So, Sometimes I Preach, Too

I fellowship with a religious community of Episcopalians in Toledo, Ohio – Trinity Episcopal Church. We are in the midst of an interim period after our previous rector resigned mid-summer to pursue a new calling of God on her life (may she and her wife be blessed). Now, as we first search for an interim rector (a priest who is specially called to help churches in leadership transitions), some of our lay members have been called upon to offer the sermon during our Sunday worship services. It befell me to do this on Sunday of this week. I’ve had a number of people ask me to share my words more widely. I do so with no small amount of hesitation as these are not “my” words really, but rather what I believe to be the outcome of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To any extent that these words bring life, the honor and glory goes to God alone. To any extent that these words bring pain and suffering, the accountability is mine alone to bear for clearly I have mishandled the message of God. Without further preamble and largely unedited except for adding hyperlinks to a couple of things that aren’t necessarily public knowledge, what follows is the message I shared with my faith community last Sunday. I hope it feeds your soul and provokes you to new action.

Sermon for September 13, 2015

Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo

Good morning. I would like to begin by first reading into your hearing the Old Testament and Psalm appointed in Track 2 of the Revised Common Lectionary for today [September 13, 2015]. It was through these lessons along with James’ epistle and Mark’s gospel that the Spirit seemed to be speaking to me most clearly. I humbly offer these meditations to you today.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of a teacher,

that I may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning he wakens–

wakens my ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward.

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?

Let them confront me.

It is the Lord GOD who helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Psalm 116: 1-8

1          I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
“O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.

5          The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.

7          For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

Let the Lord add a blessing to the reading of his word. Amen.

As I read and meditated on each of these lessons from Isaiah, Psalm 116, James, and Mark’s Gospel, I believe that I see the Church as the subject and object of each lesson. When I say “the Church” in this context I mean both God’s Church universal, all of us who claim to be followers of Christ both within and beyond the Anglican Communion. I should pause here quickly to explain myself: We – and I do include myself in this – like to make distinctions amongst ourselves for the sake of our own egos and self-righteousness, but neither God nor those who watch us attend to them. Yet, while I believe this message has relevance nationally and internationally, I am also speaking to this West Mission Area of the Diocese of Ohio, as well as to all of us gathered under the sound of my voice as Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo.

Let’s hear from that text in Isaiah again, but this time put the Church into the passage (Isaiah 50):

The Lord GOD has given the Church

the tongue of a teacher,

that the Church may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning GOD wakens–

wakens the Church’s ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened the Church’s ear,

and the Church was not rebellious,

the Church did not turn backward.

The Church gave their back to those who struck the Church,

and their cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

The Church did not hide their face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps the Church;

therefore the Church have not been disgraced;

therefore the Church have set their face like flint,

and the Church know that they shall not be put to shame;

GOD who vindicates the Church is near.

Who will contend with the Church?

Let the Church stand up together.

Who are the Church’s adversaries?

Let them confront the Church.

It is the Lord GOD who helps the Church;

who will declare the Church guilty?

The Church has been given the tongue of a teacher, but we must remain attentive to listening and learning anew every day so that we know how to sustain the weary with a word. Who are they that are weary? God has never been most concerned about those who claim weariness from going to work every day, or having to sit in traffic and construction zones in their air-conditioned, leather-seated cars, or those who are tired already of political posturing and presidential campaigning.

No, the weary who need to be sustained with the words of the Church are those who are oppressed under the thumb of oppressive structures and systemic violence. These weary are Syrian refugees; they are sex workers; they are those who are unhoused; they are indigenous peoples across the globe; they are those impoverished by our greed, materialism, and capitalism; they are Black lives imprisoned and executed by overly aggressive policing. These who are weary are trans* people, who have endured the news twenty-three times this year of our kin being slaughtered in the streets:

  1. Papi Edwards
  2. Lamia Beard
  3. Ty Underwood
  4. Yasmin Vash Payne
  5. Taja Gabrielle DeJesus
  6. Penny Proud
  7. Bri Golec
  8. Kristina Grant Infiniti
  9. Sumaya Ysl
  10. Keyshia Blige
  11. Vanessa Santillan
  12. Mya Hall
  13. London Chanel
  14. Mercedes Williamson
  15. Ashton O’Hara
  16. Amber Monroe
  17. India Clarke
  18. C. Haggard
  19. Shade Schuler
  20. Kandis Capri
  21. Elisha Walker
  22. Tamara Dominguez
  23. Jasmine Collins

Made weary by their deaths and yet at times unable to mourn our dead because they have been misnamed and mispronouned, adding yet another violent erasure to the physical one that took them from us and another weariness to endure.

