Friday, August 27, 2010

Speech, Speech!

Here's the address I gave to the University of the South, on the occasion of the "Celebration of a New Year." I spoke, the president of the Student Senate, the Order of the Gownsmen student leader, and the Vice-Chancellor.

Good afternoon, my name is Josh Bowron, I am the student body president for the St. Luke’s community, also known as the School of the Theology at the University of the South. It is an honor to be asked to speak on behalf of the seminarians about our upcoming year.

First, a few words of introduction: The student body of the school of theology is comprised of 70 full time students ranging in age from the early 20s up to . . . something past the early 20s. We hail from Alabama to Atlanta, Maryland to Miami, from California to Korea.

One thing we all have in common is that we are being prepared to serve the church, although in many different capacities. This is the student body. But the seminary is also made up of families, spouses, and dozens of children. All who have left lives built elsewhere to lay down roots on this mountain. While the seminary is an academic institution it is also a place for people and families to be formed for the ministry of the church.
Now, when I was asked to give a preview of our year, many thoughts went through my head. I could talk to you all about the academic rigor. How in our first year we are to, in the words of Dr. Benjamin King, “Learn every event that ever happened in the history of the Church.” I could tell you about the experience of reading the Bible again, but for the first time in the language of the original writers. I could tell you about the mind-blowing and heart-wrenching activity of doing theology. I could tell you all of this: how seminary, much like college, is so thorough and so rigorous that it is, I think, by design, impossible to accomplish on one’s own, so we lean on each other. We help each other. I could tell you all of this.

But I won’t.

Instead I’ll tell you what we are really looking forward to this year.
What we are looking forward to this year is nothing less than a daily encounter with the Creator of the universe. What we are looking forward to this year is to be infused with the dynamic and Holy Spirit of life and growth and love. What we are looking forward to this year is nothing short of a daily visitation with Jesus Christ who is both our dearest, closest friend and our God.

These daily encounters are called grace, and the church recognizes certain ways that grace is to be sought. One is to study, and study we will, along with the undergraduates. Individually we will study within our discreet disciplines but all of us are seeking the same goal: the truth.

Another way we grow in grace is to pray and worship, which we do 15 times each week. Please. Join us. Everyone is always welcome. We will also gather in this Chapel, to celebrate, pray, and yes, to consol each other in those unavoidable tragedies that come with life lived together.

Finally, we can grow in grace in that hottest of hothouses of grace: a community. In case you haven’t noticed, community is a big deal up here, and it’s not just an advertising campaign, it’s real. We are a community: the college, the seminary, the old-timers, the newcomers, the LAND, all in community.

We believe that God can be encountered through the simple give and take of community, whether in the classroom, on the sidewalk, on mission, in argument, at the library, or in line at McClurg.

This is what we look forward to this year: to encounter God in our studies, in our prayer together, and with each other in this place.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My orientation sermon

John 12:24-26

A seed.

A tiny seed.

A seed, by all appearances: nothing more than a speck of wood.

Hidden compactly within the wood is a vast expanse of DNA which can lay dormant for thousands of years. This DNA is triggered with soil and water, it doesn’t even need light!

The seed awakens.

The seed begins to order its environment, the seed takes the dirt and the water and it reconfigures their chemical structure into a plant. When the plant reaches sunlight it uses the light to further reconfigure soil and water into more and more useable resources.
The plant, all under the initial impetus of the seed, flowers and attracts pollinators, which leads to fruit and more seeds: a thousand-fold.

Finally the seeds are shed from the life giving plant, the gentlest breeze sends them off into the world. The many seeds die and lie cold through the winter, and then the Spring comes . . .

Jesus, of course, didn’t simply heave this mini parable upon the crowd, without a context. This is one of the dangers of the lectionary, we might be forgiven for thinking that Jesus commonly springs into figurative language without connection to anything else. Jesus: the divine non-sequitur. In fact, Jesus’ teaching on the seed is something of a crescendo of chapter twelve, which is turning point in the Gospel of John.

John’s gospel is divided into two main sections, the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. The Book of Signs, as you remember, is a collection of seven signs, miracles, of Jesus’ authority, which is his Sonship with God the Father. The first sign is the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and the seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus, which happens at the end of chapter 11, just before today’s reading. After this, we enter the Book of Glory, and it is important to remember that in John, glory is always death, death and resurrection.

So here we are at the beginning of the book of Glory. There are nine more chapters to go in the book, and John throws in Palm Sunday. Right here, in about the middle of John we get Jesus entering Jerusalem and beginning to talk of death, his death, his glorification.
Why does John do that? Why does John take all that triumphal imagery, which the other gospel writers save to ratchet up the tension, and put it smack dab in the middle? Is John a bad story teller? Is he a bad historian? Doesn’t John know the rules of drama: tension, action, climax, and denouement?

Personally I think he does, and very, very well, but the point is that John is doing a different thing from the other gospel writers; John is making a claim about Jesus as lord from before the beginning and throughout all time. There is no messianic secret in John. Jesus knows who he is what he is about, all throughout John.

