Sanctuary

For many Christians, the word “sanctuary” refers to the space in which they gather for worship. It’s a holy space, set apart for the radical, intimate encounter we have with our Lord when his Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments are shared with God’s people.

Parroquia San Germán de Auxerre, San Germán, Puerto Rico

A sanctuary is where God’s promise is revealed to us most clearly. A sanctuary can be a centuries-old Gothic cathedral, a simple church building built ten years ago, a living room, or the hood of a humvee for Soldiers deployed overseas. If God’s promises are proclaimed there, that space becomes a sanctuary – a place of holy encounter with God.

Some Christians, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, emphasize that our bodies and our lives are a sanctuary. A popular praise song intones, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.” I first sang these words at a church camp I attended as a young adult. Perhaps you’ve sung this tune at camp or at worship. “With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

What does it mean to be a living sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true? We often connect these ideas to worship, devotion, and prayer; and, often, to how one behaves in their interpersonal relationships. If we listen to the prophets, we hear in their cry that worship and sacrifice is nothing but vacant, blathering words without actions that honor God by caring for people who suffer.

In Isaiah 5 we hear the prophet sing a love song about God’s tender care for his people. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and describes how God tilled the ground, built the watchtower, and cared for the vineyard that is his people.

Yet despite all of the care that God has given the vineyard, it yielded rotten grapes rather than an abundant harvest of good grapes. The prophet laments that God’s possession had failed, and thus speaks God’s promises to destroy the vineyard. But just a verse later the voice shifts from judgment back to lament. You can hear the prophet’s sorrow and weary disappointment in these words:

“The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!”

God expected justice, but there was bloodshed.

Earlier in Isaiah (chapter 1, verses 10-17), the prophet puts an even finer point on it:

Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.
    Listen to our God’s teaching,
        people of Gomorrah!
What should I think about all your sacrifices?
    says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts.
    I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from you,
    this trampling of my temple’s courts?
Stop bringing worthless offerings.
    Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
    I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
    They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
When you extend your hands,
    I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
    I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
    Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
    Put an end to such evil;
    learn to do good.
Seek justice:
    help the oppressed;
    defend the orphan;
    plead for the widow.

The prophet here quite literally calls out the prayers and sacrifices that take place in the temple – in the sanctuary – as inadequate without the accompanying works of justice. That work is clearly defined as helping the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow (vs 17).

It is not enough to pray when your hands are stained with blood and your lives betray the grace that has been given to you.

Words are not enough in the face of human suffering. Saint James tells us that words of faith aren’t worth a hill of beans without faithful action (James 2). Christians are called to action that flows from faith in the One who defied how things are done in this world, and calls us to follow him in a life of faithful defiance.

Our Lord defied death and rose from the grave. He defied illness by healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus defied hunger and oppression by filling the famished with good things, and by including those whom society excluded. Our Savior’s words were defiant against those in authority, and generous for those who suffered. As followers of this defiant Prince, we are called to lives that reflect the values not of this kingdom but of the coming Kingdom of God. As citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), our priorities come not from man but from God (Acts 5:59).

Perhaps this is what sanctuary looks like. Pure and holy, tried and true, any who seek to be a living sanctuary for our Lord do so by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outsider, healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and defying the forces that degrade human dignity. That’s sanctuary.

My church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – recently declared itself to be a sanctuary church at its triennial Churchwide Assembly. In this case, the term refers to the historic practice of churches being places where fugitives could find safe haven from apprehension. Offering “sanctuary” has been a ministry of the church since medieval days. In our own country churches have extended sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad sheltering African Americans fleeing (legal) slavery, and defying northern laws requiring the capture and return of escaped slaves. More recently, congregations opened their doors to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars and political persecution in the 1980s.

This calling to be a place for fugitives – from the Latin fugitīvus, fleeing – places the church in a unique position in society. Called neither to be beholden to the shifting opinion polls of society, nor to be a tool of governing authorities, the church fixes its gaze on the vulnerable who flee unfathomable horrors and it seeks to offer its balm in obedience to God’s command to care for people who suffer.

More than many churches, the Lutheran Church in the United States has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. As an immigrant church whose faith and practice came to this land from Northern and Western Europe, North American Lutherans had for generations reached across the Atlantic to help their families and coreligionists make their own journey of faith to a new land.

