Sunday, January 24, 2010

M.O.A.B. And Differentiation

Today’s lessons tell us how the Christian life works.
In Nehemiah, the people of Israel gathered
– as we have gathered this morning.
The busy pace of life is a centrifugal force
that hurls us away into isolation.
We think inside our heads about our own projects and worries.
We become prisoners,
in the solitary confinement of our own lives.

The first thing the people did was gather.
Then they asked to hear the book of the law read out loud.
It wasn’t like reading the Nevada Revised Statutes.
For one thing, they had a better legislator.
Besides the law wasn't just statutes.
“The law” means the first 5 books of the Bible.
It’s a mix of story and rules for life.
The rules are the moral of the story.

When they heard the story, the people worshiped the Lord
with their faces to the ground.
They met God in the ancient story of his actions
and in the moral order that God established.
They met God and were overwhelmed by his majesty.
The greatness of God set their lives in context.
They felt small -- not in a bad way -- but like a child at rest.

Some say they can find God
better in nature than in Church.
It is absolutely true we can meet God in nature.
But nature won’t tell us the story of God’s redeeming love.
It won’t tell us how God confronted Pharaoh.
Nature doesn’t tell a story.
We can meet God in nature,
but we also need to hear the story;
and discern the moral,
the way of life God has teaches us,
if we are to be transformed in our souls.

That kind of story listening, moral discerning, and worship
are the core of Christian life.
They provide the spiritual renewal that makes life meaningful.

But the Christian life isn’t all in Church.
There’s more to it than prayer and worship.
The difference between the Church and a secular club
is that the Church is filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Church continues the Incarnation.
The Church is Christ for the world today
because the same Spirit that enlivened him
inspires what we do now.

In Luke, Jesus said,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s our mission in the world.
If we are not doing that,
if the Spirit is not inspiring us to act
for the poor and hurting, the outcast and lost,
then we are not the Church.

St. Paul taught us to judge spirits by their fruits.
We know what spirit enlivens a group of people
by their action.
We know the Spirit of God is at work,
and we know a group of people truly is the Church,
when they engage the world with healing in their hands.

We call that part of the Christian life
“the apostolate.”
Apostles are sent out into the world with a mission.
Do you see the two movements of Christian life?
First we gather to hear the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
We discern the moral of it, we learn how to live.
We worship the God we meet in the story and its moral.
Then God sends us into the world to make something happen.

The apostolic mission has three parts:
mercy, justice, and evangelism.
In mercy, we tend the broken in a kindly way.
In justice, we stand for the weak against the strong.
In evangelism, we open the eyes of a blinded people
to see the good news of God.

The church does two basic things:
spiritual renewal and ministry to a broken world.
That is what Christ does,
and as St. Paul says in our Epistle lesson,
we are the body of Christ.
When it comes to mercy, justice, and telling the good news,
God entrusts that mission to us.
St. Augustine said,
"Christ died so that the Church might be born."
St. Theresa of Avila said,
“Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now but yours.”

Together we are the Body, Paul says,
and individually, we are members of it.
Paul says each of us has a different kind of ministry.
The eye should function as an eye.
The ear should function as the ear.
His point is that each of us serves in our own way,
and all the ways are equal in God’s eyes.
The Pope and the person who cleans the toilets
are equal in Christ.

Paul says God has set it up so that
that each of has our own way to serve,
but none of us can do it on our own.
We need each other.
We can carry out Christ’s mission only
by working together.
We are a team of interdependent specialists.
We are each called to do our own work
and to let other people do their work.

The greatest teacher about congregational life
in our time was Rabbi Edwin Friedman.
He used to say that healthy cells in the human body
are specialized.
A skin cell is a skin cell.
A bone cell is a bone cell.
They work together in one body,
but they do their own job and not someone else’s.
Only cancer cells are not specialized.
That’s why they metastasize and take over organs
where they do not belong.

The church and the body are like a baseball team.
We need the second baseman covering second base,
the catcher catching, and left fielder in left field.
Teamwork is people doing their own jobs.

I am very impressed with your charts of the different ministries
at St. Paul’s.
I am impressed to see how many people are signed up
to do different jobs.
And I know that there are other people doing other jobs.
This is the model of a healthy lively church.

The challenge in any church
is to trust each other and work together.
That can be hard.
To use St. Paul’s metaphor,
sometimes the eye thinks it could do a better job
of hearing than the ear is doing.
At any given point, some parts of the church will be working
better than others.
But the long term health of the church
depends on each person doing their part,
not someone else’s.

