What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There’s such familiarity in today’s readings that I feel they must be written on our hearts. These words of love, joy, and unity; words of encouragement and instruction; and words of Truth. These are words we live by–what we believe and what we do.

If you look on The Episcopal Church of the United States’ web page, you’ll find this under the “What We Believe” page:

“As Episcopalians we believe in a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As constituent members of the Anglican Communion in the United States, we are descendants of and partners with the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and are part of the third largest group of Christians in the world.

“We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection saved the world.

“We have a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being; women and men serve as bishops, priests, and deacons in our church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of our church. Leadership is a gift from God, and can be expressed by all people in our church, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

“We believe that God loves you – no exceptions.”

(We’ve also copied it onto our web page since it’s pretty concise. Our web page, by the way, is getting a makeover, so check it out and offer us your feedback!)

We are a church grounded in the love of God, and Jesus Christ has shown us the way. There might be images and connotations in Song of Solomon that make us blush, but if we get past our own immaturity and contemplate a yearning and love of God fulfilled and in perfect unity, we get closer to the sentiment the wise words intend. Jesus has this love for the world, for the Church, for us.

We know we’re not perfect, that we are going to fall and let our own desires and the world come between us and God, but Jesus Christ is there for us, showing us the way, and making way for us to return to unity with God. Don’t you know that the writer of the book of James, had his own struggles to deal with? If he didn’t, his words to the people he’s preaching to wouldn’t ring true. (If you came to the video lectures in Christian education, you know that it’s unlikely that one of the apostles James, wrote the book, but what is written contains Truth, regardless of who wrote it.)

We focus a lot on authenticity, right? We shun hypocrisy, what is fake and insincere. Most of us can probably spot it a mile away, smell it like the stinky mushrooms that are invading my flower bed at home. James is being real. He’s saying, “If this is what you believe, then what do you do?” (He can also be read as a what-you-should-be-doing list, but that’s for another time.) The book of James is big on doing, not just believing and talking, and we’re given a quick test for religion that is pure and undefiled: does it “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep (people) unstained by the world”?

I don’t think I’ve met her yet, but someone asked us through our Facebook messenger page,

“What is your church doing in the community to follow the ways of Jesus in supporting the widow, orphan, immigrant, single mother, impoverished, the LGBTQ community, etc?”

Maybe I should have sat and contemplated our ministry roster (that will be updated for our Ministry Fair on the 16th!), but what I did was reply as quickly as I could, as if I were being confronted by “James” himself:

“Thanks so much for reaching out with such poignant questions! Indeed we hope that we are following the Way of Jesus in many ways that directly reach out in love to the very people you name. For widows, there are several in our congregation, and they find community in their midst. Maybe someday we can have a more formal support for them. Outside the church itself, many widows, orphans, strangers, and immigrants are participants in the food pantry at Christ the King (the church we formerly shared space with). They also have a Feast of Grace once a month that is open to all. We’ve also joined up with the HomeTowne Suites feeding ministry that assists all kinds of folks who happen to find the motel their home. We also have our Spanish-speaking congregation, and we don’t ask about immigration status, though we are supportive of efforts to support anyone who needs assistance/support. Padre Guillermo often participates and offers prayers at events for the Hispanic community. I’m working on my Spanish skills! We were the only church from Bentonville that marched in the Pride parade in Fayetteville this June. We are open and affirming of or LGBTQ+ community, and The Episcopal Church offers marriage for LGBTQ+ partnerships.

“This seems really condensed but hopefully gives you a glance at our work made possible by our faith community nourished by Jesus Christ, our worship together to offer praise to God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This was just a list off the top of my head in response to her questions, and this is just a portion of what we do here at All Saints’ because we believe in a triune God and the teachings and salvation of Jesus Christ.

So why do we do what we do? Why is it important that we do what we do authentically? . . . Because if we do good because of true belief and faith in our hearts, what we do won’t stink.

God knows I’m being lazy with those mushrooms by my front door. I get one whiff of them these days, and I grab the hoe (that I just leave by the porch since it must be stinky mushroom season), break them down, and cover them over with the mulch. I’m probably just encouraging their growth right there, saving the flies that spread their spores the trip. But y’all, these mushroom stink, smell like death or rotten meat. They’re gross. You’d have to be crazy to eat them, and I’m pretty sure your hands would stink for days if you touched them. But God has said it doesn’t really matter if what we touch is clean or not. Whatever we bring into our grasp, whatever we put in our bodies is just going to go to the sewer anyway (or perish in its materialism, yes?).

It’s what’s in our hearts that matters. It’s all that God wants. It’s what Jesus Christ already knows.

It’s easier to just make things look pretty on the outside, to cover up the stench with mulch or Glade or Febreeze or the most beautiful church ever, but to be pure and undefiled . . . that’s going to come from our hearts . . . that’s going to get at the source.

