Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How to Forgive Yourself

Have you ever done something you can’t forgive yourself for? Have you ever carried around a burden that you just couldn’t let go of? Usually, when we think of the bad guys of the Bible, Herod makes the list, but I actually have sympathy for him. When he had John the Baptist killed, he did a bad thing, but, as Mark tells us (6:13-29), the memory of his decision drove him crazy.

This weekend, I was at Camp McDowell for a Cursillo event that focused on “Stories God’s People Tell.” As part of that event, a priest read a children’s story to us. I don’t even remember the name of the story, but I remember how it went. It’s a classic tale of the new kid who comes to school and is rejected by the others, but it is narrated from the view of one of the rejecters. That should have been my first clue. As the reader made his way through the story and told of moments of cruelty and heart-break, the whole audience was drawn in. When he got to the part about the new kid’s seat being empty one day, I could tell that the story wouldn’t end well. Sure enough, the girl who had been tormented by her peers never came back, and the chief tormentor, whose voice we hear throughout the story, is racked with guilt. And so, too, are the readers.

Like the main character in the book, Herod doesn’t realize what he’s really done until it’s too late. In a drunken, lustful, egotistical gesture, he promises the daughter of his bride whatever she asks, but, when she request the Baptizer’s head on a platter, Herod regrets his decision. But there’s nothing he can do now. He’s made the promise, and he has to keep his word, so he orders that John be beheaded. That he was trapped by his own words only heightens his anguish.

When Herod learns about Jesus and the signs he is working, he quickly accepts that John the Baptist has returned from the dead. Stop and think about that. How likely is it? Resurrection wasn’t common place. Dead is dead. Yet Herod is so overwhelmed by his own mistake that he accepts a ridiculous tale that only serves to torment him further. “Who could it be? It must be John the Baptist, coming back to get me.” You and I stop and think of how stupid that is, but it didn’t matter for Herod. Guilt is a powerful thing. It can make us believe terrible and irrational things.

Herod’s story didn’t end well, and neither did the children’s book. But that’s why both are compelling. Neither story would resonate with my own experience of guilt and an inability to let go of my sins unless they left me hanging. I am spurred towards forgiveness (and also to making better decisions) by both stories. I’ve made some terrible choices in my life, but the question remains—how will the story end?

By giving us Jesus, who went from the dark death of the cross to the light of new life, God suggests that our story is supposed to end well. No matter what sin we take on ourselves, God is offering us forgiveness. But sometimes that’s a hard thing to accept. Sometimes we need to come back to the cross to realize that even those most terrible things that we have the hardest time letting go of have been taken away from us by Jesus. His story demonstrates that there is nothing that can keep us away from a God who loves us even beyond death. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Making Everyone Mad

As I read and study the gospel lesson this week, I realize that the authors of the lectionary really have worked some magic. They could have lumped this week’s gospel with last week’s gospel as one, slightly larger but not unmanageable lesson. But they didn’t. They wanted to make sure that the scroll from Isaiah got its due. They could have cut off the first verse of this Sunday’s lesson, changed some pronouns, and begin this gospel reading with, “All [in the synagogue] spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” That would have given this lesson a focus on the fight Jesus picks with the congregation. But no! Those who crafted the lectionary insist on repeating the last verse of last Sunday’s reading as the first verse of this Sunday’s reading as a way of encouraging the preacher to take whatever was said last Sunday and throw it out the window—kind of like Jesus did.

Step one: Jesus reads from Isaiah and announces that the scripture has been fulfilled. Step two: the people are overjoyed and what Jesus is telling them. Step three: Jesus then stirs up trouble by quoting from two ancient stories of ministry to Gentiles. Step four: the people change their mind about him and try to kill him instead. That is one quick turnaround.

As I think about the way Luke tells this story, I am drawn into the line, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In Mark 6:3, which happens to be theDaily Office lesson for today, Jesus gets identified according to his earthly family by some people who don’t like him so much. They ask, “Isn’t this so-and-so? He can’t be saying this, can he?” But in Luke, I think we get the opposite. “All spoke well of him…Is not this Joseph’s son?” I hear them saying to themselves, “Wow, this guy is amazing! Is he really Joseph’s son? I need to tell that guy how proud he should be of his son. He’s incredible!”

Luke wants us to see that it’s Jesus who isn’t satisfied with the crowd’s interpretation of his identity. The crowd likes Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t like that. Have you ever known someone who took a compliment and threw it back, angering the one who paid it? That’s what Jesus does. He’s looking for a fight because it’s too easy to hear the message of God’s messiah as something reserved for us. Jesus—especially Luke’s Jesus—won’t have it that way.

Within a few sentences, the congregation goes from “All spoke well of him” to “filled with rage.” That’s a pretty quick turnaround. What made this mob angry enough to kill Jesus? Partly, it’s the fact that his message showed them that the kingdom includes Gentiles. But that’s only part of it. The other part is the total reversal of their expectations. It wouldn’t be so bad to hear that message of inclusion if Jesus hadn’t started by building their hopes up. He allowed them to hook themselves on their own misinterpretation of Isaiah. And then he drops the bomb of “God’s not talking to you,” which is a pretty tough thing to hear.