After World War I, Lutherans began organizing to support refugees fleeing war in their ancestral homelands. Their work expanded with the massive refugee crisis spurred by World War II. Throughout the 20th century – from Cuba to Vietnam, Hungary to Uganda, Central America to the Balkans – Lutherans partnered with the federal government to resettle refugees and help them find a welcome home in the United States of America.

Care for the immigrant is, at its core, a practice of faith. Besides all of the examples of Jesus calling us to care for “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31-46, among others), the Hebrew Bible is filled with exhortations by God to his chosen people Israel to honor immigrants and strangers, “because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:34

This construction – “because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” – shows up at least five times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, extolling the Israelites to treat the immigrants as one of their own. Leviticus 17:8 and 10 call for the equal punishment of Jew and immigrant if they bring the sacrifice before the Lord in an unworthy or unholy manner. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells us that the Lord “loves immigrants,” and Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18 call for the Israelites to protect fair pay and legal rights for immigrants. In Leviticus 25:23, the LORD even tells the Israelites that they, too, are immigrants. “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”

What does it mean that the ELCA has declared itself a “sanctuary church”? The details are still being worked out, but at its core the declaration by the Churchwide Assembly is an affirmation of our church’s longstanding commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee as an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ.

More, it is an affirmation of our church’s 2016 AMMPARO mission strategy of accompanying and supporting migrant children and their families with legal, humanitarian, and advocacy support; and, of working with partners in the United States and in Central America to understand and advocate for resolutions to the systemic violence and poverty that prompts so many families to risk everything to leave their homes in the first place.

Does “sanctuary church” = “sanctuary city”?

The sanctuary that our church offers is not the same kind of sanctuary that some “sanctuary cities” are offering – namely, a refusal by local and/or state law enforcement agencies to partner with federal agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Making the comparison between “sanctuary cities” and our “sanctuary church” is nonsensical – the church in this country never has been, and never will be, a governing body nor a law enforcement agency. Our church simply does not interface with the federal government in the same way that cities and states do.

The call by our Churchwide Assembly declaring the ELCA a sanctuary church is not a call to break laws, but instead is an invitation for agencies, congregations, and members of the church to care for the immigrant with steadfast faith, love, and sacrifice. It is true that some congregations might welcome undocumented immigrants, house them in church buildings, and provide legal aid. Others will provide financial and in-kind support to relief efforts along both sides of the US-Mexican border. Others will advocate for changes in immigration policy or funding for refugee resettlement. And yet others will commit themselves to prayer for families fleeing violence and poverty, and for leaders in the United States and in Central America whose words and deeds will have significant impact on the welfare of millions of people for years to come.

The Lutheran Church’s commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee predates the current global migrant crisis. Our commitment to the immigrant and the refugee is born out of our own experience as an immigrant church, and is rooted in the command of God and example of our Lord Jesus Christ to care for the outsider and seek the welfare of our neighbor in need.

9 months to race day

Only (only?) 270 days remain until the Carmel Marathon. I have never looked ahead to a race so far out. Perhaps that means I’m taking this race more seriously … or perhaps it’s just a function of the longings of deployment life. Either way, my sights are set on April 4, 2020, when I will run through my adopted hometown and, God willing if I do all the hard work and perform as I think I can, qualify for the 2021 Boston Marathon.


God willing?

So, I crossed out God willing, above. I first typed it because that’s what one says. It’s what I often say. “God willing, X or Y will happen.” But I will run a good marathon on April 4, 2020 not if God is willing, but if I do the work, if my body doesn’t break down, if I don’t get deathly ill, if the weather is not horrible, if I don’t get mauled by an alien panda along the course, and so forth.

Of course, in the classical sense of a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent and omnieverything, God can will that Chris Duckworth run a crappy race. I guess. And God can will that galloping unicorns shoot glitter laser bolts at evildoers of all kinds, too. But God doesn’t do such things.

My reading of Scripture reveals that God is much more concerned with the human heart, the faithfulness of those who call on God’s name, and the well-being of the poor than God is concerned with how a middle-aged guy runs a race. What does the LORD require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). There’s nothing in there about running a marathon. If anything, my intermittent obsession with running risks becoming a trip down vanity lane and an exercise in self-idolatry.

