Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Two weeks ago, we celebrated Flag Day (June 14), and by "we" I mean Steve Pankey, me, and something like seven other people across the country. I jest, of course, but Flag Day isn't a huge celebration, which is why I like it so much. It is a chance to commemorate the adoption of the flag by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 and, more subtly, to celebrate our love of our country in a peculiarly American way. We, after all, are the only ones in the world who pledge our allegiance first to a flag and then to the republic for which it stands. When Steve posted about Flag Day, I encouraged him to take that opportunity to write a blog post about why the flag of the United States belongs in church. He responded with something like, "I am not THAT stupid." For a multitude of reasons, displaying the flag in a place of worship is controversial, and, although Steve was smart enough to steer clear of that, I'm just stupid enough to take it on.
This Sunday is July 2, which means that, although Monday is not a federal holiday, many of us will already have our July 4 plans lined up. We will come to church (or not) thinking about Independence Day. I doubt that many of us will spend much time really pondering what it means to have declared our independence from a imperialistic European power, and I am certain even fewer of us will have considered what implications that has for the way we worship and exist more broadly as a church, but, call me crazy or old-fashioned, I think it's ok for church and country to intersect every now and again...despite all the challenges that brings with it.
We will sing (gasp!) a patriotic hymn. If we have enough acolytes, we will (double-gasp!) process the flags of both the United States and the Episcopal Church in the procession and display them in the chancel throughout the service. We will (apoplectic fit!) pray the prayer "For Our Country" as part of the Prayers of the People. And I believe that we can do all of those things without confusing love of country with love of God. There's a reason that patriotic hymns are included in Hymnal 1982, and I don't think singing one of them will lead the congregation to believe that we have replaced the "kingdom of God" with a kingdom of this world.
We will not contact the bishop and ask for permission to use the propers for Independence Day because it should not take precedence over the propers for a Sunday. Instead, we'll wait until July 4 to observe that major feast in our usual Tuesday midday service. We will not replace the cross and torches with the flag, nor will we process them into church in front of the cross, and we will only carry them if there are enough acolytes to do all of that (doubtful on a holiday weekend). The patriotic hymn we sing will not be a hymn of praise in substitute for the Gloria. Instead, (contrary to the rubrics, yes I know) we will sing National Hymn ("Faith of our fathers") as we process out of church into the world, beseeching God "thy true religion in our hearts increase." In other words, our principal allegiance is to God, and our principal duty is to submit our lives to the further establishment of God's reign as disciples of Jesus. But our godly allegiance and godly work are not isolated from our participation in our civic, national life. Instead, we must work within this nation--as citizens, as voters, as advocates, as demonstrators, as protesters, as patriots--to use its vast resources for God's work. Freedom, after all, is not an American invention.
No, our national identity is not always aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, quite often it is not. We pray every Sunday that our national leaders may be led in ways of righteousness and peace, and there's a reason we keep praying that every week. This Sunday isn't a time to lock our national identity out of the church. It is a chance to gently remind ourselves that being a patriot--being zealous for or strongly attached to one's homeland--does not mean, "America: like it or leave it." It means recognizing that this nation has an opportunity and a duty to serve the welfare of all people. It means acknowledging that the American Dream of universal opportunity is not a reality for many and that the freedom won in the American Revolution is still not guaranteed for all. We do not celebrate our country in church because we like it just the way it is. Like all of creation, we celebrate it for what it can be with God's help.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Have you seen or heard the old fable, "The Rabbi's Gift?" It's a cheesy but effective presentation of Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 10:40-42). If you haven't seen it, you can watch the six-minute video below, or you can keep reading and I'll tell you what happens.
Spoiler alert! The story is about a old, declining monastic community that seems to be on a path that leads to its eventual closure. The abbot of that community shares his concerns with a colleague, a thoughtful and friendly rabbi, and the rabbi tells him that the messiah is among the monks in the monastery. When the abbot shares that news with the rest of the monks, everything begins to change. As the monks begin to imagine that one of their brethren could actually be Jesus, they start caring for one another in a new way. Their prayers and worship and service intensify, and, soon, the monastery is receiving visitors and, then, new novices. In the end, of course, the monastic community is thriving and all because the rabbi helped them see what was true all along--that the messiah was among them not as an individual but as a spiritual presence that gave them their true direction.
On Sunday, Jesus will tell us that anyone who welcomes a disciple of his welcomes Jesus himself, and I'm curious how a deep commitment to those words might change the way we do church this Sunday.
