Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Week: Day 4--Habitual Thanksgiving

November 28, 2013 – Thanksgiving Day, Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

This is the text of today's sermon. The audio can be heard here.

I’ve made a mental note to be sure to work on something with my kids over the next few weeks. Before Christmas gets here, I need to help them practice pretending to be thankful. Last weekend, my parents and Elizabeth’s parents came into town to celebrate Edison’s birthday. An unusually patient four-year-old, Edison waited all morning and well into the afternoon before finally asking if we could open his presents. We all gathered in the den, and he tore into the box that Elizabeth’s parents had brought him. After opening the top, he reached inside and pulled out…some pajamas. “Say thank you!” Elizabeth told him. “Mumble mumble,” he barely eeked out. “No, Edison, look at GG and Papa Vic and tell them thank you.” He sighed heavily. “Thank you,” he breathed out in a monotone expression of thankless boredom.

Turning back to the box, he pulled out his next gift—a winter coat with gloves and a hat. Then a book. Then he opened my parents’ present to him—more clothes and some sheets for his bed. With each new gift, his already absent gratitude waned. Finally, his face lit up as he received one toy—nothing special but at least it wasn’t more clothes. A boisterous “thank you” confirmed two things: 1) he really was grateful for the Batmobile and 2) he didn’t care at all for anything else he had received. Even the grandparents said to each other, “Well, I guess he wasn’t looking for clothes, huh?”

The truth is that with a little practice you can fake gratitude, but you can’t make yourself grateful. You can pretend. You can smile. You can say a convincing, “It’s just what I always wanted!” But you can’t choose to be thankful. You can’t manufacture thankfulness. Either you’re grateful for what you have, or you’re not. Sometimes, when you open up a package of socks on Christmas morning, the best you can do is fake it. So why, then, do I make my son say “Thank you” for presents he clearly doesn’t like? Is it just to be polite, or is there a more important motive here?

During the month of November, lots of people on Facebook have been posting something that they are thankful for each day. Day one: my family. Day two: my job. Day three: my church. At first, I didn’t like it. It felt like all of these people were pretending to be thankful just because it’s November. It seemed like they were more interested in being a part of a fad than really being grateful for the blessings in their lives. I mentioned my skepticism and cynicism to a colleague who said, “Well, at least they aren’t using Facebook to complain about what’s wrong with the world like they usually do.” Good point. Score one for a month of thanksgivings. But there’s something more important going on here.

We can’t choose to be thankful, but we can practice thanksgiving until it takes hold in our hearts, which is exactly what today’s Old Testament reading is about.

The Book of Deuteronomy is a story of great transition in the history of Israel. After being set free from slavery in Egypt, God’s people journeyed through the wilderness for forty years. And, during those forty years, they discovered what it meant to have a relationship with the God of their ancestors. Moses was given the Law on Mt. Sinai. God fed them with manna and gave them water to drink. He protected them and guided them toward the Promised Land. And, now that they had forged an identity as God’s chosen people, they prepared to enter the territory that had been promised to Abraham so long ago. Yet, before they set foot in their new home, Moses had some important instructions for them:

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, 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. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.’ (Deut. 26:1-3)

In other words, after you get settled and have a chance to till the ground and plant your crops and harvest them, don’t forget to say thank you. It doesn’t matter whether you mean it. And it doesn’t matter that everyone else will be doing it, too. No matter what, set aside that time to give thanks to God for all the blessings he has given you. Isn’t that what’s happening on Facebook? Aren’t the people who are posting their daily thanksgivings doing exactly what Moses told his people to do. A week or so ago, when I read that this was the lesson for Thanksgiving Day, I left my cynicism behind. We are all supposed to tell our story of gratitude—even if it’s just because it’s the month of November—even if it’s just because it’s the cool thing to do for Thanksgiving. Do we really need a better excuse than that to be thankful?

We know that we’re supposed to be thankful—not just on Thanksgiving but all the time. But sometimes, like when everyone keeps giving us clothes for our birthday, being thankful isn’t easy. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and the fourth Thursday in November is as good a place to start as any. We can’t simply decide to be grateful, but we can practice until it comes naturally. So what should we do? Give thanks whether we mean it or not. Say thank you. Write a thank you note. Smile and say that you love that ridiculous sweater.  Make a list of all the things in your life that you’re supposed to be thankful for, and then post it on Facebook. Even if we’re simply going through the motions or doing what everyone else wants us to do, habits can make a difference.

Become a habitual thanker. Tell God what you’re grateful for every single day. Share that appreciation with others around you. Let the practice of Thanksgiving take root in your heart so that it might grow into a real spirit of gratitude.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Week: Day 3--Who You Calling Rich?

What does your preacher preach on more often than anything else? I used to think that only Baptist preachers talked about money every week, but I’m beginning to think that I preach on being rich more than anything else. Why? Because Jesus keeps talking about it. It’s hard to preach on something else when Jesus is always talking about money.

It’s Thanksgiving Week, and I’m writing each day about being thankful. The gospel lesson in today’s Daily Office is Matthew 19:23-30. That’s the passage in which Jesus declares, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Lately, I’ve been accused by my congregation of “beating up on rich people,” which I take to include myself and I take to be a compliment. So, instead of doing that and talking about squeezing our fat wallets through heaven’s narrow gate, I want to talk about the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ statement.

