Sunday, September 9, 2012

Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead

I want to talk with you this morning about our reading from the Epistle from James. The only book in the bible attributed to a member of Jesus’s family (James of Jerusalem, known as the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ), had history played out slightly differently, we might not have heard this lesson today.

We often think of the Bible as a book, and indeed, “bible” just means “book.” But it’s really a collection of books written at different times by different authors, and there has been some dispute over the years just what books belong in it.

The Church had a head start putting it together, given that inspired scrolls had been read for centuries in the synagogue. But the term “Bible” is a Christian invention; the closest concept in Judaism is the Tanakh. The Tenakh, however, isn’t a single thing. It’s an acronym for the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. These three sets of scrolls were not on equal footing in Judaism. Of first importance was the Torah, the five books of Moses. Torah means teaching, and these books were where God taught God’s Law to God’s people. Next came the Nevi’im, the prophets. Books about the prophets, like Samuel and Kings, and books of the prophets’ writings, like Isaiah and Jeremiah make up these scrolls. Finally came the Ketuvim, the writings. This included the Psalms, the wisdom literature like Proverbs, the reflections on history like Ruth, Chronicles, and Nehemiah/Ezra, and the apocalyptic literature like my namesake Daniel. These collections of Hebrew scrolls all made up “scripture.”

But then there were other writings that would have been read in the synagogue. Accounts of the revolt of the Maccabee brothers against the occupying Selucid kingdom. The story of Judith, and of Tobit. More Wisdom literature. More reflections on the history of the Jewish people. Now these writings were preserved in Greek, not in Hebrew, so they didn’t have quite the same status in the synagogue as The Writings, the Ketuvim. But they were still read and cherished in a place of honor. Certainly not Torah, and not even quite Ketuvim, but not to be ignored. These other texts were included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Septuagint, a project begun 300 years before the time of Jesus.

At the time of the Reformation, the emerging Protestant movement rejected the portions of the Septuagint not found in the Jewish canon of scripture, the Tanakh. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman churches embraced more of the texts found in the Septuagint. As for we Anglicans, we split the difference: According to the 39 Articles of Religion adopted by General Convention in 1801, the books of Hebrew Scripture not included in the Tanakh we refer to as “deuterocanonical” or on the “B-list” of scripture. They are books that“the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”

When it comes to the New Testament, there’s more widespread agreement. The Eastern Orthodox, Romans, Anglicans, and Protestants all have the same canon for the New Testament. But it almost didn’t turn out that way.

You see, when Martin Luther was trying to reform the practices of the Church in his time, he encountered the particularly problematic practice of the selling of indulgences. The Church in Luther’s time was teaching that people could buy their way (or the way of a loved one) into the Kingdom of Heaven by paying money toward the construction of new churches. Luther was deeply concerned about what he called “Works Righteousness,” the belief that people could “earn” their way into the Kingdom of Heaven by their good works (or generous donations). Luther wanted to stress our need for faith not in our own power but in God’s grace and mercy.

The Kingdom of Heaven is where God’s commandments are followed. No matter how much good we do, we all fall short of God’s commandments, and thus by the Law, Luther would say, we do not “belong” in the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot earn our way in. Only through faith in God’s mercy can we hope to have a place in God’s Kingdom. And to the extent that we cling to our good works, we trust in ourselves, and thus our faith is not in God, so we do not accept God’s mercy.

As Luther was trying to drive these themes home, he found the Epistle of James particularly unwelcome. As our lesson today asks “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” Luther wants to scream, “Yes! yes! yes it can!” Luther thus called this Epistle “an Epistle of Straw”. He did not go so far, however, as to excise it from the canon of scripture.

But Luther can rest easy. James is far from advocating for works righteousness. In James’ worldview, we are just as dependent on God’s grace and mercy as we are in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that Luther relies on so heavily. As James tells us, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” and “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

God’s mercy saves us, not our own righteous deeds. To accept God’s mercy, we need to live our lives with faith in God, not faith in our own abilities.

But faith is no mere opinion, no privately held belief locked away in one’s heart of hearts. To believe something is to live as if it is true. Faith is to live out a truth even in the face of doubts. Faith is an action. Faith is transformative. Faith that has no consequences in how you live your life is no faith at all.

So thus, James begins, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

Faith that God is Lord of Heaven and Earth enables us to live out the very radical, disruptive, terrifying commandment that Jesus left with us: Love your neighbor as yourself. Self preservation comes naturally to us. We have a strong survival mechanism: make sure there’s room in the lifeboat for me. Even when we reach out beyond ourselves, we still can be very tribal: we look out for our own before we help the other. My family, my friends, my kind. And as for the “other” — they can sink or swim on their own.

