Thursday, February 27, 2014

Use White This Sunday

On the Transfiguration mount, Jesus’ “face shone like the son and his clothes became dazzling white.” The event we read about on Sunday was a moment when something special happened, and it was made manifest in visible form for the sake of the disciples (and for us). Depending on how you think of the Transfiguration, the divinity of Jesus came up from the inside and spilled out onto the surface or maybe the divine light from heaven beamed down on him highlighting his uniqueness. Either way, the miracle is depicted in specifically visible terms—shone like the sun, dazzling white, appearance of Moses and Elijah, a bright cloud.

We are visual people. Seeing is believing. In this case, though, believing is seeing as the first words of the lesson emphasize: “Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God…” This story seems to be a response to Peter’s recognition. Regardless, seeing and believing are linked in the human experience. We see it. We believe it. Rarely are those two things separate.

For the last several Sundays, our altar hangings have been green to depict the season after the Epiphany. We were white for Christmas and then for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, but then we switched to green. Next Sunday, we’ll be purple as Lent will have arrived. We’ll stay purple (or red, depending on your tradition for Holy Week) until Easter comes, when we’ll switch back to white again. But this Sunday comes with an option: green or white.

Usually, I’d stay green. So what if it’s the last Sunday after the Epiphany? It’s not a feast in and of itself. It’s just another Sunday.

But it’s not.

This year, we’re switching to white, and I’m pretty excited about that for two reasons. First, we’re celebrating the gift of a new set of altar hangings, Eucharistic vestments, and all the items that go with them. They were given to our church by a family in memory of a man who loved our church and loved worship, and it seems fitting that we’ll have a complete and matching white set for the first time in a good number of years. We’ll consecrate them (set them apart for exclusively holy use) this Sunday at the offertory.

Second, the altar hangings, stoles, and other vestments remind us of what the disciples saw on that mountain top a long time ago. White is the color we use when we celebrate God shining through into this world. It is the color of the incarnation, when God became flesh. It is the color of the empty tomb, when God broke through the barrier of death. For those reasons, it is also the color for baptisms and the burial of the dead and All Saints’. We use white when we remember a saint who revealed to us a little bit more of who God is. White reminds us of what God is showing to us: a glimpse at himself. This Sunday we read about God shining through the person of Jesus, making himself known to us in a moment of revelation. We prepare to bury our alleluias and enter the penitential season of Lent. Easter is still a long, hard ways off. Isn’t it right for us to pause this week and let the bright glow of God shine through?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Future of the Episcopal Church

I'd guess that most of the readers of this blog come here because they're looking for a way to think about the lessons for the upcoming Sunday or reflect on the Daily Office lessons. During General Convention, the audience changes dramatically as most of what I write has to do with the ins and outs of that body's work. Although General Convention is still a long ways away, it's time to begin talking about it.

The Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church has released its second study paper. This one is on governance and administration, and you can read it here. (Unlike so many "study papers," this one is worth a read.) It offers huge, sweeping changes, which seem to be on the right track. It invites us to imagine a church that is structured differently--actually, not all that differently, just smaller--but it's worth engaging in the dream. Instead of huge, unwieldy bodies like a 40-member Executive Council, the church would be administered by smaller, slightly less unwieldy bodies like a 21-member Executive Council.

In particular, I draw your attention to three proposals (in addition to the Executive Council change, which I just pointed out).

1. General Convention gets smaller, leaner, and (to use the word of the last Convention) more nimble. Fewer deputies is a nice gesture (not sure how important that is), but far more important is limiting all legislation to a tightly defined list of topics, which you can read in the paper. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! We don't need to be debating (or even considering) most of what comes out in the Blue Book. Some of it is important. The proposal to offer Communion to the unbaptized is worth considering (and rejecting, but that's another post). The question of whether same-sex relationships should be blessed is definitely worth considering. But we shouldn't waste our time debating whether the Palestinians and Israelis should make peace with one another. Yes, that's important, but it's beyond our scope.

2. The roles of the Presiding Bishop (PB), President of the House of Deputies, Secretary of the General Convention, and others might get changed. The paper asks what might happen if we asked our PB to be a bishop instead of a CEO and hired someone else to run the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (which is to say the church). That might make a lot of sense. Sometimes institutions need leaders who are better at visionary work than administrative work. Sometimes dioceses need pastors instead of business executives. But, usually when that happens, he or she brings in a team to do what he or she can't do alone. In theory, that's how the current system is set up to work, but it doesn't seem to be. Also, at this point, it's hard for me to imagine that kind of change actually happening--that the stakeholders would give up that kind of authority. (The same can be said for all of these changes, but this one seems particularly unlikely.)

3. Almost all of the Standing Commissions are eliminated. As a member of one of those that would be cut, I can't say enough what a good idea this is. Yes, there is important work to be done, but as the working paper suggests, let's define that work at General Convention, call for the creation of a group to carry out that work, and then have that group disband after the work is done. Otherwise, we get in the self-perpetuation business. That's where we're stuck right now--working to exist simply for the sake of existing. And that's not gospel work. Instead, that kind of attempt actually gets in the way of the important work that needs to be done. I think we often confuse the importance of the subject at hand with the rationale for having a Standing Commission to work on that work. For example, I'm on the Standing Commission for Lifelong Christian Formation and Education. All of us--and by that I mean every Christian I know--agrees that Christian formation is important. It's the business of the church. No one thinks we should stop doing it. But just because Christian formation is essential doesn't mean the Standing Commission should be spending any time, energy, or money trying to do it. I believe that there are more efficient and effective ways for our church to do gospel work than the Standing Commission structure, and I'm glad to see there's a recommendation that we consider significant changes.

