Sunday, August 25, 2013

"It's always the time to show that God is good"

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 25, 2013

When I say, “God is good,” you say: “All the time.”

God is good. All the time. 

Now, when I say, “All the time,” you say: “God is good.”

All the time. God is good.

Now let’s put those together and try it again.

God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.

Again – God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.

The most powerful truths are usually the simplest ones. They are the truths that we need to come back to when things get too complex, or when we start to drift off course, when we start to forget what we’re really supposed to be about. When some of our ancestors declared our independence from England they said their action was based on some powerful, simple, self-evident truths. That all men were created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Simple truths. Powerful truths.

Throughout our history as a nation, we have come back to those sentences as our touchstone. We came back to them when we wrestled with our “peculiar institution” of slavery and decided that the black man was not just 3/5 of a man but created equal and endowed with those same unalienable rights.

We came back to those sentences when we wrestled with how the phrase “all men” left out half of the population of our nation and decided that it really wasn’t just all men but all people – men and women -- who are created equal and endowed with those rights.

And we come back to those sentences even today as anyone who is not white is more likely to be searched during a police traffic stop and less likely to be asked back for a second job interview.

We come back to those sentences today as anyone who is not male is more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace and less likely to be hired in an executive position. We come back to those sentences and we realize as Americans that though we have come far, there is still a long way to go.

As Christians, we have our own truths that we hold self-evident. Simple truths. Powerful truths. Truths like  God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.

This truth is our gift. It is God’s gift to us, and it is the gift we get to give to the world.

First -- that God is good.

Never underestimate the power of this truth. God is good is the truth that stands against any evil and guarantees that evil will never get the last word. Because it is a truth that cannot be changed even in the face of horrible tragedy or the deepest brokenness. No matter what, God is good.

God is good means that whatever sin happens, redemption is possible. God is good means that whatever brokenness happens, healing is possible. God is good means that whatever death happens, new life is possible. God is good means that whenever someone tells us how awful things are. How poverty is up and education is down. How women are being sold on the streets and not paid in the workplace. God is good means that whenever we see the hungry going unfed and the sick going untended and the prisoner going unvisited we know not only that it’s not supposed to be that way. We know not only that it doesn’t have to be that way. We know that we get to be the ones whom God uses to make the change happen.

In Jesus name, we get to be the ones who proclaim that even though so much is bad, that God is good. In Jesus name, we get to be the ones whom God works through to bring redemption out of sin, bring healing out of brokenness, even bring life out of death.

In Jesus name, we get to be the ones who in here and out there say no matter what, God is good.

And when is God good? All the time.

That’s right. God is good … All the time.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath. Now everyone knows the Sabbath is the right time for teaching, so Jesus is OK there. But then something happens. A woman comes up with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years.

Now, if you were looking for evidence that God is good, you would not have looked to this woman. She was stooped over and pitiful and no one there could remember when she hadn't been that way. Oh, that’s Mabel. As far as we can remember, she’s always been that way. There’s nothing anybody can do.

But Jesus looked at her, and he not only knew that God is good. He knew that God is good when?
All the time. That’s right.

Now the synagogue leader might have thought God was good, but he didn’t get the “all the time” part. The synagogue leader might have believed that God was good. But as far as that woman was concerned, he was more like: “God is good … maybe tomorrow.”

But Jesus knew that if God is good all the time, it means that it is always the time to show that God is good. And so he called her over. He laid his hands on her. He told her she was set free. And for the first time in nearly 20 years she stood up straight.

And do you know what she said when she did? She said: “God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.”

As followers of Jesus, we are ambassadors of Christ, and we have been given the ministries of proclamation and reconciliation. Of going out into the world in Jesus name, going to the places where there is the most profound pain and the deepest brokenness and bring the message of God’s goodness not just in word but in deed. And because the simple, powerful truth is not just that God is good but that God is good when?

All the time!

Because the simple, powerful truth is that God is good all the time and all the time God is good, it means that NOW is the time. NOW is the time for us to proclaim God’s goodness in word and deed. NOW is the time for us to believe God’s goodness in our lives. NOW is the time for us to show God’s goodness out there. NOW is the time to call the city into this place and to go out and meet the people where they are and be a beacon of that truth for a city that needs it.

Jesus tells us today that God’s goodness doesn’t sit around and wait for tomorrow. And we know that. It’s why this week, Lafayette Preparatory Academy opened in this building, bringing the good news of quality free education to 75 kids, many of whose options for good schools were slim and none. We are partners in that mission because we know that if God is good all the time, then NOW is the time to proclaim boldly that God is good.

