Monday, June 28, 2010

Turning Towards Jerusalem

(A sermon preached on Luke 9:51-62 at All Saints' Littleton NH on June 27th, 2010)

Preachers are told, time and time again, that the thing that listeners want to know concerning scripture is what does this mean for us today. Help me understand what I’m supposed to do with these somewhat confusing biblical accounts.

This morning’s Gospel reading must have something for us today: after all, it’s full of people coming up wishing to follow Jesus...that’s like us today, right? It is hard, however, to relate this Gospel passage to our own lives at its face value.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up” makes it sound like it’s near the end of the story: Holy week perhaps. However, in Luke’s Gospel, it marks only the halfway point of sorts. We’ve only just passed the Transfiguration. “Turning his face towards Jerusalem” signifies that Jesus is now shifting his focus on the cross that is to come. It is, however, quite some time before he will reach Jerusalem.

To get there, Jesus decides to cross Samaria. This is the most direct way, but it was often avoided by first century Jews, who had a relationship with Samaritans that was full of hatred. They all worshiped the same God, but had many different customs, along with past episodes of violence. One major point of contention was the Jewish focus on Jerusalem, something the Samaritans rejected. It’s not surprising then that the text tells us “(The Samaritans) did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

The reaction of James and John, to command fire to come down, may seem not only extreme, but to come out of nowhere. This thought, however, comes from numerous places in Hebrew Scripture. Most relevant is in the First Book of Kings, just a little before this morning’s reading, in the 18th chapter, where Elijah calls down fire to rain on the prophets of Baal. James and John, moments before on the mountain witnessing the Transfiguration, saw Jesus with Elijah and Moses. They heard the voice from the cloud “Listen to him.” No wonder that they assumed that it would be proper to rain fire down on those who did not listen to Jesus. They had Biblical precedence. The fact that they were hated Samaritans just made it easier.

This is the very first of Jesus’ encounters with Samaritans. The Good Samaritan, and the healed Samaritan leper who alone comes back to thank Jesus, are all stories still to come in Luke’s Gospel. All the reader has, at this point, is the traditional knowledge of bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans. It is in this context that Jesus sharply rebukes James and John’s suggestion.

As they continue along the road, Jesus has three interactions with would be followers. His reactions to them reflect the changing mood of “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” or to put another way, changing his focus to what the cost will be for proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

To the first who asks to follow, Jesus replies: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus seems to be stating that a significant cost to following him is the sense of homelessness. Moments of hospitality and rest are the best that can be hoped for. A sense of permanent home, and the safety provided by such a place, is not part of the picture.

Next, after Jesus suggests to someone to follow him, the person reasonably replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” First thing to note is that, unlike in modern language, we cannot assume that the man’s father is already dead. “Bury my father” likely means the caring for an aging parent and seeing to his needs up to and including burial. It is fulfilling the commandment to honor one’s mother and father. Jesus’ reply “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” is as harsh as it sounds. There is no question here that following the time honored, and even worthwhile commandments and traditions are secondary to answering the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God. This again, is in context of Jesus “turning towards Jerusalem.” Nothing will deter Jesus from his faithful promise.

Finally, we have the one who says: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” This echoes Elisha’s words in our Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, and it is a request granted by Elijah. Jesus, however, replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” A farming reference that suggests that when a farmer takes his eye off the plow and field, the work is lost. Another harsh saying with similar reason behind it, and again, marking a change in tradition and custom.

So, we are back to the original question: what are we supposed to do with these teachings? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. The three sayings in response to the “would be followers” are realities certainly true for Jesus, as he “turns his face towards Jerusalem,” and what he is going to do there. For Jesus, nothing is more important than bringing the Kingdom of God.

So: do the sayings apply to our own lives as well?

Well, I certainly think that the Kingdom of God is our priority. Our duty, privilege, and thankfully, our great joy, is to share the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

The sense of homelessness is likely true as well. No matter how comfortable our home may be, it does not ultimately address our place of belonging. Where as an animal rests in its nest or den, the place we are to rest is in God.

