Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jesus the Spiritual Boy Scout

On Sunday, we will hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand. (And the oohs and aahs will be heard throughout the church.) Really, this is one of those stories we know. It's on that short list of miracles that most Christians can recall--even if they don't get the number of fish or loaves or people or baskets quite right. So what does the preacher say? That Jesus made a lot of food? That in Christ everyone is satisfied?

This time around, I'm drawn to the exchange between the disciples and Jesus. Remember how the lesson starts--"Jesus withdrew to a deserted place by himself." He wasn't looking for people; he was running away from them. But they found him anyway. And, when he went ashore, he saw the multitude, had compassion on them, and began to heal their sick--ministry on the fly. When evening approached, the disciples urged Jesus to send the crowd away so that they could buy something to eat, and then Jesus really surprised them.

"You give them something to eat," he said. "But we've got only five loaves and two fish," they replied--just enough for us. We brought bread and fish for our small group, but we aren't prepared to feed this crowd. This isn't our job. How are we supposed to do that? Sigh. "Give me what you have," Jesus said. "And tell the people to sit down."

The Boy Scout motto is "Be prepared." It's a good motto for life, Boy Scout or otherwise. That's why grandmothers the world over keep hard candy in their purses. That's why southern ladies have pitchers of iced tea. That's why Bookman, the library inspector, told Jerry Seinfeld that he should keep Folgers in his cabinet--it's freeze-dried. People like to be prepared when they are called upon to be hospitable.

But Jesus wasn't worried. The disciples were, however, and they brought this panic to Jesus. Trusting--not in his supernatural ability to multiply loaves and fish but that the circumstance would work itself out--Jesus told the disciples to take care of it. You give them something to eat. He wasn't testing them. He wasn't taunting them. He wasn't preparing to show off. He just knew that everything would be ok.

What does it mean to be a spiritual Boy Scout? What does it mean to have the kind of faith that trusts that everything will be taken care of? You don't need someone who can multiply loaves and fishes in your company in order to trust that God will provide. The message I hear this Sunday is the call to admire Jesus--not for the miracle of feeding but for the miracle of faith. He has that relaxed, prepared, go-with-the-flow mentality that we are invited to have for ourselves and that I desperately want in my life.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

William Wilberforce & Galatians 3

How would you describe yourself? I’m a thirty-four-year-old man, father of three, Episcopal priest from Alabama. The answer might change depending on the context, but usually it contains some collection of geography, gender, profession, and family. If I were in a room full of Episcopal priests, I’d probably be more specific in describing my job—“rector of a midsized Episcopal church in Decatur, Alabama.” If I were at a high school reunion, I might include some of my history since graduation—“I went to Birmingham-Southern College and worked in Birmingham for a year before heading to seminary in Cambridge.” If I were at a convention for Brian McCann lookalikes, I might include some specifics about my appearance—“I’m a right-handed man with moderately fair skin, a reddish beard, and blue eyes.” Still, the basics are there.

But for Paul, as he writes in Galatians 3, most of that gets thrown out the window. Those of us who are in Christ through our baptism have given all of that up. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I don’t live in a community where there is a large enough Jewish population for anyone to understand instinctively what it would mean for Paul to say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, but it might be a little like saying to Benjamin Netanyahu that there is neither Jew nor Arab. Although in places like Decatur, Alabama, there isn’t typically a religious divide made along racial lines, imagine if Paul had shown up in 1965 and declared, “If you are a Christian, there is neither black nor white.” Likewise, we can’t fully appreciate the abolition of the distinction between slave and free in a first-century Palestinian context, but imagine if Paul had said, “There is neither poor nor rich, working-class nor upper-class, illiterate nor educated, addict nor clean, etc..”

Paul picks the biggest, deepest, most fundamental descriptors. He chooses the most basic way of identifying oneself. He singles out the most profound points of contention in the community of the Galatians and declares that in Christ they no longer exist. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, or who your parents were. The only thing that matters is your identity in Christ. The challenge, of course, is taking that seriously.

Often, when we read the prophet’s descriptions of God’s reign, Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom, and Paul’s descriptions of the new life in Christ, we fast-forward in our brains to the eschaton—the end of the world—and say to ourselves, “Won’t that be nice…someday…when there really is no male or female, slave or free?” We take all of these prophecies and fling them ahead to that someday point in the future  so that they will no longer be meaningful to us. “When it all comes together, it really will be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.” But Jesus didn’t mean someday. And neither does Paul.

Today is the feast of William Wilberforce, the British politician, evangelical Christian, and staunch abolitionist. Although introduced to ardent expressions of Christianity at a young age, Wilberforce did not experience a conversion until his 20s, when he began waking up early every day, reading the bible, and writing in a journal. Soon, God grabbed a hold of his heart and mind in a way that led the popular, social political upstart to experience a crisis of conscience. There weren’t many evangelical Christians in polite society. Should he change careers? After enduring an internal struggle that he hid from everyone but a few confidants, he decided to remain in politics and let his newfound faith guide his work. The resulting career was astounding.[1]

In the latter half of the 18th century, Britain was fully engaged in the slave trade. Ships carried British manufactured goods to Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The slaves were sent to the New World, where they were exchanged for tobacco, tea, sugar, and cotton. The ships returned to Britain, where the desired items entered the economy, and the whole operation accounted for as much as 80% of nation’s foreign income. For Wilberforce, his understanding of the gospel and the horrors of slavery were absolutely incompatible, and he began his campaign to end the slave trade. Wilberforce began his work to outlaw slavery in 1783. Twenty-four years later, after unwavering efforts in the face of considerable social and political opposition, the Slave Trade Act became law in 1807.[2]

We are all one in Christ—not someday but now. If the power of the resurrection is real in this life, then we must take Paul seriously. How will that change us? We are no longer black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, southern or Yankee, educated or illiterate. We are one in Christ. If we stop taking our relationship with Jesus for granted, what might that do to us? How might our church change? What would matter to us? What causes would we support? Stop thinking of yourself as distinct. Stop labeling yourself in ways that you are different from others. Recognize the transformation that happens through Christ, and live into it.

[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Inhabiting Compassion

When you think of Jesus, would you describe him as a compassionate fellow? What about God? Do you believe in a compassionate God?

As best I can tell, there are eight verses in the four gospelaccounts that describe Jesus as compassionate or having pity (same Greek word), and two of them are repeats:

  • Compassion on the Sheperdless Crowd (Matt. 9:36)
  • Feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:14 & Mark 6:34)
  • Feeding of the 4,000 (Matt. 15:32 & Mark 8:2)
  • Healing of Two Blind Men (Matt. 20:34)
  • Cleansing of a Leper (Mark 1:41)
  • Raising of a Widow’s Son (Luke 7:13)

 That’s six different occasions when the gospel writers record for us that Jesus was moved with pity or acted out of compassion, and two of those moments were precursors for the feeding miracles. I think it’s interesting that both Matthew and Mark set the stage for two different but parallel feeding stories by mention Jesus’ emotional state. Perhaps there’s something in the background there about a Jewish mother feeding her upset son large quantities of matzo.