We do all that we do because we believe in a Way of Love, and it’s not always easy. It’s going to mean that we have to hold ourselves accountable and worship with people who might have a different opinion than we have, but what holds us together is greater than our worldly discrepancies, if what holds us together is the Love of God.

God also knows that we like things a certain way in The Episcopal Church. But I’m pretty sure we’re not asked anywhere in the scripture which vestments we wear, how centered the altar is, what kind of windows we have, or what kind of coffee we serve. What we are asked is: if we examine the works that we do, what does that say of our faith? What do we believe, and what does that say of our heart? What do we trust to be true in our heart of hearts? God knows, but if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, do we see clearly? Are we willing to be honest about who we are in all our beauty and imperfections? I believe we are. That’s why we confess. That’s why we reconcile ourselves to God through Christ: so we can receive the Body of Christ and go back out into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit to do good work in the name of a true religion that actually practices love. If that kind of thing isn’t for you, then this isn’t the church for you. If that kind of stirs your heart or gives you goosebumps or makes you smile, then stick around. Because we are a church that believes in Jesus Christ, and we can love one another so much because with all our hearts, souls, and mind, we love God. We love what God can do through us and with us. I love what God does with me, when I am weak and when I’m strong . . . but especially when I’m weak. More than true religion, I know true love. God loves me with that love, and I know without a doubt that God loves you with that true love, too.

 

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Here We Are

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:21-28

Don’t you love how Moses’ encounter with God through the burning bush begins by “he was just keeping his father-in-law’s flock…” He was just going about his work, but he wanders beyond the wilderness to THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD” where he doesn’t seem completely surprised to see a burning bush not consumed by the flames. Moses actually wants to see how this thing is happening, turning to get a closer look. That curiosity is a sign to God that Moses is in, and God calls Moses out by name, to which Moses replies, “Here I am.” So begins God’s call to Moses and Moses’ work as a Prophet.

If you were here last week, you got to hear many times over that you are loved. I love you, your neighbors love you. You were minding your own business, going to church like you’re supposed to, and you get told you’re loved. Showing up today as you have before, you could be checking off a to-do item from your daily list. But my hope is that you came here today–that you came last week–and love touched your heart. Maybe you found yourself getting beyond the wilderness and arriving at a place filled with the presence of God, and you knew something was happening because your life became filled with more purpose. Love does that to us. All this search for meaning or wondering what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives to me says that we haven’t yet fallen completely in love with God, that we haven’t yet leaned into God calling us by name so that when we hear it, we say, “Here I am.”

Because that’s scary. As a child I was reprimanded over an intercom by someone nearby playing a joke, and I could’ve sworn it was the voice of God. I’ve rarely been so terrified. Now, that was a prank. Hearing a genuine call from God has more at stake. There is actually material substance involved in denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus. It will cost us money and possessions because we’re busy spreading the wealth and abundance, trusting that there’s enough for everyone. Even more than the material, though, there’s the valuable intangible stuff: time, energy, and ego . . . especially our ego. Because when we show up before God at this altar or in our prayers or out in the woods, we are bare, heart, mind, and soul. God knows how broken and wounded and imperfect we are–all our needs and wants–and knows exactly how perfect we are to do the work that God needs us to do.

And last week I asked if we had become lame as the Body of Christ, unable to do God’s work because we had become so divided. I asked if we needed to be revived as the Body of Christ. And the answer is of course, YES. We need to be revived as a united Body of Christ, even if we have quirky differences in how we understand God’s love revealed in the world or how we practice partaking in Holy Communion. As baptized members united in love of God and one another, we can and must work together for the love of God in the world. This is the perfect time for a revival, especially in our Episcopal Church, a church that truly welcomes all, and this is a message we need to be sharing, loudly and proudly.

This revival talk might make you nervous. You just came to say some prayers and receive the Eucharist. You didn’t come for a revival. But I’m saying if you came to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, if you came to say a prayer for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world, you are participating in the love of God, and God is inviting you to gird up your loins and get ready to do some work. Because the world needs you. The world needs you to show some love–not just any love but the love of God.

Now, I’m not adding anything more to your to-do list (yet). What I want to do now is illustrate how we’re already doing the work! In an essay on Medium, The Reverend Emily Scott outlined Seven Hallmarks of a Progressive Revival (which we could say would be seven hallmarks of the Jesus Movement). She described the revival as a spiritual awakening that calls us not only to confession and repentance but also to do the hard work of opening ourselves to transformation by and through Jesus. So these are the hallmarks that I think you will find strikingly familiar.

