A Failure to Encourage

In yesterday’s post, I imagined what it might look like if we followed the advice of the author of Hebrews and made a habit of getting together, i.e. showing up at church on Sunday.  In seminary, we learned that 90% of ministry is simply showing up, but what about the other 10%?  Our author goes on to describe the antithesis of “neglecting to get together” as “encouraging one another.”  Like his admonition to show up, this is sound advice that the author is giving his community, and by extension, us: sound advice that we fail to follow.

You see, Christianity has a huge, self-inflicted, PR problem.  Christians tend to be awful to one another.  Take, for example, this week’s 24 hour news cycle, social media, over-reaction du jour:

The Starbucks Red Cup Catastrophe of 2015!

If you want to see what a failure to encourage looks like, then follow the conversation thread around Starbucks decision to use plain red cups this (ridiculously extended) holiday season.  Here’s how every one of these self-inflicted wounds happens, be it Gene Robinson in 2003 or red cups in 2015.

  1. Something happens.  In this case, it was the launch of Starbucks’ annual holiday cup, this time with no symbols, no patterns, nothing but the green Starbucks logo on a plain red cup.
  2. Someone gets offended.  Here it was (allegedly) conservative Christians who saw it as another salvo in the War on Christmas™ and (again allegedly) called for boycotts and protests.
  3. Some responds. Liberal Christians began to talk smugly about the foolishness of their brothers and sisters in Christ: suggesting that they had their head in the sand about the bigger problems we face.
     Adoption seemed to be a favorite meme this time around.
  4. Someone else responds.  Moderate Christians took to the airwaves to self-righteously decry the smug response of the liberal Christians and point out how it would have been better to stay out of the fray at all.
  5. Steve writes a blog post.  Here I am, typing with righteous indignation about the self-righteous moderates venting about the smug liberals who are frustrated at the offended conservatives.
  6. Jesus loses.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks on as Christians fail miserably at encouragement by gutting each other as foolish, smug, self-righteous jack asses and say, “Can you believe the hypocrisy of those who claim to follow Jesus?”  The task of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes exponentially more difficult every time we fall in to this unfortunate and predictable pattern.

So what should we do instead?  Just as we need to relearn the habit of regular worship attendance, we need to also reclaim the habit of encouraging one another.  As James puts it in his letter, we need to learn to act with gentleness born of wisdom.  That is to say, we need to learn to stop and think before we react and speak.  We need to resist the temptation, that comes straight from the pit of hell, to look down our noses at our sister and brother in Christ.  We need to remember that the other we are fixing to disparage is a beloved child of God, deserving of our encouragement, care, and compassion – a neighbor whom we are commanded to love.  Encouraging one another might only be 10% of the job, but it has a huge impact on how the world sees us.  Let’s always err on the side of love.

Do not be Afraid

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid…”

The phrase “do not be afraid” appears quite often in the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments.  It is quite rare, however, for those words to be spoken by a human being.  The first such occurrence happens in Genesis 35:17 when Rachel’s midwife tell her to “do not be afraid” just before she died during the birth of Benjamin, who she named Ben-oui which means “son of my sorrow.”  Later in Genesis, as Joseph forgives his brothers for what they did to him, he admonishes them to “have no fear” (Genesis 50:19, 21).  Twice, Moses speaks to a terrified Hebrew people.  He tells them, “do not be afraid” on the edge of the Red Sea the Egyptian army rapidly approaches (Exodus 14:13).  Later, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people are convinced that hearing the voice of God will be their end, but Moses assures them, “Do not be afraid” (Exodus 20:20).

In Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson, we once again hear these words, this time from the lips of the prophet Elijah to the Widow at Zerephath.  Mind you, we’re in the midst of a three-year long drought that Elijah predicted.  The creeks are dried up, the crops are failing in the fields, and the stockpiles of flour and oil are at critically low levels.  In her own words, this woman is preparing one last meal for her and her son.  Food supplies might be critically low, but fear is in abundance as Elijah rolls into town looking for a nosh, and he has the audacity to tell this woman, “Do not be afraid.”