The Greek word for “have compassion on” (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean “disturbed in one’s guts.” It shares the same root as the word “spleen” because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels. That seems odd to us, but we still say things like “my heart yearns for you” even though the organ responsible for pumping blood through the body, of course, has nothing to do with love. I don’t think it surprises anyone to hear that Jesus was “moved with pity” at someone’s plight or “had compassion on” a person or a crowd. What should surprise us, however, is that through the incarnation the impassable (click on the word for a definition) God found a way to be compassionate.

The word “compassion” in its Latin roots means “to suffer with.” Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice. That’s something we would say of a friend. It’s even something we would say of Jesus. But—at least until the middle of the last century—it’s not something we ordinarily would say of God.

God does not suffer. (Feel free to disagree with me on that—many, many theologians do—but that has been the orthodox belief for 2,000 years.) Jesus, of course, does suffer. God is not compassionate. God is loving. In fact, God is love. But God doesn’t look down on creation and shed a tear when we are going through a tough time. Like a radio whose dial has broken off and thus always plays the same station, God is always related to the created order through love. It never stops. It never changes. And that love might seem like empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate co-suffering, but it’s not. But with Jesus all of that is different. Jesus is compassionate. He does weep at the grave of his friend Lazarus. He does look out on the crowd and feel moved in his bowels at their shepherdless state. And that’s a remarkable thing.

Whether or not you believe that God is compassionate, at least stop for a moment and consider how amazing it is that the incarnate Son of God is moved with pity for us and for the whole human race. God shows his love for us in human form so that God’s love might inhabit our own miserable state of affairs. The power of the incarnation, therefore, is even more clearly expressed by the unfathomable mystery that the almighty, unchanging, completely-other God is found in human likeness—suffering and all.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about compassion and questioned whether compassion might transcend politics. In the best moments, it can, and it does. But, too often, even compassion fails to break through. He didn’t ask it, but I will—why do we care so much more about Gaza than Syria? What is the disconnect between our broken-heartedness at Columbine or Sandy Hook and our nation’s gun policy?

What does it mean for us to believe in a God who sent his son to the world in human form in order that God himself might take on the very brokenness of humanity so that our brokenness might be transformed into wholeness? What does it mean for us to believe that the answer we seek is found in a God who inhabits our suffering? What does it mean for us to believe that the messy, emotional state of compassion is at the core of our faith? Through Christ we discover that God is not aloof but is love. Then why is the world so short on compassion?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Learning to Read Miracles

In yesterday's gospel lesson, we rounded out three weeks of parables yesterday, and now we move to three weeks of miracles. Some of us might celebrate that transition—no more picking apart enigmatic sayings of Jesus and attempting to apply two-thousand-year-old wisdom to contemporary life. But I think the miracles are even tougher to understand than the parables.

Parables are supposed to be picked apart. I’ve only heard one person tell me he interpreted parables by reading them as literal truth—an interesting hermeneutical approach that is worth considering another time. For the most part, people read parables as hyperbolic or allegorical or exemplary teachings of Jesus. When we read the parable of the mustard seed, no one goes out and plants mustard seeds, expecting the kingdom to grow out of the ground. But people read miracles as if the whole point of the story is the thing that happened. But that’s not good enough.

Miracles need to be picked apart just as much as parables do—probably even more. We get trapped by the “feat of wonder” and forget that there’s a deeper, more important teaching hidden in the text. Yes, part of the point is to show us that Jesus is able to do amazing things, but that’s only the beginning. “What else?” the preacher is supposed to ask or else she ends up preaching a dull sermon.

Take this week’s parable for instance: the feeding of the five thousand. As you can see, the narrative is brief. Jesus goes off by himself, but he is pursued by the crowd. When he comes ashore, he has compassion on them, cures their sick, and, when the day is done, urges the disciples to feed the multitude. They raise the natural question: where will we get enough food? Jesus asks how much they have, and then he multiplies five loaves and two fish into enough to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.

What’s the point of the miracles? That Jesus can take five loaves and two fish and feed five thousand? Or, to take it a tiny, still-too-small step further, that Jesus is able to provide abundantly? Yes, sure, but what else? There is a tension between physical needs and spiritual needs—what have the people really come to Jesus for? There is a tension between wilderness and civilization—where will the people be taken care of? There is a tension between the disciples’ materialistic focus and Jesus’ spiritual insight—who will give them what they need? There is a Eucharistic prefigurement with the taking, blessing, breaking, and distributing. There is a ridiculous amount of leftovers—so much so that any priest or altar guild would blush at the wastefulness of twelve baskets full—that points to something more than abundance. The danger isn’t in over-interpreting this miracle. The danger is in leaving the miracle unmined for its multiple meanings.

I’ll suggest that in order to get to the heart of any miracle story we have to suspend our belief in its literal truth long enough to glimpse its real meaning. That does not mean that we cannot and should not cling to a literal reading of any of Jesus’ miracles! I believe in the literally, visually verifiably empty tomb, and that leads me to believe in the physical historicity of just about every miracle story in the gospel. But the literal truth is only the beginning. Try putting it on a shelf for a few hours. Pretend that the story was an exaggerated metaphor that developed within the Christian community to point to a bigger truth about Jesus. What does the story say to us then? What is the evangelist trying to get across? What happens to Jesus when we stop thinking of him as just a miracle worker? Then, after you’ve read and reread the text and gathered all you can from it, bring the historicity back to the story and see what happens. Let the miracle mean more than the miraculous. Let it teach you something else about Jesus and the Christian faith.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reaching Inward to Reach the SBNRs

All week long, I’ve been writing about the phenomenon that is the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” sector of our society. These SBNRs are thoughtful, intentional, positive people who want nothing to do with religion. As I wrote on Monday, sometimes that’s because they see no need for church, but other times it’s because the church has hurt them in some way. On Tuesday, I looked at the differences between spirituality and religion, and on Wednesday I pointed out that religion without spirituality is just a bunch of rules—no wonder SBNRs are staying away from church! Today, I want to look at what the church can do to reach out to SBNRs.

For starters, let’s acknowledge that, for the most part, SBNRs aren’t missing religion in their lives. People who identify as SBNR aren’t hoping that an evangelist will stop by and tell them about Jesus. They don’t wake up on Sunday morning wondering where all the churches are in their hometown and wishing they had somewhere to call their church home. They have either left the church on purpose or stayed away because everything they’ve heard about church turns them off. Because of that, churches can’t suddenly start a program or ministry that will attract SBNRs. Instead, the church has to change the way it does religion.

How does a church measure success? Some churches, like the Episcopal Church, use average Sunday attendance. Some use financial figures like budgets and stewardship results. Some use numbers of souls saved or people who come to an altar call. But all of those measures are based on religion and not spirituality. They are expressions of assimilation. They require commitment to a congregational identity rather than the mission of our faith. What would it mean to measure success in terms of meals served to the homeless? How could a congregation quantify peace attained in a centering prayer session? Is it possible to measure the peace in which we participate as Christians rather than the number of people who show up to our programs?

