Thursday, October 31, 2013

Religion or Faith?

Today’s OT lesson from the Daily Office (Nehemiah 1:1-11) the author reflects on an encounter he had in Susa—the fortified city in the Kingdom of Persia. One day he was approached by a group of fellow Jews, and he asked them how things had fared with their kindred back in Jerusalem. “Did they escape the captivity? How are they doing? How is the Holy City?” The answer he received was disheartening: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

It’s one of those Planet-of-the-Apes moments when the reality of the destruction of one’s homeland sinks in. Overcome with sadness, guilt, and despair, Nehemiah falls down and mourns for days, weeping and fasting and praying on behalf of his people. His cry to God is explicit: “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you.”

It just so happens that over the past few months I’ve been participating in a men’s bible study on the Book of Esther. That story also takes place in Susa, and, when I read the word in the opening line of today’s lesson, I began to look for comparisons. But that’s where the similarities end. In Esther, no mention of God is ever made. No prayers are recorded in the whole book. Although there is fasting, no explicit direction is ever attached to the pious act. Instead, the reader is left to wonder, “Where is God in all of this? How does God’s salvation work in a secular setting?”

Other students of the bible have made these kinds of observations long before I am, but it’s amazing to me how two different books that are set in the same place at roughly the same time can be so different. Nehemiah is utterly devoted to the reestablishment of the Jerusalem Temple and the specific religious apparatus that goes with it. Esther makes no mention of God at all, and the reader is left to ask how faith is supposed to be practiced in the diaspora. One is a book about going home to God, and the other is about finding God far from home.

Where is God in our lives? Do we need to rebuild the apparatus of our faith to make our relationship with him more real to us? Should we instead continue on in our journey with God even though the world around us might not notice? What should the place of religion be in the 21st century? What’s the relationship between religion and faith?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

John Wyclif and Playing with Knives

My father loves working in the kitchen. He always enjoyed dabbling when the opportunity presented itself, but, when my mother started working full-time as a director of children’s ministry in the church where I grew up, Dad started cooking more frequently. At one point, he became the primary chef for the family, and it was my mother’s turn to dabble when the opportunity presented itself.

Whenever they come to visit, my dad likes to cook a meal. He’s a good cook and knows his way around the kitchen. Like me, he’s not very good at keeping things clean, but he can use every pot and pan and utensil available to whip up something pretty decent. One day, he was chopping vegetables with our chef’s knife and remarked how sharp the knife was. It seemed like a nice, polite thing to say to the person whose knives one is using. I thanked him and went on with my evening. I happened to be passing back through the kitchen when he was scraping those vegetables off the cutting board and into a pan, an action he was roughly completing by dragging the blade of my chef’s knife across the surface of the board. “You know,” I said, “that knife won’t be very sharp for long if you keep doing that.”

I said it too sharply (no pun intended). Instincts had taken over. I had reprimanded my father for the way he was treating my knife while he was preparing a meal for my family. He looked at me a somewhat taken aback and apologized. Now, whenever he is in town and is in the kitchen, he goes out of his way to mention again and again how sharp our knives are. They aren’t really that sharp, but I hear what he’s saying.

“The word of God is living and active,” the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “sharper than any two-edge sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That’s part of the Epistle Lesson for the commemoration of John Wyclif (Hebrews 4:12-16). And, when I read that passage that personifies the “Word of God” and captures that beautiful double-meaning of our faith—that the second person of the Trinity is the same “Word of God” that was spoken into the scriptures and that came incarnate from heaven as Jesus Christ—I ask myself whether God’s word is as sharp today as it once was.

Like a knife or a sword or a scalpel or any other implement, the power and sharpness of the Word of God depends on who is using it and how it’s being used and whether it’s being properly handled. Is it being roughly dragged across a cutting board—has it become a spoon or scraper simply because of the intention of the person who’s holding it? Is it being used to bash someone’s head in—more a blunt club that is wielded in clumsy battle than the delicate instrument it was designed to be? Has it been intentionally dulled so as to be used in a children’s cooking class—left to wear out so no one will cut himself?

