Sunday, July 30, 2017

Nothing but Good News [Proper 12A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Romans 8:26-39

Nothing but Good News

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you have been wondering: what exactly is this Good News we're always talking about in church? What is this Gospel that we are called to share beyond those heavy doors? This is it. This is the Good News. This is the Gospel.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is nothing that can separate us, nothing that can separate me, nothing that can separate you, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.

Like Paul, I too am convinced. I am convinced that this simple truth is the Gospel, this is our Good News. I am convinced because this news is so good that even Christians have a hard time believing that it is true.

I first realized this as a young Pentecostal. I must have been in my early teens when I saw a picture of a protester holding a sign that said, “God Hates Fags.” I had heard a lot of things in my church as a child but this was new. I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” It never occurred to me that there were Christians who believed that God hated people, that God hated some of this world's children. The Bible says: nothing can separate us from the love of God. But some Christians simply cannot believe that God's love is that radically inclusive. Some Christians find that kind of love so offensive that they stand outside of funerals with signs proclaiming bad news – a message that directly opposes the Good News of God's love outlined in our Epistle reading today.

But it wasn't the last time. Those folks from Westboro Baptist Church, who became much more well-known in later years, are pretty explicit in their disgusting brand of prejudice and hatred. They are an extreme example. But I started to notice that much nicer Christians also had an argument with good news at the end of Romans 8. There was the sweet young Baptist girl who informed me that Roman Catholics were going to Hell because they were not saved and so were the Pentecostals in my church because we were just a cult. There was my freshman year roommate who was a very strict Calvinist and believed that God created some people just to populate the tortuous circles of Hell. So much for the love of God. So much for that Good News that nothing can separate us from God's love. Apparently there were all kinds of things – everything from denomination to destiny.

And then on a college break I visited the old Pentecostal church which I had attended during my teenage years. I still had friends there. And I knew the rhythm of the service; it was less formalized than our pattern but predictable nonetheless. I knew the service would end with an altar call; it always did. But I had been away for awhile and so I listened with fresh ears. And the pastor said to a room full of Christians, mostly the regulars, “If you died tonight, on the way home, if you were hit by a bus, do you know where you would go? If you died tonight would you go to Heaven or Hell?” And then he encouraged the congregation to think about the past week. Had they sinned? Had they done something wrong? A yes answer meant potential damnation. And then he reminded everyone, especially those who felt certain of God's approval, that there are a lot of good people are in Hell. The altar was open. Salvation, it turned out, was week-to-week. Hell, separation from God and God's love, was not impossible as Paul tells us in Romans 8, but instead a constant threat.

And then, more recently, In December of 2011, my former Bishop, Mark Hollingsworth was invited to appear on a local Cleveland radio station by one of the morning shock jocks. The deejay was infuriated by an ad campaign the diocese was promoting. In a series of radio and billboard ads, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio decided to simply spread the Good News: “God Loves You. No Exceptions.” That is what the ads said.

And that message set the deejay off. He brought the Bishop on to tell him off. The deejay spent most of the interview berating and belittling the Bishop. Bishop Hollingsworth calmly listened as the host angrily expressed how offensive and irresponsible it was to tell people that God loves bad people, to tell victims that God loves the very people who hurt them and their families. The Bishop listened carefully and acknowledged the deejay's feelings. And then to this angry host and his audience the Bishop calmly stated one of the most offensive truths of the Gospel of Christ, one that even Christians have a hard time believing: “We don't deserve God's love; we get it, whether we deserve it or not.” Nothing can separate us from God's love. No exceptions.

This is our Good News – a Gospel message drenched in impossible grace. And it is too good to be true: love that defies explanation, love well beyond what we could ever deserve, love that stakes an unbreakable claim. It is too good to be true, but also it is. It is true. I am convinced.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is this passage that gives me the strength to walk into this world as a minister of the Gospel – to sit and speak hope into the life of another grieving spouse or another heart-broken child of God, to shout my alleluias at the grave and preach resurrection into the face of despair. Because I am convinced that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God.

It is this passage that comforts me when my troubled mind keeps me up at night – unable to sleep because I cannot stop thinking about that day's failures or all of the things I am anxious about tomorrow or the weight of mortality and what will I do if something terrible happens to my wife or my boys. I am convinced that no matter what happens, nothing will separate us from the love of God.

It is this passage that gives me the courage to fall more in love my kids every day. Because even though I know that I brought them into a big, dangerous world that will break their vulnerable hearts over and over again, I am also convinced that nothing can separate them from the love of God. And so they will be OK.

It is this passage that allows me to stare down the cloudy future, fully aware that sorrow and sadness and pain and death are out there waiting for me – an unavoidable part of this earthly journey. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is news so good that it is hard to believe. Can you believe it? If you can, it will change your life. I promise.

This is our Gospel. This is our Good News. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And nothing means nothing. No exceptions. God loves you. Hard stop. Our world is filled with people who feel unloved and unwanted; this world is filled with people desperate to hear that they are loved with a truly unconditional love. And that is our message. The Church has spent centuries drawing lines and defining conditions and listing exceptions. Because the Good News seems too good to be true. But I am convinced by the nothing.

