Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Audacity of Authenticity; Proper 9, Year B

Mark 6:1-13


Has this ever happened to you?

Or, wait, I know the answer to this one. So: This has happened to you:

You're back visiting your parents for [funeral/wedding/holiday/vacation] after being away for a while. You've got friends, a job, maybe a spouse and kids-- in short, a whole life and identity where-ever you live now. You're not the same person you were when you were living with them, (although you ARE who that person grew into).

And yet, surrounded by the same old walls, the familiar books on the shelves, by your parents (+ possibly siblings), you mysteriously find yourself falling into the same habits of interaction and behavior. You find yourself strangely pressured into the old configurations of relationship, the same way of being; you shift a bit from who-you-are-usually to who-you-are-with-your-family.

Some of this invisible pressure is internal: you know how to be around them, and you have habits of interacting with them that are deeply ingrained. It's just easier, or more comfortable, to slip back into old habits. But a large part of this pressure is external: They "know" you as you used to be; they expect you to be a certain way; they know how to be with *that* you, not the 'updated' you.

You find yourself either reverting to another, older pattern of behavior-- OR, if you've made major life-changes and are trying hard to behave accordingly here-- you may find yourself pressured or pushed. You might be criticized, cajoled, treated with confusion, or otherwise manipulated towards a "you" that they are comfortable with.

If you have the audacity to be authentic, you might be greeted with confusion, hurt, hostility. Authenticity can easily be misinterpreted... as willfulness, pride, or self-righteousness... "Why are you behaving like this? You were always so respectful as a youth." or "I can't understand why you're acting so contrary."

This phenomenon is well defined in "family systems theory," a branch of psychology that studies how groups influence behavior. The family is like a mechanism which has learned how to operate with each member *a certain way.* If that member changes, the whole system doesn't quite know what to do with them, and is thrown off balance. It will subtly (or not-so-subtly) push them towards the way they used to be.

At its most benign, this phenomenon denies growth and development; at its worst, it can even work (without meaning to) to keep people unhealthy or dysfunctional. A family that has had someone work themselves to death taking care of everyone else doesn't know how to get along without someone in that role; a family with a "problem" member-- a troublemaker or perpetual screwup-- begins to "need" such a person in the family.

Groups other than families exhibit the same behavior; they learn how to function with people the way they are, and expect them to remain that way because now that's how the group *works*. If someone changes, there is pushback -- again, even if someone is trying to change for the better. (Think of the way that recovering alcoholics most often need to cut ties to their old group of friends, who invariably pressure them to revert. Or think when, after Jesus healed a demoniac who had been hurting himself for years, the nearby villagers become angry. They know that man as a demoniac, and they've learned how to cope with that-- now they have to figure out how to live with him as a man! Mk 5:1-19 [Note that Jesus sends the man back home to witness to the villagers, to make them accept the power of the change in the man.])

I'm put in mind of the proverbial crabs in a bucket... You know, how if you have a bunch of crabs in a tub of water, the ones below will supposedly grab any that begin to climb out and tug them back in?

So, to today's Gospel. Nazareth knows Jesus. They've known him since he was a kid! They know his family, his siblings, his childhood friends. "Isn't this son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren't his sisters here too?" They've seen him work under his father, learning the family trade. So, that's another way to define him: "Isn't this the carpenter?" His very familiarity blinds them to the power of God which is so obvious to others. He is a known quantity in Nazareth. They can't seem to accept him as something different than what they already know of him.

In this context, Jesus has the audacity to be his authentic self. And so, he is greeted with, "The nerve of him! Who does he think he is? He's just Jesus the carpenter, Mary's kid!"

How often does that familiarity blind us? How often does what we "know" about someone keep us from knowing them more truly? Strangely, it may be hardest for us to recognize or accept holiness in those we know best. We aren't looking for the power of God in an old acquaintance; we're looking at the kid who stole our bike 15 years ago. We don't see the the power of the resurrection at work in our once-alcoholic brother, but the same screwup who can't seem to ever do anything right. We can't seem to recognize the Holy Spirit's life-changing influence on that friend from highschool; after all, we know what kind of trouble they got into in those days!

Expect God in each other. Sure, past behavior can give us some idea of what may still be going on with someone, but expect God's power to be working in your brother or sister. Expect to find the Spirit hard at work in their lives. Look with eyes open to the possibility that you may see Jesus' face... in someone who you used to think was a total jerk. Don't miss Jesus because you think someone is a "known quantity!" Don't miss a word from the Holy Spirit because you knew the speaker when she was a toddler!

And be true to who you are becoming in Christ... Even in the face of other expectations. Be yourself with integrity -- your true self -- even in the face of pressures to revert to some older, more comfortable you, a 'you' that your old friends or family know what to do with. Have the authenticity to go back, as Jesus sent the Geresene demoniac, "home to your friends, and tell them how much God has done for you."

Have the audacity to be authentic. And dare to see more in your neighbor than what you think you know. You might just surprise yourself, and be surprised in turn... by the face of Christ.

Friday, February 22, 2008

3 Lent, Year A, Notes

3rd Lent, Year A,
(first thoughts, notes and marginal scribblings...)
[Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42]


[Exodus 17:1-17]

Themes & motifs:
water and thirst
physical needs

vs. 17:2, the people "quarreled" with Moses;
vs. 17:3, Moses says, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?"

(testing & quarreling linked together, or conflated.)