John Wyclif lived two-hundred years before Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses on the church house door. He died two-hundred years before Thomas Cranmer wrote the first Book of Common Prayer. Yet Wyclif was committed to some of the same principles that guided the Reformation two centuries after his ministry was over. He argued that in political and financial ways the local church should be governed by its own monarch—in his case the King of England—and not be subject to the pope. He believed that individuals should have a direct and personal relationship with God and not one that needed to be mediated by the church or a priest. He believed that the scriptures should be available to all who could read them, and he translated the Latin bible into English. And it is for this last achievement that he is most often remembered.

What happens when the Word of God is put into the hands of an “ordinary” person? What happens when the institutional church trusts that laypeople have the ability to wield it as powerfully and skillfully as its most celebrated theologians? What happens when a priest looks at his congregation and asks, “What do you think it means?”

The Word of God is in your hands—sometimes literally. That hasn’t always been the case. You don’t have to go to college or seminary to understand it, but you can’t just whip it out once a year and use it to fillet a delicate trout. It takes practice. It takes effort. Read it. Study it. Practice with it. Let it cut you to your core—all the way to joints and marrow. Recognize its power and use it wisely.

Woe, Now, and Give

I admit I'm behind this week. I have some excuses, but they aren't good ones. There is a post scheduled to upload at 1:00 this afternoon on today's Epistle lesson for the commemoration of John Wyclif. Really, though, I've wanted to post on the gospel lesson for All Saints' Sunday, so here goes.

As I would guess is true for many preachers, the first thing that caught my eye was the "woe" statements in Sunday's gospel. Only Matthew and Luke give us the Beatitudes, and their versions, although clearly from the same source, are still remarkably different. Matthews "Blessed are the poor...meek...hungry...etc." has been watered down in my mind. Because I hear them so often (e.g. ever year on Thanksgiving Day), these kingdom statements have become quaint. And the kingdom of God is not quaint. They're sappy little statements that call to mind the contradiction between life on earth and life in the fully present Kingdom of God. But that's not right. They're supposed to be earth-shattering statements that convict the part of us that holds on to this world so that we might be set free to live completely in God's kingdom. And that's where Luke comes in.

Woe to you who are you who are full you who are laughing now. That's the Jesus I'm looking for. The woe-statements let me know that this isn't a hypothetical. It's real. And it's spoken to me. How am I hanging on to this earthly life in ways that interfere with my kingdom identity? How might the "woe to me" bits shake me up?

The next thing on my mind is the "now" statements. It's related to the bit above about the woes, but it shifts the meaning for me a little bit. Blessed are the hungry now and the mournful now. Woe to the full now and the laughing now. There's a temporal piece in this that is missing in Matthew's version. Jesus wants us to think about the difference between now and later, but he doesn't want us to rest on the "maybe-someday" fairy tale that can come across in Matthew 5. This isn't just about hoping that someday God will make everything right. It's about living today in a way that reflects God's promise of one day making everything right. The "now, now, now" tells me that Jesus expects this new ethic of kingdom-living to break in...well, now.

Lastly (for today) is the line that is shaping my sermon for Sunday: "Give to everyone who begs from you." I have a lot of people who beg from me, and I usually say yes. Sometimes I say no. Jesus says always say yes. Why? How does that change the role of giver? I'm no longer allowed to evaluate the worthiness of a request. I don't get to look at a person's circumstance and judge. I can't even consider whether I have anything to give. Jesus simply says give. Always. That kind of approach to giving and charity and generosity will change my life I feel sure. What about you?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Unspoken Prayer

Thank God I’m not like…

It’s a prayer we probably never actually give voice to, but I’d bet it’s one we say silently all the time. Thank God I’m not homeless like that guy on the street. Thank God I’m not depressed like my sister. Thank God I’m not experiencing the kind of crisis he is. Thank God I’m not as arrogant as my brother-in-law.

There’s a game I like to play even when Luke 18:9-14 isn’t the gospel lesson for Sunday. It’s to say that sort of prayer out loud to see if anyone is listening. I mean it in a South-Park kind of way—as a satirical commentary on how common such a thought is. I was on a mission trip to Honduras with some youth, who were whining a little bit too much about having to get up early and work hard. Almost under my breath, I said, “Thank God I’m not like these Honduran people, who have to work so hard for so little.” One of the more perceptive youth challenged me, saying, “Wait, you can’t say that. Didn’t Jesus say something about that somewhere in the bible?” I just looked at him and shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know. Did he?”

