Saturday, June 29, 2013

Peter and Paul

This cant be a long post. I am up at Swwanee for a youth trip. But I can't help but notice that Peter and Paul were a remarkable example of modern collaboration. These two men didn't like each other. The Bible doesn't give us a full depiction of their strained relationship, but it does tell us that they openly disagreed with one another. How remarkable it is that two of the greatest figures of the Christian movement were at odds with one another yet are remembered on the same day!

Paul in second Timothy wrote about "itching ears". Peter stands before a group in Jerusalem and says, "How could I deny them baptism?" Both of these men were slaves to the truth. They knew that what they wanted didn't matter as much as the Gospel. They were captured by its message, and they were determined to let it rule their lives.

Something funny happens when your opponent shares the same principle that you have. Something funny happens when the person you cannot stand is in it for the same reasons that you are. Walls crumble. Animosity softens. Two men, different perspectives, same gospel. They had the same goal.

Who is your Peter? Who is your Paul? Who is that person who cares passionately about something yet does so in a way you might disagree with? Find, through Prayer, away to embrace that which is shared and get beyond that which is the subject of conflict. Without both Peter and Paul, our faith wouldn't look anything like it does today. We owe who we are As Christians to two men who couldn't stand each other but who knew that they were in this together.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A New Day for Some

Although I have always been fascinated with the Supreme Court and have always enjoyed Nina Totenberg’s reports on NPR more than an ice cream Sunday, I’ve never been as glued to the Court and its decisions as I have these last two weeks. Scotusblog has me hooked. I’ve watched line by line as the news of the decisions is announced. I’ve skimmed through most of the controversial opinions and dissents as they’ve become available. I’ve tried to figure out what all of this means—for me, for our country, and for our church.

When the dust settles—and it may take a while for that to happen—I suspect that I will discover that I am right where I started. I live in Alabama, where same-sex marriage is just as illegal today as it was last week. I am an Episcopalian in the Diocese of Alabama, where the blessing of same-sex relationships is not permitted. I am the rector of a church in a midsized, antebellum, southern town, where lots of people applaud the Court’s decisions and lots of people vilify them. But, while everything around me is staying pretty much the same, things are changing rapidly in other places. Although things here at home aren’t any different today than they were yesterday, pretty soon the changes happening in those other places will reach us here.

I have already had an e-mail exchange with a friend and parishioner about yesterday’s decisions. In that “conversation,” we touched on the fact that none of this really comes as a surprise. The only question that hadn’t really been answered until yesterday was to what degree things would change overnight. The answer for most of us, it seems, is not all that much. Eventually, however, marriage equality will become a reality—even in places like Alabama. Now, we’re just waiting to see how long that will take (or how long we have until that happens, depending on your perspective).

That e-mail exchange also pointed me to another question, the answer to which is more difficult to anticipate. When things do change—even here in Alabama—what will happen to those who resist or oppose such change? Will they be invited to participate in the life of the civic community? Will their ministry be valued in our church? I don’t know what things are like in other parts of the country, but over here in this part we are still trying to figure those things out. Many of us feel that marriage equality is a “no-brainer.” Just as many of us feel deeply threatened by it. When the ripples of change come—when our diocese permits the blessing of same-sex relationships and when our state recognizes the marriage of two men or two women—what will the conversation within the church be like? Will we be shouting at each other from inside our foxholes, or will we be sitting at a table together engaging in a family discussion?

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions remind me that how things look depends on where you live. Today is a bright new day for marriage equality in California, and those of us here in Alabama are watching and waiting and wondering what will happen here. I hope and pray that the experience of other states and dioceses and parishes will be shared openly and non-confrontationally so that, when things do change here at home, we aren’t threatened by it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I'm a Savage...For Jesus

If you watched any of the U. S. Open or any other golf tournament since then or any other sporting event that might appeal to middle-aged men (Hello, Baseball?), you’ve seen the Avis car rental commercial that features Steve Stricker. If not, you can watch it here. 