Massah = heb. "test"
Meribah = heb. "quarrel"

The Israelites are complaining about a quite pressing physical need-- water to drink and to water their animals. This is no petty matter; it is literally an issue of life or death. They have been travelling through hot, dusty lands; and travelling is thirsty work. Especially in the wilderness, water is life. If they don't get water soon, they will begin dropping like proverbial flies.

However, they seem quite certain that Moses/God cannot provide the water they need. Moses' initial response hints at this connotation of their complaint; Their next words make it explicit: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt... to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" They seem sure that their needs won't be met; in effect, they are doubting God's ability to watch over them, questioning God as source and sustainer of life.

(Their doubt and testing is made explicit in vs. 7, when the narrator adds that the people asked, "Is the LORD amongst us or not?")

Also, the mood in the crowd is angry and accusatory. The narrative goes on to makes clear what mere text of their complaint cannot: tone of voice. The people are furiously angry. Moses says to God: "They are almost ready to stone me!" They're on the verge of becoming a mob, not a "congregation" -- the threat of violence looms.

Perhaps if they'd come to Moses with the same issue and a different tone, this wouldn't have been interpreted as sinful, or as "testing" or "quarelling."

The LORD has Moses take the same rod he struck the Nile with to a Rock, with elders to witness. The same LORD who has watched out for the people before will continue to; the same rod will be used.

God has power over water
an element of life & death, power to destroy or sustain
- power to part the Red Sea for escape (life)
- power to close the waters on the pursuing army (death)
- power to make water well up from the rock (life)

Thirst is a metaphor for one's longing for God in various places in the OT.
Psalm 42, "as the deer pants for the waterbrooks, so my soul thirsts for you..."
Psalm 63:1,
"O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water."
This is true of this story as well, as the people were doubting and testing God's presence and power.

If God has power over water, God holds the power of life & death.
If the test was "Is God with us," the answer is "Yes."
If the test was also implicitly "Is God able to help us?," the answer is also, "Yes."


[Psalm 95]

- God's creative/sustaining power
- God's pre-eminence
- God's care for us
- Our rightful response of praise and worship
- Trust vs. testing

Found in the Daily Offices in Morning Prayer as one of the introductory Psalms, the Venite... but noticably lacking vss. 8-11, which deal with the Israelites' testing of God at Meribah/Massah.

I love how, during Lent, the whole Psalm may be used as an Introductory Psalm, not just the "easy" verses.

The first half of the Psalm, vss. 1-7, do not at first seem directly related to the incident at Meribah.

vss. 1-7 joyfully proclaim God's creative and saving power.
- All creation is in God's hands; created by God.
- The rightful response to this is thanks and praise (vvs. 1-2;6-7)

They are related, however, to the Israelite's "complaint" in the wilderness of Zin: "Is God with us, or not?," (and implicitly, "can God save us?") Vss. 1-7 state, of course God is with us-- All the ends of the earth are always in God's hands-- and we are the "people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand" (vs. 7)

The second half of the Psalm is about the testing at Meribah/Massah. The generation in the desert who "put me to the test, though they had seen my works" (vs. 9) are used as a negative example for the faithful. Implicitly, if we want to "enter into [God's] rest," we'd better not follow their example, but remember the joyful affirmations of God's creative/redemptive power in the first half of the Psalm, and respond accordingly.


[Romans 5:1-11]

- hardship & its fruits (if endured with faith)
- boasting (in sufferings, in God)
- interceding/dying for another
- reconciliation

The surface-level gist of vs. 3-5 have entered our general vocabulary in the common idiom said of anything hard or unpleasant, "It builds character."

This sort of affirmation that suffering builds character is present in the passage, perhaps, but less simple than one leading directly to the other. We are able to rightly boast of our sufferings only when sufferings are endured in faith.

That is, it's not a churchy form of two old people trying to out-complain each other about who's health, joints, aches, and pains are the worst, as if suffering were so me sort of contest, or some sort of good in itself. (Paul warns us not to boast "in ourselves" as if our pain were praiseworthy in itself; but to boast "in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.") No, it is endurance in the face of suffering that makes hardship a possibly positive experience for the believer.

This endurance is a virtue-- thus, as that virtue is exercised and strengthened, one's character is "built." So, hardship can help us grow-- in faith, in character, in Godliness. It could just as easily help us grow apart from God-- in bitterness, in doubt, in jaded resignation, in raw sorrow.

Thank God for the grace we have through Jesus Christ and "the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" that allows us to endure suffering faithfully.

Early in The City of God, Augustine talks of the possible spiritual benefits of the suffering many Christians have endured as the power of Rome wanes and barbarians have sacked the city. He notes that through suffering, many may realize their own weakness and dependence on God. Or God might use their hardships to show them their inordinate love of worldly comforts, to the exclusion of prayer or worship. Or that suffering turns the believer from worldliness to thoughts of heaven in general. He may go a tad further than I would in assigning some agency to God for the barbarians' acts (in order to 'discipline' those who suffer), but he does helpfully note how such suffering can build the believer's character.


[John 4:5-42]

A Johannine "conversation" (as opposed to a "contraversy.) In the Conversations, a potential believer engages Jesus in a genuine dialogue, and shares their puzzlement, questions, objections, or confessions of faith. In a Contraversy, Jesus is confronted by his opponents on some point, and then gives an uninterrupted response that amounts to a monologue.

- thirst, physical & spiritual
- water (drinking, baptism, "living water")
- social categories; social stigma
- ethnic/gender/religious barriers
- confession of Jesus as Messiah
- Sowing/harvesting/reaping (evangelizing)


Nicodemus (John 3) provides an interesting foil for the woman at the well:

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night;
The Woman at the Well meets Jesus in the middle fo the day.

