Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Karma Is Anti-Gospel

If I eat too much, I get fat. If I drink too much, I wake up with a hangover. If I abuse narcotics, I pretty much throw my life away. Life is full of cause and effect relationships. But the relationship between sin and punishment isn’t one of them.

I think the single biggest threat to Christianity is karma. It’s not the rise of the “nones.” It’s not the creep of secularism. It’s not the spread of atheism. It’s karma. Why? Because karma has the ability to suck the gospel right out of our church.

Pick your favorite movement from recent popular culture. They are all based on cause-and-effect mentalities. The Green movement. The Occupy Wall St. movement. The Organic Food Craze. Crazy people who run half-marathons and put 13.1 stickers on the backs of their cars. They are all about reaping what you sow. Accepting responsibility. Promoting accountability. But Christianity says the opposite. 

Sunday’s gospel starts with some weird language about blood mingling and a historical reference to a construction tragedy of which I am unfamiliar. But the point becomes clear in Jesus’ question of the crowd: “Do you think that they were worse sinners than everyone else?” The repeated answer, of course, is “No!” Sin is equally distributed. All of us—every last person on earth who isn’t the incarnate Son of God—is as sinful as everyone else. When it comes to sin, there are no distinctions.

Stop and think about that for a second. You’re no more sinful than Mother Teresa. You’re no less sinful than Adolf Hitler. Although there’s clearly a huge and almost incomprehensible difference between those two figures of history, we’re all in the same boat when it comes to how God sees us.

Karma takes cause and effect from the human sphere and translates it to the spiritual realm, where it doesn’t belong. But that’s sooooo tempting. I want to think that I’ll be rewarded for my good behavior. It’s easier to avoid sin if I think they’ll come back to haunt me. And, in the human sense, both of those things are true. Good things do come to people who do good things. And bad things happen to bad people. But bad things also happen to good people, and plenty of wicked human beings enjoy life more than society thinks they should. But none of that is God’s work.

God takes sin and forgives it. God takes the lost and calls them home. God takes the oppressed and sets them free. As the parable of the fig tree suggests, those of us who sit in judgment of people who seem more sinful than we are risk being cut down. Bearing fruit starts with the recognition that all need repentance. If you can’t see that everyone shares that need equally, how could you understand that God’s love is likewise offered unconditionally?

If the church is to grow, we must distinguish ourselves from every other movement on the planet. What's unique about Christianity? It's grace. It's God loves you whether you're good or bad. (By the way, you're both.) We believe in a God who accepts the totality of our mistakes and saves us from them anyway. Where else can you hear that?

Monday, February 25, 2013

What the Papal Conclave Could Learn from Matthias

In our diocesan cycle of prayer, we remember a few parishes each week—usually the week of their patronal or titular feast day. Yesterday, we prayed for “St. Matthias, Tuscaloosa,” but one of the readers had a hard time saying “Matthias.” And who can blame her? He’s a saint that doesn’t get a lot of air time.

Judas, who was numbered with the twelve, betrayed Jesus, and, as Acts puts it, he fell headfirst and burst in the middle with his bowels gushing out. Nice job, Judas. He’s easy to remember. We all know the story of Judas. But, when the eleven remaining disciples got together and chose a successor, the lot fell to a man whom we never hear from again. Matthias who?

In honor of St. Matthias day, which was transferred from yesterday to today, here are some things to think about:

  1. St. Matthias’ name is only mentioned twice in the bible—once when he is named as a candidate for apostleship and once when he is chosen. The end. Never again.
  2. The other guy standing with Matthias in the election was “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus.” It seems like he was better known to the community than the guy who won. (What was his name again?)
  3. Matthias and Justus were chosen as candidates because, as Peter puts it, they “have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” In other words, even though they were never named until now, they had been there the whole time.
  4. Matthias is chosen by lot, which is to say that “chance” or “luck” or “God’s divine providence” is the reason he was made one of the twelve. However you look at it, Matthias himself didn’t have a whole lot to do with it.

 We are called to be disciples. And I think Matthias is our disciple. He’s there the whole time. He’s ready to stand in. He’s chosen by lot. He jumps into the ministry, but still nothing changes. He is the perfect example of what it means to follow Jesus—quiet, steady, faithful, anonymous, and prepared.

