Thursday, September 20, 2018

Clamoring for Comfort

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 9:30-37), Jesus speaks to the disciples after they've finished a journey. "What were you arguing about on the way?" he asked. Mark lets us know that they kept silent because they had been arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest. They were embarrassed to have their childish behavior called out, but how uncommon was that behavior?

We argue with one another about who is the greatest all the time, but we rarely notice. Few of us take a Muhammad Ali approach: "I am the greatest!" Instead, we play a game of one-up, trying to outdo the other person with our own impressive status. Whether it's parents bragging about their children's accomplishments on Facebook, golfers recalling funny moments from the past, executives complaining about the challenges of managing a rapidly growing company, or clergy complaining about how busy they are, we all play the game. We compete to see who is the greatest. The game never ends, so there's never a clear winner. It just keeps going and going. Why?

We need to be loved. We need to know that we are loved. We need to convince ourselves that we are lovable. Of course, we confuse lovability with accomplishment, which is why ego plays such a strong part in the game. We wrongly believe that if we have the funniest joke, if we have the most talented child, if we have the fullest calendar, if we have the most beautiful marriage, if we have the most vibrant faith, we will be first in line when love is being dished out. And that sort of rivalry--the implicit argument about who is the greatest--comes from a place of uncertainty, of faithless vulnerability. We compete for the love when we aren't sure we will get it.

As a pastor, this seems clearest to me when a parent dies and siblings begin competing with one another during funeral planning. All of the childhood roles come back, and siblings compete with one another in the same way they competed decades ago. One child, often the oldest, takes charge and begins to make unilateral decisions about what mama wanted. Another child, often the youngest, walks in late, refusing to be on time in order to refuse to play by the other child's rules. Yet another child, usually one in the middle, tries to make peace as the other children fight over which hymn would be most appropriate. What they're really doing is competing for mama's love. "She loved me the best," they don't actually say with their lips but say clearly with their actions. When the apple cart gets turned over, when the status quo gets shaken up, when we lose our bearing and begin to doubt that we are loved, we grab for it, competing for who is the greatest, who is the most loved.

As the gospel lesson begins, we hear that Jesus has been spending time alone with the disciples. He has been teaching them that the Son of Man must suffer and be killed, that their master will be taken away from them. Jesus knows that this teaching will be difficult, so he spends time closely with them, dismissing the crowd. But everyone needs some time to process this challenging prediction. Like children whose parent has received a difficult cancer diagnosis, the disciples begin to argue with one another about who is the greatest. What did that sound like? Human nature hasn't changed at all since then, so I'd be surprised if Peter actually said, "You know...I'm his favorite." Instead, I think Peter started by saying, "I think I'm going to try again to take Jesus aside and talk some sense into him. If he'll listen to anyone, he'll listen to me." And then John said, "You don't know what you're talking about. You never understand what Jesus is really saying." James looked at his brother and said, "Mind your own business--like you've ever been a good listener." And the conversation continued, each of the disciples asserting his identity, his role, his relationship with Jesus.

It isn't easy to hear that the road ahead will be one of suffering, pain, and loss. Divorce, illness, diagnosis, death. Those things happen to God's people every day. What will they mean to us? How will we response to the struggle? Do we allow the struggle to define us? Is it a sign that shakes our confidence in our lovability? Do we react by asserting ourselves, clamoring for affirmation? Or do we know behind it all that God is with us, that God still loves us, that we don't need to compete with others for status in God's eyes? The truth of the gospel is God's limitless, unending, unmitigated, unqualified love. It is the foundation upon which faith is built. We are not asked to believe that everything will be good, easy, or painless. We are asked to believe and trust that God's love persists especially when things are difficult. Seeing that and knowing that gives us peace and enables us to be the free, unburdened people God created us to be.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Woman Or A Wife?

This Sunday will be the second week in a row in which the author of Proverbs says something that upsets me. Scripture has a tendency to do that if we love it and pay attention to it. Last week (Proverbs 1:20-33), Wisdom mocked the foolish, laughing at their calamity when "panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind." Since Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut's were (and still are) tormenting their victims, I considered changing sermons at the last minute to address it, but I didn't. This week (Proverbs 31:10-31), the value of a woman is praised poetically but, it seems, only in her identity as a wife. Perhaps because Monday was my anniversary, that gets under my skin.

