The Church-Idea for an Episcopal Moment

As you might have noticed, I didn’t have a chance to blog today.  That is because I defended my thesis for my Doctor of Ministry Degree at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee) at 11am today.  I’m glad to say that process went well, and after making a few corrections and one small addition, something close to a final copy is ready for printing.

Over the years, many of you have prayed for me in this process.  When I shared my Thesis Proposal, you encouraged me.  As I’ve written, you’ve dealt with how my reading of William Reed Huntington and Brian McLaren, among others, have forever influenced how I see the Church and, as a result, read the Bible.  Thank you.

Finally, for the few of you who asked, here is a PDF of the final draft. The Church-Idea for an Episcopal Moment – Final.

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What do people say about you?

It is Prodigal Son week!!!! The lessons are set up perfectly to preach this well known and well worn story.  A short, non sequitur, Old Testament lesson and a decent, but easily ignored snippet from Paul, clearly indicate that the brains behind the RCL would like for us to focus our attention on the Prodigal Son.  I promise that I’ll obey the great RCL hive mind as the week goes on, but first, my attention this morning is focused on the lead up to the story.

By this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is drawing quite a crowd to him.  Many in that crowd are faithful Jews, living out their relationship with God as best they know how.  Some, however are sinners, with others are generally undesirable.  It seems to be that latter group that speaks up in Sunday’s lesson, as the Pharisees and scribes mummer aloud, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

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Mr. Robertson, of Robertson’s Word Pictures (published 1930), notes that the verb “welcome” is constructed such that this is a habit of Jesus.  One might go further to say that it is one of his distinguishing characteristics.  Jesus is in the business of welcoming and eating with sinners.  That might not seem unsettling to us today, but in the Jewish culture of 1st century Palestine, this was simply not done.  Cleanliness was next to Godliness, and hanging out with sinners made cleanliness nigh impossible.  Sharing a meal with them was even worse; as sharing a meal was one of the most intimate encounters one could have with another person.  To share a meal, with the traditional sharing of bowls and cups, made it certain that one who was clean, is now very much not so any longer.

It is out of those charges that Jesus tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son/Father/God.  He doesn’t fight the charges, but rather embraces them as sign and symbol of his calling.  Jesus says, in effect, “Yes, this is what I’m about: welcoming and eating with sinners.”  Would that such a charge could be made of me, which got me wondering, what do people say about me?  What do people say about you?

Everything Jesus did was indicative of his status as the Son of God.  I’m certain that not everything I do shows off my status as a disciple, as an inheritor of the Kingdom, as a Christian.  I wonder how often people look at me and think, “what a hypocrite”?  How often do they see Christ in me?  When do they see me as anything different from the normal young professional, struggling to keep family, faith, work, and everything else in the right order?  Does my desire for the Kingdom show with regularity in the way I live my life?  I certainly hope so, and thank God for forgiveness when it doesn’t.

The Power of “I Am”

What God was asking of Moses at the burning bush was nothing short of a suicide mission.  Go to the Pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to “Let my people go.”  This task would have been difficult enough if Pharaoh was a plantation owner and the Hebrews were a dozen or so slaves, but to ask Pharaoh, the King of all Egypt, to give up more than a million slaves, on whose backs the entire economy of Egypt rested?  You’d have an easier time convincing a sitting American President to deport all the undocumented laborers who ensure our cheap houses and $0.99 heads of lettuce.  As one might guess, Moses is unsure of the possibility of success.  His fear isn’t just of Pharaoh, but of the more than one million Hebrews who only knew the life of slavery.  When they asked, “Under whose authority do you do this?” What was Moses to answer?

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Tell them “I Am” sent you.

The name God gave Moses to drop is a peculiar one.  In time, the name of God would become so sacred, that the four letter word I’ve posted above is not to be said aloud in the Jewish tradition.  When a reader comes to this word, which is transliterated at YHWH, they say, “Elohim” instead.  More peculiar than that, the name God gives is a verb.  Not even Kanye and Kim named their children a verb.  And it isn’t just any type of verb, but an imperfect verb, indicating an incomplete or ongoing action.  God wasn’t, God is.

