Monday, August 29, 2011

What The Young Priest Said That Got Him Slapped

Paul was on his way to meet the Romans,
but he had not yet laid eyes on them
when he wrote his famous letter.
Paul had heard that they were having some troubles.
The church dispute was so bad that Emperor Claudius
threw half the congregation out of Rome for awhile.

The hymn “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”
had not been written yet
– but it’s a pretty good capsule version of everything Paul
had to say in the New Testament.
But if visible love is how you recognize a Christian community,
the Church in Rome was not likely to be busted.

I imagine that Paul was worried about all the turmoil
for two reasons:
First, a community that divided could not
work together for God’s mission of spreading the good news.
Second, they didn’t seem to have understood the Gospel themselves.

As Paul understood it and taught it,
the good news is all about grace.
The good news is that everything depends on God’s free gift.
Our life is a gift. Our salvation is a gift. Heaven is a gift.
That utterly and completely reversed the old time religion
of having to bribe God with sacrifices, do the right rituals,
follow all the right rules to win God’s favor.
Paul said, “You’ve already got God’s favor.
You don’t earn it. You don’t buy it.
God’s love is a gift.”

The Gospel message is just that truth
and an invitation to live in it.
The Romans hadn’t gotten the truth part straight,
and they were a long way from living in it.
So Paul writes several chapters on the truth:
everything worth having is a gift from God.
Then in today’s lesson he explains how to live in that truth.
It is really a matter of being like God.
The word God means our highest ideal.
God is who we honor most, admire most, want most to be like.
So if we think God is a harsh judge,
we go about judging each other harshly.
If we think God is an angry tyrant,
we go about barking angry orders.
If we think God is an assembly line supervisor with a clip board,
examining our lives for errors and indiscretions,
we’ll keep a close watch on each other
to see what fault we can find.
Over the course of a lifetime,
everyone becomes more and more like the God he believes in.

The good news is that God isn’t like that.
God created the universe out of love
and God created each of us out of love.
God loves us – as we are.
It’s a gift because God is the unconditional Giver.

Paul invites us to believe that and rejoice.
But believing isn’t as easy as just saying
“Oh ok, that works for me.”
Spiritual truth only sinks in; it only goes to the heart,
when we don’t just say it – we have to live it.

The Romans weren’t getting the gospel
because they weren’t living the gospel.
So Paul gives them some instruction.
It isn’t that we have to do any of this to earn God’s love.
But we can’t experience God’s love,
we can’t know the freedom of being loved like that,
until we live our way into it.

So here’s what Paul says.
“Love one another with mutual affection . . . .
Outdo one another in showing honor . . . .
Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are. . . .”
Paul teaches us to be godly so that we can know God.

It’s the same thing John says in his first Epistle,
“Since God loved us, we ought to love one another . . . .
No one has seen God,
But if we love one another, God lives in us
and his love is perfectly expressed in us.”

Do you see how this makes Christianity a team sport?
We can’t do it on our own.
We can only experience the truth of God’s love
by showing it to others – not telling them about it,
but showing it to them.
We love people with God’s own love so they can see it,
and that’s how we come to experience it.

John Stone Jenkins was a wise old priest in Louisiana.
But when he was a young priest,
he was once attending a birth.
As it was done in those days, the young father to be
was in the waiting room and the priest was with him.

Then a nurse came out from the delivery room
and said the mother
was having a hard time in transition.
So she wanted the father to come in.
John Stone Jenkins patted the young man on the shoulder
and said “Go on in. I’ll be out here praying.”But the nurse looked at John Stone Jenkins and said,
“No Father, she means you.”

With a gulp and prayer, he went into the delivery room.
Seeing the mother in the worst pains of labor,
he had no idea what to do,
so he leaned over her and said, “Jesus loves you.”She swore, and slapped him.
The she said, “I know that. How do you feel about me?”

It doesn’t do much good to talk about God’s love
unless we live it, unless we show people what it looks like.
How do we show people God’s love?
“Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.”

In all my years in the church, 21 of them as a clergyman,
I’ve heard church folks fretting about all sorts of things.
There’s not enough money.
The building needs fixing.
There aren’t enough young people
or the young people are taking over.
We don’t have any children or the children make too much noise.
The hymns are too slow or too fast.
The ritual is too Catholic or not Catholic enough.

