Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Frank Sinatra Sings St. Luke

Frank Sinatra Sings St. Luke

Jesus’ advice on where to sit at a banquet
is one of the most misunderstood sayings in the New Testament
and that misinterpretation has caused no end of trouble,
especially in the Church.

It sounds like Jesus is advising us to use false modesty
as a backdoor way to gain prestige.
Don’t put yourself forward if you would risk being put down.
How much better to deliberately sit below your station
so you will be invited up higher;
and thereby win public acclaim not only for your prestige
but also for your modesty.
The first thing to know is that this is a Jewish joke
– but we take it seriously.

Maybe a British joke will make the point better.
I am not a fan of Prince Charles
but sometimes he gets it right.
He was once given an award of some sort.
He said how grateful and honored he was by this award
as well as all the other awards he had received.
But he regretted that he had never gotten an award for modesty.
Actually, he said, he had once been given a medal for modesty,
but when he put on, they took it away from him.

Our Gospel lesson is usually read as a sneaky way
to get a medal for modesty.
They wouldn’t do this in the business world
where serious money is at stake.
They wouldn’t do it in sports where kids on the bench
jump up and down saying “put me in coach.”
But in places like the Church where status is more subtle
and is achieved in far more duplicitous ways,
we have to slip our pride in the back door.

People are readier to have root canals than they are
to put themselves forward to lead in ministry and mission.
No one wants to admit to considering himself “worthy” to lead.
We are all too humble to do the job Christ has given us.
Back when Agnes Sanford was the great teacher of healing ministries
in the Episcopal Church, after one of her workshops,
a man told her he felt called to a ministry of healing,
but he knew he was not worthy.
Agnes replied, “Then get worthy.”

But what about our Gospel lesson?
Is Jesus actually advising us to adopt a posture of false humility,
slinking into our unworthiness, wringing our hands like Uriah Heep?
Is Our Lord prescribing manipulative self-abasement
as a devious way to climb the social ladder?

I don’t think so.
Yes, he says “whoever humbles himself will be exalted;
and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.”
But it doesn’t really matter
whether we humble ourselves or exalt ourselves.
In Luke’s Gospel the lowly are always getting exalted;
and the exalted are always being brought low.

But then the formerly exalted become the lowly,
who are due to get exalted again.
Meanwhile the formerly lowly have gotten exalted
so they are the ones heading for a fall.
The picture of life we get from Luke’s Gospel is a see-saw.
In the words of the Frank Sinatra classic,
“That’s life. That’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top in June.
I said, ‘That’s life.’”

It’s true isn’t it.? That is what happens.
But Jesus does not agree with Frank Sinatra on one point.
All that riding high and getting shot down are not life.
They are not what life’s actually about.
Life is about how we treat each other on the way up
and how we treat each other on the way down.

The gospel happens as truth and justice, as healing and mercy,
as relationships sparking between such unlikely friends
as Jews and Samaritans
– of such things, the Kingdom of God is constituted.
Those who climb any ladder, whether it is the ladder
of government, military, business, or church
achieve a perilous perch.
The higher we get, the farther we have to fall.
But refusing to step up a rung to do the job
is an act of either spiritual cowardice or moral sloth.
We have to be ready to rise and ready to fall for sake of the gospel.

Status is not the thing to focus on.
Rank is irrelevant. Authority is irrelevant. Prestige is irrelevant.
What matters is the mission – a mission that happens
not just in the church but also in the home, in the community,
in the workplace.
Our lesson from Hebrews describes the mission
as hospitality to strangers, mercy to prisoners and the suffering.
The mission is sharing God’s love with a broken world
in tangible ways.
What matters is the mission and the mission needs leaders.
But this kind of mission calls for a different kind of leader.

Jesus said, “The one who would be first among you
must be the one who serves.”
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches
a different kind of leadership —servant leadership.
It isn’t about being a boss, a ruler saying “Do this. Don’t do that.”
Rulers are the ones who take the head of the table
in an attempt to gain rank.