In the course of human history, the imperfect verbiness of God will prove quite helpful.  When Moses and Pharaoh are going back and forth through the course of ten plagues, it is nice for Moses to know that “I am” is with him.  When the people of Israel have their backs on the Red Sea while the Egyptian army barrels down on them, there is some comfort in “I am” standing there too.  Forty years in the wilderness, the walls of Jericho, the Judges, Kings, exiles, and even Roman occupation are made a little more bearable because “I am” continues to be.  Even as Jesus hangs on the cross, seemingly abandoned by everyone he has ever loved, feeling forsaken by the Father himself, “I am” is still there.

This is good news for those of us who continue to walk in the Way of discipleship.  Nobody ever said life was going to be easy.  There will be financial pressures, health issues, family quarrels, natural disasters, and any number of other stresses in life when things might feel lost, when God might seem far away, when hope might be dwindling.  In those moments, whether you believe it or not, “I am” is there, holding you as a hen protects her brood under her wings, for God is an imperfect verb, constantly active, and never ending.  That’s the power of “I am.”

Life is more than we can handle

Allow me a moment of confession.  With all of yesterday’s busyness, I didn’t take the time to read all four lessons for Lent 3C.  I read the story from Exodus 3, wrote a blog post, and moved on to the next thing.  So it was, with great surprise, that I realized that the Lectionary pairs 1 Cor 10:1-13, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” with Luke 13:1-9, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  It will take me at least 24 hours to process how I will handle the glaring inconsistencies between Paul’s word to the church in Corinth and Jesus’ word to the anxious crowd.  I mean, yikes! Instead, today I’ll deal with the greater offense of 1 Corinthians 10: the awful paraphrase of verse 13, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

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Let’s be real clear, most of the time life is more than we can handle.  What Paul is talking about in this oft-misquoted line isn’t the sufferings of this life, but the temptations away from God’s kingdom.  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time those temptations are too much to handle as well, which is why the second half of that verse is the most important part.

“… with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

When life and all of its temptations become more than we can handle, some call that Monday, God is there in the midst of it providing refuge from the storm.  “God won’t give you more than you can handle” sounds an awful lot like “suck it up buttercup.”  “God is here to help you withstand temptation and to offer grace if and when you fail” is much better news, if you ask me.  So stop with the nonsensical, guilt inducing, pseudo-supportive, Joel-Osteen-Bad-Exegesis-Self-Help-Mumbo-Jumbo, and instead share the Good news of God’s steadfast love that exists even when life is just too much to handle.

The More Excellent Way – a reprise

Last week, I wrote a post imploring preachers everywhere to find a place for 1 Cor 12:31b.  After two weeks of hearing how Paul handled a church tearing itself apart over whose gifts were more important, it seems important that we hear how he transitions for bitter infighting to his great love hymn.  “I will show you a more excellent way,” he writes. There is not shortage of memes dealing with the word excellent. Having used the classic late-80s film, Bill and Ted’s Excellent adventure last week, I decided to forego Wayne’s World as it is another buddy comedy, and will instead use a show that defined my adolescent years.

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The way that Paul shows the Corinthian church isn’t the way of greed that Mr. Burns would follow.  Instead, it is the way of love.  As I researched for Sunday’s sermon, I came across Brian Petersen’s commentary in which he writes these words: “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter.”  As I read those words, I began to realize that because God is love, love is an end unto itself.  Love is its own telos, and when we love our neighbor in the way that Paul describes; when we agape love our neighbor by showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us.  We bring the kingdom of God to earth when we love one another.

No doubt, that is a more excellent way.  It is a way that brings heaven to earth.  It is a way that, if only for a moment, brings the not yet into the already.  It is a way of realized eschatology, an apocalyptic vision of the age to come that isn’t full of firey skies and tribulation, but is a model of the perfect love that has existed within the Trinity of God from before creation.  This way is prefect.