Ultimately, though, this is a proposal. And, when things get specific--when members of Standing Commissions find their work going away--unanimous votes like the one taken to establish this Task Force don't happen. But at least we're talking about it. And I hope the momentum continues through the next General Convention.

A Little Tap on the Shoulder

A little tap on the shoulder is sometimes all it takes to bring us back to reality.

A parishioner told me that he was in church a few weeks back and lost track of where he was. He remained kneeling after the Eucharistic Prayer had been finished. In that quiet, intimate moment, he was transported to another place—not literally or even metaphysically or mystically but mentally. Suddenly, there was a tap on his shoulder. He looked up. The pews in front of him were empty. Everyone had already gone up for Communion. A kind passerby wanted him to realize that it was past time for him to get up and head to the altar rail. In that moment—with that touch—he rushed back into the present, and proceeded with the rest of the service.

Matthew is the only gospel writer to include an element of touch in the Transfiguration story, and we get a chance to relish that little detail in this Sunday’s gospel lesson. Mark and Luke tell the same narrative, but they leave out the bit about “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” That’s my favorite part of the story. It makes it so real. It helps me understand just how far the disciples had travelled in their minds and in their spirits. Jesus himself had to come and tap them on the shoulder to bring them back to reality—to remind them that it was time to carry on. And, when they looked up, awakened from their trance, everything was back to normal. Jesus was standing there, looking at them, saying, “Come on, guys. Time to go.”

Allow yourself the chance to be transported in this wonderful story. It is a moment when a little bit of heaven comes to earth and invites the observers to be transported back into heaven. Eventually, of course, someone has to come and tap you on the shoulder. Your mother has to wake you up from that pleasant dream. The gentle shake has to bring you back to your senses. The cares of the physical world have to come back. But for a moment—at least a moment—let your mind and soul wander away. Escape the limitations of this world. Dwell in heaven as long as you can. Enjoy being somewhere else. Eventually, the tap on the shoulder will come.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Re-Learning to Wait

It’s hard not to preach on the Transfiguration when it comesup in the lectionary, which is pretty often. It’s all the power and wonder and amazement packed into a succinct little story. It’s divinity and humanity all together in one. It’s Law and Prophets and Jesus and the Father. It’s Peter looking pretty foolish. It’s an impossible secret that’s worth keeping if you can. But I think the better lesson to preach is the reading from Exodus and here’s why.

Waiting is hard, and it’s getting harder. When was the last time you sat and did nothing but wait? I don’t mean play with your smart phone while you’re waiting. I mean sit and wait and nothing else. A doctor’s office with no magazines. A restaurant table with no crackers or bread. A barbershop with no television. Just you and the wait.

These days, answers come quickly. There are some people in my parish who send me an e-mail and, if it takes me longer than an hour to reply, they either call or stop by to make sure I received their e-mail. The next time you’re at a red light, see how long it takes before the car behind you honks after it turns green. The next time you call a customer service line, time yourself to test how long you’re willing to sit on hold before you start complaining about the quality of service. We just don’t wait anymore.

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.” So he did. And, after he climbed up on the mountain, the Lord’s glory settled on the mountain in the form of a cloud, and Moses just waited. He sat there for six days just waiting. On the seventh day, God finally got around to Moses, and he called to him out of the cloud.

The rest of the story—a devouring fire and tablets of stone and forty days and forty nights—is pretty interesting, but I don’t want to lose sight of what really matters: waiting on the Lord. Moses waited on the Lord and was content to wait and wait and wait. That’s not very productive. If I spent a week just waiting on something—even God—I’d be in trouble…with my wife, with my kids, with my vestry, with my staff. Waiting isn’t valued in our society any more. Life is too busy. We’re all too important. We don’t have time to wait.

Lent is a time of waiting. (Yes, I know that’s what Advent is for, but let me get away with this. I’m on a roll.) We set aside forty days for listening to the Lord. We give things up and take things on, and the real value of this is so that we make space in our lives for God to enter in. “Darn!” we say to ourselves, “I really wanted that piece of chocolate.” And, in that moment, we remember why we’ve given it up and what we’re waiting for (Easter) and there’s (hopefully) spiritual value in the experience. Lent is countercultural. It says we’ll live on less. It says we’ll take our mortality and sinfulness seriously. It says we’ll depend on God and not on ourselves for our salvation.

So, preachers, think about focusing on Exodus. Don’t get suckered in by the fancy laser light show on the Transfiguration mount. Instead, wait quietly and patiently for the Lord alongside Moses in Exodus. Stress to your congregations that there’s value in waiting. Fight the uphill battle of those who’d rather play with their smart phones that sit in silence for 2 minutes. Their spiritual lives depend on it. And so do the spiritual lives of preachers like me.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Staying Connected with Matthias

Today is St. Matthias day. It’s a feast when we remember someone about whom we know almost nothing. We know about Judas. We know that the early church had to figure out what to make of the one whom Jesus welcomed into his inner circle yet who betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Peter makes a speech in Acts 1:15-26 that explains (sort of) that Judas’ treachery was foretold in scripture and that one of the men (his word) who had been with them since the beginning (defined as the baptism of John) needed to replace him. Prayers are said and lots are cast, and Matthias is chosen to be enrolled with the other eleven. And that’s about all we know about Matthias.

