Thursday, December 28, 2017

Characteristics of an Adventer's faith . . .

     There are weeks and then there are weeks.  If you are visiting this morning and find yourself in the midst of an emotional group of people, we are usually good old southern Episcopalians.  We normally keep our emotions in check.  You just find us in a difficult place this week.  My plan had been to finish up teaching us how to live lives reflective of our self-designation as Adventers and then to transition us toward Christmas.  The phone call from our Mary Wednesday changed all that.  If you have not heard, though I expect that via electronic means or phone calls every one has heard, David Kline was killed Wednesday morning as he was trying to help a motorist.  This was an odd year in the sense that Advent 4 and Christmas Eve were the same day, a liturgical event that happens only when Christmas falls on a Monday.  That causes all kinds of stress for Altar Guilds and Flower Guilds and clergy.  Toss in an unexpected death, and you have a recipe for a real mess.
     Of course, God specializes in redemption and cleaning up real messes.  He may not do it the way we want, but He is always working to redeem all things.  Though David’s death was untimely by our standards, God is already using his death to provoke some deep conversations.  Both Adventers and those who knew David have been struggling with the deep questions of faith.  How can a good God let something like this happen?  Now of all times?  Where was God when David really needed Him?  David’s death ruins Christmas for me, I can only imagine what it does to Mary.  Why would God allow this?  I know you preached this season that we need to be prepared to meet God any moment, but really?  This?  And so this sermon and all our teachings for the next few weeks will likely have an urgency.  None of us when we left last Sunday expected any of us to be killed like that.  Yet as a pastor, I can think of few others better prepared to have met God this week than our brother David.
     The oft-repeated description about David this week has been the recognition that he and Mary lived their lives as if they truly believed the Gospel.  It’s not only Adventers who noticed this, but even friends and acquaintances who claim to have no faith of their own.  And that, my brothers and sisters, is an incredible testimony!  Would that when we all passed, our friends and neighbors would say of each of us that we lived our lived as if we believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
     I will, of course, speak more to David’s life and death and faith at his funeral, but today I will endeavor to prepare each one of us just a bit better, so that we might live lives that reflect gloriously on our Lord and draw others into His saving embrace.  Forgive me if I have an edge to my urgency, particularly if you are visiting.  I have simply had it hammered home this week the urgency of our work and need for discipling.
     I joked a bit last week at the first service that lady Adventers needed to keep Mary’s story foremost in their minds when friends in other denominations call women the root of evil.  We have all heard the claim that there would be no evil, were it not for the poor choice of Eve.  Ignore for a moment the fact that Adam was responsible for instructing her and that he was present when she ate of the fruit.  If you buy into the idea that Eve was the source of the Fall, then you need to be giving Mary credit for the redemption of humankind.  Just as Eve chooses unwisely, Mary chooses wisely.  What was undone in Eve’s choice is redeemed in Mary’s.  So, my sisters especially, keep that knowledge in your quiver when you are facing some unthoughtful Christians.
     Mary’s story today, though, is informative for other reasons.  Not only does Mary teach us how we should view women, but she teaches how we should view all human beings, including ourselves.  And there are four lessons I would like us to remember from our reading about Mary.  Hopefully, they will be easier for us to remember than the four marks of mission in the diocese that the bishop shared with us three weeks ago.
     First, what is the greeting of the angel given to Mary?  She is favored.  In this greeting, we are revealed a couple important characteristics about God.  He favors a young woman, tradition says a teenager.  I don’t know about you all, but I don’t know that my mother or father would have described me as favored as a teenager.  I had a mouth.  I was certain I knew it all.  And I was not afraid to share how much I knew!  I see some chuckling, so I must have had some spiritual twins out there.  Many of you out there were also parents.  Tell me, as your children reached those wonderful teenage years, was favored the first word that came to your mind as you dealt with attitude, with interpersonal relationships, with “I hate you’s,” and everything else that comes with those difficult years?  Yet here is God revealing that He favors Mary.
     We learn another bit about God’s characteristics, too, in this story.  Is Mary out searching for God?  Are we told that Mary was out looking for a sign from God or an encounter with the angel Gabriel?  Of course not.  She was going about her life, living day to day as most of us live, when, presumably, the angel appeared to her and gave her that amazing choice!  In a way, God’s seeking of Mary is typological of His seeking of all of us.  One of the overarching themes of Scripture is that of God as a shepherd.  He is a prototypical shepherd, though, in that He seeks after the lost sheep.  Over and over again, we are reminded that God leaves the flock to go in search of the lost sheep.  Since each one of us was lost at some point, we have, to one degree or another, experienced this side of God.  He searches for each of us in the brambles and crevasses and desert canyons of life.
     To the extent that we are now His adopted sons and daughters, we should be reflecting the characteristics of our Father in heaven.  That means we favor others.  When we look on others we do not judge them as the world sees them.  We go after the lost sheep recognizing that God favors them every bit as much as He favors us.  And, as God reveals in His approach of this teenage girl, we are called to favor even those whom society would choose to ignore or disparage.  It part and parcel of why we feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the lonely, speak out when a slave is wrongly imprisoned, teach ESL, send missionaries to lands to hear the Gospel, and any other number of ministries we undertake in His name.  But, we even go after those who are like ourselves, recognizing that they, too, like us, need to know they are favored and loved by God.
