Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Something Thicker than Blood

A funny thing happened on the way to the beach.  I got called to be your next rector.  I think it’s going to take a bit of getting used to.  And because there’s only so much a biography and a Q and A from a few months back can reveal about someone, I imagine that there are lots of questions about me lingering in the air as it were.  But before I show you my cards, I want to first say a word of thanks.  To the Search Committee and the Vestry for honoring me with the call to become the rector of this parish, to those who helped us unload our moving truck and set up our home, to all of you who have shown my family such unrivaled kindness and warmth…from the bottom of my heart, “Thank you.”  It’s still something like a dream, being here in this beautiful city, spending time with such beautiful people, breathing in this fresh air.  But the highlight, by far, is being thousands of miles away from the absolutely crushing humidity of North Carolina.  The fact that I’m not sweating through my chasuble is enough for me to jump up and shout, but I suppose that might not be so becoming of an Episcopal priest. In all seriousness, this transition has been absolutely wonderful, and it is a joy to be standing before you, having been called as your rector. Thank you.

To be called not only as your rector, but to be continually called to do the work of Jesus Christ is often overwhelming for me.  But it’s a calling I’ve tried to live into since my youth.  I fell head over heels in love with the God revealed in Jesus Christ when I was 13 years old.  I may be one of the few Episcopal priests with a genuine conversion story.  It was at youth group, during a time in my life when things were off-kilter and out-of-sorts.  My parents bribed me into attending church by dangling before me the pay-per-view wrestling match of a lifetime:  WCW Uncensored ’99. Begrudgingly I went, not wanting to miss out on Ric Flair’s title bout with the Hulk Hogan.  Yet I left caring little about what happened in that wrestling ring, having been transformed by meeting Jesus and feeling his love.  My conversion story, I think, is proof positive that God has a sense of humor.  Have you met anyone else who can say professional wrestling led them to Jesus Christ?  We had a new youth minister, a bit rough around the edges, but passionate.  I can still remember that night like yesterday, and I can remember hearing, as if for the first time, someone saying to me, “Jesus loves you unconditionally.  Come, receive his grace.”  The feeling of acceptance, of grace, of love was so palpable, and it was a feeling I wanted to share with anyone and everyone.  And so, just a few months later, I daringly said to God, “Use me as a minister for the rest of my life.”  Apparently, God was listening closely that day, and so here I am, 16 years later, preaching and presiding at the Lord’s Table, still drawn to the love and beauty of the God made known in Jesus Christ.

This Gospel resonates with me because I can so identify with all of the people flocking to see Jesus, drawn to the same love and beauty I experienced that night so many years ago: “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them…and wherever he went, into villages or cities, or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplace, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” Seductive is a word not usually used to describe religious matters, but I think it fits perfectly here.  There was something so seductive about the figure of Jesus, something so attractive, something almost irresistible to those who had opened themselves up to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Even those who had not yet fully realized the true nature of Jesus…even those people felt compelled to seek him out, to meet him on that road, to just touch the fringe of his cloak.  Jesus himself said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And we see how this drawing began even before the cross.  It began with a reputation of love, of mercy, of health, of true salvation and wholeness.  Time and time again we see people coming to Jesus for relief, for health, for salvation.  From Roman centurions to rabbinic leaders, Jesus’ reputation as a bearer of life and health went before him, a true testament of his power to gather together even those once called enemies.  In Jesus we see a new human family emerging, a human family tied together by something thicker even than blood.

St. Paul says so clearly what it is that unites this new human family: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Though we don’t always live fully into this reality, make totally real this breathtakingly beautiful truth, it nevertheless remains a conviction of the Church that something was done to humanity, something at the depth of what it means to be human…and this something is the breaking down of dividing walls and the bringing together of people from distant lands.  The vision of John in Revelation says it more beautifully than I can: “They sing a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In a world still crippled by division, whether political, theological, racial, economic, or anything else that divides us…this is a vision worth upholding and celebrating.  For I believe that people coming together to worship and serve Christ in spite of their deeply held differences can be as seductive to a divided world as Jesus’ ministry of healing was to those crowds who followed him from place to place.

In just one short week, I’ve had several conversations, both with parishioners and those in the wider Los Alamos community, that have indicated to me how deeply true it is of Trinity on the Hill that dividing walls are not an issue here.  We have in our midst Republicans, Democrats and those in between.  We have theological conservatives and those who define themselves as liberal, or progressive.  Issues that tend to tear at the fabric of other communities are somehow transcended here.  And it seems to me that finding new ways to show this reality to the wider city will make this an attractive and inviting community to be a part of.  We may not be a people who can heal the lame, or raise the dead.  We may not be a people whose cloaks possess the power to cure disease and sickness.  But we can be a people who witness to the power of Jesus Christ that brings together divided humanity…that creates a new human family out of the brokenness and division of the world.  The power that takes shattered vessels of clay, such as we are, and creates masterpieces of grace, forgiveness, and transformation. As Paul has said, “he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

It's the power of Jesus Christ that takes people once aliens and strangers to God and knits us so deeply into his heart.  Through Jesus Christ we have become citizens with the saints, members of the household of God. What a witness this can be to this community, to the world, a people living into God’s call to be something more than broken humanity. We show the world that in Jesus Christ all are welcome, and that the world’s brokenness is healed right in our midst. Let’s together, in this new chapter of Trinity on the Hill’s life, write a story of unity, harmony, and peace, and perhaps we will see people who once looked from the outside at our common life coming into this place, being overwhelmed by Christ’s love, and joining us on this journey.

 *A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on July 19, 2015.  The texts were Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

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