Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sunday Sermon - First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Year A (06/19/11)

June 19, 2011 – First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Year A
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 2; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here:

Before we moved to Montgomery, Elizabeth and I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, where she worked as a nurse while I finished seminary. Two of my favorite things about our time there are the Washington Post, which we took every day, and the fact that we did not have cable television. Until that year, I had always been a casual reader of the newspaper—content, instead, to get most of my news and entertainment through the medium of television. With only a handful of channels to choose from, however, I quickly learned just how informative and entertaining a newspaper can be.

I pretty much read every single page of that paper—including the lifestyles section and the classified ads. I did the Sudoku puzzles, the crossword, and the jumble—unless Elizabeth got to them first. I cherished the Post, taking it with me wherever I went just in case I had a spare minute to read in depth one of the articles I had only skimmed first thing that morning. Like a much-loved pet, I carried around each day’s edition, tucked under my arm or placed in my satchel the way some Hollywood starlets carry around their miniature puppies in their oversized purses.

Still to this day, I have a hard time containing my love of the paper. And, unfortunately for those around me, it frequently spills over into their lives. If I’m reading and come across something that I find interesting, I’ll attempt to share it with anyone who is within earshot. “May I read you this article?” I’ll ask. Elizabeth has learned just to say “yes” even if she’s not interested, and I’ve learned to ignore the exasperated tone with which she usually agrees to my request. Usually, I go on to read the article, which, of course, would be a lot easier for her to follow if I just let her read it herself, but that doesn’t stop me…unless the article in question is a comic strip.

Have you ever tried to read someone a comic? It just doesn’t work. It’s impossible to paint with words alone the artist’s work, which involves both text and image. In order to really appreciate a comic strip, you need to see it yourself. Back in Virginia, it only took a few weeks of my trying and failing to share with Elizabeth some of my favorite comics from the paper before she flatly refused to let me continue. “Will you please just let me read it myself?” she asked. She was right, of course. Some things need to be experienced in order to really be understood.

Today is Trinity Sunday—the first Sunday after Pentecost, the day when the Church, having finished its liturgical path through the life of Christ and having welcomed the gift of the Holy Spirit, stops to celebrate the Blessed Trinity. God in three persons yet one in nature and one in will. I’ll suggest to you today that the Holy Trinity is something that, like a comic strip, needs to be experienced rather than described. How many sermons on the Trinity have you been subjected to? How many times have you heard a priest try to explain it in a Sunday school class? The other day, I heard Bishop Parsley try to sum up the mystery of God in three persons with a clever little insight that may have helped clear things up a little bit but only at the expense of orthodoxy.

Perhaps we should take our cue from scripture, which says so very little about the Trinity. You may have noticed that the lessons chosen for Trinity Sunday do little more than mention Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s because, back when the New Testament was written, the Church really didn’t even know that there was a Trinity. Thus, there is no passage in the bible that attempts to explain it. Yet, as time has passed, we have gained an experience of God that suggests that God is more than just a transcendent, unknowable, and static deity. Instead, as we look back on the life of Christ and consider the Church’s continual encounter with the Holy Spirit, we discover that our experience suggests that God is a God of relationship—a God who reaches out to us just as God reaches within himself in the relational life of the Trinity.

In the final few verses of Matthew’s gospel account, the resurrected Jesus gives his followers the Great Commission—his last act before ascending into heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We use those same words when we baptize an infant here at St. John’s, and, when we invoke the three persons of the Trinity, we’re doing more than simply repeating a “magic formula” given to us by Jesus. We are saying words that reflect our experience of God.

In baptism, we are accepting on a child’s behalf God’s invitation to enter into the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the three persons of God eternally related to one another in love. Another way of saying that is this: because God is a God of relationship—three persons eternally bound and unified through love—it is possible even for us to take part in that loving relationship as we are united to Christ through our baptism. But taking part in God’s love is the kind of thing to which words cannot do justice. It is only by experiencing our own loving relationship with God that are we permitted a glimpse into who God really is.

But our experience of that love isn’t just limited to the moment of Baptism. We welcome people into our fellowship through that rite of initiation, but then what we do as Christians is to continue to celebrate our relatedness both to God and to each other. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Even that word “fellowship” implies that what we are together is inspired by the internal workings of the Trinity.

Although the early church didn’t know how to put a label on it, they still participated in the divine life of the Trinity. That’s reflected in the way Paul concluded his letters: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion [or fellowship] of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” It is only because God is Father, Son, and Spirit—three persons eternally related in love—that we, the Church, are held together in that same love. And, even though words may not be able to describe it, if you’ve ever found your true home in the Church, you’ve experienced a little bit of how the love that holds the persons of the Trinity together also ties us together.

When in this pulpit, Jim Walter often said that one thing or another was a mystery. And, until recently, I resented that. To describe something as a mystery seemed to me like theological escapism. But, as I look at our belief that the one God is a Trinity of persons in Unity of substance, I must acknowledge the fact that that belief is pure mystery. It can never be fully known. It defies all description. Yet the Trinity is something we can and do experience. The fact that our God is in a loving relationship with us—something we know through our experience of that relationship—requires that God is in loving relationship with God’s self. That might not be something that I can describe, but it is something that we can all experience. Amen.

The Insanity of Faith

Sometimes, when I read stories from the Old Testament like this morning’s lesson (1 Samuel 13:5-18), I’m left with a feeling that God’s sense of justice and my sense of justice don’t always line up. But I also think that’s the point. Today’s story, like so many others from the bible, involves God withdrawing his favor from one of his servants who did something that seems perfectly reasonable to me but, nevertheless, wasn’t according to God’s will. The real issue here is faith. Do I have what it takes to trust God no matter what?

Saul, the first king of Israel, the military and political leader of God’s people, is in a pinch. He’s assembled his troops where Samuel, leader, judge, and prophet, had asked Saul to wait. The enemy’s armies are encamped against Israel, and their numbers were staggering: “thirty thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” And the time for Samuel’s appointed appearance has come and gone. Saul and his people are getting nervous. Many of the king’s fighters have begun to desert him, fleeing to hide in caves, tombs, and cisterns. Saul needs to do something to rally his troops. Samuel is delayed—maybe worse. No one is there to remind the people of Israel that God is on their side. So Saul does what any strong leader might do. He takes the burnt offering and offers it to God himself, rather than wait for Samuel to do it. Bad move.

Of course, just as a Hollywood portrayal of this story would show, as soon as Saul finishes with the burnt offering, Samuel shows up and says, “What are you doing!” Although perfectly reasonable, Saul’s actions were not permitted. He had stepped beyond his appointed duties and assumed a priestly/prophetic role. For this, Samuel says, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you; for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever. But now your kingdom shall not continue.” For his desperate improvisation in the face of calamity, Saul is punished…even though his intentions were good. Justice?