As far as caring for parents, or saying farewell to friends, I don’t think the message is that we need to drop our current commitments and relationships to follow Jesus. I think that we must put these sayings in the further context of the direct call to “Follow Jesus.” Going back to “bury my father” or to “say farewell to those at my home” suggests that these would be followers think that they must first detach themselves from people in order to follow Jesus. It is the tradition and custom of primary focus on the care of immediate family and friends that is called into question by Jesus, for in truth, following Jesus requires us to be concerned for everyone as our parent or as our friend. The kingdom of God brings us towards this place of seeing everyone as honored parents and friends.

This, finally, brings us back to the Samaritans. For Jesus and his followers, Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders. Jesus, throughout the second half of the Gospel of Luke, will be bringing himself and his disciples into relationship with them. They are, at Gospel’s end, to also be seen as family and as friends.

This Gospel lesson starts this work with a quick and powerful lesson: in the new revelation of the Kingdom of God, revenge, violence and oppression are to be rejected, even if there is Biblical precedence or tradition. Jesus’ ministry has no place for raining fire on enemies, because in the final analysis, there are no enemies in the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter that the Samaritans refuse to receive Jesus, or that the authorities seek his destruction, or that the crowd turns against him. Jesus’ constant refrain in the Gospel of Luke is “Father, forgive them.”

I’m not sure if there’s a more powerful, and more relevant message anywhere in the Bible than this one:

Forgiveness is the way to proclaim the Kingdom of God.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

U2 360 Concert Video

I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of my U2 360 Concert Video (I ordered it online). So until it arrives, here are some highlights of a great review by Tim Neufeld, who teaches in the contemporary Christian ministries program at Fresno Pacific University.

Reboot at the Rose Bowl: A Celebration of Grace in Space and Time

If I were to choose one word to sum up the concert it would be “grace.” Signs of mercy, good will, and unmerited love are evident throughout the evening. The concert presents a type of nonlinear equation, not with a straight trajectory toward a single climactic theme, but a collaboration of multiple connections woven in and out of the material, all with a common denominator of grace.

At the Rose Bowl U2 drew numerous lines connecting us to this theme of grace. I can identify at least five of these grace-filled connections: band, audience, globe, and cosmos, all infused with a presence of the Spirit.

I especially like what he says about one of my favorite U2 songs:

“Ultraviolet” speaks of a love that rains down constantly and consistently even though it can’t be seen; the theme is accentuated with Bono’s brilliantly artistic laser coat and a glowing microphone from which he hangs – “your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed.”

Bono may not be available for this summer's concerts (bummer!), but at least it appears that the concert video will satisfy fans and theologians until the tour begins again!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Seeing with Forgiving Hearts

(A Sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton, NH on June 13th, 2010)

There was a story in the New York Times (by Paul Vitello) this week that in the last few months, Muslim groups around the country have encountered unexpectedly intense opposition to their plans for opening mosques.

This particular article focused on an empty convent on Staten Island.

Some opponents have cited traffic and parking concerns. But the objections have focused overwhelmingly on more intangible and volatile issues: fear of terrorism, distrust of Islam, and a linkage of the two in opponents’ minds.

A meeting was organized by the local civic association to ease tensions. It didn’t work.

“Wouldn’t you agree that every terrorist, past and present, has come out of a mosque?” asked one woman.

“No,” began Ayman Hammous, president of the Staten Island branch of the group, the Muslim American Society — though the rest of his answer was drowned out by catcalls and boos from among the 400 people who packed the gymnasium of a community center.

That was how the night went: accusation after accusation, angry passionate words, grand generalizations and assumptions, and attempts at reason met with scorn and ridicule.

The president of the civic association made many efforts to keep control during the subsequent three hours: “Excuse me! This is a civic association meeting! Everybody have a little respect!”

The tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting, prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.

This meeting of angry accusation, selective sight, and desire for justification reflects a number of observable moments from a wide range of areas, including the Anglican Communion, local Littleton politics, and believe it or not, all of the readings for this week.

The Archbishop of Canterbury announced last week that as punishment for the recent consecration of Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian, as the suffragan bishop of Los Angeles, that representatives of the Episcopal Church were to be expelled from all international Anglican committees that address issues of Anglican theology and relations with other denominations.

There has been a lot of commentary about this, including a wonderful pastoral letter from our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jeffers Schori. Other reactions were a bit cynical, or even humorous. One rector’s letter that remarked: “You know the Anglican Communion is in trouble when getting kicked off a committee is the sanction for disobedience."

