Sunday, August 28, 2016

Living Martyrs [Feast of St. Stephen - Observed]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60

Living Martyrs

I think it is perhaps safe to suggest that we put a bit too much emphasis on St. Stephen's death. I mean, we still make him carry around stones – which I will admit is helpful for icon identification, but also it is a little cruel, like rubbing it in. He was executed. It would be like putting an electric chair or a firing squad on someone's tombstone.

But that does seem to be a human tendency: to over-emphasize that final earthly moment; we make saints and sinners out of death. And so someone who dies a martyr's death wipes the slate clean of a lifetime of indiscretions. And someone who commits suicide is unfortunately defined forever in the eyes of many by that one solitary act, as if all of their good deeds are discounted, their virtues forgotten.

And so while Stephen will forever carry his stones, will forever be commemorated as the first martyr, he is so much more than his stoning. And if we miss Stephen's life for his death, we'll never truly understand the significance of his sacrifice. If we miss Stephen's life for his death, we will never understand why he still matters, why almost two-thousand years later this church bears his name.

Unlike some in Church history, Stephen did not set out to die for the cause of Christ. That was not his goal; that was not his chosen vocation. He was chosen to feed people. The twelve apostles were finding it difficult to keep up with pastoral needs of a rapidly growing Christian community. The administrative tasks were piling up. Juggling paperwork and emails and parish registers and membership roles was making it increasingly difficult to be faithful to prayer and Bible Study. I get that. Frankly I consider this section one of the most believable stories in the entire Bible. And so these frazzled disciples choose and commission seven men to help them out, to care for the poor and distribute the food.

Stephen was the first chosen. And the author of Acts tells us that he was chosen because he was full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom – the same traits the author, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, attributes to Jesus. And this resemblance is why Stephen was killed but it is even more so why he is remembered and commemorated.

Stephen is known in the Church tradition as the first martyr. And in a sense that is true. Martyrdom came to be understood as dying for one's faith. And to the extent that that has become the functional definition, that is what martyrdom is. But the word “martyr” doesn't necessarily have anything to do with death, at least etymologically speaking. “Martyr” comes from the Greek word simply meaning “witness.” I suspect the meaning began to shift because in the first few centuries of the Church the witness part often directly preceded the death part.

This fuller, original meaning of “martyr” can also be applied to Stephen; he was a martyr, a witness, before the stones were thrown. Had Stephen somehow survived the stoning he would be no less a saint. And it is important for us to remember that. See he is our patron saint; his life and example help define our identity as a Christian community. And in Colorado Springs, it is highly unlikely that any of us will be stoned to death for being Christian. And so if we revere St. Stephen only for his martyr's death, he will become remote, distant; we'll have no reason to live into his rich legacy. He will simply be a man who died many centuries ago – and that doesn't make him special. All of the men who lived 2000 years ago have since died.

The important truth is: Stephen became a martyr long before his death. He was a living witness for Jesus. And that he died is not why he is a hero of the faith; he is a hero, he is our patron, because he had the courage to follow Jesus even when it became clear that death would be the end result. Before he died a martyr's death, Stephen was a living martyr.

And that is what I find amazing about Stephen: his courage, his witness was unconditional. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ by his death; that is true. But also he proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was just an unknown in the community. And the Apostles noticed and they gave him a platform for his witness. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was loving the poor and serving the hungry. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was performing great wonders and signs among the people. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ as stood before the council with his angel-face and his divisive truth and his heart on fire. And he proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when the rocks started flying and the heavens opened. And as he died, Stephen proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ in the prayer he prayed – a prayer of forgiveness, Jesus' dying prayer offered back to Jesus. Before he died a martyr's death, Stephen was a living martyr.

I get the sense Stephen didn't worry about much in life. It seems to me he had one concern: Stephen worried about being like Jesus. He let the rest of the world decide how they would respond to that. And so the Church saw the Jesus in him and made him the first deacon. The council saw the Jesus in him and stoned him to death. But, you know, at least they saw Jesus in him. And that was what mattered to Stephen – maybe the only thing that mattered to Stephen.

We can easily get hung up on his death – it is a dramatic and powerful story – but Stephen's witness was not confined to a solitary moment; a hero's death was never the goal. Stephen was the embodied definition of “singleness of heart.” He had a goal, one goal, and that goal was Jesus. And not even stones could stop him.

We call ourselves Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. We have taken his name. He is our saint. We are the inheritors of his legacy. Not a legacy of death. What we are called to emulate is his witness. The gift St. Stephen continues to offer us is his courage, his courage to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ – no matter the cost, no matter the consequences.