But it isn’t about being a doer either.
It isn’t about the lone ranger servant who acts alone.
Doers are the sneaky ones who try to gain rank
by sitting at the foot of the table.
Of course it is easier to do something ourselves
than to get someone else to do it.
And there are advantages to doing it ourselves.
When we do ministry on our own,
people come to depend on us
and there is a kind of power in that.
What’s more, if I do it myself, it gets done my way.
But if I recruit someone else to do it,
they are apt to do it their way
– which may be right or wrong –
but it isn’t my way.
Pride wants its own way.

But the gospel leader, the Christian leader, the servant leader
is not a ruler or a solo doer.
The servant leader get his hands dirty serving the mission
then invites, encourages, and inspires
others to take the mission on.

Do you see the sacrifice, the humility it takes to be a servant leader?
It takes empowering someone else so that they don’t depend on us
– which is a loss to our status right there --
and it takes trusting them to do the job their way.

Can you imagine what it was like for Jesus at the Ascension
to hand over the gospel mission to a bunch of goof balls
like the apostles?
After the apostles planted churches all over the civilized world
they had to pass the job on to the first generation of bishops
– none of whom had even met the historical Jesus.

Jesus rose above pride when he handed the mission over
to the Apostles.
The apostles rose above pride when they handed the mission
over to the bishops.
The bishops rose above pride when they ordained the priests
and entrusted congregations to their leadership.
And so it goes.

We rise above pride when dare not just to do the job,
but to invite, encourage, and inspire
someone else to share it with us
– even take it over from us.
That’s how we build up the kingdom of God
from the ashes of our own pride.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Three Feasts At One Altar

The Eucharist is the ritual shape of our worship,
and we hope that as the years go by,
our worship will more and more shape our lives.
How we understand the Eucharist makes a difference
for how we understand everything.
A deeper, richer understanding of the Eucharist
will deepen and enrich our experience of all our days.
So let’s look at 2 ways to think about our worship.
Let’s consider the meaning of the word, “Eucharist;”
and then let’s look a the meals in the Bible
that the Eucharist calls to mind.

First, the meaning of the word.
Eucharist is a Greek word. Its root is charis
which means gift or grace -- something freely given.
Whatever God has given us is charis.
And what has God given us? Everything.
In the Eucharist, we remember
where everything we have came from.
We remember that our lives, our loves, this whole wonderful world
is God’s free and unconditional gift to us.
We have not earned it. We cannot earn it. It’s all gift.

If charis means gift, then what is Eucharist?
Eucharist in Greek means our response to the Giver.
It is an act of giving thanks.
That’s why the Eucharistic Prayers are called “The Great Thanksgiving.”

We are thanking God for the great gift of “our creation, our redemption,
all the blessings of this life.”
But this Greek word, eucharist, is a specific kind of thanksgiving.
It isn’t just a polite thank you note.
It is a giving back to God – not a repayment, but a gift back
to acknowledge what we have received.
In the Eucharist we give something back to God.
We give our very selves. That is the sacrifice on this altar.

In Rite I, we say,
“Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
our selves, our souls and bodies, to be
a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola put it this way:
“Accept O God my memory, my will, my understanding, my imagination.
All that I am and all that I have you have given me.
I give it all back to be disposed of according to your good pleasure.”

The bread, the wine, and the alms are brought to the table
as symbols of our lives, given back to God,
to be blessed, broken, and shared with the world.
A young student once said to Socrates,
“Master, I have nothing to give you.”
Socrates replied, “Then give me yourself
and I will give it back to you much improved.”
Each Sunday, we give our frail, broken lives to God,
and God gives us our lives back, healed and made holy.

Now what meals in Holy Scripture does this ritual enact?
The first and most obvious answer is the Last Supper.
We remember the solemn meal which began the Passion.
It is a meal to remember that the Lord’s gift to us was costly.
We remember the death of Jesus which purchases our lives,
redeems us from the wages of sin.

