Sunday, January 26, 2014

Paul, Tertulian, & Diana Ross: Love Don't Come Easy, But . . .

First Corinthians is hands down my favorite Epistle.
Paul is trying to help the Church in Corinth
            work though their human frailty
to become the Body of Christ and carry out his Kingdom Mission.

Paul is teaching the Corinthians how to be the kind of community
            that attracts people to Jesus by showing them
                        who Jesus’ followers become.
Paul wants people to see Christians and say two things:
            “I want to be with them” and “I want to be like them.”
Jesus said, “This is how people will know you are my disciples.
                        By your love for one another.”
St. John said, “Dear friends, let us love one another for love
                                    comes from God. . . .
                        If we  love one another, God lives in us
                                    and his love is perfected in us. . . .
                        God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God. . .
                        Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters
                                    are liars,

            For those who do not love their brothers or sisters
                        whom they have seen
                        cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

200 years later, the Father of Western theology, Tertullian,
            summed up the basic strategy of how to show pagans
                        the beauty of the Christian way. He wrote:
“’See how these Christians love one another,’ the pagans say,
            for they themselves hate one another,
‘and how they are ready to die for teach other,’
for the pagans are ready to kill each other.’”

But to turn to another kind of Scripture,
            in the words of Diana Ross, “Love don’t come easy.”
It didn’t come easy to the saints in Corinth.
The first thing we hear about is the faction
            over some folks being fans of one apostle
            while others were followers of another.
Paul urges them to put aside those divisions. He says,
            “As long as there is jealously and quarrelling among you
                        are you not of the flesh
            and behaving according to human inclinations?”

So stop dividing up according to which apostle you like best.
Then he turns to lawsuits between church members
            and says it is better to be defrauded than to sue a brother.
Then there was the biggest fight of all.
It was about eating food that came from pagan sacrifices.
1st Century Christians were as worked up over what they ate
            as 21st Century Christians are worked up over sex.
Paul says that the ones who eat the meat are right theologically
            but he tells them to abstain anyway
            out of love for those who are offended by it.
And so the letter to the Corinthians proceeds
            petty issue by petty issue, church fight by church fight,
            until he breaks into a spiritual aria to explain his point.
That’s the famous 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians,
            the hymn to love we always read at marriages,
            but it isn’t about marriage.
It’s about being a congregation.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but have not love, I am a noisy gong . . . .
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful
            or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
            endures all things.”

That’s what love means.
God is love. Those who abide in love,
            those who follow the discipline of love
      and it is a discipline because Diana Ross is right                                                                   – love don’t come easy –
those who follow the discipline of love, abide in love,
God lives in them and they live in God.
And when we abide in love
            the 87% of Nevadans with no faith of any kind
            will say, “I want to be with them and I want to be like them.”

Paul never again wrote anything so beautiful as 1st Corinthians.
But I’m sorry to say they didn’t get it.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending
When we get to 2nd Corinthians, things have just gotten worse.
40 years later, decades after Paul was dead and gone,
            the Corinthians were still fighting.
By then, Clement, the bishop of Rome, had taken over Paul’s job
            and was still pleading with them to just get along
            and treat each other in Jesus’ way, not the world’s way.

Corinthians is pretty straight forward,
            but the Epistle to the Romans gets misunderstood
            and misused most of the time.
Actually, it isn’t the theological treatise people think it is.
It’s just like Corinthians, an effort to smooth out a church fight.
In Rome the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians
            were going at it.
It got so bad the Emperor Claudius threw the whole lot     
            of them out of town kit and caboodle.
Paul wrote Romans to try to show them that it is better to be kind
            than to be right.
The Romans may not have gotten it right away.
But I think the point eventually sank in.
Here’s why I think they got it.

Between 165 and180, a plague swept through
            the urban centers of the Empire,
            killing one-third to one-half of city populations.
The city of Rome was particularly hard hit.
It’s named Galen’s plague after Galen,
the Emperor’s personal physician.
Galen is famous because he figured out
            that people were catching the plague
            from contact with each other.
It was the first discovery of contagion in the Ancient World.