We bear witness: that is what we are called to do. We might never do great wonders or signs. We might never prophesy before hostile crowds. We likely will never face a barrage of deadly stones. But like Stephen, we can proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. And we can do that with strength and courage, with gladness and singleness of heart. Like Stephen we are called to be martyrs, living martyrs, until the day we die.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Here and Now [Proper 15C] (Preached to the early service congregation on Choir Camp Sunday)

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 12:49-56

Here and Now

Today's Gospel ends with Jesus asking the crowds: “But why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” I think the answer is actually quite simple: the present time is the most difficult time to interpret. It's just so close; we lack all perspective. The past is done, frozen in time – ready to be examined and dissected. The future is formless – a land of hopes yet unrealized, a playground for our imaginations and fantasies. But the present: it is slippery; it keeps moving. And it contains everything – all of the stuff of life, joy and pain and everything in between – all of it at the same time. It is much easier to escape or avoid than to interpret and embrace.

And perhaps that is why the crowd kept their heads in the clouds. The clouds distract us with the past and future. They float on the winds of anxiety. That original audience of Jesus, the ones addressed in today's Gospel, they kept their eyes on the skies because past experiences taught them that the skies might just tell them the future. And so rather than stay with the present, they gave into the distraction, pulled by the past and future, but never in the moment.

We're not so different. Most of us fumble through life juggling nostalgia and prognostication – longing for anything other than the present moment – toggling between the good ol' days of the past and what we hope might be, could be, just has to be, a brighter future.

And so we miss it; we miss the here and now. We dream of the heavens and we miss the Kingdom of God breaking into our lives and into our world. We close our eyes and escape into the past and never see what God has for us right now. We struggle and strive for a better, more secure, more prestigious future and yet as the prayer says, “It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.”1

Waking or sleeping, there is no moment outside of the presence of God. The present is always in the divine presence. In fact, we're in it right now. This moment is holy. Witness the miracle happening in this place, in your life. Right now you are feeling, touching, breathing, alive. So breathe it in, this moment, full of the ancient Spirit of God. What was and is and is to come is flowing through you right now, in this moment.

But soon you will leave this place. And your mind will try to pull you back or forward or pull your head into the clouds. And your mind will sow these seeds of discontent and anxiety – as if there is something better than what God is giving you right now. And then you'll miss it: you'll miss the moment.

Which isn't to say that we shouldn't plan for the future. Of course we should. And it isn't to say we shouldn't value our history. Of course we should. But Henri Nouwen reminds us that, “To live in the present, we must believe deeply that what is most important is here and now.”2 Of course the God named “I AM” longs to meet us in the present. Our course a Savior named Emmanuel, “God with us” would challenge us to stay with the present time.

But in the midst of so many distractions – distractions from within and without – staying in the moment, staying present, is hard; it takes discipline. Nouwen calls prayer “the discipline of the moment.” What we call “pray without ceasing.” Now, I want to be clear: I am not encouraging you to read Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book while driving to work or to chant a psalm in the middle of a business meeting. Instead, think of prayer as simply opening your heart to God in each and every present moment. “Pray without ceasing” is living in the embrace of God-with-us. Richard Rohr says, “[Prayer] is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. [Prayer] is much more like practicing heaven now.”3

Whether we feel it or not, and sometimes we can, sometimes we can't, we live, and move, and have our being in the very presence of God. Right here and right now. We're living into the Kingdom come. We're being embraced by the ever-present love that is God. And because of that, this very moment is infinitely precious, blessed, holy.

It is hard to pull our heads out of the clouds; it is hard to shake off the distractions circling around us; it is hard to resist the tempting allure of past and future. But when we do pull heads out of the clouds, we see that the present time is all we really have. What is most important is with us. Right here and right now.

1A New Zealand Prayer Book, 167.
2Here and Now, 21.
3The Naked Now, 23.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Prayer [Proper 12C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 11:1-13


I have knocked; I have knocked on unanswered doors. I have searched; I have searched and did not find. I have asked; I have asked questions into the bottomless abyss from which no answer ever emerged. And so have you. Not every time. But some times. You have prayed for a healing that never came. A solution that was not solved. You have knocked at the door and it seemed the knock just echoed through an empty house. I chose to preach on this text because I really did not know what to say about that – especially in light of today's Gospel.

Now I don't think prayer is a sanctified magic spell. I don't think using the correct words or doing it the right way guarantees desired results. If that were the case sporting events would get very complicated. All those prayers going back and forth could get pretty confusing for heaven. And we can be sure, a lot of the prayers would be prayed for sporting events, or elections, or Dancing with the Stars – something competitive. Ask, and it will be given is clearly not that simple. And actually, that is probably a good thing. Human beings are pretty emotional, consistently irrational, too often rash and irresponsible – I mean, not you all, of course, but the other human beings. We sometimes pray for things that cannot or should not be.

And also prayer is not like rubbing a genie's lamp. Prayer does not give us power or control over God. God does not owe us three wishes, or anything else for that matter. Jesus is not telling us, in today's Gospel, that if we just keep asking, eventually God just has to give us what we want.