This story is supposed to evoke an emotional reaction within me. “That’s not fair!” I’m supposed to cry. “You can’t do that to Saul! He deserves better. Samuel was late. What else was he supposed to do?” The author wants the reader to sympathize with the wayward king—to fully appreciate the rationale behind his actions. Only then, after setting us up, does the nature of God’s justice have its full effect. I’m supposed to be dazzled by the way God works. I’m supposed to be in awe of the way this story plays out. That’s because, in my own life, I’m supposed to surrender to God’s ability to provide for me and not worry whether that provision makes sense.

Faith requires patience—sometimes blind patience. If I ever find myself in a moment of “certain disaster,” I’m never supposed to say to myself, “Well, God surely can’t get me out of this pickle. I’d better do something on my own.” That’s the exact opposite of faith. And faith doesn’t mean anything unless it withstands the most trying of circumstances. Saul was in a pickle. He was facing insurmountable odds. But what made him think that God wouldn’t take of him? Why, in the moment in which he needed God the most, did he decide to do things his way? Similarly, why, in my moment of greatest need, do I think that I am better able to handle the situation than God?

Our greatest faith is reserved for our moments of greatest need. Those are the times when it’s easiest to give up on God and decide to do things myself. In that state of irrational fear, that makes sense. But my logic, which is bound by my supreme limitations, is flawed. Although my moments of greatest difficulty might be the moments in which I could convince myself that I know what’s best, faith requires that I stop and trust that God will provide—no matter how illogical that might seem.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Odd Couple

By every account, Saints Peter and Paul didn’t like each other very much. They were total opposites—one an uneducated (likely illiterate) fisherman and the other a highly educated (most eloquent) religious scholar. They had vastly different resources at their disposal—one had only the Spirit to sustain him and the other, while dependent on the Spirit, had the benefit of his Roman citizenship. Most notably, they had very different understandings of the Jesus-movement—one that it was a principally Jewish undertaking and the other that it was a reaction to the Judaism of the day. Yet, somehow, despite their differences, they ended up on the same team.

I wonder whether Peter and Paul would be glad that they are combined into one liturgical observation. Although each has his own independent feast day, they both share a remembrance that is linked to the legend that both died in Rome in the same year. There are cathedrals named after both in cities around the world. They go hand-in-hand as the two greatest figures of the early church. And, whether the details are apocryphal or not, they both gave their lives for the same cause—no matter how differently they viewed the faith which united them. Perhaps, whether they’d like it or not, they deserve each other.

I don’t always like the people who call themselves “Christians.” Fundamentalists, revisionists, anti-Semites, warmongers—there is a long list of people who say things or do things in the name of the faith that we share who make me ashamed to be identified with them. Yet, as I was reminded in a recent discussion in a bible study about creationists, there is room under the umbrella of Christianity for a lot of people with whom I disagree vehemently. And, as much as their interpretation of the faith may be diametrically opposed to my own, they’re still Christians. They are still following our Lord, even if they’re marching to a beat I can’t enjoy.

Peter and Paul—two men of extreme difference, two men of one faith. Our collect for today suggests that unity will overcome even our most radical of differences: “Grant that your Church, instructed by [Peter and Paul’s] teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.” I like that phrase, “knit together.” When was the last time you put on a garment and considered the thousands of individual threads that were knit together into the one article of clothing? Even if it’s multi-colored, we hardly ever consider the individual strands before the unified whole.

There aren’t many organizations or movements that can lay claim to individuals as disparate as Peter and Paul or as conflicted as so many within the Church. But that’s who we are. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. That’s not a modernist statement that anything goes and anyone can find a home. There’s no power in that. Instead, it’s the transformative statement that no matter where you might be on whatever continuum of identity you choose for measurement the power of Christ’s unifying work can bring you into his body, the Church.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Christian Controversies

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, was the kind of churchman that makes me proud. He was a systematic thinker, who attacked heresy and produced a clear and cogent case for Christianity. Though I’m sure the tradition holds that he was a nice guy, who gave up lots of stuff for the poor and took care of those in need, he’s remembered not for what he did but for what he believed. He approached the faith with humor and wit and wrote the kind of arguments that must have made even his opponents smile.

The New Testament lesson appointed for Irenaeus’ feast day is 2 Timothy 2:22b-26. It’s a great statement for the contemporary church—especially for a diocese like Alabama as it seeks to elect a new bishop. Particularly, I’m drawn to Paul’s advice to Timothy on Christian leadership: “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” The leaders of our church would do well to revisit these verses from time to time.

One thing that has so far impressed me about the process for the election of our next bishop has been the tone with which conversation about the candidates has been held. At a delegates’ meeting last night, someone commented that no one is talking about candidates in terms of “conservative or liberal.” The focus, instead, has been on leadership. “What sort of leadership will this candidate bring to our diocese? What kind of vision for the church does she or he have?”

Irenaeus’ fervent and constant battle against Gnosticism—a heresy that once threatened to undo the Church—reminds me that we need not ignore the important controversies of our day. But Paul reminds us to have nothing to do with those that are “stupid and senseless.” Christian leadership is exercised not by becoming embroiled in every gust of conflict but by standing for what is important to the faith, guarding that truth, and sharing a contagious excitement that stems from a conviction that the true faith is life-giving.

So what makes a controversy “senseless and stupid?” I wonder what Paul had in mind. He certainly felt that anything that threatened to ameliorate the power of God’s grace (e.g., the circumcision controversy) deserved his full attention and efforts to expunge it from the faith. What were those issues that he passed on? Beyond those things that were hallmarks of the faith, Paul seemed to promote unity above conflict. For example, he was willing to let people figure out on their own whether meat offered to idols was off-limits, arguing that community was more important than consistency. Maybe that translates into the present day. Maybe not.

Our faith is a beautiful gift from God. Irrespective of the character of other faiths, Christianity has a unique message to offer the world—a message that I believe is salvific as no other message is. The truth of that faith—the core of our belief—is where we start. Sinful humanity redeemed by a loving God, who transforms us through the gift of himself and calls us to help transform the world. Are the topics that occupy so much of our time and energy really worth it? Are we losing sleep over something that threatens the core of our faith, or are we wrapped up in something “senseless and stupid?” “Choose your battles,” my mother always said. Some are worth fighting. Many, however, are not.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Somebody To Lean On

All three of this morning’s readings from the Daily Office suggest that the central human problem throughout the millennia has been our refusal to hear what God is saying to us.

