Monday, October 31, 2016

A wee little man in the present tense

Sermon for Proper 26 C
Luke 19:1-10

I have mentioned in the past about the childhood Bible that I had, its images still figure prominently on the landscape of my spirit. I can still vividly recall the image of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus up in the tree, the illumined face of Jesus up-turned to him.
Today’s Gospel story is very familiar and it is featured in every children’s bible or comic gospel I’ve ever seen. I suppose that’s because children like climbing trees.
The way that we usually read this story is that Jesus invites himself to sit with Zacchaeus and the mere invitation and meal is enough for Zacchaeus to turn over a new leaf and give half his possessions to the poor and plan to give back four times what he may have cheated out of people. This reading makes sense to us because it fits our normal understanding of how God works in our lives, we confess our evil, repent, and then are forgiven. Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." Cause and effect. It makes a whole lot of sense: Zacchaeus, that short man in both stature and social standing, is a sinner in need of repentance.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. As we know the tax collectors worked for the empire and could add a little to the bill for their own payment. They were especially hated by the natives probably because the tax collectors themselves were natives. It’s one thing to be the occupying empire, it is quite another to collaborate with them. In the first century the people commonly referred to the tax collectors as sinners, as a group, because for them the activity of collecting taxes was especially heinous; it was a sin against God and neighbor to do what they were doing and they became rich from it. Tax collectors were sinners because their livelihood was enmeshed with their sinful actions.
The usual reading of this passage has Jesus, the forgiver, walking into a sinful life in order to redeem it. I like that reading because it makes sense to me, I have lived that life. I have found myself to be living out of right relationship with God or my neighbor, or even myself, I have confessed and I have felt God’s forgiving love. Haven’t you?
But I don’t think that is what’s going on in the story. And the reason I don’t think so is, unfortunately, for grammatical reasons. I’ll get to that in a minute, first let’s look again at the story.
The passage says that Zacchaeus is short, but the Greek word there (elikia) could mean short in stature, age or time of life, or even maturity. So Zacchaeus could just be young, or maybe he’s grown-up, yet immature! Maybe that’s why this rich, up and coming tax collector, who manages a bunch of other tax collectors sees nothing at all wrong with climbing a tree: he’s young at heart and just doesn’t care what people think. When my kids climb trees they certainly aren’t worried what people will think, they climb trees because they want to!

So Jesus spots him, Jesus looks up to the see the small Zacchaeus. Jesus is able to spot Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. It seems that this is the first lesson of this passage; Jesus will always find those who seek him. If you want to find Jesus, you will find him.
Anyway, Zacchaeus accepts Jesus’ invitation to invite Jesus over for dinner and as soon as they get inside, once they get through the crowd that is scandalized that Jesus is eating with such a sinner, Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his things to the poor and he will pay back four times as much to anyone he may have cheated.
Except that’s not what Zacchaeus says.
I know that what the text says, but that’s not what it says.
You see, as part of my weekly discipline, to  actually pray with the scripture, I have to force myself to read slowly, and the best way that I have found to do that is to read it in Greek, and  because my Greek is not nearly as good as it used to be; I have to look words up. So to read and understand these ten verses it might take me a half hour of slow, plodding, yet revealing effort.
What I found was that Zacchaeus doesn’t say that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and that he will pay back those who he has cheated, instead what he says is that he gives half of his things to the poor, he pays back anyone he has cheated. It’s all in the present tense. In fact in the grammatical structure of Greek what Zacchaeus says is called the iterative-present, he has been doing those things in the past and he is doing them in the present.
In the version of the Bible that we almost always use in this church, the New Revised Standard Version, the translators have decided to place Zacchaeus’ statement to Jesus in the future tense, he will do these things. The implication is that because of his encounter with Jesus he will change his ways. He is having his Ebenezer Scrooge moment, he will change.
The notion of whether Zacchaeus is doing the good deeds in the present or will in the future, to me is crucial. Once I discovered that the Greek used the present tense, I did a quick online search and found that 6 out of the 24 most used translations of the Bible in English use the future tense, and the remaining 18 use the present tense. Zacchaeus says, “Lord I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I find that I have cheated anyone, I pay them back four times as much.”
Who cares? Why does all this matter? Why does all this comparison and grammatical rigmarole matter?
It matters because if Zacchaeus has this encounter with Jesus and then promises amendment of life, well that’s actually a really good thing. But if we see that Zacchaeus has been giving to the poor and making right with those he may have accidently cheated all along, well that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If we hear the past and present activity of this sinner, this person who the entire community reviles, if we see that he is in fact more than simply just, that he is living a salvation-life, well then we have a problem.
You see, when we read Zacchaeus as promising some future event, then when Jesus’ statement that “Today salvation has come to this house,” we read that as centered on Jesus only. Now, that’s not bad, and I’m no heretic, as you may have noticed, I am a huge fan of Jesus.
But when we read the Zacchaeus has been just and giving all along, we find that Jesus is in a place of discovery, he exclaims, perhaps loud enough for those who are outside and wouldn’t be caught dead with someone like Zacchaeus, “Wow! Salvation has come to this house! Here is a son of Abraham!”
Indeed the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, but Zacchaeus’ lost-ness has more to do with the fact that his community and the system in which they are forced to live has made them all take up sides. In Jericho the people could not even conceive of a situation whereby a chief tax collector could be anything other than a sinner, a traitor, and a collaborator.
Most of us who know this story from of old might think of Zacchaeus as a sniveling little miser who finally got right with God. But the story actually shows this very righteous, good person who is also very hated by his community. Jesus then is the bystander in the story who recognizes the wonder that God has been at work even in the evil system of taxes, military occupation, social stratification, and judgement. Jesus is there to recognize and declare that salvation is there, that God seeks people through whatever boundaries a society has set up.
Jesus then is the one who accepts the invitation to witness to God’s work in the most intractable, divisive situations. And since that’s what Jesus does, then you can bet that that is precisely what we are meant to seek: God working in unlikely places.
Now, if only we were, I don’t know, engaged in a sharply divided political landscape. If only we had an economic situation that pits us against them, where we judge each other harshly. If only we had a system in our city whereby we demonize certain groups with zero sense of history or even common sense.
It’s simple folks: Who is your enemy? Who is the one that you know is sinful? I’ll give you a sec to figure that out. Who is sinful, who, in your mind, is clearly working against the purposes of God? Now, invite yourself over to their house. I can guarantee that God is up to something in that person’s life, and you will get the joy of discovering it just as Jesus did.
Jesus knew exactly who and what Zacchaeus was: a rich, chief tax collector. He had every right to dismiss Zacchaeus as less-than. But he decided to see what Zacchaeus was all about, and he discovered that God was already at work.
Are you brave enough to be like Jesus, to be willing to enter the life of the one our community knows is oh so very sinful? Are you brave enough to listen for God even in dark corners?
Don’t be surprised by the way if you find that someone else thinks you’re the sinful one.
You don’t have to actually go over to their house, but you might. Enter their lives, see what they are about, above all listen. Look for God, and just as Zacchaeus looked for Jesus and found him, you too will find God.
Y’all we need this right now. We need this. Our community is hurting just as much as Jericho was hurting 2000 years ago. The election is not going to fix our problems either, in fact I think it will make things worse. The only thing that can heal our community is if there are a great many sinners going out and looking for Jesus, looking for God at work in each other’s lives.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Temptation, Revelation, Anger: an Installation Sermon for Rev. Suz Cate and Holy Trinity, Clemson