Although, that said, the story Jesus tells does kind of suggest just that: keep knocking if you want that bread. In Jesus' story, the man knocks on his friend's door at midnight. I think we can all admit, that is not a convenient time to knock on a friend's door – especially a friend who has kids – especially a friend whose kids sleep in his bed. And yes, trust me: that is a thing. And no, it was probably not what he planned when he had his first child but it's just the way it is because his kid refuses to sleep through the night in his own bed. And so why would this neighbor knock on his door; he is a friend and I know that guy has complained to his neighbor about his child's sleep issues. So stop knocking; you are not getting any bread tonight! And now the kids are awake and it is going to take forever to get them back to sleep.

And all he hears echoing through the house, echoing through the neighborhood, is that painfully persistent: knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock. It just won't stop. It is the middle of the night: make the visitor go to sleep and get the bread in the morning. Who even goes outside at midnight? They didn't have street lamps or porch lights in 1st century Palestine. But still: Knock, knock, knock.

I feel comfortable suggesting that both of the men in the story are probably good guys, not perfect, but good enough guys. The man who came knocking was appealing to a friend on behalf of his guest. That is a pretty generous thing to do – generous to his house-guest, not so generous to the man in bed, trying to sleep. The man in bed is looking out for his children. And he does eventually bring his friend the three loaves of bread; he doesn't call the cops; doesn't answer the door carrying a baseball bat. But on the other hand, his friend is desperate and his first excuse is: I already locked the door. I'm not sure how complicated first century door locks were exactly, but probably not that complicated; he is clearly trying, and failing, to brush the neighbor off. Helping his friend is not his initial instinct. Good enough guys – they have some good intentions – but they're flawed.

It is always tempting to try to allegorize and then literalize Jesus' stories and parables. But it never really works because Jesus' characters here, and elsewhere in the Gospels, are human and we know humans, and we know humans are not God. If the man in the house is supposed to be God, then, let's be honest, God is kind of selfish, a little bit disinterested, and only blesses annoying people, and even then, begrudgingly.

So let's look again. Let's imagine that this parable is not a description of God. No God in bed with the kids; no God knocking on the door in the middle of the night. In fact, God is never explicitly mentioned in the story at all. God is only implied and even then only to provide contrast – asking the listener to remember that God is even more generous than our closest friends, even more loving than our parents. I think Jesus makes this clear when he says to the crowd at the end of the Gospel: if you sinful people love your children enough to give them good gifts, imagine how much more a good and loving God cares for you. Contrast.

So the characters are not stand-ins for God. They are just people; it's a story about people – people like the ones we know, like us and our friends. And yeah, they look out for each other, give each other gifts, meet each other’s needs – even if they are not always that excited about it. They are pretty good folks and also they are flawed. The man in the house gives his friend the bread; he gives him what he needs even though he is clearly annoyed and put out and tired. That's pretty honest; that's pretty human.

The story, and the entire passage that surrounds the story, is, I think, not an allegory about God, but a reflection on the nature of prayer. Jesus recognizes that we are willing to ask favors of our friends, inconvenience them, annoy them, beg them to do things we know they do not want to do. We knock on their doors. We ask them for favors. We do it all the time. Some of them love us; most of them just like us; some can barely stand us.

And yet the passage begins with Jesus' disciples asking him how to pray; because while they've spent their entire lives appealing to flawed people who find them annoying, they do not know how to talk to the God who loves them perfectly and unconditionally. And so this parable is about prayer and, more specifically, that we should be doing it. Because God really loves us and actually wants us to knock on the door – even in the middle of the night.

But I do have to admit. I still don't know why some prayers go unanswered. I don't know why sometimes we ask and it is not given to us. I don't know. I don't think prayer guarantees anything. I don't think it is magic. I don't think it forces God's hand. And yet, I still want you to pray for me. And I still pray for you. And I still think God longs for our prayers and our company.

And I even think God wants us to keep knocking on the door, to be persistent in prayer. I think that is why when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus doesn't tell them, “Just say whatever.” He says, “Say this.” A prayer to pray – over and over and over again. Jesus gives them the prayer of his heart – a prayer that the Church has prayed persistently for two thousand years.

It's kind of an unusual prayer. There is no “I” or “my” or “me” or “mine”. It belongs to everyone and yet is possessed by no one. It is timeless and yet desperately immediate. It is the words of Jesus coming out of our mouths – always the same knock, always the same ask.

That the kingdom of God would come. Here on earth. To swallow up our violence in love and peace.
That every person would be fed. That every need would be met.
That our sins would be forgiven. By God. And by each other. Peace on earth. Reconciliation.
And that people would no longer be tempted by the evil and sin that so easily besets us.

