Do Good. Don’t do Evil.

Sermon Summary, Proper 10, Year C

11 August 2017

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards

Christ Church of the Ascension 

Paradise Valley

9 a.m.

Don’t do evil. Do good things. Don’t do evil things. Do good. 

These are prophetic things to say in days like this. But sometimes we need the reminder. Don’t be evil. Be good. 

It is ridiculous that we are at this point as a people, but here we are. The readings today all point to this basic reminder and through it to something deeper that gives it more context, but the message is embarrassingly simple. 

Remember that, and it will get you through the rest of this.  

This morning I am going to explain why I don’t talk about politics from the pulpit very much, but I am also going to explain why we have to talk about politics sometimes.  

First off, I do not tell people how to vote because I have sat in that sermon, gotten that email, and read that post; and I was not persuaded. But even more, my job is not to get you to be Democrats or Republicans or even good citizens. My job is coach, teach, pastor you to be people of the Gospel, Christ followers, Christians who live in this world which is not yet fully redeemed. My vocation is to be your priest and not your political or community organizer. 

And to be honest my own record politically is not all that great. I have voted for people I later regretted and causes that I came to see differently over time. I don’t want you to vote like me. I want you to follow Christ as you vowed to do at your baptism and represent him as ambassadors of his kingdom.

Being your pastor means that I worry about how you conduct yourself in the world because you do not represent yourself only, but you represent God in the world. I have been teaching about this lately, and you have heard me say that as human beings we bear the image of God, are to be as God would be in the world, vessels of grace, carriers of the Gospel. We are to live as God’s sons and daughters, and that is lived in our prayers, private lives, and our politics.

In the book of Isaiah we get a basic picture of what happens when we fail to understand that God cares about our politics as much as our worship. “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats . . . Cease to do evil! Learn to do good!” The people’s worship was meaningless and did not honor God because it was not congruent with their lives, personal or political.

The people of Israel were supposed to represent what God is like in the world in their worship but even more for the prophets in their ethical treatment of each other, the poor, and the stranger in the land. That language is not political speech from today’s headlines, but rather it is the language of the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets. It is God’s language. 

If you are a person who seeks to represent God, the God of Israel, the Bible and Jesus of Nazareth, you cannot neglect other people, especially the poor and the immigrant. It is not an option for you. If you choose to do so, you are in essence saying, “I choose not to represent the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, and his Son Jesus.” And though the promises given are free, you may not accept the promises of citizenship in his kingdom and may endanger your very soul. 

That is harsh. But, that is the Bible’s word from Genesis to Revelation. 

So you see how I have to talk about politics a little to be a faithful pastor? It is unavoidable. 

On the other hand, there are a lot of faithful ways that you can care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. But before I give your some room, let’s make this slightly more uncomfortable.

Immigration is one of the largest and most complex issues in American politics today. This administration has made it central to its mission. Now, let’s be honest about the issue: a nation has to control its borders and manage the flow of people, but we can do so humanely.

In our country we offer social help, mild democratic socialism, in the form of food and medical assistance, housing, and economic aid, not to mention welfare services, social services, psychological and even transportation assistance. We voted for it and supported it numerous times over the last hundred years. These forms of assistance pervade our government and our lives as citizens.

What I saw as a pastor and priest down in the southern part of our state was that unregulated illegal immigration created a hardship for the poor seeking those services. When we offer the same services to those here but not registered, those resources get lost to those here legally, by birth or migration. 

And before you write off the people coming across the border, most of them are Christians: Roman Catholics, protestants, pentecostals, and even Anglicans. All of them are human beings, and most are simply seeking the opportunities our forbears sought.

So we have competing values.

Those competing values have several immediately obvious answers and more complex and deeper ones that may not be so obvious. The work to figure out a real answer to migration issues will involve compromises of deeply held values. That is the work of good politics. And I believe in that work, though like others I am often disappointed in the compromises. We could argue for years about how to handle this issue.

But you cannot neglect your neighbors in any case. You should not do evil in your politics or your speech. You gave up that option at your baptism.

We live in a time of politics as divisive as ever. But there is much to be thankful for. We live in one of the wealthiest times in one of the wealthiest nations ever. Especially as common people. 

I had this friend and mentor who was a Lutheran minister I served with in Michigan. He had two small Lutheran and Episcopal churches, and we often rode downstate to meetings together. Some of my fondest memories of Tom are being bundled up in his car driving in a blizzard with the windows cracked while he smoked a pipe and sang the Lutheran settings of the liturgy from their Book of Worship. 

He and his wife had this small place way up north on a peninsula where in the winter the wind blew straight from one part of Lake Michigan to another blowing the snow so hard it often didn’t even land in his yard. It was a cold harsh place in my mind in winter, but they would sit on their porch in the evening and say, with indoor plumbing and central heating, they “lived better than the kings and queens of England.” 

We forget that we have it so good. We are the blessed. But we have much work to do, even today. And I have many political opinions, but I rarely stand up here and tell you how to respond politically. But I will say again, Do good and do not do evil. Be good and do not be be evil. 

Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

What do you have to be afraid of, you children of the living God, who made the heavens and the earth, spun the Horsehead Nebula and molded the salamander? God has made all things for you, why let someone talk you into fear? Be bold. Be generous. Be good.

You have a kingdom, why will you not share your bounty? 

You have eternal life? Why are you afraid of anyone? 

Be bold.  Our current and previous bishops both belong to Bishops Against Gun Violence, which is just ridiculous. This, of course, replaced the previous Bishops For Gun Violence Working Group, which was proceeded by Bishops for Stabbings. We are in such a state that we have bishops who have to proclaim that they are against violence. 

There are lots of complex issues in the world, but there are some that are so basic that we all should be able to see good and evil, but we are persuaded that morality is political, and that our responses are set by the parties we belong to, but that is a lie. Satan is real, and he has lobbyists. Don’t be one. Do not support evil. Support good things. 

Step back from your allegiances to party and politics and spend some time with Christ to whom you owe your life. Get your allegiances right. We are for Christ, and so we are for the good.

Many of you have wondered about my time with the fire department, and it amounts to less time than some people put into their hobbies. I guess you could say my hobby is holding up the good men and women of the city, but that work puts me out there in some places I would not ever go, and I can tell you there is real evil in the world. There is real evil in our city.

This is not the “I had wait ten minutes in construction”evil, but life destroying, child sacrificing, violence and abuse and degradation evil. And there are men and women who stay awake so that we can sleep at night. They are doing the good in ways that most of us never see. Give thanks for them. Pray for them and their families.

That is part of our politics too. We are for those who do the good, and we are against those who do evil, recognizing as Paul says, Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers . . . “ We are not against people but against the spiritual forces they come to represent. Those who work for the good deserve our prayers, our support, and our honesty. 

In our work for God, we must not mistake that our enemies are less than we are. They are human beings who represent something else, something greater than themselves. We battle evil, not people. And it takes a discerning eye to know if a person is good or evil. Do you have it? 

We must think carefully about how we are to live, who we are to support, and be clear-eyed about the compromises that we make. But we must also not relent in our belonging to Christ. 

Get your heart right. Jesus gives us a way to aim our heart and correct our allegiances. Use your money to aim your heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I have always heard this as a statement of being, ontological truth. But what if it is a strategy? 

Jesus tells us to in the same passage, like Isaiah, to give alms. Now that is, to be clear, money to the poor. Your political contributions nor your pledges count. Alms are moneys given to those in need. 

Amy and I have supported a girl through LoveJustice for well over a decade now. She had adopted her just before we started dating, and we have sent along a little money every month to support her care and education. But the amazing thing is not that, but it is how that little amount has pulled our heart halfway around the world. Our children have grown up with a girl they have never met face to face, and we have remained aware of those doing the good work in places we have never been.

What will be that for you? How will you check your allegiances? How can you be an ambassador for Christ? A child of God? 

Do good, and not evil.

Grace: a theological exploration part 2

What happens when our conception of God fundamentally changes? 

In the time of Jesus calling God “Dad” was radical, or at least we think it was radical for the time. To be honest about the research we cannot really tell if it was shocking or not.

It is not a normal title for God in Hebrew literature, but it was not completely unheard of either. 

The unique thing about the title of “Dad” is that it is a keystone to the whole arch of Jesus’ teaching. His concept of Dad was compassionate, loving, merciful, and quick to forgive. Both the gospels and letters teach that part of that teaching is that we are God’s children, or we can be.

Jesus is God’s son, that is undisputed by anyone in the Christian faith. It is a pillar of doctrine. You are in or out of the definition of being a Christian based simply on the answer to that question of belief, among a very few others. 

Leaving behind for a moment what that means to classical theology, in the Hebrew tradition it meant that Jesus would have the character of God. The same way that when my father says, “Boy, you are your mother’s son,” what he means is that I have some characteristic of my mother, like stubbornness, for example. 

Jesus has God’s character. This is an aspect of what we call incarnation in theology. Jesus makes “carne” or meaty what God is in spirit. This notion that Jesus embodies God is another key theological idea that lies at the center of Christian thought. But at the least it means that Jesus has God’s character.

In the prologue of the Gospel of John we are told that because of the Logos we are capable of becoming children of God, not through the desire of a man or the strength or will but through the abiding of the Holy Spirit. This is right up front in the gospel, literally and literarily. We become children of God as we abide in his Spirit and as his Spirit abides in us.

We are to take on his character, just as Jesus had God’s character. The logic of this is ironclad, and once you see it, you see it throughout the New Testament. 

Therefore if grace is God’s character, then we are to have grace. We are to give freely forgiveness, things, provision, love. This is all in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also the consistent message throughout the text, stated in different ways. 

Think seriously about that for a moment. We are supposed to be a people of grace if we are God’s people, Jesus’s disciples, embodying the Holy Spirit. We are to be generous, forgiving, merciful, and loving. 

If you know real Christians, you know people like this. 