I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is the Good News that we are called to live for and die for. That is the Good News that we are called to share. It is so simple, but it is so powerful. Can you believe it? Will you believe it? The world needs us, those of us who have experienced God's amazing love, to believe it because it is impossible to share our Good News if we do not believe it. But it is impossible not to share it when we do.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Possessed [Proper 10A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Romans 8:1-11


Not every possession looks good on a movie screen. Not that folks are watching The Exorcist for the beautiful scenery or lovely depictions of childlike innocence but I think you get my point. The horror industry understandably tends to emphasize the more dramatic face of possession – preferably a face with glowing red eyes that is set on a swivel. In the movies possession looks like supernatural demonic beings inhabiting and controlling everything from humans to dolls to television sets – disembodied gremlins making mischief in the natural world.

While the depictions are often over-the-top, not what one would expect to see in their own poorly lit bedroom, they do, I think, tap into a very common anxiety – and not just common but also utterly realistic. Probably why there are so many movies and television shows featuring possession is that it is a truly terrifying thought – one that feels a bit too possible, maybe even familiar. It taps into our fears of being out of control, of being controlled by a force beyond one's self. And, perhaps more terrifying, it plays on our fears that our loved ones might become possessed, overcome by corrupting forces to the point of being unrecognizable, taken from us by something sinister and destructive.

If i's your thing, a good old fashioned demon possession, can make for a fine horror movie plot – a titillating distraction from the much more terrifying things we might see on the news. But don't be deceived, evil is not limited to the silver screen. And possession does not happen only in the movies.

For a number of weeks now, during our Sunday liturgies, we have been reading through Paul's letter to the Romans. And for the next three weeks Fr. Brendan and I will preach through Romans chapter eight – a beautiful testament to the unshakable presence and impossible love of God demonstrated in Christ that is at the heart of the Christian faith. Many of Paul's letters are pastoral responses to individual Christian communities. Romans is, however, unique in that rather than simply address an immediate issue, here Paul has greater license to explore and expound on the good news of God's salvation, the universal implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This eighth chapter of Romans, from which you heard this morning, captures the heart of Paul's Gospel proclamation – beginning today with “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And ending with the bold Christian declaration that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – an amazing climax to an amazing chapter of the Bible. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. No spoilers, I promise.

In fact, to understand today's reading, we need to go back to something we heard last week. At the end of chapter seven, Paul writes: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” And then today, we read: “You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Not only does possession exist beyond the movie screen, according to Paul, possession is inevitable.

Each and every person you encounter, each and every person you pass on the street, greet in a store, meet in a line, is possessed – possessed by something. Usually not in a way that could drive the plot of a horror movie, but in ways and by forces much more mundane, much more common than that.

Possession does not generally make one's eyes glow red or head spin. But there are forces in this world and they are coming for you and they want your soul; they want inside. As Bob Dylan would say, “You're gonna have to serve somebody.”

We acknowledge this in our baptismal liturgy. When we renounce the forces of sin and submit our lives to Christ we are making a decision that our hearts belong to Jesus. We are choosing a tenant. We're letting the Holy Spirit in and evicting the forces of evil.

In that moment we both tell the truth about the state world in which we live and make a bold, defiant promise to live in this world as Holy Spirit possessed children of God, liberated from cold grip of sin and death.

In our liturgy, we acknowledge that this world is teeming with evil powers, powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, evil powers always inching closer, desperate for a host. We acknowledge in the liturgy what we already know. You have seen these evil powers at work first hand – heroin, alcohol addiction, greed, pride, vanity. And sadly, you have probably seen the results of their work played out in your life or in the lives of those you love, in the lives of those you pass on street corners. The demons that possess the children of God do not look like cartoon devils; they look like needles and pills and empty bottles and broken dreams. And they come to steal, kill, and destroy.

We acknowledge in our baptismal liturgy that this planet is being suffocated by all the spiritual forces of wickedness, forces that oppose God's love in this world, forces looking to seep into broken hearts and broken lives. You have probably struggled with these forces in your own life and in your own relationships – racism, and sexism, and violence, and hatred, and prejudices that breed fear and separation, that prey on love and kindness. The demons of this world do not sit on shoulders; they infect hearts and minds and souls.

We acknowledge in our baptismal liturgy that the garden in which we live is ripe with temptations eager to draw us from the love of God. Feeding on the hungry. And they are marketed incessantly – promising fulfillment that always proves hollow. They are desires misplaced that lead to disappointment and despair. The demons in our world aren't hosting a dance party; those lured away from love by their fleeting desires end up restless and alone.

Life and death are set before us. There is no choice but to choose. Something will stake a claim. We will serve something. Something will possess us. We will drown in the water or we will find our salvation there.

This reality is captured well in Carol Bieleck's poem, “Breathing Under Water”

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

And then one day,
  • and I still don't know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought, the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being neighbors
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance, neighbors
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.1

We are built for possession and the evil powers of this world know that too well. We long to have something fill us to fulfillment. We are creatures of restless hearts, more than a little desperate. Richard Rohr says, “Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and honest description for what the biblical tradition called 'sin,' and medieval Christians called 'passions' or 'attachments.'”2

And we are powerless to change that. Something will pull us out of bed in the morning, influence our decisions, control our bank account, and dominate our thoughts and dreams. Something will shape your worldview and help forge your identity. Something will claim you. Something will get inside and possess you – in Paul's words, that will either be sin or Holy Spirit.

The water in which we swim is dark and dangerous. It wants to fill you full until you forget to breathe. The hopelessness and despair and brokenness and pain in which we swim is suffocating. And God's not going to pull us out. This is the world in which we live. And all around us folks are drowning. And so God needs us here. We have been given to this sea. And so God teaches us to breathe underwater. God gives us breath in the abyss: Holy Spirit, our salvation. We're the lifeguards. Through us God breathes life into the dying and grants peace to those thrashing in the waves. Amidst the stormy sea you are a sign of life; you are a beacon of hope; you are the proof that salvation is real.