But it is after Palm Sunday that the Greeks begin to come to Jesus. Seeing this, Jesus says, “Now, it is time for the Son of Man to be glorified.” John is saying, “The world now recognizes Jesus for who he is, and now it is time to finish the Work.”

Thus, Jesus begins his Glorification, but before he dies he teaches about his death and what it means to follow him in light of that death.

Again, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Now I don’t want to be too specific, or personal to the people in this room who are about to start their seminary careers; but I feel lead to, at least, briefly note that in this parable, Jesus is talking about his own death. Ok? Jesus is talking about his own death. It is not for us to die. And there are lots of ways for us to die, but here, Jesus is talking about his death. I think this is really important to remember, sometimes there are particular actions that are for Jesus only and we enjoy the benefit of those actions. It’s called gratitude.

"But preacher, isn’t one of the themes of the Christian life about giving up ourselves, our souls, and bodies over to God, like Jesus did? After all, today we remember Saint Laurence, who, when demanded by Roman officials to reveal the treasures of the church brought in the homeless, the sick, the widows, and orphans, and declared, 'Here are the treasures of the Church.' For that they killed him, isn’t that how were supposed to be?"

Yes, but I think that witnessing to Christ is what Laurence wanted more than anything, which, in his circumstances, meant witnessing to Christ in his death. Which is why Laurence died to himself, much earlier than he died at the hands of the Imperial torturers. Martyrs don’t seek physical death, martyrs are not spiritual death-wishers. Death is never sought for death’s sake, in Jesus’ death there is great meaning. And all Christians are martyrs, witnesses, to the death and resurrection of Christ. Here, in this parable, Jesus is the seed.

And we are the fruit.

“That’s all well and good preacher, but what about verse 25: Those who love their life lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it in eternal life.”
Alright, since you brought it up. Is Jesus asking us to hate our lives? Is Jesus asking us to hate our lives just so we can have more of what we have hated, but then eternally?
Does not compute; especially when we consider the importance that God places on life and incarnation. There are two key words here life and hate, that need our consideration in their Semitic contexts.

As an aside, you should never use Greek or Hebrew terms in your preaching, it makes you sound pretentious.

The Greek word for life in this text is psuche and the word for hate is misone. Psuche doesn’t simply mean life as in this plane of existence, life as cradle to grave, it means the animating principle, the nephesh, the breath of life. Psuche is equally used for soul throughout the New Testament and other contemporaneous literature.

The problem is our culture, greatly shaped by Greco-Roman culture, but mostly our own fault, that sees a bifurcation in the human person between body and soul. To the Jews of Jesus’ time, there is no such division, life is simply a continuum of being, with Body and Soul being poles along a spectrum, but fundamentally connected and interrelated. Jesus is doing something more here with yuch, than a kind of Gnostic life-hating. Afterall, why would a God who incarnated Himself be so against life?

Misone, hate, as well offers a dilemma when we remove it from its Semitic context. To the ancient Hebrews, their word for hate had more to do with disregard and detachment. In terms of holiness, hate has to do with holding onto something necessary for living but not grasping, lest we fall into that source of all sin: idolatry.

Jesus is saying to hold loosely to this life, this soul. Hold, but do not grasp. Perhaps God chooses not to manhandle us, but only works with that which is held ever so lightly. This might be what Jesus means in when he says the grain must fall and die. Seeds hold on just barely. This is so they can fall off and be of some good. But the seed that holds tightly to the plant, no matter how devoted, ultimately does not serve itself or the plant.

Paul says it well in 2nd Corinthians today, the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Can you imagine a sower who grasps the seeds? That’s just a madman out in a field, flailing his arms around.

This brings us to the final verse of today’s reading; it is a trademark Johhanine whirligig of pronouns:
“Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Right. Almost makes you want to draw a flow chart. But this is the beating-heart of the gospel and it is repeated over and over throughout John. What is means is that when we follow Jesus, we become like him and are identified with God. A daunting proposition to say the least.

But fear not. The acorn does not fear its “oakness.”

And here we come to the conclusion of the sermon and I can think of no other place to go for our new seminarians than advice. And here, I promise, is the only, unsolicited advice that I will give you: Hold lightly what you think you are. Hold lightly what you think you are capable of. Hold lightly your past and credentials.

The Sower stands ready in the field, seeds in hand.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Anne Rice and J.C.

Hmmm . . .

Things like this blog and the penchant that Anne Rice has for declaring everything she does and thinks gets a little tiresome.

The gist of the above interview is that Anne Rice doesn't like the way the Roman Catholic Church is meddling with secular affairs, especially related to gay marriage. I'm right with her. But I think she makes (ironically) the great Protestant mistake: She has divorced her insides from her outsides. What I mean is that too many people think that we must be Jesus lovers and the rest get the pieces. Christianity and, more importantly, following Christ are necessarily communal acts. We must be the Church and find the body of Christ among eachother.