Steve’s on his way to a tournament, and Avis has given him just the car he needs to get “pumped for victory.” There’s a “serious stereo to blast pulse-pounding music that turns me from a man into a beast.” (Cue soft, soothing music.) He gets “so pumped that nothing slows [him] down. (Cue car of octogenarians passing him in the left lane.) As he pulls into the course, he claims, “I’m more than in the zone…I’m a savage.” (Then he fights with the valet about who should carry his clubs.)

Without the funny undercurrent, that kind of focus seems to be what Jesus has in this week’s gospel lesson. Luke mentions that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” not once but twice. It’s the defining characteristic. He’s in the zone. He’s hyper-focused. Like an athlete prepared to take the field, Jesus has only one thing on his mind, and nothing is going to get in his way.

“May I follow you, too?” a man asks. Jesus gives a tough, bleak, uninviting portrayal of the road ahead: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another potential follower, Jesus says, “Come on! Let’s go!” But that man needs to fulfill the religious obligation of burying his father. Jesus has no time for that: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Onward. No stopping him now.

I’ll bet a lot of preachers will spend time talking about how controversial this last statement was—“let the dead bury their dead.” I’d be tempted to say the same. As Luke builds this mini-story, it’s the climax. Although we have social sensitivity to the need to allow someone to bury his family member, I don’t think we intuitively understand how exclusive this duty would have been. Contact with a dead body was absolutely forbidden, yet the importance of a holy burial not only to respect the dead but also to prevent anyone accidentally touching the corpse was paramount. As a result, only the family member would be allowed to perform the ceremony. But not with Jesus. Jesus says leave him rotting—there are more important things to do.

The point for us, though, isn’t to stay focused on the abrogation of the ritual law. It’s to stay focused on the focus of Jesus. Nothing can get in his way. Nothing else matters. And anyone who is going to follow Jesus must share his hyper-focus. No one who stops to say goodbye is fit for the kingdom. Only the kingdom matters.

When was the last time we approached our faith like a national championship game? As a fan, I don’t spend a lot of time watching “game tape,” but, as a southern American man, I schedule my fall obligations around football. Weddings, meetings, church picnics—they are all put on the calendar according to the goings-on of the SEC. No one—not even the clergyperson—does it the other way around. We are supposed to have Jesus’ attitude. Retell this story in a contemporary context: “I want to follow you, but Alabama is playing Notre Dame!” or “I’d love to come to church, but my daughter’s travelling soccer team is in Atlanta this weekend.” I’m afraid someone as focused as Jesus doesn’t have a lot of time for my excuses.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

God's Little Instruction Book

This is a post on today's (6/25/13) reading from the Old Testament, but it was also published as the cover article in our parish's weekly newsletter.

I knew a man who liked to boast that the bible was his “little instruction book for life.” I think he meant that primarily as a way of saying that he took scripture seriously, but his proclamation also seemed to suggest that others (probably meaning me) did not take the “good book” as seriously as we should. Whenever confronted by a challenge of faith, he would hold up his bible, which he almost always had in his hand, and say, “The answer is in here. This is my little instruction book for life.” I wonder how he made sense of passages like today's reading from 1 Samuel 6.

In a battle that saw the death of 30,000 foot soldiers of Israel, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant. In the Daily Office, we have been reading from 1 Samuel for a while now and have seen how the wickedness of Eli’s sons was bound to catch up with them. Sure enough, Hophni and Phinehas were killed in that battle, and, when Eli heard that the ark had been captured, the ninety-eight-year-old priest and judge fell over backward, broke his neck, and died. Adding pain upon pain, Phinehas’ wife, who was pregnant, went into labor upon hearing the bad news, gave birth to a son, and named him Ichabod, exclaiming, “The glory [of the Lord] has departed from Israel!”