98% of the things people fret over in the Church
cannot be found in the Bible
because they don’t really matter.
What matters is the relationships.
Where the relationships are full of love,
the money is enough, the building is enough,
the right people are there and anyone new
is right too.
It’s about the relationships because that’s where the gospel is.
That’s where we live the gospel so that we can know the gospel.

It’s a beautiful and joyful truth Jesus showed us
and Paul taught us.
All we have to do is live it -- together.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Which Dream Will You Choose?

Just a few basic insights can crack the Bible open
and make it into a fascinating book.
Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann’s
two-dream thesis may be
the most valuable of them all.
He sees the whole Bible as a struggle between
Pharaoh’s dream of scarcity and Moses’ dream of freedom.

Pharaoh, you will recall, had a dream of famine.
A later Pharaoh had fantasies of a different kind
of scarcity or weakness.
He was afraid of being invaded by Assyria, now known as Iraq.
It wasn’t very likely. They were a long way off and not that powerful.

But he was afraid.
It is a bit reminiscent of when our government
thought that Iraq was going to come after us
with their non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Well, Pharaoh couldn’t do much about the Assyrians.
They were too far off --
so he shifted his anxiety to the Jews
living inside his borders.

He was afraid that when the Assyrians invaded Egypt,
the Jews might rise up to support the Assyrians.
Not that there was any reason for that paranoid delusion,
but, as I said, he was afraid.
So Pharaoh did the ancient equivalent
of detaining the Jews at Guantanamo Bay.
He rounded them up in Goshen, pressed them into forced labor,
and eventually he took the next step.
He instituted a program of genocide
by killing the male babies.

All of this would be hard to believe if it didn’t keep happening.
Egypt was the most powerful empire on earth,
the most powerful empire the world had ever known.
Pharaoh was not a mere king.
He was a god. He held life and death in his hand.
His power was supreme and unlimited.
No one had ever been this powerful.

But all the power the world has to offer
cannot deliver us from fear.

Fear drives us to garner power for our own security,
but the more power we acquire,
the more afraid we become.
It may even make us bigger targets.

So the almighty Pharaohs always dreamed of famine,
lived in dead of invasion by weaker,
distant weaker neighbors.
Today’s lesson tells how, during a level orange terror alert,
they enslaved the ethnic minority of their own nation,
and finally resorted to genocide.

Such is the world into which Moses was born.
I trust you know the story of how he escaped death
through the stealth of his mother
and the subterfuge of midwives,
how he grew up as a Prince of Egypt,
discovered his roots, killed an Egyptian slave driver,
then fled to Midian where he became a shepherd.

There, while tending his father-in-law’s flock,
Moses had his dream – a vision of a burning bush --
from which the voice of God spoke to him,
saying “I have heard the cry of my people . . . .
Go therefore to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.”//

Moses’ vision is so simple, a vision of freedom,
as direct and straightforward
as Pharaoh’s fearful dream of scarcity.
That simple vision of freedom will grow into a richer vision
of equality, justice, and inclusion.
It will become the Law as we find it in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
This vision will command the Jews to shelter the homeless sojourners,
remembering that they were once sojourners in Egypt.
It will require those who have wealth
to share it with those who do not.
It will forbid the charging of interest on loans
and will protect debtors from foreclosure.

The law of Moses is designed– not like so many legal codes
which protect the wealth of the wealthy
and impose the power of the powerful
– but rather a law to share wealth and defend the powerless.
Such was the dream which gave birth to Israel.
Perhaps it sounds familiar.
I doubt that the deist Thomas Jefferson
would admit it, but his dream for America
was lifted right out of Moses’ vision
which became the Law of Israel.

Regrettably Israel was not exempt from the fear
that corrupted Egypt.
Having been oppressed once,
even having fought for freedom once,
is no guarantee of perpetual virtue.
A freedom fighter can turn into a tyrant,
and a nation like Zimbabwe can find
it has rid itself of Ian Smith
only to suffer at the hands of Robert Mugabe.

Moses himself was never corrupted.
He remained a defender of freedom and justice all his life.
But Israel began to remember how great Egypt had been.
They began to fear the Philistines.
And they thought, “Why can’t we be like the Egyptians?”
More wealth, power, land, and a standing army would protect us.