The gospel lesson set for this day (John 15:1, 6-16) seems to be more appropriate for acknowledging Judas’ betrayal than celebrating Matthias’ accession. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.” Abiding. Remaining. Staying attached to the vine. Keeping his commandments. Staying plugged in.

I most often hear these words when I am taking Communion to someone who cannot come to church because of illness or surgery or age or mobility problems. The rite for “Communion under Special Circumstances” provides four different readings from John’s gospel account, one of which is taken from John 15. Most often I read two or three of the selections. Occasionally I’ll only read one. Sometimes I bring Sunday’s gospel lesson with me and read it instead. But I almost always read the passage from John 15.

Why do I bother to take Communion to shut-ins? I’m less interested in sacramentalism than Christian community. Receiving the species of the Eucharist is important to me, but I’d rather have a connection with the congregation I’m from than chew on a stale-ish wafer and sip a tiny amount of cheap port. But sharing that bread and wine—the body and blood of our savior—isn’t just a solitary (or in the case of the priest or Lay Eucharistic Visitor bringing it a binary) experience. When we take Communion we are a part of the Christian community. We have our place in the vine reemphasized to us. We are following Christ’s commandments to “do this in remembrance of [him].”

How do we stay plugged into the body of Christ? What does it mean to be connected with the vine? How do we avoid being pruned back and thrown into the fire (a la Judas)? Part of that is remembering that we belong to something—to someone. We have a place. We are a branch. We are connected. Wandering off by ourselves too far from the body can lead to trouble. We stay connected so that we might flourish. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fearful Prayers

There’s an interesting prayer in today’s Old Testamentlesson (Genesis 32:3-21). It’s the story of Jacob returning to his homeland across the Jordan. He had spent the last twenty years serving in the house of Laban, his kinsman, and now he was headed home. Knowing that his brother Esau had good reason to quarrel with him, Jacob sent messengers out to tell Esau he had come back with much property (hint, hint: I’ll share it with you if you welcome me peaceably), but the messengers returned saying that Esau was on his way and was bringing 400 men with him.

Uh oh. That sounds like a fight. So what does Jacob do? Well, several things—as we’ll see in tomorrow’s lesson. But the first thing he did was pray:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,' I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.'”

The prayer has a beautiful, human desperation to it. It follows an interesting back-and-forth of reminding God how he got in this mess and asking God to help him. “You told me to come here…so please don’t let him kill us…you gave me all this property…so please don’t let it go to waste…because you are the one who promised to take care of me”

If you go back and read the story of Jacob and Laban, you’ll see that they are stories of Jacob’s patient faithfulness and God’s supernatural vindication. Every time Laban tries to trick Jacob, God intervenes so that Jacob wins. The reader has sympathy for Jacob. Because of a wedding-chapel switcheroo, he’s been working for 20 years to get what he should have received far more quickly. And the reader has seen how God will provide for Jacob. And the only person who doesn’t seem to see it is Jacob.

Fear is a powerful thing. Jacob even names it in his prayer: “Deliver me, please…for I am afraid of him.” Fear. It robs you of what you really know. It makes you worry about things you have no reason to worry about. Whom is Jacob reassuring through his prayer: “O God…who said to me, ‘Return to your country…?’” God doesn’t need to be reminded of his promises the way we do. When my son says to me, “You promised to let me play with your cell phone,” he does so because I have forgotten. When I say to God, “Don’t forget your promise,” I do so because I am forgetting. Fear can wipe out faith. Prayer like this is a reminder that God is God. It helps nudge fear out so that faith can take hold again. It reminds us that we are on the path that God has given us. God is in control. God is faithful. I have nothing to fear. And prayer helps me see that.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Problem with Language

The problem with figures of speech is that sometimes they don’t work. When I try to convey a complex idea—whether explaining to my children what makes a rainbow or explaining to our congregation how Jesus’ death and resurrection affect our relationship with God—I like to use images, metaphor, parable, analogy. Sometimes they work. Sometimes one or two persons leave with a slightly better sense of how the thing in question works. But sometimes they fall pretty flat. People leave asking me about the metaphor rather than the thing I was trying to point them to. Usually, you can tell by the look on the audience’s face whether the image has worked.

In today’s gospel lesson (John 10:1-18), Jesus seeks to convey to his audience the depth of God’s love for them that has been expressed through his life and upcoming death and resurrection. So he starts with a parable: “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit, but the shepherd is the one who enters by the gate. His voice is the one that the gatekeeper and sheep both recognize. He brings them out and goes ahead of them, and they follow him because they recognize his voice. Do you understand?” But they didn’t. John tells us that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” So what does he do? He tries again.

Let’s make this a little plainer, he says. I am the gate for the sheep—me. Those who came before me are the thieves and the bandits, but I am the gate. Got it? No good? How about this? I am the good shepherd—the one who lays down his life for the sheep. Sound better? The hired hand—that’s those other people—the ones who scatter when the wolf comes. I am the good shepherd—the one who gives everything he has to take care of his sheep. Yeah, that’s what I meant all along.

As a preacher who often struggles to get his point across, it’s funny to me to see that Jesus experienced that once or twice. But should we be surprised? Jesus wasn’t looking for new ways to package an old story. He was breaking new theological ground. Imagine trying to convey for the first time that the awesome, unknowable, unsearchable creator of the universe was reaching out for a personal, one-on-one relationship with each of his children in the same way that a shepherd would lie down in order to save the sheep? What a reversal of images! We are the ones who are supposed to give up our lives for the God we serve. What is this news that God might give up something so precious for us?

