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Serving as Christ's Mirror to the World

Sunday, May 7, 2017
Easter 4A

In today’s reading from 1 Peter, the writer reminds us “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”[1]  I struggle with some of the ways this passage has been used – or perhaps misused – over the course of history.  There have been times and places when this passage has been read to justify oppression and there have been times and places when the passage has led some zealous followers of Jesus to seek out suffering in order to become more righteous followers of Jesus.   But, despite the risk of misusing the text, I do want to raise up the invitation to follow in Christ’s footsteps because in the era in which you and I are striving to do just that, we are being met with some challenges that, for many of us, feel new and confusing. Challenges that leave us scratching our heads and wondering what happened? And what, if anything, we can do about it?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. What happened? The relationship between Church and Society changed. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, in their 1989 book, Resident Aliens, describe the change this way: the mainline churches are “an aging dowager, living in a decaying mansion on the edge of town, bankrupt and penniless, house decaying around her but acting as if her family still controlled the city.”[2] You and I might look around and say, “oh, no, that’s not what’s happening. After all St. Mark’s is in the center of town, we have an endowment and a trust fund and our house. . . well, o.k., maybe it needs some fixing up, but it’s not really decaying.”  But the fact remains: the relationship between church and society has changed.  Technically, Christendom ended when the Holy Roman Empire collapsed but the fact is that for centuries to come “Christianity continued. . . to hold a cultural supremacy in the western world, in influence, authority, and prestige.”[3]  Today, there is a segment of Christianity that continues to hold this place of power – white evangelicals.  And, I am going to say something very controversial here and it may offend some of you. But, I really believe this to be true:  white evangelicals are practicing a Christianity that Jesus would not recognize as a reflection of his life and death witness to the gospel. 
Last week, activist, philanthropist, and author, Glennon Doyle Melton had this to say:
“On this National Day of Prayer, the elite of the evangelical-political complex are meeting in Washington and celebrating the impending initiation of policies that would have made Jesus upturn tables in disgust. 

“Domestic violence and sexual assault as pre-existing conditions? Granting broad rights to religious conservatives to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people? Opening the door for tax-exempt religious organizations to act as political action committees?

“Dear Evangelical-Political Empire: Go ahead and take away health care for the poor, turn away refugees, forsake the Earth for money, encourage racism, sell out our children and teachers for NRA money, and discriminate against me and my fiancĂ©e. But for God's sake don't do it in the name of the one who stood against everything on your agenda.”[4]
So, yes, I stand with Doyle Melton on this one: white evangelicals are practicing a Christianity that Jesus would not recognize as a reflection of his life and death witness to the gospel. But, in many respects, neither are we.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Like the first century followers of Jesus, you and I are living in a time when we must re-learn what it means to follow in Christ’s footsteps. The prayer book revision that resulted in the 1979 prayer book that we use today was an attempt to move us in the right direction.  It restored the Eucharist as the primary service on Sunday mornings so that whenever we gathered, we would remember who and whose we are: “Do this and remember me,” says Jesus.  And as we drink the cup and eat the bread, we do remember and we ourselves become again the Body of Christ. It was a shift away from the privatized faith that had become the church’s response to the enlightenment.[5] As my thesis director, John Hill, writes, the church was not intended to be nor should it be primarily “a place of spiritual consolation and uplift for those who may feel the need of it.”[6] No, it is a gathering of the faithful – a gathering, a community - remembering who and whose we are and remembering and practicing a way of life that will frequently put us at odds with the world around us. Goodness, can you even imagine what it would mean if “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”?[7] Can you imagine it?
Throughout the forty days of Lent you and I and the whole Church of God renounced the ways of Satan – the forces that corrupt us. On Good Friday, we prayed that God might “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.”  And then at the Great Vigil of Easter, we gathered around the font to renew our promises “to serve God faithfully in his holy Catholic Church.” 
St. Clare of Assisi, writing in the 13th century, offered “a rich metaphor for what it means to follow in Christ’s footsteps.”  In a letter to Agnes of Prague, she wrote that we must prepare ourselves to follow Christ “by gazing into the mirror of Christ.” And as we do so, to see ourselves “in Christ’s humility and suffering, and adorn [ourselves] with the virtues therein revealed” so that we too “can serve as a mirror of Christ’s love and faith to the world.”[8]  Today, when non-Christians look into the mirror of our Christian life, what will they see?  Will they see our attachment to “decaying mansions,” our reluctance to use the money stored up in our trust funds and endowments for the good of any who have need?  Or will they see the very image of the loving Christ?
Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, wrote that when we go to church “we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[9]  This is my deepest prayer for St. Mark’s – that God may draw us to a new place from which we can never return.
“Day by day, as [the first followers of Jesus] spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”[10] Today we are called to do the same.  As we come forward this day to receive the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, as we become again the body of Christ, as we remember who and whose we are, may we go out into the world as the Church, adorned with the virtues of Christ so that we too can serve as a mirror of Christ’s love and faith to this broken world.

