Get out of the boat

This is the sermon I preached August 13th, less than 24 hours after the riots & a deadly act of domestic terrorism on the streets of Charlottesville. It’s also my goodbye sermon to St. John’s Georgetown. The text is Matthew 14: 22-33. 
 This is a fairly interesting and complicated week for me as a preacher. It’s interesting because this is the first time I can look back over a sermon I preached on this same lectionary weekend. I did look back at what I wrote 3 years ago, and I have to tell you, I’m a much better preacher now!

 This is a complicated week for me as a preacher because this is most likely my last time preaching at St. John’s. I’m reluctant to say it’s my last Sunday with you all, but it will certainly be my last Sunday for a long time.

 It’s further complicated because by now you all know me. And you know that I don’t like to ignore pressing world events. But this week, this week I really wanted to avoid having a serious sermon. I wanted to preach a sermon that was calm, loving, insightful but not at all controversial.

 But unfortunately, I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. I don’t like to stay in the boat, even as the storm rages, much like Peter in this Gospel. And this week, in this world, the storm is raging.

 I have been inspired by the people I’ve come to know here at St. John’s, because you all are people who have a history of finding yourselves on the right side of history, and working hard to make sure that history tilts towards justice. That has seeped into the very DNA of St. John’s, and it has seeped into me as you all nurtured me into the priest I now stand before you as. 

 So this week, instead of preaching a sermon on the importance between the difference in a robe with long sleeves verses a robe of many colors, I’m going to wade into the waters of the raging storm, fully aware that on my own, I am incapable of walking on water.

 But I’d like to approach this in what I hope is an unexpected way.

 There is a difference between shame and guilt (unexpected transition, right?). I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the works of Brene’ Brown. She explains that shame keeps us locked into old patterns, making justifications and excuses; refusing to change, refusing to take the risk to get out of the boat, even as an opportunity as incredible as walking on water presents itself. Guilt, on the other hand, motivates you to do and be different.

 I think when it comes to race relations in America, we use the world guilt a lot, when we really mean shame. Shame, when left unchecked and un-dealt with, becomes fear, and rage. It leads thousands of white men to protest and riot in Charlottesville in order to “protect their way of life.” It lead to the justification of slavery, and to utterly abuse other human beings, in order to protect a way of life, and prevent having to change a worldview.

 I have spent an incredible amount of time and effort attempting to understand myself, my privilege, and the systems in place that perpetuate the racial divisions in this country. I did and do so out of my understanding of the word repent. To repent means more than to say I’m sorry. In Hebrew it means “to turn, or return.” It is a physical action. Actual effort and change is necessary. Repentance is visceral. 

 Part of this process for me is learning, studying, and talking to people. I’m trying to understand how it is that we as a nation got to this point. 

 What I’m finding is an absolutely raging storm. One with waves that are threatening to destroy the comfortable boat in which I have always lived my life. Actually, I take that back. By wading into this storm, I discovered that I wasn’t actually in a real boat. It was an illusion, created by hundreds of years of intentional actions by people wishing to create and preserve their own power. 

 Race, and racism, is a cultural construct. It’s a way of dividing, managing, and suppressing people. It is not natural. Racism is not inspired by God. Racism is not created by God. Racism is not Divinely ordained.

 God created us to live together, to respect one another, to live in peace. God did not create us to carry torches and threaten one another with them. God did not create us to walk in streets shouting things like “you will not replace us.”

 God created us to love and respect one another. God created us to love and respect even those who are perpetuating this hate. Unlike those in Charlottesville, I take this command very seriously. Standing here today is an act of my love. It is my love of God and of humanity.

 My love calls me to repentance, to be and do different. To take an honest look at my life and see that so much of what society taught me to believe is based on a created illusion. I have only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to uncover, and have found myself often gasping “oh my God!”

 My personal repentance has lead me to stand here and say there is a problem. There is a problem, I did not create this problem, but I can do something about it. What I can do is what I encourage all of us to do, often. Talk to people.

 Often, I have said that we need to talk to people who are different than we are. But today, I call us to something far, far more difficult. Something that requires us to be incredibly vulnerable. Something that calls us to be like Peter in this Gospel. We must get out of our comfort zones, and walk directly into the storm.

 We must talk to other white people about race.

 The conversation is so important, and all too often, just isn’t happening.

 Here are some talking points:

 The Episcopal Church, then the Church of England, was at best complicit, and more than likely implicitly involved in the creation of modern racism. Missionaries came to be priests in the new world, and finding it difficult to bring religion to most of the early settlers, instead focused on Native Americans and slaves. This religion of love and the availability of that love to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, this religion of a God who is with the oppressed and the least of these, Christianity found welcome in the ears of slaves. People who were treated and taught to believe they were the least of these.