That’s what God’s kingdom is all about: trust over fear.  I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, especially his rendering of “blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule” (Matthew 5:3, MSG).  The Widow was at the end of her rope and her grip was slipping fast when God’s messenger arrived with words of comfort and a miracle of abundance.  How often in your life have you found yourself nearing the end of your rope when all of a sudden just the right person appears on your doorstep?  Maybe it was an old friend with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.  Maybe it was a community of faith that let you have the space you needed to get right with God.  Maybe it was a priest or an LEM who brought you the bread and wine just when you needed it most.

As disciples of Jesus, we are sometimes called to be that comforting presence of God.  Other times, we might be in desperate need of it.  Thankfully, there are people like Rachel’s midwife, Joseph, Moses, and Elijah who can offer four simple words, “do not be afraid.”

Rich?

Money seems to be everywhere these days.  Whether we’re talking about the net worth of Presidential Candidates, the portion of the BP Settlement that will actually makes it way to the Gulf Coast, reading James in the real-life version of Draughting Theology or studying the lessons for Sunday, it seems like we just can’t get away from money.  In all of these conversations, however, I’ve noticed a theme: rich is always at least one tax bracket above us.

Think about your reaction to the story of the rich, young man from Mark’s Gospel.  Don’t most of us hear Jesus say, “It would be easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” and think, “well thank God I’m not rich”?  Whether we are on a fixed income with Social Security, make minimum wage, or pull in 30, 60, or even 100 thousand dollars a year, the American economy has made it possible for us to always envision ourselves as poor.  I mean, I can’t buy that 70″ 4K TV, so I must be on the south side of rich.  Right?!?

There’s a website called the Global Rich List, where you can enter your income or net worth to see where it ranks on a global scale.  The average Social Security check is about $1,180 a month.  If that was a retiree’s only income, it would put them in the top 10% of wage earners in the world.  A minimum wage job at McDonald’s places you among the top 7%.  A laborer making $15 an hour, is just outside the top 1%.  Me? My $60,000 stipend, not counting health insurance and pension, puts me in the top 0.20% of wage earners.

Rich is a relative term, but to always put it one or more steps above our pay grade is to act in the same way as the rich young man.  In this story, Jesus invites the man (and by extension, I fear, us) to find solidarity with the poor (another relative term) by entering into relationship with them.  He doesn’t ask the man to write a check to his favorite charity, but to get down and dirty with the down and out.  Truth be told, I think he wants the same from us: to roll up our sleeves and enter into the depths of poverty with those who have no choice but to be there.  It seems that’s where the kingdom of God can be found.

What Causes you to Sin?

Jesus has some harsh words for that which would cause another to sin.  These words are so difficult, I’ve heard of preachers who are tempted to say, “Well, Jesus never would have said something like this.”  To those who choose that preaching angle, Jesus has the harshest words, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  I don’t know about you, but I’m not too enthusiastic about getting the mafia treatment just because my own discomfort with a Biblical text caused me to cause another to stumble in their life of faith.

There is an equally powerful temptation for those who will hear these words of Jesus.  Rather than blame another human being, or God forbid, blame ourselves and risk cutting off a hand or a foot or gouging out an eye, we’re quite content to simply say:

Jesus won’t let us get away with that either.  No, the things which cause us to sin lay squarely within ourselves and in the choices we make.  For those who pull us into sin, the penalties are severe, but even then, we made the choice to follow their lead.  Even those sins we call systemic: sins like racism, classism, and oppression; come down to the choices we make.  The hard truth of Jesus’ teaching on sin is that we are responsible for our own actions – things done and left undone – and are therefore responsible for the consequences of our own sinful behavior.

Jesus uses hyperbole to teach this lesson, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t mean what he says.  The consequences of our sin are severe, both for we who do the sinning and for those we sin against.  It would be better, that is to say, less traumatic overall to remove the offending body part before the sin occurs than to endure the suffering the follows our sinful deeds.  Unfortunately, we all know what Jesus means.  We’ve all picked up the pieces after a harsh word, a youthful indiscretion, or the wanton disregard for another human being.  If, by the grace of God, we’ve found ourselves to be remorseful when it was all over (for the sin rather than its consequences), then perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “It would have been better to have ripped out my tongue than to have ever said those words.”  Jesus’ words may be harsh and they may be exaggerated, but they are true and worthy of our attention.