This gospel lesson should flay us wide open. Every single person in church this Sunday should be staring at his or her shoes when the gospel lesson is read, and first among them should be clergypeople like me. We’re supposed to hear this parable and realize just how much we are the Pharisee. But we won’t. We know that the Pharisees are the bad guys, and we know (of course) that we’re the good guys. We’re on Jesus’ side. He’s not talking about us. If you’re an Episcopalian, you think he’s talking about Baptists. And, if you’re a Baptist, you think he’s talking about members of the Church of Christ. “We’re not hypocrites,” we all say. “He’s not talking about me…Thank God I’m not like those other Christians whom he’s talking about. They could sure benefit from hearing this story.”

It’s us. It’s you. It’s me. It’s everything about the culture we live in. We’re in; you’re out. We’re good; they’re bad. Thank God we’re not like them. Thank God we’re better than that. Guess what. We’re not. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

He's My Brother

Growing up, I remember kids in my class being called by their older brother or sister’s name. On the first or second day of class, the teacher would say, “Are you so-and-so’s brother? I taught him.” And then for the rest of the year the teacher would accidentally mix the two up. As an eldest child, that wasn’t ever a problem for me. In fact, it seemed kind of neat to have someone go before you. I can see, however, that it might be pretty annoying, too.

When I was in high school, I got to know Richard Simmons’ brother. You know, the crazy “Sweating to the Oldies” guy from the television commercials and programs back in the 80s? Well, I was active in Key Club, and his brother, Lenny, was an advisor. Trust me—he wasn’t the one who made the connection for me. I can’t remember whether it was another student or an adult, but someone introduced him by saying, “Hey, have you met Lenny? He’s Richard Simmons’ brother!” Immediately and still to this day, his identity and that of his cult superstar brother get mixed together in my mind. That isn’t fair, but it happens.

So what do you think it was like to be Jesus’ brother? Matthew tells us of James, Joseph, Simeon, and Judas. They were, it seems, his brothers. (There is, of course, a difference of opinion in the Roman Catholic tradition and other Christian traditions about whether Jesus actually had any brothers who were born of the same mother, but I choose not to engage that here.) Can you imagine what it was like to grow up in that household? How do you even live your life when Jesus is your brother? “Oh!” people would exclaim, “you’re Jesus’s brother! How amazing! Tell me what he was like…”

James of Jerusalem, the saint of the church whom we remember today, was one of those brothers, and, despite continually being identified as such, he managed to have a career of sorts. He was an important figure in the Council of Jerusalem—the first great council where the doctrinal controversy of how to treat the Gentiles was resolved. Paul names him as one of the apostles to whom Jesus revealed himself (though I bet James would tell that story a little differently). He was a leader of the church who helped carry the good news of Jesus Christ—his brother—to the ends of the earth. How strange and joyful and frustrating and wonderful that must have been!

It’s not fair to James and his own witness, but I wonder whether the kernel of truth for me today is to acknowledge that Jesus had brothers—that he had other people growing up alongside him who knew him as a real, skin-and-bones-and-blood person. Even though we might be conscious of the “fully God, fully man” belief of the Christian church, too often we forget that Jesus was a real person. He was the kind of person who tumbles around with his brothers. He was the kind of person whose family had good days and bad days together. He was the kind of person who got into arguments (and probably lost a few). In other words, he was a real person. God became a real person. God had brothers and probably sisters, too. Let the fullness of that strange belief sink in.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Comparative Gratitude

I’m working my way through some of the 39 Articles in a Sunday-morning class called “We Used to Believe What?” I’m picking the controversial topics that 21st-century Christians don’t think about quite as often, and yesterday’s subject was predestination. We had a great discussion. At one point, when I asked the group to talk about their experience of predestination, someone said, “Have you ever thought about the fact that you were born in the small, southern town where you were born and not in a slum in Calcutta? What does that say about predestination?” It says everything. And the conversation that ensued was eye-opening. As best I can tell, whether you think God had a hand in that or not, every morning you should still be thankful for the life you have been given no matter where you wake up in the morning.

