Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Putting the fun in funerals

That's a cheap pun I know. Several weeks I was speaking with a parishioner and she asked me what my favorite part about being a priest is. I answered, "Funerals."

Why?

I think it is because funerals are emotionally charged events, where people are truly themselves, without guile; and funerals also afford us the opportunity to proclaim the Easter Gospel, even at the grave. I also remember that the earliest Christians were essentially a funerary society: giving decent burials to those who couldn't afford one.

What follows is my sermon for Mike Michael.

Funeral Sermon for Mike Michael 12/10/11
I didn't know Mike. The first and last time I saw him was at Plantation Estates last week when I delivered last rites to him. I had gotten the call that Mike was dying, and I hurried as fast as I could to get out there. One of the secrets of us priests for our dealings with families at the time of death is that you can tell what kind of relationship the family has with the dying person almost immediately. As I rushed into Plantation Estates, Jean welcomed me warmly and introduced me to the receptionist. She introduced me as Father Josh “who was going to help us see Mike off.” “Who was going to help us see Mike off.” It was right then and there that I knew that whoever Mike was, he was loved, he had lived well, and he was prepared for death.
In talking to various long-time parishioners here at Saint John’s about Mike, what was reported to me over and over again was Mike’s enduring kindness. That was the word, kind, not nice. The people didn’t describe him as a nice man, they described him as a kind man. Kind, goes a lot further than nice doesn’t it? Nice, to me is barely civil. But kind, kind carries with it a love and empathy for others that nice just can’t get close to. Mike was kind . . . that and he loved golf.
In my brief talks with Mike’s family I learned that Mike had suffered great loss in his life; the untimely deaths of several siblings, the passing of all his family and his friends. But even in his death Jean had a sense that Mike was going to be with his brothers and sisters again. Indeed in today's Gospel reading Jesus describes going ahead of his disciple's to prepare a place for them. He uses these words, "in my father's house there are many dwelling places." To me this means that God, understands who we are even if we don’t, indeed that there are infinite ways to follow him. It is my understanding that Mike left the church for several years but came back here at St. John's. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus is letting us all know that we do not know the hearts of people, and that only he does. God knows who we are and how to deal with us, even more than we do ourselves. Mike was something of an enigma wasn’t he? He was not exactly effusive in his emotions, he played his cards close to his chest. But he showed his spirit in other ways, his work with Habitat for Humanity, his lifelong commitment to Jean, his kindness, his devotion to Saint John’s. And today we say goodbye to this kind soul.
The funny thing about death is that we think it is so final. Shakespeare describes it this way: “But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn, No traveler returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others we know not of.”Death is the great unknown for those in the world. But for us Christians we tell a different story about death. Our story goes like this: Jesus is not simply the son of God. Jesus is our trailblazer to that undiscovered country, to death, and back again. It turns out that Shakespeare was right, except that one traveler has returned. And, like Jesus tells us today in our Gospel reading, he goes ahead of us to prepare a place for us. We believe that through our baptisms we share in the death of Christ and by dying in Christ, we share in his resurrection. So for Christians, death is simply the door into God. It is of course hard for us to lose our loved ones, for us to lose Mike, and grief is not unchristian. But we are Christians, we are Easter people, not Good Friday people. We are a people who stand, not crushed at a cross, instead we are a people who stand in awe at an empty tomb. And it is this hope that allows us to say Alleluia, even at the grave; even as we see this kind soul off to be with his Lord, where he, with an unveiled face, beholds his Lord. So goodbye Mike, and in the sure hope of Jesus Christ the Risen Lord we will all see you on the other side. Amen.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bah Humbug! A Theology of Advent

Here is the audio of my lecture on Advent. Many thanks to Christina for "taping" it on her iPhone and working her techno magic to put it online.



I'll add the PowerPoint as soon a I figure that out.

Here is a tour of that ... more liberal icon of the cosmic Christ. I do not endorse everything that Grey represents here, but I do like his enthusiasm.

Ecoterra | "Cosmic Christ" by Alex Grey from Ecoterra on Vimeo.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Black an White and Read All Over: Reviewing the Nightstand #1

So I read, alot, and alot of different things. I thought I'd take a stab at reviewing the things that I read and offer some theological insight to my odd reading habits. A warning, I am reviewing a comic which has some, can I say "literally graphic images? There is some blodd and guts, so caveat lector.

First up...

We3. Pronounced We-Three. This is a comic, about 100 pages all told. It is the story of three animals, a dog, a cat, and a rabbit. This is not the WInd and the Willows however; the dog and the cat in the rabbit are all outfitted and ready for battle; check out this picture.




The story is very simple: the animals are modified for battle, the animals are marked for "decommissioning", the animals escape, the animals overcome conflict, the animals find a home. There are several animal stories like this. One thing that was surprising for me was the comment that the story implicitly makes on just war and the use of drones. I find it very interesting that our president Barack Obama is well read in the so-called realist theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, who was a longtime pacifist finally changed his position during World War II and began to talk about the gospel and its relationship to a liberal society. This position has become the default position of most Christians in America, especially liberal Christians: our society, our government, our military can be used for good, can be used for the spreading of the gospel and for the upbuilding of all humanity. The use of drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and just this week in Pakistan is an interesting turn in this way of seeing the use of military might: we need not respect the sovereignty of any other nation when we can kill whomever we want from whatever distance, no matter how far, without putting any soldiers on the ground. We3 tells the story of "drones" that have some kind of consciousness and rebel against their being weaponized.

What We3 dozen superbly well is tell a story in such a way that only the graphic medium, only comics, can.
Here is an example:




Note that the artist, Frank Quitely has turned the panel into the third dimension to give a sense of the time as this cat is attacking whatever it's attacking. Also notice that the story does not pull any punches in terms of violence, I told you this was not the Wind in the Willows. We3 also does a wonderful job of capturing the "voices" of the characters, the dog just wants to be good in the cat, well the cat simply calls all humans "stink boss."

One thing that I'm always on the lookout when it comes to comics is how the writers resolve their stories. Since the vast majority of the comics industry is steered by the moneymaking machines of comic con international, Hollywood, and immature fanboys, it is unsurprising that most comics are simply revenge fantasies (for more on this see this article on a disturbing trend in the best-selling comics). So I'm very pleased when I read a story that is well paced, action packed, and resolves the conflict on some sort of, if not moral high note, then at least a notion of the complexity of morality and relationships. Grant Morrison, the writer of We3, and lots of other comics that I like, tends to be a very moral writer. Morrison really does deliver the moral goods in We3. I've often wondered about that, maybe it is beause Morrison has a spiritual tradtion that he is actively engaged in, maybe it is because he is so successful that he is now able to do whatever he wants, even be moral.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

FYI

For those in my theology class, we will not meet this week due to the vestry elections. Join me on November 20, in the Rector's forum for my talk entitled: Bah Humbug! A Theology of Advent (provided my wife doesn't deliver our baby.).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Professional

It's official, I'm a pro writer. Here is the check for a sermon I did for Sermons that Work. I'll link that sermon later.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Theology Class #5

“Maker of Heaven and Earth…” part 2.
12 A Song of Creation Benedicite, omnia opera Domini
Song of the Three Young Men, 35-65
One or more sections of this Canticle may be used. Whatever the selection, it begins with the Invocation and concludes with the Doxology.
Invocation
Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

I. The Cosmic Order
Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, *
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, *
all winds and fire and heat.
Winter and summer, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, *
drops of dew and flakes of snow.
Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, *
O shining light and enfolding dark.
Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Creation Part Two
Review: Anselmian distinction allows for God’s free choice in creation. This dispenses with pantheism, panenthism, and dualism. Biblical creation is distinct from other ANE stories of creation.

Continuous creation
Biblical contra ANE
Contingent
Deism, dualism, monism (Pantheism)
What is our part in the act of Creation?
What Process Theology says

Biting off alot

My Friday morning Bible study wanted to study Isaiah. We spent the first hour talking about the issues of reading Isaiah from the empty tomb. Here's what we came up with:

Where I was.

Here are the Du Bose lectures by Barbara Brown Taylor that she gave at Sewanee last week. I might give my thoughts on these lectures later, until then . . .

Barbara Brown Taylor, DuBose Lecture 1 from School of Theology on Vimeo.



Barbara Brown Taylor, DuBose Lecture 2 from School of Theology on Vimeo.