As I prepare to write a sermon for this Sunday, I wonder what I can say that might tick everyone off as much as Jesus did. How can I open my remarks with something that will take everyone’s hopes and dreams and challenge them in such a way that they want to kill me? Because guess what—he’s talking to us.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Diocesan Ultreya - Stories God's People Tell

This is the text I wrote in preparation for this year's Diocesan Ultreya in the Diocese of Alabama. I didn't speak from the text or from notes, so it didn't quite come out this way. But here's the text anyway.

I come from a long line of people who don’t tell stories. The closest my mom gets to telling a story is relating to me how she went to the store and bought six packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts because they were on sale. My father is even worse. I still don’t know anything that happened to him during the first thirty years of his life. I’ve met some of his college friends who give me the impression that there are indeed stories to be told, but I still haven’t heard any of them. My grandparents were all appropriately wise for their age, but none of them had any stories to share. They always seemed interested in hearing what I had been up to lately, but they never told me about life on the farm or life in the mill.

The theme for this Ultreya is “Stories God’s People Tell,” and you’d expect that all of the presenters here this weekend would be story tellers of one sort or another, but my people don’t tell stories, and that includes me. When my dad tucked me in at night, he would act like he had a story to tell, but really it was just the same exact story over and over again every single night. It was about an animal who got lost in the woods, and my dad did manage to mix things up now and then by switching out a turtle named Fred for a frog named Ralph, but really nothing ever changed. By the time I was 15, I lost interest. But that hasn’t stopped me from telling my children that exact same story with those same character variations.

Whether it’s tucking in my children or standing in a pulpit, I’m not really good at telling stories. I tried that thing, which some preachers call “narrative theology,” when the preacher gets up and simply tells a story or two and trusts the congregation to figure it all out, but it didn’t work so well. It was Palm Sunday, so I told a heart-breaking tale that no one seemed to get. In fact, all it did was make people angry at me because they didn’t like how the story ended. (I kind of figured that was the point of Palm Sunday, but I learned my lesson, and I’ve stopped trying to use stories as sermons.)

Actually, no one person in my family is a particularly good story teller, but, if you get two or three of them together, there’s a good chance you’ll hear some fabulous tales. Every time I heard stories about my mother’s childhood, it happened when her brother and sister were visiting. What my mother would never say by herself she opens up and shares freely when surrounded by her siblings. It’s as if they lubricate each other’s memories and stimulate each other’s willingness to disclose chapters from the past—each drawing out of the others their own version of a shared encounter.

My mother is the middle child, so the versions of the stories that resonate with me usually involve her older sister instigating some sort of trouble at the expense of her younger brother. There’s the story of the time when my aunt convinced her brother to hold a leaf up to his forehead while she shot through it with a bb gun. That my uncle still has his sight, she claims, is a credit to her marksmanship. Then there’s the story of the cracked marbles, which apparently were a fad way back then. My aunt heard that glass marbles got those cracks by dropping them from a high height into a pan of sizzling grease, so, when their parents were gone and she was babysitting, she managed to catch half of the kitchen cabinets on fire.

My mother liked to remind us that every time my grandmother came home and surveyed the damage she would turn around silently, get in her car, and go for a drive. It was the way she dealt with things. One Easter morning, when she unknowingly put a canned ham in the oven to cook—can and all—and it exploded, sending shredded meat and grease dripping down the kitchen windows, she went for a drive. When the police called to inform my grandparents that my aunt had been arrested for stealing stop signs, she got in her car—not to pick up her daughter from the police station but to go for a drive. Somehow almost all of my mother’s childhood stories end with my grandmother behind the wheel of a car, and, for some reason, by the time she came home, everything was ok.

When I stop and think about those stories, which pour forth so freely when my mother and her sister and brother are gathered around the dinner table, I start to wonder whose stories they really are. Each sibling fights the others to convey his or her slant on the facts of a particular event. Despite the objections of her siblings, my aunt will remind the other two that it was Uncle Stewart who actually dropped the marbles into the oil. And my mother, the dutiful middle child, recalls most of the tales with less drama and exaggeration than her siblings. But none of the stories is voiced until they are all together. And, although any of them could tell the story without any help, none of them has exclusive rights to them. They are shared stories—both in the original experience and in the retelling.

Think about the stories that define who you are. What are the childhood stories you cherish? Some of them come from moments that were shared with other people—relatives or friends. And some of them are stories that are deeply personal, purely private—moments that no one but you really knows. I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve got some stories like those of my mother and her siblings—stories of mischief and the trouble that came from it and stories of angry parents who eventually forgave you.

But if you had to pick just one story—one story that had a particular hand in shaping you into the person you’ve become, one story that sums you up as well as any other—what would it be? Or, to put it another way, if you thought about your whole life as a story that you could tell, what would that story sound like? Would there be a part in which you wandered off for a bit before coming back home? Would you tell a story that involves feeling like an outsider who then gets drawn in? Would there be mischief and trouble and remorse and reconciliation? What is the story of your life? As a child of God—as someone whose life has been redeemed by a God who loves you—how will you tell your life’s story?

The truth is that there is one big story that unites us all. It’s God’s story, and it includes people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Joshua, David and Bathsheba, Peter and Paul, Matthew and Mary Magdalene, and my mother and your mother, my aunts and uncles and your grandparents and great-grandparents. There is one big story, and it includes all of us. It’s a story of sin and redemption. It’s a story of wandering in the wilderness and being called back home. It’s a story of brokenness and deep healing. And it’s it our story. It’s your story. And it’s my story. But it’s also a story that doesn’t belong to any of us. It’s a story that we all share.

