Monday, February 23, 2015

The Ministry of Temptations

Sermon for Lent 1B
Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

Happy Lent!
Uh . . . dreadful Lent?
In the past several years, I have been fairly vocal in my distaste for Lent. I think that I have finally found out my problem with it, which means basically that I am in a new season of considering Lent for the first time, all over again.
Part of my problem, I suppose, is that the common, popular notions of what Lent does, don’t do it for me. For example, Lent is basically a time for people to do little self-improvement projects: 40 bags of clutter in 40 days, No sugar for 40 days, no coffee for 40 days; all of these to somehow build a habit that they have been meaning to get to; which is fine, really, though I have never met a person who was made better by not having coffee. Indeed the entire human race is made at least tolerable with coffee.
I am not against building good healthy habits. But it seems to me that self-help is not what Lent is about.

Some people suppose that Lent is about suffering. This I simply don’t get. Self-imposed suffering is not for me. Suffering has a role in the Christian life though; suffering for us means an opportunity to more fully grow into our humanity and discipleship to Jesus Christ in the direct action of alleviating suffering, not in fabricating it for ourselves for some kind of project. Besides, if you decide to stop eating sugar are you suffering? Because that, to me looks like the healthiest thing you could do for yourself.
So if Lent is not all about self-improvement and self-imposed suffering, what is it?

Well, it seems to me that Christianity is about delving ever more deeply into reality. Reality, so we Christians say, is all about what happened at Easter. We say that the world was fundamentally changed at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection means that death, as we knew it, was destroyed, hell was forever unlocked and blown open, and the divine life of God was open to all. This is reality. We call it the Paschal mystery, it just an old Greek word for Easter. We live in a Paschal reality.
So then Lent, like all of the Christian seasons, should add to our expanding view of this reality? It’s funny because Lent, like Advent is a preparatory season. Lent, like Advent, is meant to get us ready for what comes next.
Lent then gets us ready to encounter this new Easter reality by putting us in touch with what is at stake. Having a good Lent shows us what we are being saved from and what we are being saved for. This is why this season is so focused on repentance from sin and bodily suffering, because what is at stake is our separation from God and our very bodies. And being the milquetoast Christians we can be sometimes, we translate this fundamental reality of sin and body and make it about de-cluttering and having tea instead of coffee.

Ok, I need you to stay with me, because, as it turns out these little projects and suffering may actually serve a purpose. Let’s see what the readings have to say to all of this today.
First, I’d like to draw your attention to the first chapter of Mark, today’s gospel reading, again! We have heard this reading three times in the lectionary since December. Once again we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert. Mark is characteristically brief, we don’t get the story of exactly what those temptations were, and the Church would add those stories a generation later. But it is worth noting that it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert. It is the Spirit that sets up the conditions for the temptations. In this story we learn that, since we are Christians, even God gets tempted.
Which leads us to the Genesis reading.
It is the familiar story of Noah. The rains have come and gone, which, I will remind you that God brought because of the violence of humanity. Today’s reading picks up in the part of the myth, which is quite likely fiction, but certainly true in the deepest sense, and ultimately descriptive of God, where God is establishing his first covenant with humanity. Several more covenants will follow with Abraham, Moses, and most intimately in Jesus Christ. But today we get the first covenant, God’s promise to be with us. God says, “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
In this story we see that the character of God needs reminding not to destroy all flesh. God is trying to build a habit I guess because he sets up an external cue, the rainbow, to interrupt the old way of being. God, it seems, is giving up violence for Lent.
God, by the way, is the only personality that can justifiably use violence, being the creator and all. But here we see that God knows that he will be tempted to do violence, so the cue of the rainbow is established to interrupt the temptation.

It seems, as we read these stories today, that temptation has a ministry. Each temptation we have is a signal to our spirits and our bodies to consider an area that needs attention and growth. Have you considered the ministry of your temptations?
God knew that he would be tempted to engage in violence, likely because he knew that violence could not be cured by more violence. The temptation to do violence needed to be countered by the covenant and the rainbow reminder of that covenant.
There is a ministry to your temptations. They point out what needs light and attention. Think this through: we are not tempted by things that don’t matter to us.
Here is a controversial statement: I simply do not care about Duke or North Carolina basketball. It’s nothing personal, but I just didn’t get that college basketball fanatic gene. It doesn’t matter to me, I appreciate the beauty of a well-played game of basketball, but as to who wins, I don’t care. Therefore, I am not tempted to trash-talk Carolina or Duke, spelled D. O. O. K. apparently. But for some of you, especially the ones who I know on Facebook, to trash the other team and those associated with that team, the temptation is strong. This is a fairly innocuous example, but you can see that you are only tempted by the things that need attention. This is the ministry of temptations.
What are you tempted by, what needs work? Is it your knee-jerk reactions, is it that you want to rescue everyone, is it that you eat to take the pain away? What is your temptation trying to show you?
Too many of us engage our temptations by attacking them without going deeper.
Temptations are a finger pointing to a deeper problem, and most of us do Lent by staring at the pointing-finger and we spend no time bravely engaging what the temptation is trying to point to.
We probably avoid going deeper for one main reason: we think that if we could just get our act together, if I cut the sugar, if I stopped swearing so much; then I would be more lovable, I’d be worthy of affection and respect. Going deeper than the mere sugar means to engage that feeling even more strongly, that’s scary. But know this, to bravely go deeper, to be vulnerable and honest, is also to begin to see that you are loved, you are lovable. It’s paradoxical, but the act of going deep, of being scared, is precisely what Lent is about: about getting in touch, bravely, with what God was most interested in saving through Easter.
Observe a good Lent. Get in touch with what is at stake in Easter: which is your separation from God and your very existence, in your body; your sin and your body. Know that Lent is here for you to more and more deeply come to know what God did with Easter.
Watch those temptations, really watch them, what are they pointing to? Instead of shamefully trying to cover and obliterate your temptations why not think of them as being given by the Holy Spirit as something that needs attention, prayer, work, kindness, healing, love.
Keep those little self-improvement projects, but know that they are pointing to something deeper, something that yearns be loved and healed. But know further that God already loves your insecurities, your foibles, and is ready through your bravery to transform them, or not, as is his will.
Keep a good Lent, be patient with the strange ministry of your temptations, knowing that Lent is here to have you grow deeper into the Easter mystery and to show you what you were saved from and for.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Church's Witness