At a more basic level, that means letting go of the attitude that we need to get SBNRs into church. We don’t. The growth of the SBNRs will not mean the death of the church. Perhaps, in time, God willing, the church will learn from this phenomenon and change its identity to become more faithful and genuine and less legalistic and doctrinal. But we don’t have to start by stemming the tide of the SBNR movement. It isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s something to learn from.

What does it mean to be faithful? How can we live out our call to be disciples of Christ? It isn’t by memorizing the catechism or learning the difference between Nestorian and Chalcedonian Christology. And it isn’t by squeezing a bunch of new converts into our churches. And it isn’t by doubling our budgets or building new family life centers. Being faithful is a practice. It’s spirituality. It’s saying our prayers and studying the bible. It’s asking questions and inviting others to ask their questions, too. As an institutional church, we need to become more spiritual and less religious—not just for the SBNRs’ sake but for our sake, too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bonus Post: Sunday's 6 Parables

Alright, can we just accept that Jesus is saying to much this one Sunday for any one sermon? In the readings selected from Matthew 13, Jesus gives us six different statements about the kingdom. We call them "parables" because Matthew himself calls them "parables," but you could argue that none of them is more than a simile. Still, here's what we have.

The parables about the mustard seed and the leaven seem to suggest that the kingdom starts small and then grows beyond measure. Sounds easy enough. I could preach on that.

The parables about the field and the pearl seem to suggest that the kingdom is of incomparable value, requiring total dedication from us. Sounds ok. Again, there's a sermon to be preached there.

The parable about the net and the catch of fish is basically a restatement of the parable of the wheat and weeds from last Sunday, and it seems to suggest that God alone sorts out the good and the bad when it comes to the kingdom. I could preach on that, too, but didn't we just hear that sermon?

Lastly, Jesus says that the scribes in the kingdom are like a master who brings out both old a new treasure, which (after a lot of study and reading of secondary sources) seems to suggest that the kingdom of God is about both old dispensations and new revelations--the traditional Jewish understandings and the new spin that Jesus puts on them. I could preach on that--and probably will--but why all the other stuff?

How does one preach a sermon on the growth of a kingdom of incomparable value that is populated by those whom God alone chooses, all of which is revealed in old a new understandings? Easy enough? Hope you have a late tee time on Sunday.

RBNSs: Why Religious But Not Spiritual Is Killing the Church

This is a mini-series on the growing number of individuals who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNRs). On Monday, I tried to stress that SBNRs come from different backgrounds and can’t be lumped together as a homogeneous group. Then, on Tuesday, I tried to distinguish between spirituality and religion, suggesting that religion usually contains a component of spirituality and that being SBNR is about holding on to the practice without the framework and rules. Today, I’d like to take that last point—the rules of religion—a little further and discuss one group that I feel is driving people away from the church: RBNSs.

What is an RBNS? Do you remember that scene in The Princess Bride in which Wesley remarked to Princess Buttercup, “ROUSs? I don’t believe they exist,” right before the rodent of unusual size jumped out and attacked him? If not, you can watch the beginning of the clip below.

Alas, RBNSs aren’t mythical beasts of the Fire Swamp. They live in your church and my church. They are the religious but not spiritual people that suck the joy out of institutional religion. Remember, spirituality is the practice of our faith. It’s how religion becomes real. It’s the exercise of the tenets to which we ascribe. Do you believe that God loves the world without reservation? Then you should love the world in the same way. If you don’t—if you spend your religious life insulated from the world, certain that those on the outside aren’t recipients of the same undeserved love that you have received—then you’re an RBNS. If you care more about the rules of the faith than the practice of the faith, you’re an RBNS. And, if you’re an RBNS, it’s time to cut bait or fish—to get busy living or get busy dying—so that the church can live out its calling as the bride of Christ.

Recently on Facebook, a quote from Stephen Corbert has been posted and reposted. It’s a perfect example of what happens when spirituality is taken out of religion.

Who are the RBNSs? They are preachers who spend more time “getting it right” than living out their faith. They are the parishioners who show up on Sunday morning not to be transformed by the experience of corporate worship but to take their appointed place in the congregation of the who’s who in the community. They are the lay leaders and vestries who worry about whether the local newspaper will discover that a yoga group has been meeting downstairs after hours. They are the angry people who call demanding that the labyrinth (a.k.a. “portal to hell”) be removed from the church grounds and an exorcism be completed in the place where it once laid. They are the ones who hold the posters and picket signs silently screaming their cause at anyone who drives by. In other words, they are the people who give religion a bad name. They are the ones who drive the well-intentioned faithful who hate controversy away from the church. And they are the ones who make sure that no new seekers will darken the door.

But how do we become RBNSs? We stop praying every day. We stop reading the bible every day. We stop letting God surprise us with new insights into what his will for the world really is. We start lambasting things that are new simply because they are new. We start judging things based on whether they are familiar to us and to our tradition. We start worshipping the God of our political, social, and cultural persuasion instead of searching for the unknowable, unchangeable God of all time and space.

In our cultural landscape, the RBNSs have the microphones and the attention of the media. The television cameras don’t spotlight the quiet faithfulness of most Christians because daily prayer and daily study aren’t exciting. Instead, the people who give religion a voice are the rigid hardliners, whose faith isn’t a daily discipline but a voter guide. The same is true in other religious traditions. When the world thinks of Islam, what do they picture? When the world thinks of Mormonism, what comes to mind? All over the world, the RBNSs are squeezing the love and joy out of religion, and it’s time to put that love and joy back in.

Spirituality is our greatest asset. We need to put the spiritual back in religious. We need to show the world that being a person of religious faith isn’t all that different from being an SBNR. Tomorrow, I’ll finish the series with a look at how the church should reach out to SBNRs.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SBNRs: When Is Spiritual Not Religious?

Yesterday, I wrote about the origins of SBNRs, suggesting that not all “spiritual but not religious” individuals come from similar backgrounds. Some just aren’t interested in religion, but others are actively staying away because the institutional church has hurt them in some way. Later in the week, I’ll look at how the church should approach SBNRs. Today, however, I’m interested in the difference between spirituality and religion.

Sitting in her office, the priest looks at the man who has come to see her and says, “Tell me about your faith.” He shifts awkwardly in his seat and replies, “Well, um, I don’t come to church very often—but you already know that, don’t you? But even though I don’t come, I’m very spiritual. I pray every day, and I try to be a good person.” As the conversation continues, the priest tries to assure the man that she isn’t worried about how often he comes to church and that, instead, she’s focused on helping him find the spiritual resources he needs to make it through the personal crisis he’s come to see her about. But, since they are in her office, meeting on her turf, it’s hard to separate the perceived expectations of the institutional church from the individual encounter. In other words, it’s hard for members of the clergy to talk about spirituality without sounding like they are talking about religion.

What is spirituality, anyway? In the context of SBNRs, it’s defined as something other than religion. It could be a practice or a philosophy or an attitude that guides an individual through life, but it is most definitely not a religion. Yet, for a priest like me, spirituality is an essential component of religion. For me, spirituality is the outward expression of a personally held belief. It is the physical manifestation of a way of approaching life. If one believes that peace should be valued, that person might spend time every day sitting in silence and seeking that peace.

