Sunday, June 26, 2016


“My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.”
Of all the far out spiritual experiences in the Bible,
         Elisha’s vision at the Jordan River easily makes the top five.
Who wouldn’t want a rush like that?

But I’m not sure this event was really so great.
Our story may in fact be a splash of cold water
         in the face of what we think religion is even for.
A great theologian named Paul Tillich
used to talk about “the sin of religion.”
Today’s lesson is about the sin of spirituality.

When I call it a “sin” I don’t mean it’s dark or evil.
The word “sin” in the Bible is an archery term.
It literally means “to miss the mark”
-- and that’s what we’re doing.

We have gotten our religion off course.
We are missing the mark.
Here’s what I mean:
Most of us want spiritual experiences.
We assume religion is the way to do that.
We just differ as to what kind of experience we want to have.
Evangelicals want to feel remorseful for their sins,
         then enormously relieved to be forgiven.
Pentecostals prefer a delirious ecstasy.
Contemplatives meditate themselves into a zone of serenity and peace.
Our own renewal movement likes to work up a sentimental affection.

Maybe we get a little experience, but it fades.
Then life is pretty much like it was before.
So we go back to get ourselves some more spirituality,
         but this time it doesn’t feel quite the same.
We keep trying to have the same experience but can’t quite get there.
We make a religion of trying to repeat old spiritual rushes.
A church is as good as its ability
         to help us get into whatever zone we like best.
Well we aren’t gonna outdo Elisha.
He saw God as a fiery chariot in the sky.
“My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.”

But let’s look at the rest of the story that comes after today’s reading.
Elisha eventually went on to do a few good things.
He also did some magic tricks like making a stone ax-head float.
But as he was bopping back from the Jordan River,
still in the new glow of his spiritual high,
some kids made fun of him for being bald.
So using his new his spiritual super powers, Elisha summoned bears
         to maul 42 little boys.
What kind of a religion is that?

And where did he go from there?
Elisha’s mentor Elijah had been a defender of the people
         challenging the kings for abusing their power
                  and neglecting the poor.
 But Elisha was the king’s man, helping tyrants win their wars.

Then he put a sniveling bureaucrat
         up to murdering the old king of Syria
         by smothering him with a pillow on his sick bed.

The moral is that a spiritual rush
         doesn’t always make for a better person.
It can even make us worse.
So what are we doing here?
What is this religion thing all about?

Christians trust in the unconditional grace
         of a loving God.
So we aren’t here to earn our way into God’s favor.
But we do have a spiritual challenge.
Sure God loves us,        
         but are we capable of taking that love in
-- especially if taking it in means loving God back
-- especially if God shows up in the guise of each other?

William Blake said,
         “We are put on this earth a little space
          that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”
Great teachers from many religions have agreed
         life is an opportunity to grow, to learn, to change.
We don’t change in order to make ourselves acceptable to God.
We change to grow our capacity to accept God
-- to bear the beams of love.

But how does that happen?
How do we let our souls be shaped to make us fit for heaven?
A spiritual experience of one kind or another
may help like a nutritional supplement.
But it isn’t the main diet.

Paul said to the Ephesians, the point of life is
to “grow into the mature body of . .. Christ.”
How do we do that?  

Paul answers:
         “Be humble and gentle,
         bearing one another in love.”//
We learn “to bear the beams of love” as Blake says,
         through the arduous spiritual discipline of
         “bearing one another in love” as Paul says.

Now this “bearing one another” has a double meaning.
It means to carry each other, to help each other out.
But it also means to endure each other, to put up with each other.
That’s what the Greek word Paul used really means.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus was passing through Samaria
         and hoped to get a meal, maybe stay the night.
But they had that sign up we used to see a lot in the South
         and still see some places.
You know the one: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
The disciples wanted to call down fire on the jerks,
         like Elisha sic’ing bears on bad boys.
But Jesus said,
         “Good Lord no! Where were you raised?
          That’s not how we spread the gospel.”

