Sunday, August 28, 2016


Sermon for Proper 17 C
Luke 14:1,7-14
Ecclesiasticus 10:12-18
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Once I was at a meal with a dear friend at a Greek restaurant. It was one of those order-at-the-counter-then-take-your-seat places. We sat down and immediately the server brought olives, pita bread, and hummus. I was famished and I immediately dove into the appetizer, as did she. As we chatted and solved the world’s problems the main meal was brought. The server laid out my gyro and salad, but nothing for my friend. I said, “Didn’t you order anything?” “Yes,” she said, “Oh,” I said, looking around, “What did you get?” “Well,” she said sheepishly, “I ordered olives, pita bread, and hummus.”
Worst meal companion ever. I just pounced on her food. I think I remember being embarrassed and offering some of my food to her, she shared and we laughed. That’s what I remember at least, and that’s the story that I’ll stick to.
You ever do anything like that? Ever do something that was rude or just bad etiquette?
Today Jesus is teaching about etiquette. How one should sit at a banquet. It’s all good advice, in order to avoid embarrassment: “don’t take the place of honor in case someone better comes along displaces you, better to take the lower spot and then be elevated.” Jesus is basically rephrasing a popular Jewish proverb. Back in the Greco-Roman world at banquet meals the host of the meal would invite and seat people based on material or social wealth. It created a system of tit for tat, quid pro quo invitations and honoring. If someone of low estate sat in a place of honor then they would be humiliated to be moved. However, the lowly could be elevated to a more honorable position. It was a way of indicating the social mobility of a person but also an opportunity of your own.
Jesus then offers a more spiritual interpretation of the need to socially not place one’s self above their station: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is not only good social advice, let those with election-ears hear; but it’s also sound spiritual advice: God seems to work against the normal worldly ordering of things, we see this a lot in the Bible: backwater tribes like Israel, stuttering murderers like Moses, unprepared arborists like the prophet Amos, and carpenters living in an occupied land like Jesus: God takes what the world considers lowly and exalts it, and the opposite is true as well: God is unimpressed and unbought by our achievements and privileges; indeed God is not swayed or moved by even our morality. Instead we learn about how God would have things and we learn that we are loved and accepted before and, even despite, our attempts at morality, which, let’s face it, is many times our attempt at exalting ourselves.
So far so good. The story continues in our gospel, Jesus says to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” And here we see that Jesus may have been an even worse meal guest as I was. Jesus is pushing against the normal custom and even reason for having a banquet. The banquet in the ancient world was partially to show off and increase your own social capital. Jesus isn’t the most mannerly of guests because he is cutting through the social veneer of why and how everyone in the room got there in the first place and he is criticizing the host.
And he’s not done yet, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." It is because they cannot repay that the blessing can be found, because the normal ordering of things, the tit for tat, quid pro quo, the using each other for social gain, all that is short circuited in this new way of being together.
So what’s this look like? I would caution all of you to not to immediately spiritualize this reading too quickly. Undoubtedly there is a powerful lesson about humility as a spiritual discipline but let’s get to that in a minute, first: who are you hanging out with? Are these only people that can “pay you back”? Are the people that you have around you just like you who help to secure a certain kind of life? Are you inviting other kinds of people into your life? Our society has been carefully constructed to keep the full spectrum of people apart, and you had better believe that such separation is good for business and the powers that be. Being around other people that can’t pay you back is part of the work of this church, if you don’t have opportunity to hold the kind of banquets that Jesus is talking about, join some of our mission and outreach work, we make it really easy to jump right, in fact, why not join the group making sandwiches for Urban Ministry Center right after this service, or better yet, help out at the Men’s Shelter today at 4:00 to dip your toes into one of these kind of banquets?
But more than this, more than inviting others not like you into banquets; when was the last time you were invited into a banquet that you couldn’t repay? Most of us are quite powerful and comfortable, and the kinds of banquets that we get invited to it’s easy to pay people back; but we are only powerful and comfortable because we have kept ourselves in situations where we retain the social, political and cultural power. What if we routinely placed ourselves in places and times where the best thing for us to do would be to shut up and listen, to learn, to just be with? What if we both gave and were invited to banquets where paying back is just not an option?
This is precisely why Jesus gave us the meal. The meal of Jesus is a special way of living out this banquet where repayment is impossible. There is nothing we can do to repay in full what God has done and is doing for us. That bears repeating: There is nothing we can do to repay in full what God has done and is doing for us. So we live this life in which God has fully accepted us and loves us so desperately, we live this life of a banquet that is utterly free and open to us. Now what? We can’t pay that back to the one who threw the banquet. What to do? First of all, I think we go to the meal, to the banquet, and we keep going back so that we can learn how to live like that banquet. Then I think we go out and make our lives like the kind of banquet that Jesus is describing.
So we can go back and read Jesus’ saying that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” is in fact a spiritual skill for how to live closer to what God would want. But it is not merely spiritual. Don’t get me wrong, our spiritual side is vital, but to separate inside and outside, personal and public is to do violence to what Jesus was all about. The spiritual and the physical, the social, in Jesus Christ are utterly bound together, inseparable and mixed. As Marion preached a couple months ago: “we need to put legs on our prayers.” To live a life like Jesus, and that is the entire point my sisters and brothers, our spiritual lives must be mirrored in our public lives. And the converse is true: our public lives are an indicator of what’s going on spiritually.
That to me is a frightful truth: our public lives are an indicator of what’s going on inside, spiritually. I’ll have to sit with that reality for a bit. But I’m encouraged to remember that all of this teaching that Jesus gives us today is in the context of a banquet, a party. Jesus is inviting us into a party where the normal ordering of things, paying and paying back is suspended in favor of a whole bunch of humble people elevating each other over and over again so that all are honored and loved as they should be.