Nicodemus has high social standing, a respected rabbi;
The Woman at the Weel is a known adulteress in her community.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as night, perhaps to avoid being seen;
Jesus meets the Woman at midday: perhaps she has come to the well during the hottest part of the day (the customary time to draw water being morning or evening) to avoid being seen by the other women of her town because she is a social outcast for her many "husbands."

Nicodemus does not publically affirm Christ after his encounter,
perhaps fearing for his reputation;
The Woman makes a public announcement of Christ after her encounter,
even though before she was avoiding people because of her reputation.


I love that Jesus first asks the woman for a drink of water. The real physical thirst of travel on the long, dusty road between Judea and Galilee has made him thirsty. This story acknowledges the reality of thirst for water, as well as wielding this thirst as a metaphor for our thirst for God, and thirst for recognition by others as worthy of their time and respect. As a pariah living on the fringes of her town's society, coming to the well at hottest part of day to avoid having to face another confrontation by the town's other women, the Woman is thirsty for dignity. Her fervent expectation of the Messiah and excited questions when she realizes that Jesus is "a prophet" display her thirst for God.

--> (there is an echo here of the many OT meetings at wells-- Abraham's servant and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, etc... especially the latter, since this is "Jacob's Well." Like the story of Jacob coming to the well and then meeting Rachel there, Jesus is coming to a well in another land, but offering water to the one who is local to that area.)

Her reaction to Jesus' offer of "living water" (also "running water," like a stream or river) is at first overly literal:
- Where are you going to get this water? You don't even have a bucket.
- "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming her to draw water."


The woman - Samaritan
- Remnant of the 10 northern Israelite tribes left after the Assyrians sacked Israel, intermingled with other peoples
- Followed the Torah
- Differences in worship customs
- Not acknowledged by the Jews as rightfully following God

Jews typically had as little to do with Samaritans as possible, considering them unclean, flawed in their religion, and having betrayed their heritage by intermarrying.

There are all sorts of social barriers in this story...

Men did not typically speak to women who were not their family in public
Jews did not typically speak to Samaritans
(both ethnic and religious barriers, "cleanliness" issues)
A known adulteress in her community / a known holy man

Jesus and the woman are both aware of these conventional social barriers. Jesus approaches the woman anyway, but the Woman is shocked, ans asks him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"
- She is ready to let social stigma and social mores prevent an enounter with Jesus.
- "Your people don't talk to my people"

The disciples are equally astonished that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman, alone no less. But they don't say anything about it.

Stigma / fear / outcast-status
acceptance / boldness / public announcements

When the Woman returns to her village, she is emboldened and suddenly overcomes her shyness. No longer slinking around like an untouchable, she publically announces Jesus to her whole village, saying, "Come and see this man! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" This is worlds away from the women we encountered at the beginning of the story, who journeyed to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid contact with villagers who probably disapproved of her; now she seems to have forgotten her shame and is loudly proclaiming Jesus and inviting others to come and see him.


"I know" that Messiah is coming

As with Nicodemus, the Woman is close to letting what she thinks she knows get in the way of hearing what Jesus has to say. She knows that Jews don't talk to Samaritans, and that men don't talk to unaccompanied women in public. She knows that Jesus doesn't have a bucket, so his offer of living water doesn't make sense. She knows that Jesus is a prophet once he discloses knowledge of her romantic biography-- thus lessening her likelihood of recognizing him as more than a prophet. She knows the differences between Jewish Temple observance and Samaritan worship on Mount Gerizim. She knows that Messiah is coming-- which rather ignores what Jesus has just said about the proper place (or mindset/way) to worship God; and that she knows Messiah is coming reduces her likelihood of recognizing that the Messiah has already come, and is standing right in front of her.

She is eager to talk politics & religion with this man who has unexpectedly deigned to speak to her in public, especially once it becomes evident that he is a holy man of some sort. Her eagerness shows a real spiritual thirst, and a very human social thirst for dignity and recognition. But in her eagerness and thirst for these things, she almost misses them by being blinded by preconceived notions. For example, Jesus does not legitimize either the Jewish or Samaritan place of worship, but says that now all worshippers will worship God wherever they are, "in spirit and in truth." The woman barely seems to hear him on this point, but seems to change the subject.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Year C Advent 3 (sermon) environmental variant

Isaiah said:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.

The passage from Isaiah foretells a homecoming and a restoration, and as it echoes down the centuries to our ears, all the way to us listening this Sunday, it sheds various meanings. A way is being prepared for someone, it seems, but for whom, and what does it mean? To the people to whom the prophet originally spoke, it foretold the triumphant return of a remnant of the Exiles to promised land, to Israel. Centuries later, Christians recognized in it a prophesy about Christ’s coming; Jesus answered John’s disciples by citing many of its promises, ‘Go and tell your master, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear.”’ And after Christ’s resurrection, the early Church saw, as we still do today, an eschatological meaning in this passage—a meaning that stretches forward to Christ’s return.

One thing that really amazes me about this passage is its natural imagery. Apparently, this long-foretold coming isn’t just good news for God’s people, or for people in general. It’s good news for the earth. We hear that

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

What an amazing, lovely image: that the land itself can be glad! That an abundance of growth and blooming is actually like the voice of the wilderness singing! Isaiah goes on to say that formerly dry, dusty places will be as lush as foreign lands known for their greenery:

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.

