Thursday, October 20, 2016

Necessarily Inclusive Behaviors

And so it comes full circle. I started this week's sermon prep on Luke 18:9-14 thinking about the Pharisee's misplaced righteousness and how it should be cast alongside the righteousness of the tax collector rather than summarily rejected by the hearer of the parable. This allows for genuine comparison. Without taking time to consider the difference we may miss the real point of this parable: the need for the presumed righteous to accept the surprising righteousness of the presumed sinner. I had some back and forth with Steve Pankey on that, and he helped me refine the way I'd express that.

Now, though, I want to go back to the concept of "mutually exclusive behaviors" that Steve wrote about on Tuesday, and I want to turn it on its head--though not in a way that Steve is likely to disagree with. In fact, I want to take his point one step further. Steve wrote that righteousness and holding others in contempt are incompatible: "One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible." I agree with that, and I want to expand his citation to the beginning of verse nine and say that trusting in oneself that one is righteous and regarding others with contempt are necessarily inclusive behaviors. That is, if you trust in yourself that you are righteous, you will always hold others in contempt. And that's a problem.

The bookends of this parable are designed by Luke to make sure the reader does not miss that point. As the parable is introduced, Luke tells us who the audience is--some people who were confident in their own right-standing before God and who looked at others with disdain. Then, at the end of the parable, Jesus offers an explanation of the story he has told: "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." This is a description of diametrically opposed movements. Self-inflation leads to degradation, and self-degradation leads to inflation. That's how God works. Throughout all of history, God's salvation has been to lift up the downtrodden and set the captive free and bring the dead to life. And, throughout all of history, we have seen that those who rest confidently, arrogantly, presumptuously on God's favor, regard others with contempt in a way that ends up bringing them right back down to earth.

God's salvation raises us up. But, if we think highly of ourselves, we naturally think less of others. And God's salvation isn't given to the high and mighty. It's showered upon the lowly. In God's eyes, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both are sinners in need of redemption. Both need God's love and mercy. But only one recognizes that fact. If the Pharisee in us cannot identify completely with the tax collector in our midst, we cannot know God's saving work. Does God still love us? Yes. Will God still save us? Yes. But can we know that saving love? As long as we have distanced ourselves from the limitless love of God, looking down on those who do not deserve it, the answer is no.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Knowing What We Worship

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Did you ever consider doing something else with your life? Becoming a teacher instead of a doctor. Going to law school instead of pharmacy school. Enlisting in the military instead of going to college. Becoming a missionary instead of a mathematician? Today we celebrate the life and witness to the gospel of Henry Martyn, an Anglican missionary to India and Persia who used the gifts that God gave him to bring the gospel to those who had never heard it before.

Martyn was an undergraduate at St. John's College in Cambridge, where I did part of my seminary training. In that place, there is a culture that rewards excellence and brushes aside mediocrity, so, when Henry Martyn earned the distinction of "Senior Wrangler," it was something to note. The Senior Wrangler is the top student in mathematics at the University of Cambridge--the very best in an elite class of wranglers who have shown their ability to wrestle and master difficult problems in mathematics. The list of individuals who won that title includes some of the greatest minds in maths and physics in history. And what did Henry Martyn do with this honor? He became a missionary.

At a time when the British Empire was spreading across the globe, Martyn heard the famous clergyman Charles Simeon speak of the importance and good done by missionaries in India. That was enough to change his life. After reading about the work of other missionaries, Martyn decided to pursue that calling, and he was ordained a deacon and then priest, serving as curate at Holy Trinity, Cambridge, under Simeon's direction. Soon, Martyn signed up with the Church Missionary Society and set sail for India as a chaplain to the British East India Company. While there, he not only preached but also applied his mathematical genius to the study of linguistics, and his greatest contribution to the work of the church was to translate the New Testament into Urdu, Persian, and Judeao-Persic as well as translating the Psalms into Persian and the Prayer Book into Urdu. He became ill and set sail for England, where he hoped to regain his strength and recruit additional missionaries, but he never made it. He died along the way at the age of 31. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I wonder what Henry Martyn could have accomplished if he had stayed in Cambridge as a mathematician. I wonder how many people would have died not hearing the good news of Jesus Christ if he had not pursued his calling as a missionary.