So hierarchy and a caste system arose.
New laws were added, to protect ethnic purity, social structures,
the privileges of a priestly caste, an aristocracy, and a royalty.
In Bruegemann’s book, Solomon, he demonstrates how
David’s son became the Jewish personification of Pharaoh,
complete with forced labor and wars of conquest.

Throughout the Bible, we hear two voices arguing.
One voice is that of Pharaoh, a voice of fearful, rigid rules.
It comes out of the mouths of priests as the book of Leviticus
and of the royal spin masters as the books of Chronicles.
Against that voice cries the voice of Moses,
out of the mouths of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.

If we did not have the voice of Pharaoh in our Scripture,
we would have no idea what Moses was talking about.
But when people quote Scripture,
we must always listen very closely
to see whose voice is speaking
– Pharaoh or Moses,
Ahab or Elijah,
Caiaphas or Jesus.

Ah yes, Jesus. It all leads to him.
You see this is what the fight
in the New Testament is about.
People wanted a messiah alright,
a messiah in the tradition
of Solomon, of David, and of Pharaoh.
But Jesus spoke with the voice of Moses,
the voice of freedom, justice, equality, and inclusion.
After Jesus, the Church carried on the conversation.
Peter spoke too often with the voice of Pharaoh.
He will speak with that voice in next week’s Gospel lesson.
Paul replied with the voice of Moses.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” he said.

And the struggle continues in the world today.
Bruegemann calls the voice of Pharaoh “the Empire.”
It may manifest as one nation or another.
But it is always the Empire,
and against it stands the Gospel.

We read our religion and we read the world,
we read the Bible and we read the newspaper,
though the same set of bifocals.
We look reality either through the dream of Pharaoh
or the dream of Moses.
Moses’ way lives by a certain trust in life. We call it faith.
Pharaoh’s way lives by fear of death. We call is despair.
“I set before you life and death,” Moses said. “Choose life.”

Jesus Repents: The Gospel Trajectory Finds Its Course

When we read a novel or a play for a literature class,
the professor will usually ask
“who is the main character?”
There is a rule of thumb for figuring out
who a story is primarily about.
Does anyone know how to tell the main character?
It is the one who changes most.
The main character is not a stable prop in someone else’s drama.
The main character learns things, grows.

King Lear is called “King Lear” because the foolish old king
eventually sees his own injustice and he repents.
Shakespeare didn’t name his play after faithful Cordelia
who is good and virtuous throughout.
He named it “King Lear” after the character who moves,
changes, makes spiritual progress.
Same thing with Oedipus Rex, David Copperfield,
or the Cather in the Rye.
So, who is the Gospel of Matthew primarily about?
It might be about Jesus.
If that is the case, instead of taking everything Jesus
ever said as the final word for all time,
we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.
Instead of taking snapshots of his spirituality
at one point, we might look at the course of his life
to see if we can plot a trajectory.

Let’s start with his first teaching, the Sermon on the Mount.
Not much grace in that sermon.
Here’s what Jesus says about the law.
“”Not one letter or stroke shall pass away from the law . . .
Whoever breaks . . . the least of these commandments . . .
will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus doesn’t say the Pharisees are too strict.
He thinks they are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
Jesus starts out as Super Puritan.
But there’s something good in it.
His point is that doing the right thing isn’t enough.
You have to get your heart right.
He’s insisting on an authentic spiritual core to morality.

Now fast forward to today’s lesson to see where that leads.
The disciples have just violated a ritual purity regulation
about hand washing.
The Pharisees cry “Shame. Not one stroke or letter . . .” they say.
“Whoever breaks one of the least
of these commandments . . .” they say.

But Jesus says “It’s no big deal.” His position has shifted.
He explains, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,
but what comes out it.”
The heart is what matters. Not ritual purity.

First Jesus turned his attention from the right actions alone
to having your heart right.
Then he began to wonder what ritual purity
has to do with the heart.
Maybe if your heart was right,
it didn’t matter if you kept the law perfectly,
so long of course as you were Jewish
and kept the law pretty well.
That teaching drew fire from the Pharisees.
So Jesus took a little vacation from his mission
in the non-Jewish country of Tyre and Sidon.

He had strictly ordered his disciples
not to even tell non-Jews about the gospel.
They were the wrong race, wrong set of ritual purity customs,
“not our sort dear.”
At this point in the story, Jesus hadn’t changed his mind on that.
So he was in Tyre and Sidon on a vacation, not a mission.