When the bishop comes, everyone kicks into high gear. The organist and choir are at their best. The flowers are especially beautiful. The reception in the parish hall after the service is topnotch. Everyone sings a little more joyfully. Everyone smiles a little more sincerely. And why--because the bishop came? Spoiler alert: bishops are great, but they're not that special. If we put on our best show for the bishop, what might we do if we thought Jesus was coming to church this week?
Welcoming someone into church is not the same thing as saying hello and handing her a bulletin as she walks through the door. Welcoming someone in the Lord's name is not the same thing as smiling and shaking his hand at the Peace. Providing a true welcome just as we would welcome Jesus himself is far more than being friendly. It means honoring whoever walks through the door with the same reverence, devotion, and love that we would show Jesus himself if he came into church. If you are a part of a church that wants to grow, think about welcoming everyone--from the life-long parishioner to the first-time visitor--with the same care that you would give to Jesus. Isn't that how we show ourselves to be the Body of Christ?
This week, by the time we get to the sermon, it may be too late to rewind and welcome everyone just as we would welcome Jesus. So don't wait until the sermon. Start thinking about it now. And start thinking about next week, too. What does it mean to be a church that welcomes everyone just as we would welcome Jesus? The message of this gospel lesson is that by welcoming them we are welcoming Jesus--not as an analogy but in literal truth. We welcome Jesus as we welcome everyone else. When you welcome them, you are welcoming Jesus. Don't lose sight of Jesus when he walks through the door.
Monday, June 26, 2017
This Sunday, we'll hear the third and final installment of Jesus' instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. First, we heard about him sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Then, yesterday, we heard about the need to proclaim boldly the message that he gave them despite the conflict it may cause. This week, in Matthew 10:40-42, we'll hear Jesus speak of the other side of that rejection and describe the reward that those who welcome the disciples and their message will receive.
Like any preacher, Jesus runs the risk of obscuring his message with a vivid image, and this is one of those cases when I find myself in danger of focusing more on the thing that Jesus uses to convey his message than the message itself: "...whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
That cup of cold water--I can see it; I can feel it on my lips; I can see it in my hand as I offer it to a thirsty prophet. Many times, I have thought of this passage as I have offered a cup of water to someone who walks into our office seeking financial assistance. I don't say that as a credit to myself. On the contrary, I say it as a gentle condemnation that to equate Matthew 10:42 with giving a thirsty person a drink of water is to miss the point of the passage entirely. As sinfully satisfied as it makes me feel, giving someone some water isn't what Jesus is asking me to do. He's asking me to welcome the prophet and provide for him or her. A cup of water is nice, but, if I'm only trying to satisfy the letter of this verse and move the supplicant along quickly so that I can get back to work, I haven't really done anything.
Notice again the rest of the passage.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.Don't lose sight of the rest of it because you're still thinking about that cup of water. What does it mean to welcome someone in Jesus' name--to the extent that we are not only welcoming the person but also Jesus and, along with him, the Father who sent him? What does it mean to welcome a prophet like that? What does it mean to welcome a righteous person like that? Isn't it more than a cup of water?
Jesus' words about the cup of cold water are a reminder that even small gestures are significant, but he isn't asking us to make the small gesture the focus. That's getting the instruction backwards. Instead of saying to ourselves, "I offered a cup of water; I've done what Jesus asked," we should think, "How can I welcome this person as I would welcome Jesus, knowing that even if a cup of water is all I can offer I will have done something?"
The promise Jesus gives to those who welcome the prophet, the righteous person, the little one, is that they will receive their reward. This gesture of hospitality is transformative. By it, we are blessed by Jesus. I think the real power of this passage is found when we stop expecting Jesus to reach down from heaven and sprinkle some magic blessing on us when we give someone a cup of cold water and instead consider the encounter itself as the source of the blessing. How might the act of being hospitable to a prophet bestow upon us that reward? How might that realization change our hospitality? If we expect to leave that encounter blessed and transformed, would we give more than a cup of water? Would we give more than five minutes? Would we give more than a passing thought?
The good news, Jesus tells us, is that all gestures of hospitality receive a reward. Even a cup of cold water is appreciated. But could it be more?
Thursday, June 22, 2017
Jesus says, "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!" Well, what are they calling us now?
Sunday's gospel lesson is Matthew 10:24-39. I've written a few times this week about how easy it is to get caught up in the dramatic (note that I don't think he's being hyperbolic) words of Jesus about a son rising up against his father and a daughter rising up against her mother. I do think that's what Jesus meant, but I think that kind of internal family strife isn't the nature of God's kingdom but the nature of the response of earthly institutions to that kingdom. This isn't a passage about conflict. It's a passage about the proclamation of the kingdom that will inevitably result in conflict. When we proclaim from the housetops what Jesus whispered to his disciples, we're going to ruffle some feathers...or at least we should expect it to ruffle some feathers.