The Spirit of God dwells in you. The Holy Spirit lives in you. You are possessed, possessed by something holy. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you. Evil and death look scary; but Easter Sunday proved they don't stand a chance.

Yes, the forces of death threaten to overcome us. But your lungs are full of life. Yes, the power of evil moves over the face of the earth like a flood. But, don't be afraid: You can breathe underwater.

1Rohr, Breathing Under Water, xiii-xiv

2Ibid, xxii.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The God We Need [Proper 9A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The God We Need

His story began in the smoky confines of the Temple, or so the legend goes. His father struck mute by an angel of the Lord. His name was divinely appointed, long hidden in the mind of God; his purpose written into God's salvation story ages before he drew his first breath. His conception too was miraculous: a seed planted in impossible soil takes root by the grace of God. At his birth, the Holy Spirit possessed his father causing him to spew forth a jarring prophecy, his first words in months: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”

If that is how your life begins, the odds of that life being what we might think of as “normal” are slim. And so, of course, John, this man of miraculous birth and mystical origins, spends his adult life living in the desert and eating insects. Until one day he walks into the water and announces his mission: he was the one – the Elijah, the prophet who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah – foretold by sages, awaited by learned scribes. He was the one sent into the world to pronounce the great and terrible Day of the Lord. The salvation for which an entire nation longed was almost here. But...also he was weird. And like too serious. And he never, ever had any fun. So...I don't know: next.

His story begins with the voice of an angel – a voice that broke the silence in a young girl's bedroom, yes, but also in the world. The very Word that made the world was once again speaking new creation into existence. His mother a simple virgin, overshadowed by the ancient Spirit of God; she was a willing vessel through which salvation would be poured out and he was that salvation. In her womb would dwell the fullness of a God whom even the Universe could not contain – that was who he was: God in human flesh. The very heavens announced his birth; adults worshiped at his manger; kings paid him homage. This man of miraculous birth and divine lineage was the one – the Messiah – foretold by prophets and sages, awaited by learned scribes. He was the one for whom an entire nation, no an entire world, longed. He was God's salvation. But...also they kinda hated him. He was always pushing it, always out of line, never really knew his place. He partied way too much and with losers, like tax collectors and sinners. He was actually an embarrassment to an entire people, which is pretty hard to do. So 0 for 2, I guess.

The people had been thinking about salvation for a long, long time and so the expectations were pretty sky high. And the truth is: the reality simply did not live up the fantasy. I don't know: they just had something else in mind. God sends John the Baptist and, it sounds a little picky, but he doesn't eat or drink enough. God sends Jesus and he eats and drinks way too much – if you know what I mean. God sends John and he's too much of a loner – anti-social even, I mean, that's what some people were saying. God sends Jesus and he spends all kinds of time with people – shady people, questionable people, certainly not holy or godly people. God sends John and he is too weird. God sends Jesus and he is too wild.

And so no one is happy. I know this because John has his head removed and Jesus dies on a cross. Whatever God was up to, it wasn't exactly what the crowds were expecting and definitely not what they wanted.

It is actually one of the most frustrating things about God: God is not very cooperative. Those first century folks they had a pretty good idea of what the prophet was supposed to look like – and John was not it. They had a pretty good idea of what the Messiah would be and say and do – and Jesus was not that. They had been thinking about salvation for a long, long time. They had expectations. Needless to say, the John and Jesus plan did not meet those expectations; surely God could do better.

They were human; we are human. And humans prefer a God who is a bit more manageable and predictable. Not a big deal but we want a God created in our image, as opposed to the other way around. And so we all kinda want a God who loves who we love and hates who we hate. A God who will judge who we judge and reward those we deem worthy. We just want a God who shares our values, affirms our attitudes, and takes our stances. That's not much to ask, is it?

The God who sent John the Baptist, the God who came to us in the person of Jesus, is both too demanding and too accepting. That God is both too challenging and too loving. According to our Gospel passage, God doesn't even dance when we say dance.

It is as if God is intentionally difficult. It is as if our God means to shake us up, challenge our narrow theologies, push us beyond our prejudices. It is as if our God wants us to expect the unexpected. But that's not what we want. Because that kind of God – that unpredictable, challenging, dodging our all expectations God – leaves us way too vulnerable in a dangerous world.

We come into the world like Dairy Queen ice cream cones – all soft-serve – but as we journey to adulthood we become increasingly aware that this world is a scary place and so we cover all of that softness with a nice, hard shell – made out of that weird, waxy red stuff. David Lose says, “No wonder Jesus gives thanks that God has revealed all this – and God’s own self... – not to the wise but to infants, because that alone surprises us, makes us think twice, challenges our preconceptions.”1 God is looking to crack our shells, to open us to the unpredictability of the Spirit, to soften our stance and blow us away on a fresh breeze.

The more firmly entrenched we are are, the more frustrating our God will be. The more sure we are, the more surely God will delight in proving us wrong. God has always worked through the wrong people, in the wrong ways – introducing an element of surprise into the salvation story. In fact, God's most profound act in this world happened in broad daylight, in full view of the public. And folks missed it, especially the religious folks, because they were already sure that nothing good comes out of Nazareth, nothing good eats and drinks too much, nothing good hangs out with bad people, nothing good is found guilty, nothing good hangs naked on a shameful cross. The truth is: we do not get the God we want, we get the God we need. So it's important that we open our eyes and minds and hearts wide enough to catch a glimpse of the God who tends to show up in the places we least expect.