"Jesus said to the [Samaritan] woman at the well, 'You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.'" We usually think of this encounter as a controversial meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman of questionable morals. Remember, although it's not in today's reading, this woman had had five husbands and was then living with a man who was not her husband (see the rest of John 4). But on Henry Martyn's day, we narrow our focus to something else--something just as important as Jesus' willingness to ask this sinful Samaritan to give him a drink. Instead, we are invited to consider the gap in knowledge that existed between the Jews and Samaritans and how Jesus Christ bridged that gap and brought all people back to the Father.

The differences and animosity between Jews and Samaritans are well rehearsed. For now, just remember that the Samaritans did not recognize most of the books of the Hebrew bible. They had the Torah--the first five books--but the prophets and other teachings were not part of their tradition. That means, among other things, that they were not expecting a messiah. Think about it: the parts of the Old Testament that predict the coming of an anointed one to rescue God's people are from books like Isaiah and Ezekiel and the other prophetic books that Samaritans were unfamiliar with. How, then, did this woman even know to look for Jesus much less how to make sense of what he and his ministry represented? How did she know? She met the real thing.

Henry Martyn gave his life--his gifted, talented, brilliant life--to the work of bringing the real Word of God to people who had never had a chance to encounter it before. He didn't just tell them about Jesus. He gave them Jesus. He gave them the Incarnate Word of John 1. He gave them the baby born in Bethlehem of Luke 2. He gave them the agony of the cross and the victory of Easter. He gave them the story of the church's growth and Paul's struggle to communicate the good news with the Gentiles.

What about us? Are we giving Jesus to a world that needs him? We may not have the gifts of mathematics or linguistics, but what are our gifts? How are we bringing Jesus to the world so that everyone can worship what they know? I live in a culture that says "try harder" and "do good" and "earn what you can" and "protect your own." But Jesus says "surrender" and "confess" and "give everything away" and "be vulnerable." Why does Jesus say that? Because that's who God is. We know who God is through the words and witness and life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel shows us that God is with those who empty themselves--who die to this world. The world needs to hear that as much now as ever. Those words and concepts are as foreign to our neighbors as the English New Testament was to the Urdu-speakers of India. Will we bring Jesus and the gospel of grace back to those who need him?

Learning from a Pharisee

As I get ready for a sermon, there is nothing I enjoy more than a little back-and-forth with my friend and colleague Dr. Steve Pankey, who wrote yesterday in response to a piece I wrote on Monday. Like him, I had missed that dialogue of late, and I began my week with an appeal to the Greek in the hopes that I could lure him into that conversation. I was thrilled that he took the bait--a shiny, sparkly appeal to justification through works that neither he nor I accepts. In fact, as you can see in our posts, both of us are eager to reject such a path to right-standing with God out of hand.

But I think Steve missed the point I was trying to make--mainly because I didn't make it very well. Like him, I don't believe that the Pharisee is righteous because of his works. Jack Alvey said it better than I did in his comment on my post: "I like 'alongside' because justification is all about the action of God's mercy and doesn't even need our repentance." Likewise, I think that the "mutually exclusive" point that Steve makes is spot on. One cannot be righteous and hold one's neighbor in contempt. That's what Luke has been trying to tell us for these many week's that we've been slogging our way through Year C of the lectionary. As I noted at the end of my post, perhaps an exclusive righteousness isn't righteousness at all. I think Steve and I agree on that.

Still, Bill Brosend's point (yes, I fixed the name in my previous post, but the Christian Century picked it up with the wrong version--sorry Dr. Brosend) is worth considering--not because we should hold up a works-based path to righteousness but because, unless we take the Pharisee's prayer as genuine, we can't really learn from him. The benefit, therefore, of reading the para + accusative as "alongside" and not "rather than" isn't because we're supposed to imagine how both Pharisee and tax collector are equally justified but because a rejection of the Pharisee's righteousness out of hand as never-was and never-could-be denies us the "aha!" moment of the parable--that one who everybody knew was already righteous might have been mistaken after all.

Although it goes without saying, we should remember that St. Paul didn't write Luke's gospel account. This passage isn't about justification by faith. That's not Luke's agenda. Luke's Jesus wants his hearers to see that the kingdom of God is open to sinners and rejects like the tax collector and that those who grumble against their inclusion find themselves on the outside looking in. With his "mutually exclusive" approach, Steve makes that point, too. But the real power of that realization comes not when we dismiss the Pharisee as an arrogant, self-righteous prig but when we take his prayer seriously and ask ourselves how his path to righteousness ended up leading him astray.

