It was was great privilege to be asked to come lead this year's retreat -- standing on the shoulders of folks like friends Steven Charleston, Mary Glasspool, Dent Davidson and Ed Bacon ... just to name a few.
Also a delight to be able to spend some time in ministry with old friend Brian Seage -- now Bishop of Mississippi. And by "old friend" I mean back when he was doing youth work at St. Patrick's, Thousand Oaks and I was the parish secretary at St. Paul's, Ventura. Old.
We picked the theme "Are We Running With You, Jesus?" to "claim the legacy of Malcolm Boyd" on this 50th Anniversary of the publication of his 1965 best seller. It was a great weekend with wonderful people ... and here's the sermon I preached on Sunday morning:
Save us from the sin of loving religion more than you
The lessons appointed for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost are challenging ones. Joshua challenges the leaders of Israel to “choose this day.” Paul challenges the Ephesians to “stand firm” in the face of the spiritual forces of evil. And Jesus – Jesus is still challenging the disciples to figure out what he means by the bread of life.
We could have dodged them this morning … the retreat organizers gave the preacher the option of picking different lessons. But I’m a lectionary preacher and so you’re stuck with them – challenges and all … including the question: What is there in these ancient texts for us on this Sunday in 21st century Mississippi as we consider our own challenge – claiming the legacy of Malcolm Boyd ?
To begin, I want to share with you these words from my bishop -- Mary Glasspool – words she wrote in response to my request for whatever thoughts she might like to share with us about how Malcolm influenced her, her life and her ministry. Mary wrote:
In 1965, when "Are You Running With Me Jesus?" was first published, I was 11 years old. Being a voracious reader I went out and bought the book, read the prayers (all at once) and was horrified. Who on earth would address JESUS so casually? As if Jesus were his best pal? Or his running buddy? I couldn't believe that Malcolm Boyd was an Episcopal Priest.
But I kept that book, and it traveled with me to this day. I met Malcolm Boyd, for the first time when I first came to Los Angeles in 2010. He became my spiritual director and I was amazed at the depth and wisdom of his counsel.
There is so much to say about Malcolm: his incredible sense of humor, his seemingly ubiquitous presence at the Cathedral Center, and his love, commitment to justice, and tenacity as a man of faith - all were palpable until the day he died and then even beyond.
I think we sometimes forget that Malcolm was, really first and foremost, a man of prayer. It is his prayers that have influenced me the most, and even though a runner myself, my favorite prayer from Malcolm is not the "Are you running with me, Jesus?" prayer - it's the following:
You said there is perfect freedom in your service, Jesus -
Well, I don't feel perfectly free. I don't feel free at all. I'm a captive to myself.
I do what I want. I have it all my own way. There is no freedom at all for me in this, Jesus. Today I feel like a slave bound in chains and branded by a hot iron because I'm captive to my own will and don't give an honest damn about your will.
You're over there where I'm keeping you, outside my real life. How can I go on being such a lousy hypocrite? Come over here, where I don't want you to come.
Let me quit playing this blasphemous game of religion with you.
Help me to let you be yourself in my life - so I can be myself.
Help me to let you be yourself in my life SO I can be myself. Help me “choose this day” to follow the God of justice and compassion and leave behind the false idols of judgment and condemnation. Help me “stand firm” in the face of spiritual evil and “to learn how to oppose it without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves.” Help me receive the bread of life in order to BE the bread of life – the Body of Christ – in a hungry and hurting world.
Yes, as the disciple said in this morning’s gospel “This teaching is difficult.” But part of claiming the legacy of Malcolm Boyd is recognizing that it is worth the work – worth the challenge – worth the risk of becoming vulnerable enough to let Jesus be himself in our lives even when that makes us – or those close to us – uncomfortable.
Garrison Keillor tells the story of his uncle who, at annual family gatherings during Holy Week, always read the story of the passion and death of Jesus. And each year he would burst into tears. The family would sit awkwardly until he was able to continue the reading. “My uncle took the death of Jesus so personally,” said Keillor – pausing to add: "The rest of the church had gotten over that years ago."
Like Garrison Keillor’s uncle, Malcolm Boyd took Jesus personally. He took him personally enough to be both challenged and changed by him.
And then he used the experience of that change to help change the church. His “Are You Running With Me Jesus” – was published in 1965 … feeding the hunger of a generation of people who had given up on the church or anyone connected with it having anything relevant to say.