As Christians, we are called to share our story with each other and to share it with people who haven’t ever heard a story like ours. We’re called to tell our story—not because it’s ours to tell but because it’s God’s and he wants us to tell it. Some of us—me included—find it hard to tell our story because it seems like it’s about us, and we’d rather talk about someone else. But, when we’re with brothers or sisters, parents or children, somehow the stories come out more freely. That’s because in those moments we’re not just telling our story. We’re sharing a story with other people who have lived it with us. But’s that exactly what the story of your life really is. It’s a salvation story that is shared by every woman and man and child on the face of this earth. It’s the story of the prodigal son. It’s the story of the bent-over woman. It’s the story of demon-possessed man. It’s the story of the Samaritan woman. The story of your life doesn’t just belong to you. It’s shared by all of us. So tell it. Share it with people who know that same story—who have lived it out in their own lives. Share it with people who haven’t heard it yet but who already know it in their bones. As one of God’s people, you have a story to tell. And it may be unique to your own experience, but it’s also a story that we all share along with you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Salvation According to Whom?

What does salvation look like? Well, I guess it depends on whom you ask.

If you ask someone who is drowning, it looks like a lifeguard or a life-preserver. If you ask someone who is being crushed by uncontrollable credit card debt, it might look like a surprising inheritance check or a winning lottery ticket. If you ask someone who is a prisoner in an enemy camp, it looks like a jailbreak or sounds like a Blackhawk helicopter. What does salvation look like to you?

Most of us (me too) think of salvation in terms of heaven. It’s paradise. It’s forgiveness. It’s an end to pain and suffering. It’s all those things and concepts that belong on puffy clouds and amidst angel choirs. But that’s not what Jesus had in mind. In this Sunday’s lesson from Luke 4, Jesus shows us what his own understanding of salvation is, and it’s not what I usually think of.

Quoting from Isaiah, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and then goes on to describe the work he came to do. It’s bringing good news to the poor. It’s proclaiming release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind. It’s letting the oppressed run free and announcing the year of the Lord’s favor.

It’s not forgiveness—at least not directly. It’s not atonement. It’s not reconciliation. Instead, Jesus talks about himself and his divinely appointed mission as if the only thing that he really cares about is lifting up the downtrodden.

Yes, I’m sure Jesus came to die for our sins. Yes, I’m sure he came to reconcile us to the Father. Yes, I believe that I will spend eternity with God in heaven because of what Jesus came to do. But that view of salvation isn’t as immediate as what Jesus had in mind. There aren’t that many places in the bible in which Jesus talks about himself as God’s anointed agent (messiah). He doesn’t often let the cat all the way out of the bag. But in this case—in one of the few instances where he takes off the veil and talks openly about himself in rather grandiose terms—he describes his work as the kind of thing that makes a difference here and now. Jesus isn’t focused on the pearly gates. He wants to see salvation a lot closer than that.

What sort of salvation are we preaching? As the church, how did we get so far away from what Jesus had in mind? How did we get from “release of the captives” to “seated at the right hand of the Father?” Yes, we need to preach salvation in the heaven-bound sense, but we can’t forget salvation also comes in this life as a release from whatever binds us. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Much Fruit?

One of Jesus' parables that is particularly well-known (and well-discussed) is the parable of the sower. Although it's found in all three synoptic gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the version that came up in today's Daily Office is the one from Mark (Mk. 4:1-20). I think one of the reasons it's so familiar is that Jesus takes the time to explain this one.

He said, "The sower sows the word," and then he goes on to describe what each kind of recipient is. Those symbolized by the path are those from whom Satan snatches the word right away before it takes root. Those  with rocky soil are the ones with no depth of faith. Those amidst the thorns are the ones who can't get past the cares of this world. Finally, the ones on fertile ground "hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold."

But did you see what Jesus just did? He explained the parable--what each little bit meant--but he still talked about "bearing fruit" and also kept the specific quantity of fruit "30x, 60x, and 100x." Did he forget to explain that bit? What does it really mean to bear fruit like that?

I wouldn't know. Why? Because I'm so worried about whether I'm one of the other three types of hearers (path, rocks, thorns) that I don't even make it to bearing much fruit. I get stuck with everything that might be wrong with me. I get stuck with fear. I'm afraid that Jesus is singling me out for criticism. I'm afraid that I don't have depth of faith or that I'm letting the cares of the world (Jesus calls them "riches") choke the word out. And my worry and fear keep me from even thinking about bearing fruit.

I'm so worried about thorns and rocks that I'm happy to bear fruit twofold or threefold. Thirtyfold is ridiculous, but that's what Jesus said. And his not explaining that bit was on purpose. It is the interpretation of the parable. I'm supposed to be bearing fruit like that--radical harvest--but I'm too worried about the other things to get there.

It is too small a thing to receive the word and merely double the returns. It is too small a thing to bear ten times what was given. The word's power is greater than that. It has world-transforming power, but I have to get past my fears to get there.