[1] 1 Peter 2:21.
[2] Quoted in John Hill, “Church and Society: the relationship has changed” in Becoming the Story We Teall: Renewing Our Engagement with Christ Crucified and Risen: The Primates Proposal 2014, Anglican Church of Canada, 2014, 129.
[3] John Hill, 129.
[4] Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebookpost, May 4, 2017, accessed May 5, 2017.
[5] John Hill, 133.
[6] John Hill, 135.
[7] Acts 2:44-45.
[8] Stephen Edmondson, “Theological Perspective: 1 Peter 2:19-25,” Feasting on the Word, kindle edition, location 15828-33.
[9] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40-41.
[10] Acts 2:46-47a.


Looking Backwards to Build a Future

Sermon for Easter 3A
(and the beginning of St. Mark's celebration of it's 153rd anniversary)

Do you remember when St. Mark’s had a men and boys’ choir and a girls’ schola? Do you remember when we would have a dinner at St. Mark’s and Cunningham Hall would be filled? Do you remember when we had a youth group that performed Godspell in the sanctuary?  Do you remember?  So many times I have heard these words – here at St. Mark’s and, before St. Mark’s, at St. Barnabas by the Bay in southern New Jersey and before St. Barnabas, at Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park and before Transfiguration at St. Mary’s in Park Ridge. . ..  Do you remember?  It’s a bittersweet question, isn’t it?  It’s one that has us looking back to a time with fondness, remembering all the good things that were present (and, often forgetting the bumps along the way) because really, even in the best of times, there are bumps. We all know that’s true.
And so, we look back.  Nostalgia- a homesickness for a home we can never go back to again, try as we might.  Cleopas and his companion are on such a journey.  They are leaving Jerusalem, heading to Emmaus reminiscing about all the things that have taken place in the weeks just passed – all the works of healing and miracles that Jesus did among them, the meals shared, the stories exchanged – and then the pain – the arrest of Jesus, his being tortured and put to death, their own feelings of guilt for doing all the wrong things, and wondering if doing something different would have changed the outcome.  But through it all, remembering the love and the loss and wishing they could start again.  If Andrew Lloyd Weber, Timothy Miles and Bindon Rice had been alive in the 1st century writing Jesus Christ Superstar, Cleopas and his friend might have been singing, “Could we start again please?”[1] as they walked along.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear The Rev. Canon John Floberg speak at Bexley Seabury’s Spring Convocation. His name may be familiar to you as he is the canon missioner for the Diocese of North Dakota and the leader of the Episcopal Church’s support for water protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.  After the encampment protest along the Missouri River had ended, Floberg told us of a group setting up a second camp.  He spoke with the organizers and asked them – “are you trying to capture a moment or are you trying to build a future?”  It’s a question, he suggested, we must always ask ourselves because “the persistence of nostalgia” can keep us stuck.[2]   The disciples who had hidden behind locked doors had become stuck.  Cleopas and his companion on their way to Emmaus had become stuck.  And as they share their nostalgic thoughts with this stranger on the way, the stranger – who we, of course, know is Jesus – says to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in The Message, Jesus says, “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said?”[3]
But then Jesus does something remarkable.  He goes back even farther into history – not just a few weeks but back to “Moses and all the prophets” and he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”[4]  And he does this not to point to some nostaligic time where everything was better but to help them to see the future that lays ahead of them.  The final piece of Jesus’ interpretation of his life through Scripture comes not in a text – because the Gospels had not yet, of course, been written – but in an action, one that is familiar to all of us, as if we too had been there in the first century.  Jesus “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”[5]
Jesus helps Cleopas and his companion look back in order to see the future.  It is a kind of looking back that seeks out the core of who and whose they are and invites them to move into the future with their eyes wide open.  And so they do – they run back to Jerusalem to share what they have experienced only to find that Simon has also had an encounter with the risen Lord.  And together, they were freed from the “persistence of nostalgia” that was keeping them stuck and instead were able to begin building a future on the bedrock of the past. 
At St. Mark’s we too have a history – 153 years of history, in fact.  There are a few among us who can remember what things were like here 50 years ago, some who can look back 30 years and still more who can look back 10.  And there are many among us who are only familiar with the last few years or maybe even a few months.  But what all of us share is our desire to build a future.  And so we must always use caution when we look back to ensure that we are not becoming stuck in nostalgia but instead are using the past to propel us into the future.  What are the values from the past that have served St. Mark’s well?  Are they values that make sense in our current environment?  If the answer is yes, then, by all means, let’s find a way to bring those values into the future we are building – not to bring the same programs, but the same values.  And what are the traditions from the past that have served the Church?  Are they traditions that we would do well to continue in our generation?  If the answer is yes, then, by all means, let’s carry them forward into our future.  And what are some of those values and traditions that are tried and true?
I invite you to turn to the bottom of page 304 in the Book of Common Prayer for a few that have stood the test of time.

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God's help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God's help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God's help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God's help.

God help us to always be a Church that looks backward to move forward.  Help us always to be a church that does not become stuck capturing a moment but instead is propelled ever forward with your help building a future on earth as it is in heaven.

[1] Andrew Lloyd Webber, Timothy Miles, Bindon Rice, “Could We Start Again Please,” Jesus Christ Superstar, Universal-Polygram International Publishing, Inc., 1971.
[2] John Floberg, “After Standing Rock,” Bending Toward Justice: Chicago Convocation 2017, Bexley Seabury, April 26, 2017.
[3] Luke 24:25 (NRSV and The Message).
[4] Luke 24:27.
[5] Luke 24:30-31.