     The second lesson of Mary’s response is one of confusion.  When God shows up, how do we typically respond?  Put differently, does God show up in the places, in the events, in the way, and in the times we expect Him?  Or does He seem to be about His own plan?  Much hay was made a couple weeks ago about my effort on behalf of Cyntoia.  A lot of people wanted to believe I had this incredible plan or vision for working for survivors and victims of modern slavery.  I wish.  I had to disabuse them of that notion quickly.  You all know me.  In many ways I’m unremarkable.  I know I’m eye candy, but I’m not like on the level of Brad Pitt or whatever hunk is garnering the ladies’ attention these days.  I know I’m funny, but I don’t quite rise to the level of a Jim Gaffigan or Robin Williams, though I am an Episcopalian like the latter.  Why are you all chuckling?  I’m no Rockefeller, but I am certainly rich . . . scratch that, y’all get the point.  I had to share that with people.  Had I known everything that would come from visiting that alleged location of slave trading, would I have gone through with it?  I don’t think so.  Heck, I’m pretty certain that, had God shared everything about my ministry prior to my willingness to seek ordination, I would have pulled a Jonah and run away.  But in those feelings, I am just like you.  Sure, we all want to believe that we would run headlong into what God tells us, but let’s be honest.  Most of us are stunned when He shows up.  Most of us are shocked when God begins redeeming.
     Take this week and David.  How many of us discovered that on a fundamental level we were not prepared to meet God were He to return this moment?  More frightening, how many of our loved ones would be unprepared at His return?  Yet, David’s death is already being used by God to cause some of these hard conversations to take place.  Repeatedly, I heard “I know you think I’m a strong Christian, Father, but . . .” followed by a string of doubts or confusion.  Far too many times I can count, I heard “All I can think about, Father, is what if it was ________ or _________.  I’m not sure they really believe.  I’m not sure I did a good job raising them to understand the importance of a saving faith in God.”  Those questions cannot happen unless God is present, redeeming, seeking, loving.  And as I have pointed out this early redemption in our midst, how have Adventers responded?  A bit confused, as was our Lord’s mother, Mary.
     The third characteristic I want you to take away from Mary’s response is her doubt.  I get a kick this time of year when the world tries to explain that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin, as if that would be tougher than being raised from the dead.  One of my favorite excuses is the supposed advancement of our understanding about sex.  We like to pretend that we are so much more advanced than those who came before us.  There is no way that Mary could have conceived a child without a sperm, so being a virgin in those days was not what we understand it to be today?  Really?  Both Mary and Joseph seem to understand the implication of her getting pregnant without having sex well enough.  They may not have understood sperms and eggs and details like that, but they understood sex and where babies come from.  Mary wonders how this can happen since she has not had sex with anyone yet?  To her teenage mind, as much as our, such is not possible!  So she questions the claim of the angel.
     Unlike Zechariah who a few verses earlier rejected the angel’s message about fathering the one who would proclaim the arrival of Messiah, How can I be sure of this, Mary wonders how these events can happen given her understanding of how they happen.  I know.  Good Christians are not supposed to question anything.  Everything is a part of God’s plan, right?  Hogwash!  I’d use stronger words, but there are gentle ears among us.  Hogwash!  Who really thinks God intended for David to die Wednesday morning?  What kind of sick God would we be worshiping if He was sitting up there in heaven planning for David to die, visiting trauma upon his family and friends and fellow Adventers, giving a truck and car and other car driver a nice dose of survivor guilt, taking away from us a voice that spoke to the need of change and the need to bring the whole flock, and, oh yeah, removing from the lives of so many people a man who lived his faith as if he believed the Gospel?  God does not plan evil for us.  God does not sharpen a lightning bolt up there and say “watch this!” with an evil laugh.  He loves us; He regards us; He seeks us; and He redeems us.  We make the messes; He just cleans them up!  What people intend for evil; God uses for His good purposes.  There’s a huge difference in that understanding and the idea that He plans evil for us.
     Nowhere, though, does He criticize us for questioning.  As I have engaged in conversation after conversation this week, I hope no one has heard condemnation in my voice.  I have not intended it; and I do not think God wanted you to feel it.  Over and over I tell Adventers to join Robert and Jim in their wrestling with faith group.  I don’t do it to sabotage you.  I’m not one of those sickos who argue that God placed dinosaur bones in rocks to test our faith, like we need help failing or like He desires any of us to fail.  He’s a loving Father.  He created us with brains.  We are encouraged to question; we are encouraged to wonder.  And even when we doubt, as did Zechariah, does He give up on us?  No, He favors and seeks and woos us!  Make no mistake: Nothing will be impossible with God!  But God seems to be quite accepting of our wonder and questions.  God understands our doubts, and works to overcome them.