What is it that's keeping you from bearing 100x fruit? What's keeping you from being a servant of the gospel in such a transformative manner that mountains get moved? It might be rocks and thorns--maybe--but it's probably fear, too. Get past it. Let go of the fear. I've got to see the potential harvest before I can bear fruit like that, and, in order to see it, I have to move beyond the fear that I'm inadequate. It's not me that does the work. It's not my power. It's the power of God's word.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reaching the "Nones"

All last week, NPR’s Morning Edition featured a series of reports on the “Nones”—that growing group of people in their 20s and 30s who claim no religious affiliation. I found the series utterly fascinating. As an individual from that age demographic, I find that much of what the “Nones” say about the disconnect between the world we live in and the faith of our ancestors makes sense. Science, philosophy, art, and human experience have all made the God of my grandparents seem ill-suited for the twenty-first century. As a person of faith, however, I still cling to the stories of our past and claim them for my own—even if I hear them differently than they were heard a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

Preachers, evangelists, missionaries, and other church leaders are all scratching their heads, trying to figure out what it will take to reverse the decline in attendance that most denominations have experienced over the last few decades. Many find the rapidly increasing number of young adults who prefer no religious affiliation scary and threatening. “How will we convince these skeptics to come to church?” they ask themselves. Countless “experts” are throwing answers at the problem, hoping that one of their potential solutions will stick, but I wonder whether the answer lies even further back in the history of our faith.

When the people of Judah were carried off into Babylon during the exile, they were confronted by a culture that left little room for their traditional expressions of worship. The Jerusalem temple had been destroyed, and they had no way of coming together to perpetuate the corporate mechanics of their faith. During that time, older traditions like circumcision and dietary restrictions, which had never been lost but had been diminished by other more visible practices, rose in importance. What did it mean to be a faithful Jew during the exile? It meant keeping those ancient tenets of the faith that could be maintained in a foreign land. Among the most important of these was a prohibition on idol worship.

InIsaiah 44, the prophet writes to those who were in exile, reminding them of the importance of the second commandment. Mocking the tradesmen who fashioned gods out of wood, he writes, “Half of [the wood] he burns in the fire…he also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’” (vv. 15-16). The prophet and the people knew the foolishness of worshiping the product of human hands. God—the one true God—was like no other. He had no physical form. He could not be manufactured. Thus, he alone was worthy of worship.

Among those who were interviewed on the radio was a man who said, “I don’t believe in God, but I really want to.” Despite having a tattoo on the inside of his wrist that proclaims in Latin, “Salvation from the Cross,” he admitted to being so off-put by the doctrines of the church in which he was raised that he refuses to go back. What is keeping him away? A church that, in the name of God, condemns evolution in the face of science. A group of believers who, in the name of God, deny God’s love to those who disagree with them. When I hear his story, I wonder whether “Nones” like him might be encouraged by a community of faith that goes back to its deepest roots—to a belief in a God who cannot be defined or manufactured by humans.

What do we worship—the God who refuses to be encapsulated by human thought or a God we have made subject to our own traditions and preferences? Although the number of “Nones” is on the rise so, too, is the number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” those individuals who are searching for meaning in their lives but who haven’t found it in a particular church. What if we invited them to embrace a belief in a God who transcends any particular interpretation of what God is? Yes, God has revealed himself to us in specific ways—through creation, scripture, incarnation, etc.—but what would happen if we chose to receive those divine disclosures without insisting that we have a monopoly on how they should be understood? Wouldn’t you be more interested in worshiping a God who doesn’t conform to our expectations but, instead, who defines what those expectations might be?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Vocabulary of our Faith: "Grace"

So what is grace? God's unmerited favor. Yeah, I've heard that, too. But what does that mean?

This week, we looked at grace. Not surprisingly, Paul writes about it more than any other author in the bible. As I looked over the occurrences of "grace" in his writings, I decided to focus on Ephesians 2 (excusing for a moment the question of Pauline authorship of Ephesians). There's a wonderful statement in vv 4-5 that sums it up for me:

"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—"

I love the use of the appositive phrase "by grace you have been saved" as a restatement of the rest. It's Paul's way of saying that grace is God loving us enough to make us alive together with Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses." That's what grace is.

And I found it funny that, of all people, Erwin Lutzer quotes the same verse as he searches for a definition of grace. Watch the short video below. My favorite line is somewhat provocative. Lutzer asks rhetorically, "What do we contribute?" And the only answer is, "Our sin." That gets me thinking.

So what does that mean? I think it means that grace is even bigger than we think it is. Someone in class yesterday admitted that it's hard to think of God doing everything and us contributing nothing. We want to do something. We want to take part in our salvation. Rather than getting eye-deep in the "how-does-salvation-really-work" debate between the Catholic and Protestant traditions, I simply asked our class to allow radical grace to roll around in their heads for a while. What would it mean if grace were really that big? What would our faith look like if we really embraced a notion of God's love that is as full as Ephesians 2 seems to suggest that it is?

Here's the PowerPoint presentation from Sunday's class. Next week we're off for one Sunday, and I'm encouraging our participants to go to the TEDology class instead. But we're back on 2/3 with a look at "blessing."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sermon in Progress - Why Mary?

I just finished a first draft of Sunday's sermon on John 2:1-11. That's a good thing. But I can tell that it's the kind of sermon that I'm going to read tomorrow and not like at all. At least I have a few days to think about it.

Here's what I'm still pondering: why does John include the back-and-forth between Jesus and his mother?

In some ways, it's distracting. This is the 21st century. Few of us speak to our mothers the way Jesus did. But that doesn't mean that Jesus is being rude or insensitive. That's just the way men spoke to women back then. It would be a mistake to make too much of it. But it's hard for a 21st century reader (especially a southerner) to read him saying, "Woman!" without dwelling on it.