It is what God wants for us. It is Jesus' heart offered to God. It is the prayer Jesus gives us to pray – a prayer that dares to hope for the impossible. Two thousand years later we are praying Jesus' prayer because it still needs to be prayed. Because, through us, Jesus is still asking, still searching, still knocking. And we keep praying his prayer because so are we.

Prayer isn't so much a request or a magic spell or a wish. Prayer is simply a vulnerable heart placed in the hands of our loving God – over and over and over again. With no guarantees. We pray not for the promise of results, but because no one else can hold our fears, and loves, and heartaches so well, so carefully.

There is a beautiful prayer in a New Zealand Prayer Book that ends “we put our trust in you the living God, risking disappointment, risking failure, working and waiting expectantly.”1 Every prayer is an act of trust; we trust our lives to a God we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot control. Every prayer is an act of hope; and we hope for the impossible. Every prayer is a risk – but it's a risk worth taking. So lift up your hearts.

1 p. 484

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Mary and Martha [Proper 11C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha

When I was in college, my junior year, I was an RA, a Resident Assistant. It was the year that Gallup released their StrengthsFinder test. And every RA was required to take the test. The idea was that once we identified our strengths, we could then lead our fellow students from a place of strength. It was a nice test actually: everybody won because everyone had some strengths. Out of the however-many strengths Gallup identified, each person was given a list of their Top Five. Of course then, because it was a college, we had to talk about those strengths at length with our classmates; we were given exercises to accentuate our strengths; we wrote essays. We were probably even graded on how well we expressed our feelings about our results.

Anyway, I don't remember all of my strengths. But I do remember my number one strength: achiever. And while all strengths are special and equally valuable, I was pretty sure Achiever was the best.

And that is why, I suppose, I am a bit uncomfortable with today's Gospel. Martha has many tasks; she has a lot to do, a lot to accomplish in a short time. And no one is helping her. The other woman in the house is her sister Mary. And she is sitting around with the men. But things have to be done; items need to be checked off the list. And so of course, good old Martha, a woman after my own heart, a woman after my own StrengthsFinder results, takes care of business. And as a reward for all of her hard work, she is presented with a good old talkin'-to by Jesus. She is scolded.

And this, it should be noted, is the same Jesus who just ended his last parable, the Good Samaritan story, by saying, “Go and do.” Well, Martha is a doer and she is getting nothing but flak.

I suspect this is one of those Bible stories that really speaks to some members of the Church – let's say, those who attend the contemplative prayer group on Mondays – and probably less so to those members who add items to their to-do list just so that they can check them off. And it is true: there are plenty of folks who have used this story to “prove” that Jesus prefers quiet, sedentary Christians. And it is true: this text has been interpreted, at times, to support a false dichotomy between prayer and service, between action and contemplation. I say “false dichotomy” because I think the Gospel of Luke, a gospel that puts the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story about service and action, directly beside this story of Mary and Martha, clearly expects followers of Jesus to be both hearers and doers of the Word. Both prayer and service are necessary components of the Christian life; both action and contemplation are required if we are to keep the Great Commandment to Love God and to Love People.

And yet, the reality is: Martha still gets scolded. Now, she is not scolded for welcoming Jesus; that is a good thing. Jesus encourages his followers to show hospitality. And she is not scolded for preparing a meal for Jesus and his disciples; that is also a good thing. Jesus understands that. He is a feeder; he feeds the crowds; he feeds his own disciples; he offers himself as food.

Martha is scolded, however, for being distracted. Now I have no doubt it was possible, but I'm not sure we could even figure out how to be distracted in first century Palestine. The art of distraction had not yet been perfected. They did not have facebook, or Twitter, or Pintrest. There were no smartphones. No Netflix. No cable or Direct TV. No TV at all actually. Not even radio. Most folks couldn't even read. And if you can image, there weren't even Pokemon characters hanging out in front of the grocery store. I guess the best distractions were spending five hours washing clothes by hand or slaughtering a sheep for dinner; maybe refilling the oil lamps so that you could see in your own house.

Or in Martha's case, she was distracted by her many tasks. She was busy and it seems that being busy was perhaps her hobby. And I think that is what this text is truly about. It's not about prayer vs. service, contemplation vs. action; it is about discerning what is truly important, what is most precious in this life.

In the Good Samaritan text it was the person lying on the side of the road who was precious. And that demanded action; love meant seeing the man and picking him up and caring for him. Quiet contemplation in that circumstance was insufficient. In this text it is the words of Jesus that are precious. And that demanded a pause; love meant sitting at the feet of Jesus. Mary figured it out. Martha was too busy. It's not that what she was doing was inherently wrong; it wasn't evil to prepare a nice meal. It's just that she was too busy doing what she was supposed to do, to do what love demanded.

