Sunday, February 17, 2019

What would it look like to actually follow Jesus?

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 17, 2019 [All Saints Church, Pasadena]

A world in need now summons us
to labor, love and give.
To make our life an offering
to God 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.

If those words sounds familiar it's because they are words sing frequently -- and, indeed, will sing later this morning -- as we present the offerings of our lives and labor at this table ... as we gather to receive the bread and wine made holy ... as we ask to be fed and fueled to go out as beacons of God's love, justice and compassion in  the world.

They are words that are arguably our job description as church -- a summation of what we're called to do as individuals, as a congregation and as a wider community of faith: to make the dream come true.

Because we are not yet living the dream.

The fact that our beautiful and broken world has yet to live up to all that God created it to be -- dreamed that it would be -- is not the stuff of breaking news ... it is the stuff of ancient mythology, copious philosophy and mountains of theology.

And yet this week -- as wave after wave of what my father used to call "news of fresh disasters" washed over our airwaves and twitter feeds and breaking news alerts on our smart phones -- it seemed to me that the goal of making the dream come true was being pushed even further and further away.

We observed the first anniversary of the Parkland Shooting and the tragic loss of seventeen precious lives with the stunning statistic that since February 14, 2018 there have been under 18 1200 victims of gun violence.

We watched the systemic racism that that afflicts our nation rear its ugly head in toxic debates about if and when blackface is appropriate (spoiler: NEVER!) and in the unexamined white privilege of corporate executives who announce they "don't see color."

We heard the president declare a national emergency to -- in the words of our own Congressional Representative Adam Schiff -- "build a wall we don’t need, to address a crisis that doesn’t exist, by claiming an authority he doesn’t have.”

And while children remain separated from their parents at our border, LGBTQ youth remain at risk in our communities, and access to health care remains under attack in our nation on Friday we paused to mourn yet-another-mass shooting leaving six dead and five police officers wounded in Aurora, Illinois.

We are not only not living the dream. We are so not living the dream that it is not an unreasonable fear that we never will.

Nevertheless, we persist. We gather together in community to remind ourselves and each other who we are and whose we are. And we listen to the voices of those who have gone before us for words of both hope and challenge as we make our way on our own journey -- following in their footsteps into God's future.

And this morning it fills me with deep delight that one of those voices is Verna Dozier.

Dr. Verna Dozier was a 20th century preacher, teacher and biblical scholar; a theologian and a prophet.

Some of you will recall that Rabbi Abraham Heschel offered this definition of a prophet: "One who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable." And Verna Dozier most certainly did both.

An African American, a woman and a lay person, her voice was a voice the church hadn’t expected to hear or – I suspect -- even wanted to listen to. And yet like the Syrophonecian woman who scripture tells us stopped Jesus in his tracks  insisting that Jesus hear her plea and heal her daughter, Verna stood her ground and insisted that church hear her plea and heal itself of the clericalism and institutionalism that distorted its vision -- hampered its mission – kept it from becoming all that God intended it to be.

I first encountered Verna back in the 1990's when a copy of The Dream of God leapt off the shelf of the old Diocesan Center bookstore and into my hands.

I took it home and literally read it cover-to-cover ... and her words stirred in me a deep sense of the beauty and the power of this dream that God dreamed for creation and the reality and the tragedy of how far we have fallen from living it out in the world.

Words like:

"The dream of God is that all creation will live together in peace, harmony and fulfillment. All parts of creation. And the dream of God is that the good creation that God created and then said 'it is good' will be restored."

And ...

 “God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church. The urgent task for us is to reclaim our identity as the people of God and live into our high calling as the baptized community … that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized."

As I was preparing for ordination her words were my constant companions as The Dream of God became part of my seminary-survival-kit – reminding me over and over and over again not to confuse God with the church – challenging me to balance academics and action.

I only heard her preach once – in 1997 in Cincinnati at a national justice conference – and what I remember most were the words you see on the cover of your service leaflet under her picture: “Don’t tell me what you believe – tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

Her operating principle – which was summarized in the reading we heard this morning from her "Agenda for the 90's" -- is that the church has failed in its high calling to be the Body of Christ in the world because it has too often settled for worshipping Jesus instead of following Jesus. That premise became a core value of my own priesthood -- and I am deeply grateful to be part of this All Saints Church community that both shares and strives to live out those values. Continues to work to make that dream we are not yet living come true.

How do we change that? How do we -- as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it "turn the world from the nightmare it has become into the dream God dreamed"?

Sister Joan Chittister has this answer: "We are each called to go through life reclaiming the planet an inch at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again."

An inch at a time. A prayer at a time. A letter to Congress at a time. A prayer shawl at a time. A City Council resolution at a time. A Sunday School art project at a time. A protest at a time.

There are as many ways at a time as there are inches at a time -- and each and every one of them is how we as the people of God ... answer Verna Dozier's question in her Agenda for the 90's ... "What would it look like to actually follow Jesus?"

If we've been listening to the Gospels appointed for the last few weeks we know something about where that following leads. It leads to proclaiming liberation to the captive, sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. It leads to speaking truth to those in power -- even when speaking that truth might get you thrown off a cliff by your own hometown crowd.  It leads to turning upside down the values of the world and replacing them with the values of the kindom of God ... where the blessed are not those with power, privilege and possessions but those we heard Jesus call out in today's Gospel: those who are poor, those who weep and those who hunger.

And it leads to what is perhaps the greatest challenge of all: refusing to settle for how far we've come and continuing to be open to where God is calling us to go.

Of all the words from Verna Dozier which have inspired and challenged me over the years, it may be these words about faith and fear that I have turned to more times than any other – especially whenever it’s time to once more step out into new beginnings, new challenges, new opportunities.

 “Doubt” said Verna, “is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today."

Freedom from the fear of risking because we might be wrong frees us to get it right -- by opening new doors, challenging old assumptions, chancing new undertakings. And let’s face it – there is an urgent need for new possibilities we cannot even imagine today to overcome the very real challenges facing the world we live in today: war-torn, terror-wracked, polarized and demoralized we are constantly bombarded by efforts to feed our fears as part of a strategic plan to keep us polarized and demoralized -- and therefore immobilized.

And one of the most effective ways to resist that fear -- to refuse to be immobilized -- is to remind ourselves of those voices of witness to the power of God’s love to transform even the fear in our hearts into strength for the journey -- voices like Verna's who remind us about our history in order to empower us for our future: voices that comfort us in our affliction and afflict us in our comfort ... voices that call us to continue to remember to ask of ourselves and each other: "What would it mean to actually follow Jesus?"

To labor, love and give.
To make the dream come true.
A world redeemed by Christ-like love
All life in Christ made new. Amen.

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