We do not get the God we want, we get the God we need: a crucified God who embraced the entirety of the human experience – even the absolute most painful parts.

And no one saw it coming. Folks were looking toward the palace and Jesus was born in the muck. Folks were looking in the Temple but Jesus was out touching lepers and eating with tax collectors and socializing with prostitutes and loving against the Law. Folks were waiting for the kingdom to come at the tip of a spear but instead Jesus was building a kingdom of outcasts on a foundation of peace. Folks were expecting God's Messiah to ascend to a royal throne and wear a crown of gold instead Jesus was lifted up on a bloody cross and wore a crown of thorns. God failed to meet every single expectation.

Because that is exactly what we needed. We do not get the God we want, we get the God we need. We get a God who understands the pain and suffering of this world through personal experience. We get a God whose vulnerable heart is broken open wide enough to hold the weary and carry the burdened. We get a God who loves well beyond the borders of who is considered acceptable because God knows those who live in the margins need love. We get the God we need: a God who sends us into the broken places of the world to share the love of Jesus. And then wipes away our tears when those places break our hearts.

I know it can be scary, but keep those eyes and minds and hearts open. God's up to something and you don't want to miss it. So that's the lesson of this Gospel. That our unexpected God is showing up in the most unlikely of places, filling all of those strange, broken, painful, neglected places in our lives and in our world with a mess of love: that is the Good News.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Freedom for Good [Independence Day]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Deuteronomy 10:17-21

Freedom for Good

Freedom is a good thing. I like freedom. I suspect you do too. Of course, you do. There is just something in the human soul that longs to experience freedom. In fact, one might go so far as to say that freedom is not just a good thing, but even a God thing. According to the biblical story, God has been about the work of freedom in this world since the very beginning – building it right into the system, granting Adam and Eve the freedom to violate God's will and break God's heart. And even after the Adam and Eve experiment failed, God stayed the course. God still blessed humankind with the freedom to choose even though that means a lot of poor choices. God created us with the urge to live free despite our propensity to wander. God gives us freedom and then foolishly hopes that one day we will surrender our freedom to become servants in the Kingdom of God. What can I say? God is a dreamer.

The people we encounter in our Old Testament lesson today, these people to whom Moses is speaking in the book of Deuteronomy, these people about to march into the Promised Land, they had profoundly experienced that longing for freedom, that urge to live free. Even as they came to the end of their journey, while the sweet taste of fulfillment tingled on their lips, the desert days over, the homecoming about to commence, the story of their captivity and oppression was still impressed on their souls. Freedom was their future but it had not been their past.

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt – for generations, four centuries. Their exile in Egypt did not start that way. Initially they were welcomed – needy strangers in a hospitable land, refugees in search of a place that supported life after escaping a prolonged drought that threatened theirs. But as is too often the case, it wasn't long before the politicians and citizens of that great empire confused their difference for threat – saw them not simply as other but as dangerous. And so the Israelites were made slaves, controlled and beat down, and their children became the victims of infanticide – a holocaust to the gods of power and privilege. The Israelites were stranded in Egypt without freedom, without dignity, without a future. They were stranded in Egypt with only their tears and their prayers.

They were slaves crying out to God for freedom – the very idea we are celebrating today. That was their prayer and God heard their prayer and answered it. You probably remember the story: against all odds, God led them through the Red Sea on dry land – an impossible journey from bondage to freedom, from the land of oppression to the new shores of liberation. They had, as a people, experienced the pain and struggle of life, but the God of freedom heard their lament; they understood what it meant to live where human dignity goes to die, but God dignified them by dignifying their prayers with a response.

And so, in an instant, the nation's identity was transformed from slavery to freedom. Once again, as God has been since the beginning, God was about the work of freedom in this world.

Freedom, it seems, is a God thing – built into the system. And what God creates, Genesis tells us, God creates good. But while freedom is good, even good things can break bad. It did not take long for the Israelites to put their new-found freedom up to no good. There was the golden calf. And the countless rebellions. And the constant complaining. And the people breaking pretty much every rule, law, and guideline God puts in place. They even go so far as to bring up the “good old days” of Egypt – spitting in the face of their freedom, of their salvation, of their God.

I suppose that is the problem with freedom: we have the freedom to misuse our freedom. The book of Numbers, which immediately precedes the book of Deuteronomy from which we heard this morning, is the story of the people of Israel misusing their freedom over and over again. But it is not just their story; it is the story of peoples and nations throughout history – exploiting freedom to enslave, belittle, torture, and oppress, to start wars and spread hatred – not exclusively of course but often enough that we tell the world's history in tales of freedom misused.

Even in our own nation, we struggle with the gift of freedom. We grant the freedom of speech and folks use it to protest funerals and justify racism and bully the meek. We have free markets and the divide between rich and poor grows insurmountable, breeding resentment and despair. We see freedom of religion twisted into discrimination. We value freedom enough to grant it and protect it, but then we have to live with it knowing that folks have the freedom to do what is right, but also folks have the freedom to do what is wrong.

