Grace: a poem

In a quiet garden, on a still night
Amidst sleeping friends
And encroaching traitors
wet with sweat and tears
he prayed
and trembled
and prayed

“Let it be another way.”

But it wasn’t. But it wasn’t.

And so hung to die, on a wooden cross
at the hands of government
in the face of a complicit crowd
thirsty and terrified
he prayed
and hoped
and prayed

“Let me be the last.”

But he wasn’t. But he wasn’t.

And so down through endless centuries
and on this present autumn night
death has won and violence has ruled
as we have killed one another
and he prays
and weeps
and prays.

And I weep and I pray and I wonder
how he faced that cross
with the trembling hope
that it might mean he’d be the last.

And I weep and I pray and I wonder
how we must disappoint him
how we must break his heart.

And I weep and I pray and I wonder
how he can not be done with us yet.

But he isn’t. But he isn’t.

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God of the Details: A Sermon

**Originally preached for the 4:00 jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on September 20, 2015**

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

3:14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.

3:15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.

3:16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

3:17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

3:18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?

4:2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.

4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

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Growing up, I was a part of a boisterous and close-knit youth group at my church. Most of us had grown up in the church together. Our parents were friends and the church building operated for many of us like a second home. In some ways, it felt like a giant extended family. These bonds were further cemented through weeks at church camp and mission trips all over the world. We loved each other, but our closeness also meant that sometimes we could be a little rough with one another. When energy levels got particularly high, insults would be lobbed and squabbles would break out. Energetic and excited could, at times, easily tip over into mean-spirited.

My youth pastor always seemed to take these outbursts in relative stride. Rather than yelling at us or dolling out punishment, her standard response in these moments was to softly break into song. Smirking, she would begin to sing, “And they’ll know we are Christians, by our love, by our love. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The irony of it always made us laugh and broke the tension of whatever circumstance was threatening to escalate. It was a clever and humorous leadership strategy, but it also served as a reminder, time and again, that our Christian faith mattered not just in big, abstract ways—but also in how we treated each other. How we chose to act in small, daily, ordinary moments.

Our text for today is from the book of James. James is often recognized and even criticized for his emphasis on good works. Theologians will pit him against Paul in the great debate of salvation through works versus salvation through faith alone. This particular passage—from the third and fourth chapters—isn’t exempt from this emphasis on faithful works. However, it’s worth pointing out that here the author makes no explicit claim that good works are a prerequisite for faith or salvation. On the contrary, here the relationship is that spiritual focus on God leads one to a good life and works done with gentleness. Our faith cultivates our works, in other words.

In describing what constitutes good works, James draws a distinction between Godly wisdom and earthly wisdom. Earthly wisdom, he suggests, leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition. By contrast, wisdom that is from above—that is, from God—he says, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” The outcome, according to James, of yielding to wisdom from above is “a harvest of righteous sown in peace.”

James is believed to be written in Jerusalem sometime shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, many scholars claim that it may well have been written by James, the brother of Jesus. If this is true, then the political and cultural context of that time says a great deal about what inspired James to appeal so emphatically to a reliance on spiritual wisdom. The latter half of the first century saw increasing violence and turmoil as the Jews resisted their oppression at the hands of the Roman Empire and grew increasingly upset about rampant poverty and injustice. Eventually, war would break out against Rome, which would ultimately lead to Jerusalem’s destruction and deliver a devastating blow to Jewish Christians.

James is writing to an embattled people. They are blocked in on all sides by oppression and violence and an uncertain future. He isn’t interested in comforting them through promises of divine intervention or an eternal peace—he is empowering them to be shaped by their faith so that they can live amidst the uncertainty and upheaval and find hope. On the whole, his letter promotes care for the impoverished and concern for those who struggle. It calls for justice and peace in this world.

But here in this passage, James is not describing major political moves or strategic revolution. He’s describing how the faithful Christians of his time should be transformed in their daily living. He is urging them to be defined primarily by God’s way and God’s wisdom even in a context driven by earthly priorities of violence and greed. His conviction, stated so clearly here is that a life rooted in God down to its small ways and tiny details,  can transform the world in incredible ways and lead to “a harvest of peace.”

A lot has changed in this world since those early church days in Jerusalem. But not enough. We, too, seem to live in an embattled time. We are not under threat from the Roman Empire, but we are plagued by violence and enmity, division and prejudice and oppression, and an uncertain future. We, too, look to God for hope. But what does that hope look like when we wake up in the morning to face the world with courage?