"A capable wife who can find?" the author begins this reading. "She is more precious than jewels." I don't disagree. I wouldn't use the word "capable" to describe a spouse as it feels more fitting for a colleague or babysitter, but I share the sentiment that being married to a wonderful woman is an incredible and priceless gift. But the same woman would have great value as a human being and as a member of society regardless of her marital status.

The list of attributes that the author praises is impressive. The woman in question "does good and not harm." Compared to the ships of a merchant, she "brings food from far away," presumably cutting coupons and scouring weekly ads before travelling to four grocery stores to get the best prices. A wise business person, she purchases land and develops it--pretty remarkable for ancient times. She sows her own clothes and makes extra garments to sell in the marketplace. She is wise and kind and teaches others how to behave similarly. Everyone thinks highly of her. Physical beauty and charm, we are told, aren't as substantial as faithfulness.

All of these attributes seem governed by the opening lines: "A capable wife who can find?" Her accomplishments, her labor, her praiseworthiness are all articulated in terms of what she can contribute to her husband and her family. "What about a woman who never marries?" I want to ask. "Why must a woman's value be tied to her husband and children?" I understand that this is an ancient text and that I cannot hold it up to the same scrutiny as a contemporary writing, but we're reading it on Sunday, and, even if I were preaching, it would almost certainly be read without critical comment, without at least an attempt to reground it in the contemporary context. Does this passage do more good than harm?

But there's hope. The last line of the passage makes me wonder whether we cannot hear this differently: "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." Think for a moment how shocking those words are. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands? Let her reap the benefit of her efforts directly? Not through a husband or a family or another man but for herself? Let her works themselves praise her? Let her work speak for itself, independently of its contribution to a man's life? Are these concluding words the Holy Spirit winking at us, reminding us that there is deep egalitarian value even in this ancient text?

I wonder. Proverbs 31:1 identifies this passage as "The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him." I know that headings like that are later additions and almost always reflect a developed tradition and not the actual origins of a passage, but the tradition itself says something. Could this be an oracle delivered by a mother, a woman, to her son, a leader among his people? Could she know how to set him up for something substantial and challenging? Could the long list of positive attributes, begun in the context of a woman's identity as wife, end up flipped on their head by a final twist? I wonder. As a husband and father of two girls, I wonder.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Quiet Teaching

Yesterday in Mark 8, we heard Jesus predict his passion and death for the first time. This coming Sunday, leaping over the Transfiguration and the miracle exorcism that follows it, we read the story of Jesus' second passion prediction in Mark 9:30-37. Given the repetition, I suspect that the second half of the lesson, which includes the argument among the disciples about which one of them is the greatest and Jesus' teaching about the first being last will get most of the attention, but, at first glance, the opening sentences are what catch my eye this morning: "Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, 'The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.'" More specifically, it is the "for" that links Jesus' desire to keep a low profile and Jesus' prediction of his death on which I really want to focus.

Jesus didn't want anyone to know where he was for he was teaching his disciples that he would suffer and die. First, what word does the Greek text actually use? As in English, there are several ways to show cause in NT Greek. Some are stronger than others. In this case, instead of using "dia," which is most often translated "because," or "epei," which is most often translated as "since," Mark uses the more common and less definitive "gar," which means "for." As in English, "for" doesn't make as clear a causal connection as "because." Mark isn't telling us that Jesus wanted to go unnoticed because he was teaching his disciples about his upcoming death. In my mind, it sounds more like he was teaching his disciples about his upcoming death and didn't think it was a good time to include others in the conversation. They're related but somehow with less intention.

How do other translations put it? The NIV uses "because" but separates the actual teaching from the mention of it: "Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, 'The Son of Man...'" The CEB makes the link clearer than "gar" might imply: "...he didn’t want anyone to know it. This was because he was teaching his disciples, 'The Human One will be delivered...'" Many others, like ESV and KJV, leave  the word as "for," but it's good to know that other translation committees see the possibility of a stronger connection between Jesus' desire for privacy and the content of his teaching.

