Relationship Over Rules. Love Over Laws.*

An amazing fact about the God we serve is that God chose to limit God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ. Now we don’t usually think of God as limited, do we? But the truth is, the all-knowing, all-powerful God freely choose a limited body, a limited context in history, and a limited creation in order to express to us those limitless aspects of God’s divine love.

The great mystery of the Judeo-Christian God is that this God who is all-powerful, and all knowing chose to speak, specifically to Abraham, and in doing so, started the process of limiting himself to be part of a people’s history. This same God freed an enslaved people from Egypt, brought up prophets and kings in Israel, and seems (according to my reading of Holy Scriptures) to be very fond of the widow/widower, the orphan, the migrant, the oppressed, and the enslaved. But God didn’t and doesn’t stop there. God chose to come among us, to be with us more fully (not more powerfully…but more fully) to be with us in a way that changed history. God, through the person of Jesus Christ, came among us to live, to suffer, and to ultimately die not for a cause, not for any rule, but for a relationship. For love: A love so powerful that three days later, death could not hold to it.

The small salvation history I just revealed is revealed further to us every time we release ourselves into the mystery of God’s love. Its results are always the same, although its situations are without end. And what are the results? Relationship. Love. Humbleness before our God, to name a few.

The best example of God asking us to limit ourselves in the name of relationship and love is found in the words of Jesus in Mark 8. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (or quite possibly, let them limit themselves) and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice here, we must give up something in order to follow Christ. We must limit ourselves in order to be in full relationship with God. I don’t think God would ask us to limit ourselves if he didn’t do this himself already? And because he did this through the person of Jesus Christ, God is revealing to us what love looks like: When we look upon our Savior Jesus Christ, we are looking at a God who limited God’s self for the sake of love, so that we may do the same. Why? Because it’s about relationship, not rules. It’s about love, not law.

A great example of this happened early last week. Pope Francis called upon all European churches (starting with the two within Vatican City) to host Syrian migrant and refugee families who were fleeing their country because of Civil War. Now, the secular rules talked about quotas, and space, and policy and procedure, but in the freedom of God, the Pope reminded us that if we all start from an ethic of care, compassion, and relationship, then the refuges would be taken care of. Rules (in many situations) are put into place because the relationship is not fully there from the beginning; it’s torn and tattered by sin and complex situations.

But let’s look at the order of correct relationship for this type of Christian hospitality to take root. The root of Christian hospitality does not start with an ethic of care, compassion, and relationship to our fellow man. No. The root of Christian hospitality starts with the ethic of care, compassion, and relationship we have with Christ. In the negative sense, if that relationship with Christ is broken, then the relationships we have with one another (be it biological family or church family or refugee family) are also broken. To be fair, this isn’t totally our fault. I mentioned sin earlier, and the complexities of sin I’ll have to write on another day, but the bottom line is that our relationship with Christ is key to our relationship to ourselves and to others.

Jesus again, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” So what are the European Churches loosing? Well, lots of things: They may see community as a loss. They may see status quo as a loss. But what Christ reminds us is that in His freedom, in God’s freedom to love, we are set free to lose the life we think we should have in order to live a life of full freedom in Christ. If we give up some things, if we take up our cross, if we lose and let go of things we think are precious – be that a tangible thing, or a ideal, or a politic – what we gain is Christ’s love, and the Gospel of Christ guides us to salvation. The classical word for all of this is repentance. We repent, and turn to God. Repent is best translated as “turning around”. So we quite literally turn around from something to something, and that “to something” is God. Then and only then are we completely free to love God, self, and neighbor (in that order). Now, the frustrating thing to me is that this is not a one-time deal; instead, repentance happens constantly, and confession and reconciliation are part of the process of salvation. But, we can only turn toward God if we experience the grace of God inviting us to turn away and repent, or give up what it is we must give up to experience His Love.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury before Justin Welby said that meditation on the Gospels is a matter of “coming to know ourselves through Christ.” So, in order for Pope Francis to call on all European Churches to take in folks is assuming that all these church bodies are on a continual path of “coming to know [themselves] through Christ.” So, there will probably be resistance if this isn’t the case for these churches. Why: Because the ethic of care, compassion, and relationship is out of order, and people don’t actually believe, or experience, the love of Christ in their lives.

That’s why the universal church founded in Christ is so important. That’s why receiving a prophetic call like the Pope delivered last week is so important to pay attention and live to. The church, through its liturgy, proclamations, and actions reveal (to all) the importance of relationship over rules. It is bold when it proclaims justice to immigrants, whether that be from Mexico, Latin America, or Syria. That is why we will never hear the Church talking about building walls. Instead, it is about breaking them down, and not for the sake of rules, and not even for the sake of order, but for the sake of relationship because the Church, and only the Church reveals to the world the love of Christ in the stranger, neighbor, and even to its enemies. Now that’s crazy. That’s counter-cultural, and we are certainly not hearing this kind of talk in the marketplace of ideas.