But God loves us and so even when freedom runs amok, God keeps calling us back and reeling us in – raising up prophets to say what God needs to say. In our text today, it is Moses who brings to the people the message from God – a prophetic message. Their freedom is fresh but already it has run amok. The issues are right there in the text: the nation favored the wealthy; the scales of justice were tipped by the corrupting influence of cash; the orphans and the widows were forgotten; and the strangers, “resident aliens” is the phrase many translations use, were suffering from a lack of care and provision. God set them free to do good but somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land they became so fixated on their own greatness that they forgot to be good.

It's understandable. Greatness is a great temptation with which every nation in the history of the world has wrestled. We have developed many metrics that we might use to define the greatness of a nation: military might, economic growth, educational achievement, international influence. According to Deuteronomy, however, those are not the standards by which God judges a nation or a people.

There is something that means more to God than a nation's greatness or success: God wants nations and peoples that are good. In the eyes of God good is what is great. God calls for the nation of Israel to care for the most vulnerable; that is their starting point, the foundation upon which their nation would be built. More than their economic success or their military might, it was their willingness to love and clothe and feed the strangers in their land, the good that they did, that made them a great nation. It was their willingness to imitate God that made them a great nation: to do justice and to love mercy. God expects the same from each and every nation, including our own nation. God has a heart for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger – for society's most vulnerable. God's dream for our nation is that we have the same heart, that we use our freedom not to chase greatness but to do good.

Pope John Paul II once said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”1 God grants freedom not simply for the sake of freedom, but to give God's people the opportunity to choose to do what is right, to choose to do what is good. God freed the people of Israel for a reason: so that they would be witnesses, telling the story of a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. They were the proof. God freed the people of Israel for a reason: so that they would be witnesses, telling the story of a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and sets them free. They were the proof.

We are blessed to live in a country in which we are granted an abundance of freedoms. But with those freedoms comes also the burden of responsibility. Freedom is good but it is also easily exploited and corrupted. In the grip of our selfishness, greed, pride, hatred, prejudice, anger, fear, and ambition, freedom becomes a tool of oppression – a gift from God that we use to oppose God's purposes in this world.

But when we loosen our grip and offer back to God that precious gift of freedom, God sets us free to do the good work of the Kingdom of God with boldness and courage. The freedom we find in Christ is the freedom to follow in the footsteps of the one who traded Paradise for a basin and a towel, who traded the glories of Heaven to wash dirty feet, who traded all of the freedom in the universe to become a servant. Our greatest freedom, it seems, is the opportunity to surrender our freedom – to live lives dedicated to service – service to God and service to those created in the image of God. Freedom is having the right to do what we ought, to live out the calling God has placed on our lives.

Freedom is a good thing – a human desire built into the system by a Creator who loves us so much that that same Creator gives us freedom for good.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Threat of Love [Proper 7A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 10:24-39

The Threat of Love

A man against his father,
A daughter against her mother,
A daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
One's foes will be members of one's own household.

Jesus and his disturbing vision of a dystopian future – a future in which division would bore its way even into the foundations of the family unit, a future in which generations would clash over allegiances and values. It is a grim fantasy indeed. Fortunately, two-thousand years of steady progress finds us in a 21st century utopia in which such talk of division can scarcely be found in the news or on social media or around a family's dinner table. We, so many years removed from Jesus' words, are, I'm sure, relieved to find our selves in the comfortable role of voyeur, unaffected outsiders curiously glimpsing the struggles of the 1st century faithful. It must have been hard.

It is almost impossible for us to imagine, in modern America, such division – especially within one's own family. I mean, if you take politics out of it, and sports, and religion, and opinions more generally, a world with such familial conflict is practically inconceivable.

Or perhaps not. It is amazing, isn't it, how timely these two-thousand year old texts can be. Jesus is talking to that 1st century Palestinian audience and it feels like he is talking directly to us, to our nation and our world, to a people who know division all too well. Families are still not perfect, neither are the individual members, and division does happen – sometimes despite our best efforts and deepest desires. But this reality makes this no easier to hear coming from Jesus' mouth. Not just because of our lingering scars and fractured relationships, but because not only does Jesus name the thing, in this Gospel passage Jesus takes ownership. Before listing the divisions, Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father.”

This is a difficult Gospel passage because when read in isolation it confronts us with a picture of Jesus that feels utterly foreign, even disconcerting. How do we make sense of a Jesus who comes to set family members in opposition, with a Jesus who brings a sword instead of peace, with a Jesus who warns his followers to temper their love for their own parents and children. Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar David Lose reflects on his own childhood encounters with this passage. He writes, “When I was a kid, I always found these words rather upsetting. Not only did they not square with my picture of Jesus, but no matter how much I went to church and Sunday school, and no matter how hard I tried, I knew deep down that I loved my parents more than I loved Jesus. (And, frankly, still do, and don’t even get me started on how much I love my kids.)” The 10-year-old Lose finally concludes that he is in serious trouble with Jesus and confides his indiscretion to his mom, who in turn tells her child that she made the same confession to her dad as a girl.1

This passage has been haunting Christians for centuries. It is an image of Jesus that tends to clash with those images that most often dominate our Christian piety – the image of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulders, the image of a compassionate Jesus feeding the hungry crowds, or touching the lepers clean, or raising a little girl from her deathbed with his gentle hand, or blessing a lap-full of children. It is difficult to see that Jesus in this Gospel.

Here Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But also this is the same Jesus who says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and commands Peter to put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane; this is the same Jesus the prophets named the Prince of Peace.