So Galen told everyone who had the wealth and ability
            to get out of town.
Well, that was fine for the people who could do it.
But it left the sick and the dying to their own devices.
It wasn’t pretty, a city of the sick, the dying, and the dead.

And everyone ran away – except the Christians.
The Christians had an odd notion that the love of God,
            that is God’s love living in their own hearts, would protect them.
And if it didn’t, then they’d just die in God’s service and go to heaven.
So the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, prayed with the dying,
            and buried the dead.

The pagans looked on in wonder.
They said, “See how these Christians love one another.
            See how they even love us.”
Christianity remained illegal in the Empire for another century.
But by the end of that century, one third of the Empire
            had converted to Christianity     
                        largely because of the love
            Christians displayed during Galen’s plague.

For us human beings, love don’t come easy.
But you know what G. K. Chesterton said,
            “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting.
            It has been found difficult and not tried.”

Nothing good comes easy.
What is best may be hardest of all.
But the reward is to live in God
            and have God live in us.
The hardest thing is the thing most worth doing.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Our Gospel lesson is downright peculiar viewed from the angle
            of spirituality and religion today.
It is currently a popular notion that spirituality
            is best done privately, by the individual,
using his or her own critical thinking.

Thomas Moore's new book, A Religion Of One's Own,
      is a do it yourself guide to how to make up your own spiritual thing.
That is a very attractive way to go about spirituality.

I get to figure it out for myself.
Knowing that I am smarter than St. Thomas Aquinas,
            holier than St. Athanasius, and humbler than St. Francis,
            I can devise a better spirituality than Christianity.
I can invent better rituals than the ones practiced by millions
            of lesser people over the millennia.
I can make up better stories than the Bible and craft a better Creed
than the Council of Nicaea.

The most convenient thing about private spirituality
            is that I basically get to make up my own God.
And that is great.

The God I create will not ask for any of my money,
            or even any time I do not already want to give.
The God of my making will not infringe on my political convictions
            with Biblical social morality.
The God I invent will never ask me to take up my cross.
No, the God of my creation will be the shield and sustainer of my ego.

There are a few problems with my private little God.
First, as I say, he works for me because he works for me.
He is the shield and sustainer of my ego.
But all the name brand religions – Judaism, Christianity,
            Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and the rest say
            that my ego is the problem.
My ego is the prison of my soul.
So my private little God is on exactly the wrong side
of the spiritual project
            that should dismantle ego,
not fortify its prison walls.

Second, when I die, the God of my creation dies with me.
In the world of private individual spirituality,
            I am the Alpha and the Omega.
So when I turn the lights out, that’s all she wrote.

Third, the God of my own creation won’t connect me with other people.
Worshiping my own God in my own way in my own place
            at my own time is convenient, but lonely.
St. Augustine said what we all know from experience.
The joy of life is found in human friendship.
We don’t make friends in a private spirituality.

So let’s flash back to 30 A. D.
If anyone had the qualifications to do private spirituality,
            it was Jesus.
But he didn’t do it.
He prayed and studied at synagogue,
            worshiped in the Temple,
            and was baptized by John.
He wasn’t too good for the faith of his ancestors
            or the seekers of his own day.
Jesus didn’t have his Holy Spirit experience off by himself.
He had it in the Jordan River with John.
So John also saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.
When Jesus came up from the water,
John heard the voice of God
When Jesus was baptized, when Jesus had his encounter with God,
            it wasn’t just so he could get himself in the zone.
It was for the sake of others, including John.

The next time John saw Jesus, he didn’t say
            “Master let’s go off and have a private guru and disciple chat.
            Tell me your secrets so I can be a spiritual hot shot too.”
Instead he pointed Jesus out to his friends and said,
            “If you are looking for God, go follow Jesus.”

So they followed  him, and when Jesus asked then, “What do you seek?”
            they said, “Where are you living?”
They just wanted to be where he was.
So he showed them his place and they stayed with him.
One of those disciples, Andrew,
            Immediately brought his brother Peter to Jesus.
They were forming connections.
Jesus shared his experience with John,
            John passed it on to Andrew       
                        then Andrew brought in Peter.
They were all looking for God together.
They weren’t each making up their own God.
They were looking for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
            the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel.
They were looking for the God of Moses, Samuel, David, and Isaiah.
Their hope was grounded in promise made to their ancestors.
Nothing private about this.
It’s a group project with the group spread through the centuries.