That's the "casting alongside" of the parable. Allow yourself to read the Pharisee's prayer not with a tone of superiority but as a genuinely thankful prayer to God: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." I know that it's hard. We read the words and think, "What a jerk!" But try to suspend judgment on content of the prayer until we get to the end of the parable. In the Pharisee's mind, whether through the chance of birth or some mistakes in his upbringing, he could have ended up as a rogue, thief, or tax collector. I could have, too, and I'm genuinely thankful that I'm not. But there's a difference in being thankful for one's life and holding others in disdain. The content of the prayer is misguided for sure, but, for all this Pharisee knew about righteousness, he was genuinely grateful to God for the faith that he had achieved. In his mind, his righteousness was something to give thanks for. And I don't think Jesus is being critical of his faithfulness. Jesus has painted us a picture of a hypothetically super-righteous person to make a more subtle point: what good is righteousness if you can't see the breadth of God's redeeming work? We might ask, "Is that righteousness at all?" but we get to that point not by rejecting the Pharisee's path to right-standing with God but by questioning where it leads.

Of course, as I wrote on Monday, something is missing. His righteousness is incomplete. If he cannot see the potential righteousness of the tax collector, he is selling God's mercy short. And, as Luke has made abundantly clear, that excludes one from the kingdom. In my original post, I should have made that point--that, by writing that the tax collector left justified "alongside" the Pharisee, Luke isn't embracing the Pharisee's righteousness but holding it up as a helpful-for-us comparison. In the minds of Jesus' hearers, the Pharisee's justification was never in doubt. He did everything he was supposed to do and more--except one thing: love your neighbor. But, if we reject the Pharisee's justification on the basis of works or self-righteousness, we miss the real power of this parable. Don't use this parable to preach Paul's justification by faith alone. Preach what Jesus was preaching: the magnitude of God's mercy must be accepted by all who participate in God's kingdom. I think Steve and I agree on that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Where Does Healing Come From?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
All of us are going to die. It's only a question of when and how. But that doesn't stop us from living or praying.

When I hold the hand of a young man who is fighting cancer, I pray for healing. When I lay my hand on the shoulder of a woman who has begun to show signs of dementia, I pray for healing. When I kneel at the bedside of someone who is about to take her last breath, I pray for healing. What does healing look like? Where does healing come from?

For some, it comes from a pill or a shot or a surgery. For many, it comes when the body mends itself, fighting off an infection. For a few, it comes through an unexplainable miracle. For all of us, however, it comes through death.

Today is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. We often think of him as a physician, but the only evidence of that we have is from Paul's letter to the Colossians, where he is identified as Paul's "dear friend Luke, the doctor." The Greek word Paul uses is iatros, which means "physician" or "healer," but, of course, what that meant back in the first century is quite different from what it means today. Whether Luke was a professional healer or a spiritual healer or just a guy who had brought healing to Paul and his companions is up for debate. Although Luke's gospel account and its sequel the Acts of the Apostles contain many stories of healing, they aren't any more significant than the healings recorded in the other gospel accounts. But there is a deep sense of healing that Luke emphasizes that is particular to his theology of salvation.

The gospel reading appointed for today (Luke 4:14-21) is an example. Luke tells us that Jesus came to his hometown synagogue and, when he stood up to read, he took the scroll of Isaiah and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Then, after sitting down, he revealed to the congregation that "this scripture [had] been fulfilled in [their] hearing."

Luke is the only one who tells us of this encounter. He is the only one who encapsulates Jesus' ministry in this way. For him, the healing that Jesus brought was good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord's favor. Those who were left out, who were excluded by the religious authorities, who were thought to be beyond God's mercy, found their home in Jesus the Christ. Try telling me that isn't a healing that matters!

Whether you're sick in body, mind, or spirit, God offers true healing. Whether you're weighed down by guilt or shame or regret, God will lift your burden. If you're bound by chains of debt or addiction or heartache, God will set you free. That healing, that freedom, is given to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. In him, we see our true healing. Yes, it breaks through into this life. Yes, the kingdom of God is the manifestation of God's saving work in this world right now--even today. And we also know that in Christ our true healing is granted fully in the life that awaits us.

So come to the Lord and seek true healing. Pray that doctors and nurses and physical therapists will be God's agents for restoration. But don't stop there. Look for God's healing among the poor and the oppressed, the blind and the lame, the prisoner and the enslaved. Look for God's healing that transcends this life.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rather Than or Alongside?

On Sunday, we will hear of the parabolic encounter of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). When they leave to go home, does the tax collector depart justified rather than the Pharisee, as most (perhaps all) major English translations put it, or does is he justified alongside his self-righteous colleague? And does that have the power to upend everything we thought we knew about this familiar parable?

