ageless and timeless;
once you were young,
growing up in a world much like ours,
filled with uncertainty, insecurity, opportunities for grace.
Swaying under the influence of a foreign empire,
the leaders of your nation chose palaces over their people,
sacrificed justice in Jerusalem –

Jesus Christ,

when the Word of God came to the prophet Jeremiah, he said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth”;* and the Lord God said, “Oh no, no, no… I will tell you when you are too young, and I will tell you when you are too old.”

For you, eternal God, ageless and timeless, you once were young. You have felt the fire and the fear burn together in your belly. You know what it is to see further than your fathers and your mothers, to entertain dreams beyond the imagining of generations past. You have been to the mountaintop.

You came into the world, and the world knew you not; to your own people, and your own people received you not. Yet to all who receive you and who call upon your name you give power to become children of God.**

Eternal God,
ageless and timeless,
pour out your Spirit upon these your children.
Let your young men dream and your young women prophesy.***
Give them strength to stand before powers and principalities.
Plant justice in their hearts; let it bear fruits of love and mercy.
Let them give voice to your purpose,
your peace in our times;
and grant us the wisdom to hear them.

Amen.

*Jeremiah 1:6, RSV; **John 1:10-12; ***Joel 2:28

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Seeking sanctuary

Last week, the office set of church keys went missing. We tried hard to discover them, but after a decent interval of searching and waiting for a miraculous appearance, I gave in and called the food pantry guest who had visited us that morning.

“Oh, those are your keys?” He had them. On a fob with the church name and phone number.

He didn’t have enough gas to bring them back, he said, so I met him on the way home from evening service at a MacDonald’s just off the freeway, in a near-eastern neighbourhood of Cleveland.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” my office administrator, the church treasurer, and the sexton had all asked me.

“It’s MacDonald’s,” I told them, ignoring the sound of heists, hijacks, and gunplay riffling through the card index of my memory (I am old enough that it has not been digitized).

Besides, there was a part of me that balked at the question. This is a neighbourhood where people live, and work (some at MacDonald’s), raise their children, and worship. Who am I to say that it’s good enough for them, but not for the likes of me?

And if we’re honest, mightn’t it be more dangerous, less safe in some ways, for him to sit in his friend’s broken-down truck, waiting for me in my suburban church parking lot?

Safety has been on my mind lately. Either side of the missing key mystery, I participated in conversations where churches were described as “safe spaces” in a time of division, danger, and disgruntlement. I was the culprit first time around. Still, when I heard the phrase spoken aloud, I felt myself balk again. What’s safe for me may not be so easy for another.

A few days after our recent election, a man stopped me in our church parking lot as I left, last and alone, from a funeral. He was delighted and excited to tell me that now, all of “the immigrants” would be sent “home.”

I hadn’t realized until I told the story today how rattled I still was by the encounter.

What gave me pause was not concern for my own residential status (the anniversary of my citizenship falls on Inauguration Day…); but the next morning, from the pulpit, I counted us. One from Colombia. Two from Vietnam. Liberia, Nigeria. The realization that for some of us, such encounters are too regular for safety – that is what scared me, and scarred me.

Safety is not a static situation, nor a one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps it is not even, after all, the destiny or destination of the church. (Standing behind Jesus was not always the safest place to be, for a given definition of safety.)

Perhaps we are called to something a little loftier; a little bolder; even more humble. Something more inclusive. Something more surprising. Something a little less… safe?

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Epiphany

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, January 2017

Outside of the main city, down through the wilderness, is the lost city of Petra. The intricately carved rock edifices bound deep valleys and lead for miles. Once a bustling hub of economic activity, the city fell silent as trade routes moved and migrated away. Now, archaeologists work to excavate temples, tombs, homes from under the red sand.

Climbing out of the valley, we reached high points, each peak claiming to have the best view in Petra, or the best view in Jordan, or the best view in the Middle East.

It was here at the top of the world, found and lost and found again, that I encountered the silence. For a few seconds, suspended between earth and heaven, time and eternity; I realized how unsilent our world has become, when I found myself finally with no electric hum, no background traffic, only the empty air and a beating heart.view-4

And it was there, at the peak of nowhere, that I noticed the side of a shelter, a booth constructed for the comfort and refreshment of passing tourists like me. I saw that it had for its siding a piece of heavy vinyl case wrapping, imprinted with the legend: UNHCR Refugee Relief.