Matthew tells us, “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” As I read the lesson this morning, I thought to myself—THAT’S where thanksgiving happens. Let me explain…

In congregations like ours, I think that there are two basic responses to Jesus’ “it’s hard for rich people to enter the kingdom” talk. Either we 1) shrug our shoulders and assume Jesus is talking about someone else or 2) we wring our hands and wonder what we’re going to have to do to get in. In other words, some of us assume that this gospel lesson doesn’t apply to us, while the rest of us take it to heart, and I think that’s where the message of thanksgiving comes in. We can’t be grateful for something we don’t acknowledge to be ours.

The disciples aren’t really rich by the world’s standards. As Peter says a little later on, they have given up just about everything to follow Jesus. Jesus talking to them about rich people entering heaven is like me going down to the Salvation Army shelter and preaching about giving up everything you’ve got and giving it to the poor. Yet still the disciples’ response is astonishment and humility. “Then who, Jesus, is going to be saved?” Amazing.

How easy it would have been to say, “Gosh, Jesus, I’d hate to be rich! Glad you’re not talking about me!” How tempting it would have been to say, “Ha! You said it, Jesus. About time they got what they deserve!” Instead, the disciples recognize that Jesus is talking about them—about all of us. We are all rich. How, then, will any of us be saved? With mortals it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

And so thanksgiving. Thank you, gracious God, for making me rich in so many ways and for loving me anyway. Don’t take it for granted—either the riches or the surprising salvation that comes despite them. Be a disciple. Be astounded at the sharpness of Jesus’ words and recognize that they’re said to you. Thanksgiving can’t happen until we admit what we should be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Week: Day 2--Who's Hungry?

Since this is Thanksgiving Week, I am spending some time each day writing about thanksgiving—not just the holiday but the practice, the mindset, and, as one person put it yesterday, the “state of being” that is gratitude. What does it mean to be grateful? What does it mean to be thankful? I am forcing myself to ask those questions because, as the fourth Thursday in November approaches, confusing the spiritual practice with the holiday has become a little too easy.

The gospel lesson appointed for this year’s Thanksgiving Day is John 6:25-35—the passage that concludes with Jesus declaring, “I am the bread of life.”  Those words seem to pop up fairly regularly throughout the church’s three-year lectionary cycle, but I suspect that they sound a little different on the one day out of the year when Americans eat more food than on any other. On Thursday, as we pass the rolls and dressing and potatoes and corn pudding and all the other starchy foods that none of us really needs, what does it mean, as Jesus says in John 6, to work not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life? How do we distinguish between our daily bread and the bread of life?

As we read through John’s gospel account, we discover that one important theme is the difference between those who were fascinated with Jesus’ miracles and those who recognized them as “signs” of something bigger. Some in the crowds were drawn to Jesus only because of his impressive powers, while others were drawn to what those powers represent. John 6 opens with one of the most compelling miracles in the gospel—the feeding of the 5,000—but the reading for Thanksgiving Day reveals what happened next. Perhaps overwhelmed by the demands of ministry, Jesus escaped by boat to the other side of the sea, but the crowd pursued him. When they found him and engaged the miracle-worker in conversation, Jesus revealed their true intention: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

Over and over during his earthly ministry, Jesus tried to connect people with his heavenly father. The “signs” that he performed were supposed to point the crowds to the fact that God had sent him into the world for its salvation. The few who made that connection were those who sought not a full stomach but a satisfied soul. They were the disciples, the faithful women, and the other followers who discovered what it meant to partake of the bread of life. Many others enjoyed the miraculously multiplied loaves and experienced the countless other feats of wonder that Jesus performed, but, at the end of the day, they went home impressed but not transformed. With them, something important was missing.

This year, as you prepare to sit down at your Thanksgiving table, ask yourself for what you are really thankful. When you hold hands and say the blessing, what will you include in your list of thanksgivings? As the aroma of our favorite foods wafts over from the buffet, we are almost certain to remember to be thankful for the bounty we wait to devour. As we look around the table and see members of our family gathered from far and wide, surely we will remember to thank God for those we love. But we will remember to thank God for sustaining us every day? And will we remember to thank God for including us in his own family? In other words, does the holiday of Thanksgiving actually obscure our appreciation for the blessings God bestows upon us on the other 364 days a year?

Let this Thanksgiving be an opportunity to look beyond the holiday table. Do not let the turkey and trimmings be the reason you forget to thank God for everything else he has given you. Remember what it means to hunger for the food that endures to eternal life. Yes, Thanksgiving leftovers will probably last a week or more, but Jesus calls us to look far beyond that. We are loved by a God who has created us, who sustains us, and who promises to care for us always. This year, celebrate more than a day of thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day give thanks for a lifetime of God’s blessings.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving Week: Day 1--Leanness of Soul

It’s Thanksgiving Week—maybe my favorite week of the year. Time with family. Elaborate preparations. Thanksgiving Day Eucharist. Seeing Elizabeth get excited about the Parade—not my thing but definitely hers. Favorite foods. The Iron Bowl. The beginning of Advent. Shopping. All-around fun.

