Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Church's Witness

Sermon for Pentecost 11A

In her book, “Fierce Conversations,” Susan Scott says that while not every conversation changes the world, every conversation carries the capacity to do that very thing. Scott also says that what characterizes a real, fierce conversation is when those who are in the conversation have the courage to step out from behind themselves to reveal the truth that is in them. No more hiding or positioning, just real, fierce conversation.
The conversation between Peter and Jesus today, is one of those conversations.
It starts with Jesus asking who people say that he is. Peter answers that some think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or one of the prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. The thing is, these people that are guessing at what Jesus is, are giving really good answers. TO be John the Baptist is to be one who offers forgiveness of sins that does an end run around the spiritual industrial complex of the day. You could see how people might think of Jesus as connected in some way to John the Baptist.
As to their guess that Jesus might be Elijah, that is a very good answer. Elijah, it seems, in the time between the writing of the Old Testament and the first century when Jesus lived, had taken on a particular status in Judaism. Elijah, it was, and still is, thought, would precede the coming of God to be with His people. In many ways, Jesus is Elijah, just not as they expected him to be.
Still others, it seems, thought that Jesus might be Jeremiah; another interesting and not altogether untrue answer. Jesus was ultra-critical of Jerusalem and the religious powers that be, just as Jeremiah had been prior to the Babylonian captivity.
You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the people that Peter has polled are wrong. I imagine that Jesus might have been even a little impressed at the closeness to the mark that these folks got. They might not be right, but they are getting warmer.
But then Jesus sort of leaves those not-too-bad answers, and turns to Peter and asks one of the most important questions that exists: “But who do you say that I am?”
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter gives a remarkable answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We, here on this side of history, we hear Peter’s statement and say: oh yeah that’s Peter’s confession: Jesus is the messiah and the Son of the living God, no big deal. But this was being said for the first time, this was a leap in insight, Jesus is not necessarily a prophet, like those of old, instead he is something else entirely: the anointed one of God whose work is meant to restore God’s people to Him, he is the Son of the Living God. Not like all those other dead God’s, but the son of the only God, the living God. This is major, this is ground breaking, this is Dylan goes electric, this is the invention of fire, this is Peter’s confession.
It might help to set the scene a little bit, Peter and Jesus are having this conversation in Caesarea Philippi. Mother Suz has been there and she told me that it is in Caesarea Philippi where the Romans had set up a shrine to Pan, the nature god. Along with Pan, there is, and she has pictures of this, mini-shrines to a great many of the gods of the Romans, including a central niche for the son of the living god, for Augustus Caesar, for the Emperor, the god-man.
Peter is saying something so radical that we could easily miss its gravity. Peter is witnessing to God’s long-purposes at work in Jesus, but he is also putting Jesus above all the dead gods of old who represent the many aspects of life: fertility, joy, work, conflict, love, death. Peter even goes so far as to witness to Jesus as the son of the living God, over and against the Emperor, even over the Emperor who is the very embodiment of worldly power.
Good answer.
And Jesus rewards Peter for such a good answer: Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, " This is a big deal, because we have, in response to Peter’s good answer, Jesus saying that his church will be built upon that answer. This is the first time in all the gospels that the word church is used. In all four gospels the word church is only used three times, and all of them in Matthew.
It is often said that Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but instead we got the church. This is both true and false at the same time. Jesus preached the kingdom, he revealed the kingdom in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the revelation of that Kingdom, the way that God behaves with his creation. We, the church are not the revelation, Jesus is. Instead, the church is that body of people who witness to the revelation. Period. We are witnesses of Jesus, we proclaim him as the living God, above and beyond all other gods, all other graspings at control, and power, and security. We are the church, we are the witness to Jesus Christ who is the only revelation of God, our job is to point to him, that is why Peter’s answer is so highly regarded by Jesus.
And how is it that Peter arrived at this insight? Jesus says that it was not flesh or blood that has revealed this to him, but his Father in heaven. Peter didn’t learn this from somebody, he didn’t learn it from saying the Creed, or by assenting to a list of doctrines, he learned it from God, he learned it from obeying Jesus’ call to discipleship.
It is in the doing of discipleship that our faith can be grown into insights such as these.
This is how we can achieve the insight of who Jesus is, through our discipleship. Just as we learn about each other in real, fierce, truth-telling conversations. So too, do we discover who Jesus is when we obey his call to be his disciple.
And just as we all are surprised to hear what stories and pains we all carry, so too will we be surprised when we find that Jesus, more and more, begins to be a part of how we live. This is how discipleship works, it grows: a little here, a lot there.
I can personally attest to how sneaky Jesus can be, that he continues to reveal himself even more deeply as I give him more of my life as his disciple.

