Monday, July 4, 2016

Seeing stuff with Christian eyes

We just took the children to see the Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory. I've been a fan of Pixar for at least 25 years even when their shorts were just featured in animation anthologies. When I was in middle and high school I became fairly obsessed with animation, especially from Japan. I used to go to a club once a month in Atlanta called AnimeX where we would watch undubbed Japanese animation. Remember this was pre-internet so there was no streaming and the popularity of the form was not quite popular enough to make it into Blockbuster, remember Blockbuster? I used to even read Animation trade magazines, that's where I discovered the Pixar upstarts.

Now I take my kids, indeed my older daughter is about as I was when I discovered Pixar. The shorts to me are the best. They are something of a throwback to the early days of Warner Bros. putting a Bugs Bunny cartoon before the feature. I love the shorts more than the feature because they pack an emotional wallop but are also micro studies of how stories work. These folks have done their homework.

Finding Dory is a true sequel, it basically takes an established character and situation and plays with the opposites. We don't find Nemo, we find Dori; Nemo is missing through most of the first movie, Dory is in almost every frame of this one; in the first film Nemo's future is at stake, in this film her past is in the balance.

I like sequels, and I like this one, but the inversion-of-the-establishment-of-the-first-film seems played out.

However, where I think this movie really shines is in two areas.

The first, is that every single character is flawed in some way: Dory has no memory, her parents have lost a child, Marlin is a pathological worrier, Nemo is disabled, Destiny the Whale Shark is nearly blind, Bailey the Beluga Whale is emotionally blocked from using his sonar, Becky is a shell shocked Loon.

There is a very nice sub-plot, told in flash back, of Dory's parents raising a child with special needs. How does one, in fact, raise a child who cannot remember the immediate past.

Which leads me to the second strength of this film: memory. Dory, "suffers from short term memory loss."

Throughout the film Dory contends with living in a world of memory as a person [sic] without memory. The world is a place of memory. I've heard tell of a tribe in the Amazon that indicates the past, in body language, by pointing forward. In the West we usually point forward to signify the future, and point back to the past. The tribe instead points backward for the future because the future is unknown and unseen, and what is forward, what is seen is a function of the past. Unfortunately, in the West, and America in particular, the past is forgotten very quickly and wisdom is in short short supply.

The world is a product of the past, what then is life when there is no memory? In Finding Dory we find that a life without memory is dark indeed. There are part of the film that are heartbreaking because of the discontinuity of her life. Andy Stanton, the writer captures the hopelessness of the memory-free life very well.

In Christian worship, ever since the absolute beginning (we have a Eucharistic prayer from before the earliest New Testament writings, about the year 50, called the Didache, which means, the teaching) that says that Jesus wanted his followers to hold a meal in remembrance of him.

The word that is used is a fully embodied remembering of Jesus. This is not merely an intellectual affair, a simple memory game. Instead remembrance might be better described as remembrancing. Remembrance is not a noun but a verb, an activity which we engage in. Our lives then are a continual remembrance, an embodied memory, of Jesus Christ: his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Our lives are an activity, a constant reminder (see that, REMINDER?) of the living reality of the living Jesus.

This remembrancing is so very important because when we remember Jesus we remember our humanity. Jesus is not some special case super hero, he is God's message to us about what we are supposed to be: creatures that are capable of having our personalities fired by God so that we become icons, images, of the invisible God, giving the gifts of God: love, peace, justice, presence. This is worth remembering.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The words we use, the language that we speak and think with is impoverished. English is one of the most dense languages available to us in terms of actual vocabulary, but it is still limited in our expression. All language is limiting. But speak we must. I think it's good to get that out on the table, once we speak we have already limited our inner meaning, our thoughts, our desires, our emotions, our investment in our relationships.

For example, when I shout, "I love you" to my wife as she leaves the house, or when we part company, those three words are a cipher for a powerful relationship that lies at the intersection of our bodies, our history (individually and together), economics, society, time, sickness, commitment, children, and a million other grids of meaning that all overlap and converge in this one relationship. And all that is just with this one relationship not to mention my myriad connections with family, friends, staff, enemies, teammates, neighbors, et. al.

Dealing with others, making ourselves known and intelligible is always mediated through our words (verbal, body, contextual). And those words are always something of a betrayal of our deeper meaning and significance.

One word that kept coming up repeatedly is tradition. Tradition comes from the Latin, traditio, meaning to pass on. Most of us, I imagine think of tradition in terms of set-in-stone objects and practices that are stodgy, yet comfortable. I think of the couple that wants nothing to do with church most of the time, but want to "use" the church, and her words, for the "ceremony." I'm not denigrating this motivation because in it I recognize that people still see tradition as worthy enough to at least bring it out, and dust it off when needed to effectively solemnize an occasion. The thing about tradition though is that we have, especially in the church, but certainly in civil society (see 4th of July parades) objects and practices that are effectively divorced from reality.

