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Sandra Bland

I was reading something about Sandra Bland this afternoon when my 4-year-old daughter walked up, saw her picture, and asked, “Daddy, who is that lady?”

For the first time that I can recall in her 4 years of life I didn’t know how to immediately respond. What should I tell her? What can she handle at such a young age? Do I have a responsibility to tell her the truth? Do I have a responsibility to protect her from the truth, for now, until she is older and has the rational capacity to process the truth?

I took a deep breath.

“That lady is Sandra Bland.”

“Oh. What is she doing?”

“Well, Sandra has a very sad story,” I replied as my mind raced through all of the things I could say next. “I’ll tell you about her when you’re older.”

And just then I realized one of the ways in which I benefit from white privilege: I had the luxury to defer explaining to my 4-year-old daughter the tragedy of lifeless black bodies at the hands of police.

Eric Garner’s children don’t get to defer the trauma of life without their father.

Mike Brown’s family don’t get that privilege either.

Black lives matter.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 19th, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 2:11-22

TheEmbraceofElizabethandtheVirginMary

“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” (2:17).

Every Sunday there comes a time in the liturgy when the priest standing with arms outstretched proclaims to the people, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” To which we all respond, “And also with you.” And then what happens? We all move about and greet one another with the peace of Christ. We pass the peace, as it were: “The peace of Christ,” “Christ’s peace,” “peace be with you.” Why do we do this? Why bother to pass the peace at all? What underlying condition do we suffer from that the peace of Christ is the remedy?

In his book Mere Christianity the great Anglican saint, Clive Staples Lewis, wrote that “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” An interesting image, isn’t it? Human beings as rebels who have taken up arms against God. And this rebellion it alienates, creates hostility and division between human creatures and God and at the same time creates a hostility and division between and amongst human creatures. See for example the opening chapters of Genesis. The sin of Adam, the basic human sin, is to try to set up on our own, to act as if we belong to ourselves, as if we are our own masters, writers of our own destiny. And as a result of this sin of Adam his relationship with God is cut through with enmity and they are exiled from Eden. How quickly the enmity spreads for in the very next chapter of Genesis what do we witness but Eve’s eldest son Cain kill his younger brother Abel. Division is murder. Hostility arises even between the human and the non-human creation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”

My point is simply that these divisions and hostilities are all caught up with each other. Hostility between human creatures because hostility characterizes our relationship with God apart from Christ. We rarely see this connection, though. I mean, we know well the hostility and divisions between human creatures and even between human creatures and the non-human creation. Turn on the news, the examples they are legion. Charleston; Sarah Bland; Tina Fontaine and the thousands of other missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. But rarely do we see this hostility as a sign which points towards a greater hostility yet, that which sin creates between human creatures and the God whose love creates and sustains us.

Interestingly, though, Pope Francis made just such a connection in his recent Encyclical, Laudato Si, about the divine mandate to care for creation. Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis writes, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” For Francis, the reason for the hostility between humans and the rest of the created order is the hostility between human creatures and God. We might say, in a similar fashion, that the hostility and divisions are so great between human creatures because we persist in rejecting God’s way in favour of forging our own path.

We lack peace, we long for peace, we need peace. What then is the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe? It is Christ and his church. First, it is Jesus Christ. Just prior to our reading from Ephesians Paul wrote, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,” (2:1). That is, sin brings not only division and hostility, but also death. “But,” Paul continues, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ,” (2:4-5).

The way of the world is not the only way, there is another way to live that has been opened up to us in Jesus Christ. And this way begins as we are brought near to God: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We are not called to set ourselves free from the division and sin that so ensnares. We cannot. This reconciling work is Christ’s, who in the mystery of his cross and his passion put to death the hostility which marks us so deeply.

Behold, in the vertical and the horizontal axis’ of the cross, the extent of Christ’s reconciling love—which at once overcomes the hostility between humans and God and the hostility amongst and between human creatures. These are not separate acts, they are the one act of the reconciling God, accomplished in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Remove one or the other axis and you do not have the cross.

And in the shadow of the cross the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead gathers us, begins to work in us, creates in us and through us that which we cannot become on our own—a community reconciled, to God, and to one another, liberated from the old way of sin and death and set on a new course with Jesus, where we, together by the power of the Spirit, begin to live into this new reality in which we are no longer divided, but one.

Life in Christ, then, means two inseparable things: it means coming into a new relationship with God and it means coming into a new relationship with others, a relationship characterized by, among other things, peace. “For he is our peace,” writes Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

I said earlier that the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe is Christ and his church. If Jesus is the obvious answer then I hope by now that it is becoming apparent how the Church factors into this. If it’s true that you can’t be reconciled to God in Christ apart from being reconciled to one another in Christ, then it’s true that you can’t ever meet Christ in all of his glory without also having to meet the common, everyday, not-always-particularly glorious Church. Christ is the head of the body, after all. Paul gives us a visual image for this at the end of our passage this morning. Christ is the cornerstone of the holy temple which is being built up out of those who are in Christ, a dwelling place for God (2:19-22).

Part of what Paul is saying in Ephesians, I think, is that the Church is a community which, by God’s grace, has been set apart, called to order our lives in a distinct sort of way around the risen Jesus. To be in Christ then, is to be in the Church, for it is just here in this community of imperfect people that the love of the reconciling God is poured out in a tangible way in the sacraments and witnessed to as we are reconciled one to another and joined to those whom we previously would have been alienated from. When we think of what we do here at St. Cuthbert’s, all of the groups and various meetings that take place, all of the money and other resources that we spend—is this all ordered towards the mission of the reconciling God?

Of course, the church itself is imperfect and marked by all sorts of division and hostility (that’s a whole other sermon), and so we need to always be confessing our sin as we live into this unity which is a gift to the Church in Christ, for the sake of the world.

