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.

Watch live streaming video from sjecharlotteservices at

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 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.”