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Reconciliation

Ash Wednesday

February 10, 2016

Christ Chapel

Seminary of the Southwest

 

Joel 2:1-2; 12-17

Psalm 103

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-22

 

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:20b)

As we enter into this season of Lent, I have been thinking a great deal about reconciliation.

I have felt deep in myself all the places in which divisions and hurts have created deep chasms and gulfs among people.

We see this in our politics where the Democratic and Republican fields reveal stark contrasts about the nature of this country and where it ought to head.

And these are divisions not only between the parties but strong generational and ideological divides within these electorates.

We feel it deeply in the life of the Anglican Communion where both progressives and traditionalists alike can appeal to Scripture, reason, and tradition to offer completely different views on human sexuality.

These seemingly irreconcilable views have lead to deep wounds in our life together as Anglicans.

And of course we feel it daily in our lives — the hurts we have experienced and done; the isolation and anonymity of our lives, the marginalization of the poor, the homeless, the different.

We live in our bubbles, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, resisting encounters with those whose very presence might upset our vision of reality.

 

And so we must hear again earnestly these words of Paul — “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:20b)

Why first must we be reconciled to God before we can be reconciled to each other?

The witness of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is that since humanity is, as the pinnacle of creation in the image and likeness of God, the stability of the created order and our own lives depends on humans first living in right relationship with God.

If we see God as the source of all good things and we remove ourselves as the center of reality, we, our relationships, society, and creation itself, is able to live in harmony.

But if we remove God as the source of all and put ourselves, our politics, our economics, or anything else in the center, chaos eventually creeps in.

Too often this is exactly what happens.

And so we need reconciliation.

And if we see the signs of the need for reconciliation in our lives and in the world around us, it is also a sign of our collective need for reconciliation with God.

 

This reconciliation is constantly offered to us by God.

We experience it as something done for us definitively in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But it is also something we are called to over and over again in our lives, as we hear in the words of the prophet Joel.

“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

We are called to return to God over and over in the Scriptures.

And why do we return?

Because God has revealed to us his true nature.

God is not a fierce, angry judge waiting to destroy us.

Rather, God is, as we first heard in Exodus when Moses was on Sinai, and now again in Joel, God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.

The punishments that fall upon us are the results of the chaos and discord that raises up when we draw away from God as the scope and focus of all things.

But when we draw near to God, we encounter grace, mercy, love.

We experience reconciliation.

We experience reconciliation, first with God and then with one another.

 

It is fitting that we place ashes on our heads today.

They serve as a sign of our true repentance and our deep desire for reconciliation.

And as dust they remind us of the dust to which we will return.

But that dust also represents the earth, the created order.

We stand remembering it is God who made all that is and that we are here to live in right relationship with God and all creation.

And we stand on the cusp of the long journey towards the cross and the grave, to that moment, when Jesus, returned to the earth, rose up from it, triumphed over death and set all things right.

Jesus Christ is the author of our salvation and the maker of our reconciliation with God and all creation.

So let us receive our ashes and return again to the work of reconciliation.

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Ashes to Go, Blessings on the Way

For the first time today I participated in Ashes to Go. I joined other people from St. David’s in Austin at the corner of 6th and Congress in front of the Starbucks for 90 minute shift.
I would guess that in the time we were there we imposed ashes on about 60 people. Maybe more. Several things struck me during my time there.
First, people came with openness. Many were appreciative, saying they were not able to get to church and felt the need to have the ashes in any way they could. About half said before receiving ashes that they were Roman Catholic. I was not always sure what they meant by this. All of us imposing ashes simply affirmed their identity and offered them ashes. The attitude of all who received ashes was profound gratitude.
Two encounters stand out for me. One was when several of us imposed ashes on about half of a Segway tour group. The other was when we gave ashes to a Christian from Iran. I don’t think her church in Iran had a custom of imposing ashes but she explained she had just moved to America and wanted the ashes as a sign she believed in Jesus. We gave her a card that we gave to every person that included a list of services for St. David’s. She seemed profoundly moved and said she would come to visit.
Some of my clergy colleagues and I had a Facebook discussion today about where the Easter equivalent to Ashes to Go is. If on Ash Wednesday we offer a public witness in preparation for Lent, when does that happen for Easter? Of course, a public action on Easter Sunday might not be as effective downtown or at commuter stations. But what if something was done on Easter Monday? What if we offered a blessing of the baptismal waters from the Easter Vigil? What if we offered a blessing in the name of the Risen Christ? What if we offered to all those people who pass by us a Blessing on the Way?