For me, Christianity is my religion. More specifically, I’m Anglican, which, as an American, means I’m an Episcopalian. We can talk about what I believe, but that’s another series altogether. Instead, let’s talk about my spirituality. Corporate worship is important to me, and I exercise my faith by gathering with other Christians on a weekly basis (or more often for the über-faithful). Communion is central to my experience of faith, and, usually when we gather to worship together, we share a representative meal of bread and wine that allows us to physically engage multiple aspects of what we believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection and his call to gather in his name. I also exercise my faith through daily study and meditation. I sit alone every morning and read a prescribed set of scripture lessons. Usually, I use a combination of standardized prayers (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for the Day) and my own personal prayers. I sit in silence for a while, reminding myself of God’s presence. I write in a journal, searching for God’s work in my life. And I exercise—physical exercise. As I run or walk or ride a bike, I explore God’s presence in the world around me, and I manipulate my body in ways that internalize the blessedness that is my physical life. There are lots of other practices, too, like giving away at least 10% of my income and spending time with close friends. But that’s how I do it. That’s my spirituality.

So what does it mean to have a spirituality but not a religion? The authors that Mark Oppenheimer cites in his NYT article “Examining the growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’” suggest that it means a wide range of things. The Rev. Lillian Daniel, in her book When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough (Jericho, 2013), wrote, “On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious…’ In the article, she said of such people, “[They] always find God in the sunsets and in walks on the beach.” Her attitude seems a bit cynical, but I can appreciate it. Nature—its beauty—is often a focus for the SBNR.

Courtney Bender, who teaches at Columbia, went looking for SBNRs and discovered that there are many manifestations of their spiritual practices. In an interview, she said that they “participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes.” Where these groups come from is part of Bender’s focus. Although SBNRs reject a need to belong to a group that stretches back into the past, they seek shared expressions of spirituality that honor the present. She names alternative medicine (shiatsu massage and acupuncture) and the arts (painting and dance) as examples of movements that draw SBNRs.

But when does a shared set of values expressed communally become a religion? If you and I and thirty other people believe that the goal of life is to experience beauty, and we believe that such beauty can be attained by painting and then discussing our paintings, have we not started a new religion? What’s the difference? Well, religions have rules—at least most of them do. Who is in and who is out is defined somehow. As Mitch Hedberg said, “I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member.” Anyone who likes sandwiches made with three pieces of bread and cut into triangles can join. But, as he went on to say, if you like alfalfa sprouts, “you’re not in the f***ing club!” In other words, as soon as a spirituality becomes defined, it loses its appeal to the SBNR.

Several years ago, I was doing some premarital counseling, and the groom-to-be balked when I asked him to sign the canonically required document that the couple believes about marriage what the Episcopal Church believes about marriage. “I can’t sign that,” he said. “I’m an atheist.” (Hmmm, I wondered to myself, our four sessions just became six.) I asked a colleague about it—how do I get him to sign the document? Should I even marry them? He said, “Just tell him he’s an Episcopalian but doesn’t know it yet.” Good point. Sometimes the reason people aren’t religious is because they haven’t found the right religion yet.

So what’s your reason for being? What’s the goal or telos of your life? Do you love nature and think that the purpose of life is to be found outdoors? Maybe you should be a Wiccan (But do remember that Rowan Williams was made a druid before he became Archbishop of Canterbury.) Do you think that this life is about being a good person and that you will be rewarded if you follow the Golden Rule? The Baha’i faith or Zoroastrianism might have appeal. Enjoy sitting in silence? Find peace when you meditate? Why not bite the bullet and become Buddhist? Think life is best when you go with the flow? Taoism may be for you. Still not happy? Take a look at this chart and see what you can find.

For me, all of those religions and all of those spiritualities are expressions of the same (false) truth: you get out of life what you put into it. My religion and my spirituality are based on the opposite premise: that you are rewarded with something that you do not and cannot ever deserve. Christianity, it its various forms and denominations, is about believing and living your life around the principle that God loves you regardless of who you are or what you do. Christian spirituality is the reiteration of this fact. There are no deities to appease. There are no steps to complete. Everything is about remembering that you are loved undeservedly. That could involve yoga. It might mean meditation. You could incorporate nature and charity and peace and a whole lot more into it. But what makes Christianity distinct is that thing we call grace. In some ways, at its furthest point, it’s religion without rules. Maybe all Christians are really SBNRs without knowing it—or at least they should be.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at what happens when people become RBNSs—religious but not spiritual—and why RBNSs are likely what’s pushing people to become SBNRs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

SBNRs: Where Do They Come From?

Usually, this blog focuses on the lessons appointed for the upcoming Sunday according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Sometimes, I will write about the readings from the Daily Office. Occasionally, I will break away from that lectionary-based focus and discuss issues that affect the Episcopal Church or the place of religion in popular culture. For this week, I am going to leave all of that behind and write about the phenomenon known as “spiritual but not religious,” a categorization that is often expressed by the acronym SBNR.

Yesterday, for our Sunday school discussion class, I chose an article from the New York Times that addresses this issue (19 July 2014. “Examining the Growth of the‘Spiritual but Not Religious.’” Mark Oppenheimer). If you didn’t see the article last week, it’s well worth a read. In it, Oppenheimer cites four authors who have recently written about the rise of SBNRs and what that rise means for organized religion. After reading that piece and discussing it with a table full of super-faithful Episcopalians (those who actually come to Sunday school in the middle of July), I have enough thoughts floating around in my mind to spend a week blogging about it.

No, I am not a sociologist, but I do spend a lot of my time talking with people about spirituality and religion. No, I do not have a meaningful ministry that is effectively bridging the gap between organized religion and those who have shunned traditional expressions of faith, but, as a 34-year-old guy who dreamed of being a chemist before answering a call to be a priest, I’m not totally unfamiliar with the arguments against maintaining crusty old churches like ours. Still, admittedly I am not an expert, so I hope that this series will solicit as many contributions from others as it will serve to put my own thoughts into type.

For this first post on the topic, I would like to explore the origins of the SBNRs and, hopefully, demonstrate that not all SBNRs are the same. In fact, I believe that my culture and context is dominated by a breed of SBNR that would be largely unfamiliar to a clergyperson in a different part of the country. So, first, where do SBNRs come from? What makes a person “spiritual but not religious?”

Let me introduce you to Andy. Andy is an engineer who works in Huntsville for an aerospace contractor. He is not from Alabama. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of lapsed Irish-Catholic parents. After completing his college degree in the northeast, he went on to do graduate studies, where he met his wife, who is also an engineer. They have two young children. Andy’s wife is from Tennessee, where she grew up attending an Episcopal church. Although they come to church occasionally, usually Andy stays at home. To him, going to church is about going through the motions, and he gets no spiritual fulfillment from attending. He is happy for his family to pursue their faith, but he would rather spend Sunday morning at home as a family—the one time during the week when they can have a relaxed breakfast, go for a bike ride, or play in the backyard.