I don’t know what God will call me to do today. Matthias reminds me that I don’t need to know. I just need to be available to him. Does it matter whether anyone notices? Not really. All that matters is God’s election—that he chooses me to be his servant. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Starting Over

For the last few days, the Old Testament lesson in the Daily Office has been in Deuteronomy. We’ve been reading in piecemeal fashion Moses’ speech to the Israelites before the cross over the Jordan River and head into the Promised Land. Like many memorable leaders who have led their people to the edge of success, Moses has a few words he wants to share before the moment has passed.

At first, it was a speech of encouragement: “Know therefore that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God.” Then, it turned to a call for humility: “Do not say…[that] it is because my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land.” Today, the speech turns full circle and presents a powerful message of God’s mercy and forgiveness that transcend any specific moment in time.

Ultimately, the law given to God’s people through Moses is a second copy. The law—the single most important disclosure of God to the world in the history of the Jewish people—is a do-over. As Moses puts it, “At that time the LORD said to me, ‘Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain and make an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’” What an amazing foundation of our faith!

God’s law—the rules, the structure, the commandments—are etched into the reality of a mistake. We screwed up, but God did not abandon us. He tried again. As a friend of mine from Montgomery wrote earlier this week, this is a story about second chances—and, of all places to find it, at the actual giving of the law.

The cosmic significance of this makes me laugh. How amazing it is that the story behind the giving of the law is based on a need for forgiveness! That is a reflection both of our propensity for sin and God’s nature of mercy. The next time you see a statue or monument or picture of the tablets of stone—remember that they are a second copy. The first one was destroyed so that we wouldn’t have to be.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Visit to the Psychiatrist

My dad recently bought a coat. It’s a big, red, super-duper coat from Land’s End. He’s been eying it for a while, and my mother snatched it up while it was on sale. This past weekend, when they were in town for our son’s first birthday, he took time to show off his jacket. “Only $65.00,” he said, proudly. I was excited, too. I love a good deal. And my dad knows that. Which is probably why he told me (and everyone else in the house) at least four times that the jacket was only $65.

On Saturday morning, my father and I went to the grocery store. On the way back, the conversation turned to the weather and how it gets bone-chillingly cold every time my parents come to visit. (You’d think residents of Baldwin County, Alabama, could manage to bring warm weather with them.) As we pulled up to a red light, I chuckled to myself. “What?” my dad asked. “Oh nothing,” I replied. “I was just going to ask how much you paid for your jacket as a way of joking about how many times you’ve already told me…but I was afraid you wouldn’t get the joke and would actually answer my question,” I explained. My father pretended to be amused.

I usually find it funny when someone doesn’t get a joke or a subtle jab. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but often the misunderstand itself becomes a source of comedy.

Early this morning, I had breakfast with some of our youth. After we ate, we played a game called “Psychiatrist.” In this game, one person (the psychiatrist) leaves the room while the other people (the patients) make up a condition, which they all share. Then, when the psychiatrist returns and asks questions about the condition, the players betray the ailment in their answers. For example, all the patients could decide that every time they give an answer to the psychiatrist’s questions they will touch their nose. If that seems obvious, it is. But, when you pick something far more subtle, the game is fun.

For our third or fourth round, we decided that the third word of every answer we gave would be “the.” It proved to be as tough for the patients as it was for the psychiatrist. When one of the patients broke character and complained about how hard it was, I whispered back at him to stay with the game. He looked at me disapprovingly. “You weren’t listening,” he said. Sure enough, when I replayed his comment in my head, I realized that the third word had actually been “the.” He was being clever, and I just didn’t get it.

In today’s gospel lesson (John 2:23-3:15), we read about Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews who has a hard time picking up on what Jesus is saying. Jesus stresses the need to be born anew, but Nicodemus is lost in the literal: “How can someone climb into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Of course, as Jesus makes clear, he is talking about a spiritual rebirth. And, just when we think Nicodemus will grasp what is being said to him, he stumbles again: “How can this be?” Jesus shakes his head in exasperation.

I used to think this passage of the gospel is about the religious tension between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. I used to think that Christians (like me) were able to see what the rest of the world (like the Pharisees) couldn’t grasp. But then, thinking about my visit to the psychiatrist this morning, I realized that the problem isn’t a Jewish-Christian issue. It’s a human issue.