But perhaps the commentary that gave me most reason to pause was Jim Naughton writing on Episcopal Café:

“About halfway through, (yet again), weighing some of the issues, I had a sudden realization: reflecting on Rowan Williams’ letter wasn’t a worthwhile use of my time; writing it was not a worthwhile use of his. The issues at stake have become so trivial—We are not debating right and wrong, we are debating whether there should be trifling penalties for giving offense to other members of the Communion.—that to engage them at all compromises our moral standing and diminishes our ability to speak credibly on issues of real importance.”

What a sad place to arrive to…

I’m afraid local politics have not been much better. Anyone who’s been at a local Selectman’s meeting, or simply read the recaps in the paper, knows that the relationships between not only the local leaders, but many of the people who regularly attend the meetings, are really frayed. People’s ability to really see one another has been drastically compromised.

This week’s lectionary readings reflect this sense of disarray as well: We have a leader so obsessed with a particular garden, that he arranges false testimony to get the owner killed in order to acquire the land. (1 Kings 21:1-21a) We have, in the letter of Galatians (2:15-21), Paul’s frustration at Peter’s wavering over the agreement to allow Jews and non-Jews to be equal partners in the early Church. Peter felt threatened in that some of the newer Christian communities were becoming different from the more traditional, Jewish ones. Paul maintained that the gospel could survive, even flourish in different communities, but it could not survive the displacement of divine grace by binding customs and moral codes. (Wendy Farley in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p.134-136)

And finally, we have a gospel where the host of the party, Simon, looking down on a nameless woman that brings in the alabaster jar of ointment. He’s so obsessed with her lack of worthiness that he ends up shaming himself publicly in front of Jesus. (Luke 7:36-8:3)

It’s hard to even find places in these events where things could get better.

Returning to the issue over the Mosque, there was one moment where things might have changed:

20 minutes before the meeting deteriorated, a man named Bill Finnegan came to the microphone. The meeting came to a moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.

After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.

Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?”

The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted.

Can you imagine how that moment must have felt: he’s just come back from halfway around the world, trying to get people to listen with open hearts to one another, and can’t reach that objective even among his neighbors and friends. Must have broken his heart...

We’re so focused on where we think others need to grow that we miss the places where light doesn’t shine in our own lives.

It seems like we are at a convergence of world, local, and Biblical points about the way we see one another, and about the way we often refuse to see ourselves.

UCC pastor Kate Huey writes that the most important sentence in this Gospel text may be the simple question, "Simon, do you see this woman?":

“Simon, do you see this woman?" Simon, can you look past your pre-conceptions, your assumptions, your cherished beliefs, your social status, your religious prejudices…and see a child of God? Simon, can you accept the lesson she is teaching you at this very moment? Simon, can you turn off that harsh voice playing in your head, and open your heart to the tenderness of this moment? Simon, can you let grace change your life?

This is just as true for us today. When we look at those we consider "sinners" – those who disagree with us, who read the Bible differently than we do, who disagree with us politically or religiously, who are considered, for one reason or another, our "enemy," can we look past our preconceptions, our assumptions, our cherished beliefs, and see a child of God? Can we let grace change our lives, too?

Perhaps that is the key. These people that we read about who open their hearts to Jesus, who see him in truth and accept him: do we doubt that their lives are transformed? The bent-over woman stands up straight, the woman with a hemorrhage is cured, and those who are blind, see.

Those who are blind, see.

Jesus asks us all to open our eyes and see everything with a forgiving heart. Doing so is discovering God’s loving gift of freedom: not only for them, but for us. Jan Holton writes:

A heart that is bound by sin and shame withers and dies, but the love of a forgiving God lifts (the heart) to heights beyond our greatest dreams, and causes it to sing in gratitude.
(Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p.144)


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Open Letter to the Presiding Bishop

Fellow Episcopal priest and blogger Scott Gunn posted this on his blog, which is really worth sharing!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sermon feedback from an "old friend"

I recently had a wonderful surprise when I received an email from a former member of the youth group I led when I was the Youth Minister at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX.

Gresham is now a 1st year law student. He and his friend William went on a mission trip I once led to West Virginia. Gresham, who just finished his first year of law school, emailed me as he returned to Austin for William's wedding.