Rebecca, on the other hand, stays away from church not because it fails to appeal to her but because church itself is a source of deep pain in her life. Hers is a small town, where everyone knows everyone and invitations to church are not uncommon. Her friends in her yoga class keep asking her to join them on Sunday morning, but she shrugs them off. She doesn’t quite know how to tell them that church is part of what broke up her marriage. She was raised in a conservative Christian denomination, and she married her high school sweetheart, whom she had grown up with at church. But, as the years went by, her husband’s drinking became a problem for their family. He could never admit it to their teetotalling church, so she suffered in silence. Finally, when she approached their minister with her problem, she was told that the bible required that she “honor her vows” and “tough it out.” She left her husband and the church, and she is scared to come back.

Spiritual but not religious can come from anywhere. Maybe someone grew up in a home that valued individual inquiry but never engaged organized religion. Maybe someone was raised in an ultra-religious household and wants to leave his or her past behind. More likely, SBNRs come from somewhere in between the “never-had-it” and the “anti-upbringing” poles of childhood. It’s worth noting, however, that not all SBNRs are the same. Some aren’t scared of Jesus; they’re just scared of organized religion and the damage done in its name. Others worry that by putting a label on their inquiry they risk ostracism by their peers as a “Jesus-freak.” How we include SBNRs in our work, therefore, requires sophistication.

SBNRs in Decatur, Alabama, are different from those on Long Island or in Seattle. Although I feel certain that there are isolated exceptions, being from Alabama means being from a religious household. Some are more religious than others, but it’s hard to grow up in the south without growing up in some sort of relationship with the church. We might leave it when we grow up. We might even run from it and never turn back. But, for the most part, we don’t happen to be SBNR. For us, SBNR represents a departure from something. For the secular humanist from the northeast, SBNR might be the opposite—a sign of spiritual growth.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the difference between spirituality and religion. What does an SBNR want out of life? How is that different from what a traditional, mainstream religious adherent seeks?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Parables Better Left Unexplained

Some things are best left unexplained, and I’m beginning to wonder whether Jesus, when he was asked by his disciples to explain the parable of the wheat and the weeds, should have said, “No, you go figure it out.” The interpretation he gives is an allegory—each element in the story corresponds to an element in real life. That would be great if everything lined up in a way that made sense, but I’m still scratching my head. I don’t think the interpretation is finished. Maybe Jesus was just beginning the conversation about what the wheat and weeds meant. In fact, as I continue to I consider the interpretation that Jesus gave, I find myself wondering whether the interpretation itself is yet another parable.

Here are some of the reasons that Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of his own parable won’t work: 
  • “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” Why is the Son of Man sowing seeds? Why is he responsible for scattering the good people into the world? The “Son of Man” is typically an image associated with the end of the world not its beginning or its ongoing processes.
  •  “the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” Since when has the devil been the source of anyone? Maybe the devil leads people astray, but you can’t change wheat into a weed. If seeds really are bad from the time of their sowing, God must be responsible for that.
  • “while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…” Who is sleeping? The Son of Man? God? Everyone? If the allegory holds up, then evil snuck into the world when God wasn’t paying attention. That means that the devil’s work is only possible because God isn’t doing his job. But that can’t be right. The one who keeps us neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121).
  • “…an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away” Since when is the devil’s work over? The evil one didn’t just sneak into the world, sow his seeds, and then depart. Surely the devil is still active.

All of that to say…let’s remember that Jesus’ interpretation still needs interpretation. The work isn’t done yet. Jesus might have explained the parable to his disciples, but they still had some thinking to do, and so do we. It’s not supposed to be a complete or perfect answer. Jesus’ response only begins the conversation. He’s inviting them to start thinking about the parable by looking for connections between seeds and people, the harvest and judgment. Then, we have to start there and let the fuller understanding grow in time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wheat and Weeds and Cups of Water

So far this week, I’ve been blogging about this Sunday’s gospel lesson—the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). In it, the enemy sowed weeds in the master’s field one night, and, when they grow up amidst the wheat, the master decides to let them remain until the harvest (i.e., the time of the last judgment), at which time they are bound and cast into the fiery furnace. As Jesus interprets his own parable, those weeds are depicted as “the children of the evil one”—people who seem to belong to the devil rather than to God. But that still leaves me wondering who they are. What does it take to be a weed?

Today’s lesson in the Daily Office is from a later passage in Matthew’s gospel account (Matt. 25:31-46). Although I’m wary of making connect-the-dot comparisons from one part of the bible with another, since it’s from the same gospel account, it seems fair to let Matt. 25 fill out Matt. 13. Like Sunday’s gospel, it is also a passage about the last judgment, but this time Jesus makes it clear what distinguishes the righteous from the cursed, and I don’t like what he says.

[41] “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [42] For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, [43] I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ (Matt. 25:41-43 ESV)

This is one of those passages that I know intimately but still don’t take seriously. What about you? Essentially, Jesus seems to be establishing a righteousness that is based on works: those who minister to the needs of others are worthy of heaven, and those who don’t are worthy of hell. (Did you see that? That was Pauline theology flying out the window.) How important is this approach to righteousness in our daily life?

I’ll admit that there are times when someone walks through the door of the church asking for financial assistance and I wonder to myself, “Could this be Jesus?” Occasionally, when I’m driving down the road and see a hitchhiker carrying a backpack on a swelteringly hot day, I wonder whether I should pull over just in case it is Jesus I’m about to pass by. Sometimes I worry that when I get to the last judgment, Jesus will look at me and say, “Do you remember that sixty-year-old black woman who stopped you in the grocery store parking lot on March 27, 1999, and asked you for five dollars? Well, that was me. You’re going to hell!” But that’s not what this gospel lesson is about. And that’s not what Matt. 13 is about, either.

Jesus isn’t hiding himself. This isn’t Candid Camera. Our journey toward the end of time is not one big reality show, where God is watching to see whether we’ll recognize his son in disguise. Instead, Jesus is asking his disciples and us to shift our understanding of what it means to serve our Lord. The surprise doesn’t come when Jesus takes off his mask and says, “Aha! It’s me!” It comes when we realize that serving him means serving others—when we look at those in need and see that there never was any difference between them and Jesus. That’s a mindset-shift that Jesus brings to the earth. Being a servant in the kingdom does not mean waiting for the king to ask you to bring him a cup of water. It means serving everyone as if he were the king.

That’s a different sort of eschatology that isn’t really a works-based righteousness at all. Jesus doesn’t really care whether we gave the glass of water to the right thirsty person. This isn’t about water at all. It’s about seeing the kingdom as it really is. What does it mean to belong to the kingdom of God? It’s realizing that it’s here and now. It’s acting as if Jesus’ lordship is the dominant principle in our daily lives. Sure, of course that means giving water to those who thirst without considering their status or deservedness.

