Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pointing to God

(From Marcus Borg's brilliant book: The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which we are studying at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Littleton, NH)

A defining characteristic of Christianity is that we find the revelation of God primarily in a person, an affirmation unique among the major religions of the world.

This makes Christianity different, not superior.

Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion---of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about. Jesus shows us the heart of God.

Jesus is a metaphor of God (THE metaphor of God, for Christians).

He was also a real person, but as a metaphor of God, Jesus discloses what God is like. We see God through Jesus.

The purpose of the church, of Christology, of the creed is to point us to Jesus.

Jesus then says, “It’s not about me.”

Jesus points beyond himself to God---to God’s character and passion.

(My summary, paraphrased or word from word from Chapter 5, Jesus: The Heart of God)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care Legislation Passes

The United States has finally moved towards providing health coverage to everyone. 32 million more Americans will have coverage, people with pre-existing illnesses will be protected, and subsidies are in place to help the poorest Americans pay for insurance.

There is considerable cost for doing this. There are tons of articles being written speculating on what happens next, as well as what still needs to happen.

David Sanger's NY Times article "Big Win for Obama, but at what cost?" is one of the more helpful articles I've found so far in putting all of this in perspective.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

There once were two sons...

(A sermon on Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church, March 14th, 2010)*

It is an ancient storytelling technique: two persons in a similar situation with some important character difference. One is set up as the good example, the other as the poor example. One ends up with good fortune because of her virtuous character or decisions, the other ends up in trouble because of character flaws or poor decision-making.

We have numerous examples of this type of story in the Gospels.

A wise woman builds her house on a firm foundation, where the foolish woman builds her on the sand, and it washes away.

One son says he will go and work but does not, while the other says he won’t go, but later changes his mind and helps.

Martha runs around concerned with work, while Mary chooses to sit and learn.

Sometimes Jesus turns these stories on end. The “rich man and the poor man” turns out differently than expected: with the rich man losing out, and the poor man in heaven. It’s essentially the same type of story with a twist. It’s the surprising example that is lifted up as the one we should follow.

The story of the prodigal son appears to follow this theme of a surprise reversal. The set up is the complaints of the Pharisees and Scribes, grumbling over Jesus’ decision to welcome and eat with sinners.

So Jesus starts the story: “There was a man that had two sons.” The youngest son leaves home with his inherence. He goes off and foolishly squanders what he has. Broke and alone in a distant country, he finds his thoughts returning to home.

He wonders about what could have been, back before he left. We can only guess what really made him leave home to begin with. Perhaps he had his share of arguments with his father. Perhaps he found himself finding his older brother being a tough act to follow. Perhaps he simply dreamed of a different, more exciting life than home offered. But his mistakes had left him with nothing except his job feeding the pigs.

As the young son thinks of home, a thought occurs to him: what would happen if I returned home? It would be a shameful experience: coming home with nothing, poor and broken. His father would say “I told you so,” and his brother would laugh at the mess he had become. They would rightly be angry for him leaving. Perhaps they would not even want him back! But as he thought, he remembered that for the most part, his father was a kind man: he treated his servants well, they always had enough to eat. Yes, he would serve his father, he would earn his keep. He might never deserve the right to be “family” again, but his father’s house offered some refuge.

The trip home is agonizing. The younger son plays the reunion scene over and over, getting more nervous with each step. He rehearses what he wants to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” He imagines being accepted in, and he imagines himself being cast out.

Finally, the moment comes. But before he can open his mouth to utter his first words, his father embraces him and kisses him in obvious relief and joy. The son eyes are already red when he starts his speech, his words drenched with real emotion. But his father somehow already understands his remorse, and shows him more grace than ever could have been hoped for: welcoming him in the home and throwing a party of great celebration.

And only now the second son enters the story. He is angry over the turn of events: so much so, that he refuses to join the party. Why has his father thrown a huge party for his brother who doesn’t deserve it? He rages at his father that this is just not fair: he’s “always worked hard and done things right,” but he’s never had a party thrown for him. His brother squandered everything he had: not only doesn’t he deserve a party; he doesn’t even deserve to be welcomed back.