In honor and celebration of all this, I’m posting each day this week on thanksgiving. What does it mean to be thankful? How is thanksgiving a fundamental aspect of faith? How can we grow in our gratitude?

How often do you read the Psalms? Do you pay attention to them? Are they mere “filler” that takes up space between the first and second lessons? The Daily Office—the services of scripture and prayer that are observed at various times during the day—always puts the Psalm reading before the other lessons. Because of that, it’s easy to skip over it. Those of us who say Morning Prayer using our computer, tablet, or smart phone screens and Mission St. Clare’s website can easily scroll down to the first lesson. Having become too focused on reading the lessons with a blog post in mind, I had fallen into the habit of skimming through them without letting them sink in—until this summer.

During one morning’s breakfast while I was in Africa, a clergy colleague asked if I read the Daily Office each day. I told him that I did, and a conversation about the slow but delightful progress we were making through one of the Old Testament books ensued. Then, he said something that convicted me: “Don’t you love the Psalms, though? They capture so much of life. Every situation, every circumstance is reflected in those prayers. They really sustain me.” I realized that I didn’t really know what he was talking about. Having studied the Psalms and even taught Sunday school classes on them, I knew that he was right, but it had been too long since I’d let those ancient words sink into my bones. I had forgotten the power that they contain.

This morning, we read the first eighteen verses of Psalm 106. And what a story they tell! The opening line is a shout of thanksgiving: “Hallelujah! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!” The verses that follow recall the Exodus story—how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt—but they tell them in a convicting way: “We have sinned as our forebears did…In Egypt they did not consider your marvelous works, nor remember the abundance of your love.” The Psalmist knows that his people often forget God’s saving help. They take his blessings for granted—much as their ancestors did. God, however, remains faithful: “They defied the Most High at the Red Sea. But he saved them for his Name's sake to make his power known.”

As I made my way through the Psalm this morning, I was already thinking about Thanksgiving Day. I’m preaching at Thursday’s service and then on Sunday, too, so I’ve needed to do some early work this week putting proverbial pen to paper. We forget to be grateful. That’s human nature. The Psalmist captured that sentiment in beautiful, ironic words. But I think he is most powerful when he describes the consequence of Israel’s ingratitude:

13   But they soon forgot his deeds *
and did not wait for his counsel.
14   A craving seized them in the wilderness, *
and they put God to the test in the desert.
15   He gave them what they asked, *
but sent leanness into their soul.

God sent leanness into their soul. Those haunting words have been tumbling around in my mind all morning. They forgot God’s goodness. They craved that which they did not have. God put them to the test by giving them what they asked and sending leanness into their soul.

Leanness of soul. Thin, scarce, inadequate and the deepest level. Perhaps you have a different understanding of how God works in the world, but I don’t believe that God reaches down from heaven and punishes people for making bad choices. (I don’t think he rewards people for good choices, either.) I think this leanness of soul is the consequence of their ingratitude. When you give a whiny kid what he’s whining for and never help him develop a sense of thankfulness, you’re setting him up for a life of want rather than a life of plenty. And that kind of longing—the kind that comes from leanness of soul—isn’t easy to satisfy.

How has leanness crept into our souls? We’ve got just about everything we want. What we don’t have is just as far away as another credit card. Where does it all come from? When we forget the true origin of all our blessings—when we forget the story of salvation that God has wrought in our own lives—the accumulation of wealth undermines our faith. Are we wealthy? Yes. Are we grateful? Let’s hope so. And, if not, let’s work on it. We can’t afford not to be.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Endurance Revisited

The gospel lesson for today—the Feast of Edmund, King ofEast Anglia—is Matthew 10:16-22. Sound familiar? This past Sunday I preached on the epistle lesson (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13) and pretty much ignored the gospel (Luke 21:5-19). So, when I read the gospel appointed for today and found that it was pretty much the exact same lesson I skipped over on Sunday, I felt like God was giving me another chance…or telling me to get it right this time.

Matthew 10 is a wonderful chapter in scripture. As the chapter opens, Jesus calls his twelve disciples to himself and gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and affliction.” But then he sends them out, instructing them to stay in Jewish territory, ignoring the Gentiles and Samaritans, and carrying very little with them. “Live on what you have and on the generosity of those whom you meet on the way,” Jesus seems to be telling them. “And those who accept you and take care of you will be blessed, and those who reject you, well, it would be better for those in Sodom and Gomorrah than for them.” Nice pep talk, huh?

But then we get to today’s gospel lesson. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…” Imagine how nervous and excited and ramped-up you would have been after Jesus gave you that kind of authority and then described your mission in such amplified terms. “Wow!” the disciples must have said to themselves. “This is going to be amazing.” Until he got to the second part. “They will hand you over to councils and synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings…You will be hated because of my name.” It sounds like a David and Goliath story without the happy ending. “You want me to do what?”