And Martha was doing what she was supposed to do. Mary was not doing what she was supposed to do. And in that culture such things were very clear. Mary was a woman; she was supposed to do what Martha was doing: cooking, cleaning, hosting. What Mary was doing, sitting at the feet of Jesus, being a disciple listening to her rabbi, was what the men did. Martha's complaint was appropriate, at least culturally appropriate.

And yet, the reality is: Martha still gets scolded. And we know it is for being too distracted, too focused on her tasks. That's fine; true enough. But maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe Jesus scolds her because he loves her enough to want more for her – more than a life of tasks, more than a life of busy-ness, more than a life of social conventions and rule following. Maybe Jesus wanted her to open her eyes to the precious moments she was missing. Maybe he wanted her to be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit doesn't always follow a to-do list.

And maybe Jesus wants the same for us. We live in the midst of a world of distraction – not all of them bad, not many of them evil. But our tasks, the busy-ness, the overwhelming expectations and responsibilities of our lives always threaten to distract us from presence of Jesus. The flashing screens threaten to blind us to the precious, hurting people lying in our paths. The constant noise threatens to drown out the precious words of Jesus, the good news that gives us life and hope.

And so maybe more than anything, this little story in Luke's Gospel, the story of Mary and Martha, is a call to deeper discernment, a call to open eyes and open ears. A reminder that our tasks are only a distraction when we allow them to take priority. They trick us into thinking that are more urgent than they really are, more important than they really are, more essential to our lives and identities than they really are. Your one life in this big, dangerous world is too important. It is too important for you to miss the point. There is only one thing in this world we need and that is Jesus – the Jesus who sends us out to love and serve boldly, but always calls us back to sit at his feet.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Wrong Question [Proper 10C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 10:25-37

The Wrong Question

Every day we log on, or turn on the TV, or pick up the newspaper to find yet another bleeding, hurting, desperate person being passed by – a young black or blue body gunned down, a lonely gay or lesbian teen contemplating suicide, a desperate refugee longing to survive. And still the question rings out in our country, our culture, our world: “Who is my neighbor?” And it is always the wrong question. It is the wrong question because it is a question in search of an exception, an excuse, a reason not to love. It is the wrong question and we have to stop asking it.

The lawyer in today's Gospel begins with a test. And the test quickly becomes something else all together. Because it always does. Jesus, I think, tries to make love very simple for us; but in doing so, it complicates it terribly. It seems simple because of the lack of distinction: love God and love people. There are no exceptions, no asterisks, no complicated formula. But then the demands of love find their way in our real lives in the real world, and those demands slam into our prejudices, and biases, and all our precious hatreds, and well, then love feels far from simple.

As Jesus does with his parables, today's story, commonly called the Good Samaritan, at first follows predictable literary conventions. Until it doesn't. And by the end the story has twisted and the listener is exposed. And nothing is the same.

And so, following that pattern, it begins predictably: it is no surprise that one might be ransacked on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho because while a lot has changed in two thousand years our savage human violence remains shockingly intact. The road was notoriously dangerous: a sharply descending trail with turns, twists, and tricky terrain that obscured the thieves who tormented travelers. And, unfortunately, it is no surprise that the thief left the victim in the road to die because while a lot has changed in two thousand years our ability to dehumanize our brothers and sisters remains shockingly intact.

Now it initially might have been mildly surprising to the listeners that a priest ignored the dying man. And again perhaps mildly surprising that the Levite also passed by. But the crowd would have expected a third character to enter the story – the old rule of three thing – and would have expected that person to be the hero. And so probably at this point they expected Jesus' story to be a critique of the clerical class – the story ending with an ordinary member of the tribe of Israel as the hero. And to a crowd of ordinary Jews that story would be well-received and affirming while reminding them to be nice, to be good. It would be a predictable morality tale, a good, if not forgettable, story.

But this is Jesus and this is a parable. And so there must be a twist.

You might remember our Gospel reading from two weeks ago. On that Sunday, we heard another story from Luke's Gospel, a story that is found in the previous chapter. In the story Jesus arrives in a Samaritan village and they reject him; they want him gone. The rejection, the lack of hospitality, enrages two of Jesus' disciples, James and John. They hate Samaritans and this episode makes them so angry that they ask Jesus for permission to wipe out that entire Samaritan village. And, of course, Jesus rebukes them and they continue their journey.

And yet here, almost immediately after Jesus is slighted by Samaritans, a Samaritan makes an appearance in his parable – an unexpected appearance as the one character who was moved with pity, the model of love and mercy. The crowd was expecting to find a good Jew, a brother or sister, someone who looked and acted like them, in that heroic role, instead they find their enemy. It's quite a twist.

Who is my neighbor?”: it is the wrong question. It is the question we ask when Jesus makes us uncomfortable. It certainly didn't matter to the man dying on the road. Every person who walked by could have been his neighbor.

