Why do they keep listening?

In my sermon yesterday, I made the assertion that Jesus was not stupid.  This brought about a few chuckles, probably because the idea of Jesus not being the smartest person in every room is absurd to many.  As a modern-day religious authority, I wish I could say that the Chief Priests and the Scribes weren’t stupid either, but based on the way things go in Matthew 21, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Their best question, the one they planned all night in an attempt to trap Jesus in blasphemy, was a weak noodle.  And then, as Jesus launches into a three parable tirade on how awful they are at leading the people of Israel into a full relationship with God, they just stand there slack jawed.  Why do they keep listening?

At the end of the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus makes a very pointed statement toward the religious power-that-be, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him: and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds (“metanoia” = repent) and believe him.”

Following the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, a particularly awful parable, Matthew tells us that they finally realized that he was speaking about them, but for fear of the crowds they did nothing.  Here’s where I really begin to wonder about these people.  I mean, they didn’t have to arrest him, but surely they could have turned around and walked away, but no, they stayed for yet another Parable.

Finally comes the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which we’ll hear on October 12th.  This is perhaps the harshest of the three and ends with people either dead or cast into outer darkness.  Finally, they figure out they have offices to retreat to and they go off to scheme some more, but seriously, why did they stay so long?  Just to give Jesus the chance to tell three particularly harsh parables?  Probably not.

Here’s what I think.  These guys are proud men.  They’ve worked hard to get to their place of prestige and they aren’t likely to give it away easily.  My gut tells me that they stick around for two conflicting reasons.  First, and probably foremost, they stay to save face.  If they turn and walk away with their tails between their legs, it gives Jesus all the momentum.  Second, and perhaps more sympathetically, they are heavily invested in the faith of Israel.  There must be some small part of them that wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah; some part deep in their bones that feels hope even as he speaks judgment against them.  Yes, Jesus is growing increasingly inconvenient for them, but the people are drawn to him and the people seem to have been right about John the Baptist.  Maybe, just maybe, they’ve found their hearts strangely warmed in Jesus’ words to them.  It won’t last, however.  Things are about to get much, much worse.  Yet for now, something keeps them listening.  I wonder what it was.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit.

Authority in a Church Full of Hypocrites – a sermon

Audio of yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it here.

When I was in seminary, I became involved in one of those heated debates that you only have when you’re in seminary.  We were trying to answer the question, “how long should a regular Sunday worship service last?”  In reality, there is no right answer to that question, unless you’re trying to get to the Cracker Barrel before the Baptists, but the one thing we could settle on was that an hour and fifteen minutes for a regular Sunday morning church service was just too long.  I had a theory that this was a function of our increasingly busy society.  I used to think that back in the good old days before the NFL was broadcast live on Sunday afternoons, nobody blinked at a church service lasting an hour and a half, or more.  In preparing for my Saint Paul’s 101 class, I learned that my theory was 100% wrong.

On August 9th of 1949, J.D. Wilson, then Vicar of Saint Paul’s, complained at a vestry meeting that very few men were showing up for Sunday services during the summer.  In fact, he said that on the previous Sunday only four men had shown up, and only one of them was actually a member!  Virgil Christensen, a faithful churchman and member of the Vestry, looked at his priest and proposed that if the services were shortened from an hour and fifteen minutes to last no more than an hour, it might help to get the men out.[1]  This was 1949, they heyday of the “Good Old Days.”  Boy was I wrong.  Mr. Wilson disagreed with Virgil, but the wider Church has come to follow his advice.  By and large these days, most Episcopal Congregations shoot for Sunday worship to last no more than an hour.  The people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary know this, and so they have made tough choices about cutting lessons to fit the allotted time.  Last week, rather than taking 10 minutes to read the whole story of Jonah, we got only the end, completely cut out of its context.  This week, our Gospel lesson opens with Jesus and the Chief Priests and Scribes already fighting with one another, but we have no idea why.