 But as slaves converted to Christianity, a problem emerged. Because Christians could make arguments that they should be free. But this just couldn’t be the case. The entire economic system of what would become this nation was based on the free labor that came from owning other humans. And so the church either sat back and let the government make it so that Christianity was no longer a justification to be free, or, the church was involved in that process. I don’t know which it was, but it was one of them.

 That is a mouthful though. Here are some easier talking points:

-did you know that the modern American police were created out of gangs of armed white men who patrolled plantations to keep slaves in, and find those who had escaped; 

did you know that whites and people of color commit crimes in almost equal numbers, but people of color make up the vast majority of those in prison; 

did you know that the greatest single factor in determining educational success is if a child has a single teacher of their own race growing up, but the vast majority of teachers are white?

 These are out of the boat conversations. It’s socially acceptable to stay in the boat. To act like there isn’t a problem. Certainly, the social expectation is to not talk about things as controversial and complicated as modern race relations. But we have absolutely got to.

 We work so hard to avoid being uncomfortable. But true growth comes out of being uncomfortable. From what happens as the waves batter us, and we go forward anyway. Growth comes when we get out of the boat, and walk to where Christ wants us to be. Trusting that God will catch us if we get overwhelmed by the storm.

 In this Gospel story, this storm is intense. The Disciples were made up of a lot of fishermen. They knew the water and how to navigate a storm. They were scared. Peter got out of the boat anyway.

 And we all must as well.

 The storm is raging. It has been raging for a long time. But we were comfortable in our boat. Until people started pointing out the holes in our boat, that the water is getting in. We can’t ignore the damage to our boat anymore, if we do, we will sink.

 We will sink further into the hate and fear that lead white men to riot in Charlottesville.

 Peter got scared when he got out of the boat, and he could see what he was walking towards. This isn’t easy. I’m often scared. I’m scared right now. But I’m going anyway. I’m having these conversations and learning the history for myself.

 As I leave St. John’s, I wish to leave you all with words of courage that being part of this community inspired in me. You all inspired me to be outside the boat. You inspired me to realize that I don’t need a boat.

 And I offer that in return to you today.

 The storm rages around us today. The storm is intense, and dark. And we have every right to be afraid.

 And we must walk in love anyway. We must walk in love as Christ loved us. We must continue walking towards Christ. Even as the storm rages. When we get scared and lost, we can trust that God will catch us. We won’t drown. We might get battered around a bit, but we won’t drown.

 We are called to be more than our history. We are called to be more than our political affiliation. We are called to be Christians. To walk with Christ. On land and water.

 I love you. I will miss you. May God always bless and be with you. In the midst of the storm, and in the calm of the night.

Amen

My Faith Tells Me…

I was honored to have the opportunity to preach and celebrate the Eucharist a few miles from where I grew up, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Prince Frederick, Maryland. The texts can be found here (I reference the Genesis, Romans, and Matthew texts). It was pretty amazing to preach and share the Eucharist with so many of the people who were part of the “Tribe” that helped me grow into the adult I am. Including my Kindergarten and First Grade teachers!!! But true to form, I think it’s important to speak to the realities of the world we live in, and this sermon is my faithful reaction to the realities of this world.

 

I have to be honest with you all, I really, really wanted this to be one of those weeks where the sermon just came. Where the sermon just flowed through my hands as easily as my fingers running through water. But that just didn’t happen this week. This is one of those weeks when life, and the world, just got in the way. This is of course also the week when I finally get to preach at home. In this room are many who regularly gather to worship together here. But joining today are many of my friends, family, and people who have been part of my becoming the adult I am.

I’d hoped to have an incredible sermon for you all. One that came as easily as breathing.

Instead, this week confirmed in me that there is no denying that we live in a particular point in history. Regardless of what we think about this point, good, bad, or incredibly confusing, it is a point.

This is our time. This is our context.

Today, I’d like to talk to you about our faith, in this time. In our context.

If you are a bit uncomfortable about this, think I’m wrong, or maybe think politics has no place in church, I point you to this Romans text. Paul is absolutely, without question or debate, talking to certain people, at a certain point in history, in a particular context, and an active political climate. Now, the interpretation of what Paul is saying might be debated. But that he is talking to the fledgling church in Rome, is not up for debate. And Paul is addressing real concerns. In their lives.

And those early Christians were under attack. Literally. There was always an undercurrent of fear for the earliest Christians. And Paul is giving them a pep talk. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As I stand before you today, I am not personally under attack. My rights as an American citizen are, but we’ll get to that later. My life however, in this moment, is safe. My faith, however, the faith I love and learned from studying Scripture and ancient context – that is under attack.

And because I have actually done what the Gospel said, I have given everything I have for this faith, I’m not going to sit back and let it be taken away.

We live in a time. We live in a context. As much as I’d like to preach a sermon that is eternal, I can’t. I’m a product of my time, place, and circumstances. And so are my words.