Language itself is metaphor. When I say the word “cheeseburger,” it evokes a reaction within each of us. My mouth starts watering. A vegetarian’s stomach sours. Either way, you can see it. Maybe you can even smell it or taste it. But all I’ve done is say a word—a word that we all associate with something tangible. “Ceci n'est pas une pipe,” the artist René Magritte asked us to consider. Even the gigantic image of a pipe is not actually a pipe. Still, unless you’re holding a pipe or a cheeseburger, all we’ve got are images or pictures or other metaphors to get that idea across.

The eternal truth that God is love is hard to wrap our minds around. God’s son—the eternal Word—came down to earth, incarnate as a human being, so that we might understand a little bit better what it means for God to love us like that. Jesus is the good shepherd. But what does that mean? What does it mean that God loves us with love we can barely imagine? If it takes a lifetime to understand, don’t be discouraged. If the preacher throws at you one image after another in an attempt to help you see how much God loves you, be patient. Hopefully, prayerfully, eventually, you’ll hear those words in a way that gives you the confidence God is trying to instill. That confidence is what we call faith. Faith is knowing what God is trying to tell us. Live an entire lifetime in the company of the one who shows us God’s love. Learn what it means to be loved like that. Let that love fill you and transform you and give you faith.

Hearing the Gospel Through Lectio Divina

Yesterday, our staff endured our semiannual long-rang calendar planning event. Every six months, we gather together for several hours to go through the calendar week by week and month by month to make sure we have everything planned for the next year and a half. So, if you want to know when Vacation Bible School will be in 2015, just ask. Before we started our work, Seth Olson led us in a lectio divina reading of this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-48). The process wasn't new to me, but it opened up powerful insights as I prepare for this week's sermon.

For those who aren't familiar with lectio divina, it is literally a "sacred reading" of a text. In our example, the text was read deliberately three separate times. After each reading, we paused for a few moments of silence before answering a question associated with each reading. First, we asked what word or phrase from the text stuck out to us. Second, we asked where God was in the text. Finally, we asked what God was calling us to do or who God was calling us to be in the text. Simple enough, right? But so much there.

The first question invites initial reflection. As I name a word or phase, I identify what stuck out to me. Perhaps that is what shocked me or disturbed me. Maybe it's something I don't understand or something I don't want to understand. Regardless, the first reading is a way of letting the text speak clearly and plainly and freshly to me. We all offered answers like "be perfect" and "love your enemies" and "do not refuse."

Then, the second question shook everything up. Where is God in this text? As I thought about that question, I realized that that was the point Jesus was seeking to make. Where is God in a text? Do we read these ancient texts and allow God to speak to us through them, or do we read them expecting him to show up exactly where we think he should. Jesus introduces this controversial teaching by saying, "You have heard that it was said." As he transitions from the first part (turn the other cheek) to the second part (love your enemies), he repeats that phrase as if to say, "I'm challenging what you think you've always heard. Don't assume God is saying to you what you've always heard him say. If you let yourself hear it in a new way, perhaps God might say something different." So where is God in this text? He's showering both good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, with his blessings. "Didn't see that coming, did you?" Jesus asks.

And then the third and critical question: what is God calling us to do or who is God calling us to be in this text? Exactly. If we allow God to inhabit our religious text and tradition in a new way, surely he's calling us to something new and unexpected. If God loves the people I hate, maybe he's calling me to change. Maybe he's asking me to do something different. Maybe he's asking me to consider the God-created value of every human being.

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I find myself drawn to that three fold process: 1) let the text surprise you; 2) ask where God might be afresh in the text; and 3) when you find God where you didn't expect him, how might that change who you are or what you do? Bottom line: if God loves the people I find it most difficult to love, what does that say about me?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Want to Try My Mandrakes?

And all for some mandrakes.

I’ll get to Sunday’s gospel lesson (probably in tomorrow’s post), but I couldn’t pass up the chance to write about today’s OT lesson from the Daily Office (Genesis 30:1-24). Sometimes the Hebrew bible lists the names of the generations in a way that, although very important, tends to put the contemporary reader (me) to sleep. Not so with the story of the birth of Jacob’s children.

First a little refresher.

Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, but her father pulled the old switch-a-roo and substituted Leah, the older and less attractive sister, forcing Jacob to work an additional seven years for Laban to earn the right to marry his other daughter. Rivalry in the making? You betcha.

Leah quickly had four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.

Rachel, jealous of her older sister’s progeny, gave Jacob her servant, Bilhah, who gave birth to Dan and Naphtali.

Leah, who thought her years of fertility had passed but was unwilling to be outdone by her rival sister, offered her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob, and Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher.

And then there were the mandrakes.

Reuben, the first-born, went out into the fields one day and found some mandrakes. What are mandrakes? I had to look it up. Wikipedia says they’re a parsnip-shaped relative nightshade and contain hallucinogens. Because of their shape (sometimes looking like human beings) and their potency, they have a long history of being used in magic and pagan rituals. Anyway, Reuben comes back with the mandrakes, and Rachel sees them and wants them—possibly because they were believed to promote fertility. Rachel asks her despised sister for some of her son’s mandrakes, and, after a little haggling, they strike a deal by which Leah gets to take another turn in the proverbial haystack with Jacob. That’s the part that really baffles me.

Verse 16 recalls that strange encounter: “When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night.” I’m guessing that everyone was surprised when Leah’s fertility returned (don’t know whether she had any mandrakes) and gave her two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah. Finally, the chapter concludes when “God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb,” and she gave birth to her own son Joseph, whose drama-filled story follows.