Babara Brown Taylor, DuBose Lecture 3 from School of Theology on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Theology: class 4

“Maker of Heaven and Earth…”

Prayers for the World
1. For Joy in God’s Creation
O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. BCP, 814

Creation: “Before” . . .? Luther and his switches.
Thinking of the beginning as qualitative rather than temporal.
Importance of the beginning in terms of the Anselmian distinction.
Creation = a unique act of God’s freedom.

Biblical Creation
Genesis, composed around 500BC, contrast with Isaiah, 8th century BC.
Two Creation Stories:
Genesis 1:1-2:4 = newer, more sophisticated, Priestly source
Genesis 2:4ff = J source, older, close to the Enuma Elish.
Political and theological: “The interest [in writing the creation story] was not in causal explanations but in a search for meaning, a framework in terms of which life could be lived.” David Brown, Invitation to Theology, 1989.
Other Ancient Near-Eastern creation stories. What is creation and ancient near East cosmologies? What is creation in the Genesis account?


Two analogies when thinking through Creation:

Making:
Stresses transcendence, God’s distinction from the creation and also His freedom.
Biblically based.

Emanation:
Rays from the sun. Important in Orthodox theology.
Stresses immanence.
Allows that Creation is not arbitrary.

Creatio ex nihilo or creatio ex chao? And why does it matter? A thought experiment.

Books for beginner theologians:
The Holy Bible
The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, especially the Eucharistic prayers and the Catechism.
Hunting the Divine Fox: Robert Farrar Capon
The Peaceable Kingdom: Stanley Hauerwas
Praying Shapes Believing: Leonel Mitchell
Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry: World Council of Churches, free online.

Theology: class #3

“In God the Father Almighty. . .”
Third Sunday of Advent
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

The “final” word on God’s revelation: “God’s outward action, towards his creatures, is anchored in his ‘nature’, i.e. it is a manifestation of his own proper truth, it is his eternal will and not his passing fancy . . . The identity between the revelation and the Revealer, between ‘God for us’ and ‘God in himself,’ is the nerve center of all confessing statements.” – Helmut Gollwitzer
The Doctrine of God, a laughable attempt to talk about God, in 50 minutes:
Or,
Where we learn Father Josh’s favorite theological term:
God as:
Living: God is constant yet responsive; tension inherent, but also the making of dynamism.
Holy: Biblical conception of holiness: separate, called-apart, distinct.
God is holy, wholly other; yet . . .
Spirit: What is spirit?
Nephesh, developmental model of spirit (Matter to Life to Consciousness to Spirit)
Spirit is a holarchy: the highest realm that takes up all other dimensions of reality, includes but transcends the body.
Love: see the New Testament, esp. Johannine Corpus, and Jesus Christ.
Angry/Wrathful:
Marcionism, a pet heresy.
Day of wrath = day of judgement
“You only have I known of all the families on the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” Amos 3:2.
Wrath and anger are “not the negation of love but rather the negation of the negation of love.” Paul Tillich.
Eternal: not simply timelessness, but transcendence of time
God’s freedom to be involved in time can only be accomplished if God is not bound to time.

Personal: What we say when we talk about God: Anthropomorphism in the Bible and theopomorphism in our talk.
Lord: Biblical examples defy exaggeration.
What does Lordship mean theologically?
Distinction = A thought experiment with Saint Anselm (1033-1109 AD).
“God is that which nothing greater can be thought”
Concern over lordship (hierarchy: the feminist gift and burden)
-Anthropomorphism and theopomorphism redux
--All earthly lordships, ought to conform to the divine lordship.
Transcendent: God is distinct from . . .
“God transcends the creation in being distinct from creation; God is not the essence of the creation. While the creation depends upon God, its essence is not identical with God, but distinct.”
Panentheism: another of the thinking Christian’s pet heresy.
Define: panentheism vs. pantheism
Creation is included with God (but not all of God) vs. God = Creation

Immanent: the crux of divine revelation in light of divine transcendence.

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day December 25
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Theology: class #2

“We Believe . . .”
Collect for Proper 24
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Revelation in two parts

Act and Content
Act of Revelation: God’s self-revelation: personal.
Excursus on, “And blessed be God’s vs. His kingdom…”
Example: “Knowing” someone through personal disclosure vs. observation.
Trust as the chief descriptor.
Limitations: finite humans and the utter otherness of God.
Kinds of knowing:
Scientific knowledge: the initiative is on the knower.
-adds to the store of knowledge
Revealed knowledge: Initiative is on the object of knowledge (God).
-transforms (“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:11)

Content of Revelation: what God reveals.
Scripture,
Tradition,
Authority and Discernment
The role of the Holy Spirit
Reason (?)

Faith
Traditional model of faith: assent to propositional doctrine that had been dictated by God.
Trust

Natural theology and Revelation
Exemplar: St. Thomas Aquinas: 1225-1274.
Dichotomy between the two: is that dichotomy accurate?
Modern example: Intelligent design does not point to Jesus of Nazareth
Tillich: One cannot argue rigorously from the world to God.

General Revelation
God’s revelation in nature.
-universal moral consciousness, reason, etc.

Special Revelation
God’s self-revelation in Scripture.

Continuing or Dependent Revelation
Always in media res special revelation
-“You can’t get to the Holy Trinity through a rainbow.” Dr. Don Armentrout

Final revelation
-“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12
Subject of eschatology

Theology: class #1

“Getting Our Bearings”

Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Theology: Primary and Secondary
Primary theology is talk to God.
Examples: all kataphatic (via positiva) and apophatic (via negativa) expressions.
Secondary theology is talk about God.
i.e. Good manners
Primary and Secondary is about sequence, not importance; more to follow.
Theology versus Religious studies - The bias of the Church and this course of study.

Understanding begins in medias res.
Contingency as descriptive of creation
“On whatever place one has fallen, on that place he must find support if he is to rise again.”
St. Augustine
No such thing as tabula rasa, or a vacuum.
Theology is always on the menu and it’s all you can eat!

Doxological Spirals, Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams
A typology of theological activity: Celebratory-Communicative-Critical
Celebratory
Attempts to use thought, language, and image to express a fullness of theological vision: Primary theology
Examples: hymnody, liturgy, the Orthodox Church.
Communicative
Grows out of a concern that the language of celebration can become too insular.
Communicative theology commends, persuades and attempts to express itself in many structures of thought.
“A theology experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment.”
R. Williams.
Examples: Missiology, revival and reformation movements, preaching.
Critical
A critical theology is “alert to its own inner tensions or irresolutions,” due to its passage through the uncommitted media of the communicative stage.
Not a circle but a spiral, ever widening. A holarchy: nested spheres which are recapitulated in light of each stage which precedes it.
Review of primary and secondary theology in light of in media res and the doxological spiral.

Contemporary application
Praying, Mary Oliver, from Thirst, 2006.

Theology: Faith Seeking Understanding

I've been teaching a class on systematic theology at Saint John's for the last several weeks. I will be posting my lecture outlines and hopefully, in time, audio from the lectures.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Saint Paul's Winston-Salem

Here are some pictures of this magnificent church, or at least the windows. Here for clergy conference.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Well?

Here are too many examples of the signs I mentioned on my sermon last week.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

video from today's sermon

Sermon starts at minute 34. I make reference to signs in the church. We posted dozens of the same sign, ledger size paper, black with white writing: "Is One God Enough?" I really enjoyed how some of the homeletical heft had been carried in the parishioners by having to wonder about those signs.


Watch live streaming video from sjecharlotteservices at livestream.com

text from today's sermon

16th Sunday After Pentecost A

Exodus 20

I saw a poll which said that only 17% of Anglican clergy could name all Ten Commandments. Now that was Church of England clergy, ok? I can’t imagine what that percentage would be among Episcopal clergy, (we could take a poll right now!).

So maybe some review is in order. The Ten Commandments are traditionally divided into God-centric and people-centric commandments. The God-centric commandments are: you shall have no other God’s before me, you shall not have idols, and you shall not take Lord’s name in vain. The people-centric commandments are about taking a Sabbath day, honoring our parents, not stealing, not committing adultery, not killing, not coveting, and not giving a false witness. While there is something to the traditional designation of how the Ten Commandments are divided up, the first three about relationship with God and the final seven about relationship between people, the subject is always God and the object is always us. All of the Ten Commandments are about God and how we, in turn, relate to him.