The question before us is “How do we shape a people like this?”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his staff have produced a Way of Love curricula that locates this in a series of practices. I have taught and written about this very thing throughout this blog and my churches. This is the question of our times.

How do we become a people of the Way? 

The Rule of Grace is one way to put the process, as you will find with a search of this sight. It is the way we inculcate a people of the transaction into the way of Christ. 

It begins with knowing God and continues with loving.

Keeping the Office: Spirit, Soul, Balance, and Coyotes

Run. Lift. Run. Lift. Run. Yoga? Run. Box. Lift. Staying in shape takes discipline and variation. My preference is long bouts of running (trails on the menu tonight) mixed with heavy lifting and boxing work on a heavy bag. If that sounds like a lot you can comfort yourself knowing that it all gets spread out by life.

In the Episcopal Church we are shaped by prayer in a four-fold practice that is deeply rooted in the Benedictine practice of the Catholic Church of the west. One of the current losses in the Episcopal tradition is the focus only on the Eucharistic and sacramental practices to the exclusion of everything else. In reality we are shaped equally by the Daily Office, prayer of the heart, and Lectio Divina.

Each of these types of prayer has its own place in a healthy, balanced life. The Eucharist has taken on the dominant role since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved it to the center of the weekly gathering and moved from being a devotional guide for regular practice to the being a sourcebook for liturgy. This description by the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain in a staff conversation rings with my own experience. The options that are available to offer variety in the services of Eucharist are distracting in the Daily Office.

The Daily Office is a condensed version of the monastic hours of the Benedictine tradition. The Opus Dei, work of God, of Benedict’s Rule is the monks’ lifting up the continuous praise of the church hour after hour, day after day, year after year. I am reminded of this every time I settle into retreat. The Office is our secular lifting up of that praise. It is continuous and faithful, and decidedly not consumerist.

The praise of the church, rooted in the praise of all creation, is going to go on with or without us joining in. We join in to be a part of God’s reign of peace and grace. We are changed by being a part of that work as a fire purifies metal.

The loss of the Office is then a loss of transformation in the particular way that being a part of something larger than ourselves changes us.

It is useful to offer a splitting of hairs between Spirit and soul at this point. In my anthropology I understand the spirit of a person to be reflective of and part of the Spirit of God, the God-breath that animates us and gives us consciousness, being, and life. But that part of us is not individualized but is universal. Those things we call “spiritual” all have reliable components of light, higher sensibilities, goodness.

The soul, on the other hand, is the part of us that is unique. It has a sense of the quirky, individual, and rootedness. To say that something is soulful is to say it is rooted in the person in a different way than the Spirit. Anything that is of the soul should be good, but may not be.

The Spirit of God is our breath in some way that makes us human. It is what gives us our unique vocation as a species to care for the creation, each other, and to worship God. The soul is the unique person that God has made us to be. They are inseparable, but they are different from each other.

A person needs to develop in both. As a spiritual person, the Office offers growth in the ways of God joining into the praise, light, and offering of the church universal. But we have all known people who are deeply spiritual but seem not to have developed the unique voice and depth of rootedness of the soul.

The Office is not enough by itself. The prayer of the heart is that extemporaneous conversation with God that fills our days and dreams. It should be unique, quirky, free. It is the Spirit breathing in our spirit to lift us what God will within us. We might call it the prayer of the soul. It seems easiest for some people, and in some versions of faith it is the only form of prayer that is taught or valued.

But on the other hand, we have also known people who are rooted in their individuality but are not connected to what is good, light. They have gone into the shadow without light and have even at times become a shade, a ghost of a human being. Evil is possible without ongoing connection to the Spirit when the personal good becomes the only good; just a surely the universal good can devalue the individual to the point of evil as well.

We need all four kinds of prayer in order to be whole. The poles we have drawn here between Office and prayer of the soul are matched by other polarities between each and Eucharist and Lectio.

Focussing on the Office, the universal nature of the Office should be balanced by the communal gathering around Jesus in the Eucharist. The communion service should be shaped by the people who are gathered in a way that the Office is not. And Lectio, the practice of divine reading is meant as a kind of whole self entering into the Bible, a meta-study, that is very different in intent and outcome than the reading of the Bible in the Office.

All of this forms a whole practice of prayer. The Office may be the queen of the practice in the Anglican past, but the Eucharist has taken over in these last few decades, and I am not sure that we are in better shape.

Yesterday I was deadlifting, tonight I will put in a few miles in the darkened mountains with javelinas and coyotes. But neither of these is the point.

Health and strength are for life. They are for wrestling with my kids and carrying groceries and kneeling in prayer without weariness.

The Office and all the rest is not the point either, but the relationship with God that forms us as heirs of the Reign of God, children of Abba, siblings to the Christ who saves us, and temple to the Holy Spirit.

Tonight I will run among the mountains and my beloved coyotes that trot along the golden sunlight shafts dancing their last purpling dances of the day in hills of palo verde and red clay. There is joy along the way for the beauty of the voices and laughter of children and the same golden hues turned light on the marble before the table of God.