This rugged individualism is enshrined in our American culture. And it’s antithetical to the Gospel commandment: Love your neighbor as your self. Be as willing to cut up food and put it into someone else’s mouth as into your own. Serve the most repulsive, foreign, unknown stranger as eagerly as you would do something for a member of your own family or even for yourself.

Wow! That is not easy. And we worry, if we put so much time and energy and treasure into helping others, won’t our own needs suffer? I know I worry about that all the time. This Law of the Kingdom of Heaven is very foreign to our experiences on earth. In Psalm 37, the Psalmist tells us, “I have been young and now I am old, but never have I seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.” But our experience sadly tells us that happens all the time. The righteous and their children suffer want every day. It takes a giant leap to faith to even try to approach this Law to love others without fear.

We fail on a regular basis to serve the poor in our midst to the extent Jesus calls us to do so. And James calls us to task: if out of fear of self preservation we fail to serve the poor, does that not betray a lack of faith, a lack of trust that God will indeed provide for us? We feed ourselves and leave others to go hungry because we lack faith that if we devote ourselves to service, God will ensure that we too are served.

James’ call to do works of service does not mean that by these works we may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather, these works are the fruit of our belief in the power and goodness and mercy of God. A faith in God that does not produce works of service in response is not alive.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can “faith” save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

If we truly had faith in God’s saving love, we would already live without reservation by the commandment: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. We could cease to worry about providing for ourselves, and be freed to serve others. We would already live in the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t. Maybe we can’t. And thus, we stand condemned: we cannot fulfill the law, and cannot earn a place in the Reign of God.

But our faith in the love and mercy of God allows us to begin to believe that there is a place for us in God’s reign. As we come to understand that mercy, we can live it out in our lives, too. God’s mercy to us begets our own acts of mercy, which make it easier to believe in God’s mercy, which empowers us to share God’s love and mercy even more, and the spiral continues. It starts with God’s grace, and each act in response to it lets us grow in grace until we live as we pray: your kingdom come, your will be done.

So we take our timid steps of service, in fear that we are foolish, in nascent faith that God will provide. And as we grow in God’s kingdom, our prayer can only be that of the man who asked Jesus to heal his son: Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Does anyone here remember the Good Old Days?

Remember when there were more kids of lots of different ages running around this Church? Remember when the pews were fuller, and the budget heftier and we could afford a full-time rector?

Remember when the Diocesan budget was more flush, and they could support more ministries, a great camp out in Ortonville, and more resources for the parishes?

Remember when economy was better? Jobs were easier to find, and more likely to last. Schools were better funded, political discourse less bitter, and great cultural institutions like the DIA had ample funding from the state and corporate donors and didn’t depend for their survival on enough people who support them remembering to get out and vote this coming Tuesday?
Remember the good old days?

Why aren’t things today as good as they were back then?

This isn’t a new question. When I write a sermon, frequently there’s a soundtrack that comes to me as I’m organizing my thoughts. Most of the time I am merciful enough not to try to sing the songs that inspire me as I’m writing, and today especially that’s a good thing. Picture Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton standing around a piano singing the theme song to All in the Family: Those were the days. I suppose there’s something rather meta-reflective when my example of nostalgia itself comes from a TV show that first aired before I was born.

But neither we nor Archie Bunker have a monopoly on nostalgia. A major theme in Hebrew Scripture involves contemplating the miserable circumstances of the Jewish people at the time scripture was compiled, and wondering why things weren’t as good then as they were back in the Good Old Days. What’s unique about Hebrew Scripture’s approach to the Good Old Days is that rather than some vague notion of yesteryear, there is a concrete time that makes up their Good Old Days: The reign of King David and his son King Solomon. The Books of First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah constitute one major thread in scriptures showcasing the Glory of Days Gone By, and prescribing what the people need to do to bring back the days when a unified kingdom reigns unchallenged from the Jordan River to the Great Sea.