The Rabble Within

Whether reading the Psalm from the Daily Office or Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the appointed Scriptures invite us to consider the plight of the wandering Hebrews.  Perhaps plight is too strong a word, after all, God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, God had saved them from Pharaoh’s army at the bank of the Red Sea, and God had provided them with water from a rock and manna from heaven.  And yet…

And yet, they complained.  They grumbled.  They gathered as a rabble to grouse about the fact that God had not given them enough, or, barring that, that God had not given them what they wanted.  They subscribed to a theology of scarcity, while God was pouring out abundance in the form of daily bread.

Perhaps I chose the word “plight” because I know the situation in which the Hebrew people found themselves all too well.  While I’m not often the member of a complaining mob, I have, on many an occasion, found myself getting stirred up by the rabble within my own mind.  Scarcity is way too seductive in our modern day and age.  We live in a world that is constantly convincing us to consume.  $20 a month, for the rest of your life, will ensure that you always have the latest and greatest iPhone.  That fancy 60″ HDTV  you bought last year is fine, I guess, but this new 4K TV is way better (even if your eye can’t tell the difference).  Subscribe to our internet service, it’s the fastest!  Buy our razors, they’re the cheapest!  Drink our beer, you’ll be the sexiest!

With a constant barrage of scarcity based advertising, it is no wonder that our minds are a nearly constant rabble in need of satisfaction.  It is not wonder that we work way too much, play way too little, and charge way too much on credit cards.  We’ve lost the ability to be satisfied with our daily bread.  I know because I’m just as guilty.  But what would life look like if we learned to be satisfied with what we have?  How would our lives be different if we chose to be thankful rather than gluttonous?  How might the world be more like the Kingdom of God if we subscribed to a theology of abundance and gave up the scarcity mindset?

Honestly, I’m not sure it is possible in this day and age, but I suspect we should be trying.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly, and as long as we refuse to see that abundance, we aren’t fully living into the dream that God has for us and for the kingdom.  I pray that God might pour out the Spirit upon us, might open our eyes to see our overwhelming abundance, and might help us to repent of the scarcity that leads to grumbling rabble within and without.

True Religion?

This Sunday, as with every Proper 17 Sunday, we will pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  Three years ago, when this collect happened to also join the lessons appointed for Proper 17 in Year B, I took the opportunity to preach on the subject of true religion with some help from my friend and professor, Diana Butler Bass, asking the question, “what is true religion?”

I’m pretty sure we aren’t praying for more expensive jeans

Three years later, I still find myself asking that question, especially in light of the lesson from James, which ends with these words that seem to capture the yin and the yang of religion, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Scholars are uncertain about the etymology of the word “religion.”  The more popular understanding says that it comes from the Latin, religare, which means to tie or to bind.  That is, true religion means to be bound to a way of life.  In the Christian expression, that means to follow the Way set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in his life, death, and resurrection.  Others, however, follow Cicero and suggest that religion comes from relegere, which means to read over again.  Again, from a Christian point of view, this means that true religion is found in the practices of Christianity: prayer, scripture reading, fasting, and even attendance in worship.

The word translated as religion in James is equally troublesome, however it probably carries a connotation that fits more with Cicero than with common understanding.  Robertson suggests it comes from thermoai, which means to mutter forms of prayer, and that the author is using it ironically.  True religion, then, isn’t merely showing up at Church, saying the right things, and going through the motions, but rather, true religion is following in the Way of Jesus.  This doesn’t preclude prayer, study, and regular church attendance, but it means sharing the fruit the grows from those practices: love, compassion, charity, and self-control being chief among them.

So this Sunday, as we pray that God might increase in us true religion, keep in mind what you are really praying for: the chance to listen for God’s will in prayer, Biblical study, and worship AND the opportunity to live out God’s will in acts of love and kindness throughout the week.  True religion is a 24/7 job that can only be done with God’s help.