This conversation. This conversation between Jesus and Peter is our conversation. Jesus is asking us, who we say he is. And it is through our discipleship that we begin to formulate that answer.
Sure, we can all give the theological answers that sound good, but for each of us to come to an insight, and authentic response to who Jesus is, to do that we must be disciples, to live this Jesus life.
To let this conversation with Jesus take on the characteristics of being a real, fierce conversation, then we have to step out of ourselves and do what all disciples of Jesus properly do, and point to him.
To be the church is to necessarily point away from ourselves and point to Jesus. This means that we should stop worrying about the budget, and the building so much. Point to Jesus, witness to Jesus, the revelation of God.
The Church has shrunk in the recent years because the youth of today see us as being more interested in keeping our buildings than with witnessing to Jesus.
Let’s get back to our original insight, to Peter’s confession.
Let’s be the church, fiercely.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why You Should Be an Atheist

Sermon for Pentecost, proper 9A

Here are the readings, and here is an audio link

This is not an Independence Day sermon. Please don’t take that as some sort of political statement, it’s just that I took an ordination vow to preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and important national holidays don’t trump that. I love this country. And the fact that I can preach freely from this pulpit unhindered, and that all of you came here this morning of your own volition, is proof that the United States is a wonder to behold. May all her citizens live into the promises of both freedom and equality, and let us recapture a sense of brotherly love, upon which this country was founded, amen.
This is not an Independence Day sermon.

Our gospel reading today is strange. You’ll notice on the citation of the verses, in your bulletin, that it is from Matthew chapter 11. The verses start at 16 and then go to 19, then there is a break from 20-24, then our reading picks up again at 25 and ends with 30. You should always wonder why that break happens. The breaks in the scripture that our lectionary makes is usually for clarity, but also for politeness. The lectionary is very good about sanitizing the dirty scripture. And please don’t think that this is an innovation of the Episcopal Church, we are just one of the hundreds of millions of Christian communities that is reading this scripture this way this morning.
Let’s briefly walk through the scripture and I’ll fill you in on the missing, juicy bits.
First Jesus asks a crowd how he should describe those who are hearing him and seeing his deeds of power. He says that they are like children in the streets, on this side they play music and complain that he is not dancing, on that side they wail and complain that he has not joined in their mourning. Then he says that John came fasting and abstaining from drink and they said he had a demon. Jesus then says that he came drinking and eating and they called him a glutton and that he hung out with the wrong people.
Jesus is expressing what so many of us know: that the only way to be free of accusations of hypocrisy is to do nothing. John is too “spiritual” and Jesus is too “earthy.”
Which brings us to the missing bits in the lectionary today: your bulletin won’t have these parts. Jesus goes on to heap woes upon all the cities in which he did his deeds of power: his miracles. The problem that Jesus sees is that his deeds of power have not produced the expected repentance and amendment of life in those who have seen those deeds. Usually when we think of the miracles of Jesus we see them as proof of his divinity, but from Jesus’ perspective it seems that he wants them to be a catalyst of change, of repentance from sin, from the exploitation of others.
It’s after all these woes are delivered that the lectionary picks back up with the familiar and comforting words of Jesus: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Today’s gospel reading is fairly schizophrenic: we get the critique of the critics of too-spiritual and not-spiritual-enough living, then the woes for unrepentance, and then finally the soft comfort that Jesus offers. All of this seems disjointed. In fact, I’d wager that most preachers today will ignore the first two sections and focus solely on Jesus statements about rest and lightness. But I think that all this seeming disjointedness is actually held together, indeed that the key for understanding all this is in the seemingly light touch that Jesus offers us at the end of our reading.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Jesus is giving us insight into what life with him looks like. It’s called faith. We throw that word around all the time don’t we, as if we knew what it meant? It reminds me of how my two year old repeats words she doesn't understand. She goes around the house saying, “Actually,” or “Interrogate,” she doesn’t understand what she is saying; she just likes the sound of it. It’s the same way with us when we say, “Faith,” we just like the sound of it and give little thought to what it means.
Whenever Jesus talks about having faith in him, he talks about either taking up a cross or, like today, that faith in him is to have a light burden. Both of these descriptions have to do with the loss of the self, or maybe the loss of certain kinds of beliefs. Jesus is calling us to a different kind of faith, one in which we do not heap belief upon belief, burden upon burden. Instead, Jesus is offering us a light burden, perhaps even a freedom from belief.

