Friday, March 30, 2012

Who Washes Whom?

How often do we get to do something for the first time? I haven't been ordained very long--almost 6 years--but in that time I've had a number of firsts. Most of them, however, are behind me. First sermon, first funeral, first Eucharist, first intervention. This year, I get to experience another first...and all the uncertainty, anxiety, and nervousness that come with it.

I've never been a part of a foot-washing before. I came close once. I was asked to officiate at a foot-washing service for a youth group, but time ran out, and we didn't get to wash each other's feet. This time, it seems certain that I'll be immersed in the messiness of water and buckets and towels and touching. Since this is my first time, I'm hoping the congregation will be gentle. They've done this before, and I'm new here--both to them and to their Maundy Thursday tradition. I've looked to them for guidance, of course, but they have such a mixture of opinions that I'm unsure which direction to take.

Facebook has actually been helpful here. After asking the question about how it should work, I received dozens of helpful suggestions. Most people who chimed in seem to think that letting people wash each other's feet is a good idea--that the duty and honor of doing the washing shouldn't be reserved only for the ordained people in the room. I'm still unclear how all of that will work--what if someone wants to be washed but not wash? Will we define the protocol for washees who don't wash or washers who don't want to be replaced or washers who want to be replaced but can't find another washer to take their place?

What I really feel God calling me to do is embrace the messiness and chaos of Maundy Thursday. It's supposed to be uncomfortable. Peter makes that clear: "You will never wash my feet!" I don't know how it will work, but I trust it will--at least I'm trying to. All our vulnerabilities are supposed to be brought out that night. For some, it's letting another human being touch their feet. For me, it's watching the service unfold with no real sense of where it's going to go.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blessed Unions

Before I went to seminary, I participated in a one-on-one bible study as part of my preparation. One day, the subject of divorce came up. I can’t remember exactly which passage of scripture we were reading, but I do remember what my mentor said about our church’s approach to divorce: once we gave up on divorce, we lost.

He meant that the Episcopal Church, having accepted the remarriage of divorced individuals, could no longer use scripture as a defense against the “continued moral decline” of mainline churches. In other words, when we started saying that divorce and remarriage is ok, we lost the ability to say, “We can’t [fill in your prohibited behavior] because the bible says so.”

What does the bible say? In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Honestly, I do not enjoy preaching on Mark 10:1-16 (today’s gospel lesson). But that’s not because I find it difficult to say to a divorced person that the bible says you shouldn’t remarry. That’s pretty plain, and I usually don’t have a hard time telling people what the bible says plainly. But what’s hard for me is figuring out why Jesus would say something like this.

I remember the first time I told someone that I thought God’s will for that person was to get divorced. I didn’t say it quite like that, but I remember feeling pretty strange when I—a representative of the church who fairly regularly says to a congregation “what God has joined together let no one put asunder”—said to someone that divorce was the best possible option. But it was clear. The marriage was over. It wasn’t salvageable. The love that God had given them for each other no longer existed. Their relationship was no longer able to point us to God’s selfless love for the world, which meant that their marriage was no longer sacramental. It had failed, and to deny that was to deny the sanctity of marriage itself.

But I also remember squirming in my shoes six months later when I saw that person again with a different woman, whom he called his fiancĂ©e. It’s one thing to say a marriage is over. It’s another thing to leave one spouse and go running to another. And I think that’s what Jesus meant. Marriage is not a throw-away experience. It’s lifelong. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but we must view marriage as something more than a relationship du jour. We can’t trade one spouse in for another when we are ready for an upgrade. That’s when the church truly becomes subject to the continued moral decline of the world, and that’s wrong.

This summer, the Episcopal Church will consider whether to authorize a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. Although I am still considering the implications of that proposal, I have read through the draft liturgy. It is remarkably conservative—avoids the term “marriage,” strongly emphasizes life-long unions, and seeks to articulate the best traditions of the church afresh without losing their integrity. The only part of the liturgy that is remarkably progressive or liberal is the same-sex aspect of the union.

What should the church do? As it so often is, scripture is pretty plain on this issue. There is no image in the bible of marriage between same-gender partners. There are even passages of the bible that clearly forbid sexual activity between partners of the same sex. But there’s something powerful about declaring that a committed relationship should be life-long—that it’s God’s will that two people remain together for the rest of their lives. Even though it was originally written about men and women, does Mark 10 provide the strongest argument for developing a way for two men or two women to declare before God and the church their desire for a holiness of life that can only come from a life-long commitment?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ahaz or Mary?