Sermon for Pentecost 11A

In her book, “Fierce Conversations,” Susan Scott says that while not every conversation changes the world, every conversation carries the capacity to do that very thing. Scott also says that what characterizes a real, fierce conversation is when those who are in the conversation have the courage to step out from behind themselves to reveal the truth that is in them. No more hiding or positioning, just real, fierce conversation.
The conversation between Peter and Jesus today, is one of those conversations.
It starts with Jesus asking who people say that he is. Peter answers that some think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or one of the prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. The thing is, these people that are guessing at what Jesus is, are giving really good answers. TO be John the Baptist is to be one who offers forgiveness of sins that does an end run around the spiritual industrial complex of the day. You could see how people might think of Jesus as connected in some way to John the Baptist.
As to their guess that Jesus might be Elijah, that is a very good answer. Elijah, it seems, in the time between the writing of the Old Testament and the first century when Jesus lived, had taken on a particular status in Judaism. Elijah, it was, and still is, thought, would precede the coming of God to be with His people. In many ways, Jesus is Elijah, just not as they expected him to be.
Still others, it seems, thought that Jesus might be Jeremiah; another interesting and not altogether untrue answer. Jesus was ultra-critical of Jerusalem and the religious powers that be, just as Jeremiah had been prior to the Babylonian captivity.
You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the people that Peter has polled are wrong. I imagine that Jesus might have been even a little impressed at the closeness to the mark that these folks got. They might not be right, but they are getting warmer.
But then Jesus sort of leaves those not-too-bad answers, and turns to Peter and asks one of the most important questions that exists: “But who do you say that I am?”
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter gives a remarkable answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We, here on this side of history, we hear Peter’s statement and say: oh yeah that’s Peter’s confession: Jesus is the messiah and the Son of the living God, no big deal. But this was being said for the first time, this was a leap in insight, Jesus is not necessarily a prophet, like those of old, instead he is something else entirely: the anointed one of God whose work is meant to restore God’s people to Him, he is the Son of the Living God. Not like all those other dead God’s, but the son of the only God, the living God. This is major, this is ground breaking, this is Dylan goes electric, this is the invention of fire, this is Peter’s confession.
It might help to set the scene a little bit, Peter and Jesus are having this conversation in Caesarea Philippi. Mother Suz has been there and she told me that it is in Caesarea Philippi where the Romans had set up a shrine to Pan, the nature god. Along with Pan, there is, and she has pictures of this, mini-shrines to a great many of the gods of the Romans, including a central niche for the son of the living god, for Augustus Caesar, for the Emperor, the god-man.
Peter is saying something so radical that we could easily miss its gravity. Peter is witnessing to God’s long-purposes at work in Jesus, but he is also putting Jesus above all the dead gods of old who represent the many aspects of life: fertility, joy, work, conflict, love, death. Peter even goes so far as to witness to Jesus as the son of the living God, over and against the Emperor, even over the Emperor who is the very embodiment of worldly power.
Good answer.
And Jesus rewards Peter for such a good answer: Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, " This is a big deal, because we have, in response to Peter’s good answer, Jesus saying that his church will be built upon that answer. This is the first time in all the gospels that the word church is used. In all four gospels the word church is only used three times, and all of them in Matthew.
It is often said that Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but instead we got the church. This is both true and false at the same time. Jesus preached the kingdom, he revealed the kingdom in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the revelation of that Kingdom, the way that God behaves with his creation. We, the church are not the revelation, Jesus is. Instead, the church is that body of people who witness to the revelation. Period. We are witnesses of Jesus, we proclaim him as the living God, above and beyond all other gods, all other graspings at control, and power, and security. We are the church, we are the witness to Jesus Christ who is the only revelation of God, our job is to point to him, that is why Peter’s answer is so highly regarded by Jesus.
And how is it that Peter arrived at this insight? Jesus says that it was not flesh or blood that has revealed this to him, but his Father in heaven. Peter didn’t learn this from somebody, he didn’t learn it from saying the Creed, or by assenting to a list of doctrines, he learned it from God, he learned it from obeying Jesus’ call to discipleship.
It is in the doing of discipleship that our faith can be grown into insights such as these.
This is how we can achieve the insight of who Jesus is, through our discipleship. Just as we learn about each other in real, fierce, truth-telling conversations. So too, do we discover who Jesus is when we obey his call to be his disciple.
And just as we all are surprised to hear what stories and pains we all carry, so too will we be surprised when we find that Jesus, more and more, begins to be a part of how we live. This is how discipleship works, it grows: a little here, a lot there.
I can personally attest to how sneaky Jesus can be, that he continues to reveal himself even more deeply as I give him more of my life as his disciple.