The reality is the life of the practitioner. Tradition is meant to be a lived reality, not a series of objects moved in a certain order for magical effect. Words on a page that are moved around (spoken) without being implanted in the life of a practitioner is also life-less and magical. By magic I mean simply prioritizing the object in question with power over life. So in the Church we see in sacramental life prioritizing of the bread and wine over the gathered body of those who believe that God is up to something, in other words the Eucharistic elements have more power to express God than the assembly of believers.

Tradition then, to look back to the Latin, is the passing on of something, and I think that the emphasis has been on the "something" and not on the "passing." Tradition is passing, it is active. The most important aspect of the passing is the activity, the lived activity of the content of the tradition. To put not-too-fine-a-point on it: to shove symbols at people and expect a transformation is mere magical thinking. Instead, what if we passed our tradition by living it actively? Evelyn Underhill, the great Christian teacher, said once that the life of prayer is more easily caught than taught.

Sometimes, actually very often, indeed twice this week, young couples contact me to talk about baptism. The emails read something like this: "Good morning. My husband and I would like to have our 5 month old son baptized. We do not belong to your church, and haven't decided on one as of yet. However, we find this to be extremely important for our son, and an important part of our role as parents. Our other child was already christened by his age, and we would love to dedicate his life in Christ as well." This, to me, looks like non-practice meeting up with objects, for magical effect, perhaps family magic. I used to say to people, "call me me once I've seen you in church for a year." The church is for those who want to walk with God, with the disestablishment of the church there is no longer any social benefit to participating in the church, why does this even matter to you if you don't go to church? I've softened on this. Now I meet with people right away and talk to them about what baptism means and that it is not a private act for family, it is not celestial fire insurance, it is the initiation of this person into the Body of Christ and the people gathered there are going to promise to raise this child, so it might be a good idea for you to get active in our parish so that people aren't adopting a stranger.

That usually is met with surprise, that the small thing they think they wanted is actually pretty darn big. I've not had anyone come and hear all this, then walk away. I'm traditioning them, and myself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Masters recap part one of a lot

I took a class on contemporary Anglican Theologians, with the Rev. Drs. Ben King and Rob MacSwain. Ben is a historian of the church and Rob is a theologian. Rob taught many of my theology classes for my MDiv including directing my independent study on Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethicist. Hauerwas, famously, was on the cover of Time Magazine in 2001 as the America's most important theologian, which he had a real problem with; but no one remembers this because the issue came out on Sept. 11. Hauerwas, being American, is given to pithy quotes, see here.

The first theologian we read was Rowan Williams who is decidedly NOT given to pithy, bumper-sticker ready quotations. As I read through his extraordinarily dense and nuanced, On Christian Theology, I kept looking for that one phrase that would sum up his project. I couldn't find it. Hauerwas can be summed up in "The first task of the church is for the church to be the church," followed closely by, "The Church doesn't have a social ethic, it is a social ethic." But Williams...? Nope.

Williams is doing something else. I think this is owed to his being a poet, but the activity of reading On Christian Theology imparts an experience of the content, which is some doctrine of God or a method of doing theology. The form itself communicates the content. What I mean is, his chapters on the Self and the Holy Trinity actually, I think, give a sense of what life is like in these doctrines. So his chapters on the Trinity, for example, are very subtle, intricate, and intermingled. One gets an actual experience of the Trinity's perichoretic relationship. It is the most difficult theology I've ever read, but it repays the effort.

Williams writes widely for the wider audience. I'd highly recommend, Finding God in Paul, Being Christian, and my favorite, Silence and Honey Cakes.

Another aspect of Williams that came up in our discussion of his theology was the fact that he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and not a widely successful one. Some of his thoughts on homosexuality didn't fair too well once he had the power of the office. One person in the class said insightfully, "If only he had been Rowan Williams instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he thought we needed the office, not the man." Williams ultimately went against some of his own thoughts as the Archbishop, this, apparently had real personal consequence. Therefore, some of Williams later work looks at tragedy as a Christian category. In fact as I work on my paper for this class, which is on theodicy,wondering about a loving, powerful God in a world of pain and suffering, Williams' thoughts on tragedy loom large.

I'll reflect more on this class, especially the other theologians we covered, later.