Feast of St. Luke
I just got back from a week at the beach. It wasn’t all fun and games, it was actually a little soul-wrenching and head-checking because I was there for the Credo Conference. Credo is a ministry of the Episcopal Church, namely the Church Pension group. The idea of Credo is to assess the health and vitality of your life in the areas of spirituality, mental and physical health, vocation, and financial. I was there with 22 complete strangers, all of whom are now friends. We came from all over the church with all kinds of interesting and creative ministries. I’m happy to report that the Episcopal Church cares very much for her priests.
You see, being ordained, being a deacon or a priest, or a bishop, is strange work. It is so integrated that sometimes us collared folk lose sight of where we end and the church begins. It’s tough work. Like the bishop says in Les Misarable, the novel, which is actually a wonderful piece of Christian literature, he says, “Just as the coal miner emerges from the mine covered in the soot and grime of his work so too does the priest.” This happens to everyone of course, but priests get an especially high dose of the highs and lows of human experience, and it can be jarring spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
So this Credo conference is all about best practices for living a healthy life and they offer desert at every meal and late night snacks. I actually think that the folks who run Credo just put this stuff out and when they clean up they take note of what is left to gauge whether we are all listening to the health recommendations. On one of the final nights I was staying up late with several of my new friends playing a game. As we played we were all in close proximity of a tray of cookies. Now, I’m no bastion of self-control obviously, in fact I had had two cookies already, but as the game went on the chocolate and toffee in these cookies were assaulting me. Others made mention of the wonderful cookies. Finally, I reached over, grabbed the tray, and offered them to everyone. One person said, “No! Get behind me Satan! I a planned the work and I’m working the plan! No thank you!” Others chimed in too that they were trying to be healthier. Encouraged by their self-control, I abstained and the desire for cookie goodness evaporated. It passed.
Temptation. It’s tough. But having others around to help you through it, that’s the key. Have you had that, have you had a moment of temptation and then just the smallest of nudges from someone else brought you on the right path immediately? Perhaps for you it was a time that you were about to bad-mouth someone and throw them under the bus and then the person you were with said something good about the one you were about to malign; and you stood down. Perhaps you were about to break your sobriety but chose a meeting instead. Maybe you were tempted to cheat at school but decided to just do your best and let the chips fall where they may.
I’m talking about this because today’s gospel reading, chosen for the feast of St. Luke could not be better for this occasion, and it has something to do with temptation. It’s the story of Jesus going home to Nazareth and reading in the synagogue. He reads this passage from Isaiah. “The spirit is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, give sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus says, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is saying that what Isaiah was talking about 250 or more years before Jesus was born is happening right then and there in that synagogue and it is centered on him.
And for us, since it is centered on Jesus, that means through our baptisms that this activity, these reversals: sight to the blind, freedom to prisoners and oppressed, and good news to the poor, since we are baptized into Jesus, this is our life and work too. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Israel, he is the Year of the Lord’s favor he is the release to prisoners and he is the sight of the blind.
That’s us, that’s our work. And on this occasion tonight, where we celebrate the beginning of a new relationship between a priest and a parish, I cannot think of a better choice of a person to continue to lead you into the work and life of Jesus. Suz, who I have known for about 8 years, is a person who walks closely with Jesus taking her cues from him and not much else. This is who the church needs, a person dedicated to Jesus Christ to the exclusion of all. That doesn’t mean she won’t care for you and the various ministries of this parish, it actually means that she will love you and the ministries of the parish more deeply than she could have on her own. But it also means that with her powerful commitment to Jesus she will sometimes be critical of the activities of this parish. She will ask good questions. She will call attention to every elephant that a room can hold. And it will be uncomfortable. But it’s good because she is, in her questions and her leading, bringing you closer to Jesus who brings good news to the poor and release to the oppressed, and then you will do that work too.
Which brings me back to the temptation. You see, this passage where Jesus asserts that God’s way of doing things has been most revealed in him comes right after Jesus’ time in the desert, where he is tempted by the Devil. So this great revelation, this wonderful expression of what we are about, about our work and mission comes right after temptation. Now, what follows tonight’s passage is a scene where Jesus criticizes some of those in the synagogue and they get angry, real angry, like run-out-of-town-on-a-rail-and-they-tried-to-throw-him-off-a-cliff angry.
Revelation of God and the purpose of our life and work sits right between temptation and anger. It’s a narrow way too. In Luke there is more room and real estate given to the temptation story and the part about Jesus making everyone mad than to this great proclamation that God has come powerfully in Jesus. The work we do and the abiding presence of Jesus sits cozily between temptation and anger.
Here’s what I mean: I will now talk just to this congregation. Suz, plug your ears.
Friends. She’s the real deal. That’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. She will poke you where it hurts, where you are tender. She will be looking for Jesus in the most unlikely places and you need to join her in this. But sometimes you will be tempted to hold on to your pet project, your little fiefdom. Don’t fall into that temptation. Sometimes you will though, and you’ll go right from temptation into full on anger because this Jesus is threatening the way things have always been done.
Now, Suz. I want to talk to just Suz, so you all plug your ears. These folks are the real deal. And that’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. They will squeal when you poke them where it is tender. But they will also show you where Jesus is in this place and in this city. But sometimes you will be tempted to start your own pet project, or not listen very deeply. Don’t fall into that temptation. But sometimes you will, you’ll go from temptation into full on anger because Jesus is threatening the way you think things ought to be.
Ok, ears unplugged. I said ears unplugged!!
Here’s the thing. You have each other to help you through temptation and anger to keep on that narrow path between them, staying with Jesus and his work of release and Good News.
Just like my new friends were able help to be strong against the temptation to stuff my face with cookies, so too will all of you together be able to see temptation and anger when they arise, confront and deal with it in love, head-on so that this community can become more true to God’s call in this city.
The good relationship between a rector and her parish is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t just happen. A healthy church is one where people realize and own their strong feelings of involvement and mission. I’m not telling you to become indifferent to your projects and missions, to the way things are done here, that is all important, vital even, but it must be tempered with the fact of Jesus Christ: that God’s favor has come powerfully among you all and that you have work to do, work with each other and work with those who you haven’t met yet.