Things did not fare any better for the Philistines. Proud of their booty, they set up the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Dagon, but, when they went in the next morning to admire their prize, they discovered that the statue of their god had fallen over “face downward on the ground in front of the ark.” Suspecting an odd coincidence, they set Dagon back up again only to find the next morning that his hands and head had been mysteriously cut off in the middle of the night. The strange and mighty power that emanated from the ark spread throughout the community, infecting everyone with tumors.

After seven months of suffering, the Philistines gave up and sent the ark back to Israel. Having consulted with the spiritualists of the day, they decided to send a guilt offering along with the ark in the hope that the God of Israel would stop punishing their people. So they made five golden tumors and five golden mice and placed them in a box on the cart next to the ark, yoked some cattle to the cart, pointed them down the road, said a prayer, and hoped that it would work. And it did.

The bible is full of bizarre stories like this one—stories we hardly ever read in church but that we still believe is God’s holy word. Our job as people of faith is to try to make sense of them, and I will suggest that anyone who thinks that the right way to overcome cancer is to make a golden tumor and offer it to God is crazy. Instinctively, we know that this passage is not intended to give literal advice but instead is pointing us to God’s power and justice without telling us exactly how to honor them. The same is true of countless passages in scripture. In order for God’s word to speak clearly to twenty-first-century Christians, we have to go beyond the surface and dive deeply into the text.

If the bible really is our instruction book, it contains the kind of instructions needed to build an aircraft carrier rather than a swing set. I remember being asked to assemble a new gas grill for my father. Intimidated by the myriads of small pieces contained in a dozen plastic bags, I cleared out the garage and laid all the pieces and parts out on the floor. I read the instructions all the way through twice, picturing in my head how I could make the objects in front of me look like the pictures in the booklet. With care and tentative precision, I slowly began to put things together. When I think about the bible and how it might be informing my daily life, I try to remember that experience of checking and rechecking the text, always asking myself whether I was making sense of what was in front of me. Reading the bible—even the strange parts—is a wonderful way to shape our lives, but there is nothing about that process that is simple.

Monday, June 24, 2013

His Name Is What?

His name is John.

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I used to joke with her and others about the upcoming birth. “Whenever the baby comes,” I would say once I was out of my wife’s reach, “Elizabeth will call me and let me know…so that I can pass out cigars on the golf course before finishing the round.” It wasn’t funny then, either. She had a pretty good comeback, though. Knowing how important the baby’s name was to me, she would add, “And, when you answer the phone, I’ll let you know what I have decided to name the child.” She always won.

Today is the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Eight days after he was born, his parents had him circumcised. Since Zechariah had been struck mute by an angel for failing to believe the promised birth of the son, the officials were prepared to name the child after his father, Zechariah. But his mother Elizabeth intervened and insisted that he be named John. “But no one in your family is called ‘John,’” they said. And, to be sure, they looked to the mute husband. Grabbing a tablet, he wrote, “His name is John.” And it was official (Luke 1:57-80).

I love the Benedictus—John’s song. It’s my favorite gospel canticle (right behind the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitis). But I’m not sure I could have enjoyed it that day. Anachronistic references aside, I would have been standing there wondering why they had to ask the father before they could accept that the boy’s name was John. He’s the dummy who messed the proclamation up in the first place. Why not just take the mother’s word for it?

There are lots of answers to that. I don’t want to launch in on the subject of the treatment of women in first-century Palestine. Mainly, that’s because I don’t really know much more than “it wasn’t good.” But it is an occasion to stop and ask about authority more generally. How many times have you asked a question, received an answer you didn’t like or didn’t expect, and then turned to another person and asked the exact same question? I’m not proud of it, but I must admit that I do it all the time.

I’ll ask my wife how long a beef tenderloin should be cooked. She’ll give me the answer, but, just to be sure, I’ll call my mother, too. (Not helpful.) When wondering about the proper procedure for a baptism/confirmation experience, I’ll ask my bishop how it should go down, but just to be sure I’ll still go and read the rubrics. (Not respectful.) I’ll ask a coworker how many people were present in church that day, but, when I don’t like the answer I get, I’ll ask another person standing there to see if I can get a “better” answer. (Not accepting.)

