“Lord, Save Us!” A Sermon for the Sunday after Charlottesville

I am struggling. I am afraid.

As I’ve watched events unfold this week, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all. I’ve struggled to find a way from our world and our lives into the gospel. It’s not that the gospel doesn’t speak to our situation. It most certainly does. it’s that the situation keeps changing and each day brings new horrors, new fears, new challenges. In this week when we observed the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we seem to be on the brink of nuclear war—closer to that catastrophe than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All week, I kept thinking back to what it was like for me as a student in West Germany in 1979-1980; where scars from World War II were still present, and all around were reminders of the threat of catastrophic, nuclear war.

By the end of the week, the president was threatening to go to war with Venezuela.

We learned this week that 2016 was the hottest year in the recorded history of our planet.

This weekend we have witnessed in Charlottesville the hatred and violence unleashed by white supremacists, emboldened by a national culture that seems unwilling to name and reject hate and white supremacy. We have seen a young woman murdered by one of the white supremacist protesters. Views that might have been unthinkable a decade ago have become mainstream, and people who hold those views are embedded at the heart of our political and civic culture. While I was heartened to see the Episcopal bishops of the Diocese of Virginia and other priests, among whom several I know personally, standing witness against that violence and hatred, the reality is that many, too many, white Christians equate Christianity with whiteness, white supremacy, and with American nationalism. These are sins we need to call out and name as evil. While it is easy to point fingers at others, it is important that we examine ourselves, to see where those views are embedded in our selves. Continue reading

Being Transfiguration in a time of violence: A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

Today, August 6, in the church’s calendar is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the major feasts of the life of Christ and because of that, when it falls on a Sunday, it supersedes the regular lectionary readings for the day. That explains why we are reading lessons from Exodus, 1 Peter, and the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of Matthew and the readings from Genesis and Romans we’ve been having.

It creates something of a problem for the preacher because there’s another Sunday each year when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). So it was only a few months ago that we heard Matthew’s version of this story. That we read this story each year on the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is appropriate because the themes of this story are a fitting transition between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and reflect the story’s position in each of the synoptic gospels. It comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, after Jesus’ first prediction that he will be crucified and his invitation to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Luke deepens the connection between transfiguration by stating, just a few verses later, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, after this mountaintop experience, Jesus begins his final journey that will end on another mountaintop—Calvary—with his crucifixion.

There’s another detail in the story that points ahead to the crucifixion. There’s only one other time that Luke says the disciples fell asleep. On that later occasion, as he faced crucifixion, Jesus asked his disciples to stay and watch with him while he prayed. Luke tells us that after praying, Jesus came back to them and found them sleeping, “because of grief.” This time, the disciples were “weighed down with sleep but they stayed awake and saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Whatever positive spin we might put on the disciples’ behavior here is likely negated by Peter’s response to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make booths…” No doubt, you’ve heard sermons criticizing Peter’s response, his lack of understanding, his desire to prolong the experience. But there other ways to think about it. “Booths” is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, which was in part a commemoration of the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.

And there are all sorts of echoes of Exodus here. Not just in the presence of Moses, the location on a mountaintop. There is also the presence of the cloud and the bright light, which were associated with experiences of divine revelation, including at Mt. Sinai. The word “Exodus” also appears, in Luke’s description of what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah—his “departure”—the same Greek word, eksodon is used. In the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, “exodus is one of the primary examples of God’s mighty acts on behalf of God’s chosen people, and it’s likely that Luke wants his readers to understand Jesus’ departure or exodus in similar terms, as God saving God’s people.

It may be, then, that Peter’s desire to erect booths is not an example of his misunderstanding, but that he wants to worship in this place, to be present with Jesus here, to learn from all three of these men. While the primary point of this story is about Jesus, a confirmation of his ministry, his calling, his identity as the Son of God, the Chosen One, this story may also be about discipleship, about following Jesus.