Psychologists call that differentiation.
It is an exercise in personal growth.
If we practice it in church,
we’ll have healthier families,
we’ll do our jobs better at work,
and we’ll get along better with our friends.
Most importantly, we’ll do a better job of being
the Body of Christ.

Psychologists call it differentiation.
In Church, we call it the Ministry of All Baptized.
We don’t expect the priest to be the Church for us.
We are the Church together.
If we want to field a full team,
if we want to cover all the bases,
we need a lot of people taking on a lot of jobs.
But that’s ok. Many hands make light work.

We need a lay person to spearhead evangelism,
just as you already have someone for stewardship.
We need a lay person to coordinate adult education,
just as you now have someone to teach Sunday School.
The list goes on.

You are doing a splendid job of being the Body of Christ in Elko.
You have resumed budgeting money for community ministries.
You have formed a partnership with Communities in Schools
to support education of Elko’s children.
Your worship is intelligent and inspiring.

The direction in which you are growing
gives me hope for the gospel in Nevada.
“Glory to God whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pat Robertson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God, and Haiti

Pat Robertson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God, and Haiti

The deepest faith, the most vibrant hope
I have ever seen was in Haiti,
our largest and poorest Episcopal diocese.
The massive earthquake there killed thousands
including the Roman Catholic Archbishop.
Our Episcopal cathedral and diocesan offices, two of our schools,
St. Margaret’s convent, the Jubilee Center,
and our bishop’s home were destroyed.

The next day, televangelist Pat Robertson
said this earthquake was God’s vengeance
for a pact Haitians made with the devil in 1791
as part of the revolution that ended slavery
and French domination.
Pat Robertson thinks God was on the side of France
and slavery while Satan was on the side
of Haitian freedom fighters led by a devout Christian,
Toussaint L’Ouverture.
He claims that God punishes the acts of people
who died 200 years ago by killing 50,000 people
including 4 Episcopalians to whom
I have given communion with my own hands.

Rev. Robertson also said the deaths in the World Trade Center
on 9-11were God’s judgment on America.
Robertson and Osama bin Laden
both understood that tragedy the same way.
I have several words to describe Pat Robertson’s theology:
false, blasphemous, heretical, diabolical, and evil.
Christians must not tolerate such slanderous lies
about our God.

But after we reject Pat Robertson’s lies,
we are left with hard questions:
Does God cause natural disasters?
Why would a good God allow such suffering?
Is God wicked? Or is God powerless?
I have been struggling with these questions for years
and I don’t have perfect answers.
But I believe I have cleared away some mistakes
in the questions.

If we assume everything that happens is God’s will,
we are not talking about the God of the Bible.
Throughout Scripture, we hear over and over
that God is not at all pleased
with the way things are going on earth.

So how did we get the idea that whatever happens
is God’s will?
Theologians in the 4th century made a few little mistakes,
and people took those mistakes in a bad direction.
Over the centuries,
those mistakes eventually grew into the idea
that God is the puppet master of the universe.
Whatever happens, God did it – especially if it’s something bad.
So let’s ask ourselves: who is this God we worship?
What makes him God?
Why do we trust him with our very souls?
Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall asks,
“Where (God) is concerned is our foundational assumption
that of power or of love?
(W)hen we think of “God” do we think the last word
in sheer might, authority, supremacy, potency?
Or do we think compassion, mercy, . . . grace?”

God is powerful alright,
but the thing that makes God God is love.
The Godness of God is not dominance over everything,
but infinite mercy.
The God revealed in Jesus isn’t in the business
of destruction and death.
Our God is in the business of healing and resurrection.
That’s why I have no use for the cruel theology of Pat Robertson.

Other religious voices give us better ways of thinking
about God in the face of suffering
– better but not good enough.
One is Rabbi Kushner.
His book, Why Bad Things Happen To Good People
is much better than Pat Robertson.
It has a lot of good and kindly truth.
But in the end it doesn’t quite work.
It defends the goodness of God by saying
God is not really involved in the world.
God does not have the power to affect real life.
Robertson’s God is a sadistic monster.
Kushner’s God is an innocent bystander,
a nice guy but not someone who can help.

Another idea that we hear a lot is true,
but it’s only half the truth.
This is the idea of God as “the fellow sufferer who cares.”It is Martin Luther’s idea of the “crucified God.”
Great Christians like Dietrich Bonheoffer say
God is not power, but compassion.
God feels what we feel, suffers what we suffer,
and cares for us.
That, brothers and sisters, is absolutely true.