What’s interesting here is that the word “They” – as in, “They shall see the glory of the Lord,” doesn’t actually have any person as a referent in vvs. 1-2 or this passage. Either it refers to some people that Isaiah hasn’t been talking about yet, or, -- more likely – they refer to the “dry land,” the “wilderness” the “desert” which is about to be transformed as part of Christ’s coming. The very earth will share in witnessing the glory of God, and rejoice in its way—by becoming fertile, lush, and full of abundant water. For those living in the arid climate of Palestine, the promise of water transforming the land must have been an amazing expression of how God would redeem not only his people, the but whole earth:

“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;”

What an amazing thought—that the earth itself is waiting for Christ’s coming, is just waiting to be redeemed, to rejoice, to be saved.

In the news this week, I’ve been following the stories about the UN-sponsored environmental conference being held in Bali. In Tuesday’s papers, there were three articles on one page— One about Al Gore’s joint acceptance of their Nobel Peace Prize with the UN panel for Climate Change; a second article, in which former White house employees reported that administration officials and scientists have been intentionally downplaying the impact of global warming in their releases and interviews. (Incidentally, A White House official, commenting in that article, said that the leak was a bald-faced attempt to draw attention away from the real progress being made at the Bali environmental Conferences.) And, as if on cue, the third article on the page was about the UN-sponsored environmental conference in Bali—where, it turns out, the U.S. was adamantly resisting setting numerical guidelines for the lessening of carbon emissions—a move which the EU and many other nations were pushing for.

Wednesday, an article entitled “Arctic may have melted past the tipping point”—complete with an alarming map of how much glacial ice mass Greenland has lost from melting since 1992, shared the page with the article “U.N. climate conference struggles on standards” – which, if you read it, was again largely about the U.S.’s unwillingness to set specific emissions reductions.

And late yesterday, after the Bali conference had gone into exhausting extra innings, they achieved some modest “success” – agreeing to meet in 2009 for another round of talks, and with no emissions reductions guidelines in the meantime.

In Al Gore’s nobel prize acceptance speech, he said: "Without realizing it, we have begun to wage war on the Earth itself, Now, we and the Earth's climate are locked in a relationship familiar to war planners: 'Mutually assured destruction.' It is time to make peace with the planet."

I do not think it out of keeping with Isaiah’s message that, as people making way for the coming of our Lord, it is high time to make peace with the planet. Luke says “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Isaiah describes a world in which nature itself is witness to the Glory of God, and in which the world is restored and made whole by God’s coming. As Advent people, we need to live into that vision. God has pronounced the created world good, and appointed us its custodians.

It’s really not such a radical idea. In the mid-first century, in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves.”

The revealing of the children of God is supposed to be good news for creation itself, which groans alongside them for the coming of Christ. But all too often, we’ve abused that creation instead. Which brings us to our Collect of the Day. We need God’s help to live into God’s vision for the world. And so we pray:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Year C, Advent 3 (sermon)

Advent, as we know, is a time of waiting. But every so often we need to stop and ask ourselves:

What are we waiting for?

The passage from Isaiah foretells a homecoming and a restoration, and as it echoes down the centuries to our ears, all the way to us listening this Sunday, it sheds various meanings. A way is being prepared for someone, it seems, but for whom, and what does it mean? To the people to whom the prophet originally spoke, it foretold the triumphant return of a remnant of the Exiles to promised land, to Israel. Centuries later, Christians recognized in it a prophesy about Christ’s coming; Jesus answered John’s disciples by citing many of its promises, ‘Go and tell your master, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear.”’ And after Christ’s resurrection, the early Church saw, as we still do today, an eschatological meaning in this passage—a meaning that stretches forward to Christ’s return.

This sort of double-vision, this plurality of meanings, colors so much of what Advent is. We are waiting for something—but what, exactly are we waiting for?

In one sense, what we are “waiting” for what has already happened—the birth of Jesus Christ. We are expectantly approaching Christmas day, when we celebrate the birth of our Savior—so that our waiting and watching actually looks backwards. And, of course, we are waiting for that time to be with our families, the holiday meals, the exchange of presents, and the little family traditions that go along with Christmas.

But if we leave it at that, we’ve missed out on half of Advent. Because, in another sense, we are “waiting” not just for something that has already happened, but for something yet to be. We are watching for the final culmination of all creation in the return of Christ. Jesus cautioned “anyone with ears to listen” that they must be on their guard, that they should live expectantly, on the lookout for the Day of the Lord. This sense of urgency, of edge-of-your-seat anticipation, kind of gradually fizzled out of the early Church as Christ’s second coming seemed longer in coming than anyone expected. But Jesus warned about exactly that—that no one would know the hour or the day. Still, it’s hard to keep up a kind of truly expectant, watching-for-the-Master’s-return kind of mindset when the sun keeps stubbornly rising and setting, day after day, on a relatively unchanged world. Despite the prophet’s beatific vision, and despite those whom Christ healed during his ministry in Galilee, there are still the blind, lame, and poor. People still need to make a living. “They work the fields, they give and are given in marriage.” Oh blah dee, oh blah dah, Life goes on.