“Bearing one another in love” means enduring other people
         -- putting up with them --
         when they are not exactly bearing us in love.
It’s “turn the other cheek.”
It’s Proverbs 15:1 – “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”

The heart and soul of Christian life
         isn’t working ourselves up into a feel good state.
We can do that.  It may even help now and then.
But the heart and soul of Christian life
         is the discipline of how we treat each other.
It isn’t “do what comes naturally.”
It’s “do what comes supernaturally with God’s help.”
For years, I searched the Bible for a spiritual technology 
         to get myself into a zone.
Sit cross-legged. Hold your hands just so.
Repeat this mantra.

But what I found was the Sermon on the Mount.
If you’re on your way to worship and remember
         your brother is angry at you, stop and make peace
         with your brother before you talk to God.

I found Paul saying:
         “Be gentle. Be humble . . .       
          In your anger, do not sin.
          Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

At the ripe old age of 66, I figured out: this is it.
God comes to us in the form of other people
-- and not just when they are being agreeable.
Sometimes we have to look deep.

Harper Lee said,
         “You never really understand another person,
          until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
That’s how we find God.
That’s what we ritually enact – and hopefully learn to do –
         whenever we celebrate the Holy Communion.

The main purpose of all our church activities
         is to practice the art of Christian relationship
         so we can take those skills into our homes, our workplaces,
         and public life – including our politics.
Enduring each other in love isn’t a rule for being good.
It’s how we shape our souls for the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Evangelicals rely on Scripture alone.
Secularists rely on Reason alone.
Episcopalians pay attention to both,
         and we also have this third leg on the stool – Tradition.

Our Old Testament story is about tradition.
Elijah had had one heckuva spiritual journey.
He’d done some pretty dramatic stuff.
But now his earthly race was run, so he said to his disciple, Elisha,
“So long buddy, I’m off to Bethel.”
But Elisha hung on to his teacher and went with him to Bethel.
Elijah then said, “Adios, Elisha. It was nice knowing you.
         I’m going to the Jordan.”
But Elisha said “Not so fast I’m going with you.”

Finally Elijah said, “Goodbye Elisha I’m off to heaven.
         Anything I can do for you before I go?”

Elisha answered, “Give me the power to keep on doing
         what you’ve been doing -- only more of it.”
Elijah said, “Only if you can follow me into heaven with your eyes.”
When the chariot swung low comin’ for to carry Elijah home,
         Elisha watched him until he was out of sight.
Then Elisha tore off his own clothes and put on Elijah’s mantle.
For those who have seen the 1982 film classic Barbarossa,
         it’s the same thing Gary Busey does to become Willie Nelson.
If you haven’t seen Barbarossa, just skip this sermon and watch it. Point made.

With that mantle came prophetic power.
Earlier in the story, on their way to Elijah’s point of departure,
         they had to cross the Jordan River.
Elijah had struck the water with his mantle
         and it parted for him as the Red Sea parted for Moses,
and as this very Jordan River had parted for Joshua       
when he took over the leadership of Israel.

With Elijah gone, Elisha headed back the way they came.
When he got to the Jordan, he did the same thing.
He struck the water with his mantle, and the waters parted
as they had done for Elijah, Joshua, and Moses before him.
Elisha was carrying on a tradition stretching back over the centuries,
from his teacher Elijah all the way to Joshua and Moses.
Elisha had followed his teacher as far as he could go.
When his teacher was gone, Elisha tore up his own clothes,
         his own identity, and put on the mantle of Elijah and continued his work.
That’s tradition.

Americans are not so fond of Tradition. Take Thomas Jefferson.
He was all about Reason but he had no use for Tradition.
He insisted the world belongs to the present generation.
No law, no constitution, no form of government should last over 20 years.
Jefferson worshiped at the Church of What’s Happening Now.
He tore up the mantle of his ancestors to put on his own clothes.