But along came this non-Jewish woman begging him
to heal her daughter.
Jesus ignored here. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
Send her away.”
So Jesus told her he ministered to Jews only.
In desperation, she threw herself down in front of him.
He called her a dog and ordered her out of the way.
But she said, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”

That rocked him.
She had called him her master.
That was at once beautiful and a violation of the taboo
separating Jew and Gentile.
It was so wrong under the law, so right in the heart.
Jesus repented.

In last week’s lesson, Jesus had just said to his disciples
– who were the right race, right gender, right religion --
“O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreigner
– wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion –
“Woman, great is your faith.//
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed.

Do you see Jesus stumbling toward a new way
of seeing the world, a new kind of religion?
We might pause to consider the importance
of this nameless woman who converted Jesus.

Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
But can you guess how it ends?
I hope you won’t skip reading it just because
I’m giving away the thrilling conclusion.

It ends like this:
Jesus says to his disciples,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .”
“Nations” means the non-Jews.

Let’s retrace what has happened here:
One third of the way in the story,
Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
but then he said,
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles
and enter no town of Samaria,
but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”

But after meeting the gentile woman of great faith,
he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.

So what can we learn from this story?
The first thing we see is Jesus modeling an open mind
and an open heart.
His faith was a living, growing thing.
It changed. It moved. It morphed.

It wasn’t so soft and flexible that it had no shape.
Jesus didn’t go around saying “maybe this or maybe that.”
“This is true for me but it might not be true for you.”
Jesus took stands in the name of God.

But he wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
He wasn’t so spiritually lazy as to let his faith lounge
in the same things he was taught as a child.
Jesus moved. So how about us?

It’s good to check our faith from time to time
to see if it has any buds on it, any green shoots.
If not, we might want to fertilize it a bit
with a new prayer practice, a new book,
a retreat or some acts of mercy.

Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
with a sick child
– someone to shake up our stultifying certainties.

The second thing we notice in this story
is its ethical trajectory.
Right from the beginning,
the distinctive thing about Jesus
was his gospel of inclusion.

Right from the beginning,
he sat down at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first he was calling them into an even smaller circle
of strict rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle by disregarding
ritual purity rules that kept people outside
even if their hearts were faithful.
Then he took in lawless gentiles who approached him in faith,
and finally sent his disciples out to gentiles
who had never even heard of him.

It is an expanding ethic of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending further that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,
neither Jew nor gentile,” he wrote.

We have our trajectory set in the life of Jesus.
Who might be outside our circle of caring or acceptance?
Who might be the Canaanite woman for us?
If we keep an eye out for the people we are tempted
to avoid, they may show us the growing edge of our faith.

May our ability to accept each other grow day by day.
May our appreciation extend to those we now scorn.
May our capacity for love grow beyond anything we have yet imagined.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rock Walls of Petrified Moments of Grace

Transfiguration – transformation – renewal – becoming new again.
One of our prayers for the Transfiguration says,
O God who. . . . revealed (Christ’s) glory upon the holy mountain:
Grant that we . . . may be . . . changed into his likeness
from glory to glory.”
The Christian life – perpetual transformation – becoming new again and again –
“Grant that we may be changed . . . . from glory to glory.”

I had a life crisis a few years back.
I was at the end of my spiritual and emotional rope
with no power to help myself -- but God saved me.
It was in Idaho in the early 80’s.
My philosophy of life that was already pretty dark.
Then my legal practice brought me up against depths of evil
I had never before encountered.
The possibility of any redeeming light to make the world still good
seemed to have gone out.

But God saved me.
He did it through good old traditional Episcopal worship and prayer
at St. Michael’s Cathedral
on the corner of 8th and Washington, Boise, Idaho.

Objectively speaking, they didn’t do such a great job of everything.
But they were the safe harbor on my stormy night.
So to me, St. Michael’s, Boise became the model for what Church
is supposed to be
– and nowhere will ever measure up the standard of St. Michael’s 1982
– not even St. Michael’s 2011 even though it is in every objective way bigger, better, brighter, more inspiring now than it was then
– to me it’s not the same.

