Thursday, November 29, 2012

Buried Lines

Some weeks all the action seems confined to one or two of the lessons, leaving a third out in the cold. My attention this week has been focused on the dramatic Gospel and timely Old Testament lessons. The Epistle has mostly fallen through the cracks.


In a lectionary bible study earlier this week, a participant kept pulling us back to Paul. When I read these lines from 1 Thessalonians, I ask myself why this is an Advent reading at all. Except for the last few lines, it has almost nothing to do with "the Lord's coming." Instead, it's a purely occasional text intended for a very specific audience--one who received this letter 2000 years ago. But this participant kept pulling us back to the text, asking us to consider how Paul is speaking to us--specifically to us.

"And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."

After an hour of conversation, I asked the group what they would preach on if they were climbing into the pulpit, I heard a range of answers, most of which were focused on the question of when God's kingdom will (or has already) come. Then, our friend brought us back by sharing her response: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love..." For her, it was the most important line in the week's lessons. She wouldn't let us leave it. She wanted us to hear what Paul says.

At first, I wondered why this lesson from 1 Thess. was included in the readings for 1 Advent. Yes, I get that the closing sentence mentions that the Lord is coming, but why else? Couldn't they have found a more Advent-appropriate text for this week? But if you dig a little deeper, I think you discover the Advent message in Paul's deepest wish.

The "holiday season," as our culture likes to call it, is recognized as a time set apart for sentimentality. Even the secular humanists among us feel the urge to reach out in love for others. Shouldn't that be our Advent message as well? Not because of the sentimentality of the season but because we are preparing ourselves to receive again the greatest expression of God's love the world has ever known?

I got a call from a friend and local newspaper reporter yesterday. She wanted me to talk about why our church observes the season of Advent. I told her that we don't think Christians can merely show up on one of the two biggest days of the year (Christmas or Easter) without preparing our hearts to receive the overwhelming love that gets expressed on those days. We need some time to get ready. And how can we get ready for Christmas? By orienting our hearts to receive God's love to the point of overflowing. That's the real message of Advent. And there it is--buried in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Between the First and Second Coming

I’ve often thought that Advent is the perpetual season of the church. As the lessons for the first Sunday of Advent remind us, we’re still looking and watching and preparing for the coming of the Lord. That isn’t just true in early December, when the church remembers that sense of waiting. It’s true all the time.

So here’s my big question for the week: how is our waiting for the “second coming” any different from the waiting that the world did the first time around?

Jeremiah predicts the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel and Judah. One day soon, he declares, God will cause his righteous Branch to spring up—one to execute justice and righteousness for God’s people. As Christians, we have a tendency to read that in Advent as if it has already been fulfilled. Jesus was (and is) that righteous Branch, and he sprung up 2000 years ago. But that’s also what we’re still waiting for. We’re waiting for justice and righteousness. We’re still waiting for the promises to Israel and Judah to be fulfilled.

So what’s different this time around?

In the reading from Luke, Jesus predicts tough times—even the powers of heaven will be shaken. Yet I’ll suggest that the “first coming” means that we wait for the “second coming” not in fear but with joy. As Jesus said, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

In other words, the difference is how we are supposed to receive those troubling times. Over and over, the prophets of old predicted judgment against God’s people. Wrath and turmoil will be poured out upon the earth, and eventually God will sort everything out. That was a pretty scary prediction no matter who you were. But then Jesus came to remind that as the problems of the world are sorted out we discover not a God who hates us but one who loves us. We wait for the day of judgment not afraid of what’s coming but hopeful for our redemption.

When Jeremiah declares, “The days are surely coming…” we might wonder, “Have they already come?” and the answer is, “Yes and no.” The promise and foretaste of our redemption has already come so that when things do take a turn for the apocalyptically worse we can approach it with joyful expectation of the fulfillment of that redemption. In other words, Jesus shows us what sort of end we should expect, and the cross and empty tomb remind us that it won’t end with death—only with life.