As this church that has been walking with Jesus all along joins hands with Suz who has been walking with Jesus as well; my hope and prayer is that each of you will allow the God of release, sight, liberation, and Good News to anoint you for the work of God. And when you receive that anointing anew, well: brace yourselves.

Friday, October 14, 2016

God and Gasoline

This past Monday I departed Charlotte on my way to the Credo conference. Credo is clergy wellness conference that the Church Pension Group sponsors. The idea is to assess all areas of our lives: physical, mental, spiritual, vocational, and financial so that we can continue to be healthy, happy, productive people for God. Now, I had some concerns about this conference because it was being held at Salter Path NC, on the Atlantic coast, hurricane Matthew was in that very spot a few days prior to my departure. On Sunday I received a call that the storm had passed and it was all systems go for the conference.

As I left Charlotte and approached the small hamlet of Hamlet NC, I noticed that there were lots of people in line at the gas stations: lots, like maybe a ¼ mile of cars lined up. I called the conference center to ask them if anything was wrong between Hamlet and Salter Path, “Well, no, things are fine, we all lost power for a few days but I guess people are now able to get out. You know, some folks panic.” So I kept driving on, eventually I myself needed to stop for gas and stopped near Whiteville, the first three gas stations I stopped at had no gas or power. All of them had signs on the doors with my new least-favorite words “No gas, cash only.”

Once I drove through Whiteville by way of some back road, dodging giant oaks that were partially in the road and driving carefully across inches deep water, I noticed that the entire city was without power and was indeed in great crisis. I decided to just keep moving, to get on 74 East and hope for the best. 74 was closed by police in either direction. I asked the police how to best get to Salter Path, they didn’t know, they weren’t local. So I let the navigation software do the work, I found an alternate route and got going. 

Soon after leaving town I found that the road I was supposed to take had turned into a river, a very large active river. I made a note of that on the navigation software and pulled over to consider my options. I called my wife. She basically became Houston to my Apollo mission. She checked and called for places that had gas. We found one in the next town, Clarkton, just a few miles to the north. My gas was really low at this point but Clarkton looked to only be about 8 miles away; I’d limp there as much as possible and then perhaps need to walk if I ran out of gas. I can be a little slow on the uptick so it was then that I realized that Hamlet was basically my last chance for gas many miles ago, indeed I had been in a trap for a long time before I even realized it.

About three miles out of Whiteville I ran out of gas.

Running out of gas is one thing. Running out of gas in a disaster area is quite another. I was no longer a tourist passing through and gawking at the damage, safely ensconced in my security. I was now a local. I didn’t know what to do and I could feel myself panicking. A very long convoy of fire trucks rolled past me on the way to Whiteville. I got out of the car, breathed. I prayed for Jesus to be with me, a prayer practice that I do daily: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner. I love this prayer, it has saved me so many times. Mercy of course means to have compassion and presence. Jesus be with me in this moment. I was safe, mostly. I had breath and heartbeat. I weighed my options and stuck out of thumb.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever hitchhiked before. It’s interesting. You can make eye contact with people as they drive past. Here I was, nice chubby guy in Costco slacks, brown leather shoes, gingham button down shirt, and Ray-Bans. No one stopped. But after a couple of minutes an older black man in a 1992 Cougar (I learned all this about his car later) stopped and asked if I was out of gas. “Yes.” “OK, you want to come with me to Clarkton and get gas?” “Yes please.” He was driving in caravan with his son-in-law so he grabbed his son-in-law’s gas can and off we went. First off I realized that Clarkton would be no quick drive, the road that lead directly there was closed due to flooding. We had to take many detours.