God is God, and we are not. God shows his love to the world, and we’re still trying to use words to describe it. And guess what! We don’t get it. We’re obtuse. We’re slow on the uptake. We’re like Nicodemus, trying as hard as we can to understand what God is doing, but we’re looking through flesh-colored glasses.

God’s salvation is bigger than we realize. God’s love is more powerful than we know. What it means to be a disciple of Jesus is more involved than words can describe. We’re still using images and analogies to explain it. Perhaps the whole Jesus event—Incarnation, Death, Resurrection—is itself a pronouncement of a deeper truth (God loves us). My prayer today is that the scales might fall off my eyes long enough to get even the tiniest glimpse of what God is really doing in my life and in the world around me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vicious Victory

Winning is dangerous. Whether you hoist the Lombardi Trophy or accept a golden statuette on stage, receiving the top prize in your field can lead to trouble. How many celebrated athletes and movie stars have crashed and burned just as the bubbles of success threatened to lift their feet off the ground? Similarly, those same challenges extend all the way down to victories in the most humble of venues. On the golf course, on the playground, in the classroom—winners of all sorts run the risk of confusing victory with accomplishment.

Although my own victories have been small and often obscure, I recognize a treacherous tendency in my own celebrations to take credit where credit is not due. How did I finally manage to beat my boss playing golf? Why did our kickball team win the big game? What made me successful in my run for class president? The short and deadly answer in each of those cases is “me.” I made that long putt on the seventeenth green. I caught that line-drive and doubled-up the runner on second base. I gave the speech of my life and won over my fourth-grade classmates. But that only tells half of the story.

Sometimes we win simply because someone else loses. An opponent’s last-minute interception does not take away from our victory, but it does remind us that there are as many reasons that one side loses as there are that the other side wins. When Moses addressed God’s people in Deuteronomy 9, it seems that he knew that his compatriots would struggle to stay grounded in their victory over the inhabitants of the land that they were entering: “When the LORD your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to occupy this land’; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you.” The pride of victory can be especially dangerous when God is thought to be on your side.

Over the centuries, human beings repeatedly have cited divine right as the justification for their actions and the explanation of their victories. In doing so, however, we have often fallen victim to the sin of pride, which, at its root, involves casting God in our image rather than seeking to be conformed to the image of our creator. What is God’s will in a particular circumstance? Our tendency is simply to ask the winning side. Moses’ warning to Israel, however, is a warning to us that such celebratory gusto often mistakes a gracious gift for a personal accomplishment.

The season of Lent is typically marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. That three-fold pattern of spiritual discipline has the ability to transform our pride into humility by reminding us that all that we are given is just that—a gift. As I come to God in prayer, I am reminded of his impetus behind all things as creator and sustainer. As I give up some of the sustenance I usually consume, I discover how to eat without taking food for granted. As I give away some of my possessions, I learn to count all that I have as blessing. Through these forty days of preparation, I am patterned into the sort of person who can glimpse the gift behind all the successes that I enjoy. Ultimately, embracing the gift of new and everlasting life with God in heaven requires us to recognize that this life, too, is God’s gift to us.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Weird Sort of Promise

It will be hard for me to preach on anything but the Genesislesson this week. That’s not because I know what the Spirit is leading me to say about. It’s only because the story of Abraham and the smoking fire pot is utterly cool.

 Here’s how the story goes down:

1.      God promises old-man Abram (and his barren wife) descendants as numerous as the stars.
2.      Abram believes God’s promise.
3.      God reckons Abram’s belief as righteousness—implying a right relationship.
4.      Then, God promises Abram the land.
5.      Abram asks God for proof.
6.      Through a bizarre mixture of animal sacrifice, hallucinatory dreaming, and ancient custom, God pledges his commitment to Abram and makes a covenant with him.

Almost any part of that could be a sermon. St. Paul makes a big deal about the belief leading to righteousness in his letter to the Romans. Some might say that this passage—more than any other in the bible—is responsible for the Evangelical movement in Christianity. Abram’s model becomes Paul’s model for explaining the Jesus-event, and, thus, we are encouraged to believe in Jesus with faith like Abram in order to be made righteous. It’s a big deal.