Over and over, when I don’t like the answer I get, I ask someone else. Usually, the answer is the same. Occasionally it changes, but rarely to my satisfaction. I have a problem with authority. I would have been one of the people who asked the father just to be sure the mother was trustworthy. I don’t like that about myself.

How well do you handle authority? Whom do you trust? What sort of source are you willing to accept without needing to ask another person to be sure? Upon what is your faith grounded? The apostles aren’t here for us to ask them questions. Are you willing to accept their testimony? What sort of proof do you need?

There are some things I believe in almost without question. Why those things? Faith, of course, isn’t built on proof. That’s the point. Faith is a level of trust. How can I learn to let the trust I have in some things, some people, and some areas spread to the things I struggle with?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whose Baggage Is It?

This was the cover article for this week's church newsletter at St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL.

"There was a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life..."

The first sentence of Edwin Friedman’s fable “The Bridge” provides the tension that runs through the rest of the story. If you are not familiar with this fable, you can read it here. Designed to help the reader discover the perils of accepting other people’s emotional baggage, the story involves two men—one who has set off on his life’s most important quest and the other who gets in his way. The two men meet on a bridge, and the second man, without explaining himself, hands the unsuspecting stranger the end of a rope. Before the first man can figure out what is going on, the second man, who has secured the other end of the rope around his waist, jumps off the bridge.

All of us are on a journey, and each of us is carrying some baggage with us. Much of that baggage is our own—our own problems, our own limitations, our own disappointments. But a lot of the weight we carry actually belongs to other people—our children’s failures, our spouse’s troubles, our coworkers’ crises, our friends’ issues. Often, that baggage is emotional. We share the anxiety, brokenheartedness, or pain of others by making it our own. Occasionally, that baggage is physical or financial, and the cost we bear has tangible consequences. Sometimes we carry others’ burdens out of love, thinking that one way to show our affection is by picking up their baggage as our own. Other times, we accept their burdens because of a sense of duty, convincing ourselves that a good parent or a good spouse or a good friend should be willing to carry that load. Pretty often, however, as Friedman’s fable suggests, other people dump their baggage on us without ever asking or without us ever making a choice to carry it.

Typically, I can carry the burdens of others for a while. As long as the road ahead of me is straight and smooth, I have enough physical and emotional strength to haul burdens that are mine and yours. Eventually, though, the road will become difficult. A crisis in my own life will strike, or maybe the weight of your problems will grow until they are too much for me to bear. When I reach that breaking point, I have to make a choice. Will I hang on to your baggage even if it destroys me, or will I let it go even though the weight might crush you?

One day, while walking through the city of Jerusalem, Jesus came upon a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you wish to be healed?” The man’s reply is shockingly helpless: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and, while I am going, another steps down before me.” The man had been waiting there for years but had nothing to show for it. Nothing, it seemed, would change this man’s condition. Even when asked by Jesus if he wanted to be healed, the man remained locked in his state of torpidity. “I have no one to help me,” the man said in resignation. But Jesus cut straight through his self-defeat and said, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk!” And that is precisely what the man did.

Amazing things happen when we let go of other people’s burdens. More precisely, amazing things happen to other people when we refuse to carry their baggage for them. Cyclical problems like addiction, infidelity, and hopelessness cannot be solved by a spouse or a loved-one. No amount of compassion can love someone out of their problems. Instead, they must square the burden on their own shoulders and continue down the road beside us.

Typically, the people we love are not conscious of the struggles they are putting upon us—until we tell them, “No.” There is pain in letting go of the rope. There is a cost in telling someone you love that you are unwilling and unable to bear their burdens for them. But there is freedom—for both—when each accepts only his or her own baggage. We are all on a journey, and each of us is carrying some baggage with us.