Which has me wondering--why does John tell the story this way? How is the story enhanced by Jesus' sharp rebuke of Mary or Mary's refusal to give in to Jesus' dismissal? Why not leave it out? Why not just tell a story of Jesus turning water into wine? What does the vehicle of Mary and Jesus' exchange accomplish that the story otherwise can't get across?

I think Mary sees kingdom possibilities in the moment. I think she sees the wine running out and forces Jesus to do something because she wants this wedding feast to become a stage on which Jesus' kingdom-prefiguring glory can shine through. I think John gives us Mary and Jesus going at it with each other because he wants us to see this story as more than just a miracle of water into wine. He wants us to see that there's something bigger at work here. This is about transformation of lives and not just liquids.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stop Trying

How do you know when the work is done? How do you measure success? How do you trust that God is the one who is really doing what needs to be done and that you’re merely an instrument through which his work is carried out?

In Mark 1:29-39, we see Jesus modeling balance in ministry in a pronounced way. First, he comes to his friends’ house—the home of Simon and Andrew—and he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. By itself, the healing is a nice gesture—a sign that Jesus’ healing miracles are not only reserved for the anonymous crowds but also touch the lives of those closest to him. Then, Mark tucks in the not-so-little detail about the healed woman getting up to serve the guests. Yada, yada—that was expected back then. Yada, yada—she was simply doing what she wanted to do. Cultural differences aside, it’s still pretty subjugating. But, when I read the rest of the passage, when I realize that the story centers on how we are supposed to do God’s work, her service seems less a chauvinistic hangover and more a sign of productivity.

After the description of the mother-in-law’s hospitality, Mark writes about the crowds who literally meet Jesus on the doorstep. He can’t even get outside because of the mob of needy people who have flocked to him. And then, after a long day’s work, he sneaks off to be alone. He rests. He retreats. He turns his back on the countless people who need him and goes off by himself to pray. And, when the disciples finally come and find him, he says, “Time to head off and take our message to new people.” Work unfinished? Leaving anyway.

When we’re doing kingdom work, how do we measure success? When every soul is saved? When every broken heart is healed? When every person who comes to the door asking for assistance has what he or she needs?  That might be how we measure our accomplishments, but that’s not how God sees our work. We are called to do our part. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we are called to do what we can—even if it’s small. Like Jesus, we are called to give what we have until we are exhausted and then ask, “What’s next?” Jesus doesn’t dwell on the unhealed multitudes. He doesn’t wake up and say to himself, “If I had only worked a little bit longer.” Instead, he says, “Ok, God, what’s next?”

God’s work is what’s being done. God doesn’t measure that work in human terms. God’s work is as much about what’s happening within the caregiver as what is being offered to those in need. Those of us who make a living in ministry and those of us who volunteer to do God’s work—none of us is called to solve the world’s problems. In fact, we’re not even called to fix the problems of a single person. That’s God’s work. We’re just supposed to make ourselves available and let God use us how he will. Our success, therefore, isn’t measured in the lives we touch or the problems we fix. It’s simply measured by our willingness to say yes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Gospel of Comparisons

Water into wine. What does it mean? Depends on whom you ask.

The subject of “to drink or not to drink” came up at our Rotary table at lunch today. A newcomer to our table probably didn’t know that four of us are Episcopalians. He mentioned that a non-church group that he’s a part of is going to be using the Gray Camp and Conference Center in Mississippi later on this year and that he was surprised to learn that alcohol won’t be a problem at that particular church camp. Then we all starting sharing the tired and worn-out anecdotes about Episcopalians and booze. After a few chuckles it occurred to me that this Sunday’s reading is John 2—the Wedding in Cana. I couldn’t help myself. So I asked him what his preacher might say about that if he were preaching on it this Sunday.

Well, he said, some of the people would say it isn’t real wine—that Jesus turned the water into grape juice. Others wouldn’t care so much. He even confessed to partaking of strong drink in an earlier chapter of his life—back before he went to this particular church. I guess it’s easy for preachers to ignore what the text says if it suits them.

Now I have to figure out whether I am going to ignore another important part of the text. Jesus didn’t just turn water into wine. He turned “six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” into wine, and it wasn’t just any old vintage. The Chief Steward goes out of his way to praise the host for saving this wine—the best wine—for last. That’s the kind of detail John sticks in there on purpose. It isn’t just accidental to his message. It’s the center of what this passage is about. Jesus’ wine is set in direct comparison with the water jars and, by implication, with the Jewish rites they were set aside for, and John makes it clear which one is better.

I don’t want to preach the anti-nomian, borderline-anti-Semitic sermon that Protestant preachers from sixty years ago might preach, but the fact is that John—the gospel’s author—had an anti-first-century-synagogue-community agenda in mind when he shaped this story the way it is. The Christian community of that day was in battle with the Jewish community. At this point, the two religions were becoming distinctly separate. Jews were chasing Christians out of synagogues, and Christians were burning sacred Jewish writings. Both were turning the other over to the Romans for persecution. It wasn’t a good time for interfaith relationships. For John and his readers, though, the division was religious rather than ethnic, but, still, it wasn’t pretty.

The fact is that for John the Jesus movement isn’t just more of the same. It was new, and it was better. John wasn’t afraid to say that Jesus left Judaism in the dust. But I’m afraid to say that. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t sound the same in 2013 as it did in 93. Maybe that’s because the Christian community in which I live dwarfs any Jewish presence in this area. Maybe that’s because Christians have a bad habit over the last eighteen-hundred years of persecuting Jews in the name of religion. But, if I strip all of that political, cultural baggage away, I’m left with a gospel lesson that says, “If you want to follow Jesus, you must leave behind the old and embrace the new.”