Today—well, actually yesterday—is the feast of theAnnunciation. But since yesterday was a Sunday, it gets moved to today. I love this feast for its presumed precision. March 25, as you might have calculated, is exactly 9 months before December 25. Convenient, huh? I guess, since the Annunciation happened a day late this year, Jesus will be born a day early. Then again, how many of us have ever had a baby on its due date?

As I read the lessons for this feast, I am touched by the irony of the OT reading (Isaiah 7:10-14). Isaiah is told by God to go and tell wicked King Ahaz that he needs to repent and return to the Lord. Ahaz balks. So God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign—any sign –and the Lord will accomplish that sign to prove that his message is true. In other words, God says to the king, “You name it, and I’ll do it. That’s how powerful I am!” but Ahaz again balks, “I will not put the Lord to the test.” It sounds like a holy answer, but it’s really cowardice. Ahaz already knows what’s coming, but he just doesn’t want to face it.

So Isaiah intervenes and proclaims that whether Ahaz wants a sign or not God’s going to give him one—“Look, the young woman is with child and will bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” I get the sense that both the prophet and God are a little impatient with Ahaz, who is refusing to play along, so they pick their own sign and make it happen. In some sense, the prophecy that “God-with-Us” shall be born is a “you-think-you’re-better-than-us?” prophecy. It’s God saying, “You can’t escape. Resistance is futile.”

Fast-forward 800 years. Jesus is born. He is to be called, “Immanuel—God-with-Us.” This time, he is born to Mary, who simply said yes. Unlike Ahaz, this servant of the Lord is willing to participate in God’s plan. Maybe that’s what makes this birth so different. But beneath it all is our collective refusal to claim the sign for what it is. Mary might be willing, but the world is not. But God doesn’t care, does he? God didn’t send his son into the world to convince everyone that he’s a good God. God’s son wasn’t exactly the answer to anyone’s prayer. But God intervened and sent his son into the world despite our unreceptive hearts.

We don’t always need to be willing for God to work in our lives. Sometimes, he works whether we want him to or not (Ahaz). But sometimes we are receptive (Mary), and, when we are submissive to God’s plan, a wonderful thing happens. God’s work in the world is seen for what it is—and not as a sign of revenge or an expression of sheer power. Instead, when we’re ready for it, God’s work is a sign of salvation. How can we be open to that work? How can we prepare to receive God’s saving grace?

Thursday, March 22, 2012


How much difference a generation makes! As we read in today’s OT lesson (Exodus 1:6-22), Joseph and his brothers eventually died. And so did Pharaoh. And that was a problem. The new Pharaoh became jealous of the Israelites and their success, so they started to change the way the foreigners were handled. Resentment became open hostility, and soon the leader of Egypt was ordering that Israelite boys should be killed to prevent that nation from growing too strong. The Israelites were subjected to harsh, slave-like working conditions. They were no longer welcome.

Sometimes corporate memory fails us. Most of the time, as the years have gone by, the passing of one generation leads to a more egalitarian society. Think, for example, how conversations about race and race relations have changed in the south as our grandparents have died. Even the language that betrays unspoken attitudes has changed as those who never knew integration as adolescents have died. But other times our failure to remember looks more like that of the Egyptians—bitter, angry, resentful, and racist.

In WWII, Japanese-Americans, who had once been welcomed members of our society, were interred out of fear. After 9/11, many of us forgot what we had learned about Islam in elementary school—how that faith shares so much in common with Judaism and Christianity—and instead became suspicious of anyone who identified himself as a Muslim. That pattern of forgetting isn’t just enacted on racial/national lines. There’s a spiritual element to it as well.

If we look back over human history, we can see how God’s protective and gracious hand has sustained us. Egypt into Promised Land. Babylonian Captivity into Freedom. Roman Occupation into Jesus’ Gentile Liberation. Even Holocaust into this new era. But when we take the short-term view, it’s easy to develop the same forgetful approach that the new Pharaoh adopted. Where is God now? Things are tough. Why won’t he help us? Maybe we should turn to other sources for sustenance. Maybe we should build a golden calf and worship it.