Last week, I went to Sewanee for an opportunity to interview some potential contextual education partners--students who might spend two semesters in our parish as part of their formation. One of the "treats" for mentors like me is the opportunity to sit in on a class, and I attended one of Bill Brosend's "Parables and Preaching" seminars. One of the topics in that session was this particular parable, and Dr. Brosend suggested to us that the Greek construction typically rendered as "rather than" is "παρ' ἐκεῖνον," which is "para" + a noun in the accusative case. In Greek, Brosend argued, para + the accusative can mean "rather than" but far more often means "alongside." To make this point, he turned to the concept of "parable" as "para" + "bole" or literally "to throw alongside." I raised my hand and tried to make the point that this "casting alongside" in parables is to make a comparison--a distinction--but he turned my statement back on itself and noted that such a comparison can (often is) to draw similarities and not always differences. I was stumped.

What happens when we hear Jesus say, "I tell you, this man went down to his home justified alongside the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted?" From the pulpit, I avoid mentioning the Greek text at all costs, and I am not about to tell the congregation that para + the accusative usually means "alongside." But I do think it's worth considering what a Pharisee represented in Jesus' day. Even though I'm not willing to discard "rather than" altogether, I do think that, if we try to consider righteousness from a first-century Palestinian Jewish perspective, the "alongside" begins to make more sense.

Pharisees were righteous. Everyone knew that. As the man said of himself, "I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." What's wrong with that? Nothing. As far as we can tell, this man did everything that was expected of him and more. He embraced his faith fully. His life was genuinely shaped by what he believed. When it came to status before God--the question of righteousness--this man had done everything he was supposed to do. But, of course, something was missing.

Although we are predisposed to think of Pharisees as the bad guys, even Jesus' first-century hearers would have known that Jesus was setting him up for a fall: "I thank God that I am not like...this tax collector." The Pharisee wasn't wrong in how he lived his life, but his besetting sin was his inability to behold the potential righteousness of a notorious sinner. That is, the Pharisee shortchanged God's forgiveness and mercy. The sinful corollary of a super-holy life is a falsely elevated doctrine of humanity. If we fall into the trap of thinking we're "all that," it's only natural to forget that God's love has no limits. After all, why would a notorious sinner have just as much a claim on God's kingdom as we Pharisees?

Hold these two images of righteousness alongside each other. One is a Pharisee who did everything he was supposed to do in order to gain right-standing in God's eyes. The other is a tax collector, whose life was a complete repudiation of everything God would ask him to do. Could both be justified? If we believe that it is possible for the tax collector to be made right with God, we must believe that such righteousness comes not from his own works but from God's mercy. That's unmistakable. But what does that mean for the Pharisee? Perhaps he, too, has right-standing before God, but, as the parable indicates, he's standing off by himself. His is a lonely place. He is the older brother from the parable of the two lost sons. He might be righteous, but a righteousness that doesn't depend on God's mercy--a righteousness that sells God's forgiveness short--is a lonely, short-sided, sad existence. Perhaps that's not righteousness at all.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Faith is Wrestling

It took me a moment or two to detect a connection between the Track 2 OT lesson (Genesis 32:22-31) and the Gospel lesson (Luke 18:1-8). The former is Jacob's wrestling with an angel (or is it God?) at the ford of the Jabbok, and the latter is the parable of the persistent widow. One is larger than life, and the other is a simple story, but both center on faithfulness.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is in the process of appeasing his estranged brother Esau, whose large company is quickly approaching. Right in the middle of this sibling conflict, the story breaks for an overnight wrestling match between Jacob and the man/angel/God that meets him at the Jabbok. All night long, Jacob wrestles with God, and, as day approaches, this manifestation of God asks to be let go, but Jacob refuses, demanding the spirit's name. This thing that Jacob struggles against does not prevail against him, so it blesses him, changing his name from Jacob to Israel--one who struggles with God. The journey of Jacob has taken him away from his home after cheating his brother, off to his kinsfolk where he marries Leah and Rachel, away from his father-in-law whom he has bested with the Lord's help, back into Esau's presence. His whole life has been a struggle, and we see in this encounter that it has been a struggle with God. Yet God is faithful, and Jacob is faithful. And from this encounter Israel is born.