That is the God we see in Jesus on the cross,
the God who is so present with the hungry
that his stomach cramps –
so present with the lonely that his throat constricts
and cannot call out for comfort.

We must be very careful what we believe about God
because we always become like the God we believe in.
Believing in Pat Robertson’s God will make us cruel and vengeful.
Believing in Dietrich Bonheoffer’s God, believing in Jesus
changes us in the opposite way.
We relate to suffering, our own and that of others,
in a different way.
We acknowledge our own pain, then notice
that we aren’t the only ones who feel this way.
We dare to look at the suffering of others
– the abject poverty in Haiti and Zimbabwe,
the loneliness, shame, and remorse in the people right next to us.
We see that all forms of suffering are essentially the same.
Life hurts. We all hurt. We all go to the cross.
But we do not go to the cross without hope
if we go to the cross together with Christ and with each other.
When we bleed together, that’s Communion.
Martin Luther called that the theology of the cross
and it’s all true.

But it’s only half the truth.
It comforts us with a God who cares
but it doesn’t offer hope in a God who can save.
There is more to God than a fellow sufferer.
The eternal God who is and was and ever shall be
has a power to save.
But it isn’t the kind of power we understand.
We think of power as domination.
We think of power as Rambo breaking down the door
and shooting all the bad guys.
We think of power as imposing our way on someone else.
When God doesn’t do that,
we don’t recognize his power.
That’s why people didn’t recognize Jesus as King.
He didn’t act like an earthly king.

God’s power is his love.
God’s’ power is the love that created the universe,
brought life out of inanimate matter,
raised life up into consciousness,
and consciousness into art and spirituality.
God’s power did not kick in the door
to kill Pilate and the Roman soldiers.
But it did raise Jesus Christ from the dead
and make him Lord of All.
God’s love power works in two ways.
The first is right here and now in this world.
But 99% of what God does in this world,
God does through us.
St. Theresa of Avila said,
“Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now but yours.”

Martin Luther King, Jr did not say poverty and segregation
were God’s will.
He called on God’s power working through God’s people
to overcome them.
God is not interested is convincing us
the suffering in Haiti is just or right.
He is interested in healing it, through our action.

But not everything can be set right in this life.
Here is the key to God’s love-power in the age to come.
God alone is eternal.
God is the highest good, the truest truth, the most beautiful beauty.
That was true before the Big Bang
and it will be true when this universe is no more.
God is forever.

Everything against God will pass away.
Death, disease, sin, injustice
– whatever is opposed to God –
is mortal and futile.
God wins by persistently being God forever.

Human souls are of God.
Love is of God.
Beauty, justice, kindness, and mercy are of God.
These things endure.
No earthquake, hurricane, or genocide can erase them.
In this life, we have suffering,
but God does not abandon us.
God joins us in it, shares our pain,
and calls us to help each other.
Then at the last day, God will redeem us,
each and every one of us
with infinite mercy and grace.

St. Paul said, “our sufferings in this present age
are not worthy to be compared to the joy
God has waiting for us.”
God will dry every tear, mend every broken heart,
and raise the least of us from the grave.
Glory to God forever.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Cold Time We Had Of It

One of the best things about being an Episcopalian
is that we celebrate the whole season of Christmas
– not just the first day.
The story is too rich, the meaning is too deep,
to capture in just one worship service.
So on Christmas Eve, we hear Luke’s story of the birth
in the days of Caesar Augustus.
Later, we hear John’s operatic, celestial poem
about the spiritual meaning of the Word becoming flesh.
Now we hear from Matthew about the 3 Wise men.
But Matthew only tells us the bare bones of the story.

Anglicans base our beliefs on three sources
– Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
Sacred tradition tells the rest of the story.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how many Wise Men there were,
where they came from, or what their names may have been.

If we had nothing more than Matthew’s account,
it would be hard to interpret the significance of this visit.
But Christian Tradition around the Wise Men
is long, deep, wide, and rich.

Three of the world’s greatest religious paintings
– one by Fra Angelico, one by Esteban Murillo,
and one by Leonardo DaVinci –
all portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Anyone who sees these paintings knows they too are divinely inspired.
Around 500 A.D., an anonymous artist in Ravenna, Italy
crafted just as inspiring a mosaic of the wise men’s journey,
and 1,400 years later, T. S. Eliot gave that mosaic words
in his poem The Journey of the Magi.