Jesus took his three favorite disciples, in Luke, the first three disciples he called, Peter, James, and John, up this mountain to pray. They had been with him all along his journey. They had seen his miracles, listened to his teaching, his first prediction of his suffering and death, and his call to them to take up their crosses and follow him. Now on top of this mountain, they saw his glory and wanted to prolong it. Whatever it meant, whatever they experienced, there was more to do; they could not tarry, but the four of them went back down the mountain and soon began that last, fateful trip to Jerusalem. And they kept silent about all that they had seen that day.

We, all of us, are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples. In our complicated world, with our complicated lives, it’s never quite clear what discipleship means. Is it enough to come to church from time to time and worship, to experience the beauty of God, to catch sight of God’s glory, if only momentarily and partially? I was speaking this week with an elderly couple who are unable, because of health issues to attend Grace. They expressed their deep sadness about missing services, for it was not just the community they lacked, it is the experience of awe and transcendence that they miss, and can find in no other place in their lives.

Worship, the experience of God’s glory is an important part of following Jesus but there is more to discipleship than that. When Jesus came down the mountain, he returned immediately to his ministry of teaching and healing, of proclaiming and bringing into being, the reign of God. And that is precisely what we are called to do as well. Our experience of God’s glory transforms us as well as we do those same things proclaiming the coming of God’s reign, and in our actions and lives, being agents and examples of God’s glory in the world.

The mount of Calvary looms over the mountain of Transfiguration; the cross casts its shadow on Christ’s transfigured face. Our observance of the Feast of Transfiguration occurs in a divided city that has experienced unprecedented violence in recent months. We have seen, as I’m sure you know, 10 homicides already this year, tying the record for the most murders in a year in Madison. Our city is more divided than ever. Our elected leadership is quarreling over what to do in response to this crisis and community leaders are frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhoods most affected by the violence are living in fear everyday and mourning the deaths of friends and family.

We, most of us, watch the news reports, read about them in the papers or on social media, but few of us have experienced the ripples of that violence ourselves. Oh, we may know where the events occurred, we may have stopped at the gas stations or convenience stores where incidents took place, we may even live within earshot. But most of us live in a completely different world. There’s a map on Madison.com that plots all of the significant incidents of gun violence in the city since May. Only one of the some 50 total occurred in the downtown, near westside or near eastside. It’s another piece of evidence showing how divided our city is.

As followers of Jesus, called to share the good news of the coming of God’s reign, called to break down the barriers that divide us, we are called to be agents of Christ’s reconciling love in this world. A group of us, the Creating More Just Community task force, has been engaging on issues of racism and inequality for the last several years. We are working on a new initiative to build relationships with our neighbors across the street at the Capitol, and shared information about that effort with you last week.

Now, I am calling us to engage in that reconciling work in our city. The violence we are witnessing is a symptom of something much deeper, of hopelessness and despair, of broken families, broken lives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking part in conversations with clergy and community leaders to see how we at Grace can work with others to heal our divisions, to bring an end to violence, and to spread the glory of Christ’s love in our city.

 

Murder City Madison–Follow up

I wrote on Wednesday about the rash of shootings and 10 homicides in Madison so far this year. For those interested in the story, I am providing here some updates and additional information.

First, there was another attempted homicide last night.The victim had “non-life threatening injuries.”

There’s a background piece in this week’s Isthmus about the violence and about the conflict among city elected officials and community leaders about how best and most effectively to respond.

Amid all the violence and rancor, there are also signs of hope and success. Selfless Ambition reports on the dramatic changes in one Madison neighborhood over the last few years. One of the city’s poorest communities, the Leopold neighborhood has begun a remarkable transformation. The number of police calls dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015, thanks to the assignment of a community resource police officer, expanded community programming at the elementary school, and the creation of urban community gardens.

If you want to follow developments in this ongoing story and in the effort to overcome racial disparity in our community, I recommend visiting Madison365 and Selfless Ambition regularly. Both are doing great work!