It is the voice of the weary who narrate Psalm 116. Here, I see the Church this time in the place of the Lord, because as St. Teresa of Avila wrote in the 16th century,

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Let’s hear Psalm 116 again with that understanding:

1          I love the CHURCH, because they have heard the voice of my supplication, *
because they have inclined their ear to me whenever I called upon them.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the CHURCH: *
“O CHURCH, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the CHURCH and righteous; *
our CHURCH is full of compassion.

5          The CHURCH watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and THE CHURCH helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the CHURCH has treated you well.

7          For THE CHURCH has rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the CHURCH *
in the land of the living.

Would all those who are weary in this country, this city, be able to give this testimony? Can the Church say in truth that we have not turned our backs, that we have given our cheeks to those who slander the name of God? In essence, as Jesus asked his disciples in Mark’s gospel account, “Who do people say that [the Church] is?” Who do people say that Trinity is? [Feel free to insert the name of your congregation here.]

In answer, many of us may want to set ourselves apart from the likes of Kim Davis or Westboro Baptist Church.  Yet, to the world, if we call ourselves Christians, we and Kim Davis have more in common than we do different. To those who watch us, Trinity and Cedar Creek and Cornerstone and First Church and St. Paul’s are all cut from the same cloth. A cloth that either smothers or comforts, chokes or covers. But as James writes in the lesson from the epistle for today, we who are called to teach – and we have already learned from Isaiah that the Lord has given the Church the tongue of a teacher – are held to a higher standard. Indeed, we ought to be because we are God’s representatives on earth. If even but one part of the Church has rejected that morning call of Isaiah to wake and to listen and learn, then we are all guilty. We must not be so smug as to be content with our own progressivism, thinking ourselves safe from criticism. No, God calls us all to account for each other. The apostle writes, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [People of God], this ought not to be so.” From the same church, people come to stay and people leave with bitterness in their mouths. People of Trinity, this ought not to be so. We must commit to the hard work of consistently clarifying who God is for a world in pain, standing in open opposition to those who, like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin of Jesus’ time, use the Name of God to inflict all sorts of misery and provoke to weariness the most weak and vulnerable among us.

To speak a word to sustain in the face of weariness is to deliberately and intentionally set oneself against what is easy, popular, or comfortable. As we walk this Via Media[1], let it not become a Via Wishy-Washy, let us not compromise delivering a truly sustaining word that is full of compassion, which rescues lives from death, dries tears and steadies feet to run. Let us not be ashamed of Christ’s call to give it all away for the sake of attempting to save our own lives.  Instead, let us rather set our faces as flint and dare to be criticized, to be ostracized, to lose members and income and buildings, while we allow the holy fire of the Spirit to compel us ever onward. To deny that this is necessary, vital, and yes even commanded by God is to be like Peter in today’s gospel lesson, holding on to our own security and comfort content to watch the world go to Hell in a handbasket.

To take our message to those who are weary, we must not just leave the building but also bring others with us into the building to receive help, strength, and encouragement to go on. To be spat upon and insulted, the Church, like Jesus our Savior, must be first willing to speak the Truth that inflicts discomfort on the comfortable and wounds those who are whole. Through our building and through our outstretched hands and uplifted voices, let us be CHRIST who is loved and walked alongside of. We must see ourselves as ONE with those who are oppressed and marginalized, not us and them, not church and unchurched, but all in need of the water of everlasting life. As the Church stands up to BE the Church, not just go to church, the Lord GOD will help us and vindicate us.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  Thanks be to GOD.

[1] This is an Anglican/Episcopal Church thing. You can read one perspective on it here.