For our review we can ask if there is any importance to the order of the Commandments? Maybe. What is easier to obey: not murdering someone or having one God? Don’t answer right away, which commandment is easier to obey, not murdering, or having one god? Since the ten commandments are something of a contract, God is leading with the hardest commandment, having no other gods before him, just so we will know what the terms are so that if we don’t agree to the terms we can get out before even the fine print is established. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Get on board here, or head back to Egypt.

It seems easy enough: You shall have no other Gods before me, and you shall not make for yourself an idol. After all, how hard can that be? It’s not too hard being a monotheist these days, and when we talk about God, we are almost universally talking about the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Heck, even the atheists don’t believe in that God. You don’t hear Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens declaiming the pantheon of the Hindus or the Native American Sky Spirit. No, for the atheists, they don’t believe in our God, they are clear about that. The point is that God is God, God is one, this is not a hard piece of information to get behind these days.

The same is likely to be the case when it comes to idols. Nobody here has taken something from the creation, say, some wood or gold and has carved or otherwise manipulated it and attributed divine powers to it. Nobody has a rain god in their pocket, nobody here has a private, personal god that looks over the family. God rules out idols for the Hebrews because they are about to go into Canaan where idols were everywhere and for every purpose: fertility, rain, the harvest, the home, everything. But we don’t have that do we? Well that’s good, we are covered then on those first two commandments: we are a one-God people. And we don’t have idols.

But, it’s just not that simple,

God put a qualifier on the idol part: “you shall not bow down to them or worship them.” On the face of it, that sounds pretty harmless, God is talking about the actual practice of bowing, prostrating oneself in a ritualistic way to these idols. Of course nobody here is literally bowing down to idols. But there are lots of ways of bowing down. There are lots of ways of honoring something in our lives. There are lots of ways to show our true allegiances. And there are indeed lots of gods.

So fess up, who is your god? One god is seldom enough for most people. What do you cling to for help, satisfaction, and security? Who or what do you put first in your heart and mind? The two biggest idols I know of are Career and Children. Oh, boy! Now he’s done it. As one of my friends would say, “Now he’s gone from preachin’ to meddlin’!”

This is the part of the sermon where I make you mad. The secret of preaching, though, is that you can really only say what you know, and believe me I am acquainted with the gods and idols of Career and Children. Career and Children are popular idols because they are so central to our lives. That’s not all wrong though, the problem comes up with their position in our lives, central. God must be central, and when He is not, then you need to ask yourself, “who is my god?” What do you give honor to before you give honor to God? There are countless of lesser idols to worship too: sports, sex, physical perfection, intellectual power, social standing, you name it! The thing about us human beings is that we will worship just about anything.

Personally, I have been tempted in the past few weeks to worship an idol, the idol of health. I have a dear friend, a new friend, who was in mortal danger, but no longer is, she is still going to have a long rough road, but she is out of the woods; and for a time I almost gave honor to the idol of health. See? Idolatry is such a subtle thing. We have a concern and then, just for a moment, we lose perspective, and then we have placed all our concern and hope in the wrong place. Idolatry is too narrow a perspective, I was placing too much emphasis on the health of my friend and not enough on the author of health for my friend.

The problem that has always been with idolatry from the days before Moses up until today is that the idols are right in front of us and are made of the things that we have always needed and wanted. Those ancient people weren’t dummies you know, they went to those idols for the things that they needed: they needed rain, they needed the harvest, they needed children and they needed to feed their families. God is calling us away from our idols to recognize Him as the author of all creation. Doing this was absolutely counter-cultural then, in Moses’ time and it still is. When we leave the idols behind the culture looks and wonders what our problem is. But when we worship God, we say, “God is the Creator.” God creates all the things that we love: health, careers, children, sex, sports, all of it.

The only sin then, the only sin, is idolatry, taking something from the creation and imbuing it with the powers that belong to God, the power to make us whole. Look at those commandments, those, “shall nots” and you will see a person acting as if their own desires were the creator and not God.

When we see that God is God, and that we are not, and neither is anything else, then we are doing something monumental: we are working with the grain of the universe. Do you hear that? Just like woodworkers that submit their work to the grain of the wood, so too do we when we see ourselves and everything else as created, and God as creator. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult. When we finally see God as God, then we are in harmony with how creation was intended to be, we are working with the grain of the universe.

What this comes down to is simple awareness. Awareness that God is the author of all, full stop, and without remainder. God is God. This awareness is never far from us and we need not prepare to receive it. Simply remind yourself that those children were made by God, be aware that God allows your career to blossom, or to dry up. God is our sole source of happiness and satisfaction. Be aware, be mindful of the grain of the universe that God, your one God, has established. And then, like the woodworker, you will live and work, not against the grain, but with the grain that God has established. So, yes, one God is enough.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Baptism

Here is the service from last week, I preached and baptized my first kid. Amazing. The sermon starts around minute 31.

Watch live streaming video from sjecharlotteservices at livestream.com

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Burning bush revisited

I'm not preaching this week, though the reading the clergy at Saint John's have chosen to preach on is from Exodus, Moses' encounter with God through the burning bush. Below I have reprinted my sermon on this text from a few years ago. In seminary, this sermon garnered a little bit of infamy. It was inspired by an interview I heard with Padgett Powell, who wrote a book called The Interrogative Mood, a novel that asks questions only. At the time of this sermon I did not want to read the book because I didn't want it to influence my approach to the text. Now I am reading the book and I love it. The experience is not unlike deep study and exegesis of Holy Scripture, that is, it makes one rethink reading itself and the effect of a text on oneself. {as an aside I am really working up a weird book on what I have learned about reading the Bible from reading difficult books like, Finnegans Wake, , Cerebus, anything by Tom Robbins, The Invisibles, Testament, etc.}

I think this method is worthwhile, indeed my spiritual director (a PhD in Literature) suggested I do something like this seasonally. So I guess I am saying, people of Saint John's, get ready. Here's the sermon:

What do you seek?

How is God connected to this burning bush? When did the bush stop burning? When, and if, it finally did stop burning, what happened to the goat that nibbled on the burning bush? Did the goat die? Did it not die, as in ever? Should there be such a thing as a picture of the burning bush? Doesn't that go against the whole idea of a burning bush? Can there be an icon of the Unknowable?

Why am I only asking questions? Why won't I make a statement? Can an entire sermon be written in the interrogative mood? Does English have an interrogative mood, or just interrogatory words? Given your own life, would you rather have God talk to you out of a burning bush or something else that burns, "yet is not consumed"? What would it be, a car, a desk, a professor? What defines Moses? Is Exodus in the Old Testament? Did the writer of Exodus think that his or her writing would ever be "old"? Why do you think God chooses these counter-intuitive ways to speak to people?

Shouldn't there be some form of introduction? What defines me? Is it that I am Josh Bowron, that I am a husband and a father, and a seminarian? Am I who I am because I am from Atlanta? Why do I love this Mountain? Is this a good idea? Would you like to know me better? What do I seek? Can we know a person by the questions they ask? Shall we continue?

What does it mean in the Old Testament when it says LORD, in all caps? What does taking off shoes on holy ground mean? Why don't we take off our shoes in church? Who were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Why does it matter? Should I care that I don't care? Can God hear? If so, does God hear with ears or is he psychic like that lady in the X-Men? What's so great about milk and honey? If they flow, you know, out of doors, won't they spoil? Wouldn't it stink?

What will happen to all those people that are already living in the land? Is God advocating for ethnic cleansing? What about all those Canaanites, and Hittites? I know some Israelites, but where are all the Amorites? Is "I AM" really God's name? How do I read the Bible anyway? How does the Church read the Bible? Do we have to think the same thing as the church? What happens when the church disagrees? What is my obligation to the church?

Is there anything outside the text? Am I a text? Can I tell my own story? Is telling my own story like biting my own teeth? Does the church read me? Am I on God's night stand?

What do you seek? What does this story of Moses and God in the Burning Bush mean? What is going on, back then and over there? What's it got to do with us, or, more importantly, me? Does God call people? Why does everybody talk about God calling us? Can God nudge? Can God hint? Does God ever say..."pssst!"?

Does God speak in tectonic plates?

Do you assume that I know the answer? Given all the characters in the Bible that God calls, is there a single one who was not offensive or messed up in some way? What is going through Moses' head? Was he afraid, was he nervous? Why do you think God chooses these counter-intuitive ways to speak to people? Why does God continually insist on calling the unrighteous and the broken? Can this shepherd be a liberator? Can this yokel be face to face with God? Did it happen? Did it not happen? Does the difference scare you, energize you, leave you flat, or something else altogether? What was Moses seeking, up there, on the mountain? Was he simply curious or did he have any idea whatsoever that he would encounter the long lost God?