Mandrakes. You must lie with me because I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes. You can’t make this stuff up.

As I like to say in premarital counseling, the bible is full of stories of marriage, but few of them resemble an ideal. Betrayal, polygamy, prostitution, adultery—they’re all in the bible. Apparently, those who recorded these tawdry stories weren’t worried about what they might do to the reader. No one reads the story of Leah and the mandrakes and thinks that it is the model of marriage. It’s a story of human life—in all its messiness. Sometimes the lesson to be learned (perhaps in this case that God works through even the most convoluted means) isn’t taken from what happens but from the story as a whole.

Maybe we should spend more time thinking of life like that. Individual chapters don’t always look the way they should. People make mistakes. People do terrible things. People make decisions that we wouldn’t want our children to repeat. But there’s a bigger story at play—one that may be hard for us to see when we’re enmeshed in a story about mandrakes. Be patient and maybe we’ll see how even the weirdest moments work out.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sin Means We Cannot Choose Holiness

When I saw that there are two possible first readings for thisSunday, I read them both. And then I said to myself, “The only reason anyone should ever choose Ecclesiasticus (aka Sirach) is if she or he wanted to preach about how wrong it is.” Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote a beautiful piece on thistopic, beginning the conversation about how the readings could easily be construed in favor of the Pelagian heresy, which, he points out, “is gaining in popularity these days.” I couldn’t agree more.

“If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”

That’s bullsh**.

Ask an addict if sobriety is merely a choice.

Life is full of choices, but not all of them are open to us. My third-grade teacher asked us to write down our life’s goals. I had two: to be at least six feet tall and to have dimples. (The cute girl sitting in front of me had commented that she liked tall guys with dimples.) I am 5’9¾”. I have a cleft chin but my cheeks have no creases (other than old-man wrinkles) when I smile. No amount of choosing or trying or planning to be tall and dimpled (short of radical and foolish plastic surgery) could make those goals a reality. The same is true of sin.

Without Christ, we are slaves to sin. That doesn’t mean that the choices the law spells out for us are bad. The law is a good thing. It directs us toward a life of holiness. But that’s like giving me an instruction manual for how to be an Olympic gymnast. I might get better at cartwheels, but let’s be honest: I’ll never make the team, much less stand on the podium. Sin is human nature. It’s part of who we are—just as much as being short or tall, being dimpled or not, being bald or not. Sin is human nature. To be human is to be sinful. And to be sinful means not making the choices we want.

Maybe Ben Sira needs to meet Paul. Here’s what he says about choosing the good:

7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20 ESV)

That’s the life I know. That’s what my life looks like—and the lives of everyone else I know. What about you? Anyone think he or she can choose a life of holiness? Without God’s help? Without Christ’s sacrifice? Without the a higher power (the Holy Spirit) working in you?

The preacher has chosen Sirach for the first reading this week. It’s no accident that I’ve directed our lay readers to end it with “Here ends the first lesson” rather than “The Word of the Lord.” I hope people notice that big-old asterisk. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Preacher's Dream

Rarely does a lesson provide more opportunities for preaching than this Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37). Still, though, I’m not sure I want to preach on any one of them.

Intention rather than action leads to judgment.
Jimmy Carter and the Playboy interview.
Another offertory sentence in the midst of strong ethical teaching.
Figuring out which part of our body we need to cut off to keep from going to hell.
Remarriage after divorce = adultery.

It’s a preacher’s dream.

At this point during the week, I usually know how the sermon will go on Sunday, but I’m still trying to synthesize the enormous chunk of teaching that Jesus offers in this part of the Sermon on the Mount in order to pull some sort of thesis out of the text. No one enjoys a preacher who preaches three different sermons at the same time, so I’ve either got to narrow my focus to a few verses or figure out how all of this hangs together.

Jesus, it seems, is trying to get to the heart of the matter. The law has all of its requirements. Jesus’ culture carries all of its customs. But Jesus wants to go deeper—not just to make life more difficult but to give it more meaning. Murder is wrong, sure, but so is uncontrolled anger. Adultery is wrong, sure, but so is uncontrolled lust. Divorce isn’t just a legal proceeding; it’s the breakdown of a marriage. Swearing false oaths is criminal, but swearing oaths at all is a sign of distrust. What should the world look like?

The law and the customs of the day provide boundaries for living. It’s what keeps order in society. But we don’t just want a society that is controlled at the limits. We want order and structure that starts at the center. Murder is wrong, but so is hatred. It’s not a crime to hate someone, but it’s wrong. If everyone lived at the borders of civil society, we’d be a pretty wicked place. And some might think that’s exactly what’s wrong.

Jesus asks us to value what’s really important—not just walk the tightrope of breaking the law. Relationships—both human-human and human-divine—are what really matter. You can’t nurture right relationships by keeping the law. Imagine coming home on Valentine’s Day and saying to your spouse, “I didn’t get arrested today. Happy Valentine’s Day!” There’s more to it than that, and Jesus asks us to remember it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Today's post is both a reflection on the Daily Office readings and also appears as the cover article in the weekly newsletter of St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, please click here.

In the small town in which I grew up, one of the local banks offered to give students money for doing well on their report cards. I cannot imagine that such a practice exists in today’s world, where interest rates pay even less than all As, but, as a marketing practice, it seems to have been successful as I still feel a sentimental attachment to my childhood bank. Students who had all As (or in the lower grades all Gs for “Good”) were given $2, and students who had all As and Bs (or Gs and Ss for “Satisfactory”) were given $1. Everyone knew to strive for all As, but the difference in the monetary reward drove the point home in a tangible way.