But his father rejects this logic. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

It is easy to reject the elder son’s words outright. After all, in the context of the Pharisees and scribes’ grumbling at Jesus eating with sinners, one can assume that the elder son represents the scribes and Pharisees, and must be in the wrong. But in the story, it’s completely understandable why the elder son reacts the way he does. He has been witness to the effects of the younger son’s selfish past actions. He has seen his father’s pain. He knows that life has been harder without his brother: there not only has been more work to do without him, but others have suffered without his full presence. When his brother returns home, it is only natural that the elder son wants an example made. He wants to see consequences for his brother’s self-absorption and callous actions.

But the elder son misses what the consequences are. He is unaware of the alienation that the younger brother has gone through: he doesn’t understand the internal shame that his brother has faced, or the courage that was necessary to come home. The elder son misses that reality that the celebration marks the beginning, not the end, of the journey of reconciliation and the rebuilding of the family. There are painful steps to come. Trust has to be rebuilt: the younger son has more people he must encounter and be vulnerable to. There is a long road back to health.

What the scribes and Pharisees confronting Jesus have missed is that the “sinners” who have chosen to eat with Jesus are those who have realized that something was missing from their lives. They are those who are searching to rebuild relationships. They are those who are taking the initial steps to look honestly at their lives and attempt to live more fully. Mistakes have been made in the past, and shame and low self-worth have alienated them: but in a first act of courage that admits that something is amiss, they seek out Jesus to help them rebuild their lives.

Jesus makes no attempt to judge them, and makes no attempt to point out their failings and mistakes. Instead, as the father in the story, he welcomes sinners with open arms. Jesus makes them the focus of the dinner party. The work of reconciliation: the repairing of relationships, the full understanding of how selfish actions have hurt others, and the rebuilding of trust are all still to come. But the generosity of Jesus makes it clear that this incredible grace of forgiveness is open to all, and the beginning of healing is worth celebrating.

We all, at one time or another, walk the road of the young son in this story. We have made mistakes, squandered opportunity, and hurt those we should love. We are all invited to take the difficult steps of rebuilding, and Jesus promises his love and support for this painful journey. The message Jesus is giving the scribes and Pharisees is that everyone is welcome at the table: that everyone is worthy of grace and love, and the occasion should be celebrated.

Now, before I finish, I wish to take you back to the beginning:

There once were two sons...

Remember how I said these stories usually work? One example is lifted up, while the other is shown as the wrong way. That’s the usual formula.

Well, this morning there’s an important change from the usual. There is an additional message for the scribes and Pharisees, (hear: those with power and authority), that is different from the “you’ve got things wrong” message that you often hear from Jesus.

I hear Jesus pleading with the grumblers, as the father did with the elder son, to come back to the party.

Jesus is telling them “All that is mine is yours.” The scribes and the Pharisees, with their vast resources, have the opportunity to use their power and authority to help rebuild lives and to cause great and wonderful change. If they would only stop grumbling about what others get and what others deserve, they would realize that there is more than enough for everyone.

This morning we are they as well: we are both the younger and the elder siblings of the story. We are all on the younger’s path: journeying towards reconciliation, facing our shame, dealing with our past and seeking a love-filled present and future. But at the same time, every one of us is faced with the choice of the elder: blessed with the power and ability to love, to forgive, and to make new.

All that is mine is yours.

It is this phrase that holds such promise: it invites all of us to the party. It makes us the one who is celebrated, and it calls to be the gracious host of others.

All that is mine is yours.


*(I originally preached this sermon at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland on March 18th, 2007, my birthday. It's one of the only times that I have reused the same sermon without major changes: I actually think I got it right the first time!)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Totally Television": Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Here at All Saints' in Littleton, we explored the intersection of popular culture, religion, and ethics in four television shows.

When I talk about intersection, I'm not looking necessarily for direct correlation between the Christian scriptures and the script: i.e. trying to claim that the show is written to mirror the Bible or directly uphold the teaching of the church. Instead, I am interested in what the television shows say about ethical choices, living in community, relating with one another, and finding ways to live with the consequences. The worthwhile television shows not only speak to our current culture, but also raise up life's questions: both as individuals and as community.