This conversation. This conversation between Jesus and Peter is our conversation. Jesus is asking us, who we say he is. And it is through our discipleship that we begin to formulate that answer.
Sure, we can all give the theological answers that sound good, but for each of us to come to an insight, and authentic response to who Jesus is, to do that we must be disciples, to live this Jesus life.
To let this conversation with Jesus take on the characteristics of being a real, fierce conversation, then we have to step out of ourselves and do what all disciples of Jesus properly do, and point to him.
To be the church is to necessarily point away from ourselves and point to Jesus. This means that we should stop worrying about the budget, and the building so much. Point to Jesus, witness to Jesus, the revelation of God.
The Church has shrunk in the recent years because the youth of today see us as being more interested in keeping our buildings than with witnessing to Jesus.
Let’s get back to our original insight, to Peter’s confession.
Let’s be the church, fiercely.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why You Should Be an Atheist

Sermon for Pentecost, proper 9A

Here are the readings, and here is an audio link

This is not an Independence Day sermon. Please don’t take that as some sort of political statement, it’s just that I took an ordination vow to preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and important national holidays don’t trump that. I love this country. And the fact that I can preach freely from this pulpit unhindered, and that all of you came here this morning of your own volition, is proof that the United States is a wonder to behold. May all her citizens live into the promises of both freedom and equality, and let us recapture a sense of brotherly love, upon which this country was founded, amen.
This is not an Independence Day sermon.

Our gospel reading today is strange. You’ll notice on the citation of the verses, in your bulletin, that it is from Matthew chapter 11. The verses start at 16 and then go to 19, then there is a break from 20-24, then our reading picks up again at 25 and ends with 30. You should always wonder why that break happens. The breaks in the scripture that our lectionary makes is usually for clarity, but also for politeness. The lectionary is very good about sanitizing the dirty scripture. And please don’t think that this is an innovation of the Episcopal Church, we are just one of the hundreds of millions of Christian communities that is reading this scripture this way this morning.
Let’s briefly walk through the scripture and I’ll fill you in on the missing, juicy bits.
First Jesus asks a crowd how he should describe those who are hearing him and seeing his deeds of power. He says that they are like children in the streets, on this side they play music and complain that he is not dancing, on that side they wail and complain that he has not joined in their mourning. Then he says that John came fasting and abstaining from drink and they said he had a demon. Jesus then says that he came drinking and eating and they called him a glutton and that he hung out with the wrong people.
Jesus is expressing what so many of us know: that the only way to be free of accusations of hypocrisy is to do nothing. John is too “spiritual” and Jesus is too “earthy.”
Which brings us to the missing bits in the lectionary today: your bulletin won’t have these parts. Jesus goes on to heap woes upon all the cities in which he did his deeds of power: his miracles. The problem that Jesus sees is that his deeds of power have not produced the expected repentance and amendment of life in those who have seen those deeds. Usually when we think of the miracles of Jesus we see them as proof of his divinity, but from Jesus’ perspective it seems that he wants them to be a catalyst of change, of repentance from sin, from the exploitation of others.
It’s after all these woes are delivered that the lectionary picks back up with the familiar and comforting words of Jesus: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Today’s gospel reading is fairly schizophrenic: we get the critique of the critics of too-spiritual and not-spiritual-enough living, then the woes for unrepentance, and then finally the soft comfort that Jesus offers. All of this seems disjointed. In fact, I’d wager that most preachers today will ignore the first two sections and focus solely on Jesus statements about rest and lightness. But I think that all this seeming disjointedness is actually held together, indeed that the key for understanding all this is in the seemingly light touch that Jesus offers us at the end of our reading.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Jesus is giving us insight into what life with him looks like. It’s called faith. We throw that word around all the time don’t we, as if we knew what it meant? It reminds me of how my two year old repeats words she doesn't understand. She goes around the house saying, “Actually,” or “Interrogate,” she doesn’t understand what she is saying; she just likes the sound of it. It’s the same way with us when we say, “Faith,” we just like the sound of it and give little thought to what it means.
Whenever Jesus talks about having faith in him, he talks about either taking up a cross or, like today, that faith in him is to have a light burden. Both of these descriptions have to do with the loss of the self, or maybe the loss of certain kinds of beliefs. Jesus is calling us to a different kind of faith, one in which we do not heap belief upon belief, burden upon burden. Instead, Jesus is offering us a light burden, perhaps even a freedom from belief.

Looking back over the Bible you will find that idolatry lays at the root all the problems of individuals, as well as the people of Israel, and of us, the Church. Idolatry: putting other gods before the one God, and, don’t you know, there are millions of gods. I’m not talking about the gods of old: Baal, Odin, Moloch, or Aphrodite, I’m talking about the real gods of our lives: validation, security, satisfaction, power, love. To engage in idolatry means that we have not trusted God to be God, that we have taken his job of giving us meaning and security and have assigned his role to his creations.
God has consistently called people away from these other so-called gods. We are called to worship the only god there is, but this God can only be accessed through faith, which is a kind of trust, a radical trust that resists definition. God, best described by Jesus, says, “Stop believing, stop adding burdens! Instead: trust, my burden is light.”
What this means then is pretty tough stuff, and here, I would appreciate it if you didn’t run me out on a rail for saying what I’m about to say: we have to stop believing in God.
Hear me out: I’m not calling for a blanket atheism of course. What I am asking you to do today is to become an atheist of the God of your thoughts. Stop believing in Your God, and start trusting in the one true God, the God of light burdens, the God of faith.
Hear this: the idolatry of God is the last and great idolatry that must be overcome. We in the church are the most egregious sinners when it comes to making an idol of God. We think we have God so figured out. That we can track his movements like we track a tropical storm. The God who created tigers and Boson particles, the wind and human feelings; it is almost comical that we would display so much hubris about God’s doings. Yet, of course, this same God has revealed himself which is what gives us the wherewithal to say that it is the words of Jesus are the words of God; and Jesus today is telling us, “Don’t make an idol of me. My burden is light, don’t heap burdens of belief on me, instead: have faith, which is the absolute opposite of idol worship.”