Looking back over the Bible you will find that idolatry lays at the root all the problems of individuals, as well as the people of Israel, and of us, the Church. Idolatry: putting other gods before the one God, and, don’t you know, there are millions of gods. I’m not talking about the gods of old: Baal, Odin, Moloch, or Aphrodite, I’m talking about the real gods of our lives: validation, security, satisfaction, power, love. To engage in idolatry means that we have not trusted God to be God, that we have taken his job of giving us meaning and security and have assigned his role to his creations.
God has consistently called people away from these other so-called gods. We are called to worship the only god there is, but this God can only be accessed through faith, which is a kind of trust, a radical trust that resists definition. God, best described by Jesus, says, “Stop believing, stop adding burdens! Instead: trust, my burden is light.”
What this means then is pretty tough stuff, and here, I would appreciate it if you didn’t run me out on a rail for saying what I’m about to say: we have to stop believing in God.
Hear me out: I’m not calling for a blanket atheism of course. What I am asking you to do today is to become an atheist of the God of your thoughts. Stop believing in Your God, and start trusting in the one true God, the God of light burdens, the God of faith.
Hear this: the idolatry of God is the last and great idolatry that must be overcome. We in the church are the most egregious sinners when it comes to making an idol of God. We think we have God so figured out. That we can track his movements like we track a tropical storm. The God who created tigers and Boson particles, the wind and human feelings; it is almost comical that we would display so much hubris about God’s doings. Yet, of course, this same God has revealed himself which is what gives us the wherewithal to say that it is the words of Jesus are the words of God; and Jesus today is telling us, “Don’t make an idol of me. My burden is light, don’t heap burdens of belief on me, instead: have faith, which is the absolute opposite of idol worship.”

I’d be willing to wager that many of us here have experienced this kind of idol worship and subsequent private-atheism many times in our walks in faith. It usually starts with a set-back or crisis of some kind or other. Then we begin to pray that God will save us, or catch us in this crisis. Then something strange happens. We don’t get caught by God: the cancer proceeds, the rehab doesn’t take, they declare war, we fail. We aren't caught; God has not answered our prayer. God has failed us.
God, of course, has not failed us, but the god of our thoughts and expectations has failed us.
And many of us have the crisis of unbelief that God has not delivered and we are crippled into despair. I think that Jesus is asking us to disbelieve in the God of our thoughts and it is precisely in the falling-through of our expectations of that idol-God to enter into actual faith, actual trust of the only God. And it is in that trust that we encounter reality.
Where we find ourselves, no longer slave to the god of our thoughts but instead in dynamic, real relationship with the one true God.

Usually, I try to end my sermons with some sort of memorable turn of phrase that summarizes what I have been saying. I’m not going to do that this week. Because the truth is, what I am saying is pretty wild: destroy the idol of the God of your thoughts and seek a deepening faith in the real God. I am asking you to free yourself from the idol you have made of God. I will not end with some pithy saying because the truth is: the rest of Ordinary time, this season of the church between Pentecost and Advent, is a time to explore the implications of following Jesus on the road of faith.
Be freed from the idol of your expectations of what God can do, be free to fall into faith.
Be free.

Oh! Maybe it’s an Independence Day sermon after all.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sermon for Easter 3A

Sermon for Easter 3A
Luke 24:13-35
For over ten years I have had an obsession with the James Joyce novel, if you can call it that, Finnegans Wake. I say, “if you can call it that,” because this book is largely considered to be unreadable. And that is why I am obsessed with it: how can there be an unreadable book?
The book is layer upon layer of linguistic somersaults and inscrutable homophonic puns which refer to at least three things at once; it makes for a dizzying experience. I love it.
The book infamously begins in mid-sentence, uncapitalized with these words: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” As the book comes to a “close,” we notice that it ends as it began, in mid-sentence, in fact, the first sentence ends the last; giving the book a circular structure. There are some who say that Finnegans Wake can be read starting anywhere in the text, like jumping into a round river, eventually it all circles back.
It is nearly unreadable and I love it. But if you sit with it long enough and it begins to make sense, The Wake begins to reveal itself, that, or its madness is contagious. It begins to sing and, after a while, it really does begin to tell the largest story we have: the story of all human history, the story of us, the story of all polarities: light and dark, sin and redemption, death and life, the story of destruction, and yes even the cosmic story of Resurrection. Finnegans Wake then is the story of all and each of us, the story of falling and rising. Each of us reflected in the title character that died and who was waked, with all the attendant dancing and toasts, and through a spirit-filled baptism, as it were, we rise from death, truly waking.
Finnegans Wake makes sense as these orienting points make themselves known. The unreadable book can now be accessed and even read and interpreted, and we find that Joyce was writing our very lives, and through the inscrutable and seeming chaos we find that life is magic, that it makes sense, it’s just not the sense that we were looking for.
The seeming unreadability of our lives can be confusing and debilitating. If only there were some orienting landmarks that we could reckon by; we might be able to see the larger landscape of our lives and make a way forward.