This coming Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 18:9-14)  isn’t about predestination, but the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector has a line in it that reminds me of yesterday’s discussion: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It’s the prayer of the self-righteous (though admittedly grateful) Pharisee. As I read this story and hear that prayer, I find myself wanting to humanize the easy-to-disparage Pharisee. Why? Because he’s me and everyone I go to church with every Sunday.

I am grateful to God that I have been given the life I live. So little of it is the product of my own work. Parents, social network, personal skills and abilities, childhood experiences—all of it is gift. I could have just as easily been born into a difference circumstance—poverty, instability, conflict, hopelessness. Should I be thankful for that? Yes. Should I respond to it by fasting twice a week and giving away a tenth of my income? Yes. Should I sit in my office and look out my window at the people walking up the sidewalk with overdue power bill in hand coming to ask me for financial assistance and be grateful that I’m not them? I don’t think so. But why not?

There’s a line between being thankful for what one has been given and being thankful for whom one is not. Comparative gratitude works in the abstract hypothetical but not in the specific. Yes, I’m thankful I’m not a starving child in India. But I don’t know any starving children in India. I’ve never been to India. When I give thanks for that, my focus isn’t really on the possibility that exists so far away. My focus is on what I have been given—that for which I’m genuinely grateful. But when that abstract becomes tangible—when the thing I’m thankful to not be walks in my door—I’ve instantly gone from being grateful to haughty.

Many of us know this parable. We know the shock-value it contains. “How could a tax collector—the scum of the earth—possibly be justified in place of the clearly righteous Pharisee?” Yeah, yeah, we get it. But I want to go deeper. I want to say that the Pharisee’s mistake is ignoring the fact that even if he had been a thief, rogue, adulterer, or tax collector, he would still have the opportunity to be grateful. Even when born in the most pitiable of circumstances, we still have the opportunity to be grateful. The sin I want to hear more about isn’t the sin of self-righteousness. It’s the sin of denying the potential righteousness of others—even in a prayer of genuine gratitude. That’s complicated. That’s closer to home.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Heavenly Reward?

I was driving out in the country the other day, and I passed by a big sign in someone’s yard, which read “Reward for Information about Stolen Property.” It was a large, well-manicured lawn with a big house set well back from the road. Although I was driving pretty quickly, I saw enough to realize that there was a collection of antique memorabilia and signs on and around a building near the house. I allowed myself to imagine the owners and their frustration when items they valued—not just for their monetary worth—were taken from them. The sign was an odd cry for help and an expression of anger and hurt.

In the gospel lesson for today (Matthew 10:34-42), Jesus puts a big reward sign in the front yard of faith: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." Actually, I’d like to see that sign—“Reward for being nice”—in someone’s yard, but I don’t really like reading it in the gospel.

I experience an icky feeling when someone starts talking about the product of our faith in terms of our “heavenly reward.” I’m already over-motivated by money. I don’t need Jesus waving a fat stack of bills in my face. In fact, I’d rather him do the opposite. I’d rather him smile from the shadows—just visible to me.

Earlier this week, I was visiting a parish for a stewardship consultation, and I enjoyed a back-and-forth with a woman in the congregation about the tithe. We sparred for a while, and I think our conversation helped the whole group get a better sense of why God asks us to give him the first 10% of our resources. But, after the session was over, she and I finished our conversation as we turned to the issue of how we offer to God not only our money but also our time and talent. “Sure!” I said, “Give to God 10% of your time, too.” The response I got surprised me a little bit: “I give way more than 10% of my time!” “That’s great!” I responded. “Keep it up! We’ll give you a pat on the back and a shiny gold star.” I was joking—perhaps even teasing a little bit—but the joke was lost on my audience.

“We don’t want that,” she protested. “We don’t do it for a gold star or a pat on the back. We do it because we love it. Those of us who give our lives to something don’t do it for a reward.” She’s absolutely right, and I told her so. We don’t give our hearts to God in order to receive a reward. The giving itself is the reward we treasure.