Even into that warm silence, a shiver sounded the echoes of war, and the history of a people riven and driven from place to place, displaced by war and tyranny.

And into the midst of this history, halfway from Abraham to us, breaks the story of Jesus, born into the scandal of a holy city desecrated by the power of a proud humanity; a temple of peace perverted by the pride of kings and cult of emperors.

On a silent night, God breathes into a history of human hubris and violence. On a holy night, God brings kings to their knees and makes the heavens gasp out loud with the simplest act of love.

It was not a political coup. Herod need not have been so afraid, nor become so murderous – his fear of losing status, losing what little power the Romans allowed him led him to horrors beyond our imagining, although we still see them on our news screens today. Pilate would come to make a similar error, confusing loyalty to Caesar with faithfulness, confusing convenience with justice, and suppression of critical speech with keeping the peace.

Yet this was not a political coup. Jesus would instead grow up to work in the ordinary lives of ordinary people: healing, leading, proclaiming good news to the poor, raising the dead. He blessed the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

The season of Epiphany begins with a visit from the wise men, who followed a star, a sign in the heavens, to find the baby born King of the Jews. It ends with the mountaintop, the revelation of Jesus as the Word of God, flanked by Moses and Elijah, lit up from within and from without with the very Light of God. petraunhcr-1And Peter will ask to build booths there, using whatever comes to hand; the debris of human sin and violence, and the remnants of repentance and the attempt at restoration: wrappings of refugee relief humanitarian aid packages.

The story of Jesus, in the manger, on the mountaintop, takes place in real time, in real places, touching real lives. It is not outside of history, but it echoes within it.

These men who came to visit the holy family in Bethlehem, they are described as wise. They are wise because they follow the signs that God has placed in front of them. They are obedient to God’s call. They are wise because they offer worship to Jesus, the Son of God, placing before him the best that they have to offer, even if his needs seems humble. They do not hold back, nor place their pride before his humility. They are wise because they avoid the machinations of Herod, refuse to play into his political games. They go home by another way.

There is trouble here. Herod is about to commit atrocities. Children will die, and families will suffer. But the wise men turn away. In doing so, in skirting the city and slipping through the intelligence nets, they buy time for the family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to flee to Egypt. They may even have saved this family’s life, these wise men.

In the face of the grief that is soon to befall Bethlehem, it hardly seems enough; but I think of those others, who hid a family from the Nazis, even though they couldn’t stop the Holocaust; or airlifted a child out of the reach of the napalm bombs, even though they could not yet stop the war. One who drove an ambulance in wartime, to offer what solace and service they could, even though they could not save everyone.

The world is not ours to save. The wise men knew that their role, their call was to follow God, obediently and with curiosity and courage. They knew that they were to worship only Jesus. They knew that they were not to succumb to the political machinations of Herod and his ilk. They knew that, even if they could only save one family, that is not the same as hopelessness, or helplessness, for that one family was important. That humble child was necessary. That little life was worth saving.

Their wisdom was in doing what they could, whatever they could, file_000-2and it was no small thing, to journey so far and to defy the king and to offer homage to a child. Their wisdom was in doing what they could, and returning home quietly, trusting God to take up the story from there.

And that remains our call. To recognize the call of Christ, and to obey it with curiosity and
courage. To worship with the wise, kneeling before a God who stoops to meet us. We practice homage, offering our gifts to the lowly and the holy. We are not afraid to consult with kings, nor even to proclaim the gospel before them; but when we are blocked by powers and principalities, we find another way home. We find another way home, following the pole star of Christ’s love made manifest in the world.

We cannot escape our history, our time and our place within it. Even in the high places and the lonely places, the signs follow us, siding built out of refugee wrapping. Yet we do not, either, escape God: the silence of a holy night, an act of love breathed into the world, breaking open history, politics, geography; filling them with the grace of a child born for us and for our salvation: Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us.

Amen

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Magi

Stargazers, seeking signs
in the old, cold light of the heavens;
startled to find God’s grace reflected
instead by the bright tears of a child,
if only they will stoop so low
to pay him homage.


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