Murder City Madison

We woke today to learn that overnight another man was shot to death in Madison, the tenth homicide in 2017, the third in the last week. That ties the record with 2007 for the most homicides in a year, on August 2. I took me a while to compile a list of all of the victims’ names (police haven’t released the name of the most recent victim). Here they are:

1 David Edwards March 1
2 Andrew Nesbitt March 27
3 Michael Mederds, May 30
4 Jameel Easter June 10
5 Gerald Moore  June 24
6 Christ Kneubuehl June 26
7 Kub Herr July 2
8 Riccardo C. Simms. July 26
9 Ciara Philumalee July 29

There were domestic incidents (Andrew Nesbitt was killed by his roommate) and Christ Kneubuehl died of a heart attack during and armed robbery at a Culver’s but the most recent killings have seemed frighteningly similar: people gunned down in public. As Police Chief Mike Koval said of the most recent homicide: “This was a brutal assassination.”

The increase in violence has increased tension between elected officials and leaders in the African-American community as they struggle to develop solutions to the immediate problems and the underlying issues. There’s also a knee jerk response that puts the blame on people coming from Chicago or Milwaukee.

Madison.com provides a map that shows all of the serious gun-related incidents in Madison since May. It’s quite revealing. There’s only been one incident in the downtown area, the near east side, or near west side. The remainder of the almost 40 charted on the map occurred in or near largely African-American neighborhoods, along the belt line or near the interstate.

Of course, many of them occurred in places, like a 7-11, where people of all races and classes might come together but Chief Koval has been careful to insist that the most recent killings have been targeted–victims and shooters are known to each other.

Koval has also warned that police will become more proactive, that they will be “rattling the cages” those “creating havoc.” Undoubtedly, this means closer surveillance of African-Americans, arresting people on parole or probation violations. Such tactics will only worsen the already strained relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community.

I’ve got no proposals to make, no great ideas, no possible solutions. I am surprised not only by the spiral of violence but also by the relative silence in the larger community. Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by all of the news coming out of Washington–the healthcare debate, the chaos in the White House, the international crises. The old tagline “if it bleeds, it leads” still seems to be valid. Headlines of the shootings on the home pages of local media, but there is a lot else grabbing our attention, not least the Foxconn deal that has brought the legislature back into special session.

I’ve got nothing to offer, except prayer and an invitation to conversation. We’ll be using a litany this Sunday that I’m adapting from one written by Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. We’ll name all ten victims of homicide in Madison this year in those prayers; we’ll remember their friends and family. We’ll pray for healing and hope and that our city will come together across the divisions of neighborhood, class, and race.

And today I’m praying that there are no more killings, tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or for the rest of the year.

 

 

The Parable of the Weed and the Mulch: A sermon for Proper 10, Year A, 2016

Many of you know that my wife and I are avid gardeners. . We took all of the grass out of our backyard some years ago and planted trees, shrubs, perennials. I made a rock path a few years ago. It’s beautiful but it takes a great deal of work and while I find the work relaxing, it can also be exhausting.

This year, between the wet spring, late Easter, and our vacation, we didn’t really get out into it to work until the end of June. Those of you who are gardeners can imagine the horrors we encountered. Overrun with weeds and mosquitoes, we’ve been spending all of our free time in it. I had eight yards of mulch delivered the Friday before the 4th and finally it looks like I’ll be done spreading it by next weekend. Continue reading

A discipleship of rest: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year A, 2017

I’ve been doing something in our Sunday services these past few weeks that professors of preaching and liturgical scholars tell preachers not to do. The rule is, always preach the gospel. Well, rules are meant to be broken and there are very good reasons for breaking them. Those of you who have been around here a while know that I usually do preach on the appointed gospel text although some of you will remember many times when I’ve done otherwise. For example, three years ago, when we last had these lectionary readings, I spent most of the summer focusing on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Curiously, I’ve never had anyone ask me for more of that. Continue reading