     Finally, the fourth and last characteristic displayed by Mary is her obedience.  Mary is allowed to doubt and to question, but the time comes for a decision.  God has incredible patience with us until that moment in our own lives.  I wonder how long the angel had to wait for Mary’s response?  All of salvation history had been building to this point, and yet God was entrusting a young girl to be the bearer of the Savior.  She knew some of the cost.  What would Joseph say?  What will my family say?  What will my friends say?  Would she have assented had she known that He would have to die horribly on the Cross to complete God’s plan of salvation?  Only God knows.  In the end, though, when push came to shove, she trusted in God and His redemptive purposes, and agreed to do as He asked.
     You and I often face similar decisions in our lives.  God places people or ministries in front of us or in our heads.  We doubt our ability or expertise.  We doubt our eloquence or worthiness.  We question His wisdom in choosing us or doing His work in a certain way.  In the end, though, all disciples reach a decision point like Mary.  Are we His servants, trusting He will accomplish His purposes in our lives through us and even despite us; or do we serve someone or something else?  There is, in the end, only one choice that leads to salvation and life.  All others lead us away from Him.
     In these four characteristics, Mary outlines an Adventer faith.  True, her faith made it possible for the Incarnation to happen, but our faith responses can, in the end, be no less remarkable, in a sense no less God-bearing.  We are Adventers.  We claim to be about the job of sentinels, of watchmen, of those reminding Christians and the world around us that our Lord will return again one day in power and in great glory.  Until that moment happens, we are free to wrestle, to question, to doubt, and to worry.  But we are also called to make a decision.  Do we think His promise true?  Are all things possible with God?  David’s life and death caused others to take notice.  When unbelievers remark on similarities between our lives and our faith, we have accomplished something truly glorious for the world.  When the unchurched notice us working on behalf of those who can never repay us, they begin to understand the favor with which we are all viewed by God.  When we begin to wrestle and then respond in faith, and celebrate the redemptive victories of God in our life, then the world and the Church begins to realize the dark wilderness in which we minister and the source of the light and hope within us.  We become, in a marvelous way, God-bearers for them, pointing them to the way of light and life in Christ our Lord, and of the joy and blessedness that really accompanies what we will remember tonight.
     As we begin to leave this season and enter into that first coming of our Lord, I pray that we all begin to demonstrate those characteristics embodied by Mary.  I pray that we encounter this Babe in a manger with fresh eyes, with fresh purpose, and with renewed hearts.  I pray that we engage others as we sprint towards this wondrous event, with regard and willingness to accept their doubts and questions as opportunities to share with them the source of our own Light.  And I pray that, through our obedience, He will be glorified again and again and again in the world, a world that, as the events of this last week reminded us, is so in need of His saving grace.

In Christ’s Peace,


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Work in the wilderness . . . lights walking in darkness . . .

     I had one of those weeks where sermon prep was virtually unnecessary.  Oh, I still had to consider how best to share with you the God-moments of this week in our life and how they related to the readings, but life in the world out there coincided perfectly with our “patronal season,” some subjects in our Annual Meeting today, and our reading from Mark.  So I was excited.  I thought I would have more time to tend to the Annual meeting and typing up of some past sermons.  Yes, I know I am way behind.  Then, of course, we got the news that Leitha had died, and all my free time was gone.  You all laugh, but that’s the exciting life of a priest.  Still, God was faithful.  My sermon was basically done.
     It began earlier this week, as many of you saw on Facebook, with my entrance into the Y.  I entered to some clapping, attaboy’s, and handshakes.  Me being me, I could not figure out how everybody knew I was so close to 2500 miles ridden and 100,000 calories burned.  Those that bike would know, but the real focus at the Y is on tennis rather than bicycling.  One of the ladies laughed and said “you have no idea what’s going on, do you?”  I did that stupid maybe I do thing.  She said “it’s about that girl you wrote about and are trying to get set free.”  Ah, Cyntoia.  The conversations as I entered were superficial.  Some people had no idea I was a priest until this week.  Some people knew I was a priest but had no idea I did other things than preach and ride bicycles.  Some people just thought I was a cool dad because I take my kids to the Y to ride and swim.  Heck, few knew before that evening that I had seven kids.  But now everybody knew me.
     After the polite greetings and thank you’s, I headed to get changed and to my bike.  I should have known then that my evening would not be my own.  While I was changing in the locker room, I was approached about the case of Cyntoia.  The gentleman wanted to know how I come across it.  Then he wanted to know about human trafficking.  That conversation, of course, led to other conversations.  I think it took me 15-20 minutes to get changed and headed back up to the exercise floor. 
     I wasn’t two tenths of a mile into my ride when a lady walked up and played fifty questions.  It turns out her real worry was the election down in Alabama and the “Christian” mantle being draped over one of the candidates. 
     Another lady interrupted, she could not help but hear our discussions, but she wanted to know if I thought it horrible what they were doing to Senator Franken.  That led us on a merry discussion about apologies, repentance, and party loyalty.