Advent is about waiting for the “second coming” but doing so in light of Jesus first coming. Jesus came to earth to show us who God is and how God relates to the world. Will there be judgment? Yes. Will it be tumultuous? Yes. Can we be sure that despite all the trials that may come God will still take care of us? Yes. Jesus showed us that the first time around.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who's Thankful?

Yesterday, I had a conversation about Thanksgiving with a vegetarian who works in our office, and, since there’s only one, she gets singled out a lot for questions about meat and why she doesn’t eat it. I asked her whether she’s seen the documentary that’s being shown on PBS lately called Eating Alabama. I asked because I wanted her to know that, when I saw them killing and defeathering chickens on the television, I was struck by that display and internalized some of the consequences of my meat-eating habits. Yes, I said, I know where my food comes from.

That led to a conversation about whether it’s right in principle to eat foods like lamb and veal. Another person in the office piped up and said that for her lamb was off-limits. “In fact,” she declared, “I’ve been in a restaurant when someone ordered lamb, and I called out, ‘Mary had a little lamb!’ to make sure they knew it.” I, on the other hand, love lamb and veal, but, in the spirit of Eating Alabama, I said to them that I would be comfortable looking that little baby animal in the face before killing it and eating it. I don’t think of animals raised for food as anything but pre-food. That’s how I keep a clear conscience when sitting at the dinner table. And I think we all need to be able to do that. We should know where our food comes from. We should be able to internalize the ethical and moral consequences of our diet.

This morning, when I read the OT lesson for the day (Malachi1:1, 6-14), I thought again about our food and where it comes from. In this passage, the prophet accuses the priests of offering to God the leftovers of the flock: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong?” Apparently, the priests had gotten into the habit of keeping the best for themselves and going through the motions and empty gestures of sacrificing the dregs. But let’s be honest—why would God care?

God doesn’t eat. God doesn’t need the choicest lambs or doves or goats. When the fragrant smell of roasting flesh billows up toward heaven, God’s lips aren’t moistened. He doesn’t get hungry. He’s not going to eat what is put on the altar—surely the priests knew that. At the end of the day, the meat was still there. It didn’t magically disappear because God took a helping and put it on his dinner plate. So why does it matter whether they offered God the firstlings of the herd or simply what was left over?

It matters because they knew. When you get into the habit of simply giving God what’s left over, you forget where your food comes from. Like a city-dweller who thinks that ground chuck comes from the supermarket, a priest who sacrifices blind or lame animals forgets that God has provided all things. The point of giving God our best is to remember that God has given us everything to begin with.

Not that long ago, I was invited to a lavish dinner party that a woman threw for her doctors. She had been suffering from a potentially fatal chronic disease, and several times we all thought she would die. But she didn’t. She rallied, and she was thankful. She knew that she had been saved from death by a team of skillful doctors, and she was so filled with gratitude that she put on an extravagant party to show it. That’s being thankful.

Occasionally someone will say thank you to me by giving me a bottle of wine or a baked good after a baptism or funeral. No one has ever given me a half-drunk bottle or a stale, moldy cake. Why? Because that wouldn’t say, “Thank you.” That would say, “I’m not grateful enough to give you something nice.” Sure, my feelings would be hurt, but, since I don’t do funerals or baptisms in exchange for gifts, what would really matter is the disconnect in the relationship.

What are you giving to God? Honestly, he doesn’t care whether it’s a leftover crumb or a blind sheep. God only wants a relationship. So what will that relationship look like? Will you take it for granted, or will you honor it by being truly thankful. Remember where you food comes from. Remember where your life comes from. Conscious of that, one would be hard-pressed to offer anything but his very best.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What--Me Worry?

The gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day (Matthew 6:25-33) is all about worry. Jesus says, "Do not worry about your life--what you will eat or drink or wear. Isn't there more to life than food or clothing?" Funny, Jesus, those aren't the things I worry about.

I worry about my family. Am I around them enough? Am I supportive enough? Do they know how much I love them?