But what about the covenant? What sort of humanity believes that God would enter a covenant with a human being and his descendants? Imagine an A-list celebrity going to prom with a C-list student. Why would that happen? Well, maybe as a publicity stunt. And maybe that’s true for God as well. Is God reaching out to Abram in covenant primarily to show the world who he is—a God of relationship? It’s interesting to me that we believe in a God of covenants—such a human, transactional way of talking about God—but that unfathomable combination of God as totally other and God as intimately related is at the heart of our faith.

If I had to guess at this point where a sermon will come from, I’d say it’s from the smoking fire pot. Not only does God make a covenant with Abram and his descendants, but he also seemingly puts his life on the line. That gesture—walking between the slain animals—was a way of saying, “If I break my promise, let me be as these carcasses.” That’s a silly thing to suggest God might do, but that’s the point. Not only does God make promises, but God is promise. God is defined as the one who is faithful and true. How is it possible for human beings to have such a vision and to talk of God in this way? Because God is primarily the faithful one. No crazy ancient image of promise is too extreme. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lenten First-Fruits

This Sunday’s OT lesson (Deut. 26:1-11) sounds more like a stewardship topic than a Lenten reading. In his farewell speech to the people of Israel, Moses gives very specific instructions for what to do when they’ve settled in the land God will give them: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you…you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground…and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.”

This practice becomes a part of Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. The first fruits of the harvest are brought to the Lord and given as an offering of remembrance. There is particular power in the formulaic saying prescribed for the one bringing the offering: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” The words that follow are a beautiful encapsulation of God’s salvation—how he led them from captivity in Egypt through the wilderness and into the promised land. This process—the giving of first fruits and the recitation of salvation history—was a way to make sure God’s people didn’t forget where their blessings came from.

We are beginning a pilgrimage. During Lent, we journey back into the wilderness for forty days. Why do we bother? To remember that it is only by God’s grace that we are saved. Lent is an experience of stewardship. We give back to God a piece of our lives (fasting, praying, almsgiving) to remind ourselves that only he can sustain us. Unlike Jesus, we cannot make it through the wilderness on our own, but, with Jesus’ help, we can. This Lent, I feel called to consider my discipline a first-fruits offering to God—a reminder of what he has done for me as I seek to deepen my faith that he will always provide.

Ash Wednesday Sermon: God Hates Nothing He has Made

February 13, 2013 – Ash Wednesday

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

I love Lent. (Cue the groans from our organist.) I love purple hangings. I love the Penitential Order. I love fasting and kneeling and generally feeling miserable. I celebrate the Agnus Dei, and I savor every word of the Prayer of Humble Access. I’d recite the Great Litany every day if I could convince anyone to say it along with me. I enjoy hearing lessons about Jesus’ suffering, and I take delight in hearing sermons about how wretched I am. Some people like Christmas music, but I think the hymns for Lent are the best ones we have.

Part of why I love Lent is the pageantry of penitence—the rigmarole of enacting our collective contrition. But it’s more than that. I also love the theology of Lent. I feel refreshed by a realistic look at my own brokenness—my own mortality. I feel a strong desire to confront the fullness of my sin and to bring to God my failings in search of forgiveness. Some of you—many of you—probably feel the exact opposite. I have heard our bishop, Kee Sloan, preach several Lenten sermons in which he says rather plainly, “I don’t like Lent.” And I can understand that. It does drain a little joy out of our spirit to hear over and over and over what “miserable offenders” we are. But I don’t think I like hearing how bad I am because I have masochistic tendencies. For me, the call to repentance and the message of forgiveness always go hand-in-hand.

A few weeks ago, in preparation for today, a priest and friend of mine posed a question on Twitter: “We’re thinking about not having Eucharist on Ash Wednesday…thoughts?” I jumped at the chance to respond, but, after I read what I wrote, I was surprised at what I had said. I tweeted, “I’ve always wondered why it’s a fast day yet we feast on Jesus. But I think the collect for [Ash Wednesday] implies a ‘yes’ to [Eucharist].” I was surprised because, not all that long ago, when I was in seminary, I asked the same question. Isn’t Ash Wednesday supposed to be a day of penitence and fasting? Why would we celebrate the Pascal Mystery—a profound statement of our forgiveness—when we’re supposed to be wallowing in our sin? And the best answer I could come up with is found in the collect for today: God “hate[s] nothing [he] has made.”