Jefferson and Elisha represent two opposite attitudes.
Native cultures are our best example we have of Elijah’s way.
Native Americans honor their traditions.
They hold their ancestors in reverence.
They respect the elders of the tribe. 

Anglo-Americans treat our elders as burdens to be warehoused.
We are certain that the wisdom of today
         is to be preferred over the benighted ways of our forbears.
We don’t want to be burdened by the past.
We do not expect future generations to pay any attention to us.
The Church of What’s Happening now
         acknowledges no debt to the people who got us here
         and no duties to those who will come after us.
We want to wear our own clothes, the ones in fashion this year
      not some dusty mantle from an old guy like Elijah.

It’s popular these days, even among some Episcopal leaders,
         to junk the Tradition.
Sell the churches, meet in bowling alleys, and make up a ritual
         if we feel so inclined at the moment.
The ritual we make up will express
         what we think, what we feel – something we like –
         nothing that might make us uncomfortable.

There was a time I’d have said “sign me up” for that.
But there came a point when I was not so sure of myself anymore.

I wasn’t positive that my opinions were better than the teachings
of ancient spiritual masters,
         or that my feelings were nobler than those of the saints.
And I had children to think of.
When I began to feel a responsibility for the next generation
         I simultaneously felt a responsibility to the past generations.

That’s when I became an Episcopalian.
That’s when I began to tear up my own clothes
         and put on the mantle of Elijah.
I didn’t shut down my mind.
Reason is still one of our sources of authority.
We still think. We still feel.

But if there is a conflict between my opinions
and the teachings of the Church,
         I seriously consider the remote possibility
that I might be wrong.

 Sometimes I love the Tradition. Sometimes I hate it.
But it’s always there for me to learn from,
         sometimes by arguing with it.
For example, I have never been comfortable with the Nicene Creed.
But I keep saying it and that makes me look hard at what it means.
One year, a particular line offends me to the core.
The next year, I have found a new meaning for that line
         and I love it.
But by then, another line bothers me.
I don’t say the Creed because I’m comfortable with it.
I say it because I’m uncomfortable with it. It makes me think.

Sacred Tradition is essential to our spirituality,
         right along with Reason and the Holy Scriptures.
This chasuble we wear represents Elijah’s mantle. It is a symbol of Tradition.
Apostolic Succession, having bishops made by bishops in a chain
         of inheritance going back to the apostles
                  is a symbol of Tradition.

But it takes some caution.
We all know that Scriptures can be used for good or ill.
Our Reason can be used or misused.
It’s the same with Tradition.
It can guide us into the future or it can trap us in the past.

The key is to recognize the difference between Sacred Tradition
         and a stodgy lack of imagination.
Sacred Tradition is about our core values – the stuff that makes us who we are.
It isn’t about singing one style of music instead of another;
         or whether we use an organ or guitars.
It isn’t about whether we use the 1928 Prayer Book or the 1979 Prayer Book.
It’s about having a Book of Common Prayer,
         so that we pray in the way of the church
         instead of what each of us makes up to suit ourselves.

Sacred Tradition connects us to our power source.
Elijah passed onto Elisha a mantle of prophetic power.
Jesus passed on to the disciples the power to heal
and proclaim good news.
The Tradition is a power source.
It has sustaining power to get us through the day.
When life hits us in the face and we have no words f
or how we feel or what we want,
         the Tradition has prayers for us,
“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.”

The Tradition has transforming power to open up a new future.
It gives us this prayer,
         “Let the whole world see and know that
         things which were cast down are being raised up,
         and that things which had grown old are being made new,
         and that all things are being brought to their perfection. . . .”

The Tradition isn’t nostalgic.
It’s dynamic, unfolding, challenging us
to become more than we are.
Our Tradition is written in poems and prayers.
It is recorded as stories of the saints.
We act it out in ancient rituals.
The poems, the prayers, the stories, the rituals
         have all been sanctified by holy lives of Christians.
By that sanctity the Tradition is charged with power

                  like Elijah’s mantle.