And Jesus taught them about the Kingdom of God.
He told them where to look for it.
In the 1960s we started privatizing the translation.

We had Jesus saying “The Kingdom of God is within you
(2nd person singular)”
-- meaning look inside yourself to find God.

But actually Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is among you
(2nd person plural).”
The Kingdom of God is in the relational space between you.
It’s about the relationships.

If you are on your way to the altar with your gift to God
            and you remember you are at odds with your brother,
            stop right there and make peace with your brother first.
Forgive. Share. Tell the truth. Give more than is asked.
God on earth resides in human connections.

All of this adds up to three things for us.
First, it makes a difference for how we treat each other
            in the Church.
The other people in Church with are not just fellow consumers
            of the sacraments.
They are the sacraments. They are the body of Christ.
They are the face of Jesus.
If we want God the way we want him, we have to keep him private.
But it we allow the God of Jesus to appear to us,
            he will show up in the curious guise of each other.
Second, if our faith is relational, we have to share it.
Like John the Baptist, we naturally point people toward Jesus.
Like Andrew we go find someone we care about and tell them
            where to find Jesus.
We know where that is. It’s right here.

One of our parishes recently reported that 85% of their newcomers
found their church through their web site.
But we still have churches that don’t have web sites.
That may reduce their chances of meeting a newcomer by 85%.
But it gets worse.
We have churches you can’t find on a GPS,
            churches that aren’t even in a phone book,
            churches with small signs hidden behind shrubbery.

I am very pleased to see St. Christopher’s beginning
            to let Boulder City know you are here.
In one of our congregations a middle school boy
            was listening to a classmate tell him about her unhappiness.
He said to her, “You need Jesus” and he invited her to church.
She’s now a regular at the communion rail.
Maybe you’re not that bold,
            but can you wear a cross?
If you find anything good about this Church,
            could you mention that in a conversation?
We meet God in the connections we make with people.
When we don’t make those connections, we are missing God.
The third thing about relational faith is that it calls us to care for people
            who are not like us, people we don’t even know.
Like Deacon Ann Langevin’s project to buy solar lanterns
            for our companion diocese in Kenya
                        so they can have light in rural villages with no electricity.
We have two ways to share the light of Christ.
One is the send people solar lanterns.
The other is to invite someone to church.
Both ways are connecting to people in caring ways,
            looking for Christ in them and with them.

That’s the Christian religion.
It’s often inconvenient.
It costs money – like $9.50 for a solar lantern.
It costs time. It costs attention.
Eventually, it costs us our whole life.
But that’s where the love is. That’s where the joy is.

That’s where we find our hope for all eternity.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Vocation is a word many people use to describe a job.
But a vocation is more than our work.
It is our life.
 Vocation literally means “calling.”
It isn’t something we have chosen to do.
A vocation is our response to an invitation from God.
God invites all of us to life, to joy, and to peace.
But God invites each of us as an individual
            to follow our own personal path through life.

Today we will celebrate some of us being called
            to live a Christian life in the sacrament of confirmation.
We will celebrate the call of some to worship
            as Episcopalians on the rite of reception.
We will celebrate your priest’s call to serve
            as pastor of this church family,
            your vestry’s call to govern the operation
                        of this congregation.
We will celebrate the calls of Sunday School teachers
            and others.
Each of us is called by God.
We are grateful to those who listen.

Today’s lessons are about listening to God’s call.
Our Old Testament lesson is about the little boy, Samuel.
The Bible says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days,
            and visions were not widespread.”
Now that doesn’t mean God wasn’t speaking.
The Bible tells us that God speaks creation into being.
The fact that we are here shows God is speaking.
God’s Eternal Word is what sustains the universe.

So if the word of God was rare in those days,
            it means no one was listening.
We don’t know why they weren’t listening,
            but we know why people are not listening today.
We are just too busy.
Our minds are busy.
Our heads are full of thoughts.
We are always planning, imagining, dreading, hoping,
            remembering, trying to figure things out.
We are busy of body, and even busier in our minds.