We all go through rough patches. Being a follower of God does not mean that we are immune from trial. In fact, some of us will live our entire lives right on the edge of tragedy. But God’s view is bigger than one generation. His salvation is not only individual. It is communal and corporate. We must search for reminders of God’s salvation—especially when we’re in a place that makes it easy to forget. It cannot simply be our duty to recall that God is good. Our nearsightedness is too profound. We must rely on stories that go beyond our own generation. Faith is an exercise in history.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What Would Jesus Say?

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-33), Jesus reminds me of a presidential candidate. Andrew and Philip relay to him a question that they had been asked by some Greeks, but the answer Jesus gives doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the question. It would be easy to read this lesson as if Jesus were intentionally changing the subject or perhaps simply distracted. But I think the integrity of this gospel lesson depends upon that implicit question: “Can Gentiles get access to Jesus?”

Jesus reply could stand by itself: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This is one of those sayings that sticks out in our corporate memory. Grain of wheat—dies—much fruit. Yeah, I get that. In my mind, however, that saying is usually divorced from the introduction to this story. This is Jesus’ response to the inquiry of some Gentiles, who want to come and see him. It isn’t just a pithy saying about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nor is it a simple teaching on discipleship. It’s a description of how God’s saving work reaches beyond Israel.

Like most Christians, I grew up in a Gentile home. Despite my parents’ affinity for Ronald Reagan, I never learned that salvation was a gift that trickled down—first to the Jews and then to us. Instead, the work that was done on the cross was always described as a gift to me—personally. Jesus died for my sins. His death on the cross made it possible for me to go into heaven. While that might be true, it might be more accurate to say that Jesus’ death was a way of inviting me to a salvation party that had already been happening for a few thousand years.

If we asked Jesus about his death, how would he describe it? How often does Jesus talk about the cross in propitiatory language? He doesn't. But how often does he describe his death in terms of “draw[ing] all people to himself?” Often. For Jesus, it seems that the purpose of the cross was to unite humanity—to put to death that which separates Jew from Gentile. We can choose to put the language of sin-purifying sacrifice on that event if we want. The author of Hebrews certainly did. But that’s not the language Jesus used. Instead, the fruit that Jesus’ bore after his death and resurrection was a universal invitation. We are all included in God’s story because of the cross. Without Calvary, the message of salvation couldn’t reach Gentiles like me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Eternal Stepfather

As a father, I have almost nothing in common with St. Joseph, whose feast day we celebrate today. I was not betrothed to a woman who conceived a child by another source. I have no reason to doubt that any of my children are my biological offspring. And given our daily struggles with disobedient children, I know without a shadow of a doubt that none of my children is the Son of God.

As a father, I have a lot in common with St. Joseph, whose feast day we celebrate today. I know what it’s like to have my wife be an adept parent while I struggle to deal with squirmy kids. I have experienced the joy of having a child toddle up to me and ask to sit in my lap. And I know that most of who my children are and what they will become is totally beyond my control.

Joseph is an odd but beloved character in our Christian story. He’s the descendent of David, so he plays a critical role in defining Jesus as David’s offspring, yet Joseph has no genetic stake in Jesus’ identity. He is celebrated for his faithfulness and selfless love of wife and family, yet we hardly know anything about the carpenter who presumably helped raise God’s only begotten son. He’s the eternal stepfather. In large part, his greatest accomplishment is something he didn’t actually do.

In the gospel reading for today, we see the young Jesus offer unintentionally damning words about his relationship with Joseph. After hiding in the temple and being found by his anxious parents, Jesus draws a permanent line in his relationship with his earthly father. Mary, his mother, says, “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety,” to which Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” All of the sudden, probably for the first time, Jesus recognizes and says aloud who his true father is. And it’s not Joseph.

I didn’t come from a blended family, but, for what it’s worth, I’ve seen them portrayed in the movies or on television. I hate that moment when the stepchild looks at his stepparent and says, “You’re not my real father/mother! You can’t tell me what to do!” Although Jesus doesn’t make his statement in that spirit of anger or frustration, I bet it still stung Joseph’s ears a little bit: “You and my father were looking for me? Didn’t you know I’d be in my real father’s house?”

We never hear Joseph’s impression of this moment—or of any other moment after Jesus’ birth. He disappears into the obscurity of non-history. Apparently, his role after the nativity wasn’t important enough to be featured in the gospel. But whatever did happen, we do know what didn’t happen. Joseph didn’t abandon them. He didn’t give up on Jesus. He didn’t leave Mary and her infant son for another woman—an actual virgin. He stuck it out. Surely Joseph is the saint of selflessness. He is the one to offer comfort for those whose accomplishments are never remembered as their own. Stepparents, anonymous assistants, and nurses should all rejoice that at least once one of their flock is celebrated for what he did do by not doing what he didn’t do.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Who Are You Calling Rich?