The Extremes of Love

Every third year, on Proper 23B, we hear the story of Jesus and the rich young man.  You are probably familiar with the story, but as a reminder, a young man approaches Jesus wishing to become a disciple.  After a brief back-and-forth on what that actually means, Jesus invites him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  The young man leaves disheartened; Mark tells us it is because “he had many possessions.”  Every third year, on Proper 23B, preachers wring their hands about whether or not this requirement was specific to that which was holding this particular person back or the more frightening option, that Jesus was thinking this was a requirement of everyone who followed him.

The latter can easily be argued based on how Jesus’ disciples are  called in Mark’s Gospel.  Andrew, Simon Peter, James, John, and Levi all drop everything: job, family, inheritance, and presumably wealth; in order to follow him.  The former often gets argued based on gut feeling – a feeling that often aligns with the American Dream of getting money and buying stuff, which is less than convincing in the Kingdom politics.  As one who lives in a comfortable home, drives a comfortable car, and enjoys the comforts of good food, decent clothes, and the occasional Apple product, all while giving more than tithe to the building of the Kingdom, I find myself stuck in the dissonance between these two arguments.  I want to think that I’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus, but I know that there is some decent justification happening on the side.

That is, until this morning.  As I read Paul’s great love poem from 1 Corinthians 13, I noticed something I had never seen before.  Paul begins his great sonnet by listing the extremes of the faith life: speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels; understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge; having all faith; giving up all possessionsand handing over the body.  Paul writes that he could take the life of discipleship to its farthest extremes, but without love, it would be useless.  Giving up all possessions makes that list of extremes, which leads me to think that this type of living was being discussed in Paul’s day.  Some must have been suggesting that all disciples called to sell everything and give it to the poor, while others, presumably those who were beginning to realize that Jesus probably wasn’t coming back tomorrow and plans had to be made to sustain the fledgling community that was following the Way, were arguing for a more modest stewardship plan.

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Everyone loves a good faux needlepoint.

Paul suggests that even those who live at the extremes of the life of faith, if they don’t have love, their fruit is rotten.  By including it on this list, the call to sell everything seems to fall into the category of optional observances.  That is to say, it isn’t the rule of faith, but rather the exception.  The rule of faith, at least as Paul sees it here in 1 Corinthians 13, is the extreme of love, about which I will write more in the days to come.

But what should I proclaim?

Implicitly, we all understand that evangelism is a part of life in the Church, but no matter how much we understand that point, there is a nagging part of most of us that says, “no thanks.”  Some balk at the idea of evangelism because it is a word that carries a lot of baggage.  “I don’t want to beat somebody up with the Bible,” they think, “So I’m better off not saying anything.”  I suppose if you want the prevailing Christian narrative to be one of exclusion, anger, fear, or worse yet, a prosperity gospel, then this way of thinking works very well.  Of course, I don’t suppose most Episcopalians would be keen on allowing the Religious Right to have the final say on what it means to follow Jesus.  Maybe we ought to get about the business of evangelism.

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Some are less focused on the negative connotations that seem to come with sharing the hope that is in us, and instead worry about not having the right words to say.  They hear the Collect for Epiphany 3 and think “But what should I proclaim?”  In a world that honors intellectual assent over just about everything else, this is a reasonable concern.  We worry that our argument won’t be convincing.  We worry that their question of theodicy (ex. why do bad things happen to good people) will leave us speechless.  We worry that the intricacies of the Trinity or atonement theory or same-sex marriage will make us make Jesus look bad.

What if I told you not to worry about all that stuff?  Maybe evangelism isn’t about convincing someone’s head that Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and THE life.  Maybe evangelism is showing someone how following Jesus has helped you find the truth-filled way to life abundant.  Maybe the author of 1st Peter was on to something when he encouraged the church in diaspora to “always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you.”  Hope isn’t an intellectual concept, it is a matter of the heart.  Hope is about story telling not logical debate.  Hope is about TEH FEELZ.

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Once you’ve shared how Jesus has made a difference in your life, then maybe you’ll need to expand on some of the deeper questions of the life of discipleship.  For that eventuality, I suggest following the example of Jesus’ first sermon, which we’ll hear read on Sunday.  Following Jesus is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  You’ll be surprised how once a relationship is established, the deeper questions of theodicy, theology, and apologetics don’t seem so insurmountable.  Share your story.  Share the love of God with a friend or neighbor, and let God handle the rest.