Just saying hello would have been great enough, but I was also pleased that Gresham took the time to comment on my sermon! He wrote this:
I must comment on your recent sermon on Pentecost Sunday. I affirm your sentiment of how "'the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal, is most wonderfully kind.'" The testimony of the four Gospels affirms a mystery to truly knowing God. God does not fit within our doctrinal boxes, for sure. I appreciate being reminded of that in your sermon.

However, I must take issue with the following statement and the rest of your sermon. "Relying on four rather different Gospel accounts of Jesus, instead of a singular account, is a constant reminder that the particular words used are not as important as the truth to be found within them. Pentecost is ultimately the charge to share our truth as we understand it: the path by which that we have encountered God."

Do you really believe truth is shaped by how we understand it? Is God's truth so mysterious that no man can fully grasp even essential doctrines, and therefore each person's interpretation is equally valid?

It was with a touch of pride that I read his words. I've always encouraged all of the youth I work with to speak their minds and engage in the things they hear, and Gresham clearly has grown up to be thoughtful and honest. This reply of his, even though he was disagreeing with me, was very satisfying to hear!

Here was my response to his thoughts:
"Relying on four rather different Gospel accounts of Jesus, instead of a singular account, is a constant reminder that the particular words used are not as important as the truth to be found within them." Primarily, this is a statement that what the Gospel collectively means is more important than pulling out a particular quotation, often out of its context, to "prove a point" (usually a "I'm right, your wrong" point, at that).

You ask "Do you really believe truth is shaped by how we understand it?" Of course, the answer is no. However, we can most authentically only share our experience with our encounters/understandings of truth. (We can share what others have written, but the passion from sharing this usually comes from our understanding of its meaning.) Regurgitating doctrine without sharing one's understanding isn't very helpful. Sharing what it means to you, however, is powerful because of its genuineness. The hearer (either you, or the person you are listening to) doesn't (and often shouldn't) have to take it all as truth. Really listening to others, however, in a sense of openness, is likely to expand our comprehension of the mystery of God.

"Is God's truth so mysterious that no man can fully grasp even essential doctrines?" I believe that this is true, especially if by "essential doctrine" you mean "essential belief," as in views required for life in God (if you don't believe this way, you're going to hell). However, even if you are referring to understanding of something like the mystery of "grace" (meaning that grace is freely given by God to all, regardless of belief or action: amazing to us people, since we want good actions rewarded and bad actions punished), then I think we can have glimpses into God, but never full understanding. Grace is a mystery. I still think it matters how we live our lives. But if grace is really God's gift, freely given, it cannot be earned nor disinherited. I believe my understanding to be correct here, but because it hinges on mystery, my grasping of it will always be, in some sense, incomplete.

I would not, however, conclude that "therefore each person's interpretation is equally valid." I think that's the reason for "church community". One can certainly believe anything one wants...but validity comes in community. In the Episcopal church, we do not insist that everyone believes exactly the same way. We share in common our understanding that Jesus is our way, our truth, and our light. Jesus is OUR WAY of knowing God. We are all works in progress, where struggling with questions is more important than clinging to concrete answers (which are often full of cracks). Questioning in community keeps us grounded, and we hold each other accountable to live as Jesus has taught us, proclaiming the love of God, and seeking justice for all of creation.

This leads to the understanding that there are other ways to know God: Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, to name only a few. They aren't my way, but their community of faith validates them in similar fashion. Their validity doesn't change the reality that the Christian faith is in itself sufficient, and the right way for me, to "know God."

I think that's what Archbishop Tutu means, and I would agree with him.

Hey, I hope we can continue these conversations and others! Kurt

It's my hope that those of you reading this will take Gresham's lead and be encouraged to comment on my posts!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Using "Father" in Church

(A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday at All Saints Episcopal, Littleton NH, 5/30/2010)
This morning is one of the few "doctrine days" in the Episcopal Church: Trinity Sunday.

I shared thoughts last year on the difficulty of explaining the Trinity. It is, after all, a concept designed to describe the indescribable.

Jesus’ example from last year’s reading was this: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

What I think Jesus is saying is that life's greatest mystery...the nature of God, and our relationship with God...can not be explained by "how." (See last year's blog post)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quote (from a Speaking of Faith interview) that I used last week ended with the same idea: faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.