The parable of the widow invites us to struggle with God in a different sort of way--not all at once in a dramatic encounter but over time through prayer. Jesus presents a portrait of God and prayer that tells us that God will grant us the justice we seek, but the parable reminds us that sometimes we need to ask and ask and ask until we receive it. As I wrote yesterday, this parable isn't designed to teach us to annoy God into granting our request. Instead, Jesus is reminding us to be persistent--to be faithful. We are not to lose heart. Even when God's justice is delayed, we are to continue to seek it. We are to remember to look to God as the one who can give us our relief. When that relief is delayed, when it seems so far off as if it may never come, we are not to give up, and that is the greatest struggle of all.

Is God even there? Does he even hear us? Will he ever answer our prayers? To remain in relationship with God even when God's justice is delayed is itself a struggle. We could just give up. We could walk away. But God begs us to remain with him. God is the one who is known to us in the struggle. God is the one who reveals himself as we wrestle with him. We may not encounter an angel on a riverbank, but our struggle can be as real and as self-determining.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Simplicity of Prayer

The lessons for this sermon are taken from the two-year Eucharistic lectionary from Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 and can be read here: Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14 & Luke 11:1-4. Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever been star-struck? It won't surprise you to know that I don't often bump into A-list celebrities here in Decatur, Alabama (or those on the B- or C-lists either). Back when I worked on the ground crew for the Cubs, I felt some butterflies in my stomach the first time Sammy Sosa said hello. I once ran into Karen Corr, the world-champion billiards player, in an airport bookshop. I wanted to ask for her autograph but didn't have anything for her to sign, so I gave up and watched her walk away. And Vince Vaughn was walking into the American Girls store in Chicago as Elizabeth and I were walking out, but I pretended not to notice because I know my wife has a bit of a celebrity crush on him. I guess I've never really been star-struck, but I haven't had much of an opportunity.

Back in my hometown, there was a spiritual celebrity of sorts whom everyone that knew him held in high esteem. Francis Wilson was a retired Methodist minister, and he was widely regarded as the foremost authority on prayer. As a child, I remember my mother telling me that, if Francis Wilson was still alive when she died, she wanted him to do the funeral. That left a powerful impression on me. My first encounter with my mother's mortality was focused on the prayerfulness of one she admired deeply. When I was a young teen, our youth director remarked at how nervous she was when Francis Wilson asked whether they could spend some time in prayer together. She recalled how intimidating it was to be in the company of one whose prayer life oozed holiness. She confessed how terrified she was when Dr. Wilson asked her to pray. But, she assured us, it really wasn't anything to be scared of. Prayer is, after all, just a conversation with God. That was something that Francis Wilson knew and taught, and, if you could get past the intimidation factor, you might see how easy prayer can be.

In Luke 11, we read that John the Baptist had become a bit of a prayer celebrity. The disciples when to Jesus and said, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." I'm sure Jesus wasn't offended by that in the same way I would be if someone came up to me and said, "Would you preach good sermons to us the way your predecessor did?" Still, it's funny to me to think about someone asking Jesus to follow someone else's pattern--to be compared in any sort of way with another prophet. I don't think Jesus' terse answer was delivered out of any sort of frustration, but the response he gave was intentionally different from the sort of elaborate, impassioned, carefully crafted prayer the disciples were expecting: "He said to them, 'When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."

That's it. The end. There's not much to it, really. Five brief petitions: 1) May God's name be hallowed--respected as holy; 2) May God's kingdom come; 3) May God give us what we need for today; 4) May God forgive our sins just as we have forgiven others; and 5) May God keep us from being tested beyond our limits. Even a quick summary ends up being longer than the prayer itself.

When I read Jesus' prayer, I begin to wonder whether this is an antidote for being star-struck in God's presence. Is this a sort of 30-second elevator speech that a petitioner would make if she or he ever found himself in the presence of the Almighty? Is this supposed to be a well-rehearsed pitch so that, when we find ourselves in that elevator moment, we won't screw it up?

Prayer is just a conversation with God, but we need to remember that it is God to whom we are speaking. Yes, God is father; God is friend; God is lover, even. But, in all of those things, God is also God. I wonder what would happen if we stopped to consider that every time we approach God in prayer we are entering the presence of God himself. I wonder whether we might allow ourselves to become a little star-struck. I wonder whether, in that moment, we need something simple to say--something that conveys the fullness of our request but doesn't get lost in unnecessary details.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Luke's version is even shorter than the one we know, and maybe that's an invitation to keep our prayers even shorter and simpler than we expect. How might the simplicity of the Lord's Prayer reshape all of our prayer and remind us that, in even the most intimate conversations with God, our prayers are directed to the Holy One? Might these well-rehearsed words breathe new life into us and our relationship with God?