In the lesson from 1 Samuel (10:17-27), a king is chosen despite Samuel’s prophetic message from God, “But this day you have rejected your God…and [instead] you have said, ‘No! but set a king over us.’” In the lesson from Acts (7:44-8:1a), the crowd stones Stephen for revealing that he saw “the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” In the reading from Luke (22:52-62), Peter, having heard his master’s predictive warning—“You will deny me three times”—still renounces his association with Jesus, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.”

I wonder whether we could comb back through the scriptures and identify every impediment to the divine-human relationship that stems from our inability to hear, see, or understand what God is attempting to communicate. So often, as is the case of these three lessons, God is trying to tell us something good, but our self-dependence gets in the way, obscuring our ability to hear that message. God wants to take care of us—we’d rather trust a king. God wants to show us his redemptive power in Jesus—we’d rather trust ourselves. God wants to offer us a relationship with him—we’d rather stand alone. Why is it that we prefer to do things ourselves and not accept God’s help?

I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who insists on doing everything by herself. That suggests to me that part of what it means to be human is to attempt independence. Even from that early age, we want to show others (and ourselves) that we can do it—that nothing is impossible for us. No matter how carefully, calmly, and invitingly I try to explain to my daughter that I’d love to help her, she responds to each of my offers with increasing frustration. The more I want to help means the more she wants to do it alone. Am I still three-and-a-half?

As I’ve written before, I recently spent some time in Sawyerville, and one of the songs that is often sung at a diocesan youth gathering is “Lean on Me.” I don’t know all of the words, and, because of that, I keep singing the song over and over in my head as if somehow I’ll figure them out. As that song has been on repeat in my mind, I’ve heard the poet frequently saying to me, “It won’t be long ‘til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.” In that way, it’s a song that’s trying to teach me something. Eventually (i.e., every single day), I’m going to need some help. And unless I realize that—unless I start from a place of accepting my own need—I can’t receive the help that’s being offered.

God reaches out to us every single day with an offer of assistance. The stories of scripture are repeated expressions of God’s offer to take care of us and our refusal to accept that offer. That pattern hasn’t stopped just because the bible is finished being written. God is still offering me his sustenance. And I’m still trying to prove to him and to myself and to anyone else who may be watching that I can do this on my own. Perhaps I’m supposed to let that rather annoying song repeat in my head over and over and over until I finally get that I need God to lean on.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Forever Young

Sometimes when a bible passage is fairly familiar, a word or phrase that I didn’t remember being in it really sticks out. Just such a word is found in this morning’s gospel lesson (Luke 22:24-30). This is the familiar scene in which Jesus finds his disciples talking amongst themselves about who will be the greatest. He rebukes them gently, offering a counter-intuitive assessment of what “greatness” and what “authority” really are. In Luke’s version, Jesus says it in a way that clanged like a wrong note blasted into a quiet symphony: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”

Perhaps you know this passage well enough that the word “youngest” doesn’t stick out to you, but I just can’t get past it. It’s a huge word. I suppose that etymologically it’s related to “least,” which is probably how we’re used to hearing this passage—“Let the greatest become the least…” But “youngest” really puts it into the context of age. What does it mean for the greatest to become as the youngest?

I’m in the middle of the Sawyerville Day Camp—an annual ministry of the Diocese of Alabama. During the camp, we invite the children of Hale County to come and play with us in a bible-school-themed day camp, which involves singing, arts & crafts, story time, activities, etc.. The real magic here is that around 100 volunteers—most of whom are teenagers—give up their week to minister to around 100 children. Apart from that, our day camp isn’t that special. It’s just your average, run of the mill day camp—the kind I hated being subjected to when I was a child. But, because our people are kids themselves who give of themselves for the children of Hale County, something powerful happens.

These youth succeed in serving the children of the day camp in ways that adults can only mimic. There’s something intrinsically giving about the ministry of a teenager. I’ll admit that it can be a little hormonal at times. And, yes, without older leaders to guide them, the youth would probably neglect their bathroom cleaning duties. But none of these adults could give these kids what their teenage counterparts can give. There’s something pure, immediate, accessible about the love they give.

That servant-heartedness is symbolized in lots of ways this week—a teenage girl’s hair in thin braids, a high-school boy’s neck clung to in the swimming pool, a spontaneous hug between a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old who have very little in common yet who share so much. The adults (like me) get invited into that action only by the leadership of the youth, for whom it comes more naturally. Without youth, this project would fall apart.

When Jesus says that the greatest among us should become as the youngest, he didn’t have pimple-faced teenage angst in mind. But he was thinking about the accessible, enthusiastic, tireless service that only a young person can give. He is calling me back into my teenage years. He’s asking me to let go of my self-importance. He’s telling me that if I am to serve in his kingdom I need to get beyond my age and rediscover what it means to love with a child’s heart.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Having Someone Over for Dinner?

In the gospel accounts, Jesus betrayal is recorded in highly dramatic terms. In today’s gospel lesson (Luke 22:14-23), Jesus says to his disciples, “Behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table.” Yet we never really get to see how Jesus feels about the betrayal. That’s something that probably lends itself to a myriad of dramatic interpretations and could be played out on stage in many different ways.

For some reason, I’m reminded this morning of the scene from The Untouchables, in which Robert De Niro, who plays Al Capone, walks around a formally set dinner table with a baseball bat. As he does so, he knows that one of the men at the table has betrayed him. “TEAM,” De Niro stresses, “part of a team.” Eventually, of course, he walks behind the man who has betrayed him and bashes his skull in with the baseball bat. The blood runs across the white table cloth, and the other guests look on in horror. Capone, it seems, had a temper.

But we never get to see how Jesus handles it. I wonder if he was discouraged. I wonder if he was angry. I wonder if he was purely sad at the loss of a good friend. We just don’t know. It seems pretty clear that, if he were angry, he kept it to himself. There was no explosion at the dinner table—no heated exchanges. Every time a gospel writer records Jesus conversation with Judas, it is always portrayed in calm, mysterious tones—“What you are going to do, do quickly.”

The dinner table is a particularly powerful place for this scene to unfold. Not only are the disciples gathered together for the Passover meal—gathered around the table as if a family—but they are sharing a common cup and passing plates between them. There’s a lot of intimacy at the table just as there is at most family dinner tables. What amazes me is that all of this emotion—betrayal, angst, sadness, concern, uncertainty, guilt—is gathered together in one room, and we never get to see much of it from Jesus. Barely anything at all. I enjoy imagining how he handled all of the feelings swirling around inside of him. But I think the real point is that even though he, fully human, must have felt as any of us would have, he kept everything under control.