The man who stopped is named Kenteny. I learned a lot about him. I learned that his son in law is a preacher. I learned that Kenteny is unemployed. He is a strong believer in God. His wife caters weddings and events. He smokes. He also was in Whiteville helping a friend there and was on his way home in Clarkton, he was hoping not to run out of gas. He called me Preacher Man after I told what I do for a living. After a half-hour of driving we made it to Clarkton, walking would have been disastrous.

There was a very long line at the gas station. We got in line and waited, it would be a long wait. 

I kept thanking him, knowing that I was pressing my luck with him. He certainly didn’t anticipate all this. As we waited I scoped out the situation, went into the gas station. They had power but the internet was down and so was the phone so that meant no credit cards: cash only. No problem, I’ll just use the ATM: “broken cable,” on account of the internet I suppose. I went across the street knowing that cash was the only option. Strike two. There was a bank, last option. Praise be unto Jesus! It worked. Cash in hand I went to the Subway to get me and Kenteny lunch. They were sold out of almost everything so I got us steak, the only meat left. Cash only of course.

We ate in the car. Talked. Watched funny things happen like this young man and his horse. 

He was showing off for a while but then he started taking kids on rides. There was a young white kid who stuck his head in “our” car and chatted us up for an hour. He was obviously very poor and his accent was so profound it almost sounded British. I looked around at this scene and sincerely wondered if I were in heaven.

Two hours. Two hours in line for gas. I filled the fuel canister and bought Kenteny gas and we were en route back to my car. On the way there he became very emotional and said that he had never had a full tank of gas in that car and that I had been a blessing to him. I replied that I could never had been a blessing to him if he had not first been a blessing to me. He asked what he supposed to do, just leave me on the side of the road? Jesus made him stop. We both spoke, we both thanked God for the kind of life that allows us to live these Jesus-lives. It reminded me of the book of Acts when it talks about the apostles going along the road giving praise to God. But I also know that I was living the Widow’s Mite and the Good Samaritan because this man had given out of his poverty  and also I was being treated as a neighbor.

We got back to the car and put the gas in. We exchanged phone numbers and Kenteny said that he would escort me to a further town that was in good shape and I could fill up there. I told him he had done more than enough already and that he should just go his own way. He refused, saying “We got you this far, let me see you on your way, you need to make it to that conference because they need your voice and testimony!!” Ok.

We drove about 40 minutes to another town close to the road I needed to take. We only had to wait about 20 minutes for gas, I tanked up. I thanked Kenteny profusely. This is him at our last stop. 

He asked that I call him when I got to my final destination. That’s not right, he kept saying, destiny. “Call me when you get to your destiny.” I really like that.

Kenteny is not an angel and he is not Jesus. He a man who has allowed God’s loving life to penetrate his own, to mold and shape him. Kenteny is a man who has sinned against God and neighbor, without a doubt. And while he is a sinner he is also a saint, a life that recognizes that the things that matter most in earth and heaven is relationship and reaching out to those in need. I was in need and he reached out. Thank you my brother. I’ll do my best to do the same for someone else.

I can't help but wonder and mourn over those relationships that I have lost out on because I was too secure, too strong, too scheduled to allow to emerge. Thankfully, sometimes God is an empty gas tank and he forces the issue.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Fie lee mon, Phil ley mon, Fie ley mon