Sometimes Jesus was provocative for the sake of being provocative, but here I don't think he's telling us that the key to the kingdom of heaven is to cause trouble. Still, I think it's a safe measure of our proclamation of the gospel. If people aren't whispering about us behind our backs... If people aren't ignoring our phone calls... If people haven't permanently hidden our posts on Facebook... If people haven't stopped inviting us to dinner parties... If the members of our extended family don't steer clear of religion and politics when we're around...then we're not proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
I'm in the middle of a three-week stretch at the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I'm taking classes in the STM program. Every day, I take two classes in the same room, and, whenever I walk out of the door to that classroom, I am greeted by a bright yellow poster that is hung on the office door across the hall. On that poster in big purple letters is a quotation from Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil. For years, I've been noticing that poster, and I still can't help but see it fresh each day. That poster looks like this.
If they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household? The most faithful, most religious people of Jesus' day heard his message and called him a zealot, a liberal, a rabble-rouser, a traitor, a sinner. What would we expect them to call us?
What are the labels that we're afraid of having affixed to us by friends, family, parishioners, colleagues, coworkers, members of other churches, members of our own church? If we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, what will we risk being called? A liberal? A goody-goody? A religious nut? A communist? Intolerant? Idealistic? Foolish? These aren't our words that we proclaim. They are Christ's. They belong to the Word of God. When we shout them from the rooftops, will they say that we are against the church? Will they say that we are working against God? Even the most faithful among them said it of Jesus himself. What will they say about us? And are we truly proclaiming the gospel if they're saying nothing at all?
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Boiling down Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39) to one or two problematic verses not only makes for a bad sermon but also a bad reading of the text. The "man against his father and a daughter against her mother" part of the story is Jesus' way of saying that following him--that proclaiming from the rooftops what Jesus has told his disciples in secret--is going to cause some strain in the relationships we hold most dear. Jesus isn't interested in making the Christian community into a Jerry Springer episode. Jesus knows that the message of God's kingdom will split families in two. So to say that the bit about "whoever loves father or mother more than me...whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" is Jesus' way of saying that you must give up all familial relationships in order to be a disciple isn't really the point. That's one reading of this text, and it's one that sends us out into the desert to be an anchorite and spend the rest of our lives in solitude, but it isn't how I hear this passage.
What does it mean to "love father or mother more than [Jesus]?" What does it mean to love anyone more than anyone else? Let's think about love. What is love? When we're reading about Jesus and get to a passage about love, it's easy to think that we're talking about agape love--the kind of selfless, self-giving, sacrificial love that God has for the world, that Jesus has for his disciples, and that we are called to have for one another. Surely that kind of love is not a comparative thing. Just as something cannot be "more unique" or "more original" or "more orange," there is no such thing as "more agape." Either you love someone in that completely self-emptying sort of way or you don't. Just as you can't sort of be married, you can't sort of have agape. It's all or nothing. But that isn't the kind of love Jesus is talking about here.
Jesus uses the word φιλῶν, which is a verb form of the love known as phileo. Now, that word does mean "love," but it isn't the same verb that conveys agape love. This is brotherly love, love of affection, love of friendship. It's not the romantic eros love, nor is it the sympathetic pathos love. It is relational. It is mutual. But it is not limitless, unconditional, sacrificial love. So when Jesus asks us to love him more than we love our mother or father, he's not telling us to stop loving our children with the kind of approximate unconditional love that burns in our hearts. He's telling us to be closer to him than to the people in our family. That's starting to make sense, but there's more.
The word Jesus uses to make that comparison is the common Greek preposition ὑπέρ. In Greek, it most commonly means "over," which is a little different than the word most often used in the translation of this particular verse--"more." It can also mean "beyond" or ""in place of" or "on behalf of." To render this word in English, the best words we can use are "more" or "over," but we should also hang on to some of the other connotations. This doesn't mean "more" in the sense of "bigger" or "containing a larger quantity." This means "more" as in "I've made a choice, and I'm choosing Jesus in my #1 speed-dial spot over you, Mommy."
By the time we pull it all together, this sounds a little different than we may have first heard it. "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Jesus isn't telling his disciples to love him to the exclusion of their families. And is isn't asking them to love him with a greater love than mother or father or son or daughter. He's telling them that they cannot afford to love family members to the exclusion of him. As followers of Jesus, our affiliation with our family members cannot take the place of our affiliation with Jesus. As his disciples, our connection with our parents or children cannot squeeze out our connection with Jesus. Perhaps ironically, the particularly loose translation The Message may convey this better than almost any other English translation: "If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me."