The 21st chapter of Matthew marks the beginning of Holy Week.  It starts with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  If you’ll recall, this grand entrance into the capital city was highly orchestrated by Jesus.  He planned the route, he set the day, and he had his disciples secure the donkey.  Crowds lined the streets as Jesus entered into town, laying down their coats and palm branches and crying out to Jesus as King and Lord, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Matthew tells us this parade came at the beginning of Passover week, the annual remembrance of God saving the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and it put “the whole city in turmoil.”

From there, Jesus rode his donkey straight to the Temple courtyard and began to drive out everyone.  He flipped over the tables of the money changers.  He cursed the sellers of sacrificial animals, claiming that they had turned God’s house into “a den of robbers.”  Then the blind and the lame came flooding into the Temple to be healed by Jesus and even the children shouted out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Unsurprisingly, the chief priests and the scribes were not happy.  As night fell on Sunday, they began to challenge him by asking, “Don’t you hear what these people are saying about you?  It is blasphemy!  Tell them to stop.”

Here’s where today’s lesson finally begins.  It is Monday morning, and Jesus and his disciples have made their way back to the Temple court.  Jesus had to know things weren’t going to go smoothly this morning, nevertheless, he took a seat in the Temple and began to teach the crowd that gathered about the coming of the Kingdom of God.  The Temple Council had probably been up all night trying to figure out what to do with Jesus.  They plotted and schemed and planned so that when he returned, they were ready with their best question to finally trap him in the charges of blasphemy.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  As the ruling voice of religion in Israel, they knew that they didn’t give Jesus the authority, and so just about any answer he could give will lead him right into their trap.  If he claims his authority from some Zealot Rabbi, they can turn him over to the Romans as a traitor.  If he claims his authority is from God, they can try him as a heretic.  Either way, they win.  What they didn’t expect was that Jesus would answer with a question of his own.

Jesus isn’t dumb.  He knows not to trust these people.  He knows that they’ve laid a trap to catch him, but He also knows that he’s been in control of this situation from the very beginning.  His response is certain to spring him from their trap, “First, let me ask you a question.  If you answer it, I’ll answer yours.  By what authority did John the Baptist baptize people?  Was it from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  When, for fear of the crowd, they don’t answer, Jesus doesn’t have to either, but that doesn’t mean he stops talking.  Jesus goes on to tell a parable about two sons.  The father approaches his first son and asks him to work in the vineyard.  He answers, “No,” but eventually does go out into the field to work.  The father then asks his second son to go out and work.  He answers, “Yes,” but never so much as lifts a finger to help out.

Which one did the will of the father?  Honestly, neither one.  The right thing to do would be to say “Yes” and mean it and do it.  Of course, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and so, though both have fallen short, the first son, the one who actually did something at least sort of fulfilled his Father’s wishes.  And what does any of this have to do with the authority of Jesus and, by extension, the authority of the Church that calls him Savior and Lord?  Well, authority comes not from words, but through actions.

The Chief Priests and Elders claimed the authority of God by means of their lineage, their education, and their piety, but their actions betrayed them as having said “Yes” to God but saying “No” to helping those whom God cares about: the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans.  Prostitutes and tax collectors had lives that looked they had said “No” to God, but when John the Baptist came calling, they responded with a resounding “Yes!”  Jesus had no lineage, he had very little education, and he was just a simple carpenter from Nazareth who hung out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers; the blind, the lame, widows and orphans.  From the perspective of the Temple, his life have looked like he had said, “No” to God but his actions showed a life of saying “Yes” and living “Yes” to his Father in heaven.

I’m not Jesus, which means I’m not perfect.  You aren’t Jesus, so naturally you aren’t perfect either.  Sometimes, we say “Yes” to God’s will for our lives and end up falling short.  Sometimes, we say “No thanks” to God’s dream for us, and end up doing amazing things anyway.  The Church is full of hypocrites, full of people who say one thing and do another.  Thankfully, there is always room for one more.  In the end, we are called to do our best to live lives that show what we’ve come to know about the Kingdom of God.  We gather for worship (that thanks to Virgil Christensen, lasts no more than an hour), we reach out to those in need: the poor, the outcast and the oppressed; and we take care of those who are dear to us: the sick and the mourning.  As a church full of hypocrites, we gain our authority when our actions speak louder than our words.  Amen.