What's God's voice like? Is it a tornado, an atom splitting? Is it a Big Bang or more like Yoko Ono? When you look at stained glass do you notice the colors first or the story? Who here will end up depicted in a stained glass window? If God can come to a person as a burning bush, why not as a chunk of bread and a sip of wine? Would the story of Moses and the Burning Bush have been possible without Moses? What I mean is, in any sacrament, we are there, so can a sacrament be a sacrament without us? Do we make it sacred? How important are we to God? Who's we? Why does God bother? Is He serious? Given the apparent cheapness of life, what is sacred?

What do you seek? What is going on with us? I mean me and you right now in this big marble room, are we o.k., you and me? Where, whence, whither, and how does the time go? What are the fundamental differences between Moses and me? Why do you think God chooses these counter-intuitive ways to speak to people? Why does God continually insist on calling the unrighteous and the broken? Is there some ulterior motive on God's part for talking to us through stuff, why does matter matter to God? What will tomorrow bring? Did Moses know how to be a patriarch? Do I know how to be an adult? Do I have to be an adult? Did God show Moses how to be a patriarch? Did you ever wonder why there is such a close etymological connection between adult and adulterated? What is my agenda in bringing that up?

Is God a micro-manager? Is God a. . . C.E.O.? Are you tired of questions? Does God tire of questions? Does God tire? Ought there be a moratorium on the word "God," as Bishop Spong suggests? Can you argue both sides on that issue?

Can a sermon consist of nothing but questions? What will my preaching teacher say? Will you tell on me? This is just silly, didn't Desmond Tutu preach here? Should I make a point and sit down? What is the cumulative effect of this barrage of questions? Will I ask a certain question just to get a laugh?

What is air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

What is the what, anyway? Who tells the truth more in Shakespeare's plays, the priests or the Fools? In terms of strict literary definitions, is the Bible a comedy or a tragedy?

Given the state of nature and society why do we still get our hopes up? Is that too pessimistic a question? Another way, given the changeability of life, why do we seek security? Can we remember life before life? Is anybody else here attracted to, and at the same time, utterly repulsed by post-modernism? What's the rush, where's the fire? No really, Church: Where's the Fire!? What's stopping you?

What do you seek? How can we proclaim a mystery? What is the use of experience? What defines you? If we talked for an hour could we come to an agreement on the taste of vanilla? Should we? How do we come to believe? Why do you think God chooses these counter-intuitive ways to speak to people? Why does God continually insist on calling the unrighteous and the broken? Is there some ulterior motive on God's part for talking to us through stuff, why does matter matter to God?

How will you meet God at this Table behind me tonight?


What do you seek? What does God seek? What do we seek?

Will we know it when we have found it? Can I find God at this table?

Will God find me at this table?

God, find us at your table.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Today's sermon

Video to be posted:

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 21, 2011

Matthew 16:13-20

Who do you say that I am? It is really amazing how so few words from the right person can ask a question that has absolute implications.

I suppose there are lots of big questions: What happened to the dinosaurs? Who shot J.R.? Jacob or Edward? My favorite philosophical questions are: Who started it? Are we going to make it? Where are we going to put it? Who's going to clean up? And, Is it serious? Ultimate questions: to life, the Universe, Everything. And today Jesus is asking the ultimate question for us. “Who do you say that I am?” And if we can answer this question with integrity and authenticity, then the rest will follow.

Jesus first asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He wants to know what those who have been watching and listening think of him. Jesus is asking what kind of impression that he has made but also how he is being interpreted. The disciples give him lots of answers, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

I wonder what Jesus was thinking when he heard these poll results. After all, it’s quite a distinction to be seen as Elijah or Jeremiah: well respected, but dangerous to the powers that be; same for John the Baptist. Of course it never goes well for such as these, as we read about John a few weeks ago.

Or to be one of the prophets, well, that meant to be a person who called people to God. Prophets in the Jewish tradition are not fortune tellers or oracles of any kind. The Rabbis describe a prophet as that voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. Prophecy is a form of living, a crossing point of God and humanity. God is raging in the prophet’s words .

Not a bad showing to be considered one of the prophets. But I can just see Jesus, nodding; he can see why they might think he’s a prophet, he argues with the hypocrites, he invites the poor and marginalized to eat with him. But Jesus seems to know this isn’t quite it. It’s close, at times he is like a prophet, but he’s got something else in mind.

Those people get close, but Jesus presses more. “Well then, who do you say that I am?” This is our ultimate question: Who do you say that I am?

Peter gives an interesting response: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The problem that we have upon hearing Peter’s confession is that we conflate his response with our own understanding of Jesus Christ as the incarnate God. What we do is hear, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and we add on, Jesus, God incarnate, the second person of the trinity, God from God, light from light, true God from true God. It’s hard not to hear Peter’s response like that when we hear it this side of Nicea, on our side of the creed.

But Peter is saying something a little more nuanced. The concept of a Messiah, is, of course, not exclusive to Christianity, not by a long shot. We have to remember that Messiah and incarnate-God are not the same thing. Indeed, in the Old Testament there are several references to the Messiah, and not all of them were of the chosen people. Most notably, in the book of Isaiah, the Persian king, Cyrus, who was decidedly NOT a Hebrew, is called the Messiah, because he secures peace and freedom for God’s people, he is the shepherd of God’s people, even where the Davidic kings have failed. (Is: 44-45) . The messiah has been several things over the years, and being God incarnate was never part of the program.

Jesus praises Peter for his insight, however. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, Jesus in effect praises God for opening Peter to such an insight. But then Jesus urges his disciples to keep it quiet about the whole, Messiah, Son-of-God thing. Biblical scholars refer to Jesus’ reticence about his Messiahship as the messianic secret. Why would Jesus want to be quiet about his being the messiah? Some have offered that it is because Jesus is trying to protect his disciples: if they go out blabbing about how he is the messiah, that might put them in a bad spot, socially and religiously. The prevalent notion about the messiah at this time was chiefly political, and that meant coming into direct conflict with the Roman Empire. And here’s the rub, Jesus hadn’t been in conflict the Romans, he had been in conflict with his own people, but he hadn’t messed with the Romans.

This is why Jesus is so secretive about his Messiah-ship, it’s because he’s not exactly the messiah as understood by every messiah-seeking Jew of his day. While the people were not exactly cold with the idea that Jesus was a prophet, Peter was definitely getting warmer when he called Jesus the messiah and the son of God. Jesus is pleased that Peter is getting there. And Peter is able to get warmer and warmer about whom Jesus is by the grace of God, God has revealed to Peter who Jesus is.

Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” “Jesus lived 2000 years ago, who said some nice things, but really he has no bearing on my life right now.” You’re ice cold, try again.

“Well, Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew who preached a message of love and inclusion. Jesus did not recognize the religious and national borders of his day and he taught us all how a human should act, even accepting death rather than commit violence.” O.K., now you’re getting warm, keep going.

“Jesus was sent to earth by God to be a ransom for my sins, to make me righteous in the sight of God. Jesus is my personal redeemer and savior.” You’re getting warmer!

“Ok, Jesus was, and is, the incarnation, the enfleshment of God, Jesus was God on earth. Jesus is the Christ, the second person of the Holy and undivided Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father.” Oh, now you’re heating up, one more time.

“I’m not sure . . . and I don’t really understand what you mean by co-equal and co-eternal, and I’ve never had a born-again type experience, but when I get quiet, someone is calling to me, persistently, calling and pulling me, love is there. I can’t nail it all down certainly, but when I hear these stories, they just ring true, those stories, they sound like the one that’s been calling me. I think, and I feel, that someone is there and, well, all I know is that when I come to the rail to get the bread and wine, he usually shows up there too.” Alright, now you’re red hot!

Like all answers to questions, they are dictated and colored by the question. And the question is in its essence is Jesus. The answer must contain, the power, but also the humble humanity, of the question.

Who do you say that I am?

It’s not enough for us to know what people say about Jesus, and it’s really not enough either to simply know what the church says about Jesus; though it helps. While the church has always proclaimed a common faith, a faith we all share together; we all, each of us need to have some account of who Jesus is for us, as we experience him. It need not be some pat answer; it need not be clear and certain. But we need to have some account. We need to be attempting, always, to get warmer and warmer, to who Jesus is;

you’re getting warmer,

burning up now,

red hot!