Feeding it with poetry like this:
Here I am in church again, Jesus. I love it here, but, as you know, for some of the wrong reasons. I sometimes lose myself completely in the church service and forget the people outside whom you love. I sometimes withdraw far, far inside myself when I am inside church, but people looking at me can see only my pious expression and imagine I am loving you instead of myself.Loving religion instead of Jesus has been one of the ways the church has denied Jesus over and over and over again as surely as Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest as the cock crowed the third time.
Help us, Lord, who claim to be your special people. Don’t let us feel privileged and selfish because you have called us to you. Teach us our responsibilities to you, our community, and to all the people out there. Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you.
To love religion instead of Jesus – to worship Jesus instead of following him – is to choose institutionalization over mobilization – to opt for the safety of becoming an institution rather than risk the invitation to be part of God’s movement.
Verna Dozier in her wonderful book "The Dream of God" describes it thus: "The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure. [Rejecting] the frighteningly free gift of God go be a new thing in the world – a witness that all of life could be different for everybody – this gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who "know" above the great mass of those who must be told."
And so -- for generations – those of us who "must be told" were told all kinds of things about what Jesus' life and death and resurrection meant. And a great many of them bore little or no resemblance to the actual life and witness of the one the church claims to follow – of the Jesus who …
• put table fellowship at the center of his life,
• ate with outcasts,
• welcomed sinners,
• proclaimed the year of the Lord's favor,
• was so centered in God's abundant love that he was willing to speak truth to power from that first sermon that almost got him thrown off the cliff by his irate Nazarene homies to his last cross-examination by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Instead we were given doctrines we were supposed to digest and not delve into, creeds we were supposed to recite and not question, scriptures we were supposed to memorize and not contextualize. And then they wondered why the church was increasingly perceived as irrelevant!
The truth is that the witness we have to offer the world – the witness we call turning the human race into the human family – has nothing whatsoever to do with swallowing morally indefensible theories of an atoning sacrifice to appease an angry God and everything to do with living morally accountable lives of service and self-offering in alignment with God’s values of love, justice and compassion.
To live those values is to walk what Marcus Borg called “the way of Jesus” a way that is not a set of beliefs about Jesus … [but] the way of death and resurrection – the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being.”
It has to do with being the Body of Christ in the world – it has to do with these words we sing at All Saints Church in Pasadena as we bring the offerings of our lives and labor to the table on Sunday mornings:
A world in need now summons us
To labor, love and give;
To make our life an offering
To all that all may live.
The church of Christ is calling us
To make the dream come true;
A world redeemed by Christ-like love
All life in Christ made new.
Robert Shahan, a former Episcopal Bishop of Arizona famously said: "Faith is what you are willing to die for. Dogma is what you are willing to kill for."
In a recent online exchange over the “religious liberty” issue, an attorney colleague wrote: “When the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 to protect religious minorities, who could have imagined state-law RFRAs enacted to protect the "religious liberty" of bigoted business owners to discriminate against members of any minority groups they disapprove of.”
Inspiring this response: “When Jesus said to his disciples “Behold, I give you a new commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you” who could have imagined that that dictate of love would be twisted into dogmas of discrimination against other beloved members of God’s human family.”
We gather today as people of faith; not as people of dogma. We gather in the shadow of religion being used and misused as a weapon of mass discrimination in our nation and as a weapon of mass destruction around the world. Being used and misused to inflict trauma rather than to heal trauma. Being used and misused for oppression rather than for liberation.
And every time we let that use and misuse go unchallenged we deny Jesus just as surely as Peter did before the cock crowed.
Instead, let us claim the legacy of Malcolm Boyd – and all those like him down through the ages who have understood that – in the words of my rector, Ed Bacon -- “to have the mind of Christ is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone.” That, my brothers and sisters, is “all life in Christ made new.”
And so my prayer for us – for all of us – the “us” gathered here today at this retreat center in the Diocese of Mississippi and the “us” who make us the Body of Christ gathered in prayer and contemplation throughout the church on this August Sunday is that we – like Malcolm Boyd – might be given the grace to take both the death AND life of Jesus “personally” – to take them personally enough to be changed by them – and then to change the world.
Let us pray.
Here we are in church again, Jesus. We love it here, but, as you know, for some of the wrong reasons. We sometimes lose ourselves completely in the church service and forget the people outside whom you love. We sometimes withdraw far, far inside ourselves when we are inside church, but people looking at us can see only our pious expression and imagine we are loving you instead of ourselves.
Help us, Lord, who claim to be your special people. Don’t let us feel privileged and selfish because you have called us to you. Teach us our responsibilities to you, our community, and to all the people out there. Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you. Amen