When we sing We Three Kings, the symbolic meaning of each gift
set out in the verses goes back to a Spanish poem
written by Prudentius in the 4th Century.
That’s as old as parts of the Nicene Creed.

The Wise Men’s visit is a lovely old story, we have been telling
in sermons, songs, paintings, and poems
for many centuries because it is true
in the deepest and most important sense.
We have cherished this story not because we are certain
of the historical accuracy of each detail,
but because it teaches us
the way to peace and holiness.

We believe that three Wise Men came from the East.
Different strands of the tradition give them different names
but we know them as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
Certainly they came a great distance.
And certainly they were astrologers.

At least one of them would have been
from Persia or thereabout.
There is a tradition that one made a round about route
from Africa.
And there is actually some evidence to support
the idea that one came from China.

Now let us be clear, these pilgrims were not Christians.
They did not subscribe to our Creed or our religious practice.
They were not Jews.
St. Matthew says that they were astrologers.
And astrology was strictly forbidden in Jewish law
and condemned by Jewish prophets.

The Persian was a Zoroastrian worshiper of Ahura-Mazda.
The one from China lived by the analects of Confucius.
The African may have followed a traditional African religion,
or perhaps the established paganism of the Roman Empire.
Most likely, he followed one of the new mystery cults.
But none of them were Christians.
None of them were Jews.

And they would not have agreed with each other
about much of anything.
They could not have agreed on what it was they were looking for.
But they were all looking for something, all seeking something.
When their search brought them to the humble stable
in the little town of Bethlehem,
they knew they had found it.
So Matthew tells us, they fell down before the child Jesus
and they worshiped him.

I regret the modern translators’ choice to soften the language
to say they “paid him homage.”
To say they worshiped him is a perfectly good translation
of the original Greek.
To fall down and do prostrations or to kneel is an act of worship.

St. John Chrysostom’s 6th Century Epiphany sermon
emphasizes that the Wise Men did not give Jesus
the gifts due to a great man.
Nor did they give him things of practical value.
Their gifts were traditional sacrifices offered to God.
So let us not draw back from the clear truth of this text.
They worshiped him.

Therein lie the beauty and the sacred truth of this story.
Therein lie the beauty and the sacred truth
of this moment so loved by artists through the ages.
These wise men who were so utterly and completely different
from each other – different in race, religion, and nationality –
forgot their differences and knelt together
in awestruck reverence before a mystery
they could not begin to understand.

Brothers and sisters, the Adoration of the Magi
is not window dressing on the faith.
It is not a quaint tale we can take or leave.
It is essential because it teaches us what we are here to do.
We are here to kneel in awestruck reverence
before the holiness of Christ.

Our Gospel lesson is crystal clear that
the stable was not a debating hall
and neither is the church.
Like the Wise Men, we have our differences.
Human beings are entitled to their opinions.
The fact we have so many of them is part
of what keeps life interesting.

But the church is not a town meeting
or a popular news program
with a point and counterpoint
exchange of verbal barbs.
The Church is not a talk show
for controversial celebrities to rant at each other.
The church exists to kneel before the holiness of Christ,
a mystery we cannot begin to understand.

Like the Wise Men,
we are different from each other as we can be.
Some are liberal. Some are conservative.
Some like incense and sanctus bells.
Others prefer their Sunday morning casual and simple.
Some like one kind of music.
Some prefer a different style.
Others don’t want any music at all.
Some like a priest. Others can’t stand him.
And that’s all fine.

It’s human to have opinions and preferences.
The thing that holds us together isn’t agreeing
about any of those things.
It is our shared willingness
to lay aside our opinions, tastes, and preferences
to kneel before the holiness of God.

The truth revealed by the Wise Men’s journey
is that, despite their differences, they traveled together.
And that probably wasn’t always easy.
T. S. Eliot attributes these words to one of them,
"A cold time we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey . . . "

The cold may not have been just the weather
and the length may not have been just the miles.
The Wise Men probably exchanged an opinion or two
along the road.
Their differences must have made the trip even colder
and even longer.
But they stayed on the road and they stayed together,
until at last, together, they worshiped the Lord
in the beauty of holiness.
They came to Christ without coming to an agreement.

They did not adopt a common creed or moral code.
But they knelt and prayed as one.
They followed the light as best they saw the light,
and when they met the Christ,
they fell silent and worshiped him.
God grant us the grace to do likewise.