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Grace and Hope

Thursday of Proper 19

I Corinthains 15:1-11

Psalm 118: 14-29

Luke 7:36-50

Christ Chapel, Seminary of the Southwest

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These readings remind me of two big Christian ideas — grace and hope.

Like with all big ideas contained in a few letters, it can be hard to wrap our minds around all that these small words convey.

But I think our readings from Luke and I Corinthians help us better understand them.

First, let’s turn to grace.

Lately I have had occasion to re-read the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer.

I really believe this document is one of the hidden gems of the 1979 prayer book and I commend it to you for meditation and study (but not right now!).

This is how the BCP defines grace for us:

“Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” (BCP, 858).

I think the story of the woman from Luke 7 gives us insight into this definition of grace.

The story has us assume that the woman’s sins are forgiven after she has wept over Jesus.

But it is likely that she has been forgiven already.

If we want to fill in the gaps of this story, I can imagine that earlier she had heard the preaching of Jesus or witnessed his miracles of healing and came to him for the forgiveness of sins that he proclaimed.

And I believe that Jesus gave this to her.

In a word, God’s grace, God’s favor, unearned and undeserved, was granted her.

Her mind was enlightened, her heart was stirred, and so she wept.

In light of this theme of grace, note the response of Jesus.

“Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  (7:48, 50)

In these words, I hear Jesus asking her to stop weeping.

He wants this woman to embrace her forgiveness and go in peace — to enter into the wholeness that God desires for her.

He wants her to enter into the favor God has shown and to dwell in grace.

Ultimately, to live in the confidence of grace is to live in hope.

Christian hope, the catechism defines for us, is “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” (BCP, 861)

We can hear the movement into hope in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

In the portion we heard from chapter 15, Paul offers a summary of the gospel of Christ he has been commissioned to proclaim — the gospel of his death for our sins and his resurrection.

Paul lists all who have been commissioned to proclaim the gospel, ending with himself, one untimely born, one not fit to be called an apostle.

But he says, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.”

Paul is empowered to proclaim the Gospel by grace.

From that, he proclaims the Gospel in hope — confident in the newness and fullness of life.

He lives, working and straining towards the completion of God’s purpose for the world.

While we might not always be able to quickly and easily say what grace is or what hope is, we can look at the examples of this unnamed woman and Paul as reminders.

And we can look within ourselves to when we experienced God’s favor, to when our hearts were stirred, our minds enlightened, and our wills strengthened.

God’s favor is outstretched now.

Claim it and live in confidence, looking for the completion of God’s purposes in this world.

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Martyrs Among Us

Eve of All Saints

Sirach 44:1-10, 13-14

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

Matthew 5:1-12

 

October 31, 2013

All Saints Chapel

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

 

“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17)

 

The liturgical celebration of All Saints has always been dear to me.

I am a historian after all; and not just that but someone who studies Christian saints.

I also was raised by a mother who passed on to me many stories about my family, and she often folded into those stories tales of people’s faith.

And so, the stories of the saints that have gone before has always fascinated me.

 

But as I have read and prayed with the readings for tonight these past few weeks, my attention has been drawn to a particular group in the holy people of God – those who endure persecution for the name of Jesus Christ.

These past few months, my heart has ached as I have read about Christians being harassed, persecuted, and even murdered around the globe.

If you have paid attention, you would have read reports about Coptic Christians having their churches attacked during the recent unrest in Egypt.

Just the other week, four Coptic Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting as they left their church.

In Syria, ancient Christian communities find themselves caught in the crossfire in the midst of a civil war.

In early September, rebels assaulted the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, on whose outskirts sits the venerable Mar Thekla (Saint Thecla) monastery.

For me, the reality of the persecution of Christians came home with the news of the suicide bombing at All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 127 Christians and wounding 170.

I noticed the news because the principal of Edwardes College, the Anglican school in Peshawar, is the Rev. Titus Pressler, someone I knew when we were both active in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Although Titus Pressler was not harmed, many from the Edwardes College community were killed and wounded.

 

It is easy to label this violence as simply another chapter in a violent history of Muslim-Christian relations.

And it should be said that this violence does not represent all Muslims.

The perpetrators are extremists and radicals whom many Islamic leaders have condemned.

And we also can’t ignore that many Christians have become targets because of western, especially US, foreign policy that has become in some twisted way associated with Christianity.

The persecution of Christians is not in the end simply part of an inexorable conflict between religions or a clash of civilizations.

On a deeper level, it is a sign of the sinful, unjust nature of the world around us.

The sin of this world will always be with us as Christians.