When you go to the grocery store, are you allowed to eat one of the grapes to see how sweet it is before you buy it? Or is that stealing? I think I know what the answer is supposed to be—stealing. To be honest, I don’t really care enough about the sweetness of my grapes to eat an unwashed piece of fruit in the grocery store. But would anyone say that it was my right to sample the produce?

Paul makes an interesting argument in today’s NT reading (1 Corinthians 9:1-15). He’s angry that people are whining about how he makes his money. Apparently, the Corinthians are objecting to his other occupation—tent-making (whatever that is)—that he used to support himself and his ministry. So Paul writes,

Do we not have the right to our food and drink?...Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned?

It’s the bit about muzzling an ox that caught my eye this morning. Apparently, you’re supposed to let your ox graze a little while he’s working. Seems nice enough. But Paul is right—that’s not really for the oxen. It’s because God wants us to care about those who work. Workers should be paid. Workers should be honored. There should be a general culture of appreciation for service in the kingdom of God.

When I was growing up, one of our ministers drove a Mercedes Benz. It wasn’t all that fancy—probably a 10-year-old mid-class sedan—but it was enough to get him in trouble. I remember my father making a passing comment that some people in the church objected to their minister driving a Mercedes, and I found that a little confusing. Now, as a minister, it makes perfect sense. Am I working for the gospel or working for myself? People want (even expect) me to rub elbows with parishioners in places like the Country Club or a fancy benefit gala, but they expect me to drive there in a Camry rather than a Lexus.

Trust me—I love my Camry and have no intention of upgrading. But I think it’s worth asking—why are we uncomfortable with certain people doing well financially? It’s not just ministers. I’m guessing the same is true for schoolteachers. Wealth seems to be a big deal in politics. Why are we uncomfortable with it?

I think we assume that serving God means being poor. And that means that, without even realizing it, we believe that having money is an ungodly thing. Maybe we should start with a proper theology of wealth. Is it ok to be wealthy? Sure. Godly people are both poor and rich. Perhaps one of the reasons there are still poor people in the world is that rich people aren’t comfortable theologically with their wealth. If they were, maybe there could be an honest exchange about how resources are supposed to be divided. In other words, all the “haves” of the world shouldn’t feel guilty about what they have—but they shouldn’t be threatened by the “have-nots” who are in need. How might we instead embrace a theology of resources that accurately embraces the gospel message?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ever Want to Punch God in the Face?

We’ve been reading the story of Joseph and his brothers for the last few weeks as the OT lessons, and, in today’s reading, we finally see Joseph reveal himself to his siblings. In today’s lesson (Genesis 45:1-15), the author writes, “Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him,” so he sent everyone out of the room. And then, in a moment that must have been equally powerful and humiliating and joyful, Joseph tells his brothers who he really is. I bet at least one of them wanted to punch him in the mouth.

It almost reads like a practical joke. Joseph has sent his brothers to and from Pharaoh’s palace twice. He has held Judah captive. He has led them to think that Benjamin would be a prisoner forever. He has made his father worry night and day about whether he would ever see all of his sons again. They have jumped through all of his make-believe hoops. And finally, when Joseph couldn’t stand it any longer, he pops out from behind his disguise and says, “Ta da! It’s me, Joseph! Recognize me?”

Yeah, I totally would punch him right in the face.

Then again, his brothers did sell him into slavery and consider him dead. Perhaps they deserved this long and difficult trial. Maybe Joseph was right to put them through such hell. It certainly made it possible for them to appreciate the real punch line in the story: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

God knew ahead of time that Joseph being sold into slavery would be necessary to save the promise he made to Abraham—that a remnant would grow into a great nation. But that seems like an awfully complicated way to accomplish that.

Sometimes God works in clear and direct ways. Sometimes God works through methods that infuriate us. Sometimes God goes through great lengths to break us down and humble us before building us back up again. The point is that we cannot know what God’s plan is. But we have to believe that there is a plan.