Even John the Baptist, who had earlier in Matthew’s gospel recognized in Jesus one who ought to baptize him, not the other way around—Who saw in Jesus the one who would baptize with fire and the holy spirit, not with water—is now perhaps having doubts. Now, from his jail cell, he is sending disciples to ask Jesus point blank—“are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

It’s hard to live at a fever-pitch of expectancy. James advises his readers: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Farmers can be patient about their crops, he reasons—so you be patient too. But James wants to make sure that his community doesn’t become complacent and lazy in their waiting—“Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near!” James wants us too live as if Jesus is just around the corner. That’s what Advent living looks like. I mean, If all we’re looking forward to is a nice Christmas dinner, and presents around the tree--- well, it gets pretty easy for us to get sloppy about Advent. But if Jesus is coming, if Jesus is right about to ring the door bell any moment—well, we all probably have some pretty serious housecleaning to do, and fast! James wants us to feel that urgency; he writes, “See the Judge is standing at the doors!”

Live like that, James counsels us. Live like that, Jesus tells anyone with an ear who’ll listen. Live like restoration and homecoming is really on its way, Isaiah tells us.

What are we waiting for?

Because Advent is about waiting and watching, but what we’re waiting for makes a world of difference.

If it’s just Christmas—even a thoroughly religious Christmas, with carols and prayers and church services before all the family time—then all we’re left at the end of it is a pile of wrapping paper, a few church bulletins, and the overfed feeling that we’ve had a little too much of Mom’s green-bean and French’s Onion casserole.

But if we’re truly waiting for Christ’s coming again, then we’re left with so much more: Hope. Expectancy. Something worth looking forward to. All promises that Isaiah, the James, and John, and all the prophets, gave us. And if we’re expecting that, we need to live like that is a real possibility, like it’s coming, and we wanna be get on board while the getting’s good.

To live like that is to live as an Advent people, a people who have faith and hope not just at one time of the year, but all the time. See, James reminds us, The Judge is standing at the door!

So, what are we waiting for?

Let’s straighten this place up!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Proper 27, Year C (RCL) notes / reflections

[Haggai 1:15:b-2:9]
[2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17]
[Luke 20:27-38]


Haggai 1:15:b-2:9

Take courage; for I am with you.

Haggai, like Zechariah, was a post-exilic prophet who encouraged Israelites who returned from Exile in Babylon to resettle the land and rebuild the temple. After Cyrus the Persion conquered Babylon in 539, he instituted a policy of allowing subject peoples to return to their homelands and resettle. After nearly 70 years of exile, the Israelites were allowed to return home in 538. In those 70 years, tales and stories of the former splendor of the Temple would have grown to almost mythic proportions, and Israel would have been remembered as the legendary promised land, rich with milk and honey.

The situation greeting the returning exiles was far from glorious, however, and enthusiasm quickly waned. Many Jews remained behind in Babylon, where they had lives and families. Those returning faced a Jerusalem in ruins, its walls and Temple destroyed. After an initial push to rebuild the Temple, the effort fizzled out, and there was a lapse of almost 20 years. Only the foundation of the Second Temple had been laid. Hostility from those surrounding peoples, and those who had remained on the land, seems to have plagued the returning exiles, and severe drought caused food shortages.

Given this context, Haggai's opening words in today's reading may seem rather odd. In what is essentially a message of encouragement, he begins by bluntly naming the frustration and dissatisfaction facing the returning Exiles.
"Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"

This seems too blunt, too curt; almost cruel. It's a real downer. But Haggai is only telling the truth, naming what everyone is already thinking. It cuts through denial or a "stiff upper lip," forcing the listener to admit to their feelings of despair or disappointment.

(By the way, it's significant that he addresses the Persian-appointed governor, the High Priest, and the "remnant of the people"/"people of the land" with this message. It shows that all levels of society are feeling this despair and sense of failure. Not only the poor, but those in positions of leadership feel like things are hopeless or off track.)

Only once their sense of fear and desolation is admitted, faced head-on, can they hear the message of hope Haggai offers. Three times, "take courage" is repeated, like a refrain or a mantra:
"Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, say the LORD."

And why are they to "take courage," in the face of seeming failure? It is because "I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts." God has not abandoned the people. The current bleak situation does not mean that God's favor or presence is no longer with them. "My spirit abides with you; do not fear."

Although the Temple, the symbol of God among God's people, is not yet rebuilt, the LORD is with them even now. Armed with this reassurance, Haggai can exhort the people: "Work, for I am with you." Keep up the effort to rebuild the Temple. Although the Temple is not yet rebuilt, the whole earth, all the gold and silver and riches of the whole earth, belong to God. God's presence can be assured even before the symbolic seat of the faith is reestablished.

In the face of ruin, desolation, and hopelessness, Haggai offers a word of hope and assurance. In the worst of times, it seems that not only has the world turned against us; it seems that God too has abandoned us. Not so, says the Lord. Take courage, and believe that I am with you even in the worst of times; work, even when it seems against common sense, for restoration. I am not only with us in your efforts, but at work myself for the realization of restoration.


2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17

Stand firm and hold fast.

The situation underlying this passage from 2 Thessalonians is somewhat unclear, but implied is some sort of threat to the community. Something ominous is going on: either persecutions, or fears about the authorities (notice references to "the rebellion" and "the lawless one"), and there are false epistles floating around "as though from us." We know the Thessalonian Christians were also concerned when the coming of Christ seemed delayed, and worried about what would happen to those who died before his coming.

In the letter, Paul (or perhaps a disciple of Paul writing in his tradition) warns the Church in Thessalonica not to be "quickly shaken in mind or alarmed" at these upheavals.

In the face of such fearful goings-on, the author offers Godly comfort: "God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit." The listeners are marked for salvation, despite whatever problems besieged them. Armed with this reassurance, Paul can command them:
"Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."

They are to cling fast to the content of the faith, not swerving due to new teachings or threat of persecution.

"Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word."

What emphasis on comfort and assurance! And yet the overall tone is not only pastoral, but empowering: "Eternal comfort and good hope" leads to present comfort-- ("comfort your hearts") that allows the saints to "strengthen them in every good work and word." Paul offers comfort and assurance so that the saints may not be shaken from the good path, from their good work.

No ominous rumblings, no threat of persecution, no fears of death or concerns about the afterlife, no apocalyptic "lawless one... who declares himself to be God" can separate the saints from the presence of their God. Their comfort is current, and it is eternal. Therefore, they can be strengthened in every good work, now and always.


Luke 20:27-38

The Sadducees had all sorts of savvy arguments to show the foolishness of belief in the resurrection. One rather amusing example uses on Jewish purity codes to propose a conundrum: After the bodily resurrection, would those raised have to purify themselves after having come into contact with a corpse? But they themselves were the corpse! How could they ever be ritually clean again? But what kind of Godly resurrection would it be, to never be clean?

In this Gospel passage, the Sadducees again use rather sly arguments to try to expose hope in the resurrection as foolish. As in the example above, they appeal to Jewish law, here as handed down by Moses, to propose a conundrum or paradox that the resurrection presents: Whose wife would the woman be in the afterlife, "for the seven [brothers] had married her?"

Notice that the word "dies/died" occurs 4 times in their question, and the "no children/childless" occurs 3 times. Death, family, and lineage are the driving semantic motifs of their question.

Let's also notice their tone of voice. This question narrates seven brothers passing a wife down the family line like players passing a football-- then dying like wooden cutouts. It is absurd. The tone is mocking, sly, and sarcastic. It is essentially making fun of Jesus, or anyone, for believing in the resurrection. It is making fun of hope.

In response to their wry, sarcastic, question, Jesus is direct, blunt even. He says that marriage is a "this life" thing; it is of this world, this life, and the question of progeny to carry on the family name is the same. In the resurrection, such concerns will no longer be so all-consuming; for they will be "like angels, and are children of God."

The two primary semantic concerns of the Sadducees question, death and children, are both addressed.

1) Opposing their fixation on "death," Jesus affirms, "Indeed, they cannot die anymore," "He is God not of the dead, but of the living." The God of Israel is no Egyptian God of death, nor a Greek God like Hades, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and "to him, all of them are alive."

2) Against the Sadducees fixation on progeny and children, Jesus affirms that those resurrection are "children of God," and "children of the resurrection." The human concern for preserving a line no longer matters in the resurrection, for these children cannot die, and are all children of God. Our primary relationship in the afterlife, then, will not be between us and our former spouses or earthly children -- although we will be fellow-saints and children of God amongst them -- but between us and God.

To a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek yarn about seven dying brothers and the hand-me-down wife, Jesus flatly reaffirms the truth of the resurrection. Jesus has no patience for those who mock hope, especially in ways that are meant to show their own cleverness. In other Gospels' versions of this tale, he mocks them right back, "Is it not because you do not know the scriptures that you say this?" and "You are quite wrong."

Jesus' tone and affirmation encourage us to ignore all those sophisticated voices of doubt or sarcasm which denigrate our faith, or would put us down for hoping in the future. True discussion is one thing; mockery is another. The world is full of those sly, wry, witty commentators who would reduce hope to naivete, religious faith to a droll joke.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Proper 14C (RCL) Sermon


The Epistle and the Gospel reading this week are all on about houses, and homes. Houses – who builds ‘em, who lives in ‘em, what it’s like to live in them, either joyfully or fearfully.
In Hebrews, we read that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “camped out,” as it were, in a foreign land, pitching their tents wherever they were as they looked forward to the City that God would prepare for them. The servants in Jesus’ first parable keep watch at their master’s house as he celebrates his wedding feast, awaiting his return. And the home-owner in the second parable finds that ownership means having to be watch out, or risk being robbed.
Houses—and homes. An old saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.” Jesus adds, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
So this week, Jesus challenges us to examine our heart, asking ourself:
- Where is my treasure?
- Where is my heart?
- Where is my home?