Monday, June 27, 2016


I've been out of town for several weeks, three to be exact. I only missed one Sunday because after the first week I came home to Charlotte to pick up the family to join me. Where was I? I went home to Sewanee, AKA the School of Theology at the University of the South. The way that my very happy childhood shook out, I somehow emerged without a sense of place, without a place that I call home. So when I visit my parents, I visit them, I don't go "home." That house was sold my senior year of high school. Years later we went to seminary at Sewanee. It's a beautiful place, take a look:

Not only is it beautiful but the faculty and staff of the school of theology basically formed me into a priest, and a Christian. So this place feels like home. It's got it's problems, but knowing about those (it's racist founding (which they openly acknowledge and face down), its relationship with the surrounding community, etc.) means that Sewanee is a real place, not a fantasy. So Sewanee is my spiritual home. Earlier this year on a trip to Jerusalem I was struck by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which, for me, is the perfect icon of the broken Body of Christ. On that trip my heart became magnetized to that strange place. But in Sewanee, I'm fed spiritually just being there.

I was there to start a new course of study. I'm doing what is called a STM, a Masters of Sacred Theology. I have no idea why they don't call it a MST. I've been told that the STM is the most academic degree they offer, even more than the MDiv. I am hear to report that this seems to be the case. I take classes along with the Dmin (doctor of ministry) students. A DMin is not a PhD, but it is an advanced degree that is more practical in nature, at least in what they produce at the end. The DMin students, for their program, must do a project related to the parish. The STM students write a thesis, 120 pp. So... there's that.

Students take two courses at a time, for three weeks, five days a week, two hours per day per class. It was intense. They basically take a semester's worth of work into three weeks. The first few days I thought I had made a horrible mistake, I certainly felt like a total slacker. My reading and thinking had gotten a little flabby, but as the days went on I was able to run with the big boys and girls. I was reading about 150 pages of content per day for the classes, plus a little wikipedia for the stuff I didn't understand. So when there is a theologian writing about the grave mistake of the epistimology of Dun Scotus, you have to do some quick reading on what the heck that is!

I'll highlight what I read later, but suffice it to say for now that the course of study was amazing. It was hard at times to remember, with my family there, that I was not on vacation. I found myself resentful of all the work, but kept repeating: I. Am. Not. On. Vacation.

I'm so grateful to the parish for supporting this study. For me, I am greatly fed by this high level kind of study and it is a joy for me to make it intelligible to the parish through our programming and my preaching. More to come!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Good 'Ol Paul