  1. An encounter with Jesus: Confidence in Christ and Christ’s transformative power. Has your heart been touched? Has your life changed because an experience of genuine love, healing, and resurrection? Have you had a “burning bush” experience? Our call is to holy discomfort and transformation that is clear, biblical, theological, and radical.
  2. Offers vulnerability: we’re honest and show our woundedness, which reveals what is true. Carry our cross not as a badge of honor but to show suffering and how we heal
  3. Rooted in abundance: There’s enough love, grace, and mercy for all. There’s enough, and our voice has enough power to share the good news for all.
  4. Rejects a whitewashed God: Actively seek to reverse the power imbalances built into all the structures and systems in our society and institutions. We have to be in relationship with others not only to see the imbalances but also to change them. This work isn’t captured in our annual report on paper … yet. In January, you bet we’re going to report ways we’re moving from our heart to the world around us.
  5. Centers the marginalized: especially queerness. Transgress societal norms like Jesus did and bring life to where there was death and brokenness. In doing so, we are all radically transformed by the experience.
  6. Ecumenical and interfaith: uniting for broad justice movements like Dr. Barber’s Moral Mondays reminds us of our common humanity. Interfaith work like the Abrahamic Center aims to do teaches us what it means to be neighbors and learn and grow even we are each other’s “other.” Learning how to cultivate understanding, respect, and compassion is godly work.
  7. Tells the truth: Truth is hard to swallow at times, especially when we take the “hard look in the mirror.” But truth-telling proclaims the gospel–that we’re all created in God’s image, that we are all commanded to love, and that we all have hard work to do for the love of God.

We’re already in the midst of a revival! Now that you know we’re already participating in the revival, be excited about it! Say, “Thanks be to God” in public. Share God’s blessing with others in the name of God. Talk about coming to church to learn how to be part of the Beloved Community. Be proud in a humble way that you belong to a church that is truly struggling to live as Christ commands us to live, even when it’s hard and we don’t clearly see the way. We are living and growing deeper in our relationship with God through Christ, and it’s a beautiful thing. Be nervous about saying you love Jesus, that you’re a Christian (without apologizing), and keep practicing. We don’t want to deny Jesus like Peter did. I know I don’t want to be part of the church MLK, Jr., addressed in his letter from the Birmingham jail. We certainly don’t want to be stumbling blocks on the way to God. We are here now to be building up the kingdom of God.

And we can check ourselves for signs that our lives are set on the divine and not on human things — see Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul gives us a list of over 20 things that say “we get it.” Others notice when our lives have been touched by the love of God. In our conviction, we stand out front in all of our weakness and humility, linked with the marginalized even in our own marginal position within the whole Church. Together, like the clergy with arms linked in Charlottesville or the people forming human chains in Texas floodwaters, we have a bold, clear, moral, and courageous voice that proclaims love of God, that shows we are doing holy work with all our heart, mind, and soul. So, labor on, dear Christians. Here we are. We have good work to do.

 

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Crisis and Good News

 

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

If you were in Christian Ed last week, you heard Jill Johnson from CCMC (Cooperative Christian Ministries & Clinic) talk about the Bridges Out of Poverty program. She pointed out that if we have our sight set on a goal, be it getting out of poverty or simply finding our way on a map, it’s tremendously helpful to have that “You are Here” star pinpointing our location so we have an accurate picture of reality and can establish a sense of direction.

If we know where we are, we have a better chance of getting where we want to go.

So, where are we?

Are we, like Jeremiah’s audience and like the Hebrews, at a time of crisis? Like the house of Jacob, have we defiled our land, transgressed against God, and chased after that which does not profit? Like the Hebrews in the epistle, have we become frustrated with or suffered shame for our faith? If we evaluate where we are right now, maybe it’s not too far of a stretch to say that we are in crisis, too. These past weeks in Christian Ed we’ve intentionally highlighted the poverty crisis, which is closely linked with the homeless crisis, the unemployment crisis, the mental health crisis, and so on. There’s also the refugee crisis, water crisis, and other humanitarian crises worldwide.

You probably realize by now how much I like to know what we really mean by the words that we use and say. So when we say things are a crisis or in crisis, do we mean that they are situations in dire straits, with no simple solution or easy way out? Or when we use or consider the word “crisis,” do we borrow from the medical connotation and see “crisis” as meaning a turning point–as in a disease–that indicates an outcome pointing either toward recovery or toward death? We seem to have blended the two: I understand a crisis to be a situation at a tipping point that could either lead toward that which is life-giving or death-dealing in some way, shape, or form, depending on the next move. If every issue we face is at a point of making or breaking it–“it” being life itself–then we have very important decisions to make.