In the Chronicler’s account, the way to bring back the Good Old Days is to purify the people of God : to cast out the impure in deed or ancestry, so that the assembly of God’s People only consists of worthy, good people. That’s the way to get back to the old days. But today’s lesson from the book of second Samuel serves as a challenge to the nostalgic account of the Chronicler. It reminds us that the reign of King David wasn’t as ideal as we might want to remember it. That David was hardly the perfect defender of God’s Law that the Chronicler might wish to hold him up as. That the assembly of the People of God was not just for the pure of deed and ancestry, because the idealized king himself was pure neither in deed (as demonstrated in the lessons from this week and last) nor in ancestry (as accounted in great detail in the book of Ruth). Chronicles, which often parallels the stories in Samuel and Kings, does not include the story we heard this week and last; it includes the very first line, then changes the subject. The Chronicles account wants to feel good about the monarchy, and this story doesn’t hold up King David as a shining beacon of moral conduct. It doesn’t portray the assembly of God’s People as properly pure.

The lesson the story passes along to us today is similar: Church isn’t for Good People. The assembly of the People of God isn’t a place where the pure gather and the unclean are excluded. A sinner’s place is in the Church! Whether we look at the example of Moses, or David, or Peter, or Paul, Scripture tells us again and again that the chosen ministers of God’s word time and time again are people who have managed to do terrible wrong. All of us who are call to be people of God are simultaneously sinners and God’s ministers.

In the past month, I’ve returned to a spiritual discipline that has been very meaningful to me over the years, when I’ve been able to keep it up: I’ve been regularly praying the Psalms in the morning and the evening. Last week, Pastor Diane told us all about why we all should keep a copy of the Book of Common Prayer around the home. One of the many benefits to our amazing prayerbook is the fact that it contains that most ancient of hymnals, the entire Book of Psalms. The book captures a very full human range of emotions, from joy to despair to fury to compassion, and the book connects us with humans seeking the divine thousands of years before our time. The Church prays the psalms together every time we gather for prayer, and the prayer book contains several guides for how a household, individual, or community could pray the psalms in a structured way over the course of time. These works of Hebrew poetry are legendarily attributed to King David, but none are more closely associated with David himself than Psalm 51, which we recited part of today. Psalm 51 is a psalm of repentance, and is tied to today’s lesson. This is ascribed to be what David prayed after Nathan called him out on his sinful actions. Let’s hear it again, putting ourselves in the place of David. We’ve done terrible evil. We are truly sorry, and yet we know that despite the evil we do, God has good that we are still called to do:

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your
loving-kindness; *

in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *

and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions, *

and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against you only have I sinned *

and done what is evil in your sight.

5 And so you are justified when you speak *

and upright in your judgment.

6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *

a sinner from my mother’s womb.

7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *

and will make me understand wisdom secretly

8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *

that the body you have broken may rejoice.

10 Hide your face from my sins *

and blot out all my iniquities.

11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *

and renew a right spirit within me.

12 Cast me not away from your presence *

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *

and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

14 I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *

and sinners shall return to you.

15 Deliver me from death, O God, *

and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness,
O God of my salvation.

16 Open my lips, O Lord, *

and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

17 Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *

but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.

18 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

19 Be favorable and gracious to Zion, *

and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

20 Then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices,
with burnt-offerings and oblations; *

then shall they offer young bullocks upon your altar.

This is David’s prayer of forgiveness: the prayer of one condemned by his sins, and the prayer of one still aspiring to be a minister of God’s grace. Not just “forgive me” but “I will teach your ways to the wicked and sinners will return to you.”
We stand condemned, we stand forgiven, we stand called to be ministers of God’s mercy and justice.

In our baptismal covenant, we pledge to seek God’s forgiveness not if we fall into sin, but whenever we fall into sin. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. We are sinners, and we are ministers of God’s mercy.

David exemplifies this call to be a minister of God’s justice and mercy in response to the case Nathan brings before him: the metaphorical rich man who stole a poor man’s only lamb received his sentence from King David: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” He deserves to die, but shall live and make restitution. God’s justice demands that we speak up for those who have been wronged, and not let off the hook those who do evil, but God’s mercy demands not that we condemn them, write them off as irredeemably evil, even if that is what they deserve, but that we believe and expect that they can and must do good to help the world recover from the evil they have done. This is the formula for messengers of God’s justice and mercy. Mercy and justice work hand in hand to lead not to retaliation for sins nor for ignoring and hiding sins, but to restorative justice.

And then, when prophetic voices like Nathan’s tell us that the judgement we deliver is, in fact, aimed at we ourselves, the formula is no different. We deserve condemnation for our sins, but we, like David, like Moses, like Peter, like Paul, we shall live to do good.