Sunday, August 7, 2011

Today's service

I preach and celebrate. Notice at 1:05:00 I do a quick consecration for the gluten allergic acolyte! Props to the other acolyte who found the page for the quick consecration.

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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 7, 2011
Matthew 14: 22-33
There are essentially two prayers: Thank you and Help! We might add one more prayer to those two and that would be: “I want.” But I would argue that, “I want,” is a sub-species, or maybe a precursor to “Help.” When we ask God for something, when we say, I want, we really are saying, “Help.”
We all pray every day, in some form or another, consciously and unconsciously, formally and informally, we all pray. We pray every day and give God some things to take care of. Sometimes when I am praying I feel like a teenager when it is getting close to my birthday, “Just so you know, God, X, Y, and Z, are going on and well you know, I’d like that, so thanks, in advance.” We give God a divine Honey-do list. And when we pray in this way, the implicit theme, what we really expect, is for God to fulfill our requests: God as Amazon.com. This kind of thinking about prayer is how we talk about prayer too. Raise your hand if you have heard someone talk about an answered prayer. Raise your hand if that story had the person telling it get what they were asking for. I’m not knocking these experiences, I’ve had them, and I will continue to have them. God has answered my prayers in the affirmative, God has given me what I have asked for. But what about when he doesn’t?
A few years ago the satirical newspaper, The Onion, ran a story entitled, “God Answers the Prayer of Little Boy,” the subtitle is: “No, says God.” It’s funny that satire seems to be the last bastion of wisdom in our popular culture. Who here has heard this testimony to prayer? “Oh yes, I prayed to God and he answered that prayer, it was clear as day: ‘NO!’” That’s not such a popular story. I’m not trying to be negative. But maybe I am. I am trying to be positive about God’s negative. We need to remember that God answers ALL prayer, but we don’t always get the answer we want. God sometimes says, “No.” because that’s the answer we need, maybe not what we want, but what we need. God’s, “No,” is just as important as his “Yes.”
When we can recognize God’s “No” as well as his “Yes,” then our “I want” prayer life will look more and more like “ Help,” and “Thank You”. And just to be clear, these two mammoth categories of prayer that I have laid out cover a great deal. I think we would be hard pressed to find a hymn, or psalm, or prayer from the Prayer Book that wasn’t a thank you, a help, or an mixture of the two.
So what’s this all got to do with the Gospel? A lot. Today we hear the story of Peter and Jesus on the water. Once again, Peter gets it so vividly right but he also fails epically. And thank God for Peter, Peter the Rock, the very foundation of the church, messing up all the time. What a model that we have for discipleship, a real human being. Can you imagine how the story might have read if Peter was more than human? Peter walks out on the water, not testing Jesus, like he does in our Gospel reading, nope, Peter knows his Lord when he sees him and simply goes for a stroll out on the lake. End of story, praise to you Lord Christ. No, we have THE Peter, Peter who is the first to confess that Jesus is Lord, but also the same Peter who get’s called Satan by Jesus, do you know that when Jesus is being tempted in the desert he doesn’t even call Satan, Satan, but he does call Peter Satan. This is our Peter, Peter who walks on water but also sinks. And Peter is the one for us to watch today. What is he doing? He tests his Lord by asking him to command that he join him. Essentially Peter is praying a “I Want” prayer, but his “I want” is really a “thank you” in disguise because Peter is trying to be with his Lord. His true prayer is born out of his desire to be with his Lord, a thank you yearning for completion. And Jesus grants him his request. Which raises another point about prayer, sometimes God gives us what we want so that we might have a deeper insight into what we really need. When Peter falls into the water, after noticing the strong wind, he calls out again to his lord and again Jesus grants his request, pulling him out of the water and then saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus is really not castigating Peter, the Greek reads more like, “Oh, little student, why are you so worried?” You see, Jesus answers Peter’s requests, his prayers, so that the life of Peter might be a lesson. The prayers are answered, but there is a human component, the context into which the prayers return.
When our prayers return to us, they reenter our lives and then we must respond to God’s answer, which we may or may not be up to. Like Peter, we may not be up to God answering our prayer. It is this dynamic, of course, that all of us live in at all times, the give and take, the conversation with God, desire and satisfaction, thank you and help. Prayer is not a one way street. Prayer is our relationship with God and it is not abstract, it is real and it has a particular quality to it.
Like Peter, our relationship and our prayers with God go a certain way. We feel a pull towards oneness with God and we begin to talk with God. We make petitions, we ask for things, we ask for help, we say thank you, and we might even simply rest in the presence of God. And God answers those prayers: sometimes, yes, sometimes no, many times, wait. We get out of the boat, we walk on water, we sink. But then He catches us. When we fail he catches us. Jesus immediately catches Peter.
Prayer is like a tightrope walker who falls from his rope, only to discover that he has landed upon another rope, and can simply begin again. Thus is our life with God, our prayers goes to him, they come back answered: “yes, no, wait,” and we respond with more prayer. A dynamic interplay of ever escalating transformation, and all the while, Jesus is there to immediately grab us when we fail, to set us right, and when we receive that help may we all have the presence of mind to say “thank you.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Service from 7/17/11

I preach this one, about nineteen minutes in. Note my uneven stole.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sermon for 7/10/11

Proper 10 OT year A
Gen. 25:19-34
As it turns out, names matter. Marion Morrison wanted to grow up to be a cowboy-movie star; Marion wasn’t quite macho enough so he changed his name to the “John Wayne.” Who is more interesting, Stanfani Germanotta or Lady Gaga? She’s the same person, but the name Lady Gaga is more descriptive of the kind of person we are talking about: Lady Gaga is . . . well, Lady Gaga, and what Lady Gaga is, is certainly not a Stephani. Names matter. There is a scene in the movie Pulp Fiction where Butch the boxer is talking to the cab driver whose name is Esmerelda Villalobos. Esmerelda asks Butch what his name means, he answers, “I’m American, our names don’t mean anything”. But they do, names matter! What sounds more dangerous, Randy Poffo, or Randy Savage? Who’s funnier, Caryn Johnson, or Whoopi Goldberg? Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X to make a point about the heritage of slavery in America. A classmate of mine from college was born on July 4th, 1976. Her first and middle names are Sunday America. Names matter.
In the Old Testament, names were usually a pun that described the person or the place, often with crushing wit. Jacob and Esau for example. Esau was evidently born with a reddish hue to him, and was covered in hair. Esau then is a play of a play of a play on two different words that means red and hairy. We hear “Esau,” and think, “OK, so he’s called Esau, this is America, our names don’t mean anything.” But the ancient Hebrews hearing this story heard much more, they heard an ethnic joke, a little bit of history, and something about who they are as a people. Jacob, Esau’s twin brother, wasn’t named Jacob because it sounded nice either, Jacob means “he who grasps the heel,” or “he who supplants”: this is not complimentary. Instead, Jacob’s name is highly descriptive of the kind of person that he was: a person who takes advantage, takes what is not his. Imagine that, going through life as “Cheater,” your parents calling you home, “Oh, He-that-takes-that-which-is-not-his, time to come home!” At the end of today’s reading, Jacob removes all doubt about his designation as the one who supplants, the one who replaces and supersedes: he cons his brother out of his birthright.
And what is a birthright? Most people think of a birthright as some kind of cultural given, “It is my birthright that I cook good Italian food.” But back in the Old Testament times, a birthright was so much more. As the eldest son, Esau, was entitled by law. And in that time it was considered a natural law, something self-evident, that the eldest son was entitled to a double share of the inheritance from the father as well as taking upon himself the leadership of the family, the clan, and the tribe. Having claim to the birthright was a big deal, it made you generationally wealthy, a real leader. And Jacob cheats Esau out of it. Now granted, Esau likely wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, I’m sure he could have scrounged together something else to eat without giving away the store. All that said, as far as Jacob is concerned if you dupe a stupid person, it’s still wrong.
This is our patriarch. Jacob the cheat.
This is Jacob, Jacob as in: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob as in the one whose name is changed to Israel. Israel as in Israel: the people of God.
Jacob who argues with his brother in utero! Our patriarch the con artist; who cheats his brother and lies to his father.
But there is this other part of Jacob. Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson to Abraham. Jacob, heir of God’s promise to be a great and called-apart people. All the while that Jacob is conning and lying his way through life, God visits him and renews the promise and blessing that was given to Abraham. Jacob is a mixed bag, he is an absolutely flawed, dangerous person, yet God blesses him, his family, and those around him.
During these escapades, God visits Jacob many times. At one point Jacob wrestles with someone, we don’t know who it is, in fact Jacob asks his name, but the stranger doesn’t give it. He does, however, grant Jacob a new name, a new name that signifies who the stranger really is: Israel, which means the one who contends with God. Jacob loses that wresting match, yet the stranger says that Jacob has wrestled with the divine and has prevailed. It is interesting that he is the one who struggles with God and loses, but he is also the one who prevails.
So we have Jacob, the one who supplants, usurps, Jacob the con man, Jacob the bad news. Then there is Israel, who wrestles with God, Israel the blessed, Israel the patriarch. Jacob/Israel, Marion Morrison/John Wayne, Stephani Germanta/Lady Gaga. In each case they are the same person but with a different persona and promise. Israel and Jacob are the same, nothing really has changed, except God’s promise, which makes all the difference. The funny thing is that when God talks to Israel, when God talks to him and renews his blessing over and over again, God calls him Jacob. Here we see that God knows who he is dealing with. God knows that Jacob is a jerk (has faults). God knows that Jacob will mess up and take advantage of people. God calls Jacob Jacob and not Israel, because he knows who he is talking to.
I wonder if God knows who he is talking to when dealing with us. Do you think God trusts himself to bless you in all your foibles? When you are Jacob, trying to supplant yourself, exerting power over another, when you are Jacob, God will still bless you as Israel. But the thing about this blessing is that it involves some wrestling with God, and some renaming, some identity changing.
I noticed, at the baptisms here, Father Paul says to the parents of the children “Name this child.” When we get named, we get our identity. Our names are who we are, in just a few syllables, we get our identity. The Bible is full of name changes, and when the name changes a new life is initiated: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel. Jesus continued the practice calling Cephas, Peter, the rock, the petras, upon which his church would be built. Saul, that vigorous persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. This new name is a designation that says, what comes next is new.
But God knows, God knows, that the process of living into a new identity, a life of the blessed and beloved by God is never that cut and dry. Abraham still argued with God, Jacob cheated his brother and father, Peter denied Jesus, three times!
We might always be Jacob, we might always be that self-seeking one. But God blesses us anyway. The fact that Jacob acts the way he does, and is still blessed is a remarkable testimony to the faithfulness of God. Does Jacob behave as one who is blessed? No, he acts as if he had to grasp and grab for his future, almost in ignorance of his blessings. Sound familiar? Isn’t this what we all do, we are all so blessed, but we think that we did it. So here we are, most of the time we are a bunch of Jacobs running around conning our brothers. Every once in a while we recognize that we indeed are blessed by God and act like it. We respond to our blessedness with humility and thankfulness. Our faith ought to be a response to His faith. “Oh how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.” Remember that one? Who knew that such a simple little song held such deep theology? Saint Paul says this too in his letter to the Romans, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So God is the initiator, God comes to us first. Thus, our faith is always a response to God’s faith, in us. We are his people, through the waters of baptism, given new names, a new life and identity. God knows who he is dealing with in John Wayne or Lady Gaga, Marion Morrison or Stephanie Germanotta, Jacob or Israel. We are blessed, by any name, we are blessed by God, may we all respond accordingly.