[Don’t] Add it to the List

SWH and I use the Grocery IQ app to keep track of our every-growing grocery list.  Our phones are synced so that each time one of us updates by either adding or subtracting an item, it is updated, in real time, on the other persons phone.  Most days you’ll hear one or the other of us say, “Add it to the list” about some ingredient, household cleaning product, or snack item, the need for which came up in conversation. This sort of addition is presumably OK in God’s eyes, but we hear in both the Track 2 Old Testament and the Gospel lesson that God isn’t too keen on our adding things to his list of commandments.

As Moses prepares the people to receive the 10 Commandments that God has provided for their life in the Promised Land, he warns them not only that they shouldn’t forget what the Lord is requiring of them, but also that they mustn’t “add anything to what I command you.”  As Jesus is getting flack from the religious authorities for his disciples’ poor personal hygiene, Jesus reiterates this point, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

To be fair, the tendency to add rules to God’s law is a natural one.  We need to have more rules for a couple of reasons.  First, it is almost impossible to believe that God requires so little of us.  Jesus sums up the Law in two commandments.  Two.  TWO!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is one, and love your neighbor as yourself is the other.  Never mind that these two laws are impossibly to live up to all the time, it is in our human nature to make things even more difficult.  We’ve got to know what God thinks about dancing, drinking, card playing, and sex, and if we have time, we’ll maybe consider the hundreds of times God talks about money.  So we pile things on and make things harder than they need to be.

Which leads me to the second reason we add rules to God’s list: we need to know who’s in and who’s out.  Never mind that God has already been clear that he loves his whole creation, we can’t imagine that God would love them, so we make rules to exclude.  Have you noticed that we rarely make new rules for ourselves to live up to, but they always for someone else.  Which means we violate Commandment #2 in our pursuit of more rules.  Oops.

Maybe this week’s Lectionary offers us an opportunity to get back to the basics of discipleship.  Maybe we’d do well to remember that the two Commandments of Jesus require a lifetime of work to accomplish.  Maybe we should offer our neighbors (and ourselves) just a bit more grace and refuse to add anything else to the list.

Powers and Principalities

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, SHW, the kids, and I joined some friends for Worship on the Water at the Florabama Lounge.  It was one of my sabbatical goals to worship there, but to be honest, I found it disappointing.  I didn’t drink a beer during church, though I suppose I could have.  The music was entertaining, but nobody was singing along, even when they sang Amazing Grace.  The theology was what you might expect, conservative and evangelical, though with a healthy attitude toward outreach, especially to those battling addiction.  What I found most disappointing, however, was the sermon.

The founding pastor preached.  I’d heard good things about him, his ministry, and his preaching ability, but it was really quite flat.  He told good stories and he had a few good punch lines, but he was sprinting the entire time.  Maybe it was the heat, but he left us with no chance to laugh at the jokes because he was already on to something else.  You didn’t come here for a review of Worship on the Water, however.  You came here to read something about the Bible.  Coincidentally, the sermon preached that morning was the last in a series on the armor of God that Paul writes about in the lesson from Ephesians appointed for Sunday.

While battle imagery has gone out of fashion in most Episcopal congregations, this image of being strong in the Lord is one that is vitally important, especially as we’re already 6 years into a 4 year presidential election cycle with another 15 months to go!  The call to be ready to stand against the wiles of the devil and his “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil” are perhaps even more crucial today then they were in the first century because if there is one thing the media is good at, it is hyping up what the King James’ version of the Bible calls “powers and principalities.”

For those who are sure how these different dangers all fit together, I found this handy chart.

Whether it is Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson, the key to primary presidential politics these days is building and allaying fears.  Immigrants are bringing drugs and taking your jobs, but I’ll deport them.  Republicans want to leave the poor to starve to death in the gutters, but I’ll feed the masses.  Hilary can’t be trusted with national security, but I’ll keep you safe.  Liberals are spending us into slavery to China, but I’ve got a plan to cut taxes, stimulate growth, and remove all entitlements.  The power and principality of fear is alive and well in our culture, and if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t strong in the Lord, we will easily succumb to its wiles.