I’ve always imagined that, when it comes to forgiveness, God works the same way I do. When someone hurts me, I am usually willing to forgive that person if he or she offers a convincing apology. That’s exactly what I teach my children when I say, “Tell him you’re sorry and, this time, say it like you mean it.” We offer forgiveness to those who show us repentance, and our willingness to forgive usually reflects the degree to which we believe the offending person is sorry. The more someone is sorry, the more he or she is forgiven. But I don’t think that’s how God works.

With God, there is always forgiveness. He hates nothing he has made. That means that God does not withhold his mercy from us until we’ve proven that we’ve earned it, but, still, as my love of Lent might suggest, I believe that repentance has an important place in our faith. That’s because I believe that our ability to accept God’s forgiveness depends upon our willingness to repent. Yes, you are forgiven. And, yes, that doesn’t change. But your ability to know and believe in that forgiveness depends on whether you will come to God and seek it.

Isaiah saw this phenomenon at work among God’s people. They were well-practiced in the mechanics of repentance, but they didn’t know what it meant to be forgiven by God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they asked God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They were going through all of the motions, but they weren’t receiving from God what they wanted. Why did God’s forgiveness elude them?  Because, as Isaiah wrote, “You serve your own interest on your fast day.”

Repentance isn’t about going through the motions. It’s not about trying to convince God to forgive us. It’s about seeking a right relationship with him. We can’t know what it means to be forgiven until we recognize how amazing the gift of forgiveness really is. God doesn’t care whether we stand or kneel. God doesn’t care whether we say we’re sorry like we mean it. Repentance isn’t about “bow[ing] down…like a bulrush and [lying] in sackcloth and ashes.” We do all of that so that we might internalize God’s forgiveness and live as his redeemed people—and that’s what God really wants. So what does real fasting look like? What does it mean to live a forgiven life? According to Isaiah it involves loosing of the bonds of injustice and letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless into your house.

That doesn’t mean that God is waiting for us to reach out to those in need before he will offer us forgiveness. It means that, if the nature of God’s mercy and forgiveness were real to us, we would show it in our lives—not just on our knees. Repentance and forgiveness go hand-in-hand. They always accompany one another, but not as a cause and effect. Our repentance doesn’t cause God to forgive us. The relationship between the two is circular. Knowledge of our forgiveness leads to our repentance, and our repentance leads to knowledge of our forgiveness, and standing in the middle of it all—keeping that circular motion going—is the “God of all mercy,” who offers “perfect remission and forgiveness.”

As we come to the altar rail to receive the ashen cross—the mark of our sinfulness and mortality—we do so not to convince God to love us or to forgive us but to convince ourselves that, despite our sin, we are still loved and forgiven. Amen.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Vocabulary of our Faith: "Blessing"

Last week, we looked at blessing. What is blessing? Where do blessings come from? Who gets to dispense them? What did the various biblical authors have in mind when they wrote about blessings?

My favorite take-away from our class centered on the concept of blessing as promise. The Greek word epaggelia ("epangelia") implies the promise of a blessing. When Paul writes about the promise God made to Abraham in Romans 4, he's using that word to convey that double-connotation of promise and blessing. As I think about what it means to be blessed or to offer a blessing or to receive a blessing, I enjoy associating it with promise.

Another important tidbit was to ask where blessings come from. Say what you will about same-sex blessings, there remains an underdeveloped theology of blessing in general. Again, what is a blessing? As the theological document that accompanied the recently published right for same-sex blessings in the Episcopal Church ("I Will Bless You, and You Will Be a Blessing") states, "Blessing exhibits a multifaceted character, yet the Church has always affirmed that blessing originates in God, the giver of every good gift” (emphasis in original). In other words, whatever form or subject or content is attached to a blessing, we've always affirmed that they all come from God. If that's the case, what does it mean for any of us to bless something--to call it good, holy, right, special in God's name?

Can I bless something unblessable? Is it purely the collectively identified power/ability that a particular community has bestowed upon a particular individual? In other words, if my church community (congregation, denomination, etc.) has set me apart to bless things, when I bless them is it they who say they are blessed? Is it God? How much psychology is beneath our theology of blessing?