Busy supper, holiday meal. That’s when I’m most likely to lose it at the dinner table. And not just over something huge like my best friend betraying me into the hands of those who will kill me. I’d lose it over the little things—like someone setting the table with the knife blades facing away from the plates or someone serving brie cheese even though it’s December. Jesus, of course, keeps his cool. There are more important things than getting upset. His closest friends are about to be ripped apart by his arrest and tragic death. The last thing Jesus wants to do is add to the chaos.

How can I remain calm? How can I learn to value relationships more than my own feelings? How can I see that the true consequences of my actions are far more important than anything that might have set me off in the first place?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Power from on High

I’ve always loved stories about the Ark of the Covenant. When I was a child, there were two bible stories that were really burned into my brain because I found them so interesting—Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1Kings 18) and Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6). I’m not sure if you can say that they were my “favorites,” but they were the ones I paid the most attention to. Both of them involve encounters with God’s power, and the story about the Ark, which includes the death of a man who touched the Ark in order to save it from falling, gives an interesting perspective on God’s justice.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament (1 Samuel 5:1-12), the Ark of the Covenant, which has been captured by the Philistines, is shuffled around from place to place by those who are enemies of God’s people. Naturally, or perhaps super-naturally, the power of God and those who seek the destruction of God’s people don’t mix well. First, the Ark is brought to Ashdod and placed in the house of Dagon, their God. That first night, God’s power is displayed as Dagon (a statue I presume) is found the next morning to have bowed down onto the ground in front of the Ark. On the second night, the same things happens—only this time the hands and head of Dagon are mysteriously cut off. Apparently, Yahweh does not play well with others (gods, at least).

Then, the tumors come. The people of Ashdod are stricken with tumors—cancerous bumps that infect all the people of that town. So, eager to get rid of the source of this plague, the people of Ashdod take the Ark to Gath and then, after identical consequences, to Ekron and finally back to Israel—the Philistines couldn’t take it anymore. The power of God, which is enthroned on/by/through the physical structure of the Ark of the Covenant, threatened their lives as they didn’t wield it appropriately.

Hollywood is known for its exaggerations, but I’m not so sure that the final dramatic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark is really an overstatement. There’s nothing in the bible that speaks of lightning bolts emanating from the Ark and striking the Philistines (played by the Nazis), but that’s pretty close to the biblical truth. God won’t let his power be appropriated by evil. That which stands in opposition to God’s will cannot incorporate God’s equipment. A modern believer might prefer to think of the power of the Ark as being purely psychological, but the border between mind and body is pretty thin. Yes, it’s silly to think that an object like the Ark can exact physical consequences for being misused, and I’m not saying that the “magic” behind its power was actually in the primitive discovery of uranium or some other radioactive element, but there’s power here—more than just a banner to be waived.

We might not be able to bottle it in quite the same way as the ancient Israelites, but we have experiences of God’s power. The power to give life or to take it away. The power to send gentle rains or destructive storms. The power to save and redeem or to curse and damn. And, to some extent, we are mediators of that divine power. We can preserve life, or we can let it go carelessly. We can take care of creation, or we can ignore its needs. We can preach forgiveness, or we can preach hatred. Those sorts of things are powerful at the divine level, and we get to be a part of them. But we shouldn’t exercise power at that level if we aren’t focused on doing God’s will. The stakes are too great—not some magical, physical retribution but some real, measurable consequences. As human beings, we do experience and even administer moments of God’s power. As we do so, are we aligned with God’s will?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Holding Back

Talk about a great passage for a stewardship campaign! Acts 4:32-5:11 makes a wonderful way of telling people that if they hold back God will kill them. Then again, maybe there’s a better approach.

I’ve always found this passage troubling. Although Peter never says, “Die!” in the imperative sense, he does, it seems, work a miracle that produces the death of one (or two, depending on how you read it) people. Usually, his words and the exercise of his power was for healing—giving life, restoring life, securing life. Not taking life—that just seems to be inappropriate for an apostle.

The real question for us, though, isn’t why this happened but why this is included in the bible. I don’t think it’s because the author of Acts wants us to be afraid of Peter’s power. And, as much as it might be helpful during stewardship season, I don’t’ think it’s because God intends to kill us if we hold anything back. Instead, I think this passage is a dark reminder of a brilliant truth—that the early church community was so tightly held together that not even selfish deceit  like this can find a hold in their community.

This weekend and next week, I’m taking part in the Sawyerville Day Camp—a project by which the Diocese of Alabama maintains a summer day camp experience for the children of Hale County. Last night, our first night together, one of the coordinators made a presentation on community. She stressed that we are all here in community together and, as a result, must take extra care to ensure that we don’t abuse our common space or life. It’s a good point. Yet, when she asked, “What is a Christian community?” a more powerful answer would have emphasized not the things we can do to jeopardize the community but the roles we play in making this community happen.

As the reading from Acts reminds us, Christian community isn’t just something that we maintain by picking up our trash, cleaning up our messes, and refilling the bathroom tissue dispenser when it runs out. Christian community is produced by what we share and by our willingness to actively share it. We have a role to play. We have a life to share. When we refuse to give everything we have to the greater good, we make it impossible for real community to develop.
In the early church, when the community was all that they had, such a poison pill could have killed the entire movement, But God wouldn’t allow that to happen. He wasn’t punishing the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira as much as he was safeguarding the community itself. In order for a Christian community to exist, we must do more than just look out for the needs of others. We must be so totally invested in the common life that we give ourselves completely to the cause.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Square Peg and Round Hole

Yesterday's gospel lesson (Luke 20:27-40) is still on my mind. In it, the Sadducee, who didn't believe in the resurrection, come to Jesus and pose a somewhat ridiculous hypothetical question in which a woman marries a succession of brothers, each who die and leave her childless. Their question, whose wife will she be in heaven, reveals their problems with a belief in the resurrection more generally. Their unspoken challenge is this: "How can we fit Almighty God--infinite, incomprehensible, incorporeal--into the world we know--limited, sinful, and broken?"

Implicitly, this lesson comes up frequently in premarital counseling. When I'm sitting with a couple who are standing on the verge of a lifetime together, ready to celebrate the fervent love that they share, and we get to the point at which we review the vows, they often balk at the part, "until we are parted by death." I think that's because it's hard for a couple who are in love and who are about to start a new chapter of their lives together to name at the same time a definitive end of their marital relationship. "Are we really not going to be married in heaven? Then why would we want to go there?"

Indeed, this passage makes it clear that there is no marriage in heaven. Partly, that's because husbands and wives often remarry after their first spouse dies. Whose husband or wife would that person have in their marital mansion? Would they all live together in some sort of Big Love relationship? But I think there's something more important than "until we are parted by death" going on in this passage.