Sermon for Proper 8C
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Did you ever learn something that was a game-changer? You know, like one day you knew how life worked, but then you learned one little thing, and boom! Life is different, you see the world anew, a light goes on.
I know that the best kind of learning is slow and nuanced, where knowledge becomes wisdom, but sometimes, a powerful learning can be summed up in a bumper sticker-like pithy saying. For me, several years ago this happened when I came upon the dual saying: the map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. Have you heard this phrase?
It basically means that the means of signification and language are in fact not what they refer to. I’ll probably say something that refutes all this when we talk about sacraments at the end of July. But for now: The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. What’s that mean? To me it means that we have to continually remind ourselves that the tools we use to make sense of the world are no the world itself. Actual maps can get you from point A to point B, but those maps look nothing at all like the territory you are in. The difference between a two dimensional map and the Grand Canyon, for instance, couldn’t be more different.
Likewise, the menu is not the meal. The menu hints at the meal, it gets you to the meal, but you don’t eat the menu, you eat the meal.
Both the map and the menu though are pretty darn useful, they get you somewhere or something. The map gets you to the Grand Canyon, then you put the map away. The menu gets you to the meal. Once you order your food the server takes the menu away.
I’m bringing all this up because we need to talk about Paul. It’s funny, we need to talk about Paul, as if we were going to hold an intervention. Paul has gotten a great deal of grief from the church in recent years, some of it deserved, mostly not. I think that the main problem that most people have with his writings is that he wasn’t just like us, he wasn’t as politically progressive as we would have him. Hopefully I can help repair Paul’s bruised reputation a little today.
The reading we get from Paul today is from his letter to the church in Galatia. Because Paul’s writings were put into the Bible, many of us just sort of assume that these writings fell out of heaven, fully formed. But that’s not it at all, Paul was always writing to a specific community, that he usually knew very well. All of Paul’s writings are, what scholars call, occasional writings. It doesn’t mean that wrote when he felt like it, it means that he wrote for particular occasions, he had a reason for writing.
The reason that Paul is writing the Galatians is because they have heard and responded to God’s loving acceptance in Jesus Christ, but in his absence they have fallen back into their old ways of expecting certain behaviors and life-styles for members of the church. Paul is writing to chastise them for their exclusion and condition making.
And here is where we get the map and the territory, the menu and the meal. Paul uses two symbol systems to outline his argument: slavery and freedom, and flesh and spirit. I’d like to dive into these in detail but always remember that the map is not the territory.
First Paul says that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” He’s using this dichotomy of freedom and slavery because, everyone in that age would have understood exactly what he means, those who were listening either, were slaves, had slaves, or knew one or the other. Slavery in the first century was extremely commonplace. Paul is sometimes criticized for not coming down hard enough on slavery. To those I would say, read Paul, you’ll be surprised. That does not take away the fact that preachers in this very city in the 18th and 19th centuries used selective citations of Paul to prop up their own evil economic system.
But when Paul talks about freedom from slavery he is using the culturally resonant metaphor to reveal the fact that the Galatians, and by extension, us, are reverting back to an old understanding of what it means to be accepted by God, namely that we must submit to laws of behavior and winning God over. That’s slavery. Freedom on the other hand, through Christ means that we are free from the slavery of winning God’s love. And that freedom also means that we are free from expecting others to have to earn our love.
The other symbol that Paul uses us flesh and spirit. Remember that he is trying to communicate a deeper truth, the map is not the territory. Believe me I could give you twenty minutes on the different Greek words for what we would call the body, but what matters is what he says. The flesh and the spirit and vying for control of the full human being, in each of us. If we let the flesh drive the bus then all those bad behaviors follow, he ends his list with “and things like this.” It’s not meant to be exhaustive or even definitive, you know what he’s talking about: fear, lying, unfairness, callousness, the list is almost endless. But when the spirit drives the bus, when the spirit is in control of the human being, then that life takes on the shape of a human that is in close contact with God, a life like Jesus’, a life that bears fruit, like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
So, keeping in mind that the map is not the territory and that no metaphor is perfect: We are no longer owned, enslaved, to the notion of living that would have us have to earn God’s love. In Christ we are made free to come to God. And because we are now free in Christ, the spirit can now run our lives, not the flesh. That’s Paul 101, that’s Christianity for Dummies.
Now, listen to me. I need you to go from hearing these words to listening to these words. Everything I’ve been saying, you think is about someone else. But it’s not, it’s about you. I was thinking about you when I wrote this. I do that a lot, much more than you might be comfortable with, I write sermons with specific people in mind. This one is for you, all this stuff about being set free from the slavery of impressing God is real, it’s real that we don’t earn love, and it’s real that we should extend that same unconditional love to other. It is real. And it’s about you. And you’re not doing it. And if you did, you’d be, if not happier, you’d be free, free with God.
Look, I know the political system is rough. Lord knows that the last few weeks have been bad weeks for the world. And, frankly, I don’t have the faith in the moral arc of the universe. I don’t have faith that everything happens for a reason, or that everything will work out. But I have faith in God and God alone. I trust that God has accepted me and you and the entire creation, without condition, full-stop. And that sets me free, it sets me free to love. It sets me free to throw a wrench into the machine of condition and exploitation.
That’s the territory, that’s the menu. This place of love is our destination. If Paul’s maps and menus don’t get you there, then set them aside, but don’t set aside where he’s trying to get us. Come up with your own maps and menus, but make no mistake, the territory is God, and the meal is Jesus Christ.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sermon for a Funeral

Here is the text of a sermon I preached for a parishioner. She was 90 years old. Her name was Joyce. It was a beautiful occasion. I've long held that the funeral rite of the Episcopal Church is our most beautiful liturgy. I think that in it, we have the church's strongest proclamation of what it's about and also it happens at the time of our lives that says most strongly what will happen to us. Those two items coming together powerfully makes for good liturgy. Here's the sermon:

Funeral Sermon for Joyce Brown
June 25, 2016
Job 19:21-27a
2 Cor. 4:16-5:9
John 10:11-16