And more … if we say “God willing” or “thank God” for everything that is actually a function of our own work, we get into dicey territory of claiming that our achievements are God’s will. And if my achievements are God’s will, then shoot … I’ve just made God in my own image and so closely aligned myself with God that my actions and his are indistinguishable. Bam! Idolatry again. And idolatry is dangerous for how we relate to God, to each other, and to ourselves. But more on that another day.

Here’s the deal: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t give a hill of beans if I run a fast marathon … but I do. And that’s good enough for me.

So, does faith have anything to do with running?

I am grateful to God for the relative gifts I have as a runner, for the introspection that running inspires within my heart and mind, and for the challenges that running presents to me. I avoid definitively declaring God’s will in my life. But I do give thanks for God’s blessings, if that makes any sense. Running is a blessing.

And more. God calls us to care for ourselves and others. Running is one of those ways that I care for myself. And, at times running has deepened friendships and fostered new relationships. Such relationships and friendships are sacred places of mutual trust and care – a real blessing.

Running buddies as sacred? Yes. Let me explain.

At the least, if I fall down in a ditch on an early morning run, I’m trusting that my running partner will help me up. But more. There’s something vulnerable about sharing in and enduring a physical struggle with someone else. It’s an odd kind of intimacy, of opening yourself to the limits of your own physicality, facing your own limits and daring to share and push those limits with someone else … all while they share the same with you. In my experience, that kind of mutual sharing of vulnerability is humbling, holy, and encouraging – and in my book, that’s a blessing.

Finally, I’m a better human being when I run. That, perhaps, is the best reason for me to run. It makes me a more pleasant person, a more faithful pastor, and a better husband, father, and Soldier.

OK. So faith certainly plays a role in my running. But I’m not going to say God’s will is for me to run a Boston Qualifer. That’s a claim too far for me.

Back to the boring running part of this post.


So, I have 270 days, approximately 9 months, until the Carmel Marathon. I outlined how I got to this point in my last running blogpost, a few weeks ago. This post is more of a long, boring status update on running – shoes, mileage, and weight.

Shoes

When I was home two months ago on emergency family leave I picked up two additional pairs of running shoes – my standard Brooks Glycerins, which I’ve been running in for years, but also a pair of Hoka Bondis.

The Hokas feel like I’m wearing a platform shoe. I had a great pair of stylin’ platform shoes back in the late 90’s, and these remind me of them – at least in the sense of lift they give me. And running on them for the first time this morning felt really awkward for the first mile or so … but then I forgot about them and ran as normal.

Currently I have two pairs of Brooks Glycerins that I’m wearing – one at 320.5 miles, and one at 277.9 miles. Based on my past history I will need to replace both of these pretty soon. I’m trying out these Hokas to see if I like them, and if I want to order another pair. Otherwise, I have one more new pair of Glycerins with me, and can switch to them and order additional shoes for the next few months. At the mileage I’m running, I’ll need a few more pairs of shoes for the deployment.

Mileage

I ran 155 miles last month, and I expect that number to climb through the summer and into the fall, as least incrementally. Over the past few weeks I’ve run anywhere from 33-42 miles/week, and I’m feeling great. In the past I’ve only cleared 25 miles/week when I’ve been in a formal marathon training program. At nine months out from the marathon and running this kind of mileage – with two weekly speed workouts, a long run (currently at 12 miles, with a 14 miler scheduled for this weekend), and easy runs – I’m getting stronger and building more of a base than I ever have this far in advance of a marathon. I’m excited.

I broke my consecutive days streak at 50 days, and have since taken two days off. Two days off within a week was too many, even if it felt nice to sleep in one day (the other day my schedule wouldn’t allow for a morning run). I like running every day, even if it is an easy, slow 2-3 miler on a rest day. I imagine I’ll take a day off here and there, but otherwise I don’t see many days off in my future.

Weight

I’ve dropped probably about 25-30 pounds since the start of the deployment five months ago. I say probably, because I was so ashamed of my weight back in January and February, just prior to the mobilization, that I wouldn’t even step on a scale. I was 242 somewhere in late January, when one day I mustered up the will to weigh myself. Lordy, the pre-deployment stress eating was intense!