Here Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father.” But also this is the same Jesus who takes care of his mother while dying on the cross, who restores dead and dying children to their grieving parents, who gives to his followers a ministry of reconciliation.

Here Jesus says, “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” But this is also the same Jesus who twice in this very Gospel, Matthew's Gospel, quotes the commandment to honor one's father and mother – once in a confrontation with the Pharisees, who he believes do not take the commandment seriously enough, and once to the rich young man who asks Jesus which commandments he must keep to enter into eternal life. This is the same Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me...; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” There is more to Jesus than we find in today's Gospel passage; but still this too is Jesus.

Earlier in this chapter, in the Gospel reading we heard just last week, Jesus sends out his disciples; he gives them their mission. And he promises them a fruitful ministry: they will cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. In short, they will be like Jesus; they will preach his message; they will proclaim the good news of his love; they will do his amazing works.

But also, and he makes this quite clear, maybe a little too clear, they will experience his suffering. They will go into the world to do good, to proclaim the Good News of Good in Christ, by word and by deed. They will do justice and offer mercy and share God's love. And for their reward, they will be persecuted; they will be disowned; they will be opposed. Those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus find that those footsteps end at the foot of the cross.

This Gospel, this Gospel passage is difficult. It is difficult because we want to believe that good things happen to good people; we want to believe that we get what we deserve. We want to believe that folks understand that the Good News is good news. But then Jesus comes along and his Good News causes family strife; and his Good News breeds conflict; and his Good News nails him to the cross. Jesus is preaching the Good News but that Good News is shaking things up – redefining family, overturning tables, clashing with powerful people, ruffling feathers. Walter Brueggemann says, “The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.”2

The problem with the Gospel and why it raises our human defenses is that it is so bothersome, so confrontational, so disruptive. It brings life to dead places and shines light in dark corners. It heals sicknesses and breaks the bonds of addiction. Love could really put some folks out of business. The Good News of God's love means to shake things up and knock things down. God is making all things new and that is Good News – unless you are invested in the old stuff.

Jesus is launching a revolution and that revolution is built on love. Now we all love to love on love. We memorialize it in a million Hallmark cards. It sounds good on paper. But love is not just a fuzzy feeling or a nice thought. Love is demanding. Love loves us enough to demand we change, to challenge us, to expose us, to open us to the cost of true love which is always suffering. Richard Rohr writes, “[It is] no surprise that the Christian icon of redemption is a man offering love from a crucified position.”3 Cupid is not our icon of love; the Crucified Christ is. Our great hope as Christians is to share in Christ's resurrection; of course, one does not share in Christ's resurrection without first dying with him. Love was the reason he suffered and died.

The goal of the Gospel is not to make nice people; it is not to make polite citizens. The goal of the Gospel is, as C.S. Lewis says, “to draw [people] into Christ, to make them little Christs.”4 To live out the love of God until it hurts and sometimes it will.

This is a difficult Gospel passage. And, I think, we've been reading it wrong. It is not a prophecy or a threat. It is not just Jesus being realistic. It is obviously not Jesus' hope for the world. This Gospel is lament. This Gospel is the heart-breaking reminder that since the Garden of Eden, since the very beginning, our human brokenness has time and again caused us to rebel against love. Every time God reaches out in love, we lash out in our violence and anger. The thing we need most in the world, the thing that God offers freely and abundantly and unconditionally, love, is the thing we have the hardest time accepting.

Jesus revolution was opposed then and it is now. It is hard to live with love because love is just so pushy. Love is never as polite as we would like it to be. Love is threatening. Love threatens to heal us but we have made friends with our pain. Love threatens to cast out our demons, but better the devil you know. Love threatens to lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things, but if we are being honest ourselves we like knowing there are folks below us. Love threatens to heal our divisions but our identities are so built on these sandy foundations of prejudice and partisanship. Love threatens to usher in the Kingdom of God, but we are already invested in this Kingdom.

But nevertheless love is on the move; God is not discouraged. And so what happens is God loves us while we kick and scream – fighting against the very thing we most need. It is funny how peace is what brings out our swords.

And still God continues to reach out to this world in love, and now through us – sending us out into the world as little Christs. Where there is hatred, we sow love. It is Good News; God is making all things new; Jesus' is leading a movement that promises to overwhelm the planet with love. But change is hard and so not everyone is going to get on board. Love always faces push-back. It wasn't easy for Jesus; it won't always be easy for us.

This is a difficult Gospel passage because it is true. Love is somehow both threat and salvation. And this is the work to which Jesus calls us; this is what we are sent to do: to love like Jesus, to be little Christs. It is not an easy job; Jesus knows that better than anyone. Those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus find that those footsteps end at the foot of the cross. Those who find themselves at the foot of the cross, they find true love.

3The Naked Now, 122.

4Mere Christianity, 171.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

No Birds. Just Wind. [Pentecost A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 2:1-21 & John 20:19-23

No Birds. Just Wind.

It's Pentecost. And I guess I thought there would be more birds. I mean, this is the Holy Spirit's big day and during the Spirit's very first, and most memorable, appearance in the Gospel, at the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit floated down from the heavens dressed as a bird. That was the first impression and, I gotta say, it really stuck. I've seen the religious art of the middle ages, probably you have too; the Trinity is always Old Man, Young Man, and white bird. I've sang those good bird-centric Pentecost Holy Spirit Hymns:
Like the murmur of the dove's song, like the challenge of her flight.
Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove.
Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet Heavenly Dove, stay right here with us, filling us with your love. Bird.