Our story from Kings cautions us against dwelling on restoring some glorious past. Despite Joni Mitchell’s great lyrics in the song Woodstock, we don’t “Got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” The message from our God is that our best days are not behind us. The Messianic Age, the Reign of God, is still to come. And we, all of us sinners, like David, are called not to sit in a pile of ashes mourning our sins, but to be agents of restorative justice to help bring about the Reign of God. We are called to be ministers of God’s justice and mercy holding ourselves and others accountable for the evil we do, not dwelling on condemnation, but focusing on what we can make right.

All our past experiences of God’s glory are but a foretaste of the feast to come. Let us journey on together, working to bring forth the coming age of God’s justice and mercy, for the reign of God is at hand. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Even at the grave we make our song

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Easter is a celebration of Life. But we do not celebrate Easter in a vacuum.

The prayer book tells us:

In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.

We are called, this Eastertide, to celebrate that God lives.

Our Gospel today tells us, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; live in my love. Live in my love.

But "Live in my love" is hard.

In the midst of life, we are in death. Recently, it seems the news of death just keeps coming in.

Early Tuesday morning, Becky passed away. Becky, who worshiped with us. Becky who sent birthday cards to all of us on behalf of the church. Becky who was alive. Years ago, my wife worked at what was then the camp for this diocese. One of her co-workers, an 18-year-old counselor, later developed cancer. His funeral is this afternoon. He was 30. A friend of mine, a priest from New York, my age, died of a brain aneurysm a few weeks ago. Another friend of mine, a priest in the Roman church, lost his mother in the past week. In the diocese of Maryland, a homeless man killed a priest, a parish administrator, and then himself at a church outside Baltimore, not far from where my god daughter lives.

In the midst of life, we are in death indeed. The cumulative effect of all news of death is heavy. I know I've wanted to be able to do something about it, but, of course, I cannot. That helplessness in the face of death is why I wrote to Diane last week offering to preach two weeks in a row so she could have more time to visit her dying father. I couldn't keep people alive, but here was something I could do. Offering to help made me feel the slightest bit less helpless in the face of all this death.

Jesus tells us: Live in my love. But the live part is seems hard. So does the love part. Listening to the news this past week, I couldn't help but feel that the forces of selfishness and narrow-mindedness seemed to keep winning some victories this week. War between the Sudan and South Sudan seems to become more and more likely, while developments in Israeli politics seem to be making peace there less and less likely. We learned of more terrorist plots to blow things up, and our own nation's drones continue to drop bombs, killing terrorist and by-stander alike.

And then there's North Carolina. This week, voters there did what voters here in Michigan did back in 2004, approving an amendment to the state constitution to prevent any future session of the state legislature from extending the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. Even sadder, in my view, is that in a survey conducted by the New York Times this week, support for the amendment was strongest among married people - people who enjoy the rights and protections of marriage were the most eager to deny those rights and protections to other families.

In other news, one of our nation's largest banks (and the one that holds my savings) revealed the amount of money it managed to gamble away trying to make the rich get even richer, and then it was revealed that the rules that enabled the bank to engage in such behavior had been changed in large part because of the extensive lobbying campaigns that same bank conducted.

Now these are the news stories that drove me near despair this week. Some of you might be bothered by different news. These were the headlines that hit me the hardest, but each of us is different. But in the face of all this Bad News, how can we celebrate life? How can we celebrate Easter?

But just as we do not celebrate Easter in a vacuum, neither did Easter happen in a vacuum. In the midst of life, we are in death, but Easter itself is a reminder that in the midst of death, we are in life. Death and despair and selfishness and bigotry and war and unkindness and evil do not have the final word.

The resurrection was not a random affirmation of life, but rather it followed the crucifixion. Resurrection came after violence and fear and oppression and death. The mighty Roman Empire used its full force to try to end the Jesus movement. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter, right? The enforcement apparatus of the empire publicly tortured and killed Jesus to say to all his followers and potential followers that this is the end that comes of those whose nonviolence challenges empire. This is the end that comes of those who live as though God and not Caesar is king. This is the end of your movement.

And Easter is our celebration that the empire was wrong. The cross is not the end. Despite the full force of empire, Jesus lives. Despite the full propaganda campaign of the passion, the followers of the Way did not give up hope. Despite the full force of hate, love is more powerful.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. The feast of feasts is our celebration that despite all the forces that oppose it, love wins. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We do not need to fear death. We can live in love. Jesus died horribly, and yet he lives.

The people whose of death I learned this week all were people who very much lived right up to the end of their lives. Becky's card ministry touched so many of our lives. My wife's friend has been fighting cancer for years, knowing that his prognosis never included recovery, but determined to live his life to the fullest. A few months ago, he and his partner of many years, who has helped him through so many rounds of treatment, got married.