It’s not every day that we read an entire book of the Bible in church. Well, today is no different, but we do come awfully close to reading an entire book from the New Testament. The book we read, almost in entirety, is Philemon. You may have never heard of it. It only makes an appearance in our calendar of readings once every three years, and that is usually around Labor Day; so if you have missed church that weekend, there is a very good chance you may have never read Philemon. It’s a shame because this little book packs a real punch that we, the Church, needs to hear.
First a little background: Philemon is among the shortest books of the Bible. The letters of second and third John are a bit shorter; but Philemon is number three in the shortest book of the Bible category. It is one of the letters of Paul who wrote a great deal of the New Testament. Philemon is unusual among Paul’s letters because it is written to an individual. In most of Paul’s letters he is writing to a community, a church, like the churches in Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Philippi.  But Philemon is written to an individual, Philemon by name, as it turns out!
So what we have in Philemon, as we have in all of Paul’s letters is one side of a conversation. Paul’s letters are a little like overhearing a person’s cell phone call: we hear one side, and we can make out the main point of the conversation but we don’t know what the other one is saying, and we also don’t know why the call was made in the first place.
The letter to Philemon is a mystery, but we can learn a lot with a careful reading. First we see that Paul is writing to someone he knows and loves, Philemon, and not only that, Philemon has a church in his home. This is what the church looked like in the first several generations, believers would gather in house churches. This model of meeting in homes is still done widely, especially in places where the church is under oppression and persecution as it was in the Roman Empire. Since Philemon had a house we might surmise that he was wealthy. As we read along we learn that Philemon actually owned a slave. That slave’s name is Onesimus (O-Nee-si-mus). At one point Paul says to Philemon, the slave owner, that he knows that Onesimus is useless to him. Some scholars think that Philemon may have nicknamed Onesimus “Useless,” because in Greek the word Onesimus means useful or beneficial. Paul will playfully use these words of useful, useless and beneficial throughout the letter; perhaps to chide Philemon.
How Onesimus, the slave, got to Paul is something of a mystery. Paul says that he is imprisoned for the gospel, this is not a metaphor, Paul was imprisoned many times for preaching the improbable and socially revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ. Historians have supposed three possible scenarios: the first is that Philemon the Christian slave owner has sent his slave Onesimus to Paul who is in prison, possibly in Rome. Perhaps Philemon sent greetings or supplies. Another scenario is that Onesimus escaped from his master Philemon and fled to the bustling metropolis in search of Paul. Under Roman custom it was possible for a slave to appeal to a friend or relative of a slave owner if the owner was abusing the slave; then the friend could appeal to the better nature, if you will, of the slave owner for the better treatment of the slave. Finally, Onesimus simply could have escaped for good from his owner. This was perilous of course as slaves were not citizens, had very few rights. The slave owner, Philemon also would have possibly been financially ruined as slaves were quite expensive to acquire anywhere from 300 to 3,000 denarii at the time, that’s somewhere between one year and ten years’ worth of wages.
In either scenario, through this letter, we see that Onesimus the slave has made his way to Paul, has apparently been converted to the faith because of the filial affectionate language; and now Paul is sending him back to Philemon.
Now, Paul gets a great deal of criticism from people today, and rightly so, because he makes no attempt or statement to usurp, disrupt, or otherwise overturn the evil of slavery. Though I will say that if you read Ephesians or Colossians from a first century perspective, Paul comes out as moral and revolutionary as they come. But in this letter, Paul does not lay out the immorality of Philemon’s engagement with the sinful institution of slavery. Why not? Some scholars say that Paul, and others in the early church, may not have been able to imagine a world without slavery. In the ancient world, slavery was so pervasive that everyone either knew a slave, owned slaves, or was a slave. But the ubiquity of a sin does not mean that the sin does not exist, what’s going on here?
As we read the letter to Philemon we see that Paul has great affection for Onesimus, he says that he has become his father. It is interesting because it seems that Paul is also something of a spiritual father to Philemon as well, perhaps Paul brought Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ, he says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self,” which of course is a passive way of saying, “You owe me, you owe me everything because I showed you the path to eternal life.” So being the “father” of both Philemon and Onesimus, Paul urges Philemon to receive the returned Onesimus not as a “slave, but more than a slave, as a brother.”
Here we see that Paul does in fact level a withering criticism and undermining of slavery. His critique though is not general or abstract, it is personal and relational. Paul is not necessarily trying to overthrow the Roman Empire’s slave trade; he’s overthrowing slavery for Philemon and Onesimus! Paul, through the relationships that have been forged through Jesus Christ, is overturning one of the insidious, debased, and pervasive sinful systems of his day. We see in this letter to Philemon three people in a new relationship because of Jesus Christ, a relationship that moves across the insurmountable barrier of slave and master: “receive him not as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.”
We don’t know if Philemon obeyed Paul or not. But we have the letter; and that means that the church, in her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, thinks that what it has to say is worthwhile and is descriptive of what a Christian life should look like. It’s too bad though that we don’t have the next letter from Philemon back to Paul; because, as revolutionary as Paul’s command to receive Onesimus as a brother was, it’s in the doing that is most interesting.
What would that reunion have looked like? “Here comes old ‘Useless,’” as Philemon called Onesimus, “Paul has sent him back, but I don’t like him! Now I have to love him?!” Or, what if Onesimus had in fact run away? Now Paul has sent him back. What’s Onesimus feeling now that he has to return to this slave owner? Perhaps Philemon is humbled, humiliated and ashamed that his sinfulness in owning another human being has been exposed to Paul. The return, the reconciliation, is the hard part. It is one thing to be loving in the abstract, it’s quite another to be put arms, legs, and hands on our love.
So what about you? What is God calling you to love? What injustice are you called to reconcile in actual action, what evil are you being called to confront and defeat, who are your being called to take back in? We need to get specific here, because the abstract is a temptation. Abstraction, keeping things general, is a way to keep loving reconciliation at arm’s length.
Systemic racism for example is something we all need to overcome through reconciliation. But we don’t individually address systemic racism; we find the one small way that we can undermine racism in our own small circle. Yes, fight the systemic sin, but don’t let your epic war replace the small ways you can fight in your own small seemingly insignificant way.
What sin or evil are you struggling with? Don’t fight the grand cosmic evil of lies, and systems, and genetics, and addiction. Instead, be like Philemon in this letter, do the next right thing. Make the next, small right decision because our lives are not, as it turns out, lived in the grand scheme, but on the very small scope of the next moment that arises. Do the next right thing and a year, a decade, a lifetime of those next right things, well then, the grand scheme just might emerge.
This is why the letter to Philemon deserves a wider reading, because it shows how all of us are born into sinful systems, but we can, through Jesus Christ, find the love necessary to do the next right thing, not in the abstract but in the really real lives we each live.
Thank you God for showing us the path of reconciliation; thank you St. Paul for showing us one way to love; and thank you saints Philemon and Onesimus for showing us that broken relationships and great evil can be repaired through the love of Jesus Christ.


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.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Seeing stuff with Christian eyes

We just took the children to see the Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory. I've been a fan of Pixar for at least 25 years even when their shorts were just featured in animation anthologies. When I was in middle and high school I became fairly obsessed with animation, especially from Japan. I used to go to a club once a month in Atlanta called AnimeX where we would watch undubbed Japanese animation. Remember this was pre-internet so there was no streaming and the popularity of the form was not quite popular enough to make it into Blockbuster, remember Blockbuster? I used to even read Animation trade magazines, that's where I discovered the Pixar upstarts.