Some ask similar questions about heaven that aren't related to marriage. Will my dog go to heaven? Will I recognize my family when I get there? Will I get to eat fried chicken in paradise? Will they serve vegetarian meals? All of these questions, when we all ask in one way or another, reflect our problem with heaven, and that problem is the exact opposite of that of the Sadducees. We're all trying to fit our experience of earthly life into heaven, and that's not easy to do, either.

How are we supposed to fit the world and all its limitations & joys together with heaven and all its otherness? Well, I'm not sure we're supposed to do that at all. Rather than trying to mix together oil and water, I think we're instead supposed to focus on the transformation of this life. As we are taken up into the kingdom of heaven, we--and everything we know about this earthly life--is transformed and made new. That means relationships, appetites, occupations, distractions, shortcomings and everything else is changed and made ready to live with God in heaven.

Whether Sadducees or contemporary Christian, when we try to cram humanity and divinity into one little box just as they are, we sell short the power of God's ability to transform us. Just as in the incarnation, the divine doesn't change--it's the human that undergoes a complete redemption. And, as these things are taken up into the life of God, they are forever changed. Even our worries, anxieties, and concerns about what heaven will be like--who will my spouse be?--are transformed. Perhaps, if we allow God to use us as we have given ourselves to him through baptism into Christ's death and resurrection, we can even experience some of that transformation in this life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It Depends on How One Defines "Good."

We continue Hannah's story in this morning's Old Testament lesson (1 Samuel 1:21-2:11). Although we looked at that story yesterday, when I read Hannah's song this morning, I discovered another way of looking at her prayer for a child. Her willingness to give up Samuel to the Lord is a sign of her willingness to accept God's sovereignty, which is reflected in the words she sings: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord…The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.”

Usually, when my prayers are answered the way I want them to be, I take it as a sign that God has given me what I asked for--and I give thanks for that. It would be better for me to take it as a sign that God is in control--and give thanks for that instead.

The other day, we hired someone who has titled himself a "handy man" to do some minor work around our house. After even a short conversation with him, I could tell that he is a man of deep faith--so much so that, as a prophet of sorts, he made me a little uncomfortable. While he was out in front of our house, someone drove by and called out to him, "God is good!" to which he replied, "All the time!" I didn't think much of it then, but that moment has come back to me this morning. If God is good all the time then he's just as good when my prayers go unanswered as when I get what I want. Of course that's true. But it doesn't always feel that way.

Hannah's witness--her willingness to give up the son she long prayed for--reminds me that God is indeed good all the time and that a simple call and response can be both a testament to God's eternal goodness and a reminder that I should trust in that fact. After she received her son, Hannah chose to view it not as a sign that she had received the answer she sought but as a testament to God's never-failing providence, hence the line, "The Lord kills and brings to life..." Shouldn't I be viewing the answers to my prayers not in terms of whether they conform to my request but as examples of God's preeminent will?

My prayers often go unanswered--at least the way I want them to be. But, as I mentioned yesterday, God is in control. And, when I can accept that fact, I discover that my prayers are always answered regardless of the outcome. My job as a Christian is to rejoice either way because God is God.  

Monday, June 13, 2011

Selfless Desperation

There’s a danger in this morning’s Old Testament lesson (1Samuel 1:1-20). The story of Hannah’s desperate search for a child is immersed in an ancient culture wherein a woman’s identity was inextricably tied to her ability to have children. In the story, we read that Hannah, tortured by her husband’s other wife, wanted to conceive so badly that she wouldn’t eat or drink, that she spent time in fervent prayer, and that she was willing to barter with God. It’s easy to recast this story in the light of “Hannah’s life was fulfilled when she got pregnant,” but that doesn’t do it justice. There’s a lot more to Hannah than that.

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you’d do anything for it? There’s a show on television right now that casts this sentiment in an unholy light—Nurse Jackie on Showtime. The main character, played by Edie Falco, is addicted to pills, and, in the current season, there’s another character whose self-appointed job it is to take her to such a low point in her addiction that she’ll beg for sobriety. Although I don’t keep in close touch with the show and may have missed some important developments, I have seen that desperate side of Nurse Jackie—that will lead her to do just about anything to get high. There’s something both inhuman and basic to our species about that sort of desperation.

Hannah’s example, though, is a holy one. Sure, there’s an element of self and ego in her quest. She wants to make her husband happy. She wants to flout her motherly success in front of her rival, the other wife. She wants the personal, individual fulfillment of being a mother—of having her dream accomplished. But that’s not the end of her desire. She wants a child so badly that she’s willing to give it up: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” Part of her bargaining with God is an admission that she doesn’t have any control over the answer she’s waiting for. She must totally depend on God and, in recognition of that, is willing to let God remain in control of her son’s life.

I wonder whether that’s a useful test for my own personal desires. When I really want something do I want it only for my own sake—according to my own wants and needs and desires—or do I want it for a bigger purpose—according to God’s will and plan? As the story continues beyond today’s reading, Hannah gets her son, and, sure enough, faithful to her vow, she gives him to the Lord. When I am desperate for God to give me something, am I also willing to give it up? Perhaps that’s the moment at which prayers are answered. When we submit so completely to God’s will that we accept that the answer to our prayers will always be identical to God’s will, that’s when prayers are answered. Whether we see it or not, that’s always the case. God’s will is God’s will. The only question is whether I can accept that.

Friday, June 10, 2011


I forget how short the story of Mary and Martha—one listening, one serving—really is. I expect there to be more to it, but, as we read in Luke 10:38-42, it’s over before you know it. Is there any gospel lesson more relevant to the twenty-first century? Many conversations I’ve heard about congregational development involve finding ways to make the church a place of rest and refreshment for a busy generation of young professionals, and this seems to be a foundational text for that movement.

Despite its brevity, this lesson has space enough to explore at length. Are you a Mary or a Martha? Why did Jesus commend Mary for having chosen the better portion? Is Martha trying to show up her sister the way I might show up my younger brothers when I perceive that they have failed to pitch in with household chores? To what extent was Martha “distracted” by her serving responsibilities? How often am I caught in what feels like an important responsibility even though it’s really an empty occupation that leads only to anxiety?

Today, I’m curious what this story says about family relationships. What was the relationship between the sisters like when Jesus wasn’t around? Sometimes the advent of an out-of-town guest can bring to the surface some of the underlying tensions between siblings or other family members. In my experience, “big” moments like this one force adult children right back into the roles they had when they are growing up. And unlike the average houseguest, Jesus doesn’t eschew the opportunity to address the sisters’ imbalance.