The priest and parish administrator in Maryland died while running a food bank to feed the hungry.

Life and service to God continue even in the face of death. And God's love empowers us to work for justice and love even against staggering odds. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

It has been terrible sad to hear so many people use religion to justify denying civil rights to their brothers and sisters. And yet, in response to the North Carolina amendment vote, I heard two pieces of news that gave me hope. Wednesday evening I received an e-mail from a mailing list I am on. The President of the United States said that he has rethought his previous position, and come to the conclusion that he was wrong to oppose including all couples in the protections of marriage. He referred to his faith, and in particular the Golden Rule, as instrumental in coming to this conclusion. Now this doesn't change the law. This doesn't undo the damage that has been done and is being done by discrimination enshrined in the statutes and constitutions of our land. But it's an amazing sign of hope that the leader of our empire can be called to repent from his previous stance.

While leaders from some religious communities decried this announcement, I read a beautiful press release from a friend of mine from New Jersey, a priest named Jon Richardson, who is now Vice President of Integrity USA: "I am deeply grateful to President Obama for his vocal support of marriage equality. This growth and forward movement in his thinking is particularly heartening after the unsurprising, but disappointing vote yesterday for continued discrimination in North Carolina. While some churches and local governments are holding fast to socially irrelevant and outdated political positions, we are proud to lift up the Episcopal Church as a growing beacon of hope for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people of faith and our allies."

Jesus calls us to love our enemies, do good to those who hurt us, pray for those who persecute us. We fall short, so often, as these words are hard. But this week, several churches in the Diocese of Maryland reached out to the family of the man who killed the priest and church worker and offered prayers and a funeral service. Sometimes, by God's grace, we get it right. God enables us to live like Jesus, reaching out in love against all odds, even in the face of death. God's grace empowers us to act in love. Death is powerful, but death does not have the final word.

And so we can turn to God and say, as the prayer book tells us:

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying,

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

[The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!]

Happy Easter, everybody. The Easter season goes on for fifty days. I hope you’re not still looking for that last missing colored hard boiled egg the Easter Bunny hid, because by now, it probably doesn’t smell very good. I suspect the chocolate bunnies are mostly eaten, and infestations of Peeps and Cadbury Cream Eggs have been tamed, and yet the Feast of Feast continues for a week of weeks.

To be honest, I find this to be one of the hardest parts of the Church year. Fifty days of rejoicing that our Lord is risen indeed. Fifty days of celebrating that Christ, our passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Fifty days of feasting. Fifty days of celebrating the here and the now of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I have to confess that I more readily find God’s grace in reading lessons from the Old Testament than I do in lessons from the New Testament. The messiness of Hebrew scripture and its competing narratives speak to my condition more often than the passages the Lectionary gives us from the Epistles, or even from the Gospel. But in Easter, our first lesson changes. Rather than a reading from Hebrew Scripture, our first lesson comes from the Acts of the Apostles. If the Church is the new Israel, then in Eastertide, rather than hearing the foundational stories of the first Israel, we hear the foundational stories of the establishment of the new Israel, where the twelve tribes find their successors in the twelve apostles. Exciting stuff, and it’s the one time of the year we get to hear the stories of the early Church that the Acts of the Apostles recounts. But for me, it’s a challenge, losing my fall-back plan: for most of the year, I know that if I don’t hear the Spirit speaking to me about the day’s Gospel, I can always preach about the lesson from Hebrew Scripture. Come Eastertide, that option goes away.

I do a lot better with the forty days of Lent. Preparing. Listening. Waiting for the Lord. I suppose I can better identify with meditative silence and fasting than I can with trumpets and feasting. But here we are in the Easter season, when we are called not to reflect on broken-ness, not to wait for our deliverance, but to rejoice that now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!

Apparently, I’m not particularly good at extended rejoicing. But the Church year is a gift. God nudges us out of our comfort zone, so we can grow. And if extended rejoicing is the end for which we were created, to join in the anthem of the seraphim singing Holy Holy Holy at the feast of the Lamb for all time, perhaps it’s best if we take this opportunity to grow. All this practice at keeping the feast of the resurrection just might end up serving us well.

Our lesson from Acts today begins with an angel telling Philip “Get up and go!” There is a time for healing and a time for rest and a time for recovery and a time for fasting and praying and listening for the still, small voice of God – all of this is true, and vitally important, but a time also comes to take action.