Now I take my kids, indeed my older daughter is about as I was when I discovered Pixar. The shorts to me are the best. They are something of a throwback to the early days of Warner Bros. putting a Bugs Bunny cartoon before the feature. I love the shorts more than the feature because they pack an emotional wallop but are also micro studies of how stories work. These folks have done their homework.

Finding Dory is a true sequel, it basically takes an established character and situation and plays with the opposites. We don't find Nemo, we find Dori; Nemo is missing through most of the first movie, Dory is in almost every frame of this one; in the first film Nemo's future is at stake, in this film her past is in the balance.

I like sequels, and I like this one, but the inversion-of-the-establishment-of-the-first-film seems played out.

However, where I think this movie really shines is in two areas.

The first, is that every single character is flawed in some way: Dory has no memory, her parents have lost a child, Marlin is a pathological worrier, Nemo is disabled, Destiny the Whale Shark is nearly blind, Bailey the Beluga Whale is emotionally blocked from using his sonar, Becky is a shell shocked Loon.

There is a very nice sub-plot, told in flash back, of Dory's parents raising a child with special needs. How does one, in fact, raise a child who cannot remember the immediate past.

Which leads me to the second strength of this film: memory. Dory, "suffers from short term memory loss."

Throughout the film Dory contends with living in a world of memory as a person [sic] without memory. The world is a place of memory. I've heard tell of a tribe in the Amazon that indicates the past, in body language, by pointing forward. In the West we usually point forward to signify the future, and point back to the past. The tribe instead points backward for the future because the future is unknown and unseen, and what is forward, what is seen is a function of the past. Unfortunately, in the West, and America in particular, the past is forgotten very quickly and wisdom is in short short supply.

The world is a product of the past, what then is life when there is no memory? In Finding Dory we find that a life without memory is dark indeed. There are part of the film that are heartbreaking because of the discontinuity of her life. Andy Stanton, the writer captures the hopelessness of the memory-free life very well.

In Christian worship, ever since the absolute beginning (we have a Eucharistic prayer from before the earliest New Testament writings, about the year 50, called the Didache, which means, the teaching) that says that Jesus wanted his followers to hold a meal in remembrance of him.

The word that is used is a fully embodied remembering of Jesus. This is not merely an intellectual affair, a simple memory game. Instead remembrance might be better described as remembrancing. Remembrance is not a noun but a verb, an activity which we engage in. Our lives then are a continual remembrance, an embodied memory, of Jesus Christ: his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Our lives are an activity, a constant reminder (see that, REMINDER?) of the living reality of the living Jesus.

This remembrancing is so very important because when we remember Jesus we remember our humanity. Jesus is not some special case super hero, he is God's message to us about what we are supposed to be: creatures that are capable of having our personalities fired by God so that we become icons, images, of the invisible God, giving the gifts of God: love, peace, justice, presence. This is worth remembering.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The words we use, the language that we speak and think with is impoverished. English is one of the most dense languages available to us in terms of actual vocabulary, but it is still limited in our expression. All language is limiting. But speak we must. I think it's good to get that out on the table, once we speak we have already limited our inner meaning, our thoughts, our desires, our emotions, our investment in our relationships.

For example, when I shout, "I love you" to my wife as she leaves the house, or when we part company, those three words are a cipher for a powerful relationship that lies at the intersection of our bodies, our history (individually and together), economics, society, time, sickness, commitment, children, and a million other grids of meaning that all overlap and converge in this one relationship. And all that is just with this one relationship not to mention my myriad connections with family, friends, staff, enemies, teammates, neighbors, et. al.

Dealing with others, making ourselves known and intelligible is always mediated through our words (verbal, body, contextual). And those words are always something of a betrayal of our deeper meaning and significance.

One word that kept coming up repeatedly is tradition. Tradition comes from the Latin, traditio, meaning to pass on. Most of us, I imagine think of tradition in terms of set-in-stone objects and practices that are stodgy, yet comfortable. I think of the couple that wants nothing to do with church most of the time, but want to "use" the church, and her words, for the "ceremony." I'm not denigrating this motivation because in it I recognize that people still see tradition as worthy enough to at least bring it out, and dust it off when needed to effectively solemnize an occasion. The thing about tradition though is that we have, especially in the church, but certainly in civil society (see 4th of July parades) objects and practices that are effectively divorced from reality.

The reality is the life of the practitioner. Tradition is meant to be a lived reality, not a series of objects moved in a certain order for magical effect. Words on a page that are moved around (spoken) without being implanted in the life of a practitioner is also life-less and magical. By magic I mean simply prioritizing the object in question with power over life. So in the Church we see in sacramental life prioritizing of the bread and wine over the gathered body of those who believe that God is up to something, in other words the Eucharistic elements have more power to express God than the assembly of believers.

Tradition then, to look back to the Latin, is the passing on of something, and I think that the emphasis has been on the "something" and not on the "passing." Tradition is passing, it is active. The most important aspect of the passing is the activity, the lived activity of the content of the tradition. To put not-too-fine-a-point on it: to shove symbols at people and expect a transformation is mere magical thinking. Instead, what if we passed our tradition by living it actively? Evelyn Underhill, the great Christian teacher, said once that the life of prayer is more easily caught than taught.