About three months ago, my wife and I bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line, and bought our first house.
As first-time housebuyers, we could feel our blood-pressures rise as we looked over a repayment plan calculated out thirty-years into the future. Thirty years! That’s longer than either one of us has been alive! And, wow, it’s pretty anxiety-provoking to contemplate what thirty years interest does to your debt. I kidded that we ought to be signing in blood; Our mortgage broker, an impeccably well-groomed man with a bland smile on an inoffensive face, didn’t think this was very funny.
It seemed that from the moment we owned the house, there were any number of things we desperately needed but did not have. Apparently, the neighbors were not happy about the lush jungle of knee-high grass and weeds that came with the house. Within two days of moving in, our neighbor to the left had offered to lend us his lawnmower, some enterprising kids from down the street had quoted us some very competitive landscaping rates, and our neighbor on the right side had offered to mow our lawn himself. Okay, okay, we got the message: we needed a lawnmower. And a shed to keep the lawnmower in, I guess. And some furniture to fill up all these confounded rooms. And window-curtains, so our curious neighbors couldn’t peek through our windows to see those strange priests in their empty rooms who don’t seem to know how to mow their lawn.
Owning a house also meant we had to think about security. We suddenly had to ask ourselves questions like: What kind of homeowner’s insurance do we need? Should we get an alarm system? Do we need a brace-bar for the sliding door? Oh, what about the front door lock—are there still keys floating around from the Realtor’s lock-box? Should we change that lock? How about those motion-activated lights porch lights? Maybe we should get a guard-dog?—preferably a surly 200-pound pit-bull / mastiff mix with a pituitary condition and a pathological hatred of all strangers—but who’s good with kids?
Well, we ended up deciding against the auto-targeting defense lasers, and picked a relatively normal-sized, good-natured dog, but the point remains: Once we owned a house, we quickly found ourselves more concerned about “things,” more anxious about money, and thinking more than usual about our security.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells two short parables about houses. But first, he sets up these stories with this teaching: “Do not be afraid, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
There’s good news in this teaching, that’s for sure. The very first thing that Jesus tells his listeners is to let go of some of their fear. “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Just before this, Jesus has talked about all the ways we are afraid: We worry about food, we worry about clothing, we worry about our lifespans, we worry about the color of our hair-- worry about just about everything. When we’re afraid, we end up clutching what we do have so tightly our knuckles turn white—we take own lives in a stranglehold. Jesus here tells us that we can let go of that anxiety because “it if your Father’s good will to give you the kingdom.” If we have faith in God’s promises, we can ease up, just a little bit, on the life-constricting chokehold of fear—and with that letting go, we can breathe again. With trust in God comes hope, joy, peace, and the courage to give to others from what we have.
Jesus also says that this kingdom that the Father will give them is in heaven. All of the normal dangers and uncertainties that govern our worldly wealth won’t apply there—no thief comes and no moth destroys. Our true heavenly home, which is not of this world, will not have loss or anxiety or mortgages or theft. But Jesus tells his disciples they must fix their heart and their hopes on heaven, not earth. They should be piling up heavenly treasure, not earthly treasure—and that involves giving alms and doing good, not digging trenches and hunkering down.
And so, Jesus tells two short parables, both about “houses.”
Weirdly, these two stories feel very different, and yet both are stories about someone coming to a house. The first story, of the watchful servants waiting for their master to return, feels hopeful and joyous. The second, about the owner of a house who does not know the hour that a thief will come, is threatening and scary. Both seem to be about the coming of the Son of Man—so why does one seem so promising, and the other one so frightening? Why are these strangely dissimilar parables right next to each other here?
I think one thing that the juxtaposition of these two parables offers us is glimpses of our choices. Jesus has told us that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also; later in the Gospel he will elaborate that no one can serve both God and Earthly Wealth (Luke 16:13). This is the choice before us, and these two parables show what those choices look like.
To lay up our treasures in heaven and put our trust in God looks like the first parable. In this story, the main characters are servants of the household’s master. They are waiting “dressed for action”—more literally, with girded loins—with their robe cinched up and tucked under a belt so they can move quickly. They watch for his return with eagerness, because as good servants they know it is his house, not theirs, and they are ready to serve. When the master returns, in a surprising twist, he fastens his belt for service (in the greek, he “girds his loins” just as the servants did) and he begins to serve them. This parable is full of hope, joy, and blessing.
The next parable is also about the coming of the Son of Man, and is also superficially the same story—“someone comes to a house.” But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. Whereas in the first story, those at the house were servants, here the householder is the house owner himself. So, the whole attitude about the house is different. Here, the prevailing mood is defensiveness and threat. The parable suggests that the owner is, or at least might be, anxious about his possessions and protecting them. The house and everything in it is his, so he is worried about keeping them safe.
Here, then, is the question before us: If home is where the heart is, where is our home? Where is our heart? Where have we laid up treasure for ourselves? The letter to the Hebrews describes how Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” while looking forward to “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” They lived in tents, the letter suggests, because they knew they were “just passing through.”
When we feel like this world and this life is our true home, we end up living defensively and fearfully. We can find ourselves clutching what we have and grasping at more, and eyeing anyone who gets too near distrustfully. The man in the second parable reminds me of someone with twelve locks on his door, a baseball bat by the side of his bed, and a loaded pistol under his pillow. Who wants to live that fearfully? But the servants in the second parable make me imagine friends with party hats on, crouched behind furniture, waiting to shout “Surprise!” as the guest of honor returns. That’s the choice before us: crouched fearfully under the bed in a locked house, or joyfully welcoming and sharing God’s hospitality with each other.
So it's up to us. The question these two parables present to us is, “Which will you be, the servant eagerly awaiting your master or the owner, fearfully hiding from the thief?” Because Jesus is coming one way or another. Your attitude toward that coming will not change his nearness. Jesus is always drawing closer and closer to us. We must decide if he will look like a thief or a benevolent master when he appears.
And the way to decide this is to decide whether you will liver as a homeowner or a renter. Now, I don't mean you need to sell your houses and rent apartments in order to find God. I mean, we must all decide to live as though everything were indeed God's. Because, I'm afraid whether we care to admit it or not-- everything really is God's.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “In my father's house, there are many rooms. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2). As that slogan in those corny Motel Six ads goes, God'll “leave a light on for you.” Let us hold what we have in this world, then, lightly, in open hands, more ready to share than to clutch. For when the Son of Man returns he will come like the benevolent master returning to tell his servants. “Well done; your room is prepared and everything's been made ready for you. Welcome home.”

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Proper 11, Year C (RCL) Sermon Notes

[Luke 10:38-42]

[Movement 1: 2 stories]

- The visit to Mary & Martha's home comes right after the episode with the lawyer. In last week's Gospel, we heard a lawyer ask Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus affirmed the Two Great Commandements-- Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself.