Insulated by almost two-thousand years since Christians like these were dragged before councils and put to death, I have no idea what it was like to hear that warning from Jesus. For me (and I think for most other 21st-century American Christians), identifying as a Christian has more to do with stating my assent to a defined set of beliefs (the Creed, the bible, or some other doctrinal statement) than actually following Jesus. But that’s not right. We are disciples. We are followers of his way. We are also apostles or “sent-out-ones.” Simply saying some magic words, “Jesus, come into my heart and be my savior,” isn’t good enough. When we say them, what we’re really saying is, “Here I am, Lord. What would you have me do?” And sometimes the answer we get looks like Matthew 10.

Why did you become a Christian? Or, if you grew up in a Christian household and can’t really remember making a decision to become a Christian, why are you still a Christian? I doubt any of us signed on because we wanted authority over unclean spirits and the power to heal people of any disease or infirmity, but I bet a lot of us became Christians because salvation—heaven, forgiveness, eternal life—sounded like a good idea. In that moment, how many of us accepted the call to give ourselves up in the same way the disciples were asked to?

The life of a Christian is more like Matthew 10 than we might expect. Sure, we’re excited when the opportunity to follow Jesus presents itself. But eventually we discover the challenging part. Maybe it happens right away. Or maybe it happens much later. But I’m convinced that most of us reach a moment when it isn’t easy being a Christian—when it’s easier to give up than to hang in there. Few of us will ever be dragged before councils and synagogues or governors or kings. More likely hardship will strike—addiction, still birth, estrangement, tragedy, death, heartache. Will we persevere? Will we remember that being a Christian isn’t an express ticket to heaven? There is still suffering here, but as Christians we know that suffering is not the end nor is it empty or meaningless.

Jesus says that salvation comes to those who endure. Salvation is endurance. Salvation is perseverance. What it means for God to save us is for us to soldier on despite hardship with our focus still on his promise of glory. It might not be easy to see—especially if we think being a Christian is simply the good parts. But still that hope is out there. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

With Me in Paradise

I can’t quite remember in what medium I said it, but I’m 98% sure I’ve gone on record as saying that Luke’s crucifixion account (Sunday's gospel lesson) is my least favorite. Why? Because of that sappy line spoken to the repentant thief: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Really, Jesus?

I’ve never liked that line because it seems so out of place. The other synoptic versions are far less chatty, and John’s version focuses instead on a conversation between Jesus, his mother, and the beloved disciple. I’ll admit that I’m being overly cynical, but this last-minute conversion reminds me of death-bed evangelism, which I’ve never liked. (I don’t like puppies or cotton candy, either.)

Recently I’ve been forced to give this line another shot. (And it’s driving me crazy.) I taught a class on the peculiarities of Anglican theology, using the 39 Articles as my starting point. One of the classes was entitled, “Did Jesus Go to Hell?” Article III states, “As Christ died for us, and was buried; so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” Like most of the Articles, it’s pretty simple and ambiguous—trying to hang onto Catholic, orthodox theology without upsetting the Protestants within the English Church. I’ve always taken that doctrine at face-value. Christ really died, which means he went to that place where dead people go. But apparently that causes some problems for other Christians.

This isn’t the place to get into the whole “harrowing of hell” debate—a doctrine I would describe as adiaphoric—but it is worth mentioning that some Protestants completely throw out that line of the Apostles’ Creed (“he descended into hell”) because of this line from Sunday’s gospel: “today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Maybe they have a point. Today does usually mean today—not tomorrow, not in three days, not when I come back and raise everyone from the dead. But I don’t buy it. I’m not saying I disagree with Jesus (that would be asking for even more trouble than this post already is), but I am saying that I don’t think this is the sentence in the bible to base one’s rejection of a fundamental, ancient, ecumenical statement of faith like the Creed upon.

So what does it mean? Today you will be with me in paradise. Imagine what that sounded like to the man hanging on the cross. Imagine what it would sound like to a woman lying in a hospital bed in absolute agony as she prepares to take her last breath. Imagine what it sounds like to a man who answers the door in the middle of the night and sees a State Trooper standing there with his hat in his hand. What’s the point? You can’t say that…unless you mean it. And I’m not sure anyone other than Jesus can mean it enough to say it.

This is a shocking statement that no one else can justify. “Hey man, you in agony over there? Facing a certain, tortuous death? Good news, though: today you’ll be with me in Paradise.” That’s the kind of total, absolute, unequivocal reversal that only Jesus and the power of resurrection can convey. Do we believe it? Absolutely. Does today mean today? I’m not sure. But I do believe that the power of the resurrection means that even the most terrible moments have signs of redemption. Just remember to let Jesus do the talking. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ride On, King Jesus!

There’s an old episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry’s new girlfriend has a terrible, hideous, ear-splitting laugh. Of course, she’s beautiful, funny, and likeable in every other way, but Jerry—a comedian—can’t date someone whose laugh he cannot stand. It just won’t work for them to be together. (I can't get the YouTube clip integrated, but you can watch it here.)

I am no comedian, but I am playful, and I make regular use of sarcasm and irony. Being around someone who doesn’t appreciate that kind of humor is tiresome—for both of us. I routinely say the most outrageous things (almost always with my tongue in my cheek), but the straight-laced individual I’m with can’t see through the sarcasm. Explaining one joke after another is agonizing.