[1] Vestry Minutes (August 9, 1949), p. 2.

What’s JBap Got to Do With It?

John the Baptist, who I often refer to as simply JBap, gets a whole lot of love in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary Cycle.  We hear about him at least three times between Advent 1 and Ash Wednesday.  His head-on-a-platter story is common fodder for early in the Season after Pentecost.  And here he is again this week, showing up in a story that seems to have nothing to do with him.  This is a story all about Jesus and his authority, but when the religious leadership challenges Jesus directly, he turns their attention to JBap.  As one who gets tired of hearing about John all the time, I mean how many times can we talk about his baptism and penchant for camel hair jackets, I spent most of the week asking myself, “What does JBap have to do with the authority of Jesus?”

It turns out, most everything.

As I’ve read through my usual sources, several of them have pointed out that John the Baptist wasn’t just a popular prophet in the time of Jesus, he was THE PROPHET who announced the coming of Jesus.  Those who took heed to John’s preaching were predisposed to become followers of Jesus.  Those who ignored his claims, as the religious authorities did, were those who were now balking at the message of God’s Kingdom that Jesus was preaching.  Unless one understood John as having the authority of God, there really was no reason to believe that Jesus had any authority either.  Jesus knew that.  The Chief Priests and Elders knew that.  And so, when Jesus turns their question around to JBap, the answer, though unspoken, is readily apparent.

Come January, I will probably be tired of all the JBap stuff, yet again, but maybe this year, I can listen with new ears to his message in the wilderness.  It is in preparing a pathway for the Lord that I’ll find a deeper understanding of the authority of Jesus.

From Where Does Authority Come?

A lifetime ago, back in March of 2003, SHW and I had just returned from our honeymoon and I was beginning a new job.  After graduating from college in May of 2002, she beat me to finding a job, so we moved to her Presbyterian bubble of a hometown in NWPA.  She moved back in with her parents, and I rented a house from them.  Jobs for fresh-faced business grads who were planning to leave for seminary in a couple of years weren’t easy to come by, so I began my post-college work as a server in a Red Lobster 30 minutes away.  As the wedding date drew near, I guess my father-in-law realized I wasn’t’ going away, so he offered me a job with his construction company and the fat-cat title of Business Manager.  I started right after the wedding, and spent most of the next nine months doing very little, if any, managing.  I had some responsibilities based on my title and job description, but the guys in the field didn’t care much about that.  They didn’t know me.  They didn’t have any reason to trust me.  I had absolutely no authority because they hadn’t given it to me, yet.

I still remember the first time one of them trusted me with a task.  A job required us to have an excavator close enough to a road that we needed some Jersey barriers for protection.  It was my job to find some.  I took that responsibility way too seriously, but it paid off.  Now when they called in from the field and I answered the phone, they didn’t ask for someone else, they told me what was up and let me help figure out what to do next.  Authority came as a result of relationship building and trust.  That’s where authority comes from.

The Chief Priests and Elders don’t trust Jesus.  They know they haven’t given him any authority to do the things he’s been doing.  They don’t see him as a possible Messiah.  They aren’t ready to claim him as the Son of David.  They sure as heck don’t think he should be messing with their well planned religious system.  And so they confront him.  “By whose authority are you doing these things?”  His Father had named him “my beloved Son” and had instructed Peter, James, and John to “listen to him” on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but just because somebody gives you a title, doesn’t mean you have any authority.