I worry about my friends. Will she recover from that illness? Will he learn to let go of his grief? Will they figure out how to live together and stay married?

I worry about my job. Am I working hard enough? Am I listening for the Spirit's guidance? Am I forgetting something?

I worry about our country. What happens if the economy doesn't turn around? What happens if we do go plunging off the fiscal cliff? Will those we've elected ever figure out how to do what's best for the people of this nation?

Jesus asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. They don't worry, yet God gives them plenty to eat and arrays them in beautiful colors. Well, Jesus, go back to biology class. I've been watching the hummingbirds outside my window, and I can tell you that all they do is eat. All they care about is having enough food to make it long enough to find a mate. And the flowers? There's a reason they're so pretty--it's so that birds and bees will notice them and carry their pollen (genetic material) from one flower to another. If it isn't brightly colored enough, it will get passed over and won't have an opportunity to pass its DNA along to future generations. Sure, flowers don't worry because they're flowers; they can't. But, if they could, they would be worse than a sixth-grade girl: "Am I pretty? Tell me I'm pretty. Do you think the boys will notice me?"

So, let's start over. Flowers? Birds? Clothing? Food? Put all that aside and get back to the point. Don't worry. Let go. How? By realizing that God will take care of everything. Does that mean that everything will have a happy ending? No. Does that mean that your food and clothing will magically descend from the sky? No. But does it mean that even starving, naked people get to go to heaven? Yes, absolutely.

This gospel lesson is about perspectives. Keep the end in mind. Where are we going? To dwell with God for eternity. So does it matter how we get there? Not really. Sure, it's a lot easier if you have food to eat and clothes to wear, but, even if you didn't, the end of the story will be the same. But that means letting go of control and worry about whether I have what I "need" in this life. And that's not easy. But no one said it would be.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Tweet in Church

What if we stopped telling people to turn their cell phones off in church and, instead, told them to use them throughout the service?

This summer, in order to save paper and preparation time, we trimmed our Sunday-morning bulletin from a tri-folded, ledger-sized behemoth to a slim, half-letter publication. At the top of our old version, a familiar message was printed: “Please turn your cell phones off or on silent.” Looking back, I wish I could say that we cut that line out of our bulletin in an effort to embrace the growth of social media, but, alas, it was axed simply because of space. Maybe that was the Spirit at work even though we didn’t know it.

Last night, I went to my first ever “tweet-up.” Honestly, I wish they called it something else because it was far more informative and productive than the name suggests. I kept looking around for giggling seventh-graders, but apparently a “tweet up” is a chance for Twitter friends to meet in person—hence the name. Actually, I did meet some people I’ve known on Twitter but not in real life, so it did accomplish that, but it was less a “meet and greet” than it was a brainstorming session for the future of ministry in the Episcopal Church.

At the session, I asked other, far more experienced lay and ordained ministers about the use of social media in church. Typically, I think we use Facebook and Twitter as a side-running commentary. It describes what happened, or advertises what is to come. From my perspective, most social media seems to be a separate, parallel conversation that is not at the heart of the event itself. Instead of being at the center of life, Twitter and Facebook are like a newsreel that records and characterizes “real” life—always commenting but never the focus itself. “How can social media become the center of what we do in church? How can we integrate Twitter, for example, into Sunday-morning worship or Sunday school or bible study?”

I could feel the array of light bulbs going off in my head. Several people answered with stories of preachers who accepted questions or comments on a sermon in real-time. Others talked about bible studies in which people were invited to ask a question or contribute their perspective through social media. One person spoke of attending a wedding that was tweeted in real time, and another mentioned an ordination where the same happened. And that got me wondering… What would a social-media-friendly worship service look like?

Good evening and welcome to St. John’s. Before our service starts, I’d like to invite you to take out your smart phone or tablet, if you have one, and scan the QR code on the bulletin. That will take you to a fuller version of the service sheet, some background information on the scripture lessons, and a calendar of upcoming events in our parish. Also, during the service, I will have the Twitter app up on my iPhone so that I can see some of real-time questions or comments that you may have. At this service, we consider the virtual exchange a part of our worship, so please treat it as such and, if you would like, explore the possibility of “doing church” through social media.