Discipleship as a Journey

As a Christian, I’ve found that the “big” moments in my life are rarely the end of a chapter. Instead, they are almost always a beginning.

Last Saturday, I was attempting to express to our youth Confirmation class that I had very much enjoyed the journey we had been on together. The next day was Confirmation, and the eight of us—six teenagers and two adults—would likely never meet in the same capacity again. Over the preceding months, we had gotten together numerous times—mostly every other week—for a community-based, conversation-driven course of Confirmation preparation. We had been on an overnight retreat. We had shared prayer concerns. We had voiced deep questions about life and faith. We had really gotten to know each other, yet Confirmation itself was far less of an end than a beginning.

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus heals a demoniac. In that passage, I’ve identified a number of things that confuse me. On Tuesday, I wrote about the community’s baffling reaction—that, when confronted by Jesus’ healing power, they push him away. Now, I’d like to turn to Jesus’ strange reaction to the man’s request to become a disciple—when asked by the man if he can follow, Jesus says no.

I think we’re supposed to wonder why Jesus wouldn’t let the man follow him. That he asked and was rejected is the kind of detail a gospel narrator would probably leave out if it weren’t important. It provides the kind of uncomfortable rub that gets my attention and probably for good reason. The man came to Jesus and “begged that he might be with him,” but Jesus said no.

It could be a racial issue. The man was a Gentile, and, although Jesus had welcomed an outcast tax collector to be one of his disciples, all twelve were Jewish.  Or it could be an evangelism issue. Instead of letting him follow, Jesus sends the man back to his home in order to “declare [to them] how much God has done for you.” The same people who were afraid of Jesus, it seems, needed another chance to digest what had happened. Maybe they were too afraid to hear it from Jesus, but the man himself—a familiar though once-estranged member of their community—would have more success. That’s part of it. But I also think it has something to do with the man and discipleship more generally.

Throughout this post and throughout this week, I’ve used the word “follow” to describe the man’s request of Jesus, but that’s not what the text says. Instead, the man “begged that he might be with him.” The Greek doesn’t use a more complicated word than the English rendition conveys. It’s as simple as that. The man asks merely to be with Jesus. But that’s not good enough, is it? Following and being with are different.

Everyone else is a follower of Jesus. In some cases, that is a literal, physical description. The crowd actually walks behind Jesus as he makes his way from one town to another. For others (like me), it is a description of a spiritual journey. My faith still involves movement, growth, exploration. If I said that, as a Christian, all we are called to do is “hang out” with Jesus, it might convey a positive sense of proximity, but it would miss the whole point of being shaped by the one whose company we keep. The man didn’t ask to be a disciple. He didn’t ask to journey behind Jesus. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I hear the man’s request as a destination rather than a starting point.

When we first know God’s saving power, we discover not an end but a beginning. When we emerge from the waters of Baptism, we accept a new calling. When we rise from our Confirmation, we take the first steps of a new journey. If we ask Jesus to let us remain with him, he will always say no. He sends us out or beckons us on. Jesus wasn’t telling the man that he couldn’t be a disciple. He wasn’t just saying no. He was saying yes but go.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Until We Are Parted By Death

Until we are parted by death. That’s kind of a downer, isn’t it? The church is full of family and friends. The bride looks as beautiful as she ever has. The groom is so excited his knees are shaking. Both mothers are crying, and any of the grandfathers who can still hear what’s going on are proud to be there. Then the clergyperson asks the groom to take the bride’s right hand in his right hand and repeat after him, saying the vows. And then, right at the end, he looks into the eyes of his bride on the cusp of a brand new chapter in their relationship—so much promise ahead—and says, “until we are parted by death.” I can hear the air hissing out of the balloon.