Here's a video of the Holy Eucharist from 6/26/11

The service itself doesn't start until about 10 minutes in. Extra credit if you can spot the fainting reader.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sermon for Second Sun. after Pentecost

Gen. 22:1-14
Let’s make one thing clear; today’s Old Testament story is a bear. God tests Abraham and tells him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, and Abraham all but does it. This ain’t no bedtime story, and it’s not for the faint of heart either. Hold on it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Wrestling with this text ultimately forces us to ask one question, “What would it take for me to stop worshipping God?” What would it take? I’m not talking about becoming an atheist. The question is: What would it take for you to stop worshipping God, for you to throw in the towel and say, “No, God, I don’t think I will.”? Is there, in fact, a point at which ethics overrides obedience to God?

But in today’s reading Abraham doesn’t seem to ask this question. All we get from Abraham is his ascent to God’s command, he does what he is told. In our horror we want to know what kind of person even considers such a thing? What kind of a person, takes a three day journey, knowing that at the end of that journey, lies death for his long promised son? What kind of person is Abraham anyway? We know what tradition says, Abraham is the father of faith; a paragon of obedience. We have to remember that this scene is the culmination of years and years of relationship. This is very much like reading the climax in a story with little sense of what led to the conflict. And it is likely not at all an incidental and insignificant detail that after this scene, God never speaks directly to Abraham again. There is something about this scene in the relationship between God and Abraham that seems to leave both parties sour.

So what leads up to this dramatic scene?

We need to keep in mind that God and Abraham have been working together for a long while at this point. Perhaps you remember a few chapters back, when God was getting ready to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham bargains and bargains with God, argues really. In that scene, Abraham reminds God of how merciful God is (Gen. 18: 25), and God relents; indeed, God changes his mind on account of Abraham’s arguments. Maybe Abraham is certain that God would never take away Isaac, after-all this is the long-promised heir, the one who would produce the heirs that would number more than the stars (Gen. 15:5). Is Abraham calling God’s bluff? Maybe Abraham is just humoring God, “Sure, sure, God, oh my son, my beloved? Oh, ok, yeah the one you already promised would give me all those descendents, uh huh, o.k., I’ll go along with this.”

But I’m not so sure. Our text itself offers no help for us in terms of understanding Abraham’s inner being, we don’t know what he is thinking. We don’t know if Abraham is cavalier in his attitude about the sacrifice or if Abraham is resigned to the commands of God. We don’t know if Abraham is torn by anxiety. We don’t know what’s going on with Abraham, we can only guess.

Well, then, what can we know about Abraham in this story? We can look at what he says, what words he uses. Abraham says only two things in the story, but he says one of those two things, three times. Abraham says, “Here I am.” Whenever anyone calls to him, whether it is God, his son Isaac, or an angel, Abraham answers, “Here I am!” Abraham is not trying to hide from God, unlike Adam in the garden who tried to hide from God’s presence when he sinned (Gen. 3:10). Abraham is not hiding, he’s out in the open; he is being honest: “Here I am!” Abraham says only one other thing in this whole episode, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” This is in response to Isaac’s common sense question, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” But again, the text gives us no clues as to Abraham’s tone or state of mind. Was Abraham trying to keep Isaac from panicking by lying to him, was Abraham speaking metaphorically, is Isaac the lamb? Was Abraham just totally convinced that God would supply the lamb? We don’t know what he was thinking really, I am apt to take him at his word, even though Abraham has more than his fair share of guile. We simply don’t know, but what we can say is that 1.) Abraham is honest about who he is, “Here I am!” and 2.) he knows that God provides. He is honest, he is clear about who he is and about who God is and what God does.

So many readings of this story try to sanitize it of its horror. This command from God is too much to bear. I would wager that if we are being honest, most of us hear this command and say, “No! Unfair.!” This is not satisfactory. And just as unsatisfactory is the blind acceptance of the command. This is my biggest problem with Abraham in this story. Earlier Abraham argues with God not to destroy two wicked cities, but when it comes to his son, he clams up. The history clearly shows that God is more than willing to hash things out, if not change his mind, why so reticent Abraham? Why not speak up for what’s right? This kind of conundrum, this making a person choose between obedience to God and family comes up in the teachings of Jesus too. Remember when Jesus says, “Whoever does not hate mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, they cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) What is the deal with the extreme God of ours? It’s almost as if he were asking us to have faith, to trust, in him and him alone. What a strange god, a god that demands not only total trust, but singular trust, trust to the exclusion of all other trust and security.

It really doesn’t matter whether we look at this story with the believing eyes of unquestioned faith, or with a critical eye, the most important thing to remember about this story is the way it did not turn out. Make no mistake, had God asked for and then collected on his demand for the sacrifice of Isaac, we all would not be here. This is the answer to the question that I posed earlier, “What would it take for you to stop worshipping God?” The answer is when God stops being God. God would not be God had he reneged on his promise that Isaac would be Abraham’s heir. Abraham, knows this, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” But let us not be lulled into thinking that Abraham is certain about all this. Abraham is a human being after all. He cannot know for certain that God will provide, but he does have faith that God will provide.