Here at Fourth, we’re rooted in the Presbyterian tradition which grows out of the writings and theology of 16th century reformer John Calvin. I won’t give you anymore of a history lesson, but suffice it to say that for Calvin there was no question that our salvation comes solely through God’s grace and not through any action that we might achieve.

Nevertheless, James has a point. Shouldn’t our faith shape our lives and our actions? If we root ourselves in God’s grace, absolutely that impacts how we interact with the world. In progressive Christian circles, this conviction is often embodied in a commitment to social justice work and inclusiveness and efforts to create just systems.

Critics of progressive Christianity propose that it is too abstract and system-oriented and doesn’t offer tangible claims about how one should live out their faith. But just as James suggests in this part of his letter and just as my youth pastor sought to help us understand growing up, it is often the small choices—the ordinary details—of how we choose to embody God’s grace and wisdom in our daily lives that ultimately lead to the big moments of God’s grace inbreaking in this world.

So how does our faith compel us to act in moments both large and small? How does God transform us right down to the details?

There is a story within our own church’s history, which has become so integral to our identity that it is told at every new member’s class.

More than 70 years ago in this very Fourth church community, a man made a simple choice about seemingly simple things. His name was Dr. Harrison Ray Anderson, and he was the pastor of Fourth Church from 1928 to 1961. During World War II, during the middle of his tenure here, Japanese American Christians approached him looking for help. They had been forced out of their spaces of worship because of prejudice and discrimination and they were hoping he might be able to provide them with a place to gather in worship.

For Anderson, it was a question of Christian duty and service—which is to say that for him, it wasn’t a question at all. He took it to the Session where it actually became a hugely controversial issue. Many were opposed, but he continued to argue in favor of allowing these Christians a space to worship, and several other key figures added their voices to the chorus and ultimately, the session approved the motion by one vote. These Japanese American Christians were allowed to worship in Stone Chapel and so they did. And for as long as they did, Harrison Ray Anderson, walked along Delaware St. in his collar and robes whenever they gathered to make sure than neither people outside the church nor his own church members harassed the worshippers.

Indeed Anderson’s whole life and ministry were wrapped up in his conviction that faith should impact all aspects of life. Because of the way he lived out his faith in response to the Japanese Americans, when they left Fourth, they gave a monetary gift directly to Anderson, saying only, “do something good with it.” During his travels in Europe sometime later, he commissioned two silver Celtic crosses. When he returned to the US, he gave one cross each to the moderators of the Northern Presbyterian denomination and the Southern Prebsyterian denomination (which had been divided since 1861). He urged the moderators to find a way to come together.

Eventually, the denomination did reunify in 1983, and the two crosses were riveted together into one, and it is now worn by each moderator—the elected head of the Presbyterian Church USA—as a reminder of their call and of the way our faith should impact our daily living.

What might we learn from such a legacy? How might we live out our faith in our daily lives in ways both big and small?

It’s worth noting that James doesn’t assume that we would be utterly unaffected by earthly wisdom and its impulses. On the contrary, he seems to acknowledge that the influence of human constructs of greed and ambition are unavoidable. But he urges his readers—and us—to recognize those broken human impulses for what they are and, in response, to draw close to God.

Much though this passage seems to focus on human action and works, it is also telling us something profoundly important about God. God is not off somewhere far away watching us from a safe distance. And God isn’t only with us in the big, pivotal moments. God is here with us, right in the midst of our daily lives. Right in the ordinary. Right in the details.

That is what Jesus was all about. God might have saved through grand gesture or divine power play. But instead God to be with us, to live among us. As a little baby. As a particular human man.  It is because of this miracle of grace—God with us—that we can, in the midst of our daily lives and this broken world, live differently. We can rise above the earthly brokenness that, at its worst, compels violence and vengeance, but on any given day might compel us to be cruel or dismissive or to choose not see and serve those whom God most wants us to.

Rooted as we are in God’s grace, gifted with the insight of God’s own incredible Christly wisdom, we can live differently. Our ordinary daily lives can become mirrors of grace, and the small details can transform the world. We can respond to all that is broken with gentleness and mercy and bring about a harvest of peace. Every moment is a chance to draw near to the God who has already drawn near to us.

All those years ago, as my youth pastor quietly sang the words to that hymn, she was choosing—in a small and simple way—to live out her faith. And she was reminding us too, that every moment was a chance to choose grace and draw near to God and be guided by wisdom from above.