I kind of feel like that when I read Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 23:33-43). This Sunday is the last Sunday after Pentecost—the last week before Advent starts—which means that most of us are observing the Johnny-come-lately festival of “Christ the King,” a designation for this Sunday that didn’t come about until Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925. The point is to contrast Christ’s kingship with that of world leaders—the kingdoms of the earth that lead to the horrors of the Great War. Of course, that comparison is still apposite, but I worry that most of us (especially me) miss the irony of making it.

Christ the King. Those words go together without needing any explanation. Christians understand that Jesus Christ is God’s king (even if we don’t really get the theological significance of God having a king). And people who aren’t Christians probably aren’t surprised to hear that we would call the central figure of our faith a “king.” We’re always talking about how special Jesus is and how much we love him. Why not call him King Jesus? But go back and read Luke 23:33-43 and ask what in there seems even remotely monarchical.

I remember a seminary professor making a great deal about the Titulus—the sign that hung on the cross. It is attested by all four gospel accounts, and it seems so unusual and unexpected that even the most critical historians seem willing to accept its veracity. As a follower of Jesus who is so accustomed to talking about him as king, that sign seems to belong there. But of course it doesn’t. It’s ridiculous. It’s the most terrible, biting political satire of its day. “You want a king?” the Roman Empire asks. “Here’s your king. This is what we do to kings.” The sign that declares Jesus’ kingship is the blinking neon light of defeat. A king who is executed on a cross is not a king.

But, of course, we stand at the cross and gaze upon our king. Jesus’ kingship isn’t like that of the kingdoms of this world. The cross isn’t a mistake. It’s not a story of the Roman Empire or the Jewish hierarchy killing the one who belongs on a throne. Jesus belongs on the cross—not because of anything he deserved but because of who he is. This king accepted the cross as the sign of his kingship. The Titulus is doubly ironic. The Romans hung it there as a warning sign. And the gospel accounts leave it there to embrace the irony it declares.

It’s easy for me to look at Luke 23 as an accident—a temporary detour between Jesus’ feats of wonder (like the Transfiguration story from today’s Daily Office) and his triumphant resurrection. But I have to learn that we worship a king who not only happens to have died on the cross but whose very nature is to have died on the cross. What does it mean for Jesus to be king? It’s not just that he rose again. It’s also that he died first. That is the nature of his kingdom. That is the nature of the king whom we worship.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Give Us Our Daily Sandwich

Over the weekend, I was walking back to my car in the grocery store parking lot, when I saw a sticker on the back of the car parked next to mine. In the center, it had the letters RR and the outline of a dog on it, and there at the bottom in smaller letters was written, “Rhodesian Ridgeback.” The sight of it sent a shiver down my spine. Unconsciously, I raised my hand and tugged on my left ear.

A decade ago, I spent the summer working as a parish intern in a poor, urban Anglican church in Middlesbrough. Rather than bother to arrange a rotating series of hosts who would have me in their homes, the vicar, who had plenty of space in his own, welcomed me and gave me a room. (Honestly, I learned a lot more about being a vicar from living in his house than I did from working in the church, but that’s another post.) Living in the house were the vicar, his wife, his son (who had moved back in after a brief post-university career and was only there about half the time), their dog, and me. Oh, did I mention that their dog was a Rhodesian Ridgeback—the breed of dog that was bred to hunt lions?

King was, for the most part, a friendly dog. Like many Rhodesians (dogs not countrymen), he was more like a cat than a dog and only played with you when he felt like it. He had been the dog of a professional footballer (think soccer player), who loved to rough-and-tumble with his canine companion. When his girlfriend became pregnant, she drew a line in the sand and declared it was either her and the baby or the dog, so the dog was sent to the RR rescue society, where my vicar, who was looking for a protective dog that would help keep his family safe in their council-estate vicarage. When the doorbell rang, he gave out a nasty bark that made both his and my hair stand on end. And the vicar and his wife both gave me a very clear instruction: don’t get down on the ground with him.

One day, I was sitting in the den rubbing King’s belly—a peace offering on my part for a dog who still wasn’t quite sure why I was in his house—when the doorbell rang. King did his show of aggression, and the vicar, after hissing at his dog to be quiet, got up to answer the door. The dog calmed down and lay back down on the floor, where I continued rubbing his belly. He rolled back and forth on his back, almost purring with joy, but then he rolled just out of my reach. Without thinking about it, I dropped off the couch onto one knee and reached out over him to stroke his belly. It happened in an instant. The dog flipped over and bared his teeth as he jumped off the floor. I instinctively sprang up and turned my face away from his open mouth, and I remember very clearly, as his teeth sank into my ear, wondering whether I should pull my head away or hold still in the hope that he wouldn’t rip my ear off. After that one bite, he let go disappeared down the hall.

I walked to the front door, where the vicar was standing on the steps talking with a woman about scheduling a baptism for her new baby. I tapped on the glass with my right hand since my left hand was clutching my ear, staunching the blood with paper towels. The vicar turned around, thought I was telling him that there was a phone call, waved me off, and then went back to his conversation. I paused for a moment to consider the circumstance but decided that this was indeed a reason good enough to interrupt him. So I tapped on the glass once more. When he turned around with an annoyed look in his eyes, I removed my hand from my ear, exposing the mangled flesh. His frustrated countenance changed in an instant as the blood drained from his face.