What is a prophet’s reward? What sort of reward do the righteous get? What does Jesus offer us in exchange for a glass of cool water? Maybe it’s lying down at night with a sense that you have a calling and a purpose. Maybe it’s the sense of selfless satisfaction that comes from serving God by serving others. Maybe it’s the comfort of approaching the end of one’s life in faith rather than fear. We aren’t Christians because there’s a reward waiting for us. We’re Christians because being Christians is a reward now.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lighting Each Other on Fire

On this day, 458 years ago, Nicholas Ridley, the deprived Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, the former Bishop of Worcester, were burned alive in Oxford, England, for adhering to the Protestant Heresy and opposing Queen Mary’s ascendancy upon the death of her brother Edward VI. As the story goes, Latimer died fairly quickly, but the wood that formed the pyre on which Ridley was placed was green, and it burned slowly. His trousers and legs caught on fire, but the flames didn’t reach above his waist. In agony, he cried out repeatedly, “Lord, have mercy upon me! I cannot burn…Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn!” Eventually, a bystander was moved with compassion and carried a torch over to Ridley and lit the wood pile from the top.

I cannot imagine being burned alive. I cannot imagine caring about something so deeply that I would choose such a horrendous death over recantation. I cannot imagine a world in which my faith—the Christian faith and Anglican tradition as I understand it—was so threatening that I might be killed for it.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus said to his disciples, “They will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” He knew the end that his disciples would meet. He knew the terrible, painful, awful deaths that they would die. He knew that they would be rejected just as he would be. Yet he wanted them to remember that they would be hated by the world because of their love for him and for the Father.

Would you die for your faith? It’s a silly question, perhaps. I don’t know anyone in Alabama whose looking to burn people at the stake because they aren’t the right kind of Christian. And I have the luxury—the freedom—to profess my faith in a country where Christians aren’t killed simply for being Christians. But I wonder whether the heresy pyre is closer than we think.

I received an e-mail this morning—a forwarded e-mail—that mentioned a conservative Christian organization that is under attack from the “liberal media” and other “leftist groups” for being a “hate group.” I started to delete the e-mail without reading it, but something about it drew me in. I’ve got people in my parish who are proudly a part of those “leftist groups” who label certain conservative Christian organizations as “hate groups.” And I have people in my parish who use terms like “leftist groups” to describe those organization who disagree with their deeply held beliefs. Yet somehow we come to church together every Sunday and do so with a genuine respect and love for each other. Probably, that’s because we’re not forwarding everyone in the congregation all of the e-mails we receive. If we did, things might get a little bit hairy around here.

So back to Ridley and Latimer. Yes, they were killed for being Protestants. Yes, they were killed for supporting the movement to get Lady Jane Grey on the throne instead of Mary. Yes, many people were killed because they disagreed with whoever was in power about things like papal and regnal authority. And, no, no one is going around burning people at the stake for using grape juice instead of wine at Communion. But it’s right under the surface. We’re one step away from shunning people we think we love because their e-mail inbox is filled with e-mails from groups that our own groups have labeled as wrong, bad, terrorist, hateful, un-American, etc..

So what did Jesus say to his disciples? Grab a sword and a club and a torch and hunt down all of the people who disagree with you because we know that we’re right and that God is on our side? No. Instead, he said, “Remember the word that I said to you, `Servants are not greater than their master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also…I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.” Stay faithful. Yes, take a stand for what you believe in and perhaps even accept death for your convictions, but don’t be the one who lights the flame underneath someone who threatens you and what you believe in. The stand Jesus asks us to take is one of vulnerability. It’s one with palms open and arms extended—not with fists clinched and arms raised in battle. Stop persecuting other people—even if they’re wrong, even if they’re bad, even if they’re unchristian or un-American. Stay faithful. Let that be enough.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I Don't Get the Unjust Judge

I love parables. I love analogies. One of my favorite people on earth is Robert Krulwich, who has made a career out of explaining complex things. Using stories, analogies, and approximations, he can get ordinary people to understand extraordinary things. Kind of like Jesus—only, so far, Robert hasn’t been killed for trying.