Jesus knows that.  He’s not stupid enough to say, “The LORD, my Father in heaven, has given me the authority.”  Instead, he turns the question around.  “Where did John’s authority come from?”  The chief priests and elders know the answer: John’s authority was ordained by God and confirmed by the people; but they sure aren’t going to say that out loud because they know what it implies.  Jesus’ authority was given by God, but it works because of his deeply incarnational relationships with people.   He gained authority by listening to their hurts, by teaching in a way that they could understand, by touching them even when they were considered unclean, and by healing them and making them whole.  True authority is not given, it is earned, and Jesus had earned his authority whether the powers-that-be wanted to admit it or not.

How’d we get here?

“By what authority are you doing these things?”  That’s the question the chief priests and elders have for Jesus as he enters the Temple on Monday morning.  We’ll have to deal with that question tomorrow as there is obviously more to this story than meets the eye.  Here is another one of those times where the lectionary doesn’t help us much by taking a story completely out of context.  We’ve jumped from the Parable of the Generous Landowner in Proper 20 to Monday in Holy Week in Proper 21.  Here’s a glimpse of what happened in between.

Western European Jesus in picture 2 will be offset by a Palm Sunday in Africa image here.

Rabbi Jesus came to town, riding on a donkey.  Stuck a palm branch in his hair, and they called him “Son of David.”  He then proceeded to enter the Temple, flip over the money changers’ tables, chase them all out with whips (in John’s account at least), and then he heals the blind the lame who come to him.  As the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the chief priests and scribes became incensed and asked him, “Do you hear what they are saying?”  Sunday ended with Jesus leaving them Temple Court in ruins as the religious powers-that-be scratched their heads and plotted against him.

Our Gospel lesson opens the next morning as Jesus and his disciples return to the Temple and once again encounter the chief priests and scribes.  The Temple Council had probably been up all night trying to figure out what to do with Jesus, all the while assuming that they’d probably never see him again.  They plotted and schemed and planned and when, to their surprise, he does show up, they’re ready with a question to trap him in blasphemy.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  As the ruling voice of religion in Israel, they know that they didn’t give Jesus the authority, and so just about any answer he gives will lead them right into their trap.

What they didn’t expect was that Jesus would answer with a question of his own.

Lives Worthy of the Gospel – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it below.

I love everything about baptism Sundays.  I think the white hangings we have here at Saint Paul’s are particularly beautiful.  I love this baptismal stole that was given to me by my friends at Saint James’ in Potomac, Maryland, where I worked while I was in seminary.  I love cute babies in frilly white dresses and parents and grandparents beaming with pride. I especially love those rare times when we’re baptizing an older child or an adult who has recently come to realize the power of God in their lives.  I love the pageantry of the ancient rite.  I love the hymns.  I really love it all, but if I were forced to pick my favorite part of baptism Sunday it would have to be the baptismal covenant.  A covenant is a special kind of contract that is designed to create an ongoing relationship between two people or groups.  The terms of the contract are important, but it is the relationship that really matters. We talk about marriage as being a covenant.  A bride and a groom make vows to one another and become a husband and a wife, creating a new thing called a family.

In the baptism service, a relationship is established between the newly baptized person and the family of God.  The five  promises of the Baptismal Covenant mark the special starting place in our relationship with God and with his Church.  As a reminder of our membership in the family, on baptism Sundays we all join in and renew our own Baptismal Covenant.  Even though we are only baptizing little Webb Davis at the nine o’clock service this morning, every one of us has the chance today to be reminded of the what it means to be a part of the family of God.

Sometimes I forget how much I love the baptismal covenant.  This week, amidst all of the stuff I was trying to get done, I almost forgot it completely.  It wasn’t until Thursday morning, as I sat at my desk asking God to give me something, anything, to preach about today, that I remembered the Baptismal Covenant at all.  It came to me in a very unexpected sort of way.  I had planned to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Generous Landowner.  I was going to talk about how God loves all of us.  Whether we are baptized at 5 hours, 5 days, 5 months, 5 years, or 105 years old, God welcomes us into the family with open arms and a loving embrace.