As we happen upon the two disciples walking into Emmaus today, we find them utterly bereft. Jesus appears among them, yet they do not recognize him. He asks them what’s going on and they stop; here the scripture hilariously says, “They looked sad.”
Then one of the disciples, Cleopas, a heretofore unmentioned disciple, says, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened?” He then goes on to tell the harrowing story of Jesus, his teachings, deeds of power, and death; and their confusion over the Empty Tomb.
Then Jesus says, “You fools! Why are you still unbelieving? You know things had to shake out like this.” And then Jesus does something interesting, he takes the book of their lives, even more encompassing than Finnegans Wake, and he begins to interpret it for them about what God was, and is, up to.
As they come to their destination, Jesus keeps going. But the disciples invite him in. As they sit down to the meal, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and shares the bread just as he had in the feeding of the thousands and just as he had in that last night when he gave them a practice that would characterize his people forever. In that breaking of bread the disciples recognize him. And just as he appeared suddenly, Jesus was gone. But then the disciples reflect on Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures, their “hearts were burning within them,” they knew it was him.
The two disciples then run to the others to tell what happened but they are cut short because the other disciples are rejoicing over an appearance of Jesus. Jesus, it seems, is appearing all over.

Here we see Jesus coming into the sadness and confusion of the lives of his disciples and he begins to interpret their experience and giving it shape and meaning.
Jesus interprets our lives; he shows us the contours and shape of how and why we live. Our lives look at times like a swirling chaotic tale, as Macbeth says: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player; That struts and frets his hour upon the stage; And then is heard no more. It is a tale; Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; Signifying nothing.
And life can well and truly look and feel that way at times: Nigerian students kidnapped, natural disasters, death penalties, and the general, cold unfeeling we have for each other. But then Jesus appears, unbidden, reminding us that we have read the story wrong; we have encountered the dense language of life and gotten confused, we have gotten so close to the forests’ trees that we have even lost sight of the tree, we have our noses on the bark. Jesus comes and shows us the larger movement of our story, that death is not the end, and indeed we can move past that last sentence, just like in Finnegans Wake, and notice that the last sentence of death moves seamlessly back into the first sentence of life.

And just as James Joyce rewards the diligent and disciplined reader in The Wake to reveal its depths; so does Jesus enroll us into the story of all Scripture; interpreting our lives and writing us into God’s story of redemption and adoption. As each of us grows in grace we are surprised to find that when we read the Bible, we are there. My friends, we are in a book that God is writing and Jesus is a recurring character that the world, try as it might … just…can’t…keep…down!
One more thing by way of an epilogue.
You will notice that Jesus was fully prepared to keep on a-walkin’ once he had met the disciples and discussed the scripture. It says, “He walked ahead as if he were going on.”But it was the disciples’ willingness to offer hospitality that Jesus was finally revealed to them.
Our encounters with Christ will always occur in the midst of hospitality; when we open ourselves to another in service and respect. This is the genius of this strange God of ours who doesn’t give a list of dos and don’ts but instead gives us a meal, whereby we learn the lessons of hospitality. The meal then, that Jesus gave us, is the subtext of the novel our lives: each of us walking the road of our lives, encountering countless people, each moment arising from the last, and each moment an opportunity to encounter Christ anew by the extension of our hospitality.
It is when we extend hospitality to those whom life gives us; when we put aside our own goals and motivations; here in hospitality is Christ given the opportunity to be revealed. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to have your life take an adventurous shape? Don’t you want to have your heart burn within you?
Extend hospitality and Christ will appear; and then you’d better hang on because God will set you on a swirling whirling circuitous route. But your life will have shape and it will be readable, and other people will look at your life and won’t be able to read anything there but, “Jesus.” And that’s a book I’d like to read.