I have a story of my own. I'm not saying it is as good as Jesus', but it's a good story. In my story the priest doesn't pass by on the other side of the road. My story takes place on the other side of the pond. There are no treacherous paths; no bandits; no Samaritans. But there is a priest – the rector of a suburban parish. This priest was quite openly opposed to homosexuality and often used the parish newsletter to disseminate his message to his parish. That's bad enough, except the members of that congregation were not the only recipients of that newsletter. It was also sent to the other local Episcopal clerics. I know that because I was on the mailing list. And you can trust me when I say: his message was never subtle.

In my story there is also another priest – the rector of a downtown parish, in the heart of the city, not terribly far from the suburban parish with its suburban rector. She too was on the mailing list; she too received that monthly newsletter. She was a lesbian, in a long-term, committed relationship. And the rector of the suburban parish knew she was a lesbian, knew her partner, and yet still sent her those newsletters containing his hurtful anti-LGBT rants.

One day, the suburban rector's wife grew very ill; she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. It was a desperate situation – life and death. Her very small chance of survival depended on finding a bone marrow donation match.

The priest from the downtown church found out about this desperate situation – she was on the newsletter mailing list, after all. And so she organized the bone marrow donor registration. And she donated her marrow. And she recruited people across the diocese to register. And after his wife died, that priest, a lesbian, whom that suburban rector had preached against from the pulpit and in that newsletter, well, she held him while he cried. And he whispered to her a thank you. Because when life was desperate, she showed him mercy. And for at least a moment, he no longer saw her as a lesbian, but as a sister. For at least a moment, nothing else mattered. When he and his wife were hurting, the rector of the downtown church was a neighbor to him.

I wish I could tell you, that event completely changed the way he looked at the world. It didn't. It didn't change his views of gays or lesbians. But that was never the goal. The downtown priest never expected anything in return. She just saw a person who needed to be loved. And so she loved him. And that matters. A lot.

To a man dying on the side of the road, to a person in desperate need, the world looks different: no longer seen through prejudices and hatreds. All of those things that divide us, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or political affiliation, all of those things that we use to justify the borders and boundaries and fences we construct, mean much less than a person's willingness to show mercy. Because the person dying on the road doesn't need a lecture, just a hand. The person dying on the road is not a symbol, but person in need of another person.

Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because we don't choose our neighbors. They are just there – bleeding in the streets, beaten and battered, victims of racism and violence and all of those hatreds to which we cling so selfishly. They are just there – desperate for mercy, in need of love.

We don't choose our neighbors. But we do choose whether or not we will show mercy. And we do choose whether or not we will offer love.

The lawyer starts the conversation with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus never answers the question. Because once again, the lawyer asks the wrong question. There's nothing we can do to earn God's love. There are no exceptions, no asterisks, no complicated formula. There are people. And there is love. And God just loves us.

Go and do likewise.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dual Citizenship [Independence Day]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Deuteronomy 10:17-21 & Matthew 5:43-48

Dual Citizenship

There is an almost certainly apocryphal story about the young James Madison, the man who would later go on to become secretary of state and then the fourth president of these United States. Madison, was, like most of you, an Anglican; and the Anglican Church was at that time the established church of his native Virginia. As the story goes, he once witnessed some of his fellow Anglicans harassing and hammering some poor defenseless Baptists. Seeing those state-sponsored churchmen bully those of a minority sect, it is said he decided right then and there that the developing nation must have a separation between church and state – an idea that was later codified in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Now, much more likely is that this idea became urgent for him after seeing six Baptist ministers jailed for preaching without the formal permission of his state – an act that undoubtedly hit close to home for the founders of this nation, many of whom had experienced oppressive religious climates in their home countries. Madison concluded that this nation should neither establish, nor favor, any religious expression, but that each individual should have the freedom to worship God according to one's conscience.

This idea, the separation of church and state, has been subject to debate and interpretation ever since. But Madison's impulse remains at the heart of one of our greatest freedoms in this nation: we are free to openly worship as we see fit, in a way we believe pleases God. So I'm not going to be jailed for standing in an Episcopal pulpit or for consecrating real wine at the altar. You won't be fined for crossing yourself or preferring Rite 1 language. And neither are your Baptist friends breaking the law by drinking those little plastic cups of grape juice. The First Amendment, and its insistence on separation of church and state, assures our religious liberty. And that is a good thing.

But even though Madison once declared: "practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States1," the reality is that we are dual citizens. And even though our founding documents clearly value a separation – and for some very good reasons – the truth is: we live in both the Church and the state. We come into this place to worship the ancient God of the Hebrews as 21st century US citizens, carrying with us all of the baggage and beauty of our context and culture. And we are sent out of this liturgy to share the Good News of Jesus, believing that the Gospel has the power to change for the better lives, communities, and nations.