This happens to be the feast of the Consecration of Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church. Even before the American Revolution, Seabury wanted desperately for there to be a resident bishop in the colonies. In his opinion, we lost too many good men who sailed back to England for ordination. (They either died on the way or found life in London too pleasant to give up.) He probably was one of those clergypersons who dreamed of being a bishop someday, but I do believe he had good intentions in his heart. He knew that this new expression of church, which would become the Episcopal Church, needed its own leadership. He knew that we couldn’t grow if we were still doing things the old way.

Today’s lesson from Acts 20 is a parting word of encouragement and warning: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” Paul wants to make sure that the gospel message keeps getting preached even though he’s being carted off to Rome, so he tells the Ephesian elders to stay focused: “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” That is a message for today’s church as well.

The good news of Jesus Christ is able to build us up. It’s a message that the world needs to hear. As a clergyperson, I still think of Sunday morning in the pulpit as the primary time for me to preach. What if Twitter became a greater preaching opportunity? What if people were drawn into worship and study because they now had something to contribute to the conversation? As Episcopalians, we’ve always been good at “active” worship—standing, sitting, kneeling, receiving Communion, etc.. Where would you rather go to church—a place where you sit and listen for 45 minutes or a place where you are invited to interact with the whole Christian community?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Turkey, Dressing, Fire, and Brimstone

A few years ago, a parishioner came up and looked at me with an intently knowing stare. “There sure have been a lot of earthquakes lately,” he said. “Wars, too.”  He paused, waiting for me to fill in the blanks, but, after a few seconds of my looking back at him blankly, he gave up and continued, “Do you think the end is coming soon?”

I hope I didn’t laugh at him. I wonder how many people have thought that things around them have gotten so bad that the end must be coming soon. As Alabamians, that parishioner and I live fairly isolated from the earthquakes and wars and other calamities that dominate the headlines. It never occurred to me that the end might be coming soon, and I don’t know what it was that triggered that line of thought in his mind, but it got me wondering: how bad must things get before we start expecting Jesus to come back?

This week’s lessons are particularly tricky. I tweeted to that effect, and a friend of mine replied, “Gotta love some apocalyptic preaching the week of Thanksgiving.” Yes, there’s nothing like fire and brimstone to put everyone in the thankful spirit. But, as I sort through them and let my focus fall to the gospel lesson (Mark 13:1-8), I hear that parishioner and I wonder how many other religions offer hope on the other side of chaos.

Chicken Little runs around screaming that the sky is falling. What do we do? If the sky falls it’s all over. That would be the end. But not for a Christian—not for Jesus. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Jesus says that things are going to get bad—really, really bad. I think he’s exaggerating a little bit here but only to drive the point home. From time to time, life will get so miserable that you’ll think it can’t go on. But, Jesus says, that is only the beginning. Those are the birthpangs. It is out of strife and grief and torment that life is born.

I feel the earth shake beneath me, and I start imagining my own demise. My parishioner-friend reads about earthquakes and wars and starts dreaming that Jesus is coming back. He’s closer to the truth. No, it doesn’t mean that when things seem to get bad that we should expect Jesus to put on his super-hero costume and fly in to save the day. It means that, unlike anyone else in the world, Christians should see such calamity as a sign of hope. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Rejoice!” That might be an exaggeration—Jesus isn’t ignoring the difficulties, but he is asking us to see them as the beginning of something bigger. Maybe that is something to be thankful for this week.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On the Road Again with TEC

This summer I posted about being at General Convention on the Fourth of July. Apparently the Church likes having meetings on holidays because its Veterans' Day, and I'm on my way to another meeting. This time, it's as a member of the Standing Commission for Lifelong Christian Formation and Education (SCLCFE).