Joyce was a walking paradox. She was always reticent at first and then you couldn’t get her to shut up. She was, for the last several years, quite frail, but always present and on the go, under her own power.
Her family was kind enough to send me some of Joyce’s poems and I found one that gives us insight into her loquaciousness. “Silence is Golden, or so they say. Alas, I’ll be poor then for many a day, for talk I must or else I’ll bust, I really can’t help being made that way!” And, so you know, Joyce ended this poem with an exclamation point.
A few months ago when Joyce turned 90, during the service I gave her special attention which she of course tried to deflect, saying, “Oh no, oh no!” Then she stood up and gave a speech.
But don’t you know that these little speeches, they were always about the community and how much they cared for her. The same thing happened a few months ago when she left the women’s retreat. Just before her departure she held forth for ten straight minutes, after saying that she didn’t know what to say. Joyce’s self-deprecation was in her own way an honoring of those around her.
Joyce wasn’t all about being shy, and then over-speaking. She was also unusually spry for her age. A while back at St. Martin’s we had a Palm Sunday procession through our neighborhood. It was a very chilly morning and more than one person, a fraction of Joyce’s age, declined the long, cold walk. But Joyce did the procession. Yes she brought up the rear along with us priests and her friend Fran, but she did it. I was so worried about her over that broken pavement but she never missed a step.
Joyce was a paradox: Small and frail, but large and strong; never wanting to make a fuss, but always making a fuss.
And Joyce’s faith is a paradox. Here we are at the commemoration of a death, and we talk about life. We worship a God who actually died, and yet we proclaim his ongoing and enduring life.
These first two readings which Joyce chose for us to hear on this occasion are all about the paradox of life in God, that even in death, we shall be alive in God. Even our mortal bodies which are subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can be, in the audacious words of the patronal saint of this parish, “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” This is what God has always been after, to swallow up everything into his loving life. And we here today are a testimony to that life and love that Joyce lived and embodied.
The other funny thing about our paradoxical faith is that God has hidden God’s self in the creation. This means that the world is fundamentally sacramental, that we can use our bodies and our need to create signs and symbols and poetry, to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch God. Joyce knew that, Joyce knows that. In fact, Joyce gave us the gift of God’s presence by being so weak and making such a fuss; that was Joyce, but it was also God that we served and put up with.
Another of Joyce’s poems addresses her knowledge that God can be found anywhere.
The Tree
Through the glass windows, spread in grace,
You see the world while in God’s place,
It is a wonder to behold, bringing feelings, peace untold,
God’s own nature there to see draws prayers from the soul,
That beautiful tree.

On the tree outside the church, Jesus on a limb doth perch,
And as he swings his sandaled feet, He looks inside to see us meet,
Of course you say, you see him not, be still be sure he’s not forgot.

This poem may sound to some as radical or even anti-institutional church, but I don’t think so, it’s simply the musing of a faithful woman who knew that God is not contained in the church. The church is not the custodian of God, but merely the gathering of those who have been shocked by God’s love and we are trying to figure it out. After all, as Jesus says in our gospel reading, the fold of those under God’s call is much much more broad and inclusive than most of us would be comfortable with. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” He’s talking about us, he’s talking about that person you hate, he’s talking about the one you think is beyond love and respect. God loves that one. So what are you going to do in light of that reality?
This is the paradoxical God that Joyce believed in, loved, and participated in: that life has swallowed up everything, that God can be found, if you look, and that the church is not the custodian of God, but instead is the aftermath of this loving, life-giving God.
That’s what I wanted to say to you today, that was me preaching the gospel with some help from Joyce. But I wanted to end with a story and poem of my own, all about Joyce.
Last year we had what we call an instructed Eucharist, it’s when we take a look at what we do in worship and answer questions so that we can more thoughtfully engage in our worship. At one point I talked about how it takes so many people to make it all work, from the hours of preparation of the preacher to the staff lining up all the volunteers, the readers, the one who composes the prayers, the altar guild in making everything right, even the little lady who launders and starches the linens; it takes many many people to pull off the congregational, corporate worship of God, this all happens by, with, and through our bodies which God has filled with his Holy Spirit! It was pretty good!
At that moment, Joyce’s shaky white arm shot up, shyly. “Yes Joyce?” I asked. She answered, “The. Linens. Are. Not. Starched.”
What do I know? Those linens are nice and crisp, but they aren’t starched, apparently starching makes linens less absorbent or something. Joyce used to come into the sacristy to retrieve the linens used in our Eucharistic meal. As time went on she declared that our sacristy was too busy and that she didn’t want to get knocked over. So she used to wait in the front row after the service and someone from the altar guild would deliver the soiled linens to her in a ziplock bag. Joyce would then take those linens home and wash them by hand. I heard that Joyce would even take the water in which the linens were washed outside and commit it to the ground, such high respect did she offer the elements of our sacrament.
Here is a poem I wrote, soon after meeting Joyce and learning about her small service to Christ’s church:

She was British, there must be a story there,
About how she came to the States.

She had always worked in the background,
At Church for decades.

Her, now, papery hands,
Had rinsed Christ’s blood from the linen.

She takes them home to rinse.
Toddles outside,

To commit Christ
To the ground: Burying him, again, and
Again, and again.

Unaware that he has stowed away,
Under her fingernails.

Thank you Joyce, thank you for your irascible, loving spirit. Thank you for showing us God. God bless you and keep you and through the mercies of God rise again in glory.

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.