We went to the hospital, where the fun really began. First, the attending physician in the emergency department informed me that I had, “a good chance of ending up with a significantly misshapen ear.” His plan was to cut off the bit part to avoid infection. The vicar, who was in the waiting room, cringed when I reported those words to him. As the day went on, I was passed from one doctor to another to another. Eventually, the plastic surgeon—a lovely man from Austria who insisted that he wasn’t a “doctor” but rather a “surgeon”—decided that I could keep my ear and did a wonderful job of sewing all the parts back together. All told, the NHS provided me with a host of nurses, several doctors, a skillful surgeon, a few techs, and—the real point of this post—with two lovely meals. And I never had to pay a dime.

It was the meals that really struck me. They knew I wasn’t going to spend the night, but I was given a “bed” to sit on while I waited for my surgery. And, while waiting, because my anesthetic was only local, I ate a lovely chicken sandwich and crisps. Then, after my surgery, I returned to my bed, where, because I had missed “snack time” both a sleeve of crackers and a sleeve of cookies was waiting for me since I hadn’t had the opportunity to choose for myself. Lastly, because the evening meal is served early in hospitals around the world, I was given a plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and vegetables while I waited on my discharge to go through.

In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:29-39), the crowds follow Jesus for three days, bringing him “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others.” He cured them all, and the witnesses were amazed when they saw those whom he had literally put back together. But that wasn’t enough. Jesus pulled his disciples aside and said to them, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” Even if we can’t quite remember how many loaves and fish were involved, we know how the story ends. Jesus takes a tiny little bit and miraculously provides for everyone. They are all fed with plenty left over.

It is not enough to heal them of their disease or restore their disability. It is not enough that they should be made whole. Jesus feeds them. He gives them what they need to make it through the day. He sees the need below the surface and responds to it. He addresses the daily issue—not just the presenting problem.

So often I hear preachers (me included) celebrating the huge stuff that Jesus did—heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead—but I often lose sight of the little things. The salvation that God provides in his Son Jesus Christ is about the big things. It is about overcoming death and being raised to new life. But it’s also about making it through today. When we look for salvation, sometimes we think only of heaven. Yes, heaven is where we’re headed, but probably not today. Yet today’s needs must be met. And God is giving us what we need—even if it comes on a hospital tray.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Fantasy of What If

Several years ago, I received an invitation to join a fantasy football league made up of other seminary graduates. I had no experience with fantasy sports of any kind, and I had only a passing interest in professional football, but the opportunity to strengthen my connection with some classmates was appealing. Now, six or seven years later, I still know very little about professional football and fantasy sports, but I seem to care about both a great deal more.

Fantasy football is pretty simple. Before the season starts, a group of individuals (called “managers”) take turns drafting NFL athletes onto their teams. Then, each week, managers face off against one another, deciding which of their players they will “start” and thus count toward their weekly score. A certain number of points are credited for each player’s accomplishments. For example, in our league, a player who scores a touchdown in a real game also adds six points to his fantasy team’s total. Each line-up looks a little bit like a real football squad—a quarterback, a few wide receivers and running backs, a tight end, and some defensive players—but, because each team is made up of players from lots of different NFL teams, the decision on whom one should start in his line-up becomes a serious statistical consideration.

Life is filled with tough decisions. Should I take that job? Is he the one I should marry? When should we put our house on the market? When faced with a critical decision, many of us consider all the options, weigh the possibilities, and make what we think is the best choice. But, when things do not turn out as well as we had hoped, the inevitable “what if” questions arise. Maybe I should have stayed a little longer. Maybe I should have kept my options open. What if things had been different?    

In real life, those questions will never be answered. We can dream and imagine and relive those pivotal moments in our minds over and over, but the hypotheticals are destined to remain hypothetical. We will never know how life would have turned out…except in fantasy football. In any given week, if I choose to ignore the experts’ advice and go out on my own and start a long-shot rookie wide receiver, I can see the full and exact consequences of my choice. Regardless of my decision, the veteran, whom I left on my fantasy bench, actually played in real life, and his would-be statistical offering to my team is calculated and presented to me in painful precision. “Would things have worked out differently?” we ask over and over. In fantasy football, the answer is clear.

Maybe that is why I love fantasy football so much, and I am guessing that I am not alone. So often in life we search for closure that comes with the reassurance that the decision we made is the right one or that we could have done better. As anyone trapped by unhealthy obsessive tendencies can testify, there is a fatal trap in that kind of logic and human longing. We can get stuck in that place of “what if,” consumed by the consequences of our own choices. But how much can we really choose? Do our choices really matter? Could things have been any different? Is there such a thing as “what if?”

Although life is a series of choices, ultimately our ability to choose our own destiny is far less open than we might want to think. Can you choose your parents? Can you choose your personality? Can you choose your gifts and talents? The psalmist seems to have those questions in mind when he composed Psalm 139: “If I climb up into heaven, thou art there; if I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” In other words, no matter where our choices take us, God is still there.