As anyone who has received a piece of handwritten correspondence from me can attest, I do not have good handwriting. Honestly, to call it satisfactory would be a gross exaggeration of my penmanship, yet my teachers consistently rewarded the efforts of this performance-focused student with an S. As she handed me a crisp one-dollar bill, the teller at the bank congratulated me on my accomplishments, but for me that S was nothing but a blemish. It was a tragedy. It was the one thing that represented how I had missed the mark—how, despite my struggles, I could not seem to get my hand-formed letters to touch both the bottom line and the top line of my handwriting paper with the grace that so many of my peers seemed to exude effortlessly. Like a condemnatory epitaph on the gravestone of a notorious criminal, that single dollar was a testament of my life’s failure—my utter imperfection.

In the New Testament lesson for today (Hebrews 13:17-25), the author pens one of the most beautiful exhortations in all of scripture: “The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant: Make you perfect in everything good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight; through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” In that quotation, which I pull from the burial office in the Book of Common Prayer, I use a slightly edited version of the biblical text, but the meaning is the same: through Christ may God make you perfect in all you do. Perfection, it seems, is what God can accomplish in us through Jesus Christ, but the word “perfection” can be misleading.

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your heavenly father is perfect.” In Philippians 3:12, Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own.” In our culture, perfect is a powerful word and an even more powerful concept. It comes with a bright red “100% A+” at the top of our paper. After bowling 12 strikes in a row, it comes with a celebrated score of 300. In baseball, it occurs when all 27 batters who make a plate appearance are retired in order without reaching base. Rarely is an Olympian rewarded with all 10.0s, but, when it happens, the athlete’s name is recorded in the annals of outstanding accomplishment. Can the same be said for the Christian? Do we ever have a perfect day? Can we possibly be as perfect as our heavenly father?

Perfect, in the biblical sense, is not a mere expression of correctness; it is a statement of completeness. Perfect means whole. It means finished. It means complete. Those of us who enjoy the nuances of grammar and language might prefer to think of perfection in terms of verb tense. Imperfect verbs are those actions that occurred in the past but still continue on into the present (e.g., John was running to church in order to hear the preacher’s riveting sermon). Perfect verbs are those actions that are already completed (e.g., John stormed out of church when he heard the preacher say something he did not like). When Jesus and Paul and the author of Hebrews envision our perfection, they are not asking us to get everything right; they are inviting us to strive for fulfillment. In other words, the goal of the Christian life is completing the test not achieving a perfect score.

You are not perfect. There are blemishes on your life’s report card. Some of us carry imperfections that more visible than those of others. Many of us hide our deepest failures where no one can see them. Still, we feel the agony of missing the mark. Yet God is not asking his children to be faultless. He asks that we be made complete—that we achieve wholeness in Jesus Christ. Does that mean that he calls us to a life of holiness? Absolutely. But we are made perfect not as a condition of receiving that call but as a people who have heard that call and are answering it. God makes us perfect. God makes us complete. We cannot achieve perfection on our own. Only God, working in us the power of his love, can make us whole. Perfection is not merely our aim. It is God’s aim for us.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Salt Can Lose its Saltness

I wanted to post this early this morning, but I didn't get a chance to, and now I'm glad. My friend and dialogue partner, Steve Pankey, posted this morning on the same topic, and now I have the benefit of using his post as a platform for my own comments. More than anything, though, I like it that he and I are thinking about the same sort of thing as Sunday approaches. As a preacher, that gives me hope.

I supposed that I agree with Steve on one point--that salt may not be able to lose its saltiness--but I want to take that a step further and say that it can lose its saltness.

Saltness? Saltiness? What's the difference you ask? I might be making an argument out of nothing, but stick with me for a minute.

Lately, I've been turning to the Greek with shocking regularity, and I'll do it again today. The Greek word for salt is "ἃλας," and the Greek word translated by the NRSV as "saltiness" in Sunday's gospel lesson is "ἁλισθήσεται." The latter is a form of the verb that at its root mean "to salt" or "to season with salt." In other words, it's the basic verb that goes with salt. The same would be said for things like jump ropes. What do you do with a jump rope? You jump rope. What do you do with salt? You salt something. The participle form of the verb "to salt" doesn't narrowly imply taste--though that's part of it. The Greek word that is translated as "lost its taste" does mean literally "has become insipid." But the word rendered as "saltiness" has means more than just flavor. It's even more basic than that. It means something broader like "having the quality of salt."

As frequently as I've toyed with the Greek, I've also been turning to other translations of the bible to help clarify things, and this is one of those weeks when it might help. Take a look at all these translations of the verse in question (Matthew 5:13). Several stick unhelpfully close to the literal translation, giving something equally confusing like "with what shall it be salted?" Others use the word "salty" in place of "saltiness," but still the cultural emphasis seems to be on taste. I'd rather use a culturally anachronistic word that jars the ear and begs the reader to see deeper into the word. I prefer the RSV's "saltness." It renders Matthew 5:13 thusly:

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men."

Why does it matter? Because of the context of the passage, which is echoed in the "let your light so shine..." in the succeeding verses.