But this meeting is more than that. At this year's General Convention, we called for a new way of doing the administrative business of the church. So all of the CCABs are being called together for a joint meeting to both get their respective balls rolling and, hopefully, to figure out how to do what we do without so much expense, bureaucracy, and waste. Can it be done?

I went to General Convention expecting both to enjoy it and to sense that it was bogged down in controversy. I was right on the first part and wrong on the second. Our time in Indy was governed primarily by a spirit of unity and shared mission. I was surprised. I was shocked. And I'm hoping for more of the same this week.

By Thursday I'll know whether there is reason to hope that we can turn thing around radically or whether we can only hope for incremental progress. I'm hoping for huge, ground-swelling change, but I can't yet see how it is possible. But I still have hope.

The actual issues facing the SCLCFE are important and worth our attention. We need to be a church that forms and educates its people about the good news of Jesus Christ much better than we currently do. But that will always be the case. Right now, though, I'm waiting to see whether we can be part of the wider solution before we try to solve our own problems.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Two Copper Coins

It's easy to read this Sunday's gospel lesson as if it's all about stewardship--a widow gives everything she has, and we should to. Well, it's not. Also, it's easy to read this lesson as if it's not at all about stewardship--a widow only has two copper coins to live on because the scribes have been "devouring widows' houses." But that's not it, either. It's somewhere in between, and that's a much harder sermon to preach.

How is stewardship related to the oppression of widows? How can we link the scribes' empty piety with the widow's amazing display of faith and also tie in the clear emphasis of stewardship?

I think Mark crafts this passage by putting these two stories together on purpose. I think he wants us to consider the contrast between the scribes and the widow and see that the two copper coins are evidence of faith in a way that long robes and long prayers can never be.

What motivated the scribes? They were the lawyers of Jesus' day. They were the ones who crafted legal documents and interpreted contracts in that weird fusion of religious and civil law that a theocracy like Israel represented. And, like so many of the prophets from the OT declare, they were the ones who used their expertise to defraud the poor, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise oppressed. But, since they were quasi-religious figures, they do so in the guise of religion.

I can imagine a newly widowed woman receiving a knock at the door from a scribe and his "enforcers" who had come to evict her from her house because she wasn't entitled to own property. A real "Sheriff of Nottingham" sort, a scribe would hide behind his authority when taking from those in need. And I think he would let his love of money and power actually convince himself that he was doing God's will. "Of course it's wrong for this widow to stay in her house. The scriptures say that she must depend on the guidance of a husband or live on the charity of others. So out she goes. All according to God's word." But we see how preposterous that is.

So think again about what motivated the scribes. They confuse personal gain with God's will, and that's a dangerous concoction in any age.

Then there's the widow, who literally gives her last two pennies to the treasury. She has no idea where her next meal will come from. But she still gives over the coins because she's supposed to. It's the temple tax. It's what God asks of her. Of course, God isn't really demanding her last two cents, but she doesn't worry about the details. She hands it over, trusting that God will take care of her.

Faith in what? In our own ability to make money? Or in God's ability to provide for us? What's our motive? Are we confusing what God wants with what we want? We're supposed to want what God wants, but usually we get it backwards. "God wants me to be happy. He wants me to be successful. He wants me to be rich." Well, maybe...but probably not. He wants you to depend on him for everything, and you can't do that when you're mixing up God's will with your own.

Monday, November 5, 2012

You Get Paid for This Stuff?

I can’t find it online, but I remember seeing a Dennis the Menace comic strip in which Dennis asks the preacher on the way out of church, “What do you on all the other days besides Sunday?” I’ve actually been asked that question several times—most often by curious children who are surprised to see me somewhere in town besides the church. Although there are plenty of preachers out there who don’t work as hard as they should, most of us keep pretty busy. But busy doing what?

Today’s lesson from Sirach might have been intended as a word of encouragement for religious occupations, but it makes me nervous:

All these [manual laborers] rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. (38:31-33a)

It gets worse. Read the whole lesson and you realize that, although grateful for the work of artisans and craftsmen, the author pretty much calls them stupid, thus concluding, “How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High!” Even if I pretend it’s true when no one is looking, I don’t like that label.