- After that, Jesus told a parable expanding on the point of loving one's neighbor, a story about a Samaritan man who stops to help a man beaten on the side of the road.

- Today's events, the story of the visit with Mary and Martha, elaborates on loving God.

- Neither of these stories is complete without the other. Both of these stories have a point to make that illuminates one of the Great Commandments. The Good Samaritan teaches us more about loving our neighbor. Mary & Martha teaches us more about loving God.

[Movement 2: The two elements of discipleship]

- The things we learn from these stories...

- The Good Samaritan is praised for his action, and Jesus tells the lawyer "Go and *do* likewise." Love of neighbor is characterized not merely by affect (feeling), but by action.

- On the other hand, Jesus praises Mary for sitting and listening. Love of God will move us to action, yes, but first comes seeking God in prayer, and silence, in "sitting at God's feet."

- The life of a disciple requires both: silence and action; prayer and service; quiet seeking and listening, and active helping of neighbor.

- Love of God is characterized first by listening and seeking because our "need" is greater. We can do a lot for our neighbors. But what can we do for God that God cannot do already? The fact is, God is perfect, powerful, complete, and self-sufficient, where we are imperfect, weak, and in need of God's love before we are complete. God's love is not something we have to earn, but comes first as a gift-- our frank need of God is graciously answered with God's love. Mary doesn't have to "do" anything to "merit" Jesus' love; she just sits at his feet.

[Movement 3: Taking time for Love]

- Both stories, furthermore, illustrate how *hurry* can get in the way of loving God and loving neighbor.

- In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite are too busy to stop and be inconvenienced to help the beaten man. At least part of their unwillingness probably stems from their hurry to reach their destination-- where they are going and what they are planning to do it "more important" than the unexpected complication of helping someone.

- Martha is busy and preoccupied with many tasks; these prevent her from paying actual attention to Jesus.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Proper 11, Year C (RCL) notes

[Luke 10:38-42]

Now, if you've been going to church for any amount of time, you've probably heard a sermon or two about slowing down and making room in your life for prayer. Such sermons seem to crop up like mushrooms during seasons of special devotion, especially Lent.

And it's a good message, one worth hearing, the "Mary & Martha sermon." It usually goes something like this: "Balance your Martha side with your Mary side; Don't bustle around so busily that you lose track of Jesus. Don't be so 'anxious and preoccupied with many things' that you miss out on the 'one thing [that] matters.'"

Alright. That's all well and good.

But here's the thing: Every preacher who's ever preached this is a hypocrite.

Oh, to a lesser or greater extent, to be sure. Some clergy balance their spiritual lives with their work more gracefully than others. But every clergyperson has, at some point or another, become so preoccupied with the bustle of ministry, with its conflicting and often urgent demands, that they find themselves drifting away from their relationship with God-- praying less often, sitting with scripture less often, simply being still in the presence of God less often. The whole busy-ness of ministry can become just a business, a daily grind. People who once vowed at their ordinations to "persevere in prayer, both in public and private," can find themselves just a functioning religious professional. Who has time to pray when they're running around like a chicken with its head cut off?

In fact, there's a whole niche in the church-publishing industry that focuses on clergy burnout. More than a few trees have given their lives for books counseling clergy how to stay connected to God, how to keep their spiritual lives healthy in the midst of work. There are seminars and conventions teaching ministers how to keep their focus on God, discipline their prayer life, stay spiritual. And many clergy see Spiritual directors, people who help other believers stay focused on their spiritual journey.

All of this is just to say that no one is immune from the busy-ness and bustle of the world. Whoever we are, wherever we are in our faith journey, and whatever sort of work we find ourselves doing, everyone can become "worried and distracted by many things." In fact, perhaps it's when we engage in some sort of ministry that it's more likely to happen. We know we're up to something good, and that it's important, and that it needs doing now; it's probably that much easier to forget to take the time to pray, or to take a mental step back from our anxiety to ask God's presence in our work.

Take Martha, for instance. Martha is busy and preoccupied, to be sure, but she's doing good. This isn't a self-serving rat-race, or a petty scrabbling after riches, that she's engaged in; she's welcoming and serving Jesus himself. That almost sounds like the textbook definition of doing good to me-- serving Christ to the best of one's abilities.

Before we go much further, let's give Martha her props. What she's doing is good. She's serving Jesus Christ. That's good. But there is a greater good right in front of her: Jesus himself. Somehow, all the "good host" activities she's up to, getting out the fine china and refreshing his drink and getting the hors d'oeuvres out of the oven, all of this is distancing her from Jesus himself.

That's the problem: not that she's serving Jesus, but that her service is actually keeping her from truly being with Jesus, and from listening to him. Notice that she actually interrupts Jesus to complain about her sister's behavior! Mary was listening to Jesus when Martha comes up to them, so Martha is probably interrupting.

The problem isn't one of activity, but attention. Martha is "worried and distracted" away from paying attention to Jesus. No matter that what she is busy with is good-- showing generous hospitality-- she is turning away from a greater good towards a lesser good. It is like turning from light of a lamp to a piece of paper is it illuminating.

In today's Epistle, Paul says that "Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." All things are already being reconciled to God through Christ. As Christ's body, the Church, we take part in that reconciling action-- but first we ourselves are reconciled to God.

But we don't even have to choose. It's not an either/or proposition. We are called to both: Love God and do good. We just have to remember to do them in that order-- "Love God and do good." It's when we try it the other way around-- "Do good, and love God when things slow down," that we get into trouble. First, love God. This is the better part Mary chooses, and it will not be taken away from us.

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