Peter, James, and John had a mountain top experience.
They saw Jesus transfigured and that was pretty cool.
But then they saw Moses and Elijah
– the personal faces of the Law and the Prophets.
That was just over the top.
So Peter wanted to freeze the moment.
“Let us stay in this place,” he said. “It is good for us to be here.
Let us make three dwellings
– one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you.”
Let us live forever in this holy place, this holy moment, just like this.”

But God came over them as a cloud and said,
strange things about Jesus.
After that Moses and Elijah were gone.
Peter’s moment was over.
You know the rest of the story.
They do not live happily ever after on Mt. Tabor.
They go back downhill and get on with the mission.

Instead of the Transfiguration being something to stay stuck in,
it was the jumping off place for a life
of being perpetually “changed from glory to glory.”

Almost every church person has had their life saved
or has had a mountain top experience
at some point or another.
Maybe it was a church that came to their spiritual rescue.
Maybe they got saved at a revival or renewed at a Cursillo.
Maybe they saw the light at a Marriage Encounter
or while doing Prison Ministry.

We are all blessed at some point with a moment of grace
as Peter, James, and John were on the Mountain.
Thank God for those moments of grace.
The problem is what we do with them.
Peter tried to freeze his moment, set it in stone,
keep it mummified in a shrine
like me wanting to turn the whole church in all times and all places
into the image of St. Michael’s, Boise 1982.

Peter and I are not alone in this.
A lot of us have petrified our moments of grace
and used the stones to build rock walls around our spirits
lest liberating grace should touch and change us again.

The Church changed dramatically in the 70s in the aftermath of Vatican II
and in the heat of liturgical renewal.
That change was a great grief to people who had their moments of grace
with the 28 Prayer Book in King James English like Jesus spoke it
and the altar back against the wall where God put it.

But Pope John XIII said to open the window and let a fresh breeze in.
So we did – and we sang folk songs written by monks.
Now 40 years later, if you see a sign for a “contemporary service”
it means there will be folk songs written by monks in the 1970s.
Do you see the problem?
We opened the window for a fresh breeze in the 70s; it blew in;
and we slammed the window shut lest it get back out.

One of our city churches recently added a contemporary service,
yes 70’s folk songs, in order to attract the young people.
I asked the priest: who said this would attract young people?
It was, as I suspected, one of our church growth experts from the 70s
who is himself in his own 70s.
But in big cities today, the pierced, tattooed, orange haired young people
are not so taken with their parents’ folk songs.
They are demanding Rite I Morning Prayer with incense,
because they think it’s mystical.
We, however, are calling the hot new liturgies of 1975 “contemporary”
and planning young adult evangelism to attract people in their 60s.

My friend Grey Temple is one of the leading lights
of the charismatic renewal movement.
He has had religious experiences that would curl you hair.
His church in the 90s was full of folks
who had seen the light in the 70s and gotten stuck in it.

Grey wrote a book about spiritual experience and its aftermath.
He called it The Molten Soul, because in a moment of grace,
our stony hearts and souls melt and flow hot and bright like lava.
But the next thing we know, they have ossified, returned to stone
in the dead shape of what was once a living experience.

Grey had some psychological and theological explanations for that.
His book is a good read.
But my point this morning is just to say that our graced moments
were just that -- moments.
We can cherish their memories in our hearts.
But we cannot live in them.

Life moves. The Christian life moves.
It is a path of perpetual transformation.
St. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“We who . . . all reflect the Lord’s glory are being changed
into the same image, from glory to glory.”

Not we have been saved and now we’ve got it.
Not we have been transformed so we are now as God wants us.
But “we are being transformed . . . . “

If you may be a little uncomfortable with your new parish hall
because it does not look and feel like your old parish hall,
I agree with you in part.
I am uncomfortable with it because it does not look and feel
like the Parish Hall of St. Michael’s, Boise as it was in 1982.

Those places live in our hearts.
But we can’t live the Christian life inside a wall of petrified memories.
Life flows.

To live afresh, to be renewed, to become new again and again,
takes more than courage.
It takes faith.
It takes faith to follow Jesus forward into life.
You have demonstrated both courage and faith
living into your mission with a new parish hall.
I commend you.

But I have a feeling that God has plans
for much bigger changes in our lives
– both in our individual spiritual lives
and in our life together as the Body of Christ on earth.

If we follow Jesus, he leads us to Mt. Tabor for a vision
then down from the mountain for a mission.
We follow him in faith being changed again and again
from glory to glory.