So picture this: What if the clarion call sent out from the halls of the Vatican actually catches on worldwide? What will the churches in Europe look like? How, by giving up some comfort, how, by loosing a status-quo life, how, by taking up Christ’s cross will they look? If the churches in the America’s catch this revival of putting Christ first in order to serve the world, what would it look like over here? What do we have to give up in order to follow Christ? Is it something tangible? Is it an ideal? Is it a philosophy? All the above?

Well, I believe we will be better equipped to answer what the church will “look like” if we continue to repent, and continue to turn around and constantly face God. If we are constantly turning around and facing God, then eventually we see Jesus, and if we see Jesus, we have relationship, and if we have relationship with Jesus, we experience true freedom, and if we experience true freedom, then we are free to freely love God, ourselves, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

So, I’m excited. I feel revival in the air. I feel God’s love spoken and lived out in high profile Christian leaders like Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop Curry, and Bishop Wright, but also in everyday people such as you and I. And all of these leaders, be they known or unknown, get their charisma and boldness from Christ, and they (like us and as sinners) must continually repent, to turn around and to lovingly limit ourselves, in order to take up our crosses, and follow the God of Love.

So, is there revival going on? My faith points me to Christ to help answer that question, and hope is always pointing me to God’s answer of, “Yes.”

*This is a redacted sermon preached on the Eve of Holy Cross Day, September 13, 2015.

Question(s) on Suffering *

So much hate, violence, and overall uncertainty have been going on in the world around us this year. Our culture seems to wake up to nightmares daily instead of floating on a midsummer night’s dream. As a priest just finishing my first year of parish ministry, I have buried twelve persons, and counseled countless souls who are lost in grief, anxiety, and despair.

While I’m not an expert on suffering in the world, I have noticed a few things in my first year that gives me hope. Even though life can feel like the experience of a sparrow in a hurricane, those persons who approach the twister at the right angle seem to be the ones who are forever wounded, but also forever changed – forever changed (and wounded) for the better. It is a deep change full of humbleness, grace, and faith that start with the same question, but then upon realizing the madness in it, they administer an about-face, and proceed to march with a much nobler question in mind.

The problem that drives persons crazy is the question of “why”:

“Why is their suffering in the world?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why isn’t God listening to me?”

“Why aren’t things getting better?”

These are the “go-to” questions when it comes to suffering. They are the default position in the human psyche, but the default question seems to me to be the wrong one, or better, the question of “why” should follow at a later time – once the dust has settled, once the air has been cleared a bit, after everybody has gone home. “Why” is a great and profound question, but it is the starting point for the scientist, not the existentialist. I don’t know anybody who comes into my office asking, “why their mother died,” expecting me to say, “because she had cancer.” It would be cruel and ridiculous of me to answer in that way because the grieving person in front of me asking that question does not expect an answer in return. They simply want someone to ask it to – a personal sounding board, a lending of an ear.

The question of “why” might be humanity’s default pathway into the forest of our lives, but the road less traveled is a question of “what”:

“There is suffering in the world. What (if anything) am I going to do about it?”

“Bad things happen to good and evil people. What do I do when bad things happen to me?” “What are my patterns?” “What is my mindset?”

“God doesn’t seem to be listening to me. What can I do to reframe the question, the prayer, or even my life to get the sense that God is still here?”

“Things are not getting better. What do I need to refocus on in order to see life at another angle?”

Asking the question, “What” instead of “Why” takes away some of the sting from thorns found within the flesh. Asking the question “What” instead of “Why” brings us back to the present moment, to the here and now, to where we need to be. Instead of asking the initial question of “why” – “Why did Aunt Sally die?” what if we started with, “what?” “What am I going to do now that Aunt Sally has died?” Well, for starters you can cry. For starters, you can grieve. For starters, you can ask for a hug. You don’t have to take life ‘day-to-day.’ By asking the question of “what” you can take life ‘moment-to-moment’, a position much closer to our hearts than some future point within the day.

As a Christian, I believe we get closer to God by asking the question, “What” instead of “Why.” Starting with “Why” makes God seem so distant and isolated that we get the sense of our own distance and isolation from God. The question of “What” brings God closer because we can open our Bibles and tangibly see what Jesus was like. Then our eyes are more open to tangibly see the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love in our world today when we see ourselves and others acting like him. In other words, we are reminded of God’s love for us every time we get to experience love ourselves. I don’t have the answers to why there is suffering in the world, but what I do have are the questions. Lord, help me to ask the right ones.

*The following was an excerpt from my sermon preached Sunday, July 26, 2015. To read the full sermon, click here.