Let’s put on the full armor of God and take on the fear that threatens to overwhelm us.  Let’s place our trust in the LORD, not the rulers of this world.  Let’s follow after the will of God and see about changing the world.

On Living Forever

Last Sunday, our new Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Russell Kendrick, made his first official visit to Saint Paul’s in Foley.  He preached a mighty fine sermon about heaven that you should really listen to.  In it, the Bishop tried to make it clear that the heaven Jesus is talking about in his Bread of Life Discourse isn’t somewhere up there where we go after we die, but that heaven, the kingdom of God, is available right here and right now.  If you’ve read this blog for any period of time, you probably find this familiar as it is one of the three or four sermons I regularly preach.

In the research I’ve been doing for my Doctor of Ministry thesis, I’ve been hearing the same thing from Brian McLaren.  In his 2009 presentation to the Diocese of Washington, he reminds the crowd, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, that Jesus didn’t teach us to pray “May we come to your kingdom when we die.  May we all go to heaven where, unlike earth, your will be done.”  No, Jesus preached again and again that the kingdom of God had come near and that through his followers heaven would be available to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Being on sabbatical, I’m not 100% sure how long we’ve been in this Bread of Life Discourse, though it feels like forever.  We’ve been hearing for at least three, maybe four, weeks that whoever eats of the bread of life will live forever.  Forever doesn’t have a end, we all know that, but what we forget is that forever really doesn’t have a beginning either.  Those who engage in kingdom living, who draw sustenance from the example of Jesus and the memorial feast of our redemption, are in the business of living forever because they get glimpses of heaven, of the kingdom of God, in the world all around them.  As the Bishop said in his sermon, the kingdom becomes visible when we live in the way of Jesus, “forgiving not seven times, but seventy times seven… serving the people the nobody else would touch… sharing our lives not counting the cost… loving everyone, no favorites, not counting the cost.”  “When we do those things,” the Bishop said, “we are living heaven on earth.”  We are engaging in forever living.

If you are preaching on Sunday, and you haven’t dealt with it already, I hope you’ll take sometime to help your congregation think broadly about what it means to live forever.  Forever is already happening, and by waiting for the great by and by, we are missing a whole lot of joy.

The Song in your Heart

There is quote, attributed to Lucy from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon, that goes like this:

Like the prayer attributed to Saint Francis, I’m doubtful that Lucy’s character ever actually uttered these words.  Unlike the prayer of Saint Francis, I hold this opinion because this sentiment is so out of Lucy’s character.  Lucy is know for being somewhat rough around the edges.  She’s the one who is always pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown at the last minute.  She gave him the nickname, “blockhead.”  Her temper is notoriously hot and her fuse is equally short.  She doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who carries around a song in her heart.

Of course, most people probably don’t think of Saint Paul as a guy with a song in his heart either.  He was a bit arrogant.  He could be prickly.  He may or may not have killed a few Christians prior to his conversion, and yet, in Sunday’s lesson from Ephesians we find him admonishing the disciples in Ephesus to “sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts.”  I appreciate the “in your hearts” piece because I am an awful singer, but the real important part is the kind of song Paul calls us to carry within us.  The Greek for “sing and make melody” is actually just two different Greek words that mean “to sing,” the second of which literally means to “sing praise.”

One of the hardest struggles for Christians of all ages is to change that initial reaction to a hardship or frustration.  We are often slaves to our emotional reactions to things. Think, for example, about the last time you got cut off in traffic.  What was your immediate reaction?  Because I’ve not yet found a way to have a song of praise in my heart at all times, my reaction usually looks something like this:

Imagine how different the world would be if Christians could find a way to take Paul’s advice.  How peaceful and loving might our environments be if the 70% of Americans who self-identify as Christians could make room for the Spirit to fill their hearts with praise rather than the muck that takes up so much space?  Through the Daily Office, daily prayer, and daily Scripture reading, and with God’s help, we can make room for a song of praise in our hearts, but it takes time.  So be patient with yourself, but keep on striving for toward the goal of carrying a song in your heart at all times.