And so it is important for us, as Christians, who are also US citizens, to consider what that looks like; what does it mean to be a dual citizen? Well, as Christians, we have a clear, fundamental starting point: the baptismal font. We are first and foremost, as baptized Christians, citizens of the Kingdom of God. And it is essential that we never forget, that before nation, family, ideology, political party, or even denomination, our primary allegiance is to Christ and to his Kingdom.

And it is that allegiance to the Kingdom of God, that, I believe, makes us good citizens of this nation. When we live out our Gospel values we make our country a better place – sometimes through comfortable affirmation and sometimes through prophetic challenge. When we declare the good news of God in Christ, in not just our words, but also in our deeds, we inspire our leaders and fellow citizens to imagine a fuller vision of the common good. When we, as the Church, truly take our baptismal promises seriously, then this nation will better resemble the Kingdom come for which Jesus prayed.

We get a glimpse of God's hopes and dreams for our nation in today's scriptures. In Deuteronomy, God calls for the nation of Israel to care for the most vulnerable. More than their economic success, it was their willingness to love and cloth and feed the strangers in their land that made them a great nation. God expects the same from our nation. God has a heart for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. God's dream for our nation is that we have the same.

In the reading from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. More than military might, it is our willingness to love boldly and recklessly that makes us a great nation. God loves perfectly, Jesus says. God's dream for our nation is that we might also be known for our love and generosity.

The greatest gift you can offer your nation is to live out your baptismal ministry in the world, to keep your baptismal vows. Resist evil. Live a life of passionate love and mercy like Jesus. Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This is what it means to live as a citizen in the Kingdom of God. But also, what better way to express your dual citizenship? What better way to live as a citizen of the United States than to embody these Christian values?

There are many things that make this a great country. This is truly a beautiful nation. The beauty is evident in our landscapes: mountains and rivers, oceans and plains. The beauty is evident in our core ideals: freedom and justice, courage and equality. But more than anything, the beauty is evident in the people: a nation composed of people of every race, religion, and creed; men and women of all ages and experiences and opinions. All, we contend, created equal.

And the success of our dual citizenship – citizens of both the Kingdom of God and of the United States of America – is defined by how well we love all of those people – the ones with whom we agree and with whom we disagree. At the heart of good citizenship is the ability to love. And that love cannot be confined to history or nostalgia or the founding fathers or the founding documents; that love cannot confined to a political party or ideology. To love this nation, you must love the people who make up this nation. Love is your duty as a Christian; and it is your duty as a US citizen.

And so do your duty, be a good citizen, a good dual citizen: walk out these doors, into your country, and be a Christian.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Calling Down Fire [Proper 8C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 9:51-62

Calling Down Fire

Well, that escalated quickly: straight to the fire. Once again (and this seems to be a recurring theme in his life) Jesus cannot find any lodging. He's been having this problem since the day he was born; no room ready that day either. And unlike his parents, Mary and Joseph, who settled for some rather unusual accommodations for the newborn baby Jesus, James and John are less understanding, less flexible. “Burn it to the ground.”

So, this feels like an extreme reaction, right? An extreme reaction for really any rational adult. Especially, one does not expect this from Jesus' disciples. Specifically one does not expect this from the disciples in his inner circle, two of the disciples who, along with Peter, just prior to this incident witnessed the Transfiguration, two disciples whom we commemorate as saints – we name churches after these guys – and they are ready to call down a divine nuclear strike on an entire village because some of the people were inhospitable. It seems like an extreme reaction.

Now it is true: there is some history here – some historical tension. James and John were Jews. Jews and Samaritans had a checkered history; there were disagreements between the two factions – theological arguments, differing interpretations of Scripture, competing visions of salvation – you know, the kind of things that cause denominational splits still today.

Occasionally however, the verbal spats turned physical, turned violent. In fact we know that in the later first century a group of Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem were murdered in Samaria. This was not the norm but it does give us a sense of the simmering tension between the groups. And so, while it is surprising that Jesus would choose to journey through this Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem, as opposed to circumvent the region as many 1st century Jews would have, it is really not a surprise that the Samaritans would refuse to receive him and his message.

Now, despite the tense history, it is still pretty shocking to us that James and John want to incinerate every man, woman, and child in this village, but then again maybe that is not such a surprise either. Because while they are saints, they are also human. I suspect Jesus' rejection was less the cause of their rage than it was justification for the hatred that was already in their hearts. I suspect they hated those Samaritans long before they arrived in that village.