Sometimes, actually very often, indeed twice this week, young couples contact me to talk about baptism. The emails read something like this: "Good morning. My husband and I would like to have our 5 month old son baptized. We do not belong to your church, and haven't decided on one as of yet. However, we find this to be extremely important for our son, and an important part of our role as parents. Our other child was already christened by his age, and we would love to dedicate his life in Christ as well." This, to me, looks like non-practice meeting up with objects, for magical effect, perhaps family magic. I used to say to people, "call me me once I've seen you in church for a year." The church is for those who want to walk with God, with the disestablishment of the church there is no longer any social benefit to participating in the church, why does this even matter to you if you don't go to church? I've softened on this. Now I meet with people right away and talk to them about what baptism means and that it is not a private act for family, it is not celestial fire insurance, it is the initiation of this person into the Body of Christ and the people gathered there are going to promise to raise this child, so it might be a good idea for you to get active in our parish so that people aren't adopting a stranger.

That usually is met with surprise, that the small thing they think they wanted is actually pretty darn big. I've not had anyone come and hear all this, then walk away. I'm traditioning them, and myself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Masters recap part one of a lot

I took a class on contemporary Anglican Theologians, with the Rev. Drs. Ben King and Rob MacSwain. Ben is a historian of the church and Rob is a theologian. Rob taught many of my theology classes for my MDiv including directing my independent study on Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethicist. Hauerwas, famously, was on the cover of Time Magazine in 2001 as the America's most important theologian, which he had a real problem with; but no one remembers this because the issue came out on Sept. 11. Hauerwas, being American, is given to pithy quotes, see here.

The first theologian we read was Rowan Williams who is decidedly NOT given to pithy, bumper-sticker ready quotations. As I read through his extraordinarily dense and nuanced, On Christian Theology, I kept looking for that one phrase that would sum up his project. I couldn't find it. Hauerwas can be summed up in "The first task of the church is for the church to be the church," followed closely by, "The Church doesn't have a social ethic, it is a social ethic." But Williams...? Nope.

Williams is doing something else. I think this is owed to his being a poet, but the activity of reading On Christian Theology imparts an experience of the content, which is some doctrine of God or a method of doing theology. The form itself communicates the content. What I mean is, his chapters on the Self and the Holy Trinity actually, I think, give a sense of what life is like in these doctrines. So his chapters on the Trinity, for example, are very subtle, intricate, and intermingled. One gets an actual experience of the Trinity's perichoretic relationship. It is the most difficult theology I've ever read, but it repays the effort.

Williams writes widely for the wider audience. I'd highly recommend, Finding God in Paul, Being Christian, and my favorite, Silence and Honey Cakes.

Another aspect of Williams that came up in our discussion of his theology was the fact that he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and not a widely successful one. Some of his thoughts on homosexuality didn't fair too well once he had the power of the office. One person in the class said insightfully, "If only he had been Rowan Williams instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he thought we needed the office, not the man." Williams ultimately went against some of his own thoughts as the Archbishop, this, apparently had real personal consequence. Therefore, some of Williams later work looks at tragedy as a Christian category. In fact as I work on my paper for this class, which is on theodicy,wondering about a loving, powerful God in a world of pain and suffering, Williams' thoughts on tragedy loom large.

I'll reflect more on this class, especially the other theologians we covered, later.

Monday, June 27, 2016


I've been out of town for several weeks, three to be exact. I only missed one Sunday because after the first week I came home to Charlotte to pick up the family to join me. Where was I? I went home to Sewanee, AKA the School of Theology at the University of the South. The way that my very happy childhood shook out, I somehow emerged without a sense of place, without a place that I call home. So when I visit my parents, I visit them, I don't go "home." That house was sold my senior year of high school. Years later we went to seminary at Sewanee. It's a beautiful place, take a look:

Not only is it beautiful but the faculty and staff of the school of theology basically formed me into a priest, and a Christian. So this place feels like home. It's got it's problems, but knowing about those (it's racist founding (which they openly acknowledge and face down), its relationship with the surrounding community, etc.) means that Sewanee is a real place, not a fantasy. So Sewanee is my spiritual home. Earlier this year on a trip to Jerusalem I was struck by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which, for me, is the perfect icon of the broken Body of Christ. On that trip my heart became magnetized to that strange place. But in Sewanee, I'm fed spiritually just being there.

I was there to start a new course of study. I'm doing what is called a STM, a Masters of Sacred Theology. I have no idea why they don't call it a MST. I've been told that the STM is the most academic degree they offer, even more than the MDiv. I am hear to report that this seems to be the case. I take classes along with the Dmin (doctor of ministry) students. A DMin is not a PhD, but it is an advanced degree that is more practical in nature, at least in what they produce at the end. The DMin students, for their program, must do a project related to the parish. The STM students write a thesis, 120 pp. So... there's that.

Students take two courses at a time, for three weeks, five days a week, two hours per day per class. It was intense. They basically take a semester's worth of work into three weeks. The first few days I thought I had made a horrible mistake, I certainly felt like a total slacker. My reading and thinking had gotten a little flabby, but as the days went on I was able to run with the big boys and girls. I was reading about 150 pages of content per day for the classes, plus a little wikipedia for the stuff I didn't understand. So when there is a theologian writing about the grave mistake of the epistimology of Dun Scotus, you have to do some quick reading on what the heck that is!

I'll highlight what I read later, but suffice it to say for now that the course of study was amazing. It was hard at times to remember, with my family there, that I was not on vacation. I found myself resentful of all the work, but kept repeating: I. Am. Not. On. Vacation.