What got me on Thursday morning, however, were the words of Paul to the Church in Philippi, a church that was very young.  The Philippian church was struggling to understand how to be Christians without Paul there to teach them.  Paul, writing from prison, encourages the new Christians with a deceptively simple sentence, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  It got me thinking, “How do we live our lives in way that is worthy of the gospel?”  I came up with at least three different answers.

The first answer I thought of was that a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that is as far removed from the “things of this world” as possible. I grew up in Amish Country, complete with horse and buggies, straight pins instead of buttons on their clothing, and no power lines running to their homes.  The Amish have decided that a life worthy of the gospel means choosing the technology of the 18th century and eschewing new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as being too worldly.  Of course, they are an extreme example, but they are certainly not alone.  Some Southern Baptists have attempted to remove themselves from the things of this world by choosing to abstain from alcohol, card playing, and even dancing.  Some Episcopalians have tried to remove themselves from the things of this world by stubbornly maintaining a preference for vestments, gothic architecture, and organ music.  Since the definition of “things of this world” is so broad, I’m not convinced this is actually what Paul had in mind.

Then I thought that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of special people called “ascetics” who have taken this way of living a life worthy of the Gospel very seriously.  Some have lived in caves in the desert, some have stood atop a pole for years and years, many sold all they had and gave it to the poor, while still others took to living in communities of prayer and service to the poor.  I admire the ascetics and monastics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would have died out pretty quickly. At least a few Christians have to be engaged in society in order to share the Good News and propagate the faith.  I suspect that Paul might have had this extreme form of discipleship in mind for some, but probably not most of the Christians in Philippi.  There has to be a way for the regular Jane to live a life worthy of the Gospel.

Eventually, I began to think that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus and becoming “Red Letter Christians” by following the words of Jesus that were often printed in red in older translations of the Bible.  Jesus summed up how we should live our lives with two commandments.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to try to spell out what that looks like in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, with God’s help, to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” (1662 BCP).

In just a minute, we will all stand and once again promise that with God’s help, we’ll take our part as members of the family of God through study, prayer, and fellowship.  With God’s help, we’ll work to stay away from those things we shouldn’t be doing, and when we fall into sin, we’ll do our best to find our way back to God.  With God’s help, we’ll tell and show people about God’s love for them.  With God’s help, we’ll serve those in need in our neighborhoods, in our city, and in the wider world.  With God’s help, we’ll look at everyone we meet as a child of God who is worthy of God’s love and our love.

It is through the living out of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant that we are able to pattern our lives after the Gospel, to work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, and to fulfill Jesus’ commandments to love God and love our neighbor.  And it is through our example that little Webb and the children of God of all ages will learn how to be disciples of Jesus.  I love baptism Sundays because they remind me that no matter how old we are and no matter how long we’ve been at it, following Jesus isn’t easy and we shouldn’t try to go it alone.  Living our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel is all but impossible, but with God’s help, and the support of our church family, anything and everything is possible.  Amen.

A Life Worthy of the Gospel

In yesterday’s post, I argued that judging others, that is, looking upon others with an evil eye, is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This morning, as I reread the lessons, I was drawn to Paul’s words to the Philippians that they should live their lives in “a manner worthy of Gospel.”  As with any admonition in the Pauline corpus, there are several different ways to read this.

A life worthy of the Gospel may mean a life removed from the things of this world.  The Amish have sort of done this by arbitrarily choosing the technology of the 18th century as ordained by God and new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as too worldly.  Some Southern Baptists have done this by choosing to abstain from alcohol, dancing, pre-marital sex, and card playing.  Some Episcopalians have done this by maintaining a preference for Anglican Chant and organ music while abstaining from extemporaneous prayers.  Since the definitions of “things of this world” are so vague, I’m not convinced this is what Paul had in mind.

Ice Machines and F-250s are a bit worldly for me.