Indeed, Jesus teaches that those who follow him in this world will constantly be exposed to sin and injustice, even to the point of death.

 

We hear this in the Beatitudes.

Recently, scholars have argued that the first four beatitudes should not be understood as qualities to aspire to.

The poor in spirit are not just the poor, but those so deprived that they are on the point of giving up.

It is among the utterly disposed that the kingdom of God will arrive; among them will God’s will be fully expressed.

Those who mourn are those who have no reason for rejoicing in this life; only God now can offer them comfort.

The word that we have as meek in the third beatitude is best translated as the humiliated, the oppressed, the powerless.

And to inherit the earth here means that when God establishes his reign, the powerless will get what they have not had all along – the land, resources, abundance.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who long for God to set things right; to reverse all the injustice of this world.

These are people who despair, who have no joy, who have no resources.

They wait for God to set things right; to act justly.

 

In looking at these four beatitudes, it should be clear that no one wants to live like this.

These are not virtues to aspire to.

People who live like this wait upon God’s kingdom to come and reverse the way of this world.

No one want to live like this, but Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan do.

The acts of violence that these Christians endure are a sign of sin in this world; a sign of the sin that the powerful allow.

Their hope is that God will reverse this suffering.

 

But not all have lived to see this reversal.

Indeed many have been martyred.

But to intentionally follow the way of Christ is to expose yourself to injustice, persecution, even death as a martyr.

This is what Jesus is getting at in the second half of the Beatitudes when he blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

Those who posses the qualities of mercy, purity, and peace making are those committed to the justice of God that Christ proclaimed.

But the logic of pursuing the way of God’s justice for the disciple of Jesus, for the heirs of the prophets, can only lead to injustice.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)

If anything, to stand for the way of Jesus, to be his disciple, is to stand for God’s justice that will reverse all the perversions of the powerful in this world.

It is to stand against the sin that robs us of our humanity and that turns neighbors into enemies.

 

But, be ready.

For the powerful will not give up their power.

To follow the way of Jesus will expose you to harm.

And, so what about Christians that are being persecuted today?

This persecution is part of a conflict between western powers and some aspects of the Islamic world.

I think it is rooted in foreign policy and is a way of lashing out at the west.

There is sin and evil on all sides of that conflict and no party can claim absolute innocence.

And yet, Christians are dying in the very act of going to church.

In their home countries, they might be identified with the powerful west, but, what an irony, they themselves are powerless and vulnerable.

And in their vulnerability, they are like those gathered under the altar of the Lamb, like ones who have passed through the slaughter.

And in their suffering, those who survive are growing in faith.

A Roman Catholic nun has said this about the Syrian Christians who have had to flee their homes: “among the Syrian Christians, who are more and more vulnerable, there is a spiritual awakening, a renewed impetus in faith, prayer and interfaith closeness . . .we are finding a more dense, deep and unitive faith.”

Even in suffering, some Christians still pursue interfaith closeness, the hope of being reconciled to those that could easily be labeled an enemy.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.

 

Imagine those who have been killed for the name of Jesus Christ in the past year gathered now in this chapel.

Imagine them sitting in the pew next to you; imagine them in the aisles and in the back; imagine them gathered around this altar.

You can see their scars, but they are also robed in white.

They hold palms in their hands; their tears have been wiped away.

Imagine them speaking.

What do they say?

What will you say to them?

 

These are saints; these are the people of God.

These are the ones who are poor in spirit; who might have nothing left to offer God but their hopelessness.

These are the ones who mourn and have no one to comfort them.

These are the meek; who are utterly powerless.

These are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness; who have found no justice in this world.

 

And Jesus says, the Lamb says, if you will be my disciple, you will enter in this way.

You will be with them.

If you will stand for justice, you will find no justice.

Yet you will stand with them; enduring injustice.

If you stand with them, you will not only stand with those caught in what could be labeled religious conflict.

If you stand with them, you will stand for a type of justice that will demand that violence, violence on all sides, ends.

This is what our own baptismal covenant means for us.

When we promise to be a disciple of Jesus Christ with the help of God, we are called to this kind of life.

If you stand with the persecuted, you will stand for God’s justice that demands the fair sharing of resources that the powerful around the world and in our own lands refuse to share.

You will stand for God’s justice that demands that no one dies by drone strikes, by gun shots on dark corners, by the slow grinding down of poverty.

If you walk in this way of God’s justice, you will find no justice, even as you demand it, until that day when God will wipe away the tears from the eyes of the faithful.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward, for their reward, is great in heaven, in that place where justice reigns; where no one is ever harmed; where no one makes war anymore.

 

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