I'm so grateful to the parish for supporting this study. For me, I am greatly fed by this high level kind of study and it is a joy for me to make it intelligible to the parish through our programming and my preaching. More to come!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Good 'Ol Paul

Sermon for Proper 8C
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Did you ever learn something that was a game-changer? You know, like one day you knew how life worked, but then you learned one little thing, and boom! Life is different, you see the world anew, a light goes on.
I know that the best kind of learning is slow and nuanced, where knowledge becomes wisdom, but sometimes, a powerful learning can be summed up in a bumper sticker-like pithy saying. For me, several years ago this happened when I came upon the dual saying: the map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. Have you heard this phrase?
It basically means that the means of signification and language are in fact not what they refer to. I’ll probably say something that refutes all this when we talk about sacraments at the end of July. But for now: The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. What’s that mean? To me it means that we have to continually remind ourselves that the tools we use to make sense of the world are no the world itself. Actual maps can get you from point A to point B, but those maps look nothing at all like the territory you are in. The difference between a two dimensional map and the Grand Canyon, for instance, couldn’t be more different.
Likewise, the menu is not the meal. The menu hints at the meal, it gets you to the meal, but you don’t eat the menu, you eat the meal.
Both the map and the menu though are pretty darn useful, they get you somewhere or something. The map gets you to the Grand Canyon, then you put the map away. The menu gets you to the meal. Once you order your food the server takes the menu away.
I’m bringing all this up because we need to talk about Paul. It’s funny, we need to talk about Paul, as if we were going to hold an intervention. Paul has gotten a great deal of grief from the church in recent years, some of it deserved, mostly not. I think that the main problem that most people have with his writings is that he wasn’t just like us, he wasn’t as politically progressive as we would have him. Hopefully I can help repair Paul’s bruised reputation a little today.
The reading we get from Paul today is from his letter to the church in Galatia. Because Paul’s writings were put into the Bible, many of us just sort of assume that these writings fell out of heaven, fully formed. But that’s not it at all, Paul was always writing to a specific community, that he usually knew very well. All of Paul’s writings are, what scholars call, occasional writings. It doesn’t mean that wrote when he felt like it, it means that he wrote for particular occasions, he had a reason for writing.
The reason that Paul is writing the Galatians is because they have heard and responded to God’s loving acceptance in Jesus Christ, but in his absence they have fallen back into their old ways of expecting certain behaviors and life-styles for members of the church. Paul is writing to chastise them for their exclusion and condition making.
And here is where we get the map and the territory, the menu and the meal. Paul uses two symbol systems to outline his argument: slavery and freedom, and flesh and spirit. I’d like to dive into these in detail but always remember that the map is not the territory.
First Paul says that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” He’s using this dichotomy of freedom and slavery because, everyone in that age would have understood exactly what he means, those who were listening either, were slaves, had slaves, or knew one or the other. Slavery in the first century was extremely commonplace. Paul is sometimes criticized for not coming down hard enough on slavery. To those I would say, read Paul, you’ll be surprised. That does not take away the fact that preachers in this very city in the 18th and 19th centuries used selective citations of Paul to prop up their own evil economic system.
But when Paul talks about freedom from slavery he is using the culturally resonant metaphor to reveal the fact that the Galatians, and by extension, us, are reverting back to an old understanding of what it means to be accepted by God, namely that we must submit to laws of behavior and winning God over. That’s slavery. Freedom on the other hand, through Christ means that we are free from the slavery of winning God’s love. And that freedom also means that we are free from expecting others to have to earn our love.
The other symbol that Paul uses us flesh and spirit. Remember that he is trying to communicate a deeper truth, the map is not the territory. Believe me I could give you twenty minutes on the different Greek words for what we would call the body, but what matters is what he says. The flesh and the spirit and vying for control of the full human being, in each of us. If we let the flesh drive the bus then all those bad behaviors follow, he ends his list with “and things like this.” It’s not meant to be exhaustive or even definitive, you know what he’s talking about: fear, lying, unfairness, callousness, the list is almost endless. But when the spirit drives the bus, when the spirit is in control of the human being, then that life takes on the shape of a human that is in close contact with God, a life like Jesus’, a life that bears fruit, like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
So, keeping in mind that the map is not the territory and that no metaphor is perfect: We are no longer owned, enslaved, to the notion of living that would have us have to earn God’s love. In Christ we are made free to come to God. And because we are now free in Christ, the spirit can now run our lives, not the flesh. That’s Paul 101, that’s Christianity for Dummies.
Now, listen to me. I need you to go from hearing these words to listening to these words. Everything I’ve been saying, you think is about someone else. But it’s not, it’s about you. I was thinking about you when I wrote this. I do that a lot, much more than you might be comfortable with, I write sermons with specific people in mind. This one is for you, all this stuff about being set free from the slavery of impressing God is real, it’s real that we don’t earn love, and it’s real that we should extend that same unconditional love to other. It is real. And it’s about you. And you’re not doing it. And if you did, you’d be, if not happier, you’d be free, free with God.
Look, I know the political system is rough. Lord knows that the last few weeks have been bad weeks for the world. And, frankly, I don’t have the faith in the moral arc of the universe. I don’t have faith that everything happens for a reason, or that everything will work out. But I have faith in God and God alone. I trust that God has accepted me and you and the entire creation, without condition, full-stop. And that sets me free, it sets me free to love. It sets me free to throw a wrench into the machine of condition and exploitation.
That’s the territory, that’s the menu. This place of love is our destination. If Paul’s maps and menus don’t get you there, then set them aside, but don’t set aside where he’s trying to get us. Come up with your own maps and menus, but make no mistake, the territory is God, and the meal is Jesus Christ.