You cannot choose whether God will love you. No decision of yours can remove you from God’s love. What, then, is the point of wondering how else things might have gone? As a fantasy football manager, I agonize over my poorly-made choices and celebrate my own self-exaggerated wisdom. As a priest, I often sit with people while they wrestle with life’s unanswerable questions and try to remind them of God’s undeniable promises. As a child of God, I try to remember that there is nothing I could ever do to change the fact that I belong to God and that he loves me no matter what.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Debby Downer

The rotunda below the dome at the United States Capitol is amazing. Although it’s been a long time since I was there, I can still remember standing there staring up at its repeated pattern of images that go around and around and higher and higher. It’s the kind of sight one can get lost in.

Imagine, then, standing in the rotunda with your family. Kids and grown-ups alike staring up at the dome. The children are amazed, and the equally amazed parents explain to them why this is such an important building. “It’s so beautiful!” one child remarks. “How did they ever do it?” another one asks. Then, right at that moment, a stranger walks up and says to your family, “The days will come when it will all be torn down—not one stone left on another—all will be thrown down.”

That’s the image I have in Sunday's gospel lesson when Jesus walks up to the group in the Jerusalem temple and predicts its destruction. As Luke recalls the story, they were admiring how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. They were in that moment of awe, and Jesus brings it crashing down. The temple was the center of life for Jerusalem. Having been destroyed and rebuilt, it was a symbol of national identity. Although a part of the Roman empire, the holy city still maintained its religious independence, and the temple was a place where the mechanics of worship—that which defined the Jewish people as distinct—took place. Jesus’ prediction, therefore, isn’t just a foretelling that a beautiful building will be destroyed. It’s a statement that everything the people hold dear—the very structure of their lives—will come crashing down. This must be Fun Jesus, huh?

But Jesus’ terrible prophecy seems only to be a means to an end. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel (if you can call it that). Jesus explains that the temple will be destroyed and that nations will engage in war and that earthquakes and famines and plagues will afflict the earth and that his followers will be arrested, tortured, and killed. But, he says, they will be taken care of. Don’t worry. Despite all of these things, there is reason to hope: “not a hair of your head will perish.”

He’s right, of course. Terrible things do happen. The temple is destroyed about 40 years after his death. The Romans crack down on the Christian movement. Terrible persecutions occur. Yet, somehow, there are still followers of Christ boldly proclaiming the gospel even today. Hope, I suppose, isn’t always comforting. Hope, it seems, isn’t always nice. Sometimes the content of our hope is difficult to accept. We must die in order to be reborn. All that we hold dear will be stripped away. Yet we still have hope. It’s not a platitude. But it’s not Polyanna either. Hope is real and sometimes hard.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What about the Woman?

In seminary, I wondered how I would stay connected with colleagues--those who helped make me a better pastor, preacher, teacher, and Christian. How would I prepare a sermon without a dozen or so friends to bounce ideas off of? How would I handle pastoral crises when if I didn't have anyone to process the situation with? Well, blogs to the rescue.

I truly love the clergy colleague relationships that I have through blogs. On Monday, I scribbled out something on this Sunday's gospel lesson about the Sadducees and not getting sucked into their question about marriage in heaven. Steve Pankey then wrote an hilarious and helpful piece about Jesus resisting the Sadducees' trap. When I read his piece, which you can (and should) read here, it brought something else to mind: the woman.

What about the woman who gets married seven times and loses all her husbands? Sure, she's a hypothetical figure made up for illustrative purposes, but her pain is real. Right? We know people who have lost their spouse and then lost another spouse and even lost another spouse. The Sadducees toss her around like she's chattel. Our heart should break when we hear her story. But I must admit that I never stop to think about her. She's just an example. And her pain--and the pain of those we know--gets lost when we talk about the details of the resurrection.

What do you say to a woman who has just buried her husband? What do you say to a couple whose child has been killed? Pastorally, in those moments, I forget just about everything I learned about the Judeo-Christian tradition of resurrection and afterlife. The hows and the whens and the wheres don't matter--at least coming up with the "right" answer doesn't. In those moments of real heartbreak, the only things that count are hope and love and faith.

Yes, resist getting sucked in by the Sadducees' question. It is a silly question. They aren't really looking for an anwer. But don't ignore the pain of the woman depicted in their rhetorical test. Her pain is all around us. What will we say to those who are hurting? Will our doctrine triumph over our sensitivity? Where will hope be found? How will we talk about resurrection when it really matters--not in the classroom but in the hospital room?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Splitting Up at Death

Until we are parted by death. Until death do us part. As long as we both shall live. [But not after that.]

Since we dispensed with the marriage question in Sunday’sgospel lesson yesterday, I thought it fitting today to go back to it today. If you didn’t read Seth Olson’s take, you should. He says some good things about respecting the Sadducees and Pharisees as foils rather than enemies, and he also writes “that even the best relationships here on earth are not grand enough for post-resurrection life.” It’s that latter point off of which I’d like to spring for today’s post.