JBap’s Holistic Discipleship

In a post of the Living Church’s blogsite, the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Dan Martins published a post that utilized one’s preference for or against Mel Gibson’s epic, The Passion of the Christ, as a litmus test for whether one would fall on the side of Christianity as a social justice movement or oppositely, at least a the Bishop of Springfield sees it, Christianity as a global operation to save souls.  Yesterday, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Megan Castellan, used none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer a strong critique of Bishop Martin’s dualistic worldview.  I strongly encourage you to read her post, as it is most assuredly better than this one.

What strikes me as odd in the Bishop’s article, is that I can’t find my own place in his dualistic world.  I didn’t like The Passion of the Christ, not because I don’t think that Jesus’ sacrifice is the lynch pin in salvation history, and not because it has the theological nuance of Thor’s hammer, but because the Good Lord did not bless me with the spiritual gift of a strong stomach.  Rarely do I watch a movie that includes graphic violence, not out of some moral repugnance, but a more physical one.  In fact, I planned to never see The Passion of the Christ on just those grounds, but when the Presbyterian youth pastor asks you to join his youth group’s discussion on it because “you’re an Episcopalian who has walked the Stations of the Cross and maybe can explain the extra-biblical bits,” you feel compelled to oblige.

Based on my reason for disliking The Passion of the Christ, am I supposed to all about social justice or evangelism?  Thankfully, as I re-read Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I realized that I have none other than John the Baptist to point to as an example of a holistic discipleship that allows for both.  You’ll recall that in the Gospel lesson for Advent 2, we heard JBap proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This JBap would have loved The Passion of the Christ (if it wasn’t about the brutal death of his cousin, of course) because he is focused on the need for atonement in the lives of human beings, or what the Prayer Book calls “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  Fast-forward to this Sunday, and we hear the crowd responding to JBap’s proclamation by asking: “What then should we do?”

Note that JBap doesn’t take the crowd down Romans’ Road in search of a conversion experience, but rather, he offers practical advice of how disciples of the Kingdom should live: “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food to eat, share.”  In Bishop Martin’s dichotomy, this JBap wouldn’t have been impressed with The Passion of the Christ, choosing instead to focus on the politics of the Kingdom, or as the Prayer Book calls it, “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.”

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Both are true to who John the Baptist was and what he taught because the reality is that evangelism and social justice are both at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of the Kingdom.  John is essentially proclaiming the need to be born again and then describing what the new life looks like.  Despite what Bishop Martins (from which he later retreats, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, but let’s be fair, it is a dualism held by many on the progressive side of the debates of yore as well) posits, the discipleship we learn from none other than John the Baptist calls us to believe that both the conversion of self and the conversion of the whole world are important. As followers of Jesus, we are to proclaim him as exemplar of the faith in the fullness of the Incarnation: his life, his death, and his resurrection.

We are sorely hindered

On June 20, 2012, I wrote one of my most popular blogposts ever.  It didn’t go viral, like my “Why I’m grieving election day” post, but over the years, “Fear, not Doubt is the opposite for faith” has had a strong, steady readership.  This has become increasingly true over the past few months as average views per day are rising, and I think it may have something to do with Donald Trump and his rhetoric of fear that is resonating with not a few Americans.  I suspect that no matter what I write here, my three year-old post on fear will probably be in the top two for today’s statistics.

What causes tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of Americans who claim to be disciples of Jesus and guardians of the Constitution to applaud and cheer when Donald Trump suggests that we put a religious test on anyone who would like to enter this country, in order to keep any new Muslims from entering?  The answer is as simple as it is condemning, we are, as the Collect for Advent 3 puts it, “sorely hindred by our sins.”  This is especially true of our fears.  Fear has caused a great many otherwise faithful disciples to give up the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God loves his whole creation so much that he sent his only Son not to condemn it, but to save every part of it, and instead embrace the false idols of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate.