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I must remember that I’m speaking to a community that has been shaped by two millennia of interfaith relationships. I’m talking to a group that doesn’t know what it feels like to be the minority faith, struggling to survive. This gospel lesson is about change. It is about grace over law. It is about a heavenly banquet that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and the new and full manifestation of God’s kingdom as expressed by the Christian tradition. But it isn’t anti-Jewish. And it isn’t anti-Torah. Finding that balance isn’t easy.

Vocabulary of Our Faith: "Sin"

Last week it was "Faith." This week we took a look at "Sin." Of all the words and concepts we use in the Christian Faith, I think "sin" is the most misunderstood. That is, there are other words that are harder to understand (like grace and salvation), but sin is the one that everyone acts like he knows when in fact he doesn't. Much like the concept behind the word, it leads us astray.

We spent some time in class looking at the Greek for sin ("hamartia"), and we talked about its various meanings and connotations. We spent some time looking at the multiple (at least 9) words in Hebrew that can be translated as "sin," suggesting that it's a relative concept that's hard to pin down. But all of that language study left us pretty much where we started: still not really knowing what sin is.

Then we turned to Romans. A quick word search of the New Testament will show that the word "sin" occurs in Romans more than in any other book. It's Paul's treatise on sin. In class, we looked at Romans 5, where Paul talks about the inherited nature of sin. Just as sin entered the world through one man's trespass... And that's where the real key for me was--getting past the occasional, individual-event-based concept of sin and embracing the far more insidious concept of sin-nature.

And one little illustration drove this point home.

Are babies sinful? When we baptize a baby and say things like "washed from sin," in what way do we mean it? And, even more powerfully, in the prayers at the death of a small child, we pray that all sins this person may have contracted in his life might be removed. In what way does it make sense to say that a toddler has sinned? The fact that we're inherently uncomfortable with language like that suggests that we have the wrong understanding of sin in mind.

Sin isn't a laundry list of misdeeds. When we pray for a baby, we don't have ax-murderer in mind. We mean the brokenness that is inherent of all human beings--the brokenness that manifests itself (later in life) in the laundry list of "things done and left undone." But those misdeeds are symptoms of a bigger problem. Sin is simply the fact that I need saving.

We watched this video from Fr. Matthew Presents on the definition of sin. He advocates a language of "blockage"--as if sin is the thing that blocks our ability to receive God's good things. As he points out, that's better than separation language or pride language, but it still leaves something to be desired. (How can human beings possible block God's good gifts, which are given to us even while sinful?) The point is, though, that sin is that thing which gets in the way of the way things are supposed to be. It's what we call the not-rightness of the world.

So when we fall on our knees and say that we're sorry to God, it's ok for us to remember the long litany of things we've done wrong. Those are concrete reminders of the bigger problem. But what we really need to lament and ask redemption for is our brokenness. We are not separated from God, but we are out of step with the way God wants things to be. That isn't the result of our mistakes. Our mistakes are the result of our brokenness. God doesn't get mad at us when we screw up. Those screw ups are a reminder that we need God. Jesus came not to save us from our mistakes but to make us whole.

Here's this week's PowerPoint presentation. Next week, we look at Grace.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Blinded by My Own Troubles

Just about every day at least one person will come into the office asking for financial assistance. These aren’t parishioners or anyone with a specific connection to our church—just people who come in looking for help. I’ve told many of them that giving assistance to people in need is one of my favorite things to do, and it is. But what I haven’t told them is that I also hate it.

I love it, and I hate it. I love it when I can actually make a difference in someone’s life right away—right then—and get a power bill paid off or keep a family in an apartment for at least another week. I love seeing someone so overcome with appreciation that their eyes water up and they throw their arms around me in a spontaneous hug. But, to tell you the truth, most of the time it wears me down.

Almost all of the people who come to me seeking help are totally focused on their problems. After introducing myself and asking the person’s name, I usually say something very generic like, “Tell me what’s going on with you today.” The answers I get are far-ranging, but they center on a very narrow theme: “I lost my job” or “My wife is sick” or “My disability check didn’t come in” or “My car is broken down.” Over and over, I am presented with an urgent situation that has a person totally stuck. Rarely does anyone ever give me a reason to hope that things might change because rarely can the people who come in the door afford to dream about anything more than one night’s rent or one day’s food. And hearing that time after time takes all the mercy and patience and kindness right out of me.

But who am I to judge?

In John 5:1-15, Jesus walks up to a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years, and, sensing that he had been there for a long time, Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” But the man is so stuck in his predicament that he can’t even tell that salvation is staring him in the face. So he looks at Jesus and says, “Sir, I have no one to place me in the pool when the water is stirred up.” When I read that, I want to reach back through two-thousand years of history and slap him! Just say, “Yes sir! Please! More than anything!” But unlike me, Jesus refuses to let the man’s own shortsightedness get in the way, and he looks down at him, ignoring his apparent apathy, and says, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk.” And the man does.

But the man’s story is my story, too. Sometimes I get in such a funk that I can’t see beyond my own problems. In those moments, I can’t even hear myself saying how hard things are or how long I expect to be trapped in the circumstance. I’m so blinded by my own faithlessness that I don’t know how to reach up and say, “Jesus, please help me.” Who am I to judge another who is unable to say the same?