And on that note, it’s worth returning to where we began, with the passing of the peace. If we are to be a community that passes the peace of Christ to one another and further extends this peace out into the world then let us note just where the peace comes in the liturgy. In both the BCP and the BAS the peace comes after we confess our sin and receive absolution and before we share the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. In other words, the passing of the peace is situated in just such a way that our gaze is drawn to the cross, where in Christ’s own self-giving we see the fullness of grace: the result of our sin but also the means of forgiveness; the result of our hostility but also the means of our peace; Christ’s body given and blood shed for us, through which the Spirit gathers us into one body that we might be a community of God’s reconciling love in the world. Amen.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5th, 2015.

Lections: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

And they took offense at him.”

There’s a great scene in the 1999 film ‘Dogma’ where, as part of a campaign (“Catholicism Wow!”) to renew the image of and interest in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Glick—played by George Carlin—retires the “wholly depressing” image of the crucifix in favour of a more uplifting image of Jesus—Buddy Christ. Buddy Christ is a statue of Jesus, smiling and winking while pointing at onlookers with one hand and giving them a thumbs-up with the other. This is the image, essentially, of an impotent Christ, a Christ who comes to be our cheerleader—a Christ who is on our side and agrees with us on pretty much everything. Not a Christ who is very likely to cause offense.

Come with me now into our gospel text where just prior Jesus had been bouncing around the Sea of Galilee doing all sorts of miracles. He calmed the storm, he liberated a man possessed by demons, he healed the woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for 12 years, and he raised up a young girl from death. And now he has come to his hometown, to the people who would have known him from childhood and he begins to teach in the synagogue on the sabbath. And Mark tells us that those who heard him were astounded: “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

These are good questions, questions having to do with the source and authority of Jesus’ deeds and teaching. Earlier in the gospel some of the teachers of the law from Jerusalem suggested that Jesus must be getting his power and authority from Beelzebub (3:22). Mark, however, tipped his hand in the very first words of the gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” (1:1).

The Son of God. And yet, the hometown crowd could see only the son of Mary: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” These questions are set up to be answered with a yes—yes this is Mary’s boy, the carpenter, and yes these are his friends and family here with us. But the answer is more complicated than that for Jesus has already made it clear that only those who do the will of his Father are his mother and brothers and sisters (3:34-35).

And they took offense at him. The Greek word here translated “took offense” is the word from which we get our English word “scandalized”. It means, literally, to place a stumbling block or impediment in the way. The hometown crowd perceived the powerful words and deeds of Jesus but refused to admit the source of his wisdom and power. They tripped up upon him.

I wonder if there isn’t a double offense going on here? From one angle, is part of the offense not that God would appear in someone so common as a carpenter’s son? That in the Incarnation—that is, the Son of God’s assumption of our flesh—God leaves absolutely no part of our humanity unclaimed. On the landscape of our human experience, there is no stone which God leaves unturned. He takes all of it, every last cell, every last desire, every last thought, he takes our beginning and our ending and every second of our human life therein and claims it as his own. As some early Christians put it, “that which he has not assumed he has not healed.” And so, in his very flesh Jesus takes all that it means to be human and heals it, fulfills it, perfects it, brings it to its proper end in God. And so Christians understand life, not as something which we can claim ownership of, but as a gift given to us by God in Christ Jesus, to be lived unto God.

So then, this is what is finally determinative of who we are. What matters, ultimately, is not who your mother is or who your father is, who your family is, where you came from or wherever you think you’re going. What matters, first-and-foremost, is that you are a creature of God and in Christ Jesus you have been reconciled to God and made God’s own, forever. If we want to talk about our identity, or the orientation of our life, let us begin here—Jesus Christ, the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy.

From another angle, is part of the offense not that God would appear in someone so common as a carpenter’s son? That in the familiarity of human flesh we find something most unfamiliar—the very fullness of God. Who would have thought that the strength and wisdom of God would be made known in the life of one man, born of Mary, a life marked by humility and self-giving love, especially unto those who would reject him? Who would have thought that no where do we come closer to the face of God than in the face of Christ on the cross? Just here we find the great paradox of the Christian faith, for the strength and wisdom of God appear here, to the world, as weak and foolish: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor. 1:18).

Here, in Jesus Christ, God makes a particular claim on us—that we are, you and I, loved of God and thus creatures of His own fashioning. Creatures who sinned and who suffer the pain of our self-inflicted isolation from God, but creatures for whom Christ took this very suffering upon himself because this particular act, the self-giving of the Son for the life of the world, this is what God’s love looks like, and thus He proves it on the cross (Romans 5:8).

The God of the gospel, who we come to know in Jesus, is no Buddy Christ. Rather, he disrupts our lives, turns them upside down, and asks us to trust him in the process. Is it any wonder then that we might trip up, just here, upon Jesus himself? And so, in an effort to mitigate the discomfort, to soften the blow, what do we do? We domesticate Jesus, we shrink him down so that he fits nicely into whatever little vacant cubbyhole we want to place him in. We polish him up so that he’ll be more reasonable, more palatable, to the logic and tastes of the world. And I think when we do this Jesus is amazed at our unbelief.

If you are here this morning and you feel yourself drawn towards Jesus in some fashion, for one reason or another, but you are hesitant because there’s just something about the gospel that makes you feel uncomfortable, well then, thanks be to God. This may just be a sign that the Jesus you find yourself attracted to isn’t merely a Jesus that you’ve made in your own image. Take that sense of awe, that holy curiosity, and ask the Holy Spirit to nurture it. For Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” (Matthew 11:6). Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! Even if right now all you can do is cry out like the father who brought his son to Jesus to be healed: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Trust him! And let us see what God will do. Amen.