But why? This is an echo of yesterday's gospel, when Jesus starts by teaching his disciples privately that he must be betrayed, suffer, die, and be raised. After the "Get behind me, Satan!" confrontation with Peter, Jesus addresses the crowd and invites them to take up their own cross and follow him, choosing to lose their lives for Jesus' sake in order to save them. But, in Mark 9, we're back to a private moment. There's something about this particular messianic identity that Jesus still wants to keep a secret.

In yesterday's sermon, I made a transitional comment that wasn't very important to the message but that comes back up in my mind today. The "take up your cross and lose your life" message isn't a great strategy for building a church, but, as PB Michael Curry reminds us, Jesus didn't come to build a church but to start a movement. Maybe that's part of what's behind this quiet teaching. Jesus knows that he can't say this openly to his would-be followers but can only let the fully committed disciples hear. I wonder if this is keeping with Mark's pattern of establishing the true identity of Jesus as God's anointed one before sharing the consequences of that. Regardless, it's allows a way into the text for a sermon.

I'm not preaching, but I can imagine presenting that dual invitation: to those who have come to believe that Jesus is the anointed one of God the invitation is to journey with him to and through his death and to those who are still wondering who Jesus is the invitation is to journey with him down the road a little bit longer until who he is becomes clear. Writing that, I'm not really happy with it, which makes me glad I'm not preaching this week, but I look forward to wrestling with the text between now and Sunday and hearing the sermon that our preacher will offer.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Whose Team Are We On?

September 16, 2018 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

In Alabama, where I’m from, you have to pick sides. Remaining neutral isn’t an option. If you’re from Alabama, you’ve long ago made your choice or, more likely, were born unto it, but, if you’re new to the state, practically everyone whom you meet wants to know whether you cheer for Alabama or Auburn. Football culture is so important there that people don’t know how to handle someone who says “Florida State” or “I like them both” or “I don’t follow college football.” It doesn’t matter. You can cheer for another team from another state, or you can ignore college football altogether, but you still have to make your choice.

In Alabama, when you meet someone for the first time, there’s a good chance that they will ask about your football preference before they ask about your children, and there are plenty of football fans in the state who don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. Here in Arkansas, people don’t seem to care what in-state team I cheer for. Primarily that’s because there’s only one major university in the state, but I’m learning that it’s also because the only major university in the state is Arkansas. But Arkansans who pay attention to what football means in a place like Alabama, when they hear where I am from, want to know which team I cheer for. And, when they ask, I’m always a little hesitant to answer. I’m the first to admit that Alabama fans can be…tedious. The T-shirts, the bumper stickers, the houndstooth everything, the mythical national championships, the obnoxious chants—and so often those things come from people who have never even been to Tuscaloosa much less graduated from the University. I don’t want people in my new home to lump me in with all of that just because my heart will always whisper, “Roll Tide!” And, given this morning’s gospel lesson, it seems that I am in good company.

Jesus, travelling with his disciples, asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” Using flattering terms that suggest how successful Jesus had been at winning over the crowds, they replied, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” In other words, the people already had begun to understand that Jesus was someone special—that he was a dramatic, God-sent leader for God’s people. But then Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Why? Why didn’t Jesus want anyone else to know? This was a good thing, and it was the truth. Why didn’t he encourage the disciples to tell the crowds what they had learned about their rabbi—that he was God’s anointed, the heir of David’s throne, the one who would not only teach and lead God’s people but save them, too? Why not let everyone know that Jesus was the Messiah? Why keep it a secret?

Perhaps Jesus didn’t want anyone to be confused about what team his followers were on. To a faithful Jewish listener, the label “Messiah” wasn’t just an exalted title reserved for special religious leaders. It was a unique theological identifier that carried unique expectations. Although it would place one in rarified company, it was possible for a great leader to be another John the Baptist or another Elijah, in the same way that we might say that someone is another Martin Luther King, Jr., or another John F. Kennedy, but one couldn’t be another Messiah. Different sects of Judaism had different understandings of what sort of figure the Messiah would be (or whether there would be one at all), but all who looked for the coming of Messiah understood that person to be the one who would unite God’s people and deliver them from their peril. And, in first-century Palestine, you didn’t have to pay close attention to politics in order to know what that peril was. Rome and the physical, spiritual, and economic oppression that it represented were all around. You couldn’t whisper the word “Messiah” without getting someone’s hopes up that Roman tyranny might someday be overthrown.