That helps remind us that the "love" Jesus is talking about here is the relational love that forms between friends or family members. That kind of "relationship affection" has priorities. I'm allowed (and expected) to have a closer connection with my son than with my second cousin. The challenging teaching here is that I'm supposed to have a closer connection with Jesus than I am with my parents or my children. That isn't easy. But I'm not called to agape-love them less than I agape-love Jesus. That kind of love doesn't have degrees.
Luke's version of this passage, in which Jesus tells his disciples to hate their mothers, fathers, and children? Well, that's another post and another sermon for another year.
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Do you ever read something in the Bible and think, "Hey, that's not right! God shouldn't have let it happen that way!" To some, those thoughts may feel sacrilegious, but I think a careful reading of Sunday's lesson from Genesis 21 reminds us that we aren't the only people who feel that way. Sometimes even pillars of faith like Abraham aren't sure God is doing the right thing.
Before we get to Sunday's lesson, here's a quick recap of the Abraham story. God appeared to Abraham and told him to leave his homeland and set out for a new territory. God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations and to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Over and over, God reminded Abraham of his promise even though Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting older and older. When it seemed certain that Sarah was too old to have a child, Sarah suggested that Abraham have intercourse with her maidservant Hagar the Egyptian. He did, and Hagar had a child, who was named Ishmael. But that wasn't what God intended. Eventually, despite all the odds, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son who was named Isaac, and God made it clear to Abraham that Isaac was to be the child through which God's promise would be fulfilled.
But blended families can be complicated. Even before Ishmael was born, Sarah began to regret her decision to encourage her husband to sleep with her servant Hagar. She complained to Abraham that Hagar was becoming obstreperous, and Abraham told her to treat the servant however she wanted. So Sarah chased the pregnant woman out into the desert. But an angel appeared to Hagar and told her to go back and submit to the harsh treatment because God had a different plan and a different promise in mind for the fruit of her womb. That's more or less where Genesis 21 picks up.
Sarah still burns hot with jealousy. Her servant's son is a constant living reminder of the intercourse that servant had with her husband. On the day of celebration when her own son Isaac was to be weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael playing with her son, and her rage became uncontainable. She said to her husband, "Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." And there it is. Unwilling to share, unable to make room, Sarah will not allow another woman and her son to remain. But this is Abraham's son. He may not belong to Sarah, and we may know that Isaac is the one through whom God's promise is to be fulfilled, but Ishmael is still his son--his own flesh and blood. He is Abraham's first-born child. He has known him for a decade or so. He has held him in his arms. He has played with him in the woods. He has taught him how to hunt and how to tend the sheep. And now he is being asked to send his own son and that son's mother out into the wilderness to die?
In Abraham's moment of need, God intervenes. And what does God say? "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." In other words, don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. Send them out. They will have their own story, their own people, their own nation.
Why doesn't God speak to Sarah instead? Why doesn't God make it possible for Abraham to keep both sons? Is this God's way of punishing Abraham for seeking a child by another means? Is this God's way of showing preference for the light-skinned people of the Fertile Crescent, where Sarah was from, over the darker-skinned people of Egypt, where Hagar was from? We can ask these questions, but they don't have answers beyond speculation. The comfort I receive is in seeing Abraham's struggle. "This matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son." These were real people with real feelings. They might not have had the same sort of father-son relationships that we enjoy, but the bond between a man and his offspring was real back then. It wasn't easy for Abraham to say goodbye to his own family. He wasn't sure about this. This didn't seem right to him. But God told him not to worry, and God stepped in to provide for Ishmael and his mother.
I like to cheer for the underdog. I was a Cubs fan long before the Cubs threatened to make the playoffs much less win the World Series. I like it when Fred Couples or Tom Watson makes a run at a major championship long after they should have stopped being competitive. I like the longshot. I like the David-versus-Goliath match up. For the most part, the story of Israel is a story of an underdog, but not yet. At this point, in the Bible, Abraham and Isaac are the winners. They get to stay. But the story isn't over for Ishmael.