As you can tell, I have more questions than answers, but I think we're supposed to be asking the questions.

Here's a youtube video on blessing from an unusual source. In it (especially starting at 3:00), Creflo A. Dollar articulates a theology of blessing that is based on empowerment. Blessing for Dollar is God's empowerment of us for success. Conversely, a curse is God's empowerment for failure. (There's a whole different theological reflection on that subject that will need to wait for another day.)
And here's a video of the PowerPoint presentation from this week. Next week: Heaven, Hell, and the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Gift from the Lectionary

Although I’m known for griping about the way the lectionary authors pieced things together, I probably should spend more time thanking them. Today is one of those days that I rejoice in the work they did. Our gospel lesson for today (Mark 8:11-26) pulls in three distinct episodes that Mark intended to be read as a unit but that often get split up into fragments that fail to say what they can convey as a whole. As I read all three of them together this morning, I was pushed into a new sense of what God is doing in my own life.

First, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask for a sign, and Jesus says, “Why do you keep asking for signs? You won’t get one.”

Next, the disciples hear Jesus expound upon that encounter by warning them to stay away from the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, but they fail to understand what he’s really talking about and stay focused on their own problems.

Finally, Jesus comes ashore and heals a blind man in stages—first enough to give him blurred vision and then enough to help him see clearly.

Do you think those things come together like that as an accident?

I don’t remember when I first learned that the two-stage healing of the blind man was a demonstrative tool to show the reader the importance of getting “full sight” into who Jesus is, but I’ve carried that with me for a while. I’ve usually read that miracle story by itself and have asked myself, “How am I only looking at the surface? Where does God want me to see deeper?” I’ve also been led to draw connections with the disciples and the crowds—those who see in part but can’t quite get the whole thing. But today, as I see the first, second, and third scenes all strung together, I find myself asking a new question: “How is my demand for ‘signs’ getting in the way of my ability to see the real issue?”

Pharisees want signs. Mark tells us they ask for them as a test, and we know that the authorities who test Jesus aren’t looking for faith but are looking to trap him. They are the “bad guys” of the gospel, and we more easily identify with the disciples. Usually, I think of myself as having the half-way sight of Jesus’ insiders—better than the Pharisees but still not quite where I need to be. But Mark weaves these stories together to put us in the same boat as the disciples AND the Pharisees.

Jesus warns the disciples as a way of saying, “Don’t be like them!” But the disciples’ failure to perceive Jesus’ warning show us that they aren’t really any better. They may not have the animosity of Jesus’ enemies, but they can’t see any more clearly. The Pharisees want physical, this-world evidence. The disciples can’t even think to look beyond the same. Jesus wants to take them to a higher plane of perception, but they are stuck in the same pursuit of the literal.

Like the Pharisees, I’m still looking for signs, but the real problem is that, like the disciples, I’m looking for them in the wrong places. I want God to show up where I want him to. I want my prayers to be answered on my terms. I want God to speak to me in a language I understand. I want God to be conformed to my understanding of how he and the universe work.

To what extent is my faith dependent on everything lining up and making sense in the framework I’ve constructed? Honestly, I haven’t had many ground-shaking experiences. The way I read the bible has evolved. My opinions on social issues have flipped and flopped and flipped back again as the years have gone by. I’ve learned to talk about God with a new vocabulary. But, by and large, I expect God to fit within the system I’ve created. But God isn’t just boundary-stretching; he’s paradigm-altering. The disciples’ inability to get it and the two-stage healing of the blind man suggest that I’m still stuck in the dark ages. How do you look for something you have no way of seeing? For me, it starts with letting go of two important assumptions. First, I must let go of my belief that I fully know who God is. But that’s the easy part. That only gets me in the boat. Then, I have to let go of my belief that as God reveals himself to me in new ways he will do so in ways that I can anticipate. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Anyone Know a Martyr?

Do you know anyone who was killed for his or her faith? Have you ever met a martyr? I’ve been to Hayneville, Alabama, for the annual Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama pilgrimage. I’ve heard stories about martyrs with whom I can identify. I’ve met people who were standing next to people who were killed as they witnessed to their faith, but I’ve never known someone who was killed for a matter of conscience.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always found Jesus’ “save your life and lose it; lose your life and find it” teaching in Mark 8:34-38, which is the gospel text for the commemoration of the Martyrs of Japan. What does it mean to lose one’s life? What does it mean to take up one’s cross so completely that following Jesus becomes an act of self-surrender? I get the metaphor. I can handle yielding my will or giving up my own preferences for the sake of the gospel, but, when it comes to losing my life in order to save it in the literal sense, I struggle.