I last weighed in at 214.6 lbs. To meet my Army weight, I still have about 12-15 to go (203 lbs is the max weight for my height, gender, and age that doesn’t require the Army’s “tape test,” a body mass index-type of measurement). I attribute my weight loss to the structure of Army life where I have less ready access to a box of Goldfish crackers or Cheez-Its, increased physical exercise (both through running and lots, lots of walking), and to some modification of my diet. But to reach my weight goals – to get under 200 lbs and stay there – I’ll need to make more significant, and lasting, changes to my diet. That’s my next step in this process. It’s not something that will come overnight, but it will come.

Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

Listening is love

“Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” – James 1:19

Christians, and especially preachers, are known for speaking. We are called, after all, to proclaim God’s Word. Whether the preacher in the pulpit, the evangelist on the street corner, or the Facebooker with lots of faith to share, Christians are known for speaking.

Yet more often than we may care to admit, the best posture for a Christian is not that of speaking, but of listening.

Listening is an exercise in putting someone else’s words before your own; putting someone else’s needs before your own. It is prioritizing them over you. Their needs, their words, their pain, their joy, their desires, their ramblings take precedence over your own. Sit, listen, receive, and honor what your neighbor has to share.

“Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” – Philippians 2:4

Listening is humbling oneself in front of another and seeking their good. Listening is a posture that bears, honors, and holds in trust the very heart of another.

“Bear another’s burdens, for in so doing you fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2

This posture of listening is the posture of love.

“Love is patient, love is kind … it doesn’t seek its own way.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-5

Love doesn’t seek its own way or it’s own interests. Love seeks the interests and care of our neighbor.

Listening is such a love. And love is the heartbeat of Christian faith.

On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Amen.

A peace that changes everything

Below is the sermon I preached on May 26, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while overseas on deployment. The readings for this Sunday were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5, and John 14:23-29, available by clicking here.

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

[singing]
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild. God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful all you nations rise, join the triumph of the skies …”

Peace on earth. It’s on our Christmas cards,
emblazoned on scented Christmas candles,
printed on large banners streaming across church entranceways
and lit up on household Christmas lawn decorations.

Peace on earth, the angels proclaimed.
“My peace I give to you,” our Savior promised.
Peace.

What does peace look like?

Last Sunday at the Morehouse College graduation in Atlanta, Georgia,
commencement speaker and tech investor Robert F. Smith
made a surprise announcement –
that he would pay off the student loan debt
of each of the graduates in the class.
396 students.
Millions of dollars of debt.
Paid!

If you’ve ever paid off a long-lasting debt, you know the relief.
If you’re currently paying off a long-term debt,
you can probably imagine the relief.

Mr Smith’s gift will radically transform the lives of these students.
It could change their career path,
being able to work for less pay in the short term
rather than go for a paycheck in a job that crushes their soul.
Graduates may more quickly settle down to buy a house,
not saddled with student debt.
 These young adults may now have the chance to live more generously,
able both to provide for themselves, give to church and charity,
and look after family without concern for that massive debt bill.

What a relief.
What a peace that has come upon these students.
It’s a peace that has changed their lives.
It’s a peace that allows them to live differently.

Peace. A peace that allows us to live differently.

Christ gives his followers such a peace.

“Peace I leave with you,” he says in John 14:27.
“My peace I give to you.
I give to you not as the world gives.
Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

This is a peace that allows his followers to live differently,
without trouble or fear,
without concern for how the world gives,
or the peace that the world promises
but which always. falls. short.
Always.
This peace is different.
The peace of Christ allows his followers to live differently.
We see that in each of today’s readings. Let’s take a tour

Today’s first reading comes to us from Acts 19.
A few chapters earlier in the Book of Acts – back in chapter 9 –
Paul experiences a conversion.
He once persecuted and attacked Christians;
but now he had received the peace of Christ
which allowed him to live differently.
He now proclaimed the freedom of the Gospel,
the promise of Christ.

So let’s go to the first reading, in the book Acts 16, starting at verse 9.
It begins with the Apostle Paul having visions of where to travel,
where to proclaim the Gospel.
These visions lead him to a Roman colony called Philippi.
On the Sabbath he goes outside the city gates to the riverbank,
where he thought there would be a place to pray.
Note here that
A) he didn’t really know if there was a place to pray or not,
and that,
B), he left the city gates.