A life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of ascetics who have taken this understanding very seriously.  Some lived in caves in the desert, some stood atop a pole for decades, some sold all they had and gave it to the poor, some were tithed by their parents to a monastery at a young age.  I admire the ascetics and mystics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would died out pretty quickly since Christian loins need to produce Christian children and/or Christians must be engaged in society and share the Good News in order to propagate the faith.

It is hard to share the Gospel when you keep adding height to your tower to avoid the people who have come to see you.

A life worthy of the Gospel might mean living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus, or as Tony Campolo might say, being a “Red Letter Christian” by following the words of Jesus (often printed in red in older translations).  Jesus summed it up by saying that we should love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to expand upon that in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” with God’s help (1662 BCP).  It is through the living out of the virtues listed in the Baptismal Covenant that we pattern our lives after the Gospel and work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.  That, to me, is how we live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel.

Celebrant      Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant     Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human

People          I will, with God’s help.

Evil Eye

There is perhaps no better evil eye than that of the Janitor from Scrubs.

I raise this, partly because SHW and I have been working our way through the whole series on dvd as of late, but mostly because of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson wherein our faithful translators have attempted to capture the meaning of a Greek figure of speech that English probably wasn’t meant to capture.

Toward the end of the parable, as the landowner is confronting the grumbling laborers, he says to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  If we can be honest with each other for just a moment, this is probably the end of Jesus’ dealing with this matter and the whole “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” part is probably a Matthean addition to created the bookend he’s looking for rhetorically.  If this is the end of the lesson from Jesus, it really does end with an interesting challenge, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  I dealt with that yesterday.

What I find even more interesting is what the Greek has Jesus actually saying, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  John R. Donahue, SJ picks up on this little gem in his The Gospel in Parable, noting that for Matthew, the eye bit is something of a recurring theme.  “The final words of the owner, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” underscores the defect in these servants.  Since in Matthew “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22) and “if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (5:29), these servants allow their attitude to “darken” their whole way of viewing the world.  What began as an act of goodness to them and unfolded as an act of generosity to others blinded them to the goodness of the owner and the good fortune of others” (82-83).

When we begin to make judgements about what we think others deserve, we look upon them with an evil eye.  That evil eye doesn’t really have any negative effect on the other, but rather, it permeates our own hearts with the darkness of envy.  Remember that Jesus has told this parable in response to Peter’s question about what kind of reward the disciples were going to get for having given up everything to follow Jesus.  Remember that Peter asks that question in response to Jesus’ assertion that though it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle.  Remember that Jesus says that because the rich young man walks away sad rather than becoming a disciple.  And remember that the rich young man walks away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.  Got all that?

Peter didn’t want there to be any chance that that rich young man, who refused to give up his opulence, could get in to the kingdom of heaven.  And on the off chance he did, since everything is possible for God, Peter wanted to be sure that the disciples would end up better of than that guy.  Peter’s eye had become evil, and Jesus let him know about it.  He saved him the indignity of cutting it out, and instead told a parable inviting Peter to look upon the kingdom of heaven in a new way.  There are no winners and losers, no firsts and last, just beloved children who have been graciously received in through the generosity of the Father.

Hildegard of Bingen – a homily

Today the Church remembers Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, a theologian, a composer, a playwright, a healer, and one of the preeminent mystics in Christian history.  Conveniently for me, we will also be discussing Hildegard at Draughting Theology this evening, so I only have to study one saint this week, and I’m glad for that because Hildegard’s life would take a lifetime comprehend.  Faithful to her homework, Barbara G. asked me on Monday night about this term, mystic.  She said she had tried to look up its meaning, but was left more confused than when she started.  She’s not alone.  Evelyn Underhill, arguably the greatest scholar of mysticism ever, wrote in her book Practical Mysticism that when she is asked “What is mysticism?” she’ll often point people to “the writings of the mystics themselves, and to other works in which this question appears to be answered and they reply that such books are wholly incomprehensible to them.”[1]  She also notes that there are plenty of “self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer this question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than resolve the obscurity… The asker will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means having vision, performing conjuring tricks, leading idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being ‘in tune with the infinite.’  He will discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas –sometimes from all morality – and at the same time that it is very superstitious.”[2]  Finally, she does her best to define mysticism as “the art of union with Reality [capital R].”[3]  I was pretty unsatisfied with that definition until I went back to the lessons appointed for the Feast of Hildegard and realized that perhaps John 3:16 and 17 makes it all make sense.