I’d be willing to wager that many of us here have experienced this kind of idol worship and subsequent private-atheism many times in our walks in faith. It usually starts with a set-back or crisis of some kind or other. Then we begin to pray that God will save us, or catch us in this crisis. Then something strange happens. We don’t get caught by God: the cancer proceeds, the rehab doesn’t take, they declare war, we fail. We aren't caught; God has not answered our prayer. God has failed us.
God, of course, has not failed us, but the god of our thoughts and expectations has failed us.
And many of us have the crisis of unbelief that God has not delivered and we are crippled into despair. I think that Jesus is asking us to disbelieve in the God of our thoughts and it is precisely in the falling-through of our expectations of that idol-God to enter into actual faith, actual trust of the only God. And it is in that trust that we encounter reality.
Where we find ourselves, no longer slave to the god of our thoughts but instead in dynamic, real relationship with the one true God.

Usually, I try to end my sermons with some sort of memorable turn of phrase that summarizes what I have been saying. I’m not going to do that this week. Because the truth is, what I am saying is pretty wild: destroy the idol of the God of your thoughts and seek a deepening faith in the real God. I am asking you to free yourself from the idol you have made of God. I will not end with some pithy saying because the truth is: the rest of Ordinary time, this season of the church between Pentecost and Advent, is a time to explore the implications of following Jesus on the road of faith.
Be freed from the idol of your expectations of what God can do, be free to fall into faith.
Be free.

Oh! Maybe it’s an Independence Day sermon after all.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sermon for Easter 3A

Sermon for Easter 3A
Luke 24:13-35
For over ten years I have had an obsession with the James Joyce novel, if you can call it that, Finnegans Wake. I say, “if you can call it that,” because this book is largely considered to be unreadable. And that is why I am obsessed with it: how can there be an unreadable book?
The book is layer upon layer of linguistic somersaults and inscrutable homophonic puns which refer to at least three things at once; it makes for a dizzying experience. I love it.
The book infamously begins in mid-sentence, uncapitalized with these words: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” As the book comes to a “close,” we notice that it ends as it began, in mid-sentence, in fact, the first sentence ends the last; giving the book a circular structure. There are some who say that Finnegans Wake can be read starting anywhere in the text, like jumping into a round river, eventually it all circles back.
It is nearly unreadable and I love it. But if you sit with it long enough and it begins to make sense, The Wake begins to reveal itself, that, or its madness is contagious. It begins to sing and, after a while, it really does begin to tell the largest story we have: the story of all human history, the story of us, the story of all polarities: light and dark, sin and redemption, death and life, the story of destruction, and yes even the cosmic story of Resurrection. Finnegans Wake then is the story of all and each of us, the story of falling and rising. Each of us reflected in the title character that died and who was waked, with all the attendant dancing and toasts, and through a spirit-filled baptism, as it were, we rise from death, truly waking.
Finnegans Wake makes sense as these orienting points make themselves known. The unreadable book can now be accessed and even read and interpreted, and we find that Joyce was writing our very lives, and through the inscrutable and seeming chaos we find that life is magic, that it makes sense, it’s just not the sense that we were looking for.
The seeming unreadability of our lives can be confusing and debilitating. If only there were some orienting landmarks that we could reckon by; we might be able to see the larger landscape of our lives and make a way forward.

As we happen upon the two disciples walking into Emmaus today, we find them utterly bereft. Jesus appears among them, yet they do not recognize him. He asks them what’s going on and they stop; here the scripture hilariously says, “They looked sad.”
Then one of the disciples, Cleopas, a heretofore unmentioned disciple, says, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened?” He then goes on to tell the harrowing story of Jesus, his teachings, deeds of power, and death; and their confusion over the Empty Tomb.
Then Jesus says, “You fools! Why are you still unbelieving? You know things had to shake out like this.” And then Jesus does something interesting, he takes the book of their lives, even more encompassing than Finnegans Wake, and he begins to interpret it for them about what God was, and is, up to.
As they come to their destination, Jesus keeps going. But the disciples invite him in. As they sit down to the meal, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and shares the bread just as he had in the feeding of the thousands and just as he had in that last night when he gave them a practice that would characterize his people forever. In that breaking of bread the disciples recognize him. And just as he appeared suddenly, Jesus was gone. But then the disciples reflect on Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures, their “hearts were burning within them,” they knew it was him.
The two disciples then run to the others to tell what happened but they are cut short because the other disciples are rejoicing over an appearance of Jesus. Jesus, it seems, is appearing all over.

Here we see Jesus coming into the sadness and confusion of the lives of his disciples and he begins to interpret their experience and giving it shape and meaning.
Jesus interprets our lives; he shows us the contours and shape of how and why we live. Our lives look at times like a swirling chaotic tale, as Macbeth says: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player; That struts and frets his hour upon the stage; And then is heard no more. It is a tale; Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; Signifying nothing.
And life can well and truly look and feel that way at times: Nigerian students kidnapped, natural disasters, death penalties, and the general, cold unfeeling we have for each other. But then Jesus appears, unbidden, reminding us that we have read the story wrong; we have encountered the dense language of life and gotten confused, we have gotten so close to the forests’ trees that we have even lost sight of the tree, we have our noses on the bark. Jesus comes and shows us the larger movement of our story, that death is not the end, and indeed we can move past that last sentence, just like in Finnegans Wake, and notice that the last sentence of death moves seamlessly back into the first sentence of life.