     Over and over again, people came up to speak to me about Cyntoia, how they were going to write the Governor, and then speak about other issues that were important to them.  Mind you, I need air to breathe when exercising.  I’m not a big talker.  George and Sonny and Francis and Matthew can all testify that I am fat and out of shape and need the oxygen!  But these conversations clearly had to be had.
     One minority girl spoke to me about how stunned she was to hear that a white Episcopal male priest in TN was standing up for a minority girl.  “Y’all just don’t do that.  Episcopal priests are the definition of privilege.”  Now, I will say I sometimes joke about my privilege card getting lost in the mail after ordination.  I hear some of the great stories of colleagues who spend their time in country clubs, on the golf courses, vacationing at parishioners’ homes on the coast or in the snow-covered mountains.  I get it.  Unfortunately, I don’t get those things!  Lol  I guess I have been serving in all the wrong congregations.
     This was one of mine and Holly’s on-going conversations.  Holly would embarrass me sometimes thanking me for throwing her to you wolves.  Our job as a parish was to prepare her for her next parish here in Tennessee, so I did that the only way I knew how.  It’s what had been done to me, albeit without a rector.  I would have done the same thing were she a man, and that’s what Holly appreciated.  It turns out, it’s also what other ladies appreciate.  Last week at clericus, I was approached by several ladies who were thankful for what I had done for Holly and who wished they’d had that kind of relationship with a rector when they first started.  And as I listened to their stories, I could only lament that they perceived me as an exception in God’s Church.  If any place should get male and female relationships right, it’s the Church.  It’s not like God waited until the end of the Bible or added a footnote, In the beginning . . . He created them in His image!
     In any event, this young girl was stunned that a white male priest was daring to call out the government for acting unjustly on behalf of a young black prostitute.  Our conversation, was, as you might imagine, deep.  Cyntoia was a slave; she did not choose that life.  But on another level, I shared with her my disappointment that my efforts were so rare that they stunned her.  Perception, as they say, is reality.  From her perspective, Episcopalians are just white folks who like to drink at church—btw, I had several conversations about the validity of our denomination with members of other denominations, but that’s a sermon series for another time.  She had no idea that the typical Anglican in the world is a young black woman.  The reality that we white Americans are so in the minority within our denomination just stunned her.  I could not answer her question about whether we had more white bishops or more black bishops worldwide.  I told her I suspected it would be close, because we have too many bishops in the United States and too few in impoverished parts of the world, but there were a lot of black bishops and even Archbishops in our communion.  Heck, our Presiding Bishop is black.
     That got her wondering.  Do we address black issues?  I asked her what she meant.  She gave me a list of things and I told her that I like to think we address all Gospel issues in my parish.  We may not have all the answers, but we have an appreciation for what some of our minority brothers and sisters experience.  She asked for an example and I shared the stories of my last two senior wardens being pulled over and what goes through their heads.  I shared what minority moms worry about when their children are pulled over, things that white moms never really give a second thought.  Heck, I shared how some of our minorities are treated differently between Brentwood and Nashville.  In Brentwood, it seems to be assumed that everyone is a professional, particularly if they are wearing nice clothes or driving a nice car.  In Nashville, that does not necessarily seem to be the case.  She was stunned.  She really thought only black churches addressed black issues.  When I shared with her some of the history and the work of Rector then bishop Quintard, she was a bit dumbfounded. 
     Now, before some of you think we have it all figured out and we can rest on our laurels, I warned her that figuring this stuff out is painful.  She is thinking of checking our church out over the holidays.  I did not want her to think we were a museum of saints when, in reality, we are a hospital of sinners.  I told her we may be willing to talk about issues openly, but solving them is a different story.  I told her that part of what had led the parish to call me was my work in human trafficking and, yet, my work in it was not necessarily accepted.  Some parishioners worried “I would attract ‘those people’ to Advent.”  Some parishioners worried my sermons would always really be about human trafficking.  Some were worried that I wanted Advent to be a modern outpost on the Underground Railroad.  I even predicted how many Adventers would take the time to write the letters to the Governor and Parole Board.  She laughed that I was making this work seem really, really hard.  I had to remind her it was so hard it took God to reconcile us to Himself and to others.
     This last conversation I am about to share, I was leaning against after thinking about it during 8am.  Unfortunately, it was the one that a couple 8am attenders only wanted to talk about.  As I was riding, I was approached by a lady.  She excused the interruption and asked if I remembered her.  I did not.  She described an encounter, and as she went along I inwardly cringed.  One evening this summer, after I had completed a long ride, I was walking toward the exit headed to the showers and maybe the hot tub.  A guy, we will call him creepy perv guy, grabbed me and said something to me.  I had my earbuds in so I did not catch his words the first time.  I pulled one out and asked him to say that again.  Poor perv guy, he did.  Would you look at that!  Aren’t they beautiful?  It took me a few seconds looking around the room and the follow of a couple of his gestures to realize what he was looking at.  Let me remind you, I was tired, sweaty, thirsty, and struggling to breathe.