But that is only the first of the three meals.
For in the Eucharistic Prayer make three acclamations of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is raised.
Christ will come again.”
The Last Supper is the meal of his death.
The meal of his resurrection was on the road to Emmaus.
You remember the story.
It was the first Easter.
Two disciples were leaving Jerusalem downhearted
when they met a stranger who told them
the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Then at supper, Luke tells us,
“He took bread, gave thanks -- that’s eucharist in the Greek –
and began to give it to them.
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”
This meal, this Eucharist, is an encounter with the Risen Lord.

We believe in the Real Presence of Christ in this sacrament.
We don’t just remember a dead hero. We encounter a living savior.
This is profoundly important.
I have known so many people
whose religion was stuck in Good Friday,
whose lives were a perpetual grief and a constant remorse.

But that is not our faith.
We meet a Lord of Love, and Power, and Might,
a God of Grace subtly put absolutely present
in the simple act of sharing bread.

And now the third meal:
There is as sense in which this meal has not happened yet,
and another sense in which it has been happening
for all eternity.
It’s called the messianic banquet.
Again and again, Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a dinner party.

Jesus was referring to a meal first described by Isaiah:
“On this mountain, the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine – the best meat and the finest wines.
On this mountain, he will destroy the shroud
that enfolds all peoples . . . ,
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all their faces . . . .”

The Eucharist is a foretaste of that banquet.
We take this morsel of bread and this sip of wine today
to express our faith that one day
we will sit at the Lord’s table for a rich feast
to celebrate the end of death
and erase of all suffering
with transcendent joy.

We remember is death.
We proclaim his resurrection.
We await his coming in glory.
All our hope is in this simple physical act
with spiritual consequence beyond our imagining.
That’s why Jesus commanded us to do it.
The liturgical scholar, Dom Gregory Dix, said,
“Was ever a command so obeyed?
For century after century, spreading slowly
to every continent and country and among every race on earth.

This action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance,
for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it
to extreme old age and after it,
from the pinnacle of earthly greatness
to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. . . .

And best of all, week by week . . .
on a hundred thousand successive Sundays,
faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom,
the pastors have done just this to make the plebs sancta Dei
– the holy common people of God.”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Driving Over Hills

Today’s lessons are about faith and fear.
Old Abraham was facing death, still childless,
in a world where there was no immortality, no resurrection.
The only hope of survival was to live on through one’s progeny
—and he didn’t have any.
But God told him not to be afraid. Just trust.

In Luke, Jesus gave one of his most famous teachings.
“Have no fear, little flock.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
This passage falls in the middle of a longer speech
about not worrying over worldly needs
but setting our hearts on the kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying, it’s alright, friends.
The only thing that finally matters is yours
already guaranteed.

Such promises would have been hard to believe,
such assurances would have been hard to trust in Galilee
– poor and powerless under Roman rule
– as hard as it was for old Abraham
to believe he would father a nation.
Such promises are hard for us as a society to trust
when our economy is fragile,
terrorists plot atrocities,
and secularists gleefully write the obituary of the Church
with daunting statistics to prove their point.

Such assurances are hard for us individually to trust
when the threats to our personal happiness
are so clear and present.
Illnesses, the fragility of personal relationships,
the jeopardy of those we love keep us awake.

My soldier son-in-law is waiting to find out
whether he will be deployed overseas.
It’s hard to rest easy without knowing that.
All of our lives have question marks.
We all live with so many unknowns.
But Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.
Neither let them be afraid.”
He’s talking about a way of being in the world.
It’s called faith.

We sometimes get faith mixed up a set of theological opinions.
We think faith is having the right doctrines
clear and tidily arranged in our heads.
But our Epistle lesson says faith is something
entirely different from that.
It says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith isn’t dogma. It isn’t knowing the answers.
It’s trusting the unknown.
Then the Bible describes faith as a kind of bold action.
“By faith Abraham . . . set out,
not knowing where he was going.’