“Jesus,” Martha asks, “Won’t you tell Mary to get up and help me?” That’s an odd question to ask an outsider. Usually families keep their disappointments to themselves—perhaps complaining to another relative when the guests aren’t listening. Martha, though, can’t contain herself. Perhaps a lifetime of being the older sister was too much to bear. Or maybe she perceived that Jesus, a man of some authority, would take her side or at least make her feel better about her work. So she asks, but the answer she gets isn’t what she expects.

If we were in Jesus’ place, most of us, I think, would attempt to sympathize with Martha, thank her for her hard work, but not rebuke Mary either—steering a careful path between the sisters so as not to join in the tension that already exists. Jesus, on the other hand, jumps in with both feet. His answer, although critical of the critical sister, leaves room for sympathy: “Martha, you have become distracted by all your serving.” She was distracted…overly focused on the job at hand. But he also refuses to allow the animosity between sisters to continue. He breaks into a potentially broken relationship strongly enough to pull it back together.

How many of us are in family relationships that mimic that of Mary and Martha? How few of us can be honest enough to move beyond it?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Province IV Synod - Day Two

Busy day today. Two really big discussions (Immigration & Covenant) and lots of other smaller (though informative) presentations, too.

Day Two - Morning Session

The first big presentation was on immigration. Mr. Randy McGrorty, Executive Director of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami, Florida, gave a presentation on immigration issues. His approach was historic, and his rationale was that anti-immigration sentiments in our country are usually based on anti-Christian tenets, poor economic understandings, bad social policy, and irrational fear. He cited lots of examples from our nation's past--times in which immigrants were portrayed as criminal, terrorist, unhealthy, job-stealing, lazy, etc.. And he compared that with today--striking similarities. Basically, he argued that the treatment of Irish immigrants during the 19th century parallels the current treatment of Hispanic immigrants, and we've pretty well come to accept the O'Malley's and the McPhearson's into society. One statistic (can't quite remember exactly the details) emphasized the percentage of foreign-born residents. That number is currently at 12-13%--right where it has been for over a century. The presentation was striking. I walked away with a renewed sense of our nation's need to strip away the irrational approaches to immigration policy and actually look at the data. Overall, however, I didn't hear enough focus on why the church (specifically the Episcopal Church) has a role to play and what role that should be (welcoming the stranger, yes, but how and why).

Then we had a series of smaller ministry presentations. To streamline, I'll give you the one thing from each report that impressed me:
  • ECW - Each diocese in the province is doing amazing mission work--worth a look at all they do
  • Youth - We should be focusing on anti-prejudice work like this past summer's Freedom Rides project in North Carolina
  • Campus Ministries - How many churches have grasped the importance of smart phones as the new platform for individual engagement with parish life? If we're still thinking that computers are the "new" thing, then we're behind.
  • Disaster Preparedness ad Response - The provincial group actually has a box with a chalice and paten in it that is sent to areas that have been hit by disaster as a way of saying that we want to help "church" happen wherever you are even though things are tough--a powerful witness.
  • Environmental Ministries - Those within our church who are committed to the environmental movement often feel poorly able to make theological statements about the green movement. We need better lay theological education regarding stewardship of creation.
  • Christian Formation - The committee would love to come and make a presentation in any diocese that wants it.
  • Latino/Hispanic Ministry - Since many immigrants are living away from their families, sometimes a ministry of hospitality to lonely individuals or small family groups is important.
Day Two - Afternoon Session

After lunch, we heard two people present on the proposed Anglican covenant (read a copy here). First, The Rt. Rev. Santosh Marray, Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of East Carolina and former member of the Covenant Design Task Force spoke "in favor" of adoption. Then, Mr, Tom O'Brien, former member of TEC's Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget, and Finance spoke against adoption. Both were enlightening.

Most impressive among Marray's arguments was his articulation of our commitment to Communion. As a Communion (rather than a confederation), we are committed to more than just shared belief. We are committed to a shared life together. Thus, the proposed covenant reflects more than just shared doctrine. It's also about shared practice. He stressed repeatedly that the proposed covenant did not supersede the autonomy of an individual church.

Mr. O'Brien's case was very detailed--clearly the work of a lawyer. He picked apart the covenant for all its faults--many. Rather than rehearse all of them here, I'll do two things: 1) point you to the provincial website where a copy of his slide show is available or will be made available soon and 2) give you my impressions of his argument (and, more broadly, the covenant itself).

At the very core, the covenant is about trying to fix a relational problem between the various provinces of the Anglican Communion. But relational problems aren't usually solved through legislation. Once the "canons" are cited, the relationship is often beyond repair. Most concerning to me about the proposed covenant is section 4--the juridical section that deals with how the covenant will be enforced. This represents a HUGE change in our ecclesiology. And the process (as O'Brien points out), is very vague, giving broad and potentially dangerous powers to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. Note particularly that there is no due process involved in section 4--to right of the "offending" province to be heard, no right of appeal, no objective standards for judging a transgression, and no time restrictions on what responses will be taken when an offending church breaks the covenant. And, as section 3.2.1 points out, the churches must either accept the decision of the SCAC or risk breaking the covenant for not doing so--a vicious cycle that traps churches in a system with no checks on authority.

Personally (no one asked, but I'm offering it anyway), I think it's important for TEC to address the covenant and demonstrate our commitment to the Anglican Communion, but I don't think we can accept it as it is. Section 4 is too far-reaching. Given how our church is perceived by other provinces in the Communion, we could expect to find ourselves in the juridical process the day that the covenant comes into effect. We must be committed to the Communion--even willing to make sacrifices for the sake of a Church which is, by definition, far bigger than any one national institution. But this covenant language is inviting more schism rather than reconciliation. Instead, I think we should adopt those sections that we can (for the most part #s 1-3) and reserve judgment on the parts we can't accept.

The good news is that the Church of Ireland has paved the way for such an approach as they refused to "adopt" the covenant, choosing instead to "subscribe" to it. Whether that "counts" will be determined by the Anglican Consultative Council when it meets again in 2015. But it shows that other provinces aren't willing to wholeheartedly accept as discipline and doctrine the language of the covenant. Perhaps we can follow that example. Also, it should be noted that no one has yet spelled out the consequences for not adopting. We just don't know how many churches will adopt and how many will reject the covenant as it is presented, and, although it seems certain that non-covenanting churches are still members of the Anglican Communion, we don't yet know to what level of participation in the Instruments of Communion (Canterbury, Lambeth, ACC, & Primates) they will be invited. Time will tell.

There's a lot more to say, but that's enough for now.