It's too bad that Anne Rice didn't raise such a ruckus over ecclesial abuses that she got herself excommunicated. Instead of calling much attention to her complaint she has quietly bowed out with not much more than a squeeky facebook post and excommunicated herself.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sermon from this past Sunday

Read: Luke 12:13-21

or watch:

The scene is a typical rabbinic one. The teacher sits amid the crowd and they challenge him with various legal and ethical quandaries. While Jesus is not a rabbi in the strictest sense, his reputation for authority has spread and now someone in the crowd approaches him.
“Teacher, settle this family dispute, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Now, we know nothing of this man, whether he is entitled to his fair share or not, whether he is just or a thief, we are given nothing of the circumstances. But Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach about what makes a life, or, more precisely, what life isn’t made of. Jesus says that life does not consist of the abundance of one’s possessions. Then he illustrates his point with a story.

A rich man has a good year. He wants to hang on to what’s his; he gets great satisfaction from his abundance. God steps in and announces that the man is going to die and the things, in which he once had so much satisfaction, are nothing.

Note two things from the outset: it is the land, not the man that produces abundantly. Second, the man is rich before the land has a good season. These are red flags for Jesus’ hearers. “AH!” they say, “This man is doubly blessed by God, rich and with good, fertile land.”

Then the rich man begins to deliberate: What shall I do with my windfall?” To the ideal man of Jesus’ listeners, the man should of course give generously to the widows, and the orphans and to the undocumented immigrants of his community because they are the ones who are on the fringes of the economy, they have no place in the system. God clearly lays this plan for the poor out again and again in the voices of the prophets.

But it isn’t to be. The man says, “I’ll do this, I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and I will store up all my goods.”

How extravagant. It’s not enough that he builds an extra barn. No, he is going to tear down his barns. Then he will build bigger ones. This is where we see Jesus as the great storyteller. He has baited his audience with a man who, by all available evidence is blessed twice over by God, only to blow it. I can only imagine the mischievous joy that Jesus experienced in turning the blessed character of the rich man into such a dolt.
Jesus’ listeners, shake their heads in disgust over the rich man’s crass denial of God’s will. One man in the audience spits on the ground and says, “We don’t do that!”

Jesus nods gravely, and then continues…

The rich man then makes an introspective turn, “Soul, you’ve done alright, you’ve got everything you’ll ever need, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” This spiritual turn inward is what gets God’s attention, indeed, God finishes the famous maxim, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you WILL die! And what will you do with all that stuff?”

This is a lesson we all need to hear, again and again: Life is not what we have. But it’s not that simple, Jesus adds a conclusion that is supposed to summarize the entire parable, but to me it just confuses things: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Rich toward God? What does it mean to be rich toward God? If this is a summary of the parable, maybe we’ve been looking at it only in one way, maybe the parable of the Rich Fool is about more than the accumulation of things. I think that part of the answer lies in how the man addresses his soul. This is the part of the parable where the man goes from being a greedy jerk, to setting up a personal theology based on his own desires. “Soul, you have ample goods, laid up for many years.”

What does a soul need ample goods for? A soul only really needs the minimum of goods to keep its body healthy. I’ll repeat that, a soul doesn’t need much to keep its body healthy.
The bumper sticker says, “I am a spiritual being, having a physical experience.” This belies our sometimes overly spiritual bearing. Although we believe in the incarnation and the ascension, and all that they entail for us, too often we want to escape the body. But the church teaches that it goes the other way too, our souls have bodies. Part of the parable is a teaching on incarnation, flesh and spirit are intertwined and not opposites, but poles along the great spectrum of being. And for that we say, thanks be to God.
But the fatal mistake of the rich man is that he thinks his soul can be satisfied with more. More stuff, more doing, more searching, more saving. The rich man is under the impression that he can find spiritual fulfillment within himself, on his terms, with what he’s got. Thus, the rich fool is a kind of narcissist.

Narcissus: one of the great love affairs, the love affair between himself and himself. Most of us know the story of the man who was in love with only himself. But that is not the whole story; the myth says that many loved him. The problem was that Narcissus loved no one, indeed he was known as the scorner of love. Thus he was cursed to love only himself. Cursed. And what a horrible curse: to have love solely for oneself. The ages have memorialized Narcissus with the flower that blooms near the reflection of water, forever cursed to gaze upon his beloved.

The rich fool is our Narcissus, finding spiritual satisfaction within himself, he stands cursed. The rich fool goes inward when he ought to go outward. The Christian life is a matter of introspection, at times, but always at the service of going out. In terms of physics, the life of the spirit is centrifugal and not centripetal. We go out continually from a strong force at the center, casting a wider and wider circle. Being rich towards God is about letting go of everything, whether for our soul or its body, so that we can become more like God: spontaneous, generous, merciful.

Being rich towards God means taking every part of our lives to him. So take your disputes to God. Take your greed to God. Take your abundance to God. Take your deliberations to God. Take your foolishness to God. Take your soul and its body to God. Take your very life to God, who demands it.

Yet, God doesn’t simply take away what we bring to him. God is not greedy. God transforms and blesses what is brought to him. Just like the prayers, and the bread and wine we are about to offer, God works to make holy whatever is brought to him.

When we kneel to confess our sins, and when we receive the sacrament, may we all be rich toward our God, offering ourselves, our souls, and bodies to Him who transforms and makes all things holy.