I love parables, but I’m not sure the one Jesus uses in thisSunday’s gospel lesson is actually effective. Sure, modesty isn’t my strong suit, but even I have a hard time criticizing Jesus, so I recognize that the problem is really me. So far, though, I can’t figure this one out. Well, I can figure it out, but I don’t like what it says.

Basically, there was an unjust judge who neither feared God or had respect for other people. An annoying widow came to him over and over, asking for him to make things right for her. Finally, in response to her persistence and not because he really cared, the judge granted her request. And THAT’S supposed to help us keep praying?

This is a “how-much-more” parable. In other words, Jesus is making a comparison between God and something else and implicitly (or in this case explicitly) asking “How much more will God…?” The point of this parable is that a supremely just God is far more likely to answer the needs of his people than an unjust judge, but I’m still left with a comparison I don’t like. Sometime the analogy breaks down, and I worry that this is one of those times. Maybe I need to call a judge who is a friend of mine and ask him what he thinks.

Sure, God is just. Sure, God answers prayer. Of course, we’re not supposed to lose heart. Yes, we need to keep on praying. I get all of that, but is this parable really the right way to teach it? What am I missing here? What is Jesus trying to say to me that I don’t yet understand?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Itching Ears Make for Lousy Preaching

A word to preachers this week: start with the reading from 2 Timothy.

On Mondays, I read the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. I start with the collect, which usually sets the mood for the rest of the readings. Next I read the Gospel lesson. That’s most likely where a sermon will come from, so I read it and allow it to shape how I read the other texts. Then I move to the Old Testament reading. I usually skim through the psalm (though this week’s caught my eye for a closer reading). And finally I get to the Epistle lesson. By then, I’m usually pretty well read-out. Of all the lessons, the one most likely to catch me by surprise on Sunday morning (which means I didn’t read it carefully enough during the week) is the Epistle lesson.

Don’t make that mistake this week. Start with 2 Timothy. Let it shape how you read everything else.

It’s a short but powerful reading. Paul is encouraging his friend and colleague Timothy, who is trying to shepherd the saints in Ephesus. Being the Christian leader in a huge Roman city        on the coast with its wild and eclectic residents and visitors was a tremendous challenge, and Paul wanted Timothy to remain steadfast and hopeful. His instructions seem particularly appropriate for a twenty-first century preacher.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

“I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Timothy 3:2-4)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues and parishioners about the nature of the preacher as prophet. On the golf course with some other clergymen, one of them remarked, “When you’re called to a church, remain faithful and, in time, God will make it grow.” The emphasis in his comment was on faithfulness—the minister’s responsibility to keep the faith. A few days later, someone asked about clergy getting fired. I remarked that in the Episcopal Church it takes both the bishop and the vestry to forcibly remove a rector but also that once either one is ready to get rid of you you’re in trouble. I suppose historically that has been so that preachers can proclaim God’s word in all its sharpness without fear of being fired, but nowadays it seems to have more to do with preventing rapid turnover than preserving the preacher’s purview.

That line about “itching ears” really gets me. Indeed, the time is coming (and has come) when people choose teachers that suit their own desires. (Have you watched any of the cable news channels lately?) That happens in secular and religious circles. Churches call clergy who will preach the gospel they are familiar with. Sure, we all want to be stretched a little bit, but search committees usually pick people who teach and preach with words that soothe their ears rather than shock them. How many of us are serving in churches that called us because they like what we teach or preach? How many of us preach or teach what people want to hear? That’s dangerous.

My encouragement to myself and to my other colleagues preaching this week is to read the lesson from 2 Timothy often and let it sink in deeply. Only when we feel encouraged to preach the gospel in all its power should we look at the rest. How might that change the way we read (and preach) the parable in the reading from Luke? How might that change how we understand Jacob’s struggle with God, angel, and humanity in the reading from Genesis?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Evangelism by Doing

Yesterday, I heard someone give an unprompted, humorous and damning list of “things Episcopalians don’t talk about.” On that list were money, sex, death, and religion. More than a clear proscription, the attitude he referred to is the almost universal discomfort we have with talking about those things. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s true of most Christians, but the Episcopal Church is the one I know.