Explaining the Trinity is like describing why looking at the mountains still invokes an overwhelming sense of beauty and amazement, no matter how long we live among them.

So, this morning, I thought I would take a different tack, and speak on why I so seldom use the word “Father” in church.

Compared to the last generation of clergy, and certainly generations before that, I use the word “Father” a great deal less in my ministry. Part of this is that I don’t use it to describe my being a priest.

There are three reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: calling Episcopal Priests “father” makes little sense, as we have women priests. Thanks to Barbara Thrall’s presence as your former rector, any tradition to call me father is for the most part long in the past.

Even so, I want to share the other reasons for not calling clergy father. Father, of course, draws on imagery of one’s parent. Loving, wise, and experienced, are all great images of father. Authority, however, is just as common of a conclusion. Plus, most people bring their “father baggage” to the term. Distant, disappointment, absent, and abusive are certainly aspects of father that some people have personally encountered. You can imagine the barriers that this would place on someone’s relationship to “father priest.”

Finally, it is all to convenient that the term Father, long insisted by the church as the correct term to be used for God, just so happens to also be what priests should be called.

It’s no wonder that I’ve never been comfortable with being referred to as “Father Kurt” (besides, my father is named Kurt...that’s complicated enough.)

Addressing clergy, however, isn’t the only way that I tend not to use the term Father. It’s true that in liturgies, I sometimes replace the word “Father” with “God”, or some other image for God.

Some of the reasons not to use the term for clergy are related to the choice to use something other than Father for God.

There is a clear male image that is invoked by referring to God as father. A male image isn’t bad, but it’s incomplete for God, and often literalized.

Our relationships with our biological fathers or the fathers of our childhood certainly influences the way we see Father God. There are, of course, good images to be found in the metaphor. Imagine, however, how hard it would be to have to refer to God as “Father” if one’s father was absent or abusive.

Finally, there is the clear parental authority suggested by father. Father knows best: do right and Father will reward you, do wrong, and Father will punish you.

Now, I’m not saying that father’s a term to be avoided: that would be a mistake. There’s a lot of good to be found in the image of father: love and relationship, concern and protection. In our liturgies, I try to reserve the use of Father for two places: direct references to the Trinity, like the Creed where I’m using Father with Son and Holy Spirit to describe God, and instances where I am referring to Jesus’ describing of God.

It’s clear from our scriptures that Jesus described God as Father: that’s who God was for him. It was a really different way, at the time, to refer to God. It wasn’t just the idea that God could be loving, or concerned about people like a father, or one’s protector. What was unique about Jesus’ referring to God as Father was the intimacy that it suggested. Abba, Daddy, was not a term of distant authority, but of someone personally known and loved. Jesus, throughout his ministry, focused on his relationship to God. Whenever he interacted with others, his relationship to God framed the encounter. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was always near.

Applying this to liturgy is not always clear cut. There’s nothing wrong with starting the Lord’s Prayer with the words “Our Father.” That’s a close enough literal translation to what Jesus said. If we want to pray, however, in the way that Jesus prayed, then we want to invoke the intimate relationship that Jesus calls us to have with God. “Father” may not be the best way for each of us to do this!

I’m critical of the use of the term father by the church, but only because I first see brilliance and ingenuity by it. “My Father” was Jesus’ way of describing God: it worked completely for him. The church, in its wisdom, realized that it was not that “Father” was God, but that in Jesus’ example, God could be seen in the relationship between father and son.

That relationship of father and son is furthered by the way that others are, at their best, able to identify and witness to the sacredness found throughout the world. That’s the Spirit.

Three in one, Father, Son, and Spirit, describes an ongoing relationship: it is the great metaphor of God for the Church, and in it we can begin to see and experience God.

The church, at various times, loses its metaphors. “Father” has become the primary, in some places the only correct way, to refer to God. Ironically, this tendency could not be farther away from the mystery that the doctrine of the Trinity invites us to encounter. Father needs to be reclaimed, not as the one right way to refer to God, but reclaimed into the relationship that is witnessed between Jesus, his understanding of God, and with the connection with those who have followed.

Three in one: it describes relationship where one dwells within another and another...whole and yet different. Water is solid, liquid and vapor. Space is height, width & depth. God is Creator, Redeemer & Sustainer; God is wisdom, love and grace, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God is known in the mystery of Trinity.