At first blush, “union with Reality [capital R]” is about as ethereal a definition there is, but it is, in some way like the fascination with John 3:16.  “For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Microsoft Word tells me that that’s not even a sentence.  This fragment starts with a conjunction and ends with eternal life, and spends all of its time up in the clouds.  We love the idea of God sending his Son.  We think eternal life is pretty great.   But we honestly have no idea what it means.  Kind of like seeking “union with Reality [capital R].”

And yet, as we learn more about the life of Hildegard of Bingen, we realize that while she was prone to visions and spent almost all of her 81 years living in a Monastery, she was, in reality [lowercase r] not a head in the clouds sort of person.  Hildegard was very much interested in the nitty gritty of everyday life.  She wrote two books on the pharmacology of plants.  She studied natural science.  She wrote music and plays and helped women deal with women’s health issues.  She was as interested in the dirt of the earth as she was with the clouds of heaven.  For all the whispyness of John 3:16, true mysticism always couples it with verse 17.  After all, Reality (capital R) is about those things that are really real.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Mysticism isn’t about removal from the earth, but about Reality [capital R] that is the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Some of you may be mystics.  I know that I am not, but I’m thankful for the witness of Hildegard of Bingen who reminds me that faith in Jesus Christ isn’t just about the great beyond, but it calls us to live abundant lives here in the nitty gritty of the everyday.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] P. 5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

When God’s Grace Disappoints Us

Jonah is pissed off.  After all, he knew this was going to happen.  He knew God was gracious and full of compassion.  How he knew that the fish slapping people of Nineveh were going to repent and change their ways, I don’t know, but he knew it.  He knew that all of his effort to travel to Nineveh to see these people get smote by a rain of fire was going to be for naught.  He tried to avoid it, but God wouldn’t let him off the hook.  And now, after storms and fish bellies and long a really long walk in the desert, here he sits, overlooking the city of Nineveh, which is very much not being destroyed by the angry hand of God, and Jonah is pissed off.

Of course, Jonah isn’t alone.  He is perhaps the archetype of human interaction with God.  At one time or another in our lives, God’s grace is going to disappoint us.  We’ll be disappointed in other ways, no doubt.  Our favorite sports team won’t win the big game.  Our friends’ marriage will crash and burn.  The child we prayed for will die of cancer.  The parish church of our ancestry will close.  We’ll be disappointed in those ways often, but they tend to not make us quite as angry as when God’s grace overflows upon those who we’ve determined should be on the outside looking in.

This is, of course, the whole premise behind Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Landowner.  “Are you envious because I am generous?” or more literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?” or more to the point of this post “Are you ticked because of my graciousness?”  If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us can name plenty of people who we hope are outside of God’s redeeming grace.  I don’t want to share heaven with Mark Driscoll or Joel Osteen any more than they want to share it with me, but alas, God loves them even in their bad theology as much as he loves me in mine.

Our disappointment in God’s grace assumes that we deserve it while other don’t, which is, of course, not true.  Jonah didn’t deserve God’s grace, he ran and hid instead of following God’s will.  The workers hired at 6am didn’t deserve God’s grace, they moaned and groaned at the landowner’s generosity.  I don’t deserve God’s grace because I name people who I don’t want to share heaven with in blog posts.  And yet, God extends his grace to each of us sinners while also being merciful to the people of Ninveh, the workers hired at 5pm, and any number of people who I cold squabble with theologically.  Our disappointment in God’s grace is a reminder that God loves even us.  Which, when it comes right down to it, is just as shocking as his decision to spare the people of Nineveh.