I mean, dress like an animal once and no one will ever let you forget it. Just ask Sean Spicer.

Even our bulletin today. Bird.

But today's Scripture lessons are totally and completely birdless. No birds in Acts. No birds in John. No birds in the psalm or Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

And it makes sense, I guess. I tried to imagine what the Acts reading would be like with birds. It's different. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound of mighty flapping wings. And then, like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film, birds filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divide tongues of fire rested on each head – which, of course lit the birds on fire. And instead of rushing into the streets to proclaim the Good News, the disciples spent the entire weekend cleaning up the mess from the bird fire.” Speaking of our bulletin, the cover, it seems, is actually based on this bird version of the Acts story.

A bird version of the Gospel of John story doesn't really work much better. I've imagined that too. “Jesus said to them, 'Peace be with you.' When he had said this, he started handing out birds to the confused disciples. And then Jesus said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' Which just confused them all the more because it seemed like he just gave them birds. And there was never any peace in the house because there were eleven birds chirping all the time. And even though Jesus said 'Receive the Holy Spirit' to them it felt more like receive this pet and all of the additional responsibilities of caring for a pet bird.”

So no birds in today's Scripture lessons. Just wind.

And just us, forever trying to grasp the wind – which the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us is vanity. There are many reasons to cling to the bird image; the number one reason is that one can cling to a bird. You can see, touch, hold, cage a bird. But you cannot see the wind. You cannot touch it. You cannot hold it. And you cannot cage it.

It is a mystery that sweeps through our world – with no beginning and no ending – sometimes gentle and refreshing, sometimes violent and devastating. Always out of our control. And though it is difficult to paint wind into the medieval works of art between Old Man and Young Man, grasping wind is a much more accurate description of our relationship with the Holy Spirit than is bird-watching.

Our human minds delight in solving problems and unraveling mysteries and decoding codes. We like to figure things out – to place our trust in proven entities. And our faith is hard because we are asked to place our trust in things we cannot see or understand. We are grasping at wind, finding that we are forever empty-handed.

Today I will baptize four people into the Body of Christ. And, unless we are all in for a huge and terrifying surprise, no bird from heaven will descend upon these four as they emerge from the water. Instead, the Spirit will once again hide in the air around us, unseen. I will invoke the Holy Spirit over the water in the font. And the water will stay perfectly still. I will trace a cross in holy oil on the forehead of each newly baptized Christian and I will look them in the eyes and declare to them, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism.” But later the oil will wash away and there will be no way to see or display that permanent seal.

It is a quite a thing to give one's life to an unseen mystery. And that is what we as Christians are asked to do. What potentially makes it easier is that we do it all the time. We are animated by the breath of life, but we cannot see it. Our souls are sustained by the beauty of music, but we cannot see it. Our feet are grounded by the force of gravity, but we cannot see it. Our spirit runs on hope, but we cannot see it. Love is the most powerful thing in the universe, but we cannot see it.

There is more going on than meets the eye. The Spirit is so close to us that we cannot find our focus. We live and move and have our being in the Spirit of God. Like the atmosphere, the Spirit envelops us. And like the atmosphere, it holds us and sustains us whether or not we believe it is there – even though we cannot see it, even though we cannot hold it firmly in our hands.

What actually happened in John's Gospel is that Jesus breathed on his disciples. He breathed on them. The simplest thing in the world – air escaping his mouth. The average person does that 23,000 times a day. It is amazing how our mysteries are wrapped up so tightly in simplicity. Jesus pushed the Holy Spirit into this world through his lips. No birds; just wind. And the Spirit moved on the breath of Jesus. Entering and leaving and entering again the lungs of the disciples – a conspiracy, the twelve of them breathing together. So that the Spirit rode on every breath they took and on every word they spoke. Jesus filling their lungs and Jesus filling their world – spreading like a virus – unseen and impossible to grasp, unseen and impossible to stop.

What actually happened in Acts is that a violent wind pushed the disciples out of the room and into the streets. Like a tornado that could not be resisted, the Holy Spirit carried them into their mission field – to speak the Gospel of Jesus into the world – so that what was in them could be breathed in by others. Jesus filling their lungs and Jesus filling their world – spreading like a virus – unseen and impossible to grasp, unseen and impossible to stop.

You are breathing the same air – passed through the lungs of our forbearers. You are held in the same wind. Jesus is filling your lungs and you are breathing Jesus back into the world – inspiring those those who are suffocating, breathing life into dead places. We live and move and have our being in this Holy Spirit – the very atmosphere that envelops us. We are surrounded. And our only reasonable option is surrender – to allow the wind to blow us away.

Birds are OK; birds are nice; that flaming bird makes a sharp bulletin cover. But our destiny is blowin' in the wind.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Look Lower [Easter 7A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 1:6-14

Look Lower

Well, if we learned one thing from Acts today, it is this: some angels cannot read a room. These snarky angels are pretty insensitive. While the disciples stand by, all dazed and heartbroken, these two men in white robes suddenly appear, not to console them, but to challenge them: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The angels know why, at least they should. The disciples' eyes are glued to the very spot in the heavens that just devoured Jesus and his cloud car. And the disciples are trying to keep their eyes on Jesus. See, that has been a pretty difficult task in recent weeks. They already lost him once; they did not want to do that again.