Maybe that’s the difference between being a stalk of wheat or a growing weed—a child of the kingdom or a child of the evil one. Despite living in a world that is full of wheat and weeds, we live as fully inaugurated citizens of the kingdom. Maybe that’s why the master refuses to pull the weeds up before the harvest. Maybe that’s why he says that to pull the weeds would uproot the wheat—because being wheat means growing and bearing fruit in a mixed field of good and bad.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Theology of Hell (I Think)

Yesterday I wrote about the foolishness of this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), questioning why any farmer would wait until the harvest to separate the wheat and weeds. It’s time consuming. It limits the yield of your harvest. It’s better to eradicate the weeds as early in the growing process as possible. The point of the parable, therefore, is that the only “farmer” who would do that is God. But that leaves us with a big, tough question: why would God do that?

I’m especially fond of what Steve Pankey wrote yesterday because, like him, I try my best to avoid allegory when interpreting parables. Usually, when I try to make everything in a parable represent something in real life, the image breaks down or fails to reflect the nuances of the story. Instead, I like to treat parables as brain teasers that leave you wondering and searching for answers rather than knowing exactly what is being said. (Unfortunately?) Jesus doesn’t give us that chance because, for the second week in a row, he gives us his own allegorical interpretation of the parable at hand: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil…” Don’t worry, however, as Jesus’ explanation leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Jesus declares, “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.” Wait, what? The end of the age I understand. Weeds in the hellfire. Wheat in the kingdom’s silos. Actually, I’m not sure I understand the last judgment, but it’s a fairly familiar image to me. But angels? It’s times like this when I wish I understood a lot more about the eschatology of Second Temple Judaism and its first-century Palestinian variants. Maybe a later post will delve into the intricacies of the role angels play in eschatology, but, for now, let’s stick with wheat and weeds, heaven and hell.

Who is hell for? What purpose does it fill? This is one of many sayings of Jesus that divide up the afterlife into a pleasant kingdom experience we call “heaven” and a miserable torturous experience we call “hell.” That each member of humanity is destined for one or the other seems to be Jesus’ understanding and expectation. But why? What purpose does hell serve? Does the divine economy of justice depend upon some people suffering for all eternity because of their sins? Not if you believe in the startling grace that is at the heart of Christianity. Sure, maybe the abstract concept of punishment needs to exist so that the reversed consequences of our brokenness can stand in our minds as God’s clear victory, but we don’t really need hell, do we?

Actually, I think we do—or at least some of us do. In my mind, the part of the parable that governs the whole image is 13:29-30a. When asked by his servants whether they should go ahead and pull up the weeds (the worldly logical approach), the master replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” That’s the real sticking point here. That’s the real kernel of the parable. That’s the point at which the audience scratched their heads and said, “Wait, what?” And that’s the part we’re supposed to focus on.

Why doesn’t God rid the world of “bad people?” Why doesn’t he command that all of us “good people” build a flotilla of arks so that he can flood the whole earth and start over as he did in Genesis? Well, because he promised not to, which is to say that we recognize that God has the power and the justification to do just that but still chooses not to. The world is full of good people and bad people. And sometimes the good people feel outnumbered. Sometimes the oppressed ask why God doesn’t just come in and pluck their enemies off the face of the earth. Sometimes those who suffer wonder why God doesn’t just strike their enemies down with a plague or a lightning bolt. But wondering and asking and praying and hoping won’t make it so. Too often, justice isn’t to be found in this world—only in the next.

All of us depend upon God’s promise that one day everything will be made right. All suffering will cease. The prisoners will be set free. The lowly will be lifted up, and the mighty will be pulled down. We look for that day, but we know that we have to wait until “the end of the age” for it to happen. And so we need hell—at least the concept of hell. We need to know that someday oppression itself will be imprisoned. We need to know that torture itself will be tortured. Does God need it to work that way? I don’t think so—otherwise he’d go ahead and pull those weeds out. But those who will live their entire lives under the threat of evil must cling to the hope that, in the next life, those weeds will be thrown into the fiery furnace.

This parable isn’t simply about good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell. It’s a promise that, even though bad and good dwell together in this age, in the next all will be made right. How will that work? Will the angels of God toss the wicked, unrepentant sinners into a giant furnace of everlasting torment? Maybe. But the specific destination isn’t as important as the promise. As the parable is told, no one is surprised that the weeds are thrown away. It’s the growing together that baffles us all.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Separating the Wheat from the Weeds

My sermon yesterday proposed that the key to understanding the parable of the sower was to begin by accepting that the story was confusing—just like the logic behind the kingdom of God. That theme continues with this coming Sunday’s gospel, which features the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

I’ve read plenty of commentaries that discuss the biology of first-century Palestinian weeds. Several report that there was a weed that, when small enough, could not be distinguished from a young wheat plant. That line of interpretation leads us to conclude that Jesus is describing the kingdom as a place where the “children of the kingdom” and the “children of the evil one” cannot be distinguished in the current age. Bottom line: I don’t buy it.

Parables aren’t designed to hinge on an obscure piece of knowledge that most of the people in the crowd wouldn’t know. Jesus wasn’t a farmer. His disciples weren’t farmers. Most of his audience weren’t farmers, either. This story has to be more basic than that. It has to startle us. And that’s why I think this parable is the exact opposite of what we’d expect.

A long time ago, I planted a herb garden. There was a corner of our property in Montgomery that was relatively unproductive. It wasn’t a place where the kids could play. There weren’t any flowers there—just a little bit of grass being overrun with weeds and some neighboring lilies. Elizabeth and I dug it out and built a small garden in its place. I chose some of my favorite herbs, and planted them in carefully laid-out quadrants.

Within a week or two, weeds began to spring up. Some grass. Some other undesirables. But, remembering Jesus’ parable, I let them grow alongside the herbs. When my father saw the horticultural disaster-in-progress, he asked what I was doing. “If it was good enough for Jesus,” I replied, “it’s good enough for me.” The end result? All weeds and no herbs. Why? Because letting the weeds and the wheat grow together is bad advice.

No farmer would do what Jesus said, and that’s the point. This is bad agricultural practice. And, despite my ignorance, I’m pretty sure that’s something the audience would have known. No one lets wheat and weeds grow up together. Separating them at the time of the harvest would be time consuming. It would limit the yield. It’s all around a bad idea. Yet that’s exactly the kind of farming God does. His kingdom is different. His harvest is different.

What does that mean for us? That’s tomorrow’s post.

Sermon: The Confusing Kingdom

July 13, 2014 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Farming has changed a lot over the past fifteen years. Imagine, then, how much it has changed since Jesus told this parable about the sower. Nowadays, GPS-based farm equipment is programed with location-specific information so that each square foot of a field is planted and fertilized with a specific density of seed and chemicals targeted to produce the best possible yield. Everything is calculated. Nothing is wasted. Back then, of course, the equipment was very different. There were no tractors, and GPS was a matter of looking up at the stars and counting your steps from one landmark toward another. But, even though the sophistication of agronomy has increased exponentially, the principles behind farming are the same. Back then, farmers knew to scatter more seed on the fields that produced more and to apply more manure to the fields that produced less. And that means that Jesus’ parable made as little sense back then as it does today.