It’s why right now, we’re working to open Magdalene St. Louis, and not only bring God’s gift of redemption, healing and new life to women on the streets right now who will become part of that community, but to be a part of a movement to transform the way women are treated not just in our nation but around the world. Because if God is good all the time, then NOW is the time to proclaim boldly that God is good.

It’s why when you look around you this morning, you see Debbie Nelson Linck’s collages for St. Louis’ 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington that was held in this nave yesterday morning. Because Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized, and this Cathedral has a role to play in making that dream happen not tomorrow or the next day but right now. Because if God is good all the time, then NOW is the time to proclaim boldly that God is good.

It’s why if we were to go around this congregation this morning we would find that there are tens and even hundreds of ways we as followers of Jesus are out in the world every week proclaiming that God is good all the time. Living our baptisms and being ambassadors of Christ’s love.

Because as followers of Jesus we see the deep brokenness of the world and we do not despair. We do not fall back. We join hands and like Jesus and with Jesus we dive into the heart of the brokenness, we dive into the depth of the despair.

Yes, we need to do it thoughtfully, collaboratively, systemically and prayerfully. But we don’t wait until tomorrow to do it. We don’t wait until the people in power say the time is right. We do it right now.


Because Jesus has shown us a simple and powerful truth. One we need to come back to when things get too complex, or when we start to drift off course or when we start to forget what we’re really supposed to be about.

Jesus has shown us that …

God is good. All the time.

and …. All the time. God is good.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Christ's wisdom: Learning from our hunger." -- a sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by Canon Theologian Dr Mark Jordan at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 4, 2013

Good morning to all and to each of you. You may well wonder who I am. My name is Mark Jordan and I teach religion at Washington University. But that’s not why I’m here. Last spring, the cathedral chapter kindly appointed me “Canon Theologian.” Despite that resounding medieval title, I’m a lay member of this congregation, as most of you are. But then you may wonder why you can’t recall seeing my face alongside you in the pews.

The truth is that I come as an ambassador from a distant tribe. It’s called the 8 o’clock service. The tribe has strange customs. We don’t sing. We cling to 17th-century grammar. And we believe that when Jesus said that two or three should gather in his name, he meant only two or three.

It’s good to remember that people come to this cathedral not only at different times, but for diverse motives. We talk a lot about diversity here, and we should, but perhaps not often enough about liturgical diversity or theological diversity or spiritual diversity. Indeed, there may be only a handful of other people here this morning, only two or three, who share your exact mix of motives and needs. You may come because you have childhood memories of this building. You may come because you like to see friends. You may come because you love the music. Or because it’s a short walk from where you live and you happened to find it one day. Or because you admire the reredos, that towering sculptural wall behind the altar. Or perhaps you detest the reredos and return Sunday after Sunday in the dogged hope that someone will have covered it, at last!, with a thick tapestry.

We should expect this variety of religious motives and needs—and not just because people are so different. We should expect it because the mysterious God, the God who can never be contained or comprehended, calls people for all sorts of divine purposes, using all sorts of messengers. As Hosea says in this morning’s reading, God calls us for no better reason than that God loves us—love us as we are, in all our differences and disagreements. God says to Hosea, “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” There can be no better reason for being called here than divine love. Only we often don’t recognize it or realize that we hunger to be fed in just that way. So we need to be taught to recognize what or rather who draws us.

One biblical word for teaching about deep hunger is wisdom. I’m not sure that we Americans believe in wisdom. I mean, we’re drowning in information. Sometimes we trust expertise. We’re impressed by technical know-how, and we love an inside tip. But wisdom, especially religious wisdom? We tend to think of religious teaching as burdensome rules, or memorized Bible verses, or tedious and complicated doctrines. Are we ready to allow that a church might actually offer wisdom? That’s much harder, especially if we’ve had bad experiences in the past with abuses of religious teaching authority. So most of the time we convince ourselves that we don’t want wisdom after all or that there isn’t anything like wisdom to be had anyway. But it’s just this despair about wisdom, this cynicism about spiritual teaching, that keeps us hungry in spirit. One way to push back at the despair and to resist the cynicism is to find the source in ourselves of the hunger for wisdom—the desire for a spiritual teaching that we want as deeply as food to eat. We may need a teacher who can reawaken that desire.