And just as James Joyce rewards the diligent and disciplined reader in The Wake to reveal its depths; so does Jesus enroll us into the story of all Scripture; interpreting our lives and writing us into God’s story of redemption and adoption. As each of us grows in grace we are surprised to find that when we read the Bible, we are there. My friends, we are in a book that God is writing and Jesus is a recurring character that the world, try as it might … just…can’t…keep…down!
One more thing by way of an epilogue.
You will notice that Jesus was fully prepared to keep on a-walkin’ once he had met the disciples and discussed the scripture. It says, “He walked ahead as if he were going on.”But it was the disciples’ willingness to offer hospitality that Jesus was finally revealed to them.
Our encounters with Christ will always occur in the midst of hospitality; when we open ourselves to another in service and respect. This is the genius of this strange God of ours who doesn’t give a list of dos and don’ts but instead gives us a meal, whereby we learn the lessons of hospitality. The meal then, that Jesus gave us, is the subtext of the novel our lives: each of us walking the road of our lives, encountering countless people, each moment arising from the last, and each moment an opportunity to encounter Christ anew by the extension of our hospitality.
It is when we extend hospitality to those whom life gives us; when we put aside our own goals and motivations; here in hospitality is Christ given the opportunity to be revealed. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to have your life take an adventurous shape? Don’t you want to have your heart burn within you?
Extend hospitality and Christ will appear; and then you’d better hang on because God will set you on a swirling whirling circuitous route. But your life will have shape and it will be readable, and other people will look at your life and won’t be able to read anything there but, “Jesus.” And that’s a book I’d like to read.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The sermon from last week in which I try to explain the hardest parable in the Bible

Sermon for Proper 20C
Luke 16:1-13

I hardly do anything that my preaching professor taught me.
He said, “Don’t self-disclose! Nobody wants to hear about your wife, your vacation, or the cute things your kids say.” Of course, I talk about my family all the time in sermons. He says, don’t preach yourself, preach the gospel! I agree with that in sentiment and principle but the truth is, the gospel lands somewhere and that somewhere is me and it’s you.
There is one thing that my professor taught me that I actually grudgingly accept. He taught us that we must always preach the hardest text. The lectionary gives us four readings every week: the Old Testament, the Psalm, the New Testament epistle and then a reading from the Gospels. So typically I will heed my professor’s injunction to preach the hard texts because it is the hard texts that you, the congregation, are wondering about.
Which brings us to the gospel. One writer that I consulted this week about this text said that today’s reading is the weirdest story in the gospels. And I’d agree whole-heartedly. Let’s dive in and see what sticks and catches, what’s tough and hard to understand.
The whole passage seems to be divided between the parable that Jesus tells and then his comment on it. He tells the story of a rich man who has heard some rumors about some mismanagement of his property by the man he hired to manage it. So he summons the manager and says, “What’s this I hear about you? Show me your books, because you’re about to be fired!”
The manager then goes on to hatch a scheme, he goes to those who owe the master and he essentially cooks the books. He makes their debts smaller, for one he cuts it in half, for another he also gives a huge reduction. The manager says that his motivations are basically to win friends and influence people so that when he gets canned he’ll have made some friends, who I suppose can help him out later.
Now, let’s pause here for a minute because everybody wants to argue about what the exact financial arrangements were. Was the manager not so much cooking the books as uncooking them? You see, back then it was common practice among the tax collectors to collect the required tax and then add a little more to the top for their own benefit. Was the manager doing something like this? Maybe.
Or maybe the manager was cheating his boss. Maybe since he knew he was caught in a bind and in no way would be keeping his job, he decided to buy some favors and friends with money that wasn’t his. Maybe he was counting on losing his job so he thought he’d seal the deal with this underhanded deal; you know, in for a penny in for a pound!
Whatever the reason for his actions, one of the more vexing parts of this passage is that the master commends this behavior and Jesus seems to in some way as well.
What’s going on here? The manager is a hero of sorts in the story and the master embraces him for his shrewdness. It is indeed strange. Are we to applaud and emulate the manager for undoing the usury that he had been engaged in? Are we meant to look to the manager as a paragon of virtue as he buys friends with money that isn’t his?
Let’s have Jesus clear this whole thing up. Take it away Jesus: “I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
It’s more than a little confusing because it doesn’t sound very Christian. Is Jesus saying that we should be manipulative and cheat? Is he saying that we should be like those in the world?
Well, he kind of is. It turns out that this manager, this “Saint Shyster,”as I call him, may have a thing or two to teach us. I think the point of this whole story is that Jesus is taking us to the side and saying, “Look, I’ve been doing a lot of talking about lost sheep, and coins and sons, it’s all about the economy of the Kingdom of God. This economy of God stuff is upside down. God will come after you and all kinds of other people, no matter the cost. It’s not fair. It is actually unfair and gratuitous how gracious God is, you will be offended, offended! at how loving and forgiving God can be.” “But,” Jesus seems to be saying, “the Kingdom of God is not here fully yet. I don’t want you children of light to be caught unawares.”
You see, Jesus is showing us that the gospel does indeed land somewhere. The gospel lands in the world, in our world. This invasion by God of history and our lives lands right here, and it’s alien. And then each of us has to figure out how this life will now look. And Jesus doesn’t want us to be naïve about it. He wants us to have open eyes, without the rose-colored glasses.
Jesus says, go ahead and be smart with the ways of the world. Get some friends by those means. It’s ok.
But he doesn’t leave it there; Jesus gives us a stark reminder that the money will be gone. He says today, “when it is gone,” not if it is gone, but when. Jesus knows that it’s not about the money, that stuff is fleeting. But go ahead and know how to use it, get some friends.
It’s funny; it’s not necessarily the ends justifying the means but the ends justifying a new end: the friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes.
This might be the key to our beginning to understand this parable: all this talk of cheating and cooking the books, friends and eternity, homes and hating. Maybe, just maybe, this is Jesus’ way of telling us that this gospel-life, this Jesus-living is a messy business. It is never a once and for all affair. Instead, our discipleship to Jesus is a daily encounter with honest and dishonest wealth, with a million little ethical dilemmas. If the devil is in the details, you can be assured that Jesus is also in the details of how we live, how we buy, how we sell, how we relate to those we love and those we don’t.
The money is going to be here, and then it will be gone. It’s a symbol of our common life, and that’s why Jesus says to make friends by it. And we do.
Look; I’ve been to your houses. I’ve been to the swim meets and the scout meetings. You all are friends. I’d bet the majority of you are here because you have made friends first and then were invited to Saint John’s. And that is good. This is how Saint John’s has grown over the years. And this is precisely what Jesus is talking about. The money and the sociability is a means to friends but those friends are now the means to the larger end of being the Church. Of being that beloved community that is engaged in the work of justice and peace, and reconciliation and love. We were made friends first by our social standing and common neighborhoods and swim teams and the PTA, but now; wow, now we find ourselves at this table.
How did we get here? You were just some guy I played tennis with.
How did we get here? You were just a lady I met at book club who offered me chardonnay.
How did we get here, you were just on my soccer team and asked me if I wanted to go to something called EYC.
How did we get here? Now; now we are gathered at this table where the most unusual prayer is said, where it describes this other world where God is breaking through to show us what reality has been all along: a creation that is not broken or in strife but is loved and loving, where there is enough for everyone and we are all made whole in God’s widening embrace.
Here we are, a people brought together by dishonest wealth, but that wealth has brought us friends. And we friends are surprised to find that God had a lot more in store for us here, because we are a lot more than friends, we are fellow travelers on this road, even more than that, we are siblings in the family of God.
Huh! I thought this reading was tough. Turns out that it’s not so bad after all; this life following Jesus can be hard, but it’s not all hard, after all, I’ve got you to help me: my friends.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sermon for Luke 14:25-33