In ancient urban design, city gates were barriers meant to keep
the good and proper and accepted in,
and to keep the bad, the improper, and the rejected out.
You were either in or you were out.
The wall was a visible reminder of that fact.

Remember that the rough-around-the-edges,
locust-eating, camel’s hair cloth wearing preacher John the Baptist
preached in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem’s city gates,
and baptized in the river,
not in a synagogue or the proper temple,
or the town square.
But God did something outside those city gates.

Remember that Jesus himself was executed on a cross
not in the center of town, but outside of the town, at the edge,
where such dirty and sundry things were done.
Outside.
But God did something outside those city gates.

And so here, again, we hear a cue – outside the city gates
and we realize that something of barrier-crossing, is happening,
that something to shake up the status quo, is about to take place,
because every time barriers are crossed by the Spirit of God –
with John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, or Paul of Tarsus –
something’s about to happen.

So Paul goes outside the city gates and meets some women by the river,
and he begins to talk with them.
Again, cue Jesus, who often spoke to women
and then was invariably questioned or even chastised
both by his disciples and by the Pharisees for doing so!
But Paul goes there, anyway, breaking cultural and religious norms
for the sake of the Gospel.

Among the women in the crowd gathered by the river was one named Lydia,
whom Scripture describes as a seller of purple,
and whom tradition has magnified into being a merchant of some means.

One scholar, Dr. Mary Turner of Pacific School of Theology,
suggests that the proper understanding of the original Greek
reveals that Lydia was less a wealthy merchant
than someone who actually made the purple fabric with her own hands,
a laborer, a craftsperson, an artisan herself, not a dealer.

And in those days, the making of fabric was not an esteemed job,
in part because it was an inelegant process.
Dye houses had a terrible odor
because the process of dying involved the use of animal urine –
thus, dye houses were placed outside the city gates,
because who wants to live or work near such a place?
Those who worked with the dye were marked, literally, by their profession;
their skin, their arms, were discolored,
and this condition stigmatized them as laborers doing menial work,
outside the city gates.

And yet, by the peace of Christ, Paul goes there.
He goes outside the city gates,
crossing barriers and breaking taboos for the sake of the Gospel
and the sake of those whom God so loves.

This is what the peace of Christ does – it calls Paul, and all of us, to live differently,
to go beyond the walls of human division,
to break down the barriers that would separate God’s people,
and to seek peace, community, and fellowship with others,
particularly those whom society would reject.

And not only does Paul go to Lydia and the women there,
but he receives her hospitality to stay in her house –
which is quite possibly that urine-stenched workshop I just described.
This gesture was more than mere kindness on her part,
but instead extending hospitality was a tenant of faith
and a sign of fellowship with God
in ancient Jewish and Christian communities.
Paul accepts this gift, and communes with Lydia and with God there,
outside the city gates, with the stench of urine wafting in the air.

The peace of Christ calls us to live, and to live differently.

The vision of the New Heaven and a New Earth
is certainly different than the vision of how we live now.
Turn to Revelation, in the back of your Bible, chapter 21,
starting at verse 22, and going into the next chapter.

John the Seer, the recipient of the vision that makes up this book,
describes a “new heaven and a new earth,” starting earlier in Chapter 21.
A New Jerusalem is coming down out of the heavens,
and a loud voice announces
that God’s dwelling place is with humanity.
Any separation that people once felt from God has been taken away.
Death will be no more, and God will wipe every tear away from our eyes.
The former things, the former ways of living, have passed away.
All things are made new.

In today’s reading we see that this city has no temple –
which was the cornerstone of Jerusalem,
the promised dwelling place of God.
But this New Jerusalem requires no such temple,
because the Lord God Almighty himself will be the temple,
and his glory will shine so bright that no sun or moon is needed.

And – here’s where we get to that part about living differently –
the nations will walk by this light.
The gates to the New Jerusalem will never be shut.
There will be no night, nothing vile, nothing deceitful.
That just sounds amazing,
and it stands in stark contrast to this world-that-God-so-loves
yet which is, in places, sadly broken and marred by sin.

The vision of the peace of Christ, the vision of God’s promised future,
is one of a life lived differently,
of a world, of the nations, living differently,
at peace with one another.