Jesus would have made a lousy farmer. Nobody scatters seed on the path or on the rocky ground or amidst the thorns. Sure, farming was a lot simpler two thousand years ago, but the people back then weren’t stupid. And that’s the point. When Jesus told the parable of the sower, he was telling a story about a crazy farmer who defied every bit of farming knowledge and common sense that his audience had. You didn’t have to be a genius to tell the difference between good soil and bad soil, and you don’t need a fancy computerized tractor to know not to scatter seeds in the middle of Highway 20. So what, then, is this nonsense parable supposed to teach us about the kingdom of God? Mainly, that the kingdom of God doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This is the first of three Sundays in a row when the gospel lesson is a parable. Parables are those stories that leave preachers scratching their heads, wondering whether they’ve really understood what Jesus was trying to say. And that’s why I love them so much. They’re rarely as simple as they seem. There’s always another meaning hiding in the text, waiting for the patient student to discover it. And that’s the reason Jesus spoke in parables. Not because he wanted to leave the crowd with a catchy take-away message that they would remember for the rest of their lives. He spoke in parables because the kingdom of God is supposed to be confusing, and the only way we’re ever going to grasp it is if we expect to be confused.

The reason I chose to lengthen today’s gospel lesson isn’t because I think that church services should be even longer than they already are. (Trust me, I get plenty of feedback about that already.) I wanted to include these intervening verses because I think Jesus’ exchange with the disciples is critical for us to understand what the kingdom of God is really like. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” the disciples asked. “The reason I speak to them in parables,” Jesus replied, “is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” In other words, Jesus did this on purpose. He wanted to be sure that most of the people who heard him failed to grasp what his message was really about. And that is the heart of the parable of the sower. When it comes to the seeds of the kingdom, in order for them to bear fruit when they fall on good soil, many more have to be spilled in places where they will never grow.

That’s because, according to worldly wisdom, the kingdom of God doesn’t make sense. We believe in a savior who was crucified. We believe that his kingship is one of humility and simplicity. In God’s kingdom, power is expressed through weakness. Fabulous riches are found in destitute poverty. Life is only gained through death. There is no way to say that plainly and still get the message across because the world is not able to hear the upside-down message of the gospel and make sense of it. If Jesus had spoken of the kingdom without disguising his message in parables, no one could have grasped it. Instead, he scattered the seeds of the kingdom wherever they would fall in order that those who saw how foolish the message was might glimpse its true meaning.

Early last week, in response to something I wrote online about parables, Harry Moore shared a poem of Emily Dickinson with me. She was writing about poetry, but the connection was clear.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –[2]

Those who want God’s kingdom dispensed in ready-made packets cannot have it. Those who look for the kingdom in obvious places will never find it. Too often in the twenty-first century, we expect the secrets of life to be handed to us in an envelope with our name on it, and we bring that same attitude with us when we approach our relationship with God. We come to church as if it were the cafeteria line where everyone can find an institutionally prepared dish he or she will enjoy. But this is not Ryan’s or Golden Corral or Morrison’s or Piccadilly. This is God’s house, where we come to encounter the almighty, incomprehensible, unfathomable, eternal mystery that is our creator. His kingdom is a bewilderment to behold, and those who expect to understand it never will.

When you come to church, what do you expect to hear? Do you want the preacher to tell you something that warms your heart and confirms your worldview? Do you want the preacher to stroke your ego by telling you that you’re the good soil where the seeds bear fruit a hundredfold? Should he jostle you ever so gently, spurring you to a momentary rededication of heart and mind? Or should he pull the rug out from underneath your feet, leaving you spinning and reeling and disoriented beyond measure? We cannot approach the kingdom of God as if it will conform to our expectations. If we are here looking for something that makes sense, we will never leave fulfilled. Instead, we must beg God to strip us of everything that we think we know about his kingdom and build us back up from scratch. We must search for the sower who scatters his seed in places where it will never grow in order that some of that strange seed might take root in our hearts. Amen.

[1] The gospel lesson appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23) was lengthened at the discretion of the preacher and in accordance with the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (p. 888).
[2] Poem by Emily Dickinson. Shared in an e-mail from Harry Moore.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Making the Most of Bad Soil

I'm having lunch today with my friend and colleague Steve Pankey. He lives and works in Foley, Alabama, and I've been at the beach with my family this week, so visiting with a good friend seemed like an opportunity that I could not pass up. (Plus, one can only handle so much time at the beach with his family and in-laws.) As far as I know, we don't have an agenda for our time together, but I'm curious whether this Sunday's gospel will come up.

On Tuesday, Steve posted about how the parable of the sower "is not a call to be good soil." Instead, he goes on to say in his Wednesday post that it's about the "prodigality of the sower." Good point. Jesus isn't telling us that we need to become good soil. How would one do that anyway? The fact is that you're either good soil or not. Sure, mechanized and GPS-based farming has changed our whole understanding of how fruitful a piece of land can be, but, ever since Dixie, Utah, folded in the late 1860s, no one has tried to grow cotton in the Mohave Desert. Instead, the point is that the seeds are scattered far and wide--a pretty foolish agricultural process. God the sower flings them everywhere, and some of them grow up to bear fruit.

But what about the seeds that are flung in bad places?

This isn't the parable of the soil amendment. There's one of those in the gospel, too (Luke 13:6-9). That one is about the owner who comes and asks for a fruitless tree to be cut down, but the gardener says, "Let's put manure around it and see if something happens." In this parable, though, there is no attention given to the soil. The reality of this parable rests on the tension between the fruitlessness of the path, rocks, and thorns and the abundant growth of the good soil. In other words, I agree with Steve that the parable isn't a call to be good soil, but the concluding message seems to be, "If you're not good soil, you're screwed."

What do you do if you're not the good soil? What do you do if you're life is full of thorns? If you can't become good soil--and I agree that you can't--this parable becomes a remarkably damning passage. Yes, God is scattering the seeds all over the place. No, he's not reserving his word only for the chosen few. But it's only getting through to those who happen to be good soil. The rest of us don't know what to do with the good news when it hits us in the head.

I'm not good soil. And you're not either. The word smacks me in the head over and over, and I barely even notice. The birds are circling overhead. My roots have no depth. The thorns keep growing back no matter how often I cut them down. What are we going to do about it? This is a story about understanding--not about being a good Christian.

Jesus said, "But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it." We can't make ourselves good soil, but we can seek understanding. The point of parables is not to confuse but to heighten the need for study. The gospel is not something that conforms to our expectations. It must shape us into the disciple we are called to be. No, you cannot be good soil, but this parable isn't about being anything. It's about understanding the message of the kingdom.

What is your posture when the word is being scattered? Does it have a chance to take root, or do you not bother to listen? Does it sink deeply into your heart and mind, or do you only listen for the surface meaning? Is the word given a chance to shape you, or is it simply brushed aside to a place where it will be drowned out by other distractions? None of us is good soil. But none of us is bad soil, either. Being good soil is about understanding. And there is always more to understand.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Parable about Parables

Well, it’s a good thing I wrote about the wrong gospel lesson on Monday rather than preaching about it on Sunday. Yesterday’s post was linked to next Sunday’s gospel. All day yesterday, I was dreaming about what sermon I might write about the weeds and the wheat growing up together. I had a great image in mind and was half way to a full sermon. Then, this morning, I opened the right Sunday’s lesson and realized I have to start all over. (At least it’s not Friday.)