That sounds good, that’s a party I’d go to, want to join me?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Seeing stuff with Christian eyes, part 2/50

Horror. Good God what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Wait just a minute! Is is good for anything? I'm talking about horror as a genre, horror movies in particular. When I was growing up the name of the game was Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Chopping Mall. I watched some of those movies through my hands, but they were basically ways to be grossed out.

Once I started having kids (and by "I" I mean my wife, of course) I was completely turned off by all horror and even a hint of violence. Having a child, for me, it seems, had made me sensitive to the delicacy of the human body and any assault on that precious gift. Still to this day though I don't watch movies or television that features routine violence, especially torture.

Lately though I have been really interested in horror as a genre. I haven't quite figured out why. I like that horror is a genre that intentionally is used to elicit a bodily reaction, that's interesting. But so does porn. Porn and horror could be similar in that they are meant to make something happen bodily, but good horror has story.

One movie I watched recently was Equinox.  What caught my eye is that it is part of the Criterion Collection

I love the Criterion collection it is a wonderful collection of world cinema that are influential and important for various reasons. You can learn more about this important collection here and here, a great many of these films are available on Hulu. There are a few horror films on there, my favorites are Chronos and early del Toro movie and House, a delightfully wacky Japanese horror, I'll likely write about after I seen it a few more times.

My interest in horror is two fold, bodily and religiously. Body: it seems to me that the horror in horror is the treatment of bodies. We are repulsed because we see a body being treated in a way that we know is wrong and inappropriate. Even those who take squirming delight in horror are reacting in a way that they know, "this is  not how a body is to be respected." The body in horror is the avenue of the story. My concern though is that an over-abundance of exposure to these types of scenarios where the body is disrespected and, just as bad, dis-jointed from the integrity of a loved, storied personality, an integrated person (body-soul-mind), then bodies become just another thing to use as a commodity. That's the real horror of horror, bodies being used as an end. And that is, I don't know, the ministry of horror: Bodies are not things like other things, bodies are people. And, as Terry Pratchett reminds us, "sin is when you treat people as things." The sin of this posture towards bodies is what horror highlights, by doing that very thing.

Now, changing gears: horror is usually gothic in nature. Not this kind of gothic.

I'm sure that some academics have carefully defined gothic over the years, but what I mean is that religious symbols seem to have an objective power. In almost all horror movies that deal with demons, magic, and old old monsters; the cross is able to keep the big bad at bay. I think that this gothic aspect to horror comes from the Middle Ages when the European world was awash in the blessing power of sacraments and relics. There are many tales that we have of the power of the Eucharistic elements, of witches stealing a host from a church to use it in their Black Masses only to combust and the host makes its way back to the church. These are called host tales, where the sacramental element has objective power over evil. This world-view could be seen in the ocular communion of the church in the middle ages, where simply gazing upon the sacrament would bestow benefits upon the faithful.

Even in horror there is an expectation that the human body is deserving of integrity and respect and that God, even in the midst of all the blood and guts, is real and is incompatible and intolerant of evil.

Equinox is an interesting movie that holds to all of the above. It's from 1967 and not much of a story at all. Indeed, I almost turned it off a couple of times but then the special effects would kick in . These were primitive, but charming. I noticed that the stop motion animation sequences were unusually long and affecting. There were alot of scenes that were reminiscent of Evil Dead, Equinox is clearly an influence.

Once the movie was over I looked it up, especially the name that I had heard before: Dennis Muren. Oh that Dennis Muren.

One of the main SFX people behind Star Wars. That Dennis Muren. A real ground-breaker. What  Equinox, this cheesy, short, story-thin, yet visually arresting little horror film was, was a 20 year-old Muren's summer project. They made the movie with $6,500.