If scripture were a movie, we’d switch genres here. We go from a contemplative drama in The Garden of Gethsemane – “stay awake with me and keep watch” – to an action adventure flick. God says “Get up and go,” so Philip races to catch up the Ethiopian eunuch. On foot, Philip outruns a chariot, known throughout the ancient world for their speed. And what happens at the end of this chase seen? Philip catches up to the chariot and… conducts a bible study. That’s right, they sit down and read together. Okay, maybe this isn’t the next Indiana Jones movie.

Yes, in this action-packed post-resurrection world there is still thought and discernment and study. But, keep in mind, Philip’s bible study here takes place in a racing chariot. And then, the Ethiopian eunuch hears what Philip has to teach him, and makes a decision instantly: Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?

The action of salvation accelerates. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch, and then is immediately whisked away by the Spirit to his next task. It’s go, go, go in this outfit.

Now, to be honest, I’ve thought about this story many times in the past twelve years. In January of 2000, I approached my rector, John Keydel, to talk about the process of exploring a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. And for much of the last twelve years, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from God and the Church to wait. And wait. And wait. And there have been times this lesson from Acts has come to mind, where the Ethiopian eunuch says to Philip, “Here is water; what is to prevent me from being baptized” – no catechesis, no waiting for the Easter Vigil, no paperwork, no delays. Just stop the chariot, go down to the water, and boom – you’re baptized; start your new ministry. I’ve dreamed that perhaps someday a bishop might just be wandering by (not that there would ever be a bishop around this place) and say hey, there’s work I want you to do. Here are my hands – what is to prevent you from being ordained? And then it’s boom – on to the next mission.

Now it doesn’t work that way, and for good reason. An ordained leader in the Church can do a lot of damage, so the Church needs to be careful that it calls people who are well selected, well supported, and well prepared. But when the message is wait, wait, wait, when, one can start to expect that the word from the Lord is always “wait.” In the time of Elijah, the voice of the Lord was not in the wind and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. When that happens, it’s easy to become complacent. To expect that the message is always “wait until later.” To miss the call to action of the Lord speaking in the sound of sheer silence. But after the wind, earthquake, and fire, God did speak to Elijah, and said Get up and Go. And just like Philip, once God said Go, Elijah went indeed.

For us here at Nativity, we’ve been in a time of healing. We’ve been in a time of praying, and listening, and waiting for the Lord. And when God isn’t calling us to get up and go yet, the proper course of action is indeed to wait for the Lord. But today’s lesson is an important reminder that the hour is coming when the word from the Lord won’t be wait, but rather Get up and Go. We’ve got to be listening for that call, and ready for the change of pace that might follow. There’s a time to wait for the Lord. A time to pray and study scripture and discern. And also a time when God presents us with opportunity: here is water. What is to prevent us from doing God’s work in the world. And we do it, and boom! It’s on to the next mission. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

And then there were ten

When we’re trying to make sense of the world, we sometimes try to simplify things. When the world seems complicated, we often dichotomize: we divide the world into two opposed, non-overlapping parts. Black and White. Secular and Spiritual. Law and Gospel. Old Testament and New Testament. Jews and Christians. Commandments and Cross.

In that light, it’s easy for our reading from Corinthians today to come off as self-congratulatory: the Jews and Greeks get it wrong, but we followers of The Way, as the nascent Christian community called itself, we have it right.

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Thinking in “either/or” mode, we might say that Jews cling to the “Old” Testament, the world of the Law, the world of the ten commandments. But we Christians, we’ve moved beyond that. We’ve got the right answer: the cross. The Law condemns us, but the cross redeems us.

But everything doesn’t always fall into such neat compartments. And just because the Old Testament is old, doesn’t mean it’s out of date. It doesn’t mean we should just throw it away.

So today, I want to look at our first two readings: the ten commandments, and Paul’s reflection about the Cross, and see what they tell us about each other.

Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah, the law, contains six hundred thirteen commandments. And yet there are ten that hold a particularly special place in our memory. The first lesson we heard today isn’t known as “ten of the commandments”; we call it “The Ten Commandments”. As if these ten were so special that beyond them, there are no others. What’s so special about these ten?

The Godly Play curriculum calls them the Ten Best Ways to live. There’s a long rabbinical tradition of trying to summarize The Law, and perhaps the ten commandments do that. They start by recalling God’s relationship with the people: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

And then continue:

  • You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol.
  • You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.
  • Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.

We sometimes divide the commandments, saying that those are about the relationship between God and humans, and the rest are about the relationship among humans: Honor your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.