This Sunday’s actual gospel lesson (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23) is a parable about parables. The passage begins with Jesus setting out a ways from shore in a boat so that he might teach a large crowd. Then, Matthew tells us, “he told them many things in parables.” What follows is one of the most well-known examples—the parable of sower. The sower casts seed on four different landscapes: the path, rocky soil, thorns, and good soil. Each comes with a different result: birds snatch the seed away, plants grow up quickly but wither in the heat, thorns choke out the young plants, and the seeds bear a fruitful harvest.

The lectionary then skips over some important verses, jumping to the explanation of the parable of the sower. The lazy preach might rejoice that Jesus himself has given the explanation we seek: the path represents those who don’t understand the word, and the rocky ground represents those who receive it joyfully but have no root and so fall away, etc.. But the key to the parable isn’t regurgitating the explanation. It’s realizing that there is a purpose to parables and that the parable of the sower AND the accompanying explanation point to a deeper theological purpose: salvation is hidden from many.

Here are the missing verses:

[10] Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” [11] And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. [12] For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [14] Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
 “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
            and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
[15] For this people's heart has grown dull,
            and with their ears they can barely hear,
            and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
            and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
            and turn, and I would heal them.’
 [16] But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. [17] For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:10-17 ESV)
Although I haven’t figured out whether I’ll lengthen the gospel lesson this week and add the intervening eight verses, I know that I’ll preach with them in mind, and I urge others to do the same. These are the tough verses. They are the ones where the hard, illuminating truth is to be found.

I’ve heard lots of people explain parables by saying that they were a teaching device designed to get people to remember the truth they contain. But these verses—Jesus’ own explanation of why he taught in parables—seems to suggest the opposite. Jesus taught in parables so that many would not understand the truth at all. It’s a “theology of obfuscation”—a phrase I like to use to suggest that God is intentionally covering the eyes and stopping the ears of his people. I confess that that itself doesn’t make sense, but it’s not supposed to. Why would God make the truth hard for his people to understand? Why would he hide salvation from us? Because we don’t want to hear the truth, and we aren’t looking for salvation.

Imagine going to a concert expecting to hear James Taylor but discovering that you’re in the second row of a Megadeth show. Imagine buying tickets to hear Sarah Palin speak but discovering that Jesse Jackson has taken her place. Imagine getting on a plane destined for Tahiti but alighting in Yakutsk. That’s what it was like listening to Jesus. That’s what it was like hearing his message about the kingdom.

Most of the world had such a completely different expectation of what God’s kingdom would look like that his teachings needed to be delivered in parables so that only a few would know what he was talking about. If he had spoken plainly, he would have been written off as crazy. Only by disguising his message by confusing his audience could anyone accept that he was sane. The truth was too radical to be delivered without adulteration. It was too strong to be received without dilution.

The parable of the sower is a parable about parables. How will the word be received? Most of it falls where it shouldn’t. Some of it lands where it should. Over the weeks that follow, don’t forget that there’s a reason Jesus speaks in parables. It isn’t because he’s being cute. It’s because he is stretching past the breaking point. Parables are the only thing that makes it possible for us to hear his message without snapping in half.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hooray for Parables!

I love preaching on parables. I like preaching on big days like Christmas and Easter, too. And momentous encounters like a dramatic healing or a powerful miracle are also fun to preach on. But I get bogged down in long exposition. “I am the bread of life…” Yeah, yeah, we get it already. Round and round statements like “Whoever loses his life will find it” leave me wanting some sort of direction. Parables are the answer to my summer-time homiletical blues.

The kingdom of heaven is like... That’s the way Matthew introduces the kingdom concept that Jesus focuses most of his teaching ministry on. Not the kingdom of God but the kingdom of heaven. They’re the same thing, of course, but the nuance is different, and, more importantly, the way we hear it is different. Heaven, in the mind of the 21st-century reader, is a place. It’s the place where “good people” like you and me are going (sarcasm implied). But surely that’s not what Jesus has in mind.

If Jesus were describing the “kingdom of heaven” as if it were a physical place, then his parable would lead us to believe that heaven has a bunch of wheat and weeds growing in it. But that’s not right. We get that. Parables are glimpses into a bigger truth. So why then do we limit our understanding of the kingdom of heaven to a specific place rather than a state of being that is defined by the establishment of God’s perfect reign?

Tomorrow, I’ll get into what the parable actually teaches about this kingdom, but, before I do, I need to stop and remember that whatever it says isn’t supposed to be a simple picture of a simple place. That’s why Jesus used parables. Matthew lets us know that Jesus is describing the “kingdom of heaven,” which gives us a chance to talk about heaven not in terms that popular culture would depict but with the strange, gospel characteristics that Jesus uses to describe it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What Is Sin Anyway?

On days like today--when the Daily Office lesson and the upcoming Sunday lesson are the same--I feel God asking me to pray a little more carefully through the sermon I am writing. It's as if God is saying to me, "Maybe you should think about that in a different way before climbing into the pulpit." Well, message received.

In Romans 7, Paul shares his personal struggle with sin with the reader. "I do not understand! I do the very thing I hate." He is, it seems, powerless over his addiction to sin. Sin itself has control over him. Yes, the law is a good thing. But sin, working through the law, brought death--to Adam, to Paul, and to all humanity. But what is the 21st-century preacher supposed to make of that?

Sin is a hard thing for me to understand. It is both the transgression--the thought, word, or deed (done or left undone)--and the very propensity to trangress. In other words, to use Paul's language, I am a slave not only to the collection of wrongs I have committed in my lifetime but also to the very tendency I have to do them. When preachers like me talk about sin, I have a feeling that we fail to convey the double-meaning that seems so critical to Paul's understanding of the theological concept. And that leaves us with a shallow understanding of both our predicament and the relief that is offered in Christ.

If I sin were merely the acts I regret, where would me deliverance be? If Christ came to die merely that I might live a better life, that pseudo-salvation would last only as long as I managed to avoid any of the innumerable traps that I encounter in daily life. That wouldn't be hopeful at all. But Jesus came to set us free from something deeper. It's not the acts themselves. And it's not even the propensity to commit them. Jesus came to set us free from the consequences of our sin--both act and nature. In him, we are delivered from the burden of failure. Yes, we are still sinners. Yes, we still commit sins. Yes, we are still sinful, which is to say human. But God doesn't see us as such. God regards us as righteous because of Jesus Christ. 

Maybe that's why this Sunday's gospel lesson ends with "my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Jesus is telling us that he sets us free not from the trials and struggles of this life--physical, spiritual, motional, etc.. He sets us free from the burden of consequence. Once free from slavery to sin, as Paul puts it, there are no eternal consequences for our sin--nature of act. Yes, there are consequences in this life, but thanks be to God that they end here.