Sunday, January 24, 2016


A couple of weeks ago someone asked a question on Facebook:
Can you be a Christian without belonging to a Church?
What surprised me was how many people answered,
            and with the exception of myself, it was unanimous.
Yes, they said with gusto, you can do it on your own.
In fact, the folks in Churches are not Christians.
They are by and large jerks.

Well maybe. I have thought that myself on occasion.
But just as a matter of procedure, we become Christians
            when we are baptized,
            and when we are baptized, we become church members.
But more than that, the Christianity the Bible teaches
            is emphatically a team sport.
 The notion that Christianity is an idea someone can
            hold in his head all by himself
            is a modern Western invention.
It isn’t the Biblical faith we read about in the New Testament.

Speaking of the New Testament and today’s lessons in particular,
1st 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.
That’s what Paul thought it meant to be a Christian:
part of the Body of Christ --
a co-worker for the Kingdom Mission.
Paul’s Christianity is a team sport.

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. . . .
                        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 our basic strategy for spreading gospel. 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 each other,’
for the pagans are ready to kill each other.’”

“See how these Christians love one another.
But turning to another kind of Scripture,
            in the words of Diana Ross, “Love don’t come easy.”
It didn’t come easy in Corinth.
The first thing we hear about is the friction
            over some folks being fans of one apostle
            while others liked another apostle.

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 got as worked up over food
            as 21st Century Christians get 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 nosy 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. . . . .
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
            endures all things.”

That’s what love means.
But it takes practice.
The church is where we practice on each other.
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
In 2nd Corinthians, things have just gotten worse.

40 years later, when Paul was dead and gone,
            the Corinthians were still fighting.
St. Clement 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.

The Epistle to the Romans - like Corinthians --
is Paul smoothing out a church fight.
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 say: it is better to be kind than right.
The Romans may not have gotten it right away.
But the point eventually sank in.
Here’s why I think they got it.

Between 165 and 180, 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.
Galen’s plague didn’t discriminate.
It took down pagans, Jews, and Christians alike.

And everyone ran away – everyone -- 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.
It was like jihadist suicide bombers only in reverse.
It was love instead of hate.
So the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, prayed with the dying,
            and buried the dead.
The pagan world 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.
That’s why God gave us the Church as a practice field.
From the Primates working out who gets to sit at the table
            to the smallest issue in parish life,
            the Church is where we learn that 1st Corinthians 13 kind of love.
We learn the hard art of love here
            so we can live it in the world.

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

The trick it that there is only one way to do this thing: together.

Monday, January 11, 2016


 We liturgical Christians perform rituals,
            symbolic actions that mean something
-- though we are not precisely certain what they mean.
We are wise to keep our hearts and minds open
            about the meaning because rituals are a kind of dance with God,
                        in which God leads; we follow.
Even if we know what we mean,
            God may have something else --or something more -- in mind.

John probably intended Baptism to mean a cleansing from sin.
 But after Jesus stepped out of the river,
            something unexpected happened with a different meaning.
He was praying, perhaps asking God
            what his baptism was about,
when the sky opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him,
            and a voice from heaven said,
            “You are my Son, the beloved.”
So what does this suggest is going on Baptism?
It may have something to do with this:
I once heard of an old Bishop who had a spiritual practice.
At the start of each day he would look in the mirror and say,
            “Whatever happens this day, I am baptized.”//
His Baptism gave him an assurance he could count on
            despite all the up, down and sideways vicissitudes of life.

Here’s why: The waters of Baptism can represent many things.
But one thing they would surely have represented for Jesus
            was the primordial waters of chaos.
Call it entropy or Murphy’s Law. It’s the way things tend to go wrong.
That’s what waters stood for in antiquity.

Isaiah says in today’s lesson,
“When you pass through the waters
             I will be with you
and the rivers will not overwhelm you.” . . . .
            “Do not fear for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name. You are mine.”

Baptism is God saying that to us,
“When you pass thorugh the waters
[when everything falls apart] I will be with you. . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you. You are mine.”
 Baptism isn’t just us talking.
God is acting here too. God redeems us –
 buys us back from all the world’s chaos,
            all the powers of sin, death, and madness
                        that lay claim to precious human lives.
God redeems us from the world and reclaims us as his own.

That’s what we can take to the bank.
No matter what happens – no matter how badly we fail,
            when we are good and when we are bad,
            when we are wise and when we are foolish,
            when we are holy and when we are profane,
                        in the darkness or the light, we are God’s

Blessed Paul said it best:
            “If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . .
            What shall separate us from the love of Christ?
            Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine   
or nakedness or danger or  sword? . . . . .
            No. In all these things we are more than conquerors
                        through him who loved us.
            For I am convinced” Paul said, “that neither death nor life,
                        neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future,
nor any powers,
neither height nor depth nor anything in all creation
can separate us from the love of God
            that is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.”

To be claimed by God is to be set free of our burden.
The basic existential threat is resolved: we are already justified.

That doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen.
All those threats Paul listed – trouble, hardship, danger, famine, sword
--- all of that is real and may happen at any time.
Life and death will assuredly happen.
But they do not and cannot separate us from our fundamental well-being,
            the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord.

People sweat, lose sleep, spike their blood pressure,
            and wreck their relationships trying to justify their existence,
            trying to make themselves ok.
But guess what: that’s already a done deal.
In our Baptism, God has made it so.
God has set us free from bondage to the hopeless task
of justifying ourselves, making ourselves ok.

So what are we now to do with our freedom?
Once the Holy Spirit comes upon us in Baptism
            naming us as God’s children,
            what are we going to do with that freedom?

As Mary Oliver asked in her poem Summer Day,
            “Tell me what is it you plan to do
            with your one wild precious life?”

Well that’s exactly what Jesus was wondering
            after he got the good news,
“You are my Son, the Beloved.”
He was so perplexed about it that he had to spend
            40 days out in the desert praying on it.
Only after all that prayer did he figure it out.
He came back from the desert with the answer.
Now listen up because if you call yourself a Christian,
            his answer is your answer too.

Jesus said:
            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
            because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
            . . . freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind,
            to set the oppressed free . . . .”
In Baptism, God claims us as his own,
            breaks our chains and gives us
                        “our one wild precious life.”
We are redeemed. We are ok.

But whether the life we live with that freedom
            amounts to a hill of beans is still up for grabs.
To make our lives as holy as our redeemed souls,
            we take the next step.
We give our lives back to God.
That’s Confirmation.

We take vows to live in the Spirit that sets us free,
            the Spirit that “proclaim(s) good news to the poor,
            . . . freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind,
            (and) sets the oppressed go free . . . .”

We stand up to our God eyeball to eyeball and promise
            “to proclaim by word and deed the good news of God in Christ,
to seek and serve Christ in all persons,
            to strive for justice and peace among all people
            and respect the dignity of every human being.”
 If we make those promises without our fingers crossed,
            it will change our lives, our whole lives,
            our family lives, our friendships, our politics.

If 10% of the Christians took those vows for what they are
            -- a chance to live a life that counts --
            we’d do what those first Christians in Acts were accused of doing.
We’d turn the world upside down,
            which Bishop Curry reminds us is really right side up.

Now I’ll close with a word of wisdom  and a question.
The word of wisdom is from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He said:
            “The purpose of life is not to be happy.
            It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate,
            to have it make some difference that you have lived
                        and lived well.”
 I’ll leave you with that and Mary Oliver’s question:
            “(W)hat is it you plan to do
            with your one wild precious life?”