Salt might not be able to lose its salty flavor, but it can become so contaminated by other things that it can no longer be used for food. (I'm pulling from the International Critical Commentary by Davies and Allison to make this point.) Bad salt--impure salt--adulterated salt--is good for nothing except throwing on the streets during an icy winter or sprinkling over ice when you're making homemade ice cream. In other words, table salt (NaCal) becomes no better than rock salt (a mixture of several ionic compounds, including NaCl, KCl, and others), which belongs on the ground instead of on the table.

You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. Don't defile that identity in such a way that you can't bear witness to the world. Your righteousness, he says, must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. That means you have to accept a life of holiness befitting your identity as a follower of Jesus--as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. For so many (in Jesus' day and ours), hypocrisy sets in and renders the salt impure and nearly useless. The same is true for the religious life. Don't lose your saltness. Stay pure. Accept no substitutes. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Creationists (and Their Opponents) Have Totally Missed the Point

Let me start by saying that I don’t really care whether you believe the earth was created in six days or whether you believe the universe is over 13 billion years old. I don’t want to sound crass or insensitive, but I don’t care. And that’s the point.

I believe that a literal reading of scripture is an absolutely valid hermeneutical approach. It leads to some really bizarre conclusions about God and humanity and what it means to be a person of faith, but, if that’s your thing, I say go for it. This Christian, father of three, full-time ordained parish clergyperson, however, prefers to read the bible as a complex collection of history and metaphor and imperative and reflection and dream all woven together. Yes, I do believe that the earth is 4 billion years old. Yes, I do believe that the human species evolved from lower primates. Yes, I do believe that science should be taught in science class and that religion should be taught in religion class (in church, not in public schools). But I still believe that both the creationists and the evolutionists are totally missing the point and damaging both religion and science in the pursuit of a mythical “victory” in a debate that shouldn’t be taking place in the first place.

Last night, at the Creation Museum of Petersburg, KY, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham (presumably no of direct relation to the second son of Noah) rehashed the thoroughly over-debated debate on creation vs. evolution. I did not see the debate, but I heard a report on NPR this morning about it. One of the lead-in comments made as the story was introduced reflected the fact that, despite the debate, it seemed doubtful that any minds were changed. Is anyone surprised? Of course that’s what happened. Nothing.

Then, I heard an interview of one of the attendees of the debate. Like me, he grew up watching Bill Nye on television. Unlike me, he went to a private Christian school where he was taught a biblically literal approach to creation, but, as a mainline Protestant Christian from Alabama, I was “taught” the same thing in various venues—Sunday school, conversations among friends, at the dinner tables of friends whose parents care a lot about the issue, etc.. He remarked that as a child who learned one thing in school and another thing on television he recognized that he had to make a choice about what he would believe. I found myself gripping the steering wheel as he spoke, drawn both physical and mentally into his story. This was my experience, too. He knew what it was like to be pulled in the bifurcated directions of science and faith. And then, he shared his conclusion: he decided to believe what the bible said. Ugh. Sigh. And I realized how little we have in common.

Science is science, and faith is faith, so why we do we keep pretending that they belong on the same stage? They certainly don’t have the same answers, but that isn’t because they “disagree.” It’s because they aren’t even asking the same questions. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t ask your clergyperson to tell you about the fossil record or about carbon dating or about the cosmological origins of the universe (unless she or he happens to be an evolutionary biologist or an astrophysicist). And, for the love of all that is sane, don’t ask your biology teacher to explain what happened to Noah’s ark after it landed on Mt. Ararat or how it was possible that Jesus walked on the water or what will happen to the world when Jesus comes back (unless she or he happens to also be your Sunday school teacher). Can’t we all agree that it’s silly to think that science and religion have to fit together like chocolate and peanut-butter? I like both of those delicious things, and I even like them together. But science and religion are like chocolate and race cars. Sure, you can like them both. I do. But don’t try washing your race car with chocolate sauce or eating a chocolate-covered tailpipe. That’s just silly.

Today’s OT reading is the story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). It’s the story of a man who believed God when God promised to make him the father of many nations—that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven (astrophysicists, please forgive the metaphor). It’s the story of a man who was nearly ancient when he and his equally ancient wife conceived and bore their son Isaac. It’s the story of a man who heard God say to him, “Get up and take your son to distant place and sacrifice him—kill him—at the place where I tell you.” And what did Abraham do? He got up and took his son and went just as God had said.

It’s remarkable to me how the story of faith unfolds. Abraham basically had given up his entire life to respond to God’s promise. Despite all the odds, Abraham believed God—took him at his word—and sure enough had the miracle-child. Now God was telling him to kill that child, and Abraham agreed. He didn’t know how things were going to work out. As he walked up the mountain with his son and heard his son ask, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice,” Abraham responded, “God himself will provide the lamb,” not knowing in the slightest how things would turn out. And, as Abraham raised the knife to kill his son, he did so with no understanding of what would happen as the knife plunged into his rope-bound boy. But he did it anyway. And that’s the kind of faith God calls us to have.

We have faith that doesn’t come with answers. That’s what faith is—it’s accepting a premise that isn’t proven (and shouldn’t be). We are called to have faith like Abraham. Not to kill our child—that isn’t the point. The point is to believe and trust in God even when we don’t understand how everything works.

What does it mean to be a Christian who believes that the bible is the word of God and yet sees the scientific evidence that the universe is 13.4 billion years old? What does it mean to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and yet have no tangible proof of it? What does it mean to trust that God will redeem all of creation for all eternity even though cosmologists predict that eventually the whole universe will either fizzle out or come crashing together in a big crunch? I don’t know. And I don’t have to know.