Life, lived differently, because of Christ.

Lastly, let’s turn to our call to worship, to Psalm 67.

As the nations stream into the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22,
I imagine them singing Psalm 67
in a grand parade of joy and celebration
streaming into the city’s open gates, led by the light of God’s glory.
For this is a song of praise that is filled with the hope
that all people would know the salvation of our God,
the blessings, the promise, the bounty, the goodness of God.

“Let God grant us grace and bless us;
let God make his face shine on us,
so that your way becomes known on earth,
so that your salvation becomes known among the nations …”

Jumping ahead a few verses,
“Let the people celebrate and shout with joy,
because you judge the nations fairly
and guide all nations on the earth.”

All the nations of the earth are there, guided by God,
pouring into the New Jerusalem,
living differently in the peace of Christ.

Oh, we who work in the warring profession,
trained to take up arms and defend neighbor and nation
against any that would harm us,
we – especially you have been there,
in the pressure of the battle –
we know, you know,
that this vision of Psalm 67 and of Revelation 21 and 22
is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in this region
over the past 16+ years.

So, do we dare to believe the words of Scripture,
do we dare to trust in the promise of what will be,
that a life lived in the peace of Christ changes us and the world,
allowing us to live differently and create, by God’s grace,
a different kind of world?

Or, do we trust what our eyes have seen,
what our ears have heard,
what our hearts have felt,
and our souls have suffered
about the cost of war and humanity’s brokenness?

Do we read the roll call of battle buddies lost to war
and expect more of the same,
or do we dare believe that there is a scroll of life in that New Jerusalem
bearing the names of all of God’s beloved
and showing forth the promise of a different kind of formation,
a different way of living,
in the Kingdom of God?

Yes, and yes.

Dear friends in Christ, we live between these two worlds –
the world as it is, and the world as God promises it will be.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19,
we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
This is our highest loyalty. This is our ultimate destiny.

Yes, we resist the ways of the world,
yet we are called by our Lord to be as wise as snakes
and as innocent as doves for as long as we are in it (Matthew 10:16).
We engage in this craft of waging war
not for the sake of seeking what the world gives,
because that’s an empty promise,
but to minimize the worst of what the world has to offer,
and to make room for our neighbors and nation
to see the world at some semblance of peace
so that they might know the greater peace of Christ our Lord.

We who are given the peace of Christ,
whose names are written on the scroll of life in the New Jerusalem,
who are emboldened by the peace of Christ and by Paul’s example
to break the barriers of this world,
we have a call and a duty to know the promises of God,
of what is and what will be,
to not forget
what the peace of Christ means for us and for the world,
how this peace enables us to live differently,
and how this peace changes everything.
Yes, we have a duty and a call to hold onto this peace,
even as we, with great reticence,
are at times compelled to wage war.

This peace is nothing of our doing, but instead is a gift.
Note what Jesus says back in John 14 – my peace I give to you.
There are no conditions.
There are no five steps to earn this peace.
No boards to pass.
No test to take.
No top block to grab.

Nothing. This peace of Christ is a free gift,
given to you and to us
in a way that is entirely unlike how anything in this world works,
with all its conditions and strings attached
and distorted sense of merit.

No. Christ is different. His gift of peace is different.
And it changes everything.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding,
keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord,
the One whose life lived differently
makes possible a different way of life
for us and for this world that God so loves.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Let us pray:
Gracious God,
we give you thanks for this gift of peace.
Grant that we who have received this promise
would steward, would care for, would nurture this gift,
so that,
in how we live and work, speak and serve,
your Son’s peace would shine forth from our lives
and extend to those around us.
O God in heaven,
make us instruments of your peace,
and renew us again and again as
dutiful, honorable Soldiers called to defend, protect, and sacrifice
not for ourselves, but on behalf of our neighbor and nation.
Guide us always by your light,
write our names on the scroll of life,
and give us, at the last, the promise of your salvation.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

Easter, delayed.

It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.

Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.

Dad holding my son, Naaman, 13 months-old at the time, at my ordination in 2008.

When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.

On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.

There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.

The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.

You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God. Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.

The predawn sky that received my anger and grief on that morning run,
and responded to my shaking fist with a gorgeous array of color.

I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.

I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.

Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.

Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.