From what we see in the gospels, Jesus spent most of his time teaching. Not rules, not doctrines, but wisdom. In today’s reading from Luke we see him refusing to teach anything other than wisdom. Someone asks him to intervene in a family dispute about an inheritance. Jesus gives an unexpected answer: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or an arbitrator over you?” In other words: Friend, you’re asking the wrong question. You want me to deliver an expert opinion that you can then use to extract the money that you think you need. But I’m sent to teach you something else, something much more urgent—something that you’ve forgotten you need.

Jesus has a habit of giving these unexpected answers. People ask him a question, and he replies with a story—as he also does today. Often the story is such a riddle that even his closest students can’t understand it. At other times, his answers are not only unexpected, they’re irritating. A few chapters further on in Luke, a group comes to Jesus with a question: Should we pay taxes to the Romans? (Luke 20:20-26). The compiler of Luke thinks that the questioners may have had bad motives for asking, but let’s leave that aside. The question makes good sense to Jesus’s audience: the Romans are not only invaders, they are religious enemies. So wouldn’t it be sinful to pay them taxes? Jesus asks back, Do you happen to have a coin on you? One of the surprised questioners holds one out. Jesus now asks, Whose image is on it? It’s the Roman emperor’s image, of course. That’s what you expect on a Roman coin. Well then, Jesus says, give the coin that shows the emperor back to the emperor. Give God what belongs to God. You can almost hear the questioners thinking, All we wanted to know was whether it was religiously permitted to pay our taxes? And you can also hear Jesus correcting the question underneath: Ask instead about what you have that belongs to God—and how you are called to take it back to God.

Jesus is a teacher, but not the kind of teacher we expect. He jolts our expectations. A jolt is good for us when we’re overconfident about exactly the kind of answer we require. A jolt is also good for us when we’ve given up asking for any answers in disappointment or boredom.

But beyond jolting us, what kind of wisdom did Jesus consider it important to teach us? Sit with that question for a moment. Put aside all the first answers that come up, all the automatic, churchy answers. Ask yourself, as if for the very first time: what does wisdom look like in Jesus’s teaching?

To begin with, he didn’t write anything down. All the texts we have about him, including all the books that make up the New Testament, were written by other people. Apparently Jesus didn’t consider it essential that he leave us a detailed written teaching. Maybe his wisdom isn’t best transmitted by books.

Or maybe it has to be transmitted by many books in varied forms and voices. Jesus taught by speaking on particular occasions, to particular people. His words were often annoying or troubling, when they weren’t simply incomprehensible. Apparently Jesus didn’t consider it important to give us bullet points or simple slogans. So maybe his wisdom isn’t simple the way some aggressive ideologies are. Or maybe it’s so simple that any words betray it. Again, Jesus’s teaching didn’t stop with words. He taught by actions. By healing and forgiving, but also by praying in desert solitude and then feasting with disreputable people.

On the night before he died, in his final teaching to his closest students, he didn’t hand over a summary creed or an institutional plan. He urged them—urges us—to repeat a ritual at his unguarded table.

In Jesus’s teaching, what does wisdom look like? We’ll each have answers to that question, and they’ll change as we learn. But I would suggest that his wisdom cannot ever be contained only in the prayer book (whether Rite 1 or Rite 2), or only in the Bible, or only—God knows—in sermons. His wisdom is displayed in the ritual he urged us to re-enact. We re-enact it every Sunday: people standing at a table remembering the teaching Jesus gave before he left us. It’s so familiar, so routine, so modest, that it can slip by without our paying much attention. Some Sundays, in fact, we bury it underneath all the things happening around it. But this intimate ritual is what our teacher gave us as the reminder of his wisdom.

We’ve come here this morning for our different reasons. We’ve arrived at the table that is the center of Jesus’s teaching. Now is the time to learn from him. Not when our lives are less busy. Not when we’ve sorted out all our problems. Not after we’ve built more barns or solved the cathedral’s financial challenges or finished editing its mission statement. Not when we finally agree on why we’re all supposed to be sitting here. We’re here now in the presence of this table, which belongs to Jesus. Let’s be ready now to learn. To remember what we each desire most. Let’s learn from our hunger.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Jesus -- it's nothing personal" - A sermon by the Rev. John Good.

A sermon preached by the Rev. John Good at St. Vincent's in the Vineyard, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, on Sunday, July 21, 2013. This is the last sermon John preached before he died on Sunday, August 18, 2013. We love and miss you, John. You were part of the transformation.