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I don’t use that word, idol, lightly.  It is a bold claim to suggest that others have chosen to walk in sin.  The log in my own eye is huge.  My sins are as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I daily seek forgiveness for them.  I understand that what I am writing is difficult, and yet, as a Priest of the Church, I say it with conviction because I am confident that fear and hate are the antithesis of the Gospel.

This coming Sunday, Advent 3, is known as Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice.”  As the initial darkness of the Advent wreath becomes more than half-light, we pause in the midst of all the busyness, all the stress, all the craziness going on all around us and choose to rejoice in the saving love of God.  We hear the words of Paul, calling the disciples in Philippi to give up worry, and with thanksgiving, to make their requests known to God.  Advent 3 is one of the rare times when we don’t pray together from the Psalms, but rather we join in the ancient practice of the Canticles, singing other songs from Scripture, songs that have been sung since the first centuries of the Church.

On this particular Sunday, our song will be a bold claim against fear, first made by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as the Assyrian army made its slow but steady march toward the south and west:

“Surely, it is God who saves me; * I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, * and he will be my Savior.”

The promise of Isaiah to the people of Israel doesn’t come with closed boarders and anxiety, but in sure faith in the one who created everything that is.  Unfortunately for the people of Israel, they too were sorely hindered by fear, and back-room deals by panicked leaders lead to their destruction.  As people of faith, we have a choice to make in this increasingly important moment.  We can choose to be sorely hindered by our sins, to live in fear, and to make decisions based on maintaining our own self-interests.  Or, we can choose to trust in God, to move beyond our fears, and to reach out in love to all who are lost and hurting.  Simply put, we can choose to love our neighbors, no matter their color or creed.

Choosing love is risky, even scary at times.  It is frightening to give away your extra coat.  It is risky to offer to others the food in your pantry.  We might get taken advantage of.  Under the circumstances, we might even get hurt, but to choose love over fear is to choose the peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that comes from God alone, a peace that is given as grace, if we could only find it buried beneath the fear in our hearts.

We are sorely hindered by our sins, O Lord, especially our fears.  Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us that we might delight in your loving will and walk in your loving way all the days of our lives.

Pure and Blameless

Another week of Advent, and another opportunity to preach an Epistle lesson that is full of joy rather than doom and gloom.  In fact, thanks to the RCL’s decision to keep the introduction of JBap short, other than an almost sidebar reference in the Gospel lesson, you don’t have much of a chance to preach repentance at all on Advent 2C.  As you might guess from my constant complaining about Advent, this doesn’t bother me much.  Still, if I were preaching both Advent 2 and 3 in Year C, I’d save my JBap sermon for next week and focus on Paul’s joy for the Church in Philippi.

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One of the chief complaints about Paul’s letters is that they are overly moralistic and, as such, they are heavily dependent on time and place.  We hear this often in the conversation around human sexuality, especially the three of “Those 7 References” that occur in the Pauline Corpus.  While this is probably a fair critique of the way Paul gets used in contemporary Christianity, I’m not sure that it is really Paul’s fault.  In fact, while Paul did spend considerable time calling the early Christians to live lives worthy of the Gospel, his focus wasn’t so much on self-sanctification, but on the power of Jesus at work in the lives of believers.  We get a glimpse into that hope in Sunday’s lesson from Philippians 1.

While it is true that Paul calls the Philippian Christians to lives that are “pure and blameless,” he makes no mention of a moral code of discipleship.  There is no law in his call to sanctification, save the law that Jesus gave, “that you love one another.”  For Paul, the key to living lives that are pure and blameless is living lives of love.

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:9-11

By modeling Christ’s life of love for the world and following his commandment of love for our neighbor that our lives our changed.  Sanctification doesn’t come by beating the sin out of ourselves, but by living lives of love empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will become pure and blameless as the sinful desires of our hearts slowly melt away.  Discipleship, or as the Season of Advent would have me say it, being ready for the return of Christ, need not be about following a strict codes of ethics.  Instead, if we choose to live lives that overflow with love, the moral life will naturally follow.