But this Messiah wasn’t interested in leading God’s people in a physical or political rebellion. The freedom that he envisioned came by following a very different path, as he tried to explain to his disciples: “…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” We are familiar with the passion predictions. Two thousand years after Jesus’ story unfolded, we know how it will play out. But to those who walked with Jesus, to those who hoped that he might be the one to set them free, the thought of this leader, who had the God-given power to overthrow Rome, being killed by his own people was anathema. It simply did not compute. You cannot say “Messiah” and then say “rejected and killed.” If Jesus’ disciples tried to explain to the crowds that their rabbi was the Messiah, there was no way that they would understand that his messiahship was one of vulnerability, suffering, and death.

Even the disciples couldn’t understand it. His head spinning in confusion over conflicting images, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him—a shocking thing for a disciple to do to his master but one that underscores how truly impossible it was for Peter and his companions to reconcile Jesus’ messianic identity with his painful prediction. And Jesus, turning and looking at his disciples, let Peter know that those who refused to accept this difficult truth were siding not with God but with the Enemy, with the powers of this world that stand in opposition to God reign.

It’s hard to celebrate defeat. It’s hard to get excited about giving up. No one looks forward to struggle and pain and loss, and I’m not sure that Jesus is asking us to look forward to them, but he is telling us that they are the place where God and God’s people are to be found. Jesus came not to free God’s people by raising up his mighty arm against the evil oppressors but to free them by undoing a system that prioritizes strength, that rewards wealth, and that uses power to achieve its goals. For all of human history, we have been plagued by a distortion of God’s truth, a self-seeking distortion that we call sin. Only the rejection, suffering, and death of God’s anointed one, Jesus of Nazareth, had the power to undo that plague through the victory of resurrection, through the inauguration of a new way of life. And those who would follow Jesus into the glory of that victory and into that new way of being can only get there by following him down the path that leads through self-denial, struggle, and even death.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said to the crowd, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.” Any takers? That’s not exactly a pep talk. It sounds like a terrible strategy for building a church, but, as Michael Curry reminds us, Jesus didn’t come to start a church but to start a movement. He came to invite us to follow him into true life.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Well, what sort of answer will we give? Most of the people I encounter who brag about being a Christian don’t seem to know what it means to follow Jesus. Those who truly follow him embrace a life spent making the upside-down reality of God’s reign manifest in the world around them. Those who follow Jesus become vessels for God’s victory in weakness, God’s power in vulnerability, God’s glory in poverty. Those who follow Jesus lose their lives. They give up their claim on their own life for the sake of the gospel—for the sake of God’s transforming love that has the power to make God’s truth a reality in the world. People shouldn’t need to ask us whose side we are on—what team we are following. It should be a “secret” that we proclaim as boldly with our lives as we proclaim it with our lips. If that’s the kind of meaningful life you’re interested in, you’ve come to the right place.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Salty Speech

When, as a newly ordained curate, I asked my boss if I could show a clip from a film that included some profanity, he surprised me with how little concern he showed. After giving me permission, I reassured him, saying, "Don't worry; I will be sure that there aren't an F-bombs or GDs," and he quickly replied, "I've always liked Goddammit!" Apparently, I had misjudged the whole "curate needs to ask the rector" concept.

I never had a problem with saying dirty words. I said them all the time, but I had a knack for only saying them when parents weren't around. I could swear here and there, but I never got in trouble for it the way my younger brother did. (Mainly that's because I tattled on him.) But, behind the angelic appearance, was a blue streak.

James wouldn't approve. James has a gift for plain, clear diagnosis, and he offers it again in this Sunday's reading (James 3:1-12). Decrying the duplicity of the tongue, he notes how "with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God." Like a gentle but unequivocal parent, James writes, "My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so." But, as in the readings from the previous two Sundays, in order to make his case, James offers not a practical argument but a theological one.

"Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh." In other words, if you can't get olives from a fig tree, you also can't get profane, cursing speech from the mouth of a person made holy by God. James doesn't mean the kind of swear words that were once beeped out on network television. James means the kind of condemnatory, critical, "no, you really go to hell" talk that has begun to tear the Christian community apart.

We can't bless the Lord with the same mouth that curses one made in God's image. In a practical sense, of course we can, but, in a theological sense, that's actually impossible. James asserts that those two kinds of speech cannot come from the same mouth just as fresh water cannot come from a saltwater spring. What does that mean for us?

Perhaps it is an invitation to diagnosis. What does our speech sound like? Are we quick to criticize? Do we ever use words to dismiss or discount another human being as if they were less than us, less than human? Do we speak of those who disagree with us as if they were of inferior intellect or questionable moral character instead of honoring their full and equal personhood before debating the issue at hand? If that's the case, maybe the diagnosis is that we haven't experienced the transformation to holiness that God gives us in Jesus Christ.

What it isn't, however, is an invitation to make ourselves holy by cleaning up our speech. James lets us know that from the start: "And the tongue is a fire...[and] no one can tame the tongue." No human being can make her or himself good by starting with the tongue, with speech. It must, absolutely must, go the other way around. We must start by becoming holy in Christ. Then our speech will follow. We must pursue a lifetime of holiness and let our speech be a measure, an indicator, of the extent to which our clinging to Christ is shaping us into Christ. Be encouraged, however, for James isn't writing to heathens but to believers, and he is writing to them in order to remind them that being formed into the holy ones of God is the pursuit of a lifetime, and our speech--all of our speech--is a reminder that our pursuit takes a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Pursuing the Cross

September 12, 2018 - Holy Cross Day, tr.

Why would anyone go looking for the cross? Why would anyone pursue an instrument of death? Why would anyone want to possess a sign of defeat and shame? Why, as legend has it, did St. Helena, Constantine's mother, travel to Jerusalem in 320 AD search of the macabre relic? Because, of course, the cross isn't just an image of Jesus' crucifixion but also the means of our salvation.

When I was a third-year seminarian, my field-ed parish was in Potomac, Maryland. There were two full-time priests on staff, and I was one of two students who did my contextual education work there, so there were plenty of preachers. Because Sundays were precious, I was given a chance to preach on Good Friday--not the central sermon for the whole day but a meditation on one of the seven last words that Christ spoke before his death. I don't remember which meditation I had, but I do remember my supervisor offering me a cautionary tale before I preached. "Because this is a service that draws in people from different churches, we used to allow preachers from other denominations to participate in the meditations," he explained, "but, a few years ago, in an attempt to connect the pain of Good Friday with the hope that lies ahead, she ended her meditation by declaring, 'Alleluia! He is risen!' to which I replied, 'Not yet, he's not!'" My supervisor told me that, having ruined Holy Week for the whole parish, she was the last guest to preach on Good Friday. It was his way of saying, don't screw it up and let the Easter cat out of the bag.

On Good Friday, we venerate the cross without seeing the resurrection that lies ahead. We pretend, for the sacred three days, that the cross is a sign of pain and suffering not only for Jesus but for his followers, who experience the agony of watching their savior die. On Good Friday, we cannot afford to approach the cross except in the shadow of death, but on Holy Cross Day, which, unless we translate the feast to another day in the week like today, we observe on September 14, we have the opportunity to celebrate its glory.

"May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ," the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians, one of his earlier letters. How remarkable that Christians so quickly translated the cross from a sign of a treasonist's failure into a sign of God's victory! Within a generation, followers of Jesus understood the symbol of Rome's most gruesome execution, a device reserved for slaves or insurrectionists, a warning to any who would follow in their footsteps, to have become a means of salvation. The powers of this world intended the cross to be a sign of the Empire's unconquerable might, but at Easter God reversed it, flipping it on its head, and making it a sign of God's true power. Thus, we cannot fully venerate the cross on Good Friday. We need another day, this day, to pause and stand in its radiant light.