Jeremiah calls his people out on their crisis. Even though he thought he was just a boy, God empowered Jeremiah to speak out, to be the voice of God among the people. We hear today that two evils are proclaimed: the people of the house of Jacob have forsaken the Almighty, “the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Their crisis? Do they even recognize it? Without God, they will perish. Without God, their life abundant will devolve into conflict, death, and destruction. Forsaking that which gives them life, the people have sought to provide for themselves, taking it upon themselves to choose and to control their lives, their laws, their loyalties. Their point of crisis hinged on whether or not to live in relationship with God. Jeremiah tells them, speaking for the LORD, that they stand at the precipice and choose death by turning away from God.

I’ve probably told you before that I often tell my children to “make good choices.” I’m thinking that I want them to do what is right and good, but if I’m completely honest with myself, there’s part of me that knows they can reach a crisis moment when they least expect it, and the choice they make will hinge on the cusp of what is life-giving or death-dealing. I could probably rationalize every moment as life-giving or death-dealing: are we relating in the moment in a way that promotes life, especially life in Christ? Or are we turning away from God in the moment, even in how we look at a person? If sin is turning away from God, and sin leads to death, is every moment I turn away from God and toward death a moment of crisis? It would seem so. Maybe I should start telling my kids to “make life-giving choices” in case they lose sight of what is good…because we are so easily lost when left to our own devices.

Our self-made cisterns aren’t enough. We cannot create a holding tank for God’s love or grace or mercy. Our self-interest isn’t enough. We will never have enough, be enough, understand “enough” unless we know in the depth of our being that there is always enough in God. There’s enough water, enough food, enough shelter, enough employment, enough opportunity, enough resources, enough love . . . for all of us.

The crisis of our moment in history hinges on whether or not we are willing to sacrifice our self-sufficiency that we might tip the scale toward that which is truly life-giving and in full relationship with God. Are we willing to evaluate whether our personal agendas, however great or small, are for a greater good or for our personal glory? And, yes, we do so much good in this place and in this world. Yet for all the good we do, why is our society, our world overrun with systemic crises?

There is brokenness in the systems, just as there is brokenness in each of us.

There’s a beautiful sculpture that I’d love to see in person. It was in one of those videos on Facebook highlighting the most fantastic sculptures in the world. I searched out the artist’s page, where she has more images of it. A naked woman, sitting upright with her head uplifted, is cracked, as if fissures throughout her body just split open. Having been thinking of crises all week, I couldn’t help but think of cracked cisterns and of brokenness. I thought of all the women I hear stories about in the realm of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Women who are trapped in a situation where they may have shelter and something to eat but who are depleted in value, respect, and love. Women who reached that point because at some point in their life, they were violated. Maybe they were molested or raped at a young age or were neglected as children and adolescents and found solace in whatever addiction numbed the pain. Maybe they were trapped in a moment of vulnerability, kidnapped completely, or blackmailed into a situation they couldn’t escape. This broken woman represents to me all victims of crisis–male and female–wounded . . . but not yet dead. In the sculpture, light shines brightly through the cracks. And is it a smile on her face? This woman knows the source of life and the reward at the resurrection of the righteous. Maybe she’s not a victim. Maybe she’s just bursting forth with light, exposed and vulnerable, but so filled with light, she cannot contain it herself; I think this is more what the artist has in mind for the sculpture titled “Expansion.” To me, it is a powerful image of brokenness overcome.

All of our crises point toward what is broken and cracked, and all of our crises present to us a choice on how to proceed. We choose where we are going, either toward death or toward life. Thanks be to God, there is that ever-flowing fount of life that shines forth and pours through our cracks if we allow it.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to a people in crises, a people beginning to lose faith. After addressing the concerns of the community, the writer advises them to “Let mutual love continue,” as if to say, “Remember, church, where you are as a community of faith…whose you are as a community of faith.” Remember hospitality, compassion, fidelity, generosity, contentment, and faith. For the Hebrews as for us, these are fundamentals in our relationship with God, essentials in living in covenant with God, the light that shines through our brokenness. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Our greatest sacrifice is our willing surrender to live in relationship with God, to show up at a moment of crisis and pray and say, “Here I am, Lord,” even in our uncertainty and imperfection. With the fount of Light pouring through our humanity, we do our best to do what is good, what is life-giving, knowing that the source of our strength and power is not ourself. We do good and share what we have, and this is pleasing to God

We are, each of us, in a crisis. The good news for us is that we know it, and we know where we want to go. We follow that living water to life eternal. We choose life in Christ when we pray, “thy will be done,” and this is part of our daily prayer. Please pray the Lord’s prayer every day, three times a day if you can. This helps keep our personal GPS on track so we can “make life-giving choices,” pleasing not only our mothers but our God.

We know not only where we are but whose we are, so we head in the direction of life, not death.

That’s what we do as a community of faith, as people of faith. We choose to share what we know gives life. We help one another stay connected to our Source. And in our times of crisis, we stay oriented to God and move forward, taking our own steps in the direction God leads but also moving forward together as one body, into the flow of life abundant.

 

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