As disgusting as their idea is, they actually find themselves grounded firmly in the religious tradition, alongside some fine company in fact. The great prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven in 2 Kings; the fire consumed more than 100 people. If one were so inclined, one might be tempted to call that mass murder. But it is also in the Bible – our Bible, the Bible that James and John knew and read. And if we want to push this even further, the book of Genesis contains the story of another fiery devastation: Sodom and Gomorrah. That one is all on God. It is a rough story; a lot of people die in that story. And, though the story is often misinterpreted to push political agendas, the people in those towns faced divine wrath because of their lack of hospitality – not unlike the Samaritans in today's Gospel. This story is also in the Bible – our Bible, the Bible that James and John knew and read. James and John, it seems, were simply appealing to tradition – a pretty strong tradition. Fire from heaven is just how it's always been done. So I think we can admit that sometimes change is good – and, yes, I do realize I'm saying that in an Episcopal Church.

Now, I think it is important to recognize and acknowledge that the Samaritans did nothing to personally harm James or John. The Gospel only mentions that the Samaritans did not receive Jesus. But even so, the brothers took it personally. They had a visceral reaction. They were rash and emotional. The Samaritans insulted, disrespected their Master – and James and John took that personally.

And they wanted revenge. I mean, serious revenge. They wanted to see fire come down from the sky and consume all of the people in the village – the people who hurt them. That is intense; it is extreme. They want to see these people die for what they did. It's as simple as that.

I remember, I'm sure you do to, watching the celebrations on television. It was just over five years ago. All around the country people filled the streets to celebrate, to rejoice, to sing and dance. Osama bin-Laden had been killed. Millions of people finally realized their murderous revenge fantasies after ten long years. A decade of grief, and anger, and hateful rhetoric, and guilt, and fear, and pain exploded in a single national celebration – a celebration of a death.

It's in all of us. Maybe it was Osama. Maybe it was the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Maybe it was the Germans or the Koreans or the Viet Cong. Maybe it is ISIS. Maybe it is the shooter in Orlando. Maybe is the bully you encounter daily at your work or school. It can be hard for us to understand why James and John want to rain down fire because we don't hate Samaritans; we don't really know anything about Samaritans. The closest we come is the Good Samaritan – and he's good. But like those two disciples, we all have our own Samaritans.

At my last parish we had a neighbor, her yard backed up to our parking lot. And less than a year after I started at St. Andrew's, she started sending me letters – hateful, angry letters. I had never met her, but to say she didn't like our snowplowing would be putting it mildly. And so she sent me a steady stream of mail, saying hateful things, calling me terrible names. And while it started with just me, before long she started sending letters to my Bishop as well – telling him how I was a terrible person, an idiot, a bad priest. Every time it would snow, and this was in Northern Ohio, I knew the letter was coming. And this went on, week after week, for years.

And it made me sick to my stomach. And it made me feel helpless because there was nothing I could do to stop it...and trust me I tried. And while I never called down fire from the heavens, some of my thoughts and prayers came close. I might have prayed something along the lines of, “Dear God, please make this stop. Do whatever you gotta do. I'm not judging.” Not one of my proudest moments; priests are people too.

When we hurt, we want to hurt others. And the history of the human race proves that often we do. We make war. We use the death penalty. We punish and humiliate. We seek revenge. We call down fire from heaven. Or we sometimes we just crush each other with our words. Hatred, anger, and fear can take many forms.

What James and John said was not shocking; it was normal – even socially acceptable. Jews didn't like Samaritans – and they had reasons. The pair could use the Bible to justify their dark fantasy. And they were human. And they were hurt. And they were angry. And maybe they thought the world would be a better place without Samaritans.

And so they turned to the rejected Lord they loved and they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Because they were hurt and they wanted to hurt someone. But Jesus turned to them and rebuked them.

Because Jesus expects better – of them, of us. They thought Jesus came to judge and punish and win and reign. But Jesus came to love and save and lose and die.

Jesus had every reason to call down the fire. He was hated. He was rejected. He suffered violence and even death at the hands of people he loved, the people he came to save.

When we hurt, we want to hurt others. And Jesus hurt. And when he hurt, he chose to love others. Every time. And we are the witnesses; that is our story to tell; that is our story to live. Because of Jesus we know the power of love. That love is stronger than hatred and violence. That it is more powerful than revenge. We know that love is the only way to break the cycle of violence, of hatred, of pain. We know that love is our only hope.

Love is the choice Jesus calls us to make. Now let's be honest, we're still going to be angry sometimes. We're still going to hurt sometimes. We're still going to have a healthy thirst for vengeance sometimes. We're still going to be tempted by that heavenly fire sometimes. We are still human. God knows that. In fact, I say let God have 'em – all of those hurts and pain and anger and hatreds. Give them to God, trust God with all of your most precious hatreds so that you can be about the business of love, so that you can err on the side of love every time, so that you can worry less about that fire from heaven and more about the love of Jesus burning in your heart.

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, after he was killed, after he was raised from the dead, the last thing Jesus said to James and John and the other disciples was this: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and in Samaria.”

Wherever your Samaria may be.