So I'm writing MY reflections on the episodes, with the hope that not only those who attended will add their reflections, but others who know the show and episodes will do so as well.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS)
Once More, With Feeling
Season 6, Episode 7

The famous musical episode is both an incredible tribute to the musical genre, as well an incredible accomplishment for a fifty-minute show. I chose it in this case, however, not for its style, but its substance.

The sixth season of BtVS is sometimes talked about as a disappointment. Some fans even swore off the show at this point. I think the truth is that BtVS was hard to watch in the 6th season because the show was really dark. It was difficult to watch characters that we have grown to love hit such lows.

That, however, mirrors real life.

The musical episode crystallizes this, centering on Buffy's inability to tell her friends that, when they resurrected her, they pulled her not out of hell and torment, but out of heaven.

(The base assumption: she sacrificed her life at the end of Season 5 to close a hell dimension. In order to justify using magic to bring Buffy back to life, her friends convince themselves that she must be stuck in hell.)

Being pulled out of heaven, (full of joy, at rest and in peace), Buffy is now back to the endless fighting of evil. That seems like hell, and she feels none of the passion that she felt while she was alive before.

Buffy can only confide in Spike: soulless, undead, and in love with Buffy.

That's not the only thing going on. Willow is treading water in her growing addiction to magic: which started with Buffy's death, realized with the spell to bring her back to life, and has continually worsened. She has committed a terrible act against her lover Tara, a memory-altering spell to "forget" the fight they had about Willow's magic use.

Dawn, meanwhile, is shoplifting, moping, and getting herself into deeper trouble, craving the attention lost from the death of her mother and the "sleepwalking" Buffy.

Xander and Anya continue towards their wedding date, hiding the fears that they have from each other (Anya's fear that Xander will hurt her and stop loving her, and Xander's fear that he will hurt her.) Ironically, they both have different aspects of the same fear, and instead of dealing with it, they push on to the wedding.

Finally, steady Giles is convinced that he's in the way of Buffy's growth. Buffy's inability to take adult responsibility (for Dawn, and for herself), always leaving the "adult decisions" to Giles, seems to be growing worse.

The brilliant plot device, as in the case of musicals, is that the truth comes out in song. Hurts and fears are sung (to each other, and the audience) thanks to the spell of a demon. Beating the demon doesn't change the fact that everyone has been hiding the truth from each other (and themselves.)

The characters have yet to hit rock-bottom, but the plot and dialogue expose how difficult it is to live in this world. "Where do we go from here" is the final question: and the answer (as in real life) is, at this point, unknown.

One of the finest hours of BtVS: perfectly setting up the rest of the season towards the faceoff with the season's "big bad", life itself.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Looking for Sin within Tragedy

(A Sermon preached on Luke 13:1-9 at All Saints' Church on 3/7/2010)

This would have been a great time for me to take last week’s advice and preach on the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush is a great story, and is a great preaching text.

The problem, for me this morning, comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:1-13). I feel obligated to engage the Gospel text because of what Paul brings up in his letter. Paul’s sense is that the people of the Hebrew Scriptures, to a certain extent, got what they deserve: struck down in the wilderness for various reasons. Paul then puts forth the notion that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) That's the common saying today that God never gives you more than you can handle.

This was good news to those at Cornith under the oppression of the Romans. It might be helpful today for someone in the midst of trials and tribulations. There are, however, serious theological and practical problems with this, which is perhaps why it is paired with this Gospel.

We have to remember that Paul’s letter, in addition to responding to particular issues of the Christian community at Cornith, comes from the early 50s. The Gospel of Luke was written later, not before 70AD. Luke’s Gospel, therefore, sometimes expands on themes in Paul’s letters, and other times clarifies or even argues with Paul’s specific context about what is to be ultimately understood concerning Jesus and his ministry. This is one such time where the writer of Luke, at the very least, sees things differently then his brother Paul.

Jesus is told that there were Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. It is bad enough that the Romans came in and killed a group of gathered Jews, but to then mix their blood with the blood of sacrifices that these faithful people were offering to God and the temple in sacrifice was an abomination: a terrible sign of rejection by God.