Marriage is for a lifetime and only for a lifetime. Some of us are relieved to hear it. Some of us can’t imagine spending eternity without being married to the one we love. Why? Why, as Jesus says in Luke 20:27-40, do “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage?” Being married seems like a jolly good thing. And some of us are married to pretty nice people—people we would probably enjoy spending even more than a lifetime with. And some of us have already said goodbye to a spouse in this life, and the thought of having already bid them farewell as our partner forever can be heartbreaking. So why no marriage in heaven?

The Sadducees were a difficult bunch. They were strict in their interpretation of scripture. Since there’s no depiction of heaven in the Hebrew bible, they considered it a made-up fairy tale. They came to Jesus not really interested in learning about marriage but in trying to size him up as their enemy—someone whose belief in the resurrection would make him an easy target for their ire. They didn’t count on him giving such neat and tidy answers to their questions. But, in truth, their problem is the same as ours.

We are limited by our imagination. We think of heaven as the most wonderful thing we can think of. Streets of gold. Puffy clouds. Eternity with the people we love. But that is too small a thing for God. Heaven isn’t comparable with this life. Heaven isn’t just what we have on earth made better. It’s something far beyond that. That’s why Jesus is fond of saying that we must distance ourselves from family and friends—even hating our parents and children—for the sake of the kingdom. That’s why Jesus looks at the Sadducees and sighs. That’s why he listens to our feeble hopes and says, “That’s not good enough.”

In God’s kingdom, we are so overwhelmed by God’s presence—by the rightness of everything—that there literally isn’t room for anything else. In this life, marriage can be a beautiful thing. But in the next life—as incomprehensible as it seems—even the most beautiful things we know of pale in comparison. Being worthy of the kingdom means letting go of our limited hopes and imaginations. It means recognizing that even the things we hold most dear are worthless when we consider the magnificence of heaven

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Preferring the Status Quo

Can a sunset be too beautiful—so gorgeous that it hurts to see it? Could a meal be too delicious—so perfect that it disappoints the diner to eat it? When is a gift too generous—so magnanimous that the recipient would rather refuse it?

Sometimes God’s grace is like that—too magnificent, too perfect, too overwhelming for us to accept. In this Sunday's gospel lesson, the Gerasenes, who implore Jesus to leave their community after he performed a powerful exorcism, are an example of that. When confronted by his holy power, they are overcome by fear. When they realize what they are dealing with, their fear intensifies. Unable to embrace the spiritual authority that Jesus represents, they ask him to leave.

The Cursillo movement is active in the Diocese of Alabama. It’s a wonderful, lay-led renewal movement, begun in the Roman Catholic tradition, which invites Christians to spend a weekend hearing about the faith so that they can carry that faith with them even more powerfully when they return to the world. Although I like Cursillo and actively participate in the movement, I recognize that it isn’t for everyone. As one friend put it, “They tell me it will be a ‘life-changing experience,’ but I don’t want my life to change. I like my life just the way it is.” Good point.

Sometimes we like our lives just the way they are. And sometimes we don’t like our lives at all but still would rather hang on to what we’ve got than embrace change. If you’ve ever dealt with an out-of-control addict, you’ve seen this first-hand. You know what she needs to do to get her life in order. She knows what she needs to do to get her life in order. You know that the current path of addiction leads only to death. She knows it, too. Yet it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, almost inexplicably, the human instinct prefers the self-destructive status quo to a life-giving change.

The point is that the presence of Jesus in the Gerasene community necessitates change. The powerful, Kingdom-of-God change agent that is the Christ had sailed into their lives. He had cast the demon out of the community-destroying man whom no one could control. They saw in him the power to change their lives—each and every one of them. And, when the townspeople saw that Jesus held the kind of power that the status quo cannot resist, they asked him to leave.