That song, I learned this week, was written by a Catholic priest on the south-side of Chicago during the late 1960s. The Civil Rights movement was unfolding across the country, and he wanted a song for his youth to sing that would embody Christian principles in the midst of all that was happening. He couldn’t find one and so one afternoon, he reflected on his faith and he made a simple choice. He sat down at his desk and he wrote that song that has been—over the past 5 decades—both a gentle reminder to Christian youth and an extraordinary anthem of hope.

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

May it be so. This day and every day. Amen.

In The Hole: A Sermon about Jesus and Solidarity

**Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz worship service at Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago on 9/13/15.**

Mark 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

 

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If you forced me to name my favorite television series of all time, I would probably say The West Wing. The seven-season drama from the early 2000s documents the life of the fictional President Josiah Bartlet and his team of staff as they navigate politics and personal struggles. Despite the rather extraordinary setting of the show, its storytelling often manages to speak profound and universal truths about the human condition.

Arguably my favorite episode of the series, Noel, comes in the middle of the second season. The president’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, is struggling with the ongoing psychological effects of a shooting earlier in the year. While his friends and colleagues process and move on from the traumatic event, he spirals slowly out of control. The more he struggles, the more he acts out and pushes others away. Finally, his mentor and boss—Leo—calls in a trauma specialist. As they review Josh’s behavior over recent weeks, he remains combative, closed off, and resistant. Finally—when the doctor diagnoses him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—Josh nervously stammers, “That doesn’t really sound like something they let you have if you work for the president.”

Within his particular world—steeped in high stakes, and challenges, and experiences of trauma, Josh Lyman believes that the only way to survive and succeed is to be closed off and unaffected and impenetrable.

The disciples of Jesus’ time also come from a paradigm where strength and success and salvation are bound up with force and power and might. They come from a people who have long been conquered and oppressed—who have suffered immensely—and they have been promised deliverance in the form of a savior—a messiah.

It is nearly impossible for us today—I think—to grasp how radically different our understanding of the word “messiah” is from the understanding Peter and the other disciples would have had. The meaning of words shifts in relation to context. In Jesus’ time, “scroll” was a rolled up document, “text” was what the scribes put on the scroll, and “tablet” was a flat stone etched with writing. Today, “scroll” is how you get to the bottom of a webpage, “text” is a message you send on your phone, and “tablet” is a type of computer. Technology has shifted the context for our language.

Meanwhile, our context for the word “messiah” has been even more utterly altered by its connection to Jesus Christ. For us, “messiah” conjures ideas of selflessness and sacrifice. But for the people of Jesus’ time, messiah would have suggested a powerful ruler, a victorious warrior, and a vengeful conqueror. Knowing this difference is essential to our understanding of how the scene in today’s scripture plays out. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies, “You are the messiah.”

With our 21st century hindsight, Jesus’ less than enthusiastic response seems puzzling. Peter answered correctly, didn’t he? Jesus is the messiah. And yet Jesus vehemently insists that the disciples tell no one. Their understanding of “messiah” (and the world’s) doesn’t match up with the kind of messiah Jesus intends to be. This quickly becomes clear in the next part of the passage, where Jesus describes the suffering, rejection, and death he will undergo. Peter—apparently appalled and incredulous that a messiah would knowingly embrace such things—rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes him right back, declaring that Peter is setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.

Peter’s vision of Jesus as messiah is wrapped up in worldly conceptions of power—founded in dominance and conquest. There is no room within this perspective for salvation to come through suffering—and yet that is precisely the picture that Jesus paints. Jesus makes clear in this passage that he has not come to fulfill the human paradigm of a combative, dominating messiah, but rather to shatter that paradigm and replace it with a new one—a messiah who saves not through power-over but through power-with—not through victory and conquest, but through radical solidarity and mutual vulnerability.

In all the expanse of human existence prior to Christ’s coming, conquering kings and victorious warriors came and went, but they could not fix the brokenness of the world—they could only add to it. In coming into human existence, Jesus chooses to save us from that brokenness by walking with us rather than looming over us from some divine distance. By sharing in our worst experiences of suffering and pain and struggle, Jesus meets our deepest vulnerabilities with his own vulnerability. In the spaces of life where we feel most distant from God and one another, Jesus finds us and embraces us with love and grace.

This sort of salvation did not match up with the world the disciples knew. It was deeply counter-cultural. And honestly, it doesn’t really fit with the world we know today either. For all that Jesus has impacted and shifted our cultural understanding of “messiah;” we are a people no more comfortable with his idea of salvation through vulnerability and solidarity than the people of his own time were. It is hard for us to imagine that the saving grace for which Jesus lived and died and rose again would embrace suffering and yet that is exactly the promise that Jesus makes. His cross is not about suffering that belongs to him—it is about the suffering that belongs to us. When his own divine power could easily hold him apart from such human experience, he boldly enters in to be with us.