At age 75, I officially qualify as a curmudgeon. A curmudgeon is a grumpy, old critic of what the world is coming to. I want to warn you ahead of time that much of this sermon will be a grumpy critique of what American Christianity has come to. 

Before I can do that, however, I need to establish the foundation of my criticism in the lesson from the Hebrew Scripture that was our first reading for today. The prophet Amos was also a curmud¬geon who grumpily found fault with what the kingdom of Israel was coming to. Speaking the words God gave to him, Amos said, “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, …Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.” Notice that God’s focus is on justice. For God, justice is the extension of love into community and national life. He condemns the economic, political and social elite of Israel for their lack of love—for oppressing and exploiting the weak and the poor. In the rest of Amos’ prophecy, God promises the rich and powerful that they are headed for doom.

Jesus also courageously denounced the lack of love revealed in the religious and political elite’s unjust treatment of the under classes. He boldly attacked the elite of Jerusalem, the Pharisees and their theolo¬gians, when he went there to confront them before being crucified. In Eugene Peterson’s modern translation of the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus told the crowd in Jerusalem, “[The religion scholars and Pharisees] package [God’s Law] in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals…. [They] keep meticulous account books, tithing [you] on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commit¬ment—the absolute basics!—[they] carelessly take it or leave it.”

In twenty-first century America we rarely hear religious leaders criticize our political and economic elites for their lack of love revealed in their acceptance of social injustice. With the excep¬tion of Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners who actively challenge our institutions to deliver justice, plus a few others, most religious leaders believe that Christianity should steer clear of political, economic, and social concerns. They think that the Christian faith is a private and personal matter between an individual and God. They are primarily concerned with how we answer the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” The notion that we should have a personal relationship with Jesus grows out of the individualistic, narcissistic, consumer mentality spawned by the culture in which we live. It is the way our national ethos chooses to interpret scripture, even though it is not emphasized in the Bible. For the most part the witness of those who wrote the Bible is concerned with how love is translated into justice in the community instead of a personal relationship with God.

Those who promote a private, individualized Christianity also ask a related question: “Do you accept Jesus as your personal Savior?” They never specify what Jesus saves us from, but you can bet dollars to donuts they believe he saves us from going to hell after we die. Again the Bible places little emphasis on heaven and hell, but it became the standard paradigm for understanding salvation during the first Great Awakening in the middle of the eighteenth century in America. And it fits right into our national spirit of individualism.

By way of contrast, as the distinguished biblical scholar, Marcus Borg, explains, “Salvation now refers to life after death; it is about going to heaven. But in the Bible, it is seldom about an afterlife; rather, it is about transformation this side of death.” 1 Borg believes that the “heaven-hell” emphasis has twisted our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In his book, Speaking Christian, he writes, “The heaven-and-hell framework is like a black hole that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it changing and distorting it.” 2 That is why I have become a curmud¬geon when I look at the state of Christianity in today’s America.

You see, the privatized, individualized Christianity of America has turned our faith upside down. When we say that Jesus is our personal Savior we have made Jesus our servant. His main purpose is to save us from hell. But when God calls us to become transformed so that we can participate in God’s mission to establish his kingdom in our world, we are called to be God’s servant. That restores the proper relationship we have with God.

By way of contrast, Borg points to the main emphasis in the Bible when he says “it is about transformation this side of death.” Admittedly, that involves the transformation of each of us as individuals. But our personal transformation is intended to prepare us to participate in God’s mission to transform the whole world—but especially the communities where we live—into the kingdom of God. When Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee, he called for anyone who would be his disciple to repent—which is another way of saying “be transformed”—“for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And throughout his ministry, he never wavered from his focus on the kingdom. For Jesus, transformation goes beyond individual transformation; its ultimate goal is the transformation of the systems in which we live into systems based on love. As the scripture I quoted earlier makes clear, Amos and Jesus were attacking the domination systems of their eras in which small elites oppressed the under classes in order to exploit them for their own benefit. Ever since God attacked the domination system of Pharaoh, God has sent prophets like Amos and Jesus to cry out against oppression and injustice and point to a world in which love for neighbors is embodied in the political, economic, and social systems of the world—this world.

The God of the Hebrew-Christian Bible has revealed in its pages that God’s major concern is to transform our oppressive, exploitive, and heartless systems of society into liberating, cooperative, and compassionate systems that translate God’s love into justice and peace for all humankind. And God has given us the privilege to participate in that transformation as his servants.

1 Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored, (Harper Collins, New York: 2011) p. 15

2 Ibid. p. 17