Let’s start by thinking like a Sadducee. (Most of us do, anyway, so it shouldn’t be hard.) Why believe in the resurrection? Things are complicated in the next life. Where will we be? Whom will we be with? What about people who get remarried after a spouse dies? I have people who come to me and quietly remind me that they want to be buried next to their first spouse and not next to their current one. It’s as if it is impolite to say to one’s current husband that one would rather spend the next few thousand years planted next to one’s first husband, who died a decade or so ago. Imagine, then, what it’s like when we get to heaven and discover that the woman we loved has decided to live with the new guy for eternity. The Sadducees are right to ask these sorts of questions. They are exactly the kind of thing that keep 21st-century people (including professed Christians) from believing in the real, actual, literal, bodily, tangible, non-metaphorical resurrection.

Assuming that the Sadducees are coming to Jesus in order to engage in lighthearted theological banter, let’s rephrase their question in a less hostile, less ridiculous way: how do people in this world make sense of life in the next? What’s the same? What’s different? If it’s bodily, do we eat? What do we eat? Do we get old? Do we stay young? How do we (created, temporal beings) live in a universe where there is no time? Their point—and it’s a good one—is that we can’t make sense of the resurrection using terms from this life. It just doesn’t work that way. Heaven isn’t puffy clouds and streets paved with solid gold. Those are just analogies to get us excited about construction delays on the heavenly highway. So what are we supposed to believe?

Children of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage. Yes, the resurrection is real, but, no, it’s not quite like this life. In resurrection life, priorities change. If you want heaven merely to be more of this life only qualitatively and quantitatively better, you’re hoping up the wrong tree. You don’t get to be married in heaven because heaven is so totally better than that that married life doesn’t fit. Is marriage wrong? Heavens no! I love being married. But those of us who talk about resurrection as if it has clear analogues in the pre-resurrection world are missing the point. And, more importantly, we’re driving the Sadducees away.

The world around us is listening. They hear Christians like me talking about heaven. And the more they hear Christians like me talking about heaven as if it were “more of the same only better” the less likely they are to believe. I think we live in a skeptical, rational, Sadducee world. I think evangelists and preachers like me need to find ways of inviting people to hope beyond this life and into the next. The Sadducees question is a good one. It’s not purely an expression of spite. It’s a genuine question of wondering. What’s our answer? Are we willing to think of the resurrection in ways that burst even our most hopeful expectations?

Monday, November 4, 2013

It's Not About Marriage

Don’t fall into the Sadducees’ trap. They set it for Jesus. He didn’t ignore it, but he refused to get bogged down in it. Push on through and get to the real issue.

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 20:27-38), Jesus is tested by some Sadducees, “those who say there is no resurrection.” They propose to him a hypothetical situation that, because of its ridiculousness, is memorable. A man and a woman marry, and the man dies, and his brother marries the widow as the law requires. This pattern repeats itself until all seven brothers (note the number of completeness) have taken their turn and died. Finally, the woman also dies. Whose husband will she be in the resurrection?

Actually, it’s a good question—good for those of us who believe in the resurrection. If you start from a position of faith, it’s worth asking what marriage will be like in heaven. Will I live with my spouse? Will that relationship matter? What if I am remarried? What if I am married to a man I loathe when I die? Those are real, good, and valuable questions for those of us who genuinely believe that one day we will be with God in heaven. But they are useless questions for someone who is trying to punch holes in our belief in resurrection. That is because they are essentially unanswerable. They don’t have clear, definite answers. Ultimately, we don’t know what heaven is like. We get glimpses of it in scripture, but we cannot know the fullness of that which awaits us. So, for the person of faith, these questions remind us that our hope is real but flexible. For the cynic, they lead to nothing—empty, cyclical proof of the proposition that the cynic holds dear.

Jesus gives an answer—perhaps a surprising one. There is no marriage in heaven. Period. The end. Try arguing around that! It’s “until we are parted by death,” baby. After that, you’re on your own. But I urge the reader and the preacher not to get tangled up in that web. That’s not the point of Jesus’ response. This passage isn’t a teaching about the nature of marriage in the afterlife. It’s a chance for Jesus to refute the Sadducees claim that there is no resurrection.

When asked a cynical question by a cynical person, sometimes the right thing to do is give an inarguable response. You want me to trap myself in answering your ridiculous question, but I refuse and instead give an answer that leaves you no room for a come-back. The only problem with that is that the answer I give isn’t necessarily what I’d say to a person who really wants to explore the answer with me. For example, when I’m having a theological argument with someone about the nature of God and the nature of the universe (Bentley Manning), it’s easy for me to offer extreme, inarguable responses if that person is coming to me from an opposite perspective. But, when I sit down with someone in a pastoral setting who wants to gently explore the tough questions of life, brute force is not needed. This gospel lesson is Jesus hitting the Sadducees over the head with a powerful statement. He’s not ministering to widows who just lost their spouse.

Push ahead to the end. What’s the real point? “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” God is God of the living. In him there is no death. For Jesus, resurrection is a given, and that’s the real point here. This isn’t a teaching on the nature of marriage after the resurrection. It’s a lesson on the resurrection. Jesus tackles the trap set for him, but he doesn’t get bogged down in it. It would be a shame, therefore, for a preacher to lose the forest for the trees. Preach resurrection and save the pastoral conversation about marriage for another day.