Here is the Scripture
A Strange Case of Identity

“Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, even life itself cannot be my disciple… None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.”
You know, I could use a break from all these tough readings the lectionary has been giving us. For the past three months it’s just been one difficult saying of Jesus after another. You know: “Let the dead bury their own dead, this very night your life is being demanded of you, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, I came to bring fire to the earth!” And the zinger of them all: “You hypocrites!”
I could use a break from all these hard sayings. Why can’t we get the touchy-feely Jesus, where is the Jesus of the hallmark cards? Where is the Jesus carrying me on the beach? If I could choose which readings come up I’d choose one where he’s a real nice guy; maybe one of the infancy stories where he doesn’t say anything at all. That’s the Jesus that is best for me, the one that doesn’t say anything. But alas, no luck today; today we get the tough Jesus.
“Unless you hate…” I’ve wrangled with this passage all week and I can tell you it’s not good news. The Greek word used here is , it means “hate.” There’s no getting around it. Jesus is saying that we cannot be his disciples unless we hate our families, our possessions, even our own lives. The word is hate, if you wanted to you could squeeze a slightly softer definition of what Jesus says,  could mean, sometimes; detest. Isn’t that so much better? “Unless you detest your children and spouse, you cannot be my disciple.” Nice.
You know, in the gospel today, it doesn’t sound very Christian, but to me it certainly sounds a lot like Jesus. Can you hear that today? He doesn’t sound very Christian, but he certainly sounds like Jesus. I think that is what is so shocking about what Jesus is saying today, it’s because we have warped Jesus’ radical message to such a degree that we have equated Christianity with mere niceness, manners, and good citizenship. But here it is, it’s unavoidable, he says, “Unless you hate your life, you cannot be my disciple.” It occurs to me that Jesus would have done very well with a press agent, you know, someone to clear his messages before they went public. I mean, how exactly are we supposed to grow the church with such a strange thing to say? People like their lives, people like their possessions, people, generally at least, like their families. What’s he getting at anyway?
If you take away all my possessions, all my family, and even my life; you aren’t left with much at all. It seems that Jesus is stripping us of all our many identities so that we can rediscover our primary identity in him. Jesus is showing us how we need to be willing to let go of the most fundamental identities and subdue all of them so that we can be identified through him and him alone. To follow Christ means to let go of all other possessions all other identities. We have to be Christians first and foremost. We let go of being parents, and children, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, American and Southern, paleo and vegetarian, even Carolina and State! All these many identities which shape who we are need to be taken off in favor of putting on Christ.
And this following of Christ first and foremost, before all other identities, complicates everything! Some people think that when we follow Christ everything comes into stark focus, everything is “just easier.” We don’t follow Christ to get the easy answer to life, we follow Christ because Christ is true! And our following of him complicates life. Wouldn’t it be easier to carry grudges and write people off that have wronged you? It would! But instead we have to forgive and seek reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be easier to say about our enemies: Kill ‘em all? Yes, it would, instead we are supposed to pray for our enemies and be peacemakers; even though advocating for peace sounds utterly crazy right now.
The cost of discipleship is time, and energy, and life. This Jesus-life will cost you your life; meaning you may actually die as a result of living the Gospel, but more likely it will cost you your life as you now live it. Following Jesus will make you live in a different way that can look strange to those around you.
But God does a funny thing in this whole arrangement; he hides good news in the midst of all this hate and loss of life: when we drop our foundational relationships and our defining possessions and we enter into his heart, we find that we can love our family, neighbors, and our enemies more than we possibly could have on our own. All this hating of our families and our own lives actually gives us the wherewithal to love them all the more, but this time through the expanding heart of Jesus Christ.
It’s no wonder that C.S. Lewis used the peculiar symbol of a wardrobe as the access to the land of Narnia. Through this dark and confining wardrobe one is able to break through to a larger wondrous world. It’s through this difficult teaching of Jesus, through this dark work of detesting our families and possessions that we can get to the foundational and fundamental relationship with Jesus which will allow us all to, in turn love them all the more.
Step through.
Do the hard work of letting go of those people and things you possess and that possess you: your children, your relationships, your security, your pride, and even yourself. Do this painful work of going through the wardrobe so that you can enter the larger world of Christ’s unconditional love for all.
Leave everything behind. Leave it all behind and enter a world of so much more.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Crisis of the imagination