But now he is out of sight, gone – for the second time in just six weeks. Once again they were powerless to stop him. And now all they have left is a limitless, empty sky. The second goodbye stinging their eyes even as the first wounds are still fresh in their minds. Holy Week cut deep. They had stood by impotently and just watched as he was dragged away and killed on a cross. And they thought they would never see him again.

But then just three days later, while their stomachs still ached with grief, he returned. And their grief was replaced with a strangely appropriate mix of terror and joy and confusion. It made no sense; it was nothing they expected. But Jesus, who was dead and buried, returned to them. And for once, all of the pain of this mortal life seemed to melt away – as if his new life meant that life would never be the same, that God's good news might infect every human heart – bring dead hearts to life, make broken hearts whole, melt the ice off of every heart cooled by sadness and loneliness.

The band was back together. And the disciples knew that on this side of the resurrection they would be unstoppable. Their leader was risen from the dead – the proof in his wounds. Every doubter would be convinced. Every opponent would fall at his feet. Every skeptic would now receive their Gospel message with eager gladness. He was back and they were ready.

But forty days after his Easter resurrection, the disciples are starting blankly at the sky and Jesus, once again, has left them with all of their dreams dead on the vine. Of course they were just standing there looking up toward heaven: there was no where else to go.

And then two men in white robes and a confrontational question jarred them out of their day dream and back into reality. There was nothing to see in the sky; there was nothing to see in the heavens. It was time to re-focus, to lower their gaze.

The Feast of the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, is one of the seven Principle Feast days in the Church calendar – along with Christmas and Easter, Pentecost, All Saints' Day, Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday. It seems a strange thing to say, but we celebrate Jesus' exit. Not only do we celebrate it in our calendar, we find it in our creeds and in our Eucharistic prayers. In some way, the Ascension lives at the heart of our Christian faith. That we celebrate Jesus' ascension out of sight in the present would probably surprise those eleven disciples who watched him leave. That morning as he pierced the sky it did not seem like a cause for celebration.

Why not just stay?” is probably what I would have thought as I watched Jesus leave. And then, as I reflected on the event, later, tried to make sense of it, played detective, maybe I would come back around and revisit his final words for clues. What were the last words Jesus said? What did he save for the encore? After all of the profound sayings and timeless parables, what was worth going out on?

You will be my the ends of the earth.” That is the answer. That is why the Ascension. That is why he left. My boys have these colored bath tablets – only yellow right now because they use up the red and blue ones as quickly as they can. These tablets are small, no bigger around than a tube of chap-stick, and when they are dropped into the water they grow smaller and smaller until they disappear. Once that tablet is gone, all of the water is changed. The color that once existed as a tiny tablet spreads to the ends of the tub. Jesus left so that his presence would grow – so that the love that once dwelt in a single body might cover the planet, fill the universe. So that the message would spread. So that the gospel might explode – bursting the boundaries of 1st century Palestine.

Jesus leaves. But that is not the end of the story. As he goes up he sends us out. The light is green and we have to get going. Because the message doesn't move if we don't move. The message doesn't move if the Church stands staring at the sky. We're not meant to die looking up. We're not meant to die just waiting. We are sent. Out. Jesus leaves us with the dismissal. And the dismissal is always a call to mission.

But the truth is, most days, it is easier to live with our heads in the clouds. Because down here, on the ground, it impossible to avoid the pain and struggle and suffering that will inevitably leave scars on your heart and soul. Down here in the muck, you will see things no one should see; and hear things no one should hear; and think things no one should think; and feel things no one should have to feel.

And to escape the chaos down here on the ground, you might turn your eyes toward heaven – maybe looking for that crease through which Jesus slipped. And maybe you will even hum to your self the old spiritual “I'll fly away” as you look up and dream about your Great Escape. They say that in Heaven there are no more tears, and no more crying, and no more pain. There children aren't killed by suicide bombers. And loved ones don't stumble into the grip of death. And peace replaces the anxiety that seems to flood our lives through computer, cell phone, and television screens. Heaven is the best distraction from this world yet created. And it is easy to turn our eyes away from the things that haunt this earth toward the dreams of a distant heaven.

But Heaven is not interested in your interest – at least not yet. The angels are quick to break our gaze with their snarky question: “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And Jesus is quick to remind us that we still have work to do right here on earth.

And it turns out that those very things that cause us to want to divert our eyes – the pain, the struggle, the suffering and chaos of this world – are the very reasons the angels break our heaven-ward gaze. We want to look up because this world is filled with terrible things; but we are called by Jesus to look into the terror, into the pain, into the suffering.

Jesus did not ascend to hide in the sky. He did not leave to avoid the messiness of this world. Jesus ascended into every broken heart that would offer him a place. He ascended so that he could fill every empty space, hold every suffering child, comfort every mourning parent. He ascended so that this anxious world could live and move and have its being in the sacred heart of Christ. The ascension is not an escape; it is like an explosion that rained down divinity on this world so that no one would ever again suffer alone.

And we are the witnesses. Jesus is sending us out with this story on our lips and in our hearts, to witness to what we have experienced in our own lives. And so we cannot stand staring at the sky; we cannot dream away our days thinking about Heaven. Our mission is on the ground – on street corners and in the crossroads and at the dead ends. Our mission is on the ground – where bended knees meet cold pavement, where bodies are broken, where tired souls search for rest. It is time for the Church to lower our eyes. If we are looking for Jesus, he's not hiding in the clouds. So “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” If we are looking for Jesus, we should probably lower our gaze; we are much more likely to find him down in the muck.