Maybe divine providence is simply humanity’s ability to look back over history and see a pattern of God’s promises being fulfilled through otherwise random or haphazard occurrences. But even then, it’s still a plan. How is God working in your life? Can you see it? Can you find a thread—no matter how thin or randomly swerving—that connects the pieces of your life into a God-controlled whole? Don’t give up just because it doesn’t make sense. And don’t give up just because you sometimes want to punch God in the face. Eventually, we will see where he is leading us, and we will be thankful, too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Unforgivable Sin

As a child, I was always afraid of the “unforgivable sin,” which Jesus talks about in today’s gospel lesson (Mark 3:19-35). In the passage, he notes that because the Scribes had assumed that Jesus was possessed by an evil spirit they had committed the unforgivable sin, which was to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.” Basically, instead of seeing the Spirit at work they called it the Devil, and thus earned themselves a quick trip to hell. More than one Sunday school teacher tried to explain to me that it wasn’t the sort of sin that once committed left an indelible go-to-hell mark on your salvation passport. They claimed it had more to do with failing to experience God’s love and forgiveness. But I didn’t buy it then, and I’m not sure I buy it now.

It’s pretty clear: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.” To me, blasphemy means to make ungodly that which is godly, so blasphemy against the Holy Spirit involves profaning the Spirit’s work in the world. But how often have I done that?

I grew up in a small town in an era in which kids rode their bikes all through town until sunset, when they returned home. In my hometown there was a “crazy” lady who walked around and approached people, trying to convince them that the world was coming to an end. She liked to approach children because we were the ones least likely to assert dismissive authority over her. She scared me. Both her words and her appearance were off-putting. When I asked my mother about her, she told me to ignore her as a harmless irritant. “She’s not sane,” she explained. “She has some mental issues that make her do odd things.” I believed it, and I passed the good news along to my friends the next time we saw her. But what if she was really doing the Lord’s work? What if she were possessed by the Holy Spirit and had been led by God to preach the message of repentance to the residents of our small town? Was I blaspheming the Holy Spirit?

How often have I denied God’s work and written it off as ungodly? Prophets in all shapes and sizes have a history of such denigration. Who are the prophets of this age—those whom we have labeled as “rabble-rousers” in order to deny the godliness of their work? Suffragettes. Freedom riders. Advocates. There are some within our church that believe that the liberalization of our faith is heresy and the devil’s work. But what if it’s the Spirit’s work? Is that an unforgivable sin?

I don’t think Jesus is trying emphasize the consequences as much as he wants to draw our attention to the mechanics of the sin itself. We must be open to the Spirit’s work. We cannot be like the Scribes—who already knew before Jesus even arrived what would actually qualify as the Spirit’s work. Anything that didn’t fit on their predefined checklist would certainly be the Devil’s work. And that’s us. We are the scribes. We are too quick to label as heresy that which might be the radical work of the Spirit. Doing that once and discovering one’s error isn’t unforgivable. But living a whole life denying that the Spirit might be doing things beyond our understanding or expectation is.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Whipping Stick

In today’s NT lesson (1 Corinthians 4:8-21) Paul asks the Corinthians, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” I wish my parents had asked me that. For a child, there is only one answer—with gentle love. Who wants a beating when he can have a pat on the back instead?

But sometimes we need to brandish the stick. Paul doesn’t refer to it accidentally. Having proclaimed himself as their “father through the gospel,” Paul acts like any good parent. He doesn’t need to go to the switch—just remind the wayward children that it’s there. A little empty threat can go a long way.

That doesn’t sound much like grace, though. Where is the grace in taking of one’s belt and brandishing it in front of the disobedient child? Even if I’m not going to use it, to threaten punishment is the exact opposite of grace. We are forgiven even before we err. There is no threat of punishment. Yet hell still exists. And we still talk about it. And we should. So why?

Let’s reevaluate Paul’s reference to the stick. I don’t think Paul is threatening to use it. I think instead that he is reminding his children that he will not use it—ever. Even though some might deserve a beating, Paul is coming with a spirit of love. Imagine saying to a child, “You know what? I won’t ever whip you—no matter how disobedient you are. Instead, I will love you into obedience.” It’s harder to take that parental approach, but the fruit of that labor is worth it.

I confess that I’m a spanker. I’m not proud of that, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what God wants be to do. But it’s hard to use love to deal with a child who has pushed you past your limits. That’s not an excuse—it’s a fact. It’s the truth about my humanity. How wonderful, then, is it that God never gets pushed beyond loving us?