I must say, however, that I love my job—just about every aspect of it. I remember hearing my old boss say to a parishioner, “Being a priest is a great job—maybe the best job in the world—but only if it’s the right job for you. If you’re not suited for it, you’ll hate it.” That sounds about right. So little of my job is what people see on Sunday mornings. Although a good bit goes it to getting ready for a Sunday (study, writing, desktop publishing, moving tables and chairs, recruiting volunteers, changing HVAC settings, coordination, etc.), so much more happens during the rest of the week (late-night phone calls, meetings, hospital and home visits, crisis counseling, budgets, staff relationships, marketing, etc.). Like plenty of other occupations, it’s the kind of job that involves multiple skillsets, which keeps me both busy and interested.

Unlike most other jobs, however, being a clergyperson does mean that I get paid to read the bible and study God’s word. It’s my job is to pray. All those things that Jesus tells us to do—go out and make disciples of all nations, etc.—only a few of us can make a living doing that. The rest of you have to volunteer. So yes, it’s a great job. I love it. But what does that mean for everyone else?

I think the author of Sirach makes a more subtle point than “workers are dumb; rabbis are smart.” He writes, “How can one become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls?” And actually that’s a good question for us to remember—both priest and laity. When we are consumed with our labors, we can’t become wise. For a clergyperson, that means I can’t let the budgets and schedules take away from my time studying God’s word. And the same is true for people who don’t make a living in ministry. We can’t let the stresses, details, or minutia of work spill over into our relationship with God. All of us—plowman, potter, and priest—should be students of the bible. Every morning should begin with quiet, reading, and prayer. If we aren’t giving that time to God, how could any of us expect a relationship with him?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

No More Ejector-Seat Theology

We had a death in the parish early this week, and the funeral will be tomorrow morning. As I looked over the readings suggested by the Prayer Book for a funeral, it was tempting to steer the family toward Revelation 21 and John 11—maybe no one will notice that I am preaching the same sermon twice. But I ended up going in the other direction. I chose different lessons because All Saints’ Sunday isn’t supposed to feel like a funeral even if a funeral is supposed to feel like All Saints’ Day.

These lessons, as my friend Steve Pankey pointed out early in the week, are all about heaven. What’s heaven like? In my preparation for a Tuesday, lectionary-based bible study, I read about Wisdom of Solomon—a 1st-century-BCE text that was written by an anonymous Hellenistic Jew. Given its date and context, I’m guessing that it holds the view of heaven that was common in Jesus’ day: “Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.” The reading from Wisdom seems to suggest that heaven is an escape from the pains of this world. The foolish, it stresses, are those who look at the suffering of a righteous person in this life as the end. Although it doesn’t mention the wise, it implies that they can see that beyond this painful, tragic life is hope for something else. The whole lesson gives me the sense that someday God will reach down and pluck us off this island rock and transport us to space.

The reading from Revelation takes a radically different approach: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Instead of an Earth-to-Heaven salvation, it envisions paradise descending onto the earth and the whole creation being made new (see Pankey’s blog on this). What strikes me, though, is that the situation for the author and readers of Revelation was still very much like that of Wisdom—persecutions, suffering, occupation, oppression. What changed in between Wisdom and Revelation? What happened to help the theologians of the day realize that God’s promise of salvation isn’t an escapist hope but a confidence that this world will someday be made new?

The answer, of course, is Jesus. Jesus shows us that God is invested in this world—not as an accident but as a purpose. God doesn’t wait to take us away from this mess. He comes down, takes on the created nature, and redeems it. Both passages understand that our suffering is not the end of the story, but one of them gets the real message of hope. We are not waiting for an ejector seat that will rocket us up away from this mess. We are waiting for God’s reign to be established here so that all pain and suffering will go away. That means the world we live in is a sign of hope—not just a sign of brokenness.