Change is hard—even good change…even change that every single one of us knows is a good thing. Change is hard. Transformation is costly. None of us can stand in the presence of Christ without being changed—without giving up the life we know and exchanging it for a kingdom-life. But our instincts are to hold on to this lifeless, dark, destructive existence we have known since we were born. Why? Why, when confronted by the light of life, do we so often prefer to crawl back further into ourselves?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Preaching the Confusing Parts

I usually preach on confusing things. I’m not trying to confuse people—just the opposite. But all week, while I’m reading and rereading the lessons, I am drawn to the things that baffle me. Part of me suspects that’s actually a good homiletical method. There’s likely an intentional reason something sticks out as not making sense. Perhaps it didn’t make sense to the original hearers or readers. Perhaps that’s the point. Then again, there’s a good chance I just don’t know what I’m talking about.

This week, in the gospel lesson (Luke 8:26-39), there are three things that confuse me. Maybe I’ll blog about them throughout the week. Maybe I’ll get some clarity on them. There’s a good chance I’ll preach about at least one of these things. We’ll see where the Spirit leads.

First Confusing Point: After healing the demoniac who had caused his community a good deal of annoyance, the crowd responds with fear. Luke writes, “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.” I know that fear is a tricky thing in the biblical sense. It doesn’t always mean “scared” the way we typically use it, but, in this case, I think “scared” gets pretty close. Clearly, there was something about Jesus’ power and the power he represented that frightened (and awestruck) these townsfold.

Second Confusing Point: After hearing from the eyewitnesses of the demoniac’s healing, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Again, more fear—and this even after thoughtful reflection. Usually, in my life, fear evaporates pretty quickly: roller coaster, person jumping out from behind a corner, a loud bang. Almost always, my fear disappears before I have time to think about it. Rarely do I sit and listen and think about a situation and still end up afraid. But these Gerasenes, still overwhelmed by what Jesus had done, ask the healer to leave. It’s as if this life-giving, life-saving, life-altering power is too much for them to keep in their midst.

Third Confusing Point: Rejected by the townsfolk, Jesus climbs back into his boat. The now right-minded fellow walks up to his healer and asks—begs—if he can follow him. Jesus’ answer: nope. Here was a man so powerfully touched by the presence of Jesus that he was willing to give up the prospect of returning to his old life in order to follow Jesus. But Jesus wouldn’t let him, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Some scholars think that Jesus wanted this man to go and evangelize his hometown. Others say that, as a Gentile, he was not allowed to be a part of Jesus’ primarily Jewish movement. Me? I’m still confused. This seems like the kind of detail not worth including in the story unless it were important. But why?

That’s what I’m wrestling with this week. Maybe we’ll see some direction by Sunday.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Evangelism in the Grocery Store

I met an evangelist in the grocery store today. She was standing in front of me in the check-out line. I pulled my buggy up behind hers because that lane seemed to be the shortest. I was in a hurry, so, when she left her buggy standing in line to go and pick out one final item, I thought to myself, “Oh brother! How long is this going to take?”

She returned before the person in front had finished checking out, but, instead of moving her buggy up in the now-vacated space and beginning to unload her items onto the conveyer, she held up her latest item and showed it to me proudly. At first she didn’t say anything. She just smiled. “Looks good,” I said for no reason other than to be polite. “Doesn’t it?” she responded. “You know, this is vegetarian!” she remarked with exuberance. Pointing to each ingredient listed on the front of the box, she explained that the flatbread entrĂ©e contained zucchini, tomatoes, onions, garlic, etc.. She named and pointed to every single vegetable on the list with a display of dignity, deliberation, and pride. “I try to eat healthy. This is good for you.” Ignoring the cheese that covered the whole thing, I said, “Looks like it. I try to eat healthy, but I don’t try very hard.”

By this time, the person in front of her was signing her check. All her items were in bags. She was ready to go. And the woman in front of me wouldn’t even turn around to look at the empty lane ahead of her. She just wanted to look at me and talk about her healthful eating habits. “Ahh!” I screamed inside of myself. Resisting the temptation to begin unloading her buggy for her, I tapped my foot and shifted my weight back and forth as if to suggest a need for her to hurry. She did not pick up on the visual clues.