What is Love?

Who are our Samaritans? Nationally, culturally, who plays the role of our modern-day Samaritans? We don’t really have a rival like that. I can see the contemporary Israel-Palestine tension being similar to the Jewish-Samaritan conflict in the bible. But who are our collective nemeses?

I’m asking because in today’s gospel lesson (Luke 10:25-37), I want to know just how difficult (painful) it was for the lawyer who was seeking to justify himself to answer Jesus’ question about which of the three who passed by the injured man was actually his neighbor. “The one who showed mercy on him,” the supplicant stammered out, unwilling to actually say the word “Samaritan.” The power of Jesus’ proverbial tale is the background that lay between Jew and Samaritan. The real meaning of the instruction for us is caught up in an historic cultural situation to which I’m not sure we have a parallel. So who are our Samaritans?

As an individual who cheers for the University of Alabama, I’m not particularly fond of rabid Auburn fans, but I don’t hope they all burn in hell. Yankees, too, stick out to a southerner, but we’re well beyond Reconstruction, and I’ve even been known to sit down at a meal with a northerner when the occasion presents itself. As an American, I recognize that there are some terrorist extremists who hope for my demise, but I don’t have enough cultural history in common with them to make their hatred anything more than an abstract yearning that I hardly comprehend. There was a time when many Americans weren’t fond of  the French because they were critical of our military campaigns, sparking a movement to rename one of my favorite side dishes “Freedom Fries,” but that’s just silly.

I don’t really think that we have a communal cultural rival who shares a lot in common with us, split off at some point in the past, and has sense become a bitter enemy upon whom we look with unqualified disdain. But, if we did, they would be our Samaritans. So this story about the Samaritan who goes out of his way to do what neither the Priest nor the Levite would do—take care of a wounded man—doesn’t really have a corporate resonance in our society. It’s not “cool” these days to hate people just because of their race, religion, or other demographic identity.  I’m not saying we need someone to hate, but, since we don’t have anyone to vilify in that way, it’s hard for me to grasp the emotion behind this lesson.

We read the story of the Good Samaritan and know the right answer. We know what the man is supposed to say, and we know what Jesus is trying to communicate—neighbors aren’t just people who live next-door to us. But, when this episode was initially unfolding, I’m not sure the right answer was known. I almost wonder whether the lawyer answered with an upturned, questioning voice: “…the one who showed him mercy? I guess? But how can that be?

The lawyer had just quoted a summary of the law that we still use today: “Love the Lord…and love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus had just told the lawyer that the one who is his neighbor is the one he’s always thought of as enemy. “Loose lips sink ships, but Jesus wants me to befriend the enemy? He’s saying that loving God and loving the Samaritan go hand in hand? Wouldn’t it just be better for the Jew lying in the ditch to die than for him to be rescued by a Samaritan?”

This isn’t a parable about being charitable to strangers. It isn’t a story about breaking down walls and being reconciled to archrivals. It isn’t even a story about discovering what unites all of humanity. This is a story about love. And loving God is worthless unless we love the one we hate the most with the same intensity. Love isn’t an emotion. Love isn’t something we generate in response to a relationship with those who are like us—relatives, friends, compatriots. Love is an openness. It’s an invitation. It’s a way of being. One cannot love only a few. To love anyone is to love everyone equally. Otherwise, it isn’t love—it’s just sentimental preference.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Province IV Synod - Day One

Don't get too carried away. It's just Province IV Synod. Yet it's a real privilege to be here, representing the Diocese of Alabama. Here are some brief reflections on the proceedings of our gathering in case you want to know what's going on...

The first substantive presentation was an "open conversation on congregational development." Apparently, in the past, some members of Province IV have felt that the province has not done a good enough job of addressing this "important" issue. So a task force was appointed to respond to those disappointments. Unfortunately, the task force consisted of 8 people--7 men, 1 woman, 7 whites, 1 black, 4 bishops, 2 priests, and 1 lay person (the woman), and ALL 8 around the age of 60. Several people raised the issue that if we want to really address the issue of congregational development then we need a task force that looks more like the congregations we want to have and less like the congregations we already have. Despite that, I was impressed with the task force's identification of scriptural literacy as the greatest need for our church. We need to get back to the bible if we want to grow. Not bad.

The second substantive presentation was on the denominational health plan (DHP), which requires that on Jan 1, 2012, all diocese and designated diocesan institutions participate in the DHP and offer parity in plans for all employees--lay and ordained. Basically, this was a review of the policy with an interesting twist thrown it: a comparison of the premium pricing structure. We got to see how the Medical Trust, which administers the DHP, decides how much to charge each diocese for premiums. Apparently, there are some in the church who are unhappy that some diocese (like Alabama) pay lower premiums than other diocese (like Western North Carolina). They'd like to see the WHOLE Episcopal Church go to ONE premium rate. Naturally, that would be great for Western N.C. and disastrous for Alabama. Perhaps that will come up at GenCon 2012.

So far, the best part is building relationships within our diocesan deputation and building relationships with other diocese. All of that, highlighted by an ice cream social, is good, godly work in preparation for GenCon 2012. Tomorrow should be presentations on immigration, the proposed Anglican Covenant, and other fun stuff. Stay tuned.

Proud of What?

Not long after our first child was born, my mother told me just how much fun being a grandparent is and that one of the reasons she was enjoying that new role was that, unlike parents, grandparents are “allowed” to gush to their friends about how great their grandchildren are. I suppose that’s true, but, given that I dislike gushy grandparents about as much as gushy parents, I think my mother’s experience shows that it’s her perspective that has changed—not that the rest of us are any more willing to listen to stories or look at pictures when they’re coming from a grandparent.

For some reason, however, I delight in today’s gospel lesson (Luke 10:17-24), in which Jesus dotes on his disciples, gushing as much as any proud father or grandfather might. After they return from the mission on which he sent them, he says to them, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” In other words, Jesus says, “You, my disciples, are God’s chosen servants—smart enough and wise enough to understand what no one else has. You’re the best and the brightest God has to offer!” Yet I don’t cringe when I read that, and I think it’s because I enjoy imagining Jesus as a proud parent, hoping that he, too, could be proud of me.

So often we read about a Jesus who is frustrated with his disciples’ lack of understanding; for example, from a few Sundays ago, “Have I been with you so long, Philip, and yet you still do not know me?” And, whenever I encounter a Lord and savior who is exasperated with his followers, I feel a blush of shame as if, like them, I’m also incapable of grasping what the teacher is trying to get across. So this once, when Jesus is proud of his flock, I’m eager to receive that praise as well. “Really, Jesus?” I ask. “You mean I’ve made you proud?”
As Christians, we all want to “get it.” We all want to see what it is that Jesus is trying to show us. The problem is that too often I think I’ve seen and comprehended what “many prophets and kings desired [but failed] to see.” In other words, Jesus’ moment of pride is, for the most part and certainly in my experience, passing. I don’t stay in that place of special knowledge for more than a fleeting second even though I’d like to think that I reside there permanently.