And what is faith? Faith is one of those churchy words that gets used quite a bit, so often, that perhaps the meaning gets lost. Faith is not certainty, nor is faith facts. Faith is trust. And trust is tricky. When we trust someone, we do not have the certainty that we get from, say, mathematics, when we trust someone we are not as confident as 1 + 1 = 2. When we trust, we don’t know the outcome. When we trust we go out on a limb a little, when we trust we don’t have certainty; but we have hope, we have assurance. Hope and assurance are brought about by relationships over time, not facts and figures. And it is the relationship that Abraham has with God over time that has allowed him to trust God, to have faith in God. Indeed to become our exemplar for faith. And not simply the father of our faith. Christians do not have an exclusive claim on Abraham; no, Abraham is THE father of faith. The knight of faith, as Soren Kierkegaard dubbed him, Abraham is the person of faith par excellence, not for his certainty but for his trust, in God.

What characterizes the person of faith is what Abraham says in this story, “Here I am,” and “God himself will provide.” The person of faith is honest about who they are, and they know the source and owner of everything they have.

Which is easier said than done. Faith is about being honest about who you are and who is the source of all that you have, and that same source, has total claim, total claim on you. And this claim is what today’s reading highlights: God has total claim, and will not be denied. This is scary stuff really. We have a God who insists upon trust in him totally and solely. There are to be no other gods before him. And make no mistake there are plenty of other gods. The age of polytheism is not over, there are lots of gods, those things that we put in the place of God, those things that we use to try to make us satisfied and whole and happy. But our God won’t have it. God is the provider, the sole provider of all our satisfaction, wholeness, and happiness; without remainder.

And putting our trust in Him, but knowing he will be there with us. That is the promise God makes to Abraham and to his son Isaac and his son Jacob and to all their descendants. We are part of that line of descendants, we are heirs of his eternal kingdom, and this is the same God that reveals himself to us, provides for us, and has created the means of grace and the hope of glory for us in Jesus Christ. And there simply is no better way to draw near in faith to our Lord than to proclaim our common trust in him, pray to him, confess our sins to him, and finally, celebrate his undying faith in us at the Eucharistic table. Amen.

It's been a awhile!

Recap since Lent 4:

1.) we have a baby on the way.
2.) found out that our home diocese was not hiring.
3.) found the perfect job in Charlotte, NC.
4.) Ordained to the priesthood on 6/18/11.Here too.
5.) Moved from Sewanee, very very sad.
6.) Moved to Charlotte. Very awesome, so far.
7.) I'll keep up with this blog.
8.) Thanks.
9.) Bye.
10.) ten is a good number.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lent 4

John 9
“As he passed by, he saw a blind man from his birth.” This is how John opens the story. Enter the disciples, who consider the blind man, not a man as such, they consider him more as a case: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
Undoubtedly you have heard about this notion of sin and punishment. This primitive idea that the consequences of sin are sickness and poverty. Thank goodness we have gone beyond these old ideas. I know that none among us have looked upon the poor, the homeless, the addicted and have definitely NOT thought of God justly punishing them. Well, as it turns out the Jews have never really had this notion of punishment and sin either. The Levitical purity codes were always egalitarian. Yes sin and all manners of uncleanliness could drive God away. But the purity laws and the various codes of cleaning were the ultimate social leveler. Each person was never more than a few days away from ritual purity, no matter their station. One of the points of the story of Job, was that sickness and misfortune are not necessarily linked to sin.
Jesus seems to understand this and says so, “it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” I wonder what it was like hearing that? The blind man had grown up being told that he was a sinner or that his parents were. Here is a man who was certainly used to having the works of God made manifest in him, but as punishment. Now, someone is saying something new and he has a different tone, he’s not yelling for one, and now this mud.
Notice nobody is asking this man anything. He’s a case. Not even Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus just sends him off to the pool to make his mikvah, his ritual cleansing. Exit Blind Man, but John has us follow him, leaving Jesus and the disciples off stage. What follows tells how the-now-sighted man is received into his community after his healing. And it doesn’t seem to go well. Some don’t believe that he is the one who was blind. When he does convince them, and talks about his healing from Jesus, they bring him to the Pharisees who question him all over again, but this time they are asking him, not about his healing , but about the healer. “How did he heal you?” “How can a Sabbath-breaking sinner heal?” Still not sure about all of this, the Pharisees call in the man’s parents. And they just don’t want to get involved so they say, “Look, our son can make his own decisions, he’s of age, ask him.” The man really can’t get a break since he regained his sight, it’s almost as if his community liked him better when he was blind.
And this is where the story becomes less like holy writ and more like Night Court. Remember Night Court? Night Court was a cavalcade of 1980s stand-up comics who took turns making wisecracks, all set up by the judge, lawyers, and bailiffs. The Pharisees are getting impatient now and say: Give God the glory! Meaning: tell the truth! Ok, maybe it’s more like a Few Good Men, because I’m not sure that they can handle the truth. The man tells them what happened again, they press further and he asks “Why do you want to hear it again, Do you too want to become his disciples?” The Greek here is in on the joke, the man expects a “No” answer. His question might read more like, “You don’t want to become his disciples do you?” The Pharisees revile him and kick him out saying he was born in utter sin, putting us right back at square one.
Right back at square one, where we find Jesus. And if we read carefully, we see that the man does not recognize Jesus at sight or sound. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The man answers, “Yes, can you tell me who that might be.” And Jesus, ever the punster, playing on the man’s recent ocular improvement says: “You have seen him and it is the one speaking to you.” And the man worships Jesus.
And finally one last confrontation, this time between Jesus and some of the Pharisees. It’s the coup de grace on the whole affair, as if this entire passage were leading up to this exchange. Jesus says, “I came to judge the world, so that those who are blind might see, and those that are sighted might be made blind.” “So what, we’re blind then?” ask the Pharisees, and somewhat enigmatically Jesus answers “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
The End. The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you Lord Christ.
Boy it sure feels good to be on the right side of that exhortation, doesn’t it? Good thing we’re not like those Pharisees. But you know the implication is on us. It always has been, and it is now. Like those Pharisees, we need to question this blind man who is no longer blind, but we need to go further and watch him and see what develops.
This blind man. This man who was not asked if he wanted to be healed, this man who defended Jesus’ actions without ever seeing him, or knowing what he was about, except that he was from God. Here is a person surprised by an uninvited Jesus. Here is a person that has an encounter that he just cannot understand, and this encounter does not hold up to the scrutiny of his family, his culture, even his own past. But, here’s the rub: as our blind, then-sighted, friend shows us, that kind of understanding, the intellectual and societal pigeonholing, is not really necessary. The understanding of how healing and God works in the structures that have come before, even in inspired ones, is not the point.
Here we have a story of the acts of God, we have a story of God’s works being revealed in a person! And what surrounds that person? Questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how; the questions are coming from people of faith, people of faith seeking understanding. It’s not that the Pharisees are asking the wrong questions, they are doing their due diligence; they are literally testing the spirit of what Jesus has done.
What is going on, I think, is that they don’t yet have the skills to relate with the blind man or with Jesus. There were those Pharisees who did seem to have the right skills, who could engage Jesus and the phenomena that came in his wake, Nicodemus for example, and in our story today the Pharisees were divided, meaning there were some who were trying to hear all this through.
But Jesus doesn’t make it easy on the Pharisees, and on us, when he drops this doozy: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see, may see, and those that do see may become blind.” This puzzling phrase is rendered clear by watching this blind-man-who-isn’t-blind; what happens with him is the key.
Jesus didn’t just give the man sight. He gave him his blindness as well. Blind from birth! If you are blind from birth, can you even understand what it means to be blind? What have you got to compare it to? The sighted among us can close our eyes and at least imagine, however weakly, what it might be like to be blind. When you think it through, this man didn’t even know what blindness was until Jesus gave him sight. Blindness then, is not a condition of being, as much a lack of ability. Which is obvious, but it needs to be said in light of this reading because we tend to overly spiritualize these readings. We talk a lot about spiritual blindness, as if that were some kind of natural category. Jesus gave the man an ability to see his blindness. And in his mercy he will give the sighted blindness so that they may obtain perspective on their sin.
The healing then is a bestowal of a skill, a skill to see one’s blindness. To see where one has chosen, or been made, to be blind to one’s own injustices to ourselves and our neighbors. Where are you blind? Where are those subtle ways that you have hardened your heart to yourself, your neighbor, and your God? You are blind! Whenever you hear that one person and know, you know that the next thing that comes out of their mouth is going to be all wrong: you are blind. Remember that time when that jerk cut in line, remember? You kept your cool, you didn’t cuss him out, but you still carry that no account, ill-mannered, fool in your mind, you are blind. This hasn’t happened to you or me, but I’ve heard of it, when someone, no one here of course, when someone tears down another person, usually behind their back, and smooth’s it over with “Bless her heart.” That’s blindness!
But Jesus doesn’t seem to fault the blind, that’s the good news, Jesus doesn’t fault the blind: “If you were blind you would not have sin.” But, here’s the rub, Jesus heals blindness, and in that healing you receive sight to see how you were blind. Jesus grants the skill so that we can begin to reckon our blindness.