     To my left on the treadmill was a woman who was well-endowed.  She was running and things were bouncing.  Creepy perv guy had been pretending to use a machine just to watch her run and enjoy the view.  Now, I will not give you all my exact words, as they were fairly harsh.  After my harsh words, I tried to explain how his objectification demeaned her and embarrassed other men.  It was a behavior right out of the 1970’s.  I reminded him that she was here working out, trying to get in shape or to lose weight.  It was hard enough for women to get over their body image issues in our world and work to be healthy, but then creeps like him were just that last reason not to work out, that and the fact that, once a woman passes a certain size, athletic bras don’t provide the necessary support.  Remember, I was tired so my filters were really off, like dark off.
     I went on to invite the man in question either to work on his body or to leave the facility so that the rest of us men would not have to bear the consequence of his childish behavior – again, I’m sanitizing things a bit.  I remember I told Karen that night and Holly† the next day.  Both had their own thoughts on the matter.  Neither was shy about sharing them.
     Anyway, this was that woman.  She heard the whole conversation, especially the bad parts.  And she wanted to apologize and to thank me.  When I asked about the apology, she said she was so thankful I had humiliated the guy.  In truth, I cringed about that, as I should never be about humiliating people.  She allowed it might have been a poor choice of words.  I had been direct with the man, and I did try to educate him a bit.  So I asked again why the apology.  She said I had no idea how hard it was to be a woman of a certain size up top and the garbage they have to put up with.  She knew he was watching, but she did not want to let him win, but she also did not want to let him get his jollies off her running.  She was kinda trapped in the situation, and then I came along.  She owed me a huge thank you that night, and she didn’t.  Partly, she was stunned that someone could be so blunt.  Guys ogle her rather than defend her.  Even when they defend her, she assumes they have an ulterior motive.  I said my piece and headed on out the door.  The other reason was that the guy would have heard her thank you and realized he made her feel uncomfortable.  She did not want him to recover any of the strength and size he had lost in his conversation with me.
     She went to say she should have thanked me the next day, but I was with my little boy and the subject matter was . . . well, inappropriate.  The same thing happened the next day.  By the time I was alone, it was three days out, and it seemed a little too late to thank me.  She was worried that, after three days, I might think she was creepy perv lady.  Naturally, I told her to look at this body, mind you it was without the concealing robes.  I told her did she really think that with this body I was not used to dealing with creepy perv women?
     Now, she laughed really hard, too.  It’s almost like y’all don’t think this body attracts the pervs and creeps in female form.  She laughed hard.  But she had a huge question.  Could I really say that to someone?  Again, y’all don’t know the beginning of my conversation with the guy, but she heard it.  I told her my bishop would certainly encourage me to use other than earthy language, but I could not think of anything better to say at that moment.  In truth, I’m not sure I could get his attention from her with softer words.  She wondered for a moment, too.  Then she laughed.  She shared that she told all her friends at work what had happened.  They all lost it and wished they had been there to see it.  She could not wait to see their faces the next day when she told them that the sweaty guy that chewed out creepy perv guy was a fricking priest!
     We talked for a few more minutes.  She wanted to know why I did not act like so many guys.  She wanted to know how I knew about the issues of sports bras.  She was fascinated by my claim that it was transformative grace rather than anything in me.  She was, understandably, upset by memories that had been dredged up during the #metoo campaign.  It ended with me inviting her to church and her promising to make it here for Christmas Eve.
     Sitting there, you may be wondering what in the world all this has to do with any of the readings.  Sitting there, you may be worried I am high on Sudafed and unable to make the connection; after all, I usually focus on the reading and then the application.  Look for a moment at our Gospel passage.  I mean really look at it.  Did you know this was the beginning of the Gospel of Mark?  Where’s the discussion of the genealogy of Jesus?  Where’s the Silent Night Holy Night stuff?  Where’s the story of John the Baptizer and Elizabeth and Mary?  That’s right.  Those details are included in the other Gospels.  Mark does not waste time with those stories.  He jumps right in.  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  There’s no story building.  Mark has a particular focus and he is going to get to it.  I can’t remember who the commentator was, I probably read it when I translated the book in seminary, but I remember my favorite description is that Mark is an extended passion narrative with a brief introduction and crazy ending.  If you think about it, that commentator was spot on.  We get a few details, but Mark heads right for the events of the passion.  More amazingly, Mark ends his Gospel with so they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
     Mark’s Gospel is abrupt in part, I think, to make us think.  Why does Mark not spend more time establishing that Jesus was who He says He was?  How do we know the story if Mark’s ending is true?  Ah, I see the squirms.  Mark accepts from the beginning that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.  He does not waste a lot of pen and ink arguing for us to accept that claim.  He focuses on the Passion and Resurrection – those are testimony enough.  Then he leaves us with this weird question wondering how we came to know these things, if everyone was silent, afraid, and fled.  What changed them?  The Resurrection.  As with Paul, Mark realizes the Resurrection makes Jesus unique in history.  There is no need to waste a lot of time on the healing miracles, as does Luke, or the theological discussion, as does John, so far as Mark is concerned.  Jesus was raised.  End of story, or beginning of our story.