Don’t back yourself into the corner of needing all the answers. Having faith means having faith.

Whenever people of faith or scientists who disagree with people of faith pretend that one must be right and the other must be wrong, both suffer. Scientists who find axioms of faith incompatible with the rationality of science are letting creationists be their evangelists. And people of faith who believe that the pursuit of science is a quest to punch holes in their beliefs are yielding the greatest resource they have to an argument that need not exist. Learn to live with unanswered questions. Learn to believe despite the incongruity of science and religion. We don’t need to be in conflict with each other. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Let it Shine!

Most Sundays, when I say the offertory sentence, I quote the King James Version of Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven.” (I hope Steve Pankey will be comforted in knowing that I usually change “men” to “others” for the sake of the Rite II service.) That verse is in the heart of Sunday’s gospel lesson, and, as I read the lessons this morning in preparation for a yet-to-be-written sermon, it’s where I find myself drawn.

Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven. What does it mean to let your light shine? What does it mean to be a light for the world? What does it mean for God to use your light to lead others to glorify him?

At staff meeting this morning, several of us broke into a spontaneous rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” It’s a song we learn as children. We hold our fingers up and wave them back and forth and declare that we’re going to let our light shine, let it shine, let it shine. But why? Why do we teach that to our kids? Why do we smile when a room full of grown-ups sings that song as if they were still little school children?

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” You. Not just him. You. No one, he says, lights a lamp and then hides it under a basket. Duh! You are the light of the world. Then why, Jesus asks us, are we hiding our light? Why aren’t we letting it shine “all over the neighborhood?”

Maybe it’s modesty. Maybe it’s forgetfulness. Maybe it’s sin. But, whatever it is, the ways of the world—the Satan who seeks to “blow it out”—make us act as if we aren’t the light Jesus declares us to be. Us. We are the light, and we should live that way. That doesn’t mean that we must live that way in order to be the light. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you want to be the light of the world, keep my commandments.” (See yesterday’s post on comparative righteousness.) He says, “You are the light of the world. So live like it!”

I think this is the basis for Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not that Jesus has a problem with their observance of the law. Why else would he say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets?” Instead, Jesus takes issue with the lives they live. What does it mean to be the light of the world and to let that light shine? Well, there’s a reason I say it right before we pass the offering plate. It’s because shining that light isn’t a self-aggrandizing gesture but an act of humility and sacrifice. No, it’s not just about money, but, then again, neither is passing the offering plate. It’s about giving up ourselves. It’s about knowing that being the light of the world is a gift from God and that showing others that gift isn’t about demonstrating one’s own righteousness but that which is given from God.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Comparative Righteousness

Did you see the Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial that portrayed its German engineers as getting their wings every time a Volkswagen reaches 100k miles? I didn’t catch the whole thing the first time around, so I watched it again. You can, too (see the Youtube clip below). The part I remembered, though, is the scene right at 30 seconds when two engineers are standing in the bathroom at adjacent urinals. Size, it seems, matters.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-20), a comparison of a different sort seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples, and the result of the comparison most definitely matters:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

How much righteousness do you need? More than that of the scribes and Pharisees, it seems.

Comparative righteousness. It flies in the face of everything this Grace-over-Law, Pauline-primacy, universality-of-sin, total-depravity preacher believes about the gospel. What do you mean, Jesus? Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? What kind of a I’m-holier-than-thou comparison game are you instituting? Did I read that right?

Well, I turned to the Greek. More specifically, I turned to a resource that mostly sits unused on my shelf: Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (In case you aren’t familiar with the whole tradition of latent if not explicit anti-Semitism in much of German New Testament scholarship before the middle of the 20th century, let me simply say that quoting Kittel invites a whole host of criticism that I don’t intend to invoke. So let the reader understand that I get it. And, although he has some wonderful insights into how Greek words have made it from OT tradition into the NT, there’s a reason he usually sits unused on my shelf.) Kittel has a whole subheading devoted to Matthew’s use of the word for “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη). Paul might use “righteousness” as a “pure gift from God” and, thus, an integral piece of his “doctrine of justification,” but Matthew (and most of the other non-Pauline NT writers) use it as “the right conduct of man which follows the will of God and is pleasing to him.” Uh oh.

Kittel, who is decidedly German-Protestant, qualifies this and attempts to explain that such “right conduct” is “plainly regarded as a gift which God gives to those who ask for it.” That would make me feel a little better if it really were that plain. But it’s not. And I don’t want to fall into the trap (perhaps his) of reading Matthew 5:20 as if it were Romans 3:22. “Your righteousness,” Jesus tells us, “[must exceed] that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Exceed. Be more than. Outdo.

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I feel called to wrestle with this text—perhaps as the original hearers did. Pharisees and scribes were the do-gooders of Jesus’ day. Yes, they get a bad rap in the gospels, but the prevailing opinion in Jesus’ day was that they were the “holier-than-thous.” They said their prayers and went to synagogue and gave their offerings and lived a religious life that everyone knew about. I’m guessing human nature hasn’t changed over the past 2,000 years and that they were just as popular then as similar characters are today. But to suggest that our righteousness must exceed that of the “holier-than-thous” is throwing everything into a scramble. What is real righteousness? Where does it come from? How much do I have to do with it? Is it (as I typically think) purely a gift from God? If so, how does my righteousness ever exceed that of someone else? Are these two different concepts of righteousness coming to a battle in Matthew 5?

I think this will be one of those weeks in which I’ll keep struggling with the text all the way up until (and beyond) Sunday morning.