As I read this Sunday’s OT lesson (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c), I find myself wondering what real evangelism looks like. It’s the story of Naaman, the Aramean commander who comes to Israel to be healed of his leprosy. Naaman had everything—status, wealth, career, future, power—but he also had this terrible, ostracizing disease. His leprosy was the one thing that stood between him and “the good life.” Elisha gives him a remedy, which Naaman initial rejects but eventually endures. And, of course, the disease is lifted, but it’s Naaman’s response to the cure that catches me.

As this part of the story ends, the author writes, “Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’” It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

Here is a statement of faith. It’s new. It’s clear. It’s unambiguous. And how did he get there? How did dipping in the Jordan River seven times lead to this almost baptismal confession?

Naaman associated Israel with God. Elisha and all the people with him were identified as servants of Yahweh. They were inseparable. And, in that ancient culture, gods were thought to live in particular places and rule over particular people. In other words, Israel was God’s home, while Aram was home to other deities. So, when Naaman came over to see Elisha, he was already making a trip to another religious culture. And, when the healing happened, his association between the gift and God was automatic.

A man with a problem that is keeping him from the “good life.” A solution that is associated with God. Faith ensues. That’s not a bad strategy for evangelism.

How might we so clearly and powerfully live into our identity as Christians that “strangers” automatically make the connection between the good things that happen around us and God? I’m told that the Mormons are particularly attractive to new converts because their family life is so appealing. As I found out when I wanted to play with my childhood friend, Sundays are for family time. Period. The blessing that is a loving family gets associated with a religious practice, and evangelism happens.

What is the missing link in the lives of the people we want to reach? Quit thinking about outreach as helping poor people, and start thinking about it as evangelism. What do people need? What do they want? Is it healing? Is it security? Is it peace? Is it love? How might we give that to the world in so clear a way that people see it happen and say, “Now I know that God is God, and I want to be a part of that?” How might our churches do such a good and public job of meeting the needs of the world that people are drawn to faith?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It Starts with Surprise

There’s some tension between this Sunday’s OT reading (Track2) and the Gospel lesson. In 2 Kings 5, Naaman, the Aramean general, comes to Elisha so that his leprosy can be healed. Not even leaving his house, Elisha sends word to Naaman that he should go and dip in the Jordan River seven times. Furious at the ridiculous instruction, Naaman prepares to leave and return home, when a servant of his encourages him to follow through. Of course, after dipping seven times in the Jordan, Naaman is cured, and he returns to Elisha’s house to show his gratitude and, most importantly, to admit that “there is no other God in all the earth except in Israel.”

In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus is heading for Jerusalem, walking in the region “between Samaria and Galilee.” I’m picturing a demilitarized zone of sorts—the kind of place where bad things happen and no one does anything about it. From a distance, Jesus sends ten on their way to show themselves to the priests, healing them as they go. When he discovers that he has been healed, one of the lepers—a Samaritan—returns to Jesus and gives thanks. Singled out for his faithfulness, Jesus affirms his salvation. The other nine, although questioned by Jesus, were merely doing what he told them to do, which was to fulfill the commandments by showing themselves to the religious authorities for readmission to the community. Perhaps only this Samaritan, whose religious practice was different from the Jewish lepers, was startled enough to break routine.

Both men received unexpected blessings. I think that both men were surprised to be healed. Naaman dipped himself into the Jordan fully doubting that it would work. The Samaritan leper walked down the road thinking to himself, “How is this going to work? I’m a Samaritan. What priest am I supposed to go find?” And the result of the unanticipated healings was profound gratitude to the one who offered the gift.

I believe that everything is gift. But I also believe that it’s easy to forget that. I’m wondering whether these passages are about the importance of identifying God’s blessings as just that—blessings—and the perils of forgetting it. The nine who walked on were not shocked by their healing. They went ahead doing what they were supposed to do. It was almost as if the miracle of healing lost is miraculous nature. It never occurred to them to turn around and give thanks. As the Naaman story continues, Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, gets greedy and ends up taking some of the money that Naaman had offered to his master as a thank-offering. You can read all of 2 Kings 5 here. Basically, though, we read that Gehazi seems to think that a price can be put on the miraculous healing—an action that undermines the spirit of gratitude from the first half of the story and that results in Naaman’s leprosy being put on Gehazi.