I like the Islamic tradition that retells the story of Ishmael and Isaac. In that tradition, the promise is not made through Isaac but through Ishmael. In that tradition, it isn't Isaac who is taken by his father to be sacrificed when God tests him; it is Ishmael. In that tradition, when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, the angel Gabriel appears and revealed to Sarah, who had been searching for water, that her son had found a spring. That spring became Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Also in the Islamic tradition, Abraham doesn't bid farewell to his older son for good. Throughout his life, he visited Mecca several times to check on his son and offer his fatherly advice. Those details aren't part of the Jewish or Christian traditions, but we do embrace God's promise to Hagar--that her son Ishmael will become the father of his own nation. Those might not be our stories, but they are a part of the story of the people of God.
Abraham teaches us that it is ok for us to feel anguish over the path that we are on. Abraham teaches us that faith in God does not always mean that we will understand how God works. Instead, he teaches us to have faith that God is with us and those we love even when we do not understand it. The outcome may be painful. The road ahead may be hard. As Jesus reminds us, we may even have to give up family and friends. But God is bigger than we are. God's purposes are wider than we can see. God's love and provision are greater than we can imagine. Struggle and uncertainty are not signs of lacking faith. They show us what it means to have faith beyond our own understanding. They show us what it means to have faith in God.
Monday, June 19, 2017
Do you remember that scene from The Princess Bride after the rushed-through wedding ("Mahwidge...") when the king and queen escort Princess Buttercup to the honeymoon suite while Prince Humperdinck goes to investigate the growing clamor of Wesley's assault on the castle? As the older couple and the beautiful bride walk down a corridor, the Princess Bride leans over and kisses the king. Stunned, he says to her, "What was that for?" And she replies, "Because you’ve always been so kind to me, and I’ll never see you again because I’m killing myself as soon as we reach the bridal suite." And what is the king's response? "Won't that be nice?" and, turning to his wife, "She kissed me!"
I like to imagine that Jesus takes his hand and smacks his forehead when he sees and hears people who boldly identify themselves as Christians going through life as if the gospel only matters for an hour or so each week. Calling yourself a Christian does not make you one. Being a Christian means giving your life to God, following Jesus as Lord, and believing that the future that he gives you is the only true future for your life. You can call yourself a Christian and live whatever kind of life you want, but you cannot be a Christian and hear the good news of Jesus Christ and carry on with your life as if it had no effect.
In Matthew 10:24-39, Jesus lays out a hard truth for his disciples: "I did not come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword." Wait a minute! Did you mean that, Jesus? Before we take that literally, let's give Jesus a chance to back off of that hyperbolic statement. What comes next? "For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household." Hmmm. Does it get any easier if we keep reading? "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Well shucks!
Alright, it seems that Jesus wants to stir up trouble. In that speech, he makes an allusion to Micah 7, where the unusual family behavior is not an indication of a prophet's work but, instead, the need for a prophet. Those sons treating their fathers with contempt and daughters rising up against their mothers is the prophet's condemnation of the people's godlessness. Jesus, however, seems to suggest that his work is a sort of quickening agent--an activity that exposes such godless relationships.
I think the key to understanding what Jesus has in mind is to go back and read the beginning of Sunday's gospel lesson:
A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master...If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Jesus is on a path that is marked by conflict. It will lead to his ultimate rejection by his people and the world. If you're going to follow me, he seems to say to his disciples, then you will be the recipient of the same sort of conflict and rejection. But don't be afraid! In them, you have nothing to fear. All they can do is destroy the body. Fear only the one who can destroy your body and your soul. You are more valuable to God than many sparrows, and not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God. So what I tell you here and now in secret, you must proclaim boldly from the housetops--even if it will get your arrested, even if it will get you shunned by family and friends, even if it causes conflict. Because I came to cause that conflict. That is my work. I came to the earth to bring a sword.
It's not a lot of fun to eat Thanksgiving dinner alone. It's not my dream to spend Christmas Eve in jail. I don't want to lose my job or the support of my family. I can't stand the thought of alienating my wife and children. But, if I allow the gospel of Christ to pass me by without stirring up in me an uncontainable desire to proclaim that threatening, transformative news to the world, Jesus is going to do more than smack his head with his palm. "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."
In twenty-first-century America, I don't think proclaiming the gospel of Christ necessarily involves alienating everyone you hold dear, but I do think that it requires us to make those people and the relationships we enjoy a little uncomfortable. The good news, however, is that the transformation envisioned by God in Jesus Christ is one that brings hope and life and renewal to all people, all things, all of creation. We are all a part of what God is doing in the world. It is and will be disruptive. We don't have to embrace it, but it will embrace us. You can sit back and watch it unfold, but you can't do that if you are a follower of Jesus. That transformation is exactly where Jesus is leading us. We can't follow him by sitting still and keeping quiet.