Magnetic Mercy

Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31

I’m going to start today’s sermon with a statement, which I hope is confusing enough to make sure you want to stay with me for the next ten minutes while I unpack it. Are you ready? The statement is this: None of us has ever actually worshiped God. That’s the statement – none of us has ever actually worshiped or prayed to or talked about God.

Are you sufficiently confused? Good! I was so confused when I started working on this sermon that I spent a good hour trying to figure out what to say first. In the end I decided to invite you into my confusion and see if together we can find our way out. We have the Apostle Paul to blame. In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. He strolls the boulevards looking at the statuary dedicated to various gods of Greece and other nations. And then he comes across one altar with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul decides this unknown god is the God of of his ancestors and the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who he thinks this unknown god is.

Paul’s sermon stirs the Athenians’ hearts with a brief and beautiful account of God’s movement in creation. And yet at the end of it, I wonder if the phrase “unknown god” is still not the most appropriate term. I wonder this because there are so many conceptions of God out there and they disagree. Even within Christianity, there are many conceptions of God. Even within the Episcopal Church. Even here at St. Mark’s. Even here at this service. Even here inside my own heart and mind there are many conceptions of God and they often disagree. Hence my confusion when I realize I’ve never actually worshiped God; I’ve only ever worshiped my faulty understand of God.

Here’s what I mean. On the spectrum of knowing God, there are two extremes. First, there’s knowing God totally and completely. Second, there’s not knowing God at all. Zilch. Zero. Nada. We exist somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, but to clarify the confusion, it can be helpful to start with the extremes.

In the first case, we know God totally and completely. We have strapped God to the operating table and figured out exactly what makes God tick. When we’re done, we stuff and mount God on the wall like a hunting trophy. This taxidermied version of God is under our control: we can take the trophy down to show it off; we know what to expect of God; we know what buttons to push in order to make God act in our favor. And coincidentally enough, God disagrees with the same people we do. Of course, this is a flawed understanding of God. We’re talking extremes, so flaws are more common out here. The flaw here is the delusion that God is small and mundane enough for us to figure out what makes God tick.

The second extreme is naturally the complete opposite of the first. In the second case, there’s no hope of knowing God at all. Words fail us because none of them measures up. So we wind up using words like “ineffable,” which is just a fancy way of saying “unknowable and unsearchable.” God is so far beyond human comprehension that there’s no point in trying to comprehend. We’re like amoebas trying to read Shakespeare. Of course, this is also a flawed understanding of God. The flaw at this extreme is that God is too big and majestic to bother with amoebas like us, despite the evidence that God has been surprising humanity through encounters with the Divine for several millennia.

These two extremes represent the flawed ends of the spectrum which tracks our capacity to know God. As with all spectra, we exist somewhere in between the two extremes, and our existence is fluid. When we really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – we might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at our beck and call. When something really terrible happens – a huge earthquake or terrorist attack or we lose someone we love suddenly – we might trend toward the second extreme, in which God’s “beyond-ness” explains the apparent lack of intervention.

Do you see what’s happening here? Our knowledge and experience of God changes depending on our needs in the moment. We slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixtures of our appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubts, and faith paint pictures of the God we worship. And whatever else those paintings may be, there is one thing they are not. They are not accurate portraits of God. This is why I wonder if the term “unknown god” is the best moniker. This is why I sometimes question why I even stand up here to preach with you. This is why I am confused today.

Are you still with me? Good, because C.S. Lewis will help us climb out of our confusion. In a wonderful poem, Lewis acknowledges our faulty understanding of God. He admits that in prayer we “address the coinage of [our] own unquiet thoughts.” He imagines prayer to God as “arrows aimed unskillfully.” Then in a moment of profound faith, Lewis praises God’s “magnetic mercy,” which diverts those poorly aimed arrows so they strike their intended target.*

I am totally on board with C.S. Lewis in this metaphorical imagining. While we worship our own faulty understandings of God, God’s magnetic mercy reorients us. The first extreme falls away because we could never understand or categorize such mercy, such grace. But understanding God is not a prerequisite for belief. The second extreme falls away because God chooses to offer us the gift of revelation, so we might discover and celebrate such mercy and grace.

The only one who truly knows and understands God…is God. Our faulty understandings cannot diminish the truth of God, the truth of the foundation of all being. But such faulty understandings can diminish our participation in God’s mission and our witness to God in the world. If we mistakenly think we can control God, like the graven images of old, we will never step out of our comfort zones to grow into new areas where God is calling us. If we mistakenly think God is completely unknowable, we will never seek God out, will never find God’s presence in the other or in ourselves. But the true God calls to us from within our desire to understand, however faultily. And God’s magnetic mercy aligns us closer to the truth, like a compass spinning to true north.