Those bringing up this occurrence to Jesus are likely looking for two things: they want Jesus to acknowledge that an atrocity has occurred, and they want to know if God was punishing these Galileans for a specific sin. It’s a horrible conclusion to come to, but not an uncommon one. This is the conclusion of Job’s friends in response to his affliction, as well as a general assumption found throughout Hebrew Scripture, as well as Paul’s writings: whenever something terrible happens to someone, it might mean that God is displeased and is punishing people.

Michael Curry, Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, tells a story to illustrate this human tendency to bring explanation to the aches of the human heart:

“I remember as a child, when a light-hearted occasion of misfortune befell someone, hearing the old folk say in jest, “You ain’t been living right.” I never heard it said seriously when someone was really hurting. However, I have heard the principle behind the saying articulated when things fall apart for someone, when the burden of the heat of the day becomes unbearable, when things seem to go from bad to worse, when someone cries out from a bed of affliction or shrieks in despair from within a vale of tears. “Why?” “Why me?” In the painful struggle of trying to make sense of something senseless, the age-old logic of “You ain’t been living right” sneaks into our conscious. Common sense suggests that if there is a demonstrable effect, there is an explainable cause. The desire to comfort by explanation is part of who we are as human beings. It comes with the territory.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2009, p. 93)
Jesus, with his response, expresses that these Galileans have suffered, but is careful not to suggest that this was caused by particular sin. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” Jesus brings up what must have been another well known tragedy: “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” (Luke 13:2-5)

Jesus does not accept a simple understanding to the question of “Why has this happened.” There is no blame assigned to those afflicted, and there are no quick explanations to address why people suffer. What Jesus does do, in the midst of this tragic news, is suggest a missional response to those who are hearing of this tragedy. “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

This might seem like an odd and off-target message, but I believe contains an important point. Jesus doesn’t choose to identify sin in those who perished, but instead the sin of those who would hear of someone’s misfortune and then choose to live in fear.

A common result of witnessing or hearing about tragedy is paralyzation: coming to the conclusion that nothing we do matters, or the equally problematic conclusion that what we should do is play it safe and protect only our interests.

Bishop Curry writes:

Facing the reality of mystery and the limits of what we can know is not an excuse to stand still and look sad, as Luke describes some of the disciples, paralyzed at the time of the death of Jesus. Jesus is on a mission. Those who would be disciples of Jesus, who would follow in his way in the power of his Spirit, are on that mission. Much is unknown. Many questions remain unanswered. In the end, the future is God’s, but we share in the mission of unfolding the future. That is clearly where our responsibility lies. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2009, p. 95 Curry used the RSV, but I replaced it with the NRSV)
The parable of the fig tree illustrates this. A fruitless fig tree is to be cut down, but the gardener persuades for it to be tended to. The gardener insists that now is not the time for judgment to be placed on the tree: refusing to speculate what has caused the tree not to bear fruit. The gardener is determined to do what she can do for the tree: open to a future of possibility for the tree that she does not control. Despite the uncertainty, the gardener is willing to put time and effort into the tree.

Certainty and control are not part of our human lives with God. We will never figure out God’s kingdom in our lifetime, and it’s a guarantee that at some point, we will be cut happens to us all.

Our options right now are this: we can choose to be trees that will not flourish or produce fruit, or we can be trees that are open to receiving the care and nourishment offered not just by God and Jesus, but by other gardeners as well: people like you and me.

Then, within that nurturing love, we are able to produce fruit by being gardeners ourselves: workers in God’s kingdom that tend to one another, and helping to make God’s promises possible.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Abram, God, and the Night Sky

(A sermon on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 2/28/2010)

It is my opinion that Episcopalians, and most likely Christians as a whole, have failed to give the Hebrew Scriptures there due. That’s not an observation specific to being here at All Saints’. Instead, it’s an informed observation made from growing up in the Episcopal Church, despite the inclusion of a Hebrew Scripture and Psalm reading in every service. The number of sermons or educational opportunities devoted to the Hebrew Scriptures is few and far between. When Christians do look at these Scriptures, it is often limited to attempts to bring a specific rule or way of life out of its context into our modern world (hear Leviticus and homosexuality), or it is using the Hebrew Scriptures to enlighten the words or actions of Jesus, which is the way most of us come into contact with the Book of Isaiah.