But they aren’t in neat categories there. When we covet things that do not belong to us, we both hurt our fellowship with our neighbor and reject what our God has blessed us with. When we do not allow those who work for us to keep the Sabbath, we defile God’s holy day and we exploit our neighbor. And what more wrongful use of the name of the LORD is there than to invoke the name of God to oppress our neighbor? To use the holy name to gain power over others?

When Jesus was asked to summarize the law, continuing in that rabbinical tradition, Matthew 22 tells us that he said

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with 
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great 
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt 
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments 
hang all the Law and the Prophets.

I used the traditional language there because of the transition it uses between the two commandments: “The second is like unto it.” We’re not talking about two completely different things. Our relationship with God shapes our relationship with our fellow humans. Our relationship with our fellow humans is a necessary consequence of our relationship with God.

Love the Lord and love Humankind – these are two sides of the same coin. And this love was brought to its fulfillment in the cross. Jesus doesn’t abolish the law, he fulfills it. The Law, the 613 commandments, the ten commandments, the two commandments – the cross of Jesus demonstrates their most full expression. But the message about the Cross is indeed foolishness to those who are perishing.

The wisdom of the world says protect yourself. The wisdom of the world says be strong, to fight off your enemies. The wisdom of the world says hold back from helping others, and be sure you can take care of yourself first.

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who embrace worldly wisdom.

The commandment to love others as much as you love yourself resists seeking of power for self-preservation. The commandment to love others as self says the impulse to help oneself – to save oneself – is only to be embraced as a part of the helping and saving of all humankind. And there in the heart of the summary of the law is the message of the cross.

The Christian message about the cross is that the ultimate manifestation of power and strength is to totally empty oneself. To lay down one’s life in resistance to evil – not by fighting it, but by bearing witness to the power of God. Love God with every fiber of your being, and love yourself as a part of loving all humankind.

The Roman message about the cross is that power can bring order. The cross itself was a tool of Roman subjugation. Put down rebellions, quell dissent, keep calm throughout the known world.

The power of the cross, to the Romans, was in fear. People who dared to defy them were hung up on display, so everyone could see them very painfully die.

But the Christians embraced the cross as their own symbol. The cross became not something to fear or be ashamed of – look, your movement’s leader was tortured to death here – but rather a source of strength. When Jesus died on the cross, and yet rose from the dead, he showed that the ultimate symbol of violence, the ultimate symbol of peace through strength, the ultimate claim that “power over others makes you strong” was, in fact, powerless against him.

Without fully loving, hoping, believing in the power of God, Jesus could never have embraced the cross. The first of the great commandments makes the second one possible. We have the courage, and grace, and power to serve others only because we are first fed by our God. We go forth into the world to serve only in response to the abundant grace that God first gives us. We can engage in the crazy, foolish, subversive act of loving neighbor as self only when we are animated by the love of God.

Paul didn’t write about Jews and Greeks as “them”. They weren’t the other. Paul’s community was made up of Jews and Greeks. When Paul sets the cross against the expectations of Jews and Greeks, he shows us how our own expectations resist the message of the cross. We are the Jews. We are the Greeks. In each of us is a resistance to the radical, absurd love of God witnessed by Jesus’ passion. But, by the grace of God, we can receive the message about the cross. As we fear danger, we cling to wisdom and power, but the cross of Jesus offers another way: a way of fearless nonviolence, of powerful powerlessness, of foolish love.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Amen. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