Of course, faulty understandings of God harm more than just our own discipleship and apostleship. I can’t even begin to catalog how much damage has been done down through the ages in the name of bad understandings of God. When we see and cringe at other people’s faulty understandings of God, which they use to justify all sorts of things, from the well-intentioned to the heinous, know that such understandings do not accurately paint the true God. Such faulty understandings are Lewis’s “coinage of their unquiet thoughts.” Pray for them as you pray for yourselves and each other. And believe that God’s magnetic mercy is working in their lives, just as in ours, to bring all of us to better clarity, better vision, better knowledge of God’s dream for the world.

Paul saw an altar to an unknown god. Ultimately God is unknown, for we filter God through our own perceptions and expectations. But the good news is this: while we may never know God perfectly in this life, there is more than just this life. As Paul says during his great hymn to love: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”


*C.S Lewis, “A Footnote to All Prayers”

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless

Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

Restoration

Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60

Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”

That was enough.

They would ask me to rehearse what I had done or left undone to earn this disappointment. And then that was that. Except not really: next came my inner turmoil. I was a sensitive kid who thought his parents could lasso the moon. The knowledge that I had disappointed them swirled around inside me, a maelstrom magnified by the echo of their opening words: “We love you.” A day or two after the Talk, my mother would say, “Look. You know what you did wrong. I’m confident you’re not going to do it again. Let it go.”

What I did not appreciate at the time has clarified for me since I became a parent myself: What I did not appreciate was this: their disappointment in me could not dent their love for me. I feel incredibly blessed to have parents whose love for me came as close to God’s own unconditional love as humanly possible. I know my mom will listen to this tomorrow on my website, so let me say this on Mother’s Day: “Thanks, Mom. I love you too.”

I didn’t know it when I was a teenager, but in their approach to discipline my parents were enacting one type of justice, called “restorative” justice. Their aim was to help me take ownership of what I had done and then to help me return to right relationship with them; to “restore” our relationship following my upsetting of it. Restorative justice has very much been the lesser employed type of justice throughout human history.

The more common type is called “retributive justice.” If my father had responded to my infractions by taking off his belt and smacking me across the back a dozen times, he would have been using “retributive” justice. That is, justice in the form of retribution. Theologian Richard Rohr says this:

“Almost all religion, and all cultures that I know of, have believed in one way or another that sin and evil are to be punished, and retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world – and usually the next too. It is a dualistic system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys… and it is the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, lawyers, and even most of the church, which should know better, can do.”*

In other words, retributive justice is built on the dictum, “An eye for an eye.” But remember what Ghandi purportedly said: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” Ghandi’s sense of justice was not retributive, but restorative. Jesus’ sense of justice was not retributive, but restorative: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, one of Jesus’ first faithful followers quotes his Lord’s sense of justice. While being stoned to death, the first martyr, Stephen, says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Why would Jesus and Ghandi and my parents champion restorative justice over retributive justice? Because their main goal was not punitive punishment, but a return to right relationship. That’s the key. And that is the main point of divergence between these two types of justice.

Back to Richard Rohr. He lays out four steps to each type, and here we can see both the stark difference and why so many great spiritual leaders advocate restoration over retribution.

Retributive Justice: “Sin > Punishment > Repentance > Transformation”

Restorative Justice: “Sin > Unconditional Love > Transformation > Repentance”*

The first one has too many holes. If you meet sin with punishment, the punishment is often another instance of sin. Just look at some of the horrible conditions in our prisons in the United States and tell me that sin hasn’t begotten sin.*** Furthermore, does punishment actually lead to repentance? True repentance cannot be coerced. If my parents had whipped me, I think I would have nursed vengeance, not embraced repentance.

But look at the other model and see how each element flows beautifully into the next. And feel the truth in your bones that this is the way God works. Sin is met, not with punishment, but with love. This love leads to transformation of both sinner and victim. And repentance is chosen authentically out of the transformed heart.

If this sounds like a theoretical pie in the sky notion, please know it’s not. Restorative justice is a tried and true method. Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought it to post-apartheid South Africa when he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All people, black and white, perpetrator and victim, oppressor and oppressed told their stories. The acts confessed were heinous. The truth told was unflinching. And at the end of the day, the newly powerful did not seek vengeance on their previous persecutors. And the country did not descend into civil war.

