Keeping it Basic

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My favorite lyric right now comes from the track “Mouth of the River” on the new Imagine Dragons album Evolve.  Unfortunately, I can’t share the track with you because of copyright issues, but I promise you, if you buy the album, you won’t be disappointed.  Anyway, the lyric goes like this:

Oh I’m alkaline
I’m always keeping to the basics

I like this line for several reasons.  First, it is really nerdy, which I dig.  Second, it is really fun to sing, which I need right now.  Evolve is my running album and I hate running, so having fun things is good.  Third, it restores the word “basic” which has been co-opted of late as pejorative colloquialism to describe “middle class white women who are perceived to predominantly like mainstream products, trends, or music.” (1) or “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” (2)  I’ve never been a fan of taking words that are commonly used and making them mean something negative or hurtful.

As I listened to that lyric this morning, I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we will hear read on Sunday (see point one above).  From this passage, we receive the Christ Hymn, a recounting of not just Paul’s Christology, but his Christian anthropology as well.  In this lesson, heady as it may seem, Paul invites the Christians in Philippi and, by extension, us, to keep it basic.  Rather than thinking we know it all or are living lives that are perfectly in tune with God’s will, Paul calls on disciples of Jesus to humility, which was the example of Christ.  Though he was both God and man, Jesus did not lord his power over us.  Instead, as Paul says so beautifully, Jesus “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” and is therefore “highly exalted.”  Jesus kept it basic: he loved and he showed compassion, and he invites his disciples to do the same.

At the end of this passage, Paul admonishes his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Through Christ, the Spirit continues to be present within us, helping us to keep it to the basics, not worried about what others are doing, but working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  God at work in us is seen when we love and when we show compassion.  It may seem simple, basic (in the pejorative sense) even, but it is the way in which the Kingdom of God is built, one basic compassionate act at a time.

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Our place in line

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An unused #SMS17 comes in handy

Our culture lives out a interesting interpretation of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Despite the most coveted job in any elementary school being that of line leader, by the time we reach adulthood, something switches, and somehow, being in the tail end of a procession becomes the place of honor.  The picture above was my view from the tail end of the procession at the 10 o’clock service yesterday.  Led by the cross, the symbol of Christ’s passion and our salvation, flanked by two candles, which remind us that the light of Christ is present whenever two or three are gathered, the choir, server, the Gospel bearer, Eucharistic minister, ministry intern, two deacons, and myself paraded into the chancel as we began our worship of God.  As the Celebrant, my place was at the tail end of the line.  In the academy, this “pride of place” often goes to professors with the longest tenure and then Deans.  At a wedding, the bride takes up the rear of the procession.  So often, it seems that we would honor those who bring up the rear.

As I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that, my place in the end of the line isn’t the place of honor, but really is the right place for me to be.  As part of his ongoing back and forth with the religious leadership, Jesus offers something of a riddle to his interlocutors.   After they answer correctly, or so Matthew would lead us to believe (but that’s for another post), Jesus sums up his teaching with these words, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I’m not sure why, but I felt led to look into the words that are translated as “are going… ahead.”  It turns out it is one word, proagousin.  The primary Strong’s definition for this word is stronger than “to go ahead,” being rendered as “to lead forward.”  My mind immediately went back to that procession yesterday, the letters that precede and follow my name, and the reality that in that procession, I was being led into the kingdom of God by children, by sinners, by gentiles, and by the grace of God.  Those who lead the procession into the Kingdom of Heaven have the pride of place because they are the ones who recognize, most fully, their need for forgiveness.  Those of us who are professional ministers can often forget that we aren’t the sum total of the compliments we hear in the receiving line.  Rather, our place at the tail end of the procession is often the result of our own failure to remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are in the lineup at all.

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.