Isn’t that what we do every single day of our lives?
The future is unknown. We can’t see over the hill.
Every time we literally drive over a hill we can’t see past,
we have to trust there is a road on the other side.
I suppose we could stop, get out, and walk slowly up to the top
of each rise in the road and take a look.
But that would make for a pretty tedious drive.

Some folks live just that fearfully
and their lives are just that tedious.
But that isn’t the Christian life.
We live more boldly.
We live boldly because we trust God.

Faith is the courage to take a risk.
It is what theologian Paul Tillich called “the courage to be”
It may be the only way we can live.

Helen Keller said,
“Security is mostly a superstition.
It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is in the long run no safer than exposure.
Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”

Faith is not a dogmatic assertion of things we know.
It’s an attitude toward what we do not know.
That is our most important attitude
because there is so much we don’t know.

Most 18th Century Enlightenment philosophy
has gone the way of Nehru jackets, bell bottoms,
and the DeLorean.
But the wisdom of Immanuel Kant is still with us.
Kant divided reality into those things that could be known,
and those things that in principle could not be known
– not just that we haven’t figured them out yet,
but things that truly cannot be known.
The 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger showed how language
is essntial to thinking but language
limits our capacity for thought and perception
and the physicist Werner Heisenberg proved
that aspects of the physical world simply cannot be known.

Reality is mostly unknown and unknowable.
The part we can know floats in a sea of mystery.
As our Epistle lesson says, “what is seen was made
from things that are not visible.”
Or as Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it,
“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly.
The things which are essential are invisible to the eye.”

Faith is our attitude toward what we do not know.
Faith is driving over a hill top trusting there is a road
on the other side.
But if faith is trusting what we cannot know,
and acting on that trust.
where does the faith come from?
And how can we tell authentic faith from craziness?

There are 3 basic ideas about the foundation for faith:
First, there’s William James who says faith is an act of will.
We just choose to put our existential eggs in this basket.
It’s like the folk hymn “I have decided to follow Jesus.”

Second, there is Karl Barth who disagrees with James.
He says we don’t have the will power for faith.
God has to inject us with it.
That’s like Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”
where God’s love is just inescapable.

Third, there is Thomas Aquinas for whom faith
is a reasonable extension of what we know.
It’s taking the trajectory of our knowledge out into the mystery.
For example, Anthony Flew, the greatest atheist philosopher of our time
was finally persuaded of God by the Big Bang Theory.
His lifelong commitment was to follow the evidence and the evidence
led him to a reasonable belief in God.
It did not prove God as a fact,
but God was a reasonable explanation
for the facts we know.

I honestly don’t know how faith happens.
It may not work the same way for everyone.
It may take a mix of God planting the seed in us,
our free will choice to water that seed or not,
and some good honest thinking to test
whether the beliefs we use to structure our faith
are reasonable or not
and whether they makes us better people or not.
Thinking may not create faith. But thinking will refine it.

I have more faith some days than others.
That’s why I need the Church to have faith.
I need the Church to have more faith than I do.
I need my family to have faith for me.
This community of hope carries me through my moods of despair
and my spasms of fear.

The Christian life is driving over one hill after another
trusting God to have a road waiting for us on the other side.
It isn’t a guarantee that we won’t have mishaps, even catastrophes.
Those are the hills. Faith trusts God to give us life on the other side.

Such a life leads, as all lives do, to the last hill – death
– “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
But if we have been flying over hills for decades,
we can fly over the last one too.
A life of faith consists of practicing trust in the unknown.
When faith has been exercised, developed, strengthened enough
to carry us over that final hill,
then all the hills along the way become
much more manageable.

Just as God invited Abraham to a life of adventure,
Jesus invites us, saying,
“Have no fear little flock.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
With those words he invites us to live.