In our own country in recent years, a new initiative of the justice system has met with rousing success. They’re called Treatment Courts. Some exist specifically for those charged with nonviolent drug offenses. And others exist specifically for military veterans. These courts are not adversarial. Judges, lawyers, social workers, medical professionals, and offenders work together to bring offenders back from the brink, to save them from themselves, to reintegrate them into society in meaningful ways. That’s restorative justice. And you know what? Treatment courts are way more cost effective than prison.****

Again, it’s a matter of priority and a matter of how you view justice. If the goal of justice is punitive punishment, then retribution makes sense and my parents had the wrong idea about discipline. But if the goal of justice is a return to right relationship, then engaging in the hard work of love on the long road toward reconciliation is the only path worth pursuing. Jesus said as much: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Indeed, this is what Stephen the first martyr miraculously accomplished during his stoning. In my mind’s eye, I see him at the point of death raise up his bloody face and see a young man looking on. The man has an air of authority about him and, while not taking aim himself, he surely condones the brutal execution. Stephen’s final desperate words float to him on the wind: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” They are not the words of a curse. They are not words of retribution. They are words of love. They are words of restoration. And these words are seeds which sink into the soil of the man’s soul, this young man named Saul.

Saul makes it his mission to persecute and punish the followers of Jesus until one day he is knocked to the ground and he hears a voice, Jesus’ voice: “Why do you persecute me?” And at that moment the the seeds of Stephen’s witness sprout in Saul’s soul. He realizes his sin. He feels the love of Christ. This love transforms him and he takes a new name, Paul. And he repents. He turns his life around and becomes the most fervent witness of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That’s the power of restorative justice, a power that can change the world.


* Rohr, Richard. Breathing Under Water. Franciscan Media: Cincinnati. p. 38, 42.

** An interesting article on the quotation attributed to Ghandi:  http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/12/27/eye-for-eye-blind/ [Accessed May 8, 2017]

*** I’m not claiming here that the concept of prison as a whole is wrong. In some cases, incarceration is the correct choice. But too often in the United States prison policy follows this quotation from Warden Norton in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption: “There’s only three ways to spend the taxpayer’s hard-earned when it come to prisons. More walls. More bars. More guards.”

**** Read more about the success of treatment courts here: http://justiceforvets.org/what-is-a-veterans-treatment-court. Funding for such restorative endeavors in the justice system are under threat from the new head of the Justice Department (New York Times).

***** After church on Sunday, a parishioner mentioned a wonderful example of restorative justice in fiction. Jean Valjean, the main character of Les Miserables, is sent to prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Those years are a complete waste and he leaves prison in bad shape with no prospects. This leads him to steal again – this time silver from a bishop who had taken pity on him. When caught, Valjean is brought before the bishop, who maintains he (the bishop) made a present of the silver. Now free, Valjean’s life is changed by the bishop’s love and mercy and his charge to use “this precious silver to become an honest man.” That’s restorative justice.

Worst Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10

There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.

Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.

Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

Mark and the Movement

Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 || The Feast of St. Mark (transferred) || Mark 1:1-15

After services today, we are kicking off our celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Mark’s Church here in Mystic, Connecticut. While the church’s roots go back to the creation of a Sunday School in 1859, the traditionally accepted date for the founding of St. Mark’s jumps forward to Christmas Eve 1867 and the first service here at the Pearl Street location. Our history tells us that a wooden causeway had to be constructed that December night so members could navigate the tidal pools swirling on the lawn outside.

Of course, our church is more than this building with its simple, bright, lovely interior and occasional problems with flooding; indeed, a church is technically a gathering of people, not a location. We don’t go to church. We are church: we are a community of people gathered for mutual support, to praise and worship God, to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and to partner with God in mission in our neighborhood. Continue reading “Mark and the Movement”

So I Send You

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them. Continue reading “So I Send You”

Two Gardens

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18

On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.

You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results. Continue reading “Two Gardens”

The Day of Preparation

Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017 || The Passion according to John

The story of Jesus’ Passion, which I just read, overwhelms me. Truly. After reading it aloud, I feel like I’ve hiked a mountain. The beauty and grief of the Passion takes my breath away. Because the Passion overwhelms me, I find that when I sit down to write sermons about it, I must focus on a single moment in it: one detail that can help tell the story as a whole. They say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to the Gospel, the divine is in the details instead.

The detail that caught my eye this year comes at the very end of the narrative directly after Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. The detail is a simple marker of time: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.” Continue reading “The Day of Preparation”

The Last Supper

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017 || 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

This evening we celebrate two things. First, we celebrate the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. This new commandment is the “mandatum” that gives Maundy Thursday its name. We wash each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ own servanthood and his love displayed through his act of humility. Second, we celebrate what we loftily call the “Institution of the Eucharist.” That is, we remember the Last Supper when Jesus took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and shared them with his friends and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

This meal goes by many names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. And they all derive from the event St. Paul recalls for the Corinthians in tonight’s second reading, an event we call the “Last Supper.” Continue reading “The Last Supper”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

If You Had Been Here

Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”

Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there? Continue reading “If You Had Been Here”