And maybe that’s why doting parents and grandparents rub us the wrong way—because even though there are legitimate reasons to be proud of one’s progeny there are also far more reasons to acknowledge that they are just about the same as everyone else’s kids. I don’t have any special understanding of who God is or how God works—at least not any understanding that makes me better than anyone else. And the only thing that goads me more than an overly proud parents is a self-righteous Christian. Especially when either is me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Divine Punishment in Model-Form

Take a brick and paint a picture of Jerusalem on it. And then I want you to use that brick to show my people just how terrible the coming years will be. Put up siegeworks around it. Build a siege wall around it. Mound up some dirt around it. Set up camps against it. Don’t forget the battering rams. Even include an iron wall. And then I want to you to lay siege against the city as a demonstration against my people.

Playing with models is supposed to be fun, but, in today’s Old Testament lesson (Ezekiel 4:1-17), Ezekiel gets some rather odd instructions from God on how to play with his toys. Prophets have a tough job—finding a way to let God’s people see and hear what God is doing in their lives. That’s really hard when the message is one that no one would want to hear. So Ezekiel plays a game—a very intense, very symbolic game that prefigures the destruction of the Holy City.

In an attempt to get their attention, Ezekiel binds himself with cords and lies on his left side for 390 days—one day for each year of Israel’s punishment. Likewise, when that year-plus is over, he turns and lies on his left side for 40 days—one for each year of Judah’s punishment. I wonder if his plan worked. I wonder if it was worth it. The part of his dramatic display that caught my attention, however, was the water. He was only allowed one-sixth of a hin of water to drink each day. As best I can tell after some haphazard Internet research, that’s as much as a dozen eggs worth of water—about 2 cups?

Yesterday, I worked outside in the yard with my family, and several times I came in to get a glass of water—without measure. My son, who spent part of that time on my hip, enjoyed drinking out of my glass, and it reminded me how much better my mother’s glass of water always seemed to taste than my own when I was a child. As I reflected on that fact, it occurred to me just how much water my mother drank (presumably still drinks)—she always had a glass. I’ve lived through “water restrictions” that made it illegal to water my front yard, but I’ve never experienced a limit on how much water I can drink. For the situation to get that bad—bad enough for me to measure out how much water I can consume in a day—would be catastrophic.

And yet, for some, times do get that bad. Elsewhere in the bible, we read of times when Jerusalem was under siege long enough to force people to drink their own urine (Isaiah 36:12). My question behind all of this is to ask why. Why did Ezekiel endure such suffering as a demonstration to his people? Why did God insist on punishing Israel and Judah so completely? Why would God ever punish his people?

In another moment yesterday, I made a dramatic statement to my daughter without really thinking it through. After hearing her tattle-tell on her brother for the umpteenth time, I said, “From now on, whenever you tattle on your brother, I’m going to punish you instead of him.” She replied, “But I don’t want you to punch me.” I laughed empathetically. “I would never punch you,” I assured her. “I said ‘punish you.’” But what’s the difference, really?

I don’t really believe that God punishes us in the simple cause-and-effect way as is depicted in the Old Testament. And I don’t believe that God punishes (or punches) us the way a parent might punish a child. But I do believe that there are lessons to be learned from hard times—whether they are heaped upon us by a paternalistic deity or dealt us by the hand of chance.

When life is so lean as to require measured rations of drinking water, I begin to appreciate God’s abundance. I think it starts by hoping for—dreaming for—an end to the hardship. It may also involve a misty-eyed reflection on “the good life” of an earlier time. But it always includes thanksgiving for the end of suffering, whether realized or merely believed in. As I am forced to live on less—even a bitterly short supply—I grow in my appreciation of what God has given and one day will again give me. That attitude depends upon a belief that the period of hardship will eventually pass away—a matter of faith. If there’s any answer to the “why” question of divine punishment, that’s where it lies. It’s wrapped up in my faith that the agony will not last forever, and that God will restore my life. Punishment, therefore, isn’t an active force. It’s simply my ability to learn from and appreciate hard times.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ascension Day--More Important than Easter?

I wonder whether we as Christians get too caught up in Jesus’ resurrection. In one sense, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. The miracle of Easter is the central moment of our faith. But today, Ascension Day, makes me wonder whether we’ve been approaching the empty tomb from the wrong vantage point.

Today we celebrate the glorious ascension of Jesus into heaven. As Luke tells us in the lesson from Acts (1:1-11), Jesus rose from the dead, appeared on earth for forty days, and then ascended into heaven, sending the Holy Spirit down in his place. But, as today’s readings remind us, the purposed end (or telos) of the Passion Cycle is the Son/Spirit exchange accomplished through the Ascension: “While staying with them, [Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father,” and “…suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

As I revisit the lessons for this feast, I am reminded that the forty days that Jesus spent on the earth after his resurrection were just a pit stop—a momentary though important pause on his resurrected way to heaven. Think about it this way: none of us gets resurrected to hang out on the earth for a short while. The purpose of the new life is to live it with God in heaven not to linger in our past. Jesus’ resurrection is the pattern of our own promised resurrection. And that means going from grave to new Jerusalem—do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Jesus, though, needed to stop along the way. As Luke writes, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” If he hadn’t spent those forty days with his disciples, they would have missed the true victory of Easter. The resurrection was so miraculous that they weren’t ready for it when it happened. It took Jesus five and a half weeks to explain it to them. Then, after setting everything straight, he continued on the journey—empty tomb to right hand of the father. And in so doing he sent the Holy Spirit to come and give us power—power to do God’s will and to follow him, eventually, into heaven.

So what does that mean for us? Well, I think it means that Ascension Day should be more than just a passing moment in our church year. I think it deserves a lot more than a casual Thursday glance. It’s huge—or at least it should be. The Ascension is the natural product of the empty tomb. The forty days of Eastertide before the Ascension are accident. The Ascension is the full glorification of God’s son. Today we acknowledge that the promise of new life isn’t just more of the same. Being raised from the dead doesn’t involve coming back to earthly things like hunger, strife, confusion, and discord. Instead, we are called with Jesus all the way up—no reason to stop along the way. For us to truly understand the miracle of Easter, we must embrace today as the day when the empty tomb rings out most clearly and triumphantly.