Briefly, at last, she turned around and pushed her buggy forward. But then she stopped. Looking at me, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask where you pastor at?” I told her about St. John’s Episcopal Church. “Where is that?” I told her downtown. “Where downtown?” I explained our location, identifying it both by street address and by other nearby landmarks. Finally clear of where I serve, she looked at my buggy and then back at me and then back at my buggy and then at me again. In a whispered voice, she said, “Are you the…you’re not the…are you the senior pastor there?” I told her yes, and she nodded.

After a few moments of quiet, while she placed the first few items on the conveyer, she pointed to the beer in my buggy, “You know, it’s ok if you drink. That’s ok.” It occurred to me that her hesitation about me being the “senior pastor” had nothing to do with my age (the usual issue) but instead was prompted by my purchase of alcohol. “Oh yes!” I eagerly replied. “It is ok to drink—just not to excess,” I added to provide a commonality that wouldn’t abruptly and rudely end the conversation. At that point, I decided to enjoy the moment and let go of my need to hurry up.

“So, in your church you can drink but just not get drunk?” Bingo. “But not [garbled word]?” I thought she had said, “But not for an occasion?” as if to ask that we aren’t allowed to drink at an official church event. Knowing that’s the way it works in the United Methodist Church (ministers can drink but not at church events), I said, “No, we can do that, too.” She looked very nervous. Unsure of my response, she asked a second time, only this time I understood her. “Fornication?” I laughed. “No, not that,” though part of me wanted to ask what she meant by fornication. I’m not sure she would approve of the General Convention, but I decided to let that one go. I didn’t have all day.

We carried on our pleasant conversation. Eventually, she got all of her items on the conveyer. Then she looked at the cashier. Then at the bagger. “You want to go to his church with me?” she asked them. They were stunned. She asked again. “Want to go with me to church? I know where it is. I’ll even pick you up. And I won’t even ask you to pay for gas. You can’t say no to that, can you? Come on! Come with me to church.” Wow! Here was a woman whose name I still don’t know, and she’s trying to get people to come to my church. It was my turn, so I turned around and looked at the woman standing behind me in line, “I need her in my church,” I remarked. “She’s quite the evangelist.”

I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know who she is. But that woman—whoever it was—knows what it means to spread the gospel. She made a relationship out of nothing more than a buggy full of stuff. She turned this hardhearted, cynical, hurried, impatient priest into putty in her hand. She could have asked me to go to her church, and I would have said yes. I almost wanted her to ask me. Whoever she is, she’s a witness. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

And They All Glorified God

There’s something funny going on here. We’re a Track-2 parish (though I notice that the Track-1 lessons include the Track-2 OT lesson as an option), and all three lessons end with the same theme.

In Luke 7, Jesus touched the funeral bier of a widow’s only son. When he sat up and started talking, the crowd “glorified God, saying ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”

In Galatians 1, Paul recalls for his readers that he was not known to the churches in Judea personally but that they had heard of his conversion—“the one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And then the kicker—“And they glorified God because of me.”

In 1 Kings 17, the son of the widow at Zarephath became ill and died, and Elijah prayed so that God brought him back to life. When he gave the widow back her son, she exclaimed, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” These words came from a woman who, upon meeting Elijah, first remarked, “As the LORD your God lives…” (emphasis added). It seems that she has come around, too.

All three stories are remarkable. Two sons brought back to life. A zealot brought from the power of death into life. And each time the result of the story is bigger than the miracle itself. They glorified God. They recognized God and his work. Instead of focusing merely on the person working the miracle, they point to the one behind the miracle.

This Sunday, I’m looking for a way to share that connection with a congregation. What does it mean to look at the things God is doing around us and glorify God because of them? How can we notice the ways in which God is intervening in our life and trace that back to God himself? Maybe we should all make a list of the ways God has blessed us. Maybe we should turn to our neighbor and share an example of what he has done for us. I get the sense that, if we’re conscious of the ways God acts in our lives, we will be filled with an overwhelming desire to glorify him.