     At first glance, you and I might wonder why the lectionary editors chose the introduction of this abrupt Gospel for the reading of Advent II.  There’s not a lot of buildup in these verses.  Heck, it even misquotes Isaiah.  I want us to focus on the location.  Where does all this take place?  In the wilderness.  If you were God and were going to do important things, where would you do them?  Your Temple?  Your city?  At least in other highly populated areas?  Doing things in the wilderness risks people missing the significance.  It would be like, in modern times, God bypassing Nashville and instead heading to some unpopulated ridge in the plateau or, maybe even some ridge between Knoxville and Bristol.  If God did work in the remote regions, who would hear of it?  Who would recognize it as His handiwork?
     Where is God at work in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel?  The wilderness.  After paraphrasing Isaiah, where do we find the great prophet, John the Baptizer?  In the wilderness.  What is John doing?  He was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Should that not be done in the cities?  That’s where all the people are.  Yet, where does John do his work?  In the wilderness.  Is the significance of his worked missed or ignored?  No.  The people from the countryside and the city of God go to the wilderness to hear John’s message.  We know from the other Gospel writers that John’s message reached even the ears of those in the Temple.  The religious leaders even trekked out into the wilderness to hear the message of John the Baptizer.
     Why am I pounding the location this morning?  Why did I share my encounters at the Y this week?  Where does our work really occur?  In the wilderness, in the darkness.  There was a famous movie about baseball done about an hour north of my last parish in Iowa.  Its whispered slogan was “If you build it, they will come.”  That’s how we approached church for many decades.  Look around us.  How many churches are saddled with shrinking congregations and gigantic facilities, facilities that are increasingly tough to maintain as the membership ages and dies off?  In some ways we at Advent fell into that trap as well, right?  I’ve seen the drawings.  The plan was to keep adding on and adding on so we could offer everybody what they needed.
     I like to think our predecessors were tempered by our liturgy.  Why do we gather here each and every week?  We gather to be instructed, disciple, encouraged, prepared.  For what?  For the work He has given us to do!  Where does that work take place?  In the wilderness!  Well, really it’s our workplace, our clubs, our common interest groups, our families, our neighborhoods, our exercise clubs, our schools, but you get the idea.  As we close each Eucharist we pray to God to strengthen us to do the work He has given us to do and to send us out in peace.  We don’t stay here, waiting for people to stroll in.  We are sent back out with a mission!  Like those famous brothers proclaimed, we are on a mission from God each and every time we walk out those doors.  We may not know our missions.  We may not realize our work was mission until later.  But make no mistake, we are on a mission from God in the wilderness, in the darkness, out there.  Our work is not in the Holy City; our work is not in the Temple, the Sanctuary.  And believe me, there is darkness aplenty out there. 
     You all hear the stories of those I encounter as I work to make my way into the wilderness around us.  How many of those in our neighborhood are struggling to hang on?  They are a job loss, a hospitalization away from losing everything they value.  And how transitory are the things that many of them value?  The Church obviously needs to work on this, but what is objectification of women like in the world out there?  Our sisters know.  They live and work and play out there.  They go from place to place in a wilderness that, three weeks ago was expressing its debt of gratitude to a man named Hugh, whose tireless work freed us from the sexual oppression of the Puritans in this country.  Now, barely a month later, the people in the darkness are clucking their tongues and internet-shaming men who listened to the dark teachings of that same Hugh!  It’s schizophrenic!  How many people do we encounter are afraid of getting sick?  We live in, arguably, the most advanced society in the history of the world; yet how many in our society are unable to reap its healthcare benefits because of the cost?  How many of those we encounter in the wilderness are worried about saving enough for retirement?  I know.  Everybody assumes they will be working until they are dead now.  Retirement is really for the idle rich or for people whose pensions are not yet raided.  How many people out there in the darkness seek to dull the pain of life through alcohol or drugs or other self-destructive behavior?  I could go on and on and on, but you know the darkness because you sojourn out there, you work out there, you play out there.  In truth, we are only here to be fortified for that work, to have our wicks trimmed, that we might go back out into the wilderness and minister to others just like John the Baptist, pointing others to the life-giving Jesus Christ.
     That brings me to the second important lesson of the day from Mark.  What is the sign that John’s prophesy has come true and that Mark’s understanding about the identity of Jesus is correct?  That’s right!  The Holy Spirit!  The new age ushered in by the work and person of Jesus is the one of the Holy Spirit.  By virtue of our baptism, we are united with Christ in His death, His Resurrection, and in His work!  When we need help to accomplish His will, we know that He intercedes on our behalf and sends the Holy Spirit to lead us, to guide us, to give us a mouth, or to strengthen any weakness. 