I give thanks that we believe in a God who doesn’t wait for us to ask for help before coming to our aid. I give thanks that God loves us so much that he would give his son to die for us while we were still lost and wandering sinners. I rejoice that salvation is offered not only to those who understand what is being presented to them but even to people like me, who from time to time get so bogged down in their own troubles that they can’t tell God is reaching down to help them. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Definition of a Christian

What does it take to be a Christian? Over the centuries, there have been battles over right and wrong beliefs and fights over pure and misguided practices. Although these days we tend to use slightly less violent means to safeguard orthodoxy, many people have been killed in the name of “right religion.” I understand the need for maintaining the core truth of our faith, but I am not sure that there is such a thing as a litmus test for Christianity.

One summer when I was working at a Christian camp, a fellow counselor claimed that, as a member of a particular denomination, I was supposed to believe that my way was right and that other denominations (like his) were wrong. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t. Surely there are some practices used by other Christians (like grape juice for Communion) that we would not allow in our own church but that we could acknowledge as permissible for others. That spirit of a wide embrace, modeled so clearly by our savior’s open arms as he hung on the cross, shows up each Sunday in the invitation to Communion offered during the announcements.

Although I sometimes get the words wrong, every Sunday, I attempt to say, “Holy Communion at St. John’s is open to Christians of every denomination. If you would like to receive the sacrament here, please feel invited to do so.” Some of the people in the pews may have noticed that the language I currently use has evolved over the past several months. Back in July, while I was at General Convention, I wrote about the importance of being baptized before receiving Communion—a belief I still hold—but an ongoing conversation I am having with a parishioner has helped me rephrase that invitation, omitting any explicit reference to baptism but, as I have argued with him, maintaining it implicitly.

For almost all of the Church’s history, Communion has only been open to baptized Christians, but I think the very phrase “baptized Christians” has, for those two-thousand years, been a redundancy. If you are a Christian, you have been baptized. The principal means by which we declare that we are followers of Christ has been by receiving the Sacrament of Baptism. These days, however, I meet a lot of people whose childhood families stopped going to church before they were baptized. Since then, they have come back to church as adults and have decided to follow Jesus, but, for one reason or another, they haven’t yet had water sprinkled on their heads. Are they Christians?

In the New Testament lesson for this coming Sunday (Acts8:14-17), we will read about some Samarian believers who had been baptized in the name of Jesus but who had not yet received the gifts of the Spirit. When Peter and John “went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,” no second baptism was involved, but, through the power of their prayer, the Spirit came upon them. In a very real sense, they had already been baptized but were not yet living the Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed life of a Christian. So when did it become official?

A Christian is a person whose life has been given to Jesus Christ. As a televangelist I watched a few days ago put it, to be a Christian you must make Jesus the lord of your life, and that implies that the powers of the world must be placed in subjection to that lordship. If someone asked me, “How do I know whether I am a Christian?” I would respond, “Are you a follower of Jesus Christ?” In my mind, it is as simple as that. Likewise, if someone asked me, “Am I allowed to receive Communion?” I would reply, “Are you a Christian?” It would be hard for me to withhold the body and blood of our savior from one of his disciples regardless of his baptismal status.

Still, though, Christianity implies conversion. Sitting at the Lord’s table and partaking of the heavenly banquet prepared for us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ requires conversion—a change of the heart. I believe that through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death and born to new life as we “emerge” from the waters. If we are not willing to leave behind our sinful past and embrace that new life, we do not belong at the Communion rail. In the same way, it makes sense to me that everyone who is willing to undergo that spiritual rebirth should be baptized, but, given the complicated histories of contemporary Christians, I am willing to admit that some genuine disciples of Christ have not yet received that sacrament…yet.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Vocabulary of Our Faith: "Faith"

This week we began a new Sunday school class on the vocabulary of our faith. I'm convinced that lots of Christians (especially preachers) use theological words or phrases as if they know what they mean when, in fact, they're only guessing. This class is designed to be a safe place for all of us to explore some of those 'vocabulary words' that we're supposed to know but aren't quite sure of.

Our first session was on "faith." What is faith? What isn't faith? I took away two key ideas from our class. First, the Hebrew word that is translated as "faith" is "emunah." I'm not a student of Hebrew, but I read that the word literally means "firmness." Faith, therefore, in the Old Testament context has more to do with resoluteness, steadfastness, and supportiveness than it does with belief. I usually think of "faith" and "belief" interchangeably. In fact, we call our religion "the Christian faith," and we "confess our faith" in the words of the Creed, which begins, "I/We believe..." But, in the Hebrew context, faith has a lot more to do with a firm foundation than axiomatic understanding. For help on this, see Exodus 17:12, which has the word for faith translated as "steady."

The second big take-away for me was the fact that faith is the bridge between what we can know about God rationally and what we have to choose to believe without proof. The video we watched drove that point home, and I've included it below. We can only know so much about God without exercising faith. At some point, we must give our hearts to the relationship where our heads reach their limits. That means that faith isn't simply blind assent. Faith never involves the sacrifice of reason or intellect. Instead, faith comes where reason cannot go.

The concluding "a-ha" moment was a discussion about faith as a foundation upon which to stand. As people of faith, we choose to stand firmly and resolutely on a platform that has no tangible, rational proof. We build our house on the rock of that which we cannot see or touch.