In the beginning

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being.
So begins the Enuma Elish, the oldest known written creation story. The story tells of the battles of six generations of gods in the Babylonian pantheon, and how from their begetting and dispatching, the world came to be: first light and darkness, then the separation of the waters, then the separation of the soils from the waters, and then the population of light with the heavenly bodies, then the population of the sea and sky with the creatures that dwell there, then the population of the land, the emergence of the god Marduk, founder of Babylon, and the creation of humankind as his slaves.
Believing a story like that -- living out a story like that -- has consequences. If one believes that humankind was created to be slaves to the Babylonian empire, if one believes that there are many gods with many value systems, but the currently triumphant one is the founder of your empire, if one believes that the world is the product of a clash between good and evil, with some natural entities of the one and others of the other, it profoundly shapes the way one lives.
Now the people of Israel were captives of the Babylonian empire. Forcing the people of Judah to leave their home, the Babylonians settled them in the midst of their capital city, hoping to assimilate them. Hoping to make them Babylonians. Hoping that they, like all the other Babylonians, would become good slaves of Marduk, good toilers for the benefit of the empire.
And there, in that setting, the exiles of Israel for the first time wrote down their stories of God. The Law. The prophets. The psalms. And, yes, their account of how the world began. The creation myth they recorded bore certain strong similarities to the creation myth of the culture that surrounded them. As far as the "facts" were concerned, the stories matched up: first light was separated from darkness, then sea from sky, then land from sea. Next the light was populated with the sun, moon and stars, then the sea and sky were populated, and finally, the land. Their alternate tale didn't rock the boat as far as the facts were concerned. But the account that begins "Enuma Elish" -- "when the heavens above" and the account that begins "Bey-rey-sheet" -- Hebrew for "In the beginning", but if we translated it into Greek, we'd say "Genesis" -- they are not the same story. Because the same facts are used to communicate a very different truth. Stories matter. Stories define us. The stories we live out about how the world came to be the way it is shape how we understand the world, how we understand our place in the world, and, ultimately, how we respond to the world. Our stories shape our lives.
Now this creation story was written to communicate a truth without getting into an argument with the surrounding culture about the facts. The writers of Genesis wanted to save their energy for disputing the important stuff: what the story means. How we should live in response to it.
We live now in a time where there are too many fights about our creation story related to the facts in the story. Which is too bad, because they distract us from a much more important disagreement about the truths of the story. Whether the world was created in six literal days is far less important a question than whether we can live our lives in faith the created world is good, and our God is all-powerful.
Our creation story tells us that the voice of the LORD is a powerful voice. In Latin, "dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux." God said "Let there be light" -- and there WAS light. God gives the command, and it happens. I had to throw in the Latin, because I just got a beautiful new car, a Fiat, and the word Fiat is at the center of this story. God said "fiat," "let it be," and thus it is. In the Enuma Elish, the world is the byproduct of conflict among the mighty divine powers. It isn't planned. It isn't how any one of the Babylonian gods wanted it to be. It's what's left after they fight with each other. In our story, the story the Israelites told to resist the Babylonian empire, the world is because God said it should be that way. And God saw that it was good.
In both accounts, we start in a state of chaos. In the Babylonian story, the world is the result of conflict, but one dominant force, Marduk, brings a semblance of order by crushing his enemies. But those enemies, or their descendants, could rise up again at any time, so the only way to preserve order in the world is to keep the empire strong. Strength alone has triumphed and will triumph over chaos. So do unto others before they do unto you.
There are a lot of people today living out that creation story. People who believe that the world is full of disorderly forces: some allied with the ones you serve and some who are enemies of the ones you serve. Your side is on top, for now, but peace can only come through strength. This has been the message of empires throughout the ages: Babylonian. Roman. British. American. The world can be at peace when the mighty ones are powerful enough to crush any forces of disorder.
In our story, however, the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. In our story, fear needn't rule, because we know without doubt that our God is charge. The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends inexorably toward justice. Our creation story gives us the confidence to respond to hatred with love, to bless those who curse us, to do good to those who hurt us, because we know that there are not many gods with many values, but one God of love who sits enthroned above the flood, who sits enthroned as King for evermore, who shall give us strength, who shall give us the blessing of peace.
Our creation story tells us that this is the world we live in: a world created by the will of our God, a world that at a fundamental level, despite all appearances to the contrary, is good.
Now today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. And Baptism is deeply tied to creation stories. Baptism is a ceremony of taking on a creation story. Making it yours. And beginning a new life shaped by living out the creation story of which you have just become a part.
The creation stories of the people of Babylon and Israel both start with the swirling waters representing pre-created chaos. In baptism, we use water to help plunge us into that pre-created, chaotic state so we can emerge into a new story. We say in baptism that we become a new creation, and that is exactly what happens when we take on, and thus start to live out, this creation story.
We talk about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, but there is one God, and one truth behind them, and the truth into which we are baptized goes all the way back to creation: if we are with God, of what need we be afraid? The voice of the Lord speaks, and the world is as God says. Therefore, we can love without fear. We can serve God and others without regard for any powers of this world that oppose us, for the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare, and in the temple of the Lord, all are crying, "Glory!" That is the story of creation. That is the song of the Psalmist. And that is the death and resurrection of Christ, into which we are baptized.
In the ways that matter, this story is true: indeed, this story is the Truth we need. Living out this story of creation means that we are free to live in love, for the word of the God of love is all-powerful. God said "let it be." It was, and God saw that it was good. Amen.