But when we venerate the cross, when we wear it around our necks, when we pursue it as St. Helena did, are we celebrating the right victory, or have we, too, re-flipped the image and made it again something else entirely? Paul writes, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." He was not merely boasting in the cross, laughing at the powers of this world as if he and the followers of Jesus had gotten the last laugh. Paul was accepting his own crucifixion, his own earthly shame, his own worldly loss as the means by which his heavenly gain was guaranteed. "From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body," he writes. "I have had my own full share of suffering. I need no more. Carrying the cross is burden enough." When we celebrate the cross and the victory that it gives us, do we forget that God's victory comes not in power but in weakness, not in glory but in shame, not in freedom but in bondage?

May we never boast in anything except in the cross of Christ. May we never see the path on which we follow Jesus as a path of self-gain but of self-emptying. May we never look down from the heights of God's victory in derision of others but with the same, loving gaze through which Jesus beheld the world from the cross. May we never celebrate the cross as a sign of our own glory but of God's, a glory to be found in humility and meekness, a glory that is revealed not in the order of this world but in God's majestic reign.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Who Are We Really?

When Jesus asks the disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Messiah," but what Jesus didn't let them know, at least at first, was that Peter's reply implied a second, equally critical question: "Then who are you?"

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 8:27-38) comes right in the middle of Mark's 16-chapter account of the good news. As many have pointed out, Peter's confession is a turning point for the gospel story. For the first 8 chapters, we're trying to figure out who Jesus really is, which is why they are full of miracles. For the second 8 chapters, we're trying to figure out the significance of who Jesus is, which is why the narrative begins a long trek toward Jerusalem and the cross and empty tomb. All of that is synthesized in this little exchange between Jesus and the disciples. Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus then predicts his passion and death. But the fall out is what really interests me.

Peter isn't ready to hear it. As soon as he identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus predicts his rejection, torture, and death, and Peter will have none of it. We know this story. We know how Jesus reacts. We have rehearsed the consequence of Jesus' messianic identity. We know that, as Messiah, he must be rejected by the powers of the world and reveal God's true power. But do we remember what that means for us?

It's easy to get so wrapped up in Peter's mistake that we forget that we, too, are being asked a question. Who are we? Who are the ones who follow Jesus? If our Messiah is the one to be crucified, that changes what it means for us to follow him. It's one thing to confess that Jesus is God's anointed one. It's another thing entirely to confess that the one who will be rejected and crucified is the one whose self-emptying victory we make our own.

Who are we really? I'm writing this on September 11, the anniversary of the coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attack that ended in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, and I've spent the last few days wondering who we are as a nation. We are a nation that believes in freedom. We are a people that value liberty. But confessing freedom as an ultimate expression of our identity is a costly thing. It isn't easy to honor the personhood of those who are different from us as fully as we honor our own, but that's what it means to be the Land of the Free.

The identity of our country that is most deeply threatening to terrorists of all stripes is our freedom. It is baffling and even frightening to those with narrow-minded, radicalized self-interest that we would allow and even promote a culture where difference is accepted. One doesn't need to be a Christian to be an American. One doesn't need to be a Republican or a Democrat. One doesn't need to love this country. One doesn't need to support one's government. As a nation, we believe that even those who disagree with freedom are free to do so. But that's hard in a culture of suspicion. And that's the greatest threat that terrorists pose to us. On September 11, 2001, buildings were destroyed and precious lives were lost, but equally at risk was our freedom.

Who are we? It is easy in the aftermath of a terrorist attack to abandon the principles of freedom that make us emotionally and, perhaps, physically vulnerable. It is easy to stop accepting those who are different from us, those who pray faithfully to Allah, those who wear the traditional hijab, those whose skin color or accent or language identify them as other, as part of our national family. Are we a nation that believes in freedom, or will we let fear allow us to give up our tolerance of others? Seventeen years later, we've regained some of that identity, but Islamophobia still threatens our national identity far more substantially than any specific terrorist plot.

Sunday's gospel lesson reminds me how much easier it is to claim an identity with our lips than with our lives. Following Jesus isn't simply an intellectual choice. It's a way of life. That's true for freedom, too. It's a lot easier to read about it in civics class than to live into it on the streets of our country. Are we really who we say we are?