     Think of the preposterous expectations of God in the announcement of His Good News.  He depended on a teenage girl for the birth of His Son; He depended on a man to stick around and raise a child that was not his own; He depended on people accepting the testimony of shepherds; for apostles He depended on some fishermen, a tax collector, and zealot; for disciples He depended on normal people like you and me!  Who does that?  Is there a worse way to execute a plan?  Can you think of anyone less equipped or able than me or yourself?  Yet how does God expect His Good News to spread; how does He expect His ranks to swell on the south side of Nashville?  Through our work.  How do we know He is behind our work, nudging, guiding, empowering, redeeming?  Through these kinds of reflection.
     Where did the story I share with you begin?  Yes, whoever said Jesus, I hope you are right.  But from our perspective it really began with me calling the people of Tennessee to write the Governor and Parole Board on behalf of one young lady and the injustice she is suffering at the hands of our judicial system, a system we changed after her arrest and conviction in recognition of a systemic injustice in the way we treat victims of slavery.  I wrote an article and began engaging church leaders to get their flocks involved.  I hoped a dozen Adventers would write on her behalf.  But, just as Gospel work nearly always happens, it was one person, one relationship at a time.
     Fast forward to this week.  Did I expect to have those conversations at the Y?  Of course not.  I have been working out religiously, excuse the pun, for two years.  I’ve met some other members; I have had a few conversations.  This, though, was orders of magnitude greater than I could ever do on my own.  I shared a couple conversations, but they ranged all over the place.  I did some teaching about sex from the Bible.  I did a lot of male-female relationship teaching.  I did some denominational teaching.  I did some racism teaching.  I had to speak to the dangers of alcohol when incorporated into a Eucharist and of the fact that it was not grape juice.  I talked Donald Trump and Roy Moore.  I had to talk about Hillary Clinton.  You would not believe the range of discussions, and all because of a blog post on the unjust suffering of a lady in our midst.  How does that happen, except through the power of the Holy Spirit?  I did not plan it; y’all did not share it or plan it.  Still, the Holy Spirit drew people out of the darkness toward the light, toward His light that dwells in each of us.  Heck, He even used slavery as the introduction to His invitation once again!
     Brothers and sisters, Adventers, I know this was far longer than some of you might ever have wanted to hear.  But it was low fruit.  We are now in our second week of the season for which our founders named this hospital we call Advent.  As we lit that wreath today, we all reminded ourselves that Jesus is the light of the world and that we will not walk in darkness because we follow Him.  More importantly, we reminded ourselves that His light of life is within us even as we prepare to be sent back out to do the work He has given us to do.  Pray this day, then, that we embrace our calling as Adventers.  Pray then this day that we embrace His calling on our lives.  And pray then this day, and every day, that as we head back out into that dark wilderness, we will shine with the power of the Holy Spirit, calling others back into relationship with their loving Father, one lost soul at a time!

In His Name,


Monday, December 4, 2017

Now that you know, what will you do? On the case of Cyntoia Brown . . .

Come, Lord Jesus . . . but while we pray and wait . . .

     It is that time of year when liturgical Christians from around the world turn their calendars and attention to that season known as Advent.  Though those outside the Church think that the Advent season is simply a “pre-Christmas” time in the Church, we know it to be something far more significant.  During that time, we will focus on the coming of our Lord Christ in glory to complete what He started, the recreation of all things, during His first time on earth.  Our readings and Collects will point us to the expectation all Christians should have towards Christ’s return, and our need for His reign in order to see that God’s righteousness, holiness, and love are fulfilled in their entirety.
     Given that season, it is fitting that attention is being drawn to a particular miscarriage of justice within the borders of our own state and diocese and the need for God’s intervening mercy, grace, and justice in a dark world.  I call it a miscarriage as the events of this case caused our state legislators and law enforcement officials, as well as victims’ advocates, to come together and work together to create a more just response to those charged with crimes while enslaved.
     In 2011, a 16 year-old girl named Cyntoia Brown, a girl trafficked by a pimp named Kutthroat, was picked up by a man and taken to his house.  Miss Brown claimed the man hired her for sex and scared her with his discussion of weapons.  During their encounter, Miss Brown feared the man was reaching for a gun and shot him.  She took money out of his wallet and a couple of his guns and drove herself in his truck to a nearby Wal-Mart.  Miss Brown was subsequently prosecuted for murder and convicted, when she was sentenced to life in prison.  Those interested in her story can view it at .
     Although I was living outside the state of Tennessee at the time, I heard about the case through advocates around the country.  As a result of this case, officials and legislators in the state of Tennessee worked to change the state laws regarding victims and survivors of human trafficking.  Over a period of a few years, Human Trafficking survivors were allowed to claim, as an affirmative defense, that they were forced to commit a crime because they were enslaved by another individual.  Better still, if it could be proved they were trafficked (enslaved), they could not be found guilty of the charges brought against them while enslaved.  Other advances in victims’ rights also came about either directly or indirectly because of the case of Miss Brown.  No longer could juveniles be charged as prostitutes in the state of Tennessee.  Better still, no longer could juveniles engaged in prostitution give consent to an adult to exchange sex for money.  In many ways, the response of the state officials and victims’ advocates propelled Tennessee into a leadership role in the United States regarding the treatment of those enslaved in our midst as other states sought to join Tennessee in the just treatment of survivors.  Other states’ advocates and officials used Tennessee as a template for how to treat victims of slavery within their own legal systems.