Have we become so accustomed to the blessings of life that we keep right on walking without even noticing the miracle? Have we forgotten what it means to receive what the Lord is giving us? What will shock us back into an appreciation for what God is doing in our lives? Will we be surprised back into gratitude?

Monday, October 7, 2013

It's Not Always about Money

Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of our lectionary texts have had a stewardship feel in them. The other day, I wondered to myself, “Did the authors of the lectionary schedule all of these stewardship-sounding texts for the fall on purpose?” We’ve had a fair number of opportunities to talk about God’s generosity and our response to it. But now, instead, I’m wondering whether that’s just true of the whole bible and that the only reason I’m noticing is because I’m thinking more about stewardship than usual.

Each year for the last few years, I’ve done at least one stewardship consultation with a nearby parish. I love stewardship (more on that elsewhere), and I relish the opportunity to bring some enthusiasm for an oft-neglected subject to another congregation. Earlier this summer, using the wonders of the Internet and the gift that is the Lectionary Page, I scoured the gospel readings to figure out which one (hopefully near October) would lend itself to a stewardship sermon (as if there should be only one). My eye quickly fell to this week and Luke 17:11-19.

Don’t tell the people at St. John’s, but I read stewardship all through this story. Ten lepers see Jesus and, keeping their distance as the Law required, they called out to him from afar, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus saw them and then said (presumably shouting at a distance), “Go show yourselves to the priests!” And, as they walked away, all ten of them “were made clean.” One of them, upon seeing that he was healed, turned around, went back to Jesus, threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him. “Where are the nine?” Jesus asked. And then he sent him off, saying, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

  • ·         All ten are blessed; one returns to give thanks—the tithe.

  • ·         All ten are healed; nine keep on walking—those who are blind to God’s blessing.

  • ·         All ten are healed; only one hears Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”—The Greek is “Your faith has saved you”; healing comes at a distance, but faith comes with gratitude, and that’s where real salvation is found.

No, this passage isn’t about money, and that’s the best part. This passage is about faith. It’s about receiving God’s indiscriminate blessings and then connecting the blessing with the giver through an act of gratitude. Money is merely the most common currency of blessing.

Here’s the cycle of stewardship that I see in this passage. Maybe you’ve seen it elsewhere in your life.

Blessing à Recognition à Response/Gratitude à Faith à Salvation

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Confusing Request

I can tell that this is going to be one of those weeks in which I am unable to set aside the time I should take to blog and reflect on the readings. (Yesterday's reflection on St. Michael & All Angels will remain unfinished.) But I wanted to share a few thoughts and questions about Sunday's gospel (Luke 17:5-9) as the week goes along.

As our lesson opens, the disciples make a request of Jesus: "Increase our faith!" That seems like a good enough request. Who wouldn't want more faith? What teacher wouldn't want his disciples to have more faith? How can more faith be a bad thing? Well, Jesus responds and leaves the disciples' (and our) heads spinning.

"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed..."

Yeah, yeah. I get it. I want more faith, but I should stop by realizing that if I even had a tiny amount I could do amazing things.

But then Jesus carries on with some weird stuff about slaves coming in from the field. He concludes by saying, "So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" What? Say what?

As I read and reread the lesson, I'm trying to figure out what it was that the disciples said that made Jesus respond like that. The analogy he uses--the slave who comes in and is expected to keep serving rather than sit down and eat--makes me wonder what was really behind their request for more faith. 

I looked at the Greek, and it seems harmless enough. In staff meeting today, Seth, who is preaching this week, brought up the disparity between the portrayal of the Pharisees and those of right faith, wondering whether the disciples were straying into the realm of arrogance. I think that might be the key. Also, I wonder whether there is something too simplistic about saying, "Lord, increase our faith!" Faith takes work (not "works" but practice). It's a process (not process theology, necessarily, but a development). To simply ask for faith as if it were magically granted is to miss the point. Faith is part of our discipleship. Discipleship is the practice of and search for faith. To ask that it all be given all at once is to deny the real power of it.

What do you think? What's wrong with the disciples' request? Why did Jesus react like that?