Here's the PowerPoint presentation in video form. Next week, we're planning to look at "sin."

Baptism--Backwards or Forwards?

Somewhere in this Sunday’s gospel lesson is good news. I’m sure of it, but I’m having a hard time finding it. The part of this passage that sticks out to me is the “burn with unquenchable fire” part, but there’s got to be some hope in here. The baptism of Jesus is a life-giving event. So why do these to get paired together?

John baptism was one purely of repentance. Using water as a symbol of cleansing, he invited penitent sinners to come to the river’s edge and be washed of their iniquities. And that was it. Turn your back on your sins. Leave behind your evil ways. The end.

As John talks about the messiah who was coming, he uses his own image of repentance as the basis for separating out wheat and chaff. Those who repent are gathered into the granary, and those who refuse repentance are burned with fire. And, for John, that’s where the story stopped. He knew something else was coming—“he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”—but it wasn’t there yet.

Jesus’ baptism (actually we don’t have a record of him baptizing anyone—only those baptized in Jesus’ name) isn’t just one of repentance. As John puts it, the symbols of Christian baptism are Holy Spirit and fire. That’s not just a washing off; it’s a new, energetic, powerful life. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into something. John’s was purely a baptism from something. With John there was only a looking-back, but, with Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit that dwells within his followers, there is always a looking forward.

It might take repentance to get there, but that’s not where it stops. For Jesus, turning away from sin is only the first step. As Christians, we leave behind our old way, but we also embrace the new.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Unlearn the Story

What happens when you know the story too well?

When Jesus tells his hearers that he is “the bread of life,” they couldn’t help but think of Moses and manna from heaven. The great leader of God’s people had fed them when they were stuck without food in the wilderness. “Bread that comes down from heaven” meant only one thing—the white flaky stuff that collected like dew upon the ground. That was a story that every faithful Jew knew.

Jesus also seems to have been well known. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” the Jews asked themselves. “How can he have come down from heaven. He’s from Galilee!” Jesus’ identity was already disclosed. He wasn’t able to “mislead” his hearers. They knew his background. Jesus couldn’t outrun his parents. Given that, how was he supposed to compare himself with Moses? That’s pretty risky. For a known quantity—a carpenter’s son who certainly didn’t look like the deliverer of God’s people.

Of course, Jesus did come down from heaven, and he did come to give life to the world, but not quite like the people expected. They were so familiar with the story of Moses and manna that they heard “bread of life” and “come down from heaven” and they put two and two together to expect more of the same. But, if Jesus was anything, he was not more of the same.

I worry that Christians have become so familiar with the story that we don’t know what to look for anymore. Like a scientist dedicated to one tiny sliver of research, we’re expecting life, death, and resurrection to be a regurgitation of the New Testament. But what is heaven, really? What is new life? Is it a gate made of one pearl? Is it, as James Taylor once asked incredulously, streets paved with solid gold? (“Must make a mighty fine road?”) Or is it something we’ve forgotten how to look for?

Resurrection is all around us. Miracle is all around us. Sustenance and new life are all around us. It’s a surprising hug from a child. It’s a table server who smiles warmly and genuinely. It’s a bedside moment when a 92-year-old dies and his children smile as tears roll down their cheeks. If we’re waiting on a Jew from ancient Palestine to show up with a host of angels, we might not ever see it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What Holy Name?

There’s a running joke in our church office among the staff about how I handle birthdays. I’m not a big fan. And I don’t just mean my birthday. I pretty much eschew any attention for anyone’s birthday. Around the office, when someone mentions a birthday, everyone shoots a knowing glance and me and says, “Just like any other day!” The fact that they mock me suggests that they like me. I’m convinced of that.

Some people make a huge deal about New Year’s Day. New year. Fresh start. Resolutions. For me, it seems pretty much like just another day. More college football. Learning to write “2013” instead of “2012.” Other than that, just another day. I’m grateful for the time off—as any preacher is during the twelve days of Christmas. I’ll eat my black-eyed peas and collard greens. I stayed up last night long enough to kiss my sweetie. Other than that, I don’t get it.

In the church calendar, however, it’s not just another day. Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, which some of us remember from last year, when Holy Name actually fell on a Sunday and “bumped” the propers for the First Sunday after Christmas. It’s the eighth day of Jesus’ life. Because of Jewish custom/law, he was circumcised and given his name today. And, as Paul quotes in today’s Philippians reading, the name of Jesus isn’t just any other name; it’s the name above all names—at which every knee shall bow. And, because of that, today actually is special.

Although it took centuries to develop, the concept of Jesus’ holy name is important to our faith. God’s name is holy and, according to Jewish custom/law, could not be spoken. God alone possessed his name, and, as plenty of OT stories remind us, didn’t share it with others. Until Jesus. And somehow God the Father gives him a share of that same holy name.

This morning, the last few lines of the Philippians hymn caught my eye: “…every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Back when the earliest Christians were repeating that hymn as if it were a creed they wouldn’t go as far as to say that Jesus is God, but they were on their way. And the power of Jesus’ name—by which demons were cast out and illnesses were healed—helped them get there.

To faithful Jews, New Year’s Day comes in the fall. Actually, having the new year tied to something like harvest or spring makes sense. There really isn’t much new on January 1 other than calendars, clocks, and conventions. But with Jesus—and his name—everything did change.