Funny thing is that sightedness and blindness in today’s gospel look a lot alike. Jesus also grants blindness, grants blindness, to those who in their pride say they see but show by their actions and understanding that they do not. There is this cycle that Jesus puts us on of sightedness and blindness, back to sightedness.
The common denominator though is Jesus, he is the one who gives us the skill, the sight to see our own blindness. Know this, you cannot encounter Jesus Christ and come back unchanged. Paul, blinded. Lazarus , raised. Mary of Magdela, set free. Changed. Andrew, Peter, James, John, Josh, Don, Jane, Bill: changed. It happens. What better place than the Church, and what better time than Lent, than to look and ask ourselves where we have been blind?
May Jesus come, even uninvited, come to find us where we are: when we do not have the sight to see him, find us in our blindness, and give us new eyes to see our blindedness and behold only him and the gift of new life that we have through him. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday's Sermon

Epiphany 6
Deut. 30:15-20
Matthew 5: 21-37

So, here we are at Epiphany Six. It’s been great hasn’t it? For the first two Sundays we had accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Undoubtedly we heard sermons that made us all think hard about our own baptisms and what it means to be a Christian. Then in the third Sunday after Epiphany we learned about the beginning of Jesus’ mission, how he called his first disciples; and we heard sermons about following Jesus. So far so good. Very good, in fact. Then, two weeks ago, Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount, a masterwork of teaching and consolation for the early Christians and for us: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That week we learned about the Kingdom of Heaven and how it reverses the fortunes of the world. Finally, last week we continued with the Sermon on the Mount and we learned about how we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We may have even sung “This Little Light of Mine.” I like this stuff, it makes me feel good. But it is not to last.
Today Jesus gives us some pretty tall orders that cause every one of us to look at our shoes, shuffle our feet, clear our throat, or more likely to say, “Well Jesus doesn’t mean that, he’s using exaggeration and hyperbole, he’s saying something outrageous to prove a point.” Jesus says, “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire.” That’s exaggeration you see, Jesus asks a lot of us, but to be that nice to my siblings, neighbors, or fellow church-goers is unrealistic.” Right? I’m not so sure. What about this doozy that got Jimmie Carter into so much trouble, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It’s hyperbole, it’s unrealistic. He doesn’t mean it.
What happened? We were on board with Jesus saying blessed are the poor in spirit, we were right with him at the baptism stories, and the part where he said, “Follow Me!” What happened? Now that we get to the part of the sermon that gets specific, we attribute hyperbole to Jesus. Now that Jesus says, “Now listen up my disciples, here’s what this life with me looks like, this is what I expect” we say, “He’s exaggerating.”
Well there are two points here that I will try to convince you of. The first is that I don’t think Jesus was exaggerating. I am one of those rare Bible scholars that think that the writers of the Gospels knew what they meant when they wrote it. Of course there are all kinds of rhetoric and tricks of genre, but I think Jesus means, plainly, what he says here. The second point is about who this Sermon on the Mount is for.
You see these teachings are for disciples. Jesus is not really trying to win over new converts here, he is preaching to his followers, to us in the church. And how do I know that?
Well, who was the Bible written for anyway? Who wrote the Old Testament? Was it a group of Hebrews out there in Palestine, writing to all the gentiles to have them become proselytes? No. The writers of what became the Hebrew Bible were writing their story of their life with God, for their tribe and community, for their fellow God followers.
And the New Testament, who wrote that? One of the first things that I learned upon arrival at seminary was the fact that the New Testament, all of it, the Epistles and the Gospels, were written by and for people who went to church. That may be nothing new to you fine people here at Nativity, but for me to realize that Church folk wrote the Bible was a mind-blower. The Bible is the Church’s book. You see, I always thought it was the other way around; that the Church had somehow spontaneously sprung from the writings. The truth is, and the facts are, that the New Testament was written by people who were grappling with the Jesus story, who were caring for each other, and were making and receiving the Holy Eucharist together. That’s who wrote it, and they wrote it for each other, to form their community and their story, and eventually we arrived, and it is our story too.
What’s all this got to do with being liable to the fires of hell, being thrown in prison, tearing out eyes and all that?
My point is that the Bible was written for disciples of God, if you think about it for a second; the Bible is not primarily an evangelical text. It is a book for disciples. That’s a tough one, the Bible is a book for disciples. Jesus is outlining the mode of behavior of a disciple, of the church. The world just doesn’t get this kind of behavior. And no, I actually don’t think Jesus is exaggerating, he might be trying to awaken a long slumbering moral imagination, awakening it to activity. Jesus is upping the ante on the laws that his disciples knew so well. He is making interior what might have been done only externally. Yes, don’t murder, Moses covered that. But when Jesus goes inside he knows about the internal seeds of anger and he raises the stakes to the limit.
Why, why all this hellfire and tearing out? Because it matters to God. You can bet money that whenever Jesus starts talking in graphic terms, like tearing eyes out, unquenchable fires, and the world just generally coming to an end, it is important to him. And if it important to the Son, it is important to the Father.
What Jesus is doing here in this part of his Sermon is to teach us sin. That’s a funny way to say it, “Teach us sin.” There is no doubt that Jesus is teaching us ABOUT sin, but he is also teaching us sin. Sin is not a natural category. We can’t arrive at the notion of sin by just thinking hard. It’s not evident from just looking at nature. There is a whole branch of theological enquiry that says, “When we look to nature, we can learn about the character of God. There is some information about God in this rainbow, this season, this bird.” That’s called Natural Theology. But I don’t know of a Natural Theology of Sin. Of course one only needs to read the newspaper, watch TV, or have a conversation to see that the world is filled with sin; but we are seeing that from the Church’s perspective. The world doesn’t believe in sin. It might believe in evil, and entropy, and brokenness; but not sin, because sin is an offense to God. And since the world doesn’t have sin, the world can’t forgive.
But Jesus is teaching us sin, because we have to be taught what sin is. Let’s look again at what interests Jesus. Yes murder, but really anger and resentment. Yes, adultery, but really Jesus is talking about respect. That’s what Jesus is preaching: respect, patience. In other words, how to be a community that thinks like God. And what is a disciple but someone who tries to think and relate to the world like God does? And what is the church but a group that thinks alongside God?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus starts by saying, “OK, I’ve described the Kingdom of Heaven, the reversals, and I’ve begun to sketch out what it means to be a disciple: you know, salt, light, righteousness. And now for the fine print.” What it means to follow Jesus is to actually respect people, to have patience with ourselves, and our neighbors. In short: to be at peace. Imagine it. Life, as if people mattered. But let us not be na├»ve, peace ain’t pretty. Getting to peace can be messy and painful.
But it is here, in Christ’s church, that we can learn the lessons of this Jesus Ethic. It has been said that the Church does not have an ethic, it is an ethic. How do we learn the lessons that are required for what Jesus is demanding of us? We come together, here, we tell the stories that inspire us to live virtuously, we receive the sacraments where we learn that God is reaching across space and time to bring us again and again closer to him. So in this community of story and faith we are brought out of ourselves to see our fellow creatures as something deserving of respect.
This is what our Lord is saying today: “Act like I act, think like I think;” which is also what God himself says in our reading from Deuteronomy, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . choose life.”
Obeying God, following his commandments, for the ancient Hebrews meant to live in the light of God’s mind, to literally imitate God. Should we imitate God? You bet your life we should. But, imitation does not mean that we look at Jesus of Nazareth and point-for-point make our lives his. That life has been lived. We are not Jesus, we are not the messiah, we are not the crucified and risen one. Yet we are his people, living his story as our own, making his story our story. We are inspired, in-breathed, by Jesus to go beyond our attempts to control and exploit everything and to begin to imagine a different way of seeing the world and our relationships: to be like God.
So, let us proclaim our common faith in the One who calls to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pray that we might orient our story to his. Confess our desires to exploit and control our brothers and sisters. Receive His blessing, and finally come to his table, being utterly reconciled to him and each other.