A great rabbi, Martin Buber, called it “commotion.”
He meant our constant activity and inner chatter,
            our busy minds.
“Commotion.” Noise. Distraction.
This is why we cannot hear God whispering.

Just so, in Samuel’s day, no one was listening.
Even little Samuel did not intend to listen.
He did not expect God to speak to him.
He just staying in the holy place
            because his mother had given him to the priest
                        to be a servant in the Lord’s house.

The Bible calls it “the Temple of the Lord.”
But it was not the great stone and timber building
            we think of as the Temple.
Solomon would not build that until over a hundred years later.
Samuel and the blind old priest Eli lived in a simple structure,      
            little more than a tent.
But it was holy because the Ark of the Lord was there.
And in front of the ark there was an olive oil lamp
            on an ornate gold lamp stand.
That lamp was called “the lamp of God.”
It burned all night every night
            as a sign of God’s presence.

Samuel lay down to sleep each night
            in the presence of God.
He lay down before the ark
            with the lamp of God as his nightlight.

Probably he had already been asleep
            and had awakened early.
It was before dawn because the Bible says,
            “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”
So he awakened in that magical mystical pre-dawn darkness
            to hear somebody calling his name.

It never occurred to Samuel that God might speak to him.
So he replied to Eli.
And Eli said, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.”
Again Samuel heard the voice and replied to Eli.
Again Eli said, “I didn’t say anything. Go back to bed.”
It happened a third time, and this time Eli got it.
He said, “It is the Lord calling you, Samuel.
            If he calls again, answer him.”

The Bible says, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord,
            because the word of the Lord had not yet
                        been revealed to him.”
That was about to change.

The next time Samuel heard his name spoken
            in the lamp illumined night,
            he prayed, “Speak for your servant is listening.”
And so Samuel became the prophet of God
            and the leader of Israel.
The Bible says, from that time on
            he let none of the Lord’s words fall to the ground.

Now the point of the story is simple:
If we spend time in the Lord’s presence,
            just being still and paying attention,    
                        we will hear our calling.
It doesn’t take any complicated spiritual disciplines.
It is just being quiet and paying attention.
Very simple. But not many of us do it very often.
We are too busy.

We are too busy doing a million little things.
We forget to do the main thing – to find out our purpose.
We get so caught  up doing things,       
            we forget to ask why we are doing them.
We miss the call of God,
            and if we miss the call of God,
                        we miss the road to joy and peace in life.
A great Christian writer named Walker Percy once asked
            “Is it possible for a man to miss his life
                        the way he might miss a bus?”

Of course that is what happens to many people.
It is so easy to miss our life
            because we did not take time to notice
                        what we are living for.

And what is all this commotion about?
Do we think it makes us important?
Or maybe we are keeping busy to avoid something.
The spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen, used to say,
            “a busy heart is a dead heart.”
Why would we want to deaden our hearts?

It takes a special kind of courage to be still
            and get to know the Lord.
We do it by praying and then just staying quiet awhile,
            paying attention to the thoughts and feelings
                        that follow prayer.
You see God’s main way of speaking to us
            is through us, through the stirrings in our souls.
It’s the being still and noticing that comes hard.

We may get bored or anxious or restless
            but we can trust God to show up for us
                        if we show up for him
-       if, like Samuel, we come together at his altar
                  each week;
      then pray each day, and spend some time in silence –
            then little by little we discover something.

We may not hear a voice like Samuel did,
            but we get a sense of God’s deep peace.
We get a sense of how God loves us
            and loves the other people around us.
Eventually, we want to be of some service
            to each other for the sake of mercy
                        and the love of God.
It does not come as a burden or a chore,
            but as a chance to live life a little deeper.

These callings we celebrate today
            are examples of what happens
                        when we do not let the Lord’s words
                                    fall the ground.
We take vows to live a holy and faithful life.
We commit ourselves to the service of God
            and each other.
We sink our roots deep into faith.
And we find our way to joy and peace.