June 24, 2018


Passage: Job 38:1-11

There’s a funny poster I’ve seen that has a grid of pictures on it. Each of the pictures depicts different impressions of what a priest does all week. One says, “What my parents think I do” and it shows a priest kneeling and praying beside an elderly person’s hospital bed. Another says, “What I should do” and it shows a picture of Mother Teresa feeding the poor. Another says, “What my friends think I do” and it shows a guy sitting in a coffee shop drinking coffee with a buddy. And then the final one says, “What I actually do” and it shows a priest vacuuming the parish hall.
Well this week, if I were to make a poster about myself – this week where the news cycles are blowing up over this issue of asylum seekers and their children at the border – my poster would say, “The priest I wish I were” and it would have a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching. And then it would say, “The priest I feel like” and it would have a picture of my dog, Marty, hiding under the bed on the 4th of July when fireworks are going off.
Oh, people of God, these are confusing and disturbing days. It feels a lot like the gospel reading. We’re the disciples who are out on the sea at night, in a boat that’s being thrown up and down on violent waters, and everyone is afraid. Emotions are rising. Disgust is rising. Hatred is rising. And the country is becoming increasingly entrenched in partisan outrage.
And like the disciples, there’s something in us that yells, “Jesus! What on earth are you doing asleep on the boat!? Don’t you care that we are drowning?”
I gathered with hundreds of people in Seattle Thursday night to pray and to march about this issue of children being separated from their parents. I went with hope that something would happen – if not in the crowd, at least in my spirit – that Jesus would wake up from his slumber in the boat and show me the path of wisdom, some path of action of how to follow Jesus in these circumstances, how to be the priest that this diverse church needs in these days. But I’ve got to say, that in many ways I was disappointed by the night.
Sure, there was a clear call for compassion and justice and everything you’d expect of such an event. But the mood of the night, and of the march, didn’t feel particularly prayerful. It didn’t feel particularly “Oh, Jesus, help us.” At one point during the march my cell phone started ringing. So I answered it. It was my sister-in-law asking for my coleslaw recipe. And I thought, oh what the heck, at least this is an answer I’ve got, so I gave her my coleslaw recipe. I was walking next to Marissa and I could see her giving me a sideways glance, like, “What are you doing?”
Probably the best part of my week (so far as this issue goes) was a gathering I joined on Tuesday evening at Crescent Valley Park. It was a Gig Harbor group that was celebrating Juneteenth. Now if you’re like me, you’d probably never heard of Juneteenth before this year. I certainly hadn’t. It’s an event to recall the day – June 19, 1865 – when slaves in Galveston, Texas first heard news of the Emancipation Proclamation that had been enacted a few years before. And they celebrated. And when I heard about this event in Gig Harbor I thought, “Yeah, I’d like to go to that. I’m all for celebrating emancipation.” Slavery is a deep sin on our national psyche, but emancipation was a step in the right direction. It didn’t solve everything, and Lord knows we’re still struggling with racial tension. But the memory of emancipation is something our whole country should be able to stand behind and say, “Yes. Well done. And now we’d like some more – that everyone may live with the same hope, the same potential, the same freedom, the same dignity.”
And I’ve got to tell you – that the mood that night was great. It wasn’t a political night. It wasn’t a religious night (so far as that goes). It was neighbors joining together, having a good ol’ American potluck. Meeting each other. Talking. Laughing. And then we sat out on the lawn, while someone told us the story of the original Juneteenth celebration. And then we sang negro spirituals. And as I sat on the grass with my neighbors, singing in the late evening sun, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I felt like I was being invited to participate in the heritage of a community that sang these songs through the long, dark days of slavery and civil rights. They were songs of hope, of perseverance and above all, of a profound, enduring faith.
And it taught my heart afresh that the Kingdom of God is alive and true – and it is the task of every generation of believers to bear the burdens of their day – to interpret truth amidst all the confusion, to discern wisdom, and to forge the pathway of Christ. It’s not easy work. It never is. At some point, in each of our lives, that path we are called to forge, may very well be the Way of the Cross.
But thanks be to God, as the community of faith, here in the church, we actually are provided with the underlying principles by which we are called to live this life. We are followers of Jesus. We are his disciples. The goal of our life is to be like Jesus in every way.
Now, to be clear, this is no small goal. But the way I understand it is that I am setting my eyes on Jesus and charting my course towards him. It’s like when I mow my grass: if I want to make perfect lines so my lawn looks like a baseball field, every time I start a new row I pick some focal point in my flower beds, set my eye on it, then start mowing. I’m hardly even looking at the lawn. I’m just looking at that spot.
And so it is in this life: We set our eyes on Jesus and say, “That’s where I’m headed.”
Before we’re listening to NPR on the radio, we’re listening to Jesus.
Before we’re watching Fox TV, we’re watching Jesus.
Before we’re moaning and complaining about whoever “they” are, we close our lips, and shut our eyes and center our breathing, until we can detect the beating pulse of the heart of Christ: ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. Then once we’ve heard it, and allowed our own hearts to follow its rhythm (ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum), then we can open our eyes and our ears and our hands – ready to join Jesus in his pathway of love and compassion and perpetual forgiveness.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
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 (Matthew 5:3-12).
We are following Jesus. And it is the way of Jesus that is our first calling – aligning our hearts with his in obedience to God and in love of our neighbor. And the heart of God knows no divisions, no preferences, no mockery or disdain – but only a deep and sacrificial love, such that all may find their place in the bosom of God.
Whenever I arrive at church on a Sunday morning, the first thing I do is to make sure that the altar is ready: is the communion table set? Are there flowers in the niche? Are they still alive?
And this morning when I walked in and turned on the lights and saw the display behind the altar, I gulped and thought, “Oh dear.”
My first impulse was to replace it, because it was charged with loaded symbols that are no longer neutral in our society. And I knew that people would walk in and immediately react in a visceral way, one way or another, and that that emotion would saturate their worship experience this morning.
And so I sat beneath it for a while, trying to figure out what to do.
And in the end, I said, “Let it be.”
It might not be an image I would choose, but this isn’t my church alone. It is our church, and it is a member of our church who gave her time and her heart and her faith to create an offering for the church. And I know this member, and I respect her deeply in every way. She lives her faith with a profound integrity.
And so I chose to sit beneath it with an open heart. “Okay, God. Speak to me.” And as I sat, it become a prayer of sorts:
God, we are Americans, together. We are living in this time, in this place, in these circumstances. As this cross has been charred, so has the message of your Christ been distorted and abused. As these flowers have wilted, so have your people been wearied. But as this Bible is open, so may your word go forth, with power and authority.
When the waves began to crash over the sides of the boat, the disciples cried out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?!” Don’t you care, Jesus, that our political structure is turning against itself? Don’t you care that your name is being abused? Don’t you care that children are crying?
“And then he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased and there was dead calm” (Mark 5:39-40) and the disciples were more afraid than they were before because they didn’t know just what kind of man was in the boat with them.
Dear people of God, I suspect we’ve hardly begun to know who Jesus is. We’ve drafted him into our partisan rhetoric as if he were a tool for us to wield. When, to the contrary, we are his people to use as he will, following his lead to calm the storm: making peace where there is violence, showing compassion where there is want, forgiving those we call our enemies, and laying down our lives that others may live.