     I bring this all up now because of the events of the last week or ten days.  Beginning last week, people from around the country began sending me various articles regarding the unfortunate case of Miss Brown and wondering what I was doing to rally my parish, my diocese, the wider Church, and even the secular world to her cause.  Miss Brown’s case had been picked up by some entertainers and television personalities and gone viral.  A number of the articles can be viewed at Newsweek , NBC , NY Times , Fox News , or the Tennessean , and a quick Google search will produce more by the day.  I had spoken with Derri Smith, founder of EndSlaveryTn, prior to my arrival in Nashville, and I had spent some time with her since my arrival.  Naturally, I wanted to make sure the facts of the case were the facts of the case.  While Derri noted some sensationalism on the part of some of the press, she agreed that the essential argument regarding justice for Miss Brown was correct.  Although Miss Brown’s case, and the cases of less well-known survivors, had caused a tremendous advancement in the way the legal system in Tennessee treats victims and survivors charged with crimes within the borders of our state, Miss Brown was denied those same remedies under the laws.  Were Miss Brown to commit those crimes today, neither I nor Derri think it likely she would be charged, let alone convicted.  For more on Derri Smith’s thoughts on the case, check out a recent post at here.
     Make no mistake, Miss Brown recognizes that a man is dead directly because of her actions.  She will have to live with the image of that encounter and the certain knowledge that she took his life for the rest of her life.  Miss Brown is not even asking that she be treated under the laws of today; she is asking instead that her crime be commuted to second-degree murder.  But make no mistake about this either:  Miss Brown was impacted by the fact that she was forced by another human being to exchange sex with strangers for money.  We know far more about the life of sex slaves today than we did just a decade ago.  Some deal with the pain of their life through the use, sometimes forced by the slaver, of alcohol and drugs and crazy combinations of both.  Prostitutes are more likely to experience concussions at the hands of violent “customers” than NFL players who wear protective gear, and we are just beginning to understand better how such brain injuries influence the behaviors of those athletes.  What do such injuries do to the rest of us?  And, as human trafficking has gained a bigger foothold in the public eye, we have come to realize some of the dangers with which the slaves live with daily. Given her life, was her response understandable?  Absolutely.  It is also tragic and lamentable that a life was taken.  It is for these reasons, and countless others, that Christians cry for our Lord to come, especially during this season of Advent.

     But, absent His reappearing, we Christians have work to do on earth.  Those moved by her case and legal residents of Tennessee can call or write the Governor and the Parole Board on her behalf (1st Floor, State Capitol  600 Charlotte Avenue Nashville, TN 37243  (615) 741-2001 or or the Parole Board at Tennessee Board of Parole  404 James Robertson Parkway, Suite 1300  Nashville, Tennessee  37243 or via e-mail at:  We encourage personal letters or e-mails rather than form letters as a personal appeal conveys a higher level of interest and involvement than mass mailed forms.   Those with personal relationships with the individuals can engage in even more ways. Those outside the state, but aware of the leadership role of Tennessee with respect to the legal rights of those who have been trafficked in our midst, can also write the Governor and Parole Board encouraging them to act in the interest of justice—she likely would not be convicted of the crimes under the laws of today, laws that exist and were changed because of her case in 2011!  While the Governor and Parole Board have no legal obligation to listen to those outside the state, we have no doubt that they appreciate the perception around the country that Tennessee has been viewed as a national leader in this fight and that their inaction to address her case diminishes the perception that they are leaders.  Those with friends and family living in the state can encourage residents of Tennessee to get involved, to speak up, and to advocate for one whose case changed the very way law enforcement and society deal with those enslaved among us.  And, everybody can sign the petition that has been started by those entertainers and personalities on her behalf at or .  In the immortal words of Dr. King, “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.”
     What of those who claim another faith tradition or no faith tradition?  You are every bit as needed in this discussion as are Christians.  American society is engaged in some serious reflection right now.  The #metoo campaign, the outing of particular misogynistic behavior by men in power and authority, and the struggles we are having regarding racism, speak to that reflection and our societal understanding of justice.  Miss Brown is being punished for a crime which some prosecutors would likely choose not to prosecute and which many citizens would likely not convict while serving on a jury, given the changes in the laws and our increasing understanding and awareness of these issues.  Is it just, is it fair, that she remain behind bars, now knowing that?
     As I travel around the country discussing the stories of rescued men and women, of those that helped rescue them, and of those who help treat them on the long road of recovery, I often end my discussions with a quote from a famous man from my faith tradition, William Wilberforce, one who is credited by some historians with leading the fight against the Atlantic Slave trade.  “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”  We as members in our society have an obligation to participate in its living out, no matter our backgrounds, no matter our desires.  Now that you know what has happened to Miss Brown, what will you do?

In Christ’s Peace,