All of a sudden this movie had a story behind it and I could see its merits. Which makes me wonder: what is the value of a piece of art, divorced from its story? This movie got a lot better because of what it means in the history of special effects prior to, with Harryhausen,


and what would follow with Star Wars and more. So then, should art be judged without appeal to its history or should be keep in mind what it took for this piece to be made? Perhaps it's something like the body being divorced from its integrity, horror follows. That's overstating it of course. But everything has a story that adds to the depth of the art or of the body; and it just get better the more we know and the more we include that in our understanding of the art. Or the body.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon for 13+Pentecost C 2016
When I was growing up one of my many aunts had a collection of Precious Moments figurines. For those of you born after, say, 1985, Precious Moments, which are still being made, are porcelain figurines, or greeting cards of cartoonishly cute children usually accompanied with a positive affirmation such as, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow,” or, “Never stop believing in hope because miracles happen every day.” There is a Christian flavor to Precious Moments as well, such as the image of the cutest, biggest blue-eyed girl you ever saw holding an old rugged cross. There is an image of girl in a smocked dress with a dainty pink, frilled, heart decorated umbrella accompanied with the verse: “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” They are visual doggerel.
These figures feature prominently in my early memories of God. It must have been the quotations from the Bible attached to the cute images that made that early impression. I suppose that my young eyes saw these images and read those words and made the intuitive leap that God was a nice guy.
I know it’s silly.
 I know that God is, in fact, not a nice guy, or even a guy for that matter. But these images of cutesy angels, toddler Jesus, and soft, smooth shepherds still reside in the background of my mind.
How about you? What early images of God do you have that still are in the mix? Maybe it’s an image of Jesus from a children’s Bible. Maybe it’s a stained-glass Jesus. Perhaps some of the images we have of Jesus or God aren’t even buried deep or from our childhood, maybe they are very current. When I say “Jesus,” what image comes to mind for you?
I suppose that for most of us, Jesus is a kind, peaceful person. Jesus is the kind of person that we want around when we are feeling down. Jesus for some of us might be a human rights activist who struggles alongside us for the legal equality for all. Most of all, I suppose, Jesus is the unconditioned loving presence that we all gather around, Jesus the loving unifier.
So, with these images in mind; what do we make of Jesus in our gospel reading today?
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” I have never seen this passage on a Precious Moments figurine.
What’s going on here? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Was Jesus having a bad day? Is this some sort of holy tantrum?
Today Jesus sounds so at odds with our normal peace-loving, kind Jesus. And it’s not just Jesus, God, in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah is also out of sorts. “What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Where’s the loving, creating God?
I think what we see today is a God, a personality, a life that is ultimately so incompatible with the world, so off-key and off-rhythm with how we do things and treat each other, that the patience is beginning to wear thin. That’s what going on with Jesus today, he is saying that what passes for peace in the world is not the kind of peace that he is bringing. The peace the world offers is status quo, it’s silence, and it’s the peace of a prison. Jesus did not come to bring that fake peace, he came to bring real Godly peace, peace which walks with justice and truth. Jesus is so desperately angry because the peace of God cannot be established while there is control and oppression which is how the world thinks of peace.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is fearful language and we should be afraid. We should be afraid of trying to control God, of making God in our own Precious Moments image. We attempt to control God by making him in our image, making sure that the things that concern God are exactly our concerns and nothing else. This is why theologies of unbridled prosperity are so popular in our country.
Think about Jesus for a minute. Is this Jesus satisfied with you? Is this Jesus angry about the things that you are angry about? Is this Jesus, Jesus, or is it just you being a really good ventriloquist?  I’m telling you this in love because I’ve noticed something in my life, in the life of this parish, and in the larger church: why is it that our lives don’t look any different from everyone else’s? What difference does it make that we have all been here today?
There are classical ways of living out the faith of Jesus Christ. Things like committing to non-violence, voluntary poverty, celibacy; but there are other ways of showing a life of Jesus, reconciliation with enemies, striving for justice. My point is while not everyone is called to total pacifism or giving up all their possessions, isn’t it odd that none of us are? There is something amiss. We all seem to be exercising a religion that keeps us exactly where we want to be. Where is the division? Where is the fire?
Let’s go ahead and assume that we have made God in our image. Now take that image and smash it for the idol that it is. Jesus is not you. Jesus thinks our lukewarm, mealy-mouthed hints at fairness and niceness needs to be burned up. Instead, let’s follow the creative God of dynamic peace and justice. Follow this God into your life to stand for love in the darkest corners of the day-to-day. This means then bringing division, it means bringing division to the how the world has established its normal way of operating. Following God into life means breaking down, in small ways, the artificial political boundaries that cheapen life; it means suspending the us vs. them mentality that the world has carefully cultivated in you so that you can see, hear, and feel the person who is in front of you.
Jesus is not us, but we are meant to be Jesus. There is a very big difference in Jesus being us and us being Jesus. Jesus is the template, model, source, and summit of our lives; and Jesus does not conform to our desires and comforts. Instead Jesus walks ahead of us showing a way of life that is radically open to God’s call and with that openness comes a life of surprise. That’s the image of Jesus we should have, a radical trail blazer not to be admired, but followed into the forest of world, making a way, dividing the world so that love may enter in, even through our day to day decisions and lives.