I'm going to go ahead and say this out loud. I don't have all the answers to how Christians ought to respond to all the various problems of the world. Big surprise right? 

 I might be a pacifist though justified war is attractive. Though I confess that just war is mostly attractive because it allows for violence which I harbor plenty of in my heart and mind.

What it boils down to is that I haven't had occasion to think these things through, and it's usually not something I'd do unless I had to. (this is the bugbear of parish ministry by the way, too many meetings and not enough study, don't get me wrong I love my work and I don't expect to study for a living, but the Christian tradition is HUGE and to think that we got all we needing seminary is laughable.) I don't feel up to the task of responding to this very large question, I will work hard to get some clarity. I will pray too.

What I will do. I will commit myself to getting educated about Christian responses to war and violence and I will review my findings here as often as I can. I hope you will join me in this exploration.

Here is a good analysis of the situation in Syria:

And this:

Finally: Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn
but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the
strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that
all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of
Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and
glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

On being a hermeneutical, symbolic guru

In seminary I had some business cards worked up. I had no business so I put on it: dad, banjo player, student body president, hermenutical person. For those non-theological nerds; a hermeneutic is an interpretation, a lens by which we view the world, and also texts, like the Bible. I was keenly aware then, and even more now, that the life of a minister is essentially to help people interpret their lives in the light of the gospel.

Being a symbolic person can be fraught with problems and opportunities. A few years ago, a community that I belong to began to tell a different kind of story about me and began to invest me with authority, there was even a special ceremony when one of the leaders of my community prayed to God to, in some way, inhabit my life and make me a priest. It's called ordination.

Since then I have settled into a job as a spiritual leader, a preacher, and a pastor to a community of faith in Charlotte NC. I almost always wear a special uniform that signifies to all who see it that I am a representative of the Church. When I go in public, most people do a double take when they see me. Many years ago, I had a conversation with a friend and we lamented the necessity of small talk. I suggested that we wear a signifying article of clothing whereby it would tell the world that we were open to deep conversation, and were willing to get to it quickly. Now both he and I wear a collar. When people come into my office they usually start crying. I usually don't say anything more than, "So what's on your mind?" They cry, I think, because I'm listening. I'm listening, but also I represent and symbolize a larger reality. and they are primed to have their lives interpreted and plumbed to see where God is moving.

Sometimes I see that being a symbolic person means that for some of the people in my community that I stand as a proxy for their own faith; "I may not have faith, but my priest does." There are some priests who support this sick notion so that they can hold more authority; but to hold ourselves up as the paragon of faithful living will eventually take its toll. The Pew research Council has shown that this kind of thinking has a debilitating affect on clergy health.

The film maker, Vikram Gandhi has pulled off an amazing experiment. As a young student of religion, the U.S. born Indian-American became disillusioned with religion and especially the gurus of his family religion, Hinduism. Gandhi decided to become a guru himself, cultivate a teaching and a following, and finally reveal himself as a charlatan. This is no spoiler of course, since the first few minutes of his documentary, Kamure, show him anxiously rehearsing for the "Great Unveiling."

One might question the ethics of one who would purposely dupe the naive but that would miss the point of Gandhi's intentions. Gandhi and his teachings as his "ideal self," Sri Kamure, is that each person has within them what they need to cultivate their own happiness. Indeed, as Kamure's students grow they develop as their own gurus and even teach their teacher their own individual teachings. It is this convolution which makes the film and the man, Kamure, so charming.

What I find so fascinating about this film is that the teaching is so overtly anti-guru; which garners him more and more devotees. His students even routinely look into the camera and earnestly talk about the non-necessity of gurus and then look longingly toward the reluctant objection of affection.

Alan Watts said that a guru is someone who will pick your pocket and then sell your watch back to you. Kamure, the guru and the film, do just that.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Real Economy, a sermon

Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Real Economy

Has Miss Manners has invaded the gospels today? Why is Jesus so interested in seating arrangements anyway? It seems that he is trying to show how life will be lived for those who choose to follow him. And this life will look a little bit, or maybe as today’s reading shows us, a lot different, from the surrounding culture.
It’s a question that has plagued the church from the very beginning: “How then shall we live?” Every generation of Christians from those who originally heard Jesus’ words up to today have asked the same question, “How do we live in this culture, the one I was born into, the one I live in now, yet still respond in an authentic way to the call of Jesus?”
It’s a tough question, with a complex answer. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Trust me on this, if the answer to the question of how do we live in response to Jesus? begins with the words, “Well, you just…” Walk away, because you are about to be handed a parcel of goods that are not so good.
This is complex because we have all, before we could talk, were enculturated, conditioned, and otherwise trained to think in the cultural language and economies of our society. And that society is not the one that Jesus is talking about.
Our modern, western society has its own values. We value hard work, perseverance, innovation, wealth, competitiveness, pursuit, and enjoyment. All these things are good, but our system, our economic system, does not have an inherent moral center, nor ought we to expect it to. The Invisible Hand is neutral and we have learned time and again that mutual self-interest for the collective betterment of society is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the crazy assumption that all people are equal in society and have the same access to the resources which build wealth.
More insidious than the obvious injustice of our system is the spiritual crisis that it perpetuates. All of us have a void within us; a void that we try to fill with things that satisfy us. And it just so happens that our economic system is tailor-made for finding more and more to satisfy us. Look, I’m not blaming capitalism. I’m a capitalist. I have a pension, never mind that I am paid by other capitalists who voluntarily give money into a community chest which we redistribute to various staff members, ministries, and outreach opportunities. Economies are complex, all economies. People living within a totalitarian socialistic state also suffer from this human void I am talking about. We have this hole in our lives and we are on a search to fill it, to satisfy this hunger. Economies are created to deal with, and capitalize on, that void.
Economy is an interesting word. It comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning household. When we talk about the economy we are talking about the household of a society, how it is managing its household. This is why budgets are called moral documents. Have you ever heard that: a budget is a moral document? If you want to know what someone thinks is important, look at their budget. This works for nations and people alike.
Today Jesus is teaching us about the economy, the household, of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is showing us how we are to live in this world, but his way. And it’s counter-cultural. Instead of the culture that teaches us to be better, faster, stronger; Jesus is urging us to take a back seat. He is telling us that the humble will be exalted, and also that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Not only that, but that we should be about the business of giving to those to whom we have no hope of getting paid back! Not getting paid back? That’s just bad business! No wonder Jesus stopped being a carpenter! I imagine Jesus would go bankrupt thinking like that, he probably made furniture and doors for poor folks who couldn’t pay him a dime!
But that’s the teaching, this is what he says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
It’s interesting, many economic historians assume that economies were initially built on barter systems, and they generally are; but what we are finding out is a little more interesting. It seems that the straight barter doesn’t really work like that. For example, let’s say I have an ox and you have goats. You need the ox, but I don’t need the goats right now. So I give you the ox, and now you are in my debt, for, say, five goats. That debt, right there is the beginning of all economies. That debt gets moved around and re-symbolized and re-symbolized into currency and now into ones and zeros that the banks move around and invest.
But here, in the words of Jesus we learn about another economy, an economy that is almost unimaginable: an economy that is based on the gift with no hope, or expectation, of re-payment. This is the grace economy. This is the economy of the good news of God. Jesus is removing the debt, the debt, the void, the thing that we are all after to satisfy; Jesus is inviting us to leave it alone, don’t try to fill it.
This is the meaning of Christian freedom: whereas the culture endeavors to give us freedom to pursue our desires which we think will satisfy us, but Christ gives us the freedom from our need to always seek satisfaction. The economy of God usurps the normal ordering of our lives. And why shouldn’t it? People at Saint John’s are always asking me, “Why do you always have to talk about being counter-cultural?” My answer is because God is counter-cultural! If he were just like us, we wouldn’t worship him! God is different from you! And he aches in that difference. God says in the prophet Isaiah, “your thoughts are not like my thoughts,” and how he aches for our thoughts to be more and more similar.
My brothers and sisters. You will never be satisfied with getting more and more. There is always something more to be had, something more to be. The world will never ever ever ever say to you, “You’ve done enough. You are enough. Why not just rest awhile and enjoy your family, don’t buy anything you don’t need. Just…be.” The world will never say that, nor should we expect it to. But Jesus is calling us to imagine a gift economy, a grace-living where we stop trying to fill the void, we stop keeping track of debts and keeping score.
Let me close this with a story, [this is from Peter Rollins' Idolatry of God, used with permission]
It seems that there was a successful Texan. (all stories that feature Texans are automatically good, in my opinion) Well, he had done quite well for himself and had a sense that he wanted to find out more about where he came from, so he did some looking around in his family tree. Low and behold the Texan found out that he had a cousin in Ireland.
Well, the Texan flew out there and walked up to the door and met his long lost cousin Seamus. Seamus said, “Well, I suppose you’d like to see the family land.” “Yes I would indeed,” said the Texan. SO Seamus takes his cousin out in the back yard and says, “You see that old chicken coop over there? That’s the southern boundary of my land. You see that fence right there? That’s the eastern boundary of the land. You see that lawn mower? That the western boundary of the land.”
The Texan scoffed. “Well, let me tell you, I could drive all day south and never reach the southern boundary of my land. And I could drive all day east and never reach the eatern boundary of my land, and I could drive all day west and never reach the western boundary!”
“Yeah,” says Seamus, “I used to have a car like that.”
You see, Seamus is so outside the game of being in the seat of honor that he can’t even understand that his Texan cousin is trying to belittle him.
The gift economy!
Take the lower seat, invite those and give to those who cannot pay you back.
Give it a try.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sermon prep for Sept. 1, 2013

Here's the text I am preaching Luke 14:1,7-14.

I read this book for its amazing insights into desire and economics: The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins, he can be followed here. Rollins is a unique voice on the Christian landscape, I think some of his thoughts are downright dangerous, which is very attractive to me. Our thinking about Christ ought to be dangerous. Here's a clip of him talking about the book:

This. and this amazing blog post from an amazing blog that everyone should read.

Finally, about sermons: I've heard that someone once asked the famous preacher, Fred Craddock, "Wow, that sermon was great, how long did it take you to write it?" His answer, "Oh that took me 62 years to write." Contrary to what some of my professors advised, all preachers are working out their own stuff in the pulpit, anything less than that is boring, or worse: a lie, woven to protect the hearers from the Gospel.