That’s not because I’m unwilling to die for Jesus. Actually, I think I might be able to do that. But the problem is in the question itself—in the absolute hypothetical nature of it. In Sunday school, I remember talking with friends about whether we’d be willing to die for our faith. Most of us said yes. A few of us (probably the smart ones) said probably not. None of us had a clue—at least I didn’t. How can one know that one would die for a cause until the knife is held to her throat? It just doesn’t work in the hypothetical.

So stay with the literal. Hear the story of the twenty-six Japanese Christians who were crucified on February 5, 1597, by the political powers of their day. Hear the tales of hundreds of other Japanese believers who were killed by those who confused the sins of Colonialism with the truth of the gospel. Imagine the suffering of the thousands who kept their faith but lived in fear of persecution. Think about someone you know—or someone you have heard about—who suffered and even died for their faith. What did they give up? Do you feel called the same way—not to die but to have faith so vibrant?

Embrace the witness of the Martyrs of Japan. Embrace the story of all who have struggled in the face of persecution. Don’t take on their suffering for suffering’s sake, but accept and emulate their faith no matter what troubles lie ahead. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Taking Off the Gloves

This coming Sunday is the last one before Lent. Because of that, we fast-forward through four weeks of lessons that don’t get read this year because Easter will come at the end of March. Everything gets lopped off and backed up because of the lunar cycle used to set the date of Easter. For preachers, that means we’ve skipped over Luke 5, 6, & 7 and jumped right to Luke 9—the story of the Transfiguration. The season after the Epiphany is the time when the church hears stories of Jesus’ miracles and teachings that help undergird our belief in his identity as the messiah. With four fewer opportunities to hear those texts, congregations will just have to trust their preachers that the ultimate revealing/unveiling, which happens in this Sunday’s gospel text, has been built up to carefully by Luke.

When the veil comes off, we (Peter, James, and John) see something that had been hidden for a long time. Actually, “hidden” isn’t quite the right word. The rest of this week’s lessons show us that the right approach is to think of them as being “veiled.” For all of human history (at least since the Fall), we’ve been trying to see God. Moses was only allowed to see God’s hindparts (Exodus 33:12-23), but, because he spoke with him in such close proximity, Moses’ face shone with the residual glory that he encountered. So Moses put on a veil whenever he came back from talking with God because the shining face scared the people. That’s a fascinating way to tell the story, and I think it’s about more than God’s glory sticking to Moses. I think it was the ancient Israelites way of reinforcing the need for a buffer between themselves and God. Not only did they rely on Moses to do the talking—they also couldn’t look him in the eye afterwards.

Paul really takes this line and carries it in 2 Corinthians. He writes as if the veil itself represents the distinction between the old and new covenants. For Paul, Jesus is the removal of that veil, and, although he doesn’t write about the transfiguration itself, he tells us that through Christ the veil comes off so that we can see God—not quite directly but “as though reflected in a mirror.” Maybe it’s just because I’m still thinking about last Sunday’s reading from 1 Corinthians 13, but I think it’s interesting that Paul uses the mirror image again this week. This time, however, it’s to underscore that we see God far more clearly now than we did before Jesus.

The Transfiguration account underscores this fact. Peter, James, and John (and, because of the gospeller’s account, we, too) get to see God’s glory shining in and through Jesus—not as a reflection, not as a residual afterglow, but as the straight-on, real thing.

As I read these gospel lessons, I feel God calling me to strip off the layers. What comes between us and God? What do we put between ourselves and God? We need lots of buffers. We hide behind lots of veils. Luther would have agreed with Paul—that it’s the Law we prefer to hide our relationship with God behind. Nowadays, it’s sentimentality or technology or perfectionism or whatever cloudy lens we want to look at God through. Why is it we want to filter God through layers of approximation? Why do we look for ways to moderate, structure, and buffer our relationship with God? How many of our churches are trying to get people closer to God rather than bring people closer to religion?