Now, I’m no exception to the trend not to focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. In my first year plus here, we can count the number of sermons I’ve focused on the Hebrew Scriptures on one hand. I’m not going to apologize for this: I usually have a compelling desire to address, embrace, or confront the Gospel text the lectionary gives us. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus are full of words and actions that have a great deal to say not only about the life of the one we follow, but about our individual lives and our communal living in today’s world. Ultimately, our lives are informed by knowing the Gospel stories.

This week, however, I am reminded that Jesus was formed by the stories of the Hebrew Scripture. They were his texts and accounts to be examined, wrestled with, internalized, and made sense of. Jesus would have been compelled to grapple with these stories: imagining not only what they meant when they were written, but what meaning they had on his life. What was the faithful relationship with God in the past, and what new vision of the Kingdom of God did they point to?

This morning shows us Abraham, even before he had received the name we know him by. Before he became “Father Abraham,” the ancestor of Christians, Muslims and Jews, he was Abram: barren and landless.

At this time, to be without children and without land was thought to mean to have no relationship with God.

Our account this morning begins with the famous “After these things” line. What has already happened? Well, mostly land conflicts: scheming, bargaining, and fighting. The quick summary is that Abram left his father’s homeland as commanded by God, had opportunity to acquire land and people for himself, but chose not to because of the promises he had made to God.

Twice before, God had told Abram that he will be blessed:

Chapter 12, verses 1-4: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And Chapter 13, verses 14-17: “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”

Both times, Abram responded with action, doing whatever God tells him to do, not unlike Noah from a few chapters before.

So now God comes to Abram again and says “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

Poor Abram must have been so confused! Here is a man who hears God on a regular basis, and yet he lacks the things that signify right relationship with God. Abram now does something without precedence in the Bible: he dares to talk back to God.

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)

Abram responds with anxiety and doubt, saying to God “what exactly are you doing to me?”

The YHWH we are accustomed to at this point of Genesis is likely to respond with anger and a swift jolt. Instead, God brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

A look into the night sky, at the beautiful stars, helps Abram. This does not surprise me...after all; it does wonders for me anytime I’m unsure or anxious. One might think in theory that looking up at the stars, into the vastness of the night, would not be balm to the nerves, for it’s likely to make one feel small. I’ve found that, in reality, the night sky has this way of connecting people to the world, rather than a feeling of isolation.

We are told that this has great affect on Abram, and on God as well: “And (Abram) believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

It is important to note two things here. First, that this is a shared experience between God and Abram. This is unlike anything else seen in Genesis since the creation of humankind. One gets the sense that this moment with Abram, looking up at the stars, is what God had in mind at Creation for the being made in God’s own image.

The second thing to note is that believing in God does not keep Abram from questioning further. When God says that Abram will be given this land to possess, he responds, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

The desire to know, and the accompanied doubt that goes with it, does not impair the relationship of God and Abram. Abram seeks clarity. Daniel DeBevoise, a Presbyterian pastor at Park Lake, Orlando, writes “Abram questions God’s activity. His questioning faith takes seriously God’s presence and power in his life and challenges us to be open to God’s work in our lives. Abram questions God because he deeply believes God can do something about it.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 54) There is a sense of honesty to it, as well as a sense that Abram has moved humanity forward in relating with God in a way that Noah before him was not capable of.

I believe that this is the reward to find in our re-acquaintance with our spiritual ancestors. Engaging the Hebrew Scriptures, learning or relearning the stories of old, is a Lenten calling and discipline that can enrich our lives. DeBevoise suggests:

“Lent offers us an opportunity to think about our discipleship in light of how others have lived in response to God’s call and command. What are the costs and demands they faced as they walked the way of discipleship? Like Abram, we also have questions that will not be silenced as we try to walk in faithfulness to God. Like Abram, we can question God as part of our faithfulness and trust. We also live expectantly that God’s promises of life, hope, and future are extended to us in Jesus Christ, who defines faithfulness by the character of his own life and death, and who calls us to take the next step and follow him.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 54)