This week, my words are influenced by what is happening in the world around us. Our government is in upheaval. Those elected to serve, on both sides, have forgotten the importance of working together, of compromise, negotiation.

This week, I, along with 20 million other Americans, almost lost my health insurance.

This week, 15,000 American soldiers are on the verge of losing their jobs and livelihood.

This week, the signals came that the long awaited attack on gay rights is beginning.

Everything that I am about to say is absolutely grounded in my understanding of Scripture. What I say today is my faith influencing my beliefs as an American. My faith comes first. Not my politics.

My faith tells me to love and care for everyone, especially the least of these among us. That leads me to believe that repealing the Affordable Care Act, without having something in place that will actually be better, not just better for some, goes against my faith. Many of the voices attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act claim Christianity as the reason. But I struggle to understand that this faith that I love, which teaches me to love and care for everyone, how this faith can be used to justify taking away the healthcare of so many of the least among us.

My faith tells me that we are all made in the image of God. That’s in the book of Genesis – the very beginning point of our faith. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell me that each human has inherent worth, and is worthy of love and respect. Which makes sense, since we’re all made in the image of God. It doesn’t matter if I agree with a person’s gender identity. It doesn’t matter if I think it’s right or wrong. What matters is that God tells me to love everyone and treat them with respect.

There is nothing else to that sentence. I am to love everyone and treat them with respect. And if any person is willing to sacrifice their life in service to this country, that person is doubly worthy of my respect.

I have said this a lot, but I’ve never said it here: it doesn’t matter what color you are, your nationality, your gender, if you are able bodied, if you are gay, straight, bi, sideways, purple, covered in spots, Republican, Democrat, you prefer dogs over cats, your immigration status, if you’ve ever been in prison, if you struggle with addiction, if you have health insurance through work or if you get it through the Affordable Care Act, if you know what the Affordable Care Act is or if you don’t. None of that matters. God loves you.

I love you too. Even if you disagree with me.

Now, of course, there are things in the Bible about homosexuality. Except that the word homosexual wasn’t even invented until the 1800’s. What we do have are a few sentences describing behavior that is very different from the loving and committed modern relationships we assume those texts refer to. There are, however, plenty of examples of Biblical marriage, like what we have in this section of the Genesis text.

Jacob wishes to marry Rebecca. He ends up married to Leah. And then also Rebecca. And then both Rebecca and Leah allow Jacob to impregnate their slaves. So what we have in this Scripture is a justification for polygamy (and an understanding that certain types of adultery were acceptable). This was perfectly okay in the ancient context in which this text was written, but which we now understand to not be acceptable.

Let’s also remember that Laban said “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man” referring to why Laban is okay with Jacob marrying Rebecca. But Laban is Jacob’s uncle. Laban is Jacob’s mother’s brother. Meaning that Rebecca and Leah, are Jacob’s first cousins.

Today, it is unacceptable to marry your cousin. It’s just wrong. We know that because of modern values and modern science. But they didn’t know that then.

My modern faith does not have to be free from my intellect. I get to think. I was blessed with a beautiful mind, and I get to use it in attempting to understand how these ancient words are applicable to my life today.

My faith teaches me to love everyone; that everyone has worth. But I also get to reconcile that I am lovingly and perfectly made, even though I was made gay. There’s nothing wrong with me. I actually think I’m quite wonderful! I am worthy of God’s love, and equal to anyone else. I am equal because I am perfectly made in God’s image. And so are you.

And I also truly believe that when applying the ancient words of Scripture to our modern context, what we are left with is that if consenting adults are agreeing to a relationship, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter if those people are gay, straight, male, female, or trans.

If these words are read or repeated in 50 years, or even 5 years, they might not make much sense. My words today are in response to what happened in this country this week. And a reaction to what might happen next week.

I wanted to have beautiful, eternal words, but these are the words I have. These are the words that grew out of the mustard seed of faith planted within me. I worked hard to nurture that seed. It took time, and effort. My words today are the product of an incredible amount of work and study. And of reconciling what I instinctively know to be true about God with some of what I was taught by others.

To the people of my home, those who are neighbors I know, and neighbors I haven’t met yet, I offer you this: love. Love everyone. Remember that the image of God is in each and every one of us. Your faith is your greatest treasure. Love it, and love it in those you meet. It is hard to do that in times such as these.

But we are called to be more than our political beliefs. We are called to be Christians.

So walk in love as Christ loves us. Offer yourself. Let us be known by how we love. Not how we distinguish, divide, and discriminate. That’s hard. But if we can do that, the rewards are greater than any pearl, any earthy treasure, any measurable thing. Work towards the good of God as Paul calls us to do. Let us search our own hearts to find the imprint of the Holy Spirit left there. That will make it so much easier to see the imprint of God in others.

Amen