And he goes even further than that. In the next section of this passage, after he rebukes Peter for tempting him—like Satan—to choose power and might rather than vulnerability and solidarity, Jesus tells all the disciples that those who wish to follow him must take up their own cross. It is not enough, radical as it is, to accept that Jesus will save through vulnerability and solidarity—we must also follow him into that vulnerability and solidarity. No wonder the disciples are unnerved. They inhabit a world where willingly making oneself vulnerable is a deeply dangerous endeavor.

Our world is not so different.

Our world is drenched in violence and destruction and abuses of power. This past Labor Day weekend, 8 people were killed and 46 others injured in shootings in the city of Chicago alone. In our nation’s capital, presidential candidates are already hard at work seeking to verbally eviscerate one another so that only the strongest—or perhaps wealthiest and meanest—might rise to power. Meanwhile, across the world from us, 1 in 2 Syrians have fled their homes as refugees from the violent war that is tearing apart their country. The escalating crisis has most recently become embodied in a series of striking viral photos of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy found washed ashore on the beaches of Turkey.

It would be disingenuous to claim any universal human experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that we live in a traumatic world. In this age of violence, global political upheaval, and a 24-hour news cycle—even those who have not experienced trauma in their personal lives have been traumatized by the witness of so much brokenness and evil.

Our human impulse urges us to respond by shoring up our defenses and closing ourselves off from all that pain. Scroll past the picture of the drowned little boy. Duck your head when you walk through the gun-shattered streets of your own city. When others denigrate each other or you with words—shout louder, be angrier, be more vicious. The brokenness around us and within us screams that we cannot worry about saving grace for this world—we are too busy trying to save ourselves.

But Jesus says different. Jesus says, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

We are not good at confronting suffering. Our own or others. We are not good at being vulnerable, even when we believe it is important. This is particularly true, I think, among public leaders. That’s why it was viral news when Vice President Joe Biden spoke candidly with Stephen Colbert about his grief over losing his son Beau, and his struggles with faith and doubt.

Pastors are certainly no exception to this struggle either. In a post on her blog this week, Jan Edmiston (Associate Executive Presbyter of Chicago Presbytery) talked about how important it is for pastors to be vulnerable. She says, “Being vulnerable is a crucial part of being a spiritual leader.  Our truth is comprised of brokenness, imperfection, and shame just as much as anybody… We can do a lot of damage when we’re fake or self-deceived.  But we can do some good if we admit that we are kind of a mess and need something bigger than ourselves.”

If pastors are meant to at least try to embody Christ’s intentions—then vulnerability is an essential part of that. In that spirit, I will confess to you that this passage about taking up our cross—and others like it—make me very uncomfortable. This cross language that seems to almost suggest that suffering is a part of faithfulness has been so deeply misused. It has been used to shame women and others who have experience brutal abuse or oppression. I appreciate this not only sympathetically, but empathetically—as part of my own story. And there is no place in my faith for any suggestion that Jesus desires me or anyone to suffer in such a way.

But what’s striking about this passage is that Jesus’ cross isn’t about the suffering that is imposed upon him—it’s about his willingness to share in our pain when he could be spared. It’s also about his ability to overcome that pain and struggle and brokenness in ways that we never could on our own. And so the call to take up our own crosses, I think, isn’t about quietly accepting our own suffering or pain that is forced upon us.

It’s about opening ourselves up to see the pain and struggle of others: and when we could turn away and shore up our defenses—to stay and be with them, the way Jesus is with all of us. Vulnerability—letting ourselves feel and be felt and see and be seen—is a terrifying idea in this broken world of ours. But it lets Christ into us and us into Christ—it lets us in to one another and it is the only power that can overcome all that would hold us apart.

At the end of that episode of The West Wing, Josh Lyman finally confronts his own pain and fear and names it to himself and the trauma specialist. Only after he’s done so can he see the concern that drove his colleagues and friends to seek help for him. Afterward, he finds his mentor and boss, Leo, waiting in solidarity for him to see how the day-long session went. They share an awkward moment of mutual appreciation before Leo suddenly launches into a story that seems like a modern Good Samaritan story. The story he tells is this:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

It isn’t easy, not in this messy world of ours. But it is simple. Jesus gets down in the hole with us. And he calls us to be in the hole with him and with one another.  This is how we follow him. And he knows the way out. He knows the way home. Amen.