Grace?!?

My friend, colleague, and main competition in the Christian Century blog-o-sphere, Evan Garner, did something very old fashioned yesterday, he commented on my blog: not on the Facebook post that links to my blog, but on the blog proper. If you read this through Facebook, then odds are you didn’t see it, and you missed out.  So, for those of you who missed it, here’s his comment.

“I don’t think the snake story is as much about punishment as it is about salvation. Those who look at the serpent on the pole are healed. It’s no accident that the serpent is what hit them in the first place. Healing–salvation–comes from the one who forces us to gaze upon the consequence of our own sin in the crucifixion of Christ.”

He also wrote a blog post about it.  As I read and reread his comment and thought about the lesson from Numbers and Jesus referring to it in John and Paul’s discourse on grace in Ephesians, all I could think was “Grace?!?  How can getting saved from snakebites by the God who sent the snakes be grace?”  The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that this is a perfect explanation of Paul’s famous line, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

It is grace that brings us to faith at all.  Sometimes, maybe even often, that grace comes in the realization that we are in need of saving.  Be it an alcoholic lying in the gutter, a workaholic watching his family move out, or a cynic realizing he no longer trusts anyone – whatever your sin(s) of choice may be, there comes a time when you realize that snakes have been biting you for quite some time and you are in desperate need of relief.  That realization, the impetus to look up to the heavens, to seek out Jesus who was lifted up on the cross for our redemption, is the work of God’s amazing grace.  That grace is the spark that ignites faith, and faith is what will change your life.

Grace is hard to wrap our minds around.  That we can’t even come to know the grace-filled love of Jesus without having grace come first catches us in a chicken-egg conundrum, but thanks be to God for those snakes, and Evan Garner, who help make some sense of it all.

Destroy the Works of the Devil

Like almost every possible theological topic, The Episcopal Church has sort of a hazy relationship with evil in its personified form.  We are very clear on the power that evil wields in our everyday lives: from corrupt governments to greedy corporations to individuals who lie, cheat, steal, and respond with violence.  Evil is all around us, from the evil we have done to the evil done on our behalf, but when you start to talk about demons and the devil, many Episcopalians start to squirm in their seats.  There are several reasons for this.  First and foremost is that, by and large, Episcopalians are comfortable with medical and social sciences and so most of what was once described as demon possession can now be easily explained as epilepsy, postpartum depression, or some other completely reasonable diagnosis.  Episcopalians also tend to be wary of those who somewhat uncritically accept supernatural explanations for things that are most likely the result of one’s own choices.

Thirdly, and beyond the scope this post, is the fact that as a whole, modern, western Christians have an angelolgy that is more Hollywood than it is Biblical (hint – Aunt Mae didn’t become an angel when she died, and that’s a good thing).

Yet for all our skepticism about angels and demons and most especially the devil, on Sunday, we’ll pray a prayer that includes these words, “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life…”  Marion Hatchett, OBM, tells us that this collect was written for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, probably by the Rt. Rev. John Cosin, Bishop of Durham, for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  In the 79 BCP, it was moved to Proper 27, or the third Sunday before Advent, to begin to turn our minds toward the return of Christ. (Commentary, 195)

This prayer, expressing hope for the power of God at the second coming, recalls for us the Revelation of John which, whether you take it literally or metaphorically, is a story of the great battle between good and evil.  As Christians, whether we believe in a personified devil or not, we confess that Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection, has already won the battle.  Good will prevail, evil and the devil will be defeated, and sin will be no more.  That, I hope, is something we can all agree upon.

The Feast of Bishop Remi – a homily

As you probably noticed in the Collect, today the Church remembers a saint with a name as difficult to pronounce as his life story is to tell.  It would take most of the afternoon to discuss the tumultuous political and religious climate in western Europe in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, but suffice it to say, things were complicated.  Remigius, thankfully better known in his native tongue as Remi, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  His father was the Count of Laon and his mother was the daughter of a Bishop.  Remi was a brilliant student, and rose quickly to prominence for his wisdom and learning.  In about the year 460, Remi was elected Bishop of Rheims, even though he had not yet been ordained a priest or even a deacon!

Bishop Remi lived well past his 90th birthday and served the church as a bishop for 70 years!  That would be enough to be remembered as a saint all on its own, but Remi’s real claim to fame is that he saved orthodox Christianity from destruction and changed the course of European history.  During the time of Emperor Constantine, there was a heated debate in the Church between Athansius and Arius over the nature of Jesus. Though the Arians, those who Followed Arius and his belief that Jesus was a created being rather than a co-eternal member of the Trinity, had lost the vote in Nicea in 325, they continued to survive in the Church for hundreds of years.  Increasingly, they gained strength in western Europe, especially among the rising powers of the Goths and the Vandals.  By the middle of the 5th century, Because of strong political and military allies, it looked as if the Arians might wipe Nicene Christianity off the map. Until, on a December day in 496 when on the battlefield of Tobliac, A certain king named Clovis, a pagan married to a Christian queen, took a vow that if he was victorious in the battle in which he was highly outnumbered, he would become a Christian.  Clovis and the Franks miraculously  prevailed, and two days later, on December 24th, 496, King Clovis was baptized into the orthodox, Nicene Christianity by Bishop Remi in a small church in the city of Rheims.

Over the course of the next 300 years, this event would prove to be the saving grace of orthodoxy.  On the continent, the Franks converted the Visigoths, and when Charlemagne became the first Emperor of the Roman Empire in nearly three centuries in the year 800, he brought with him the orthodox faith that had been passed down from Bishop Remi.  Meanwhile, in England, Clovis’ great-granddaughter, Bertha, married the pagan King of Kent, King Ethelbert, who was eventually baptized by Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 601, thereby ensuring that we here would be the inheritors of the catholic faith in Christ as a member of the Godhead.

The Gospel lesson for the feast of Bishop Remi is a lesson that is often read at funerals in The Episcopal Church.  In it, we hear from the lips of Jesus what orthodox, Nicene Christians like Remi have fought for as truth: that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; and that knowing Jesus means knowing the Father.  In a time when the outside world was devoutly pagan and the church was torn with strife, it was people like Remigius who kept the Church in touch with her roots.

What does any of this have to do with us today?  I won’t argue that Christians in America are being oppressed, I think that is a ridiculous notion, but the reality is that we leave in a society that is increasingly suspicious of the Gospel.  The world outside the Church sees us as silly to believe in a God who loves us.  Even within the Church there are growing numbers who would have us give up those foolish beliefs in things like the Virgin Birth or a literal resurrection of Jesus.  Yet here we stand, as faithful, Nicene Christians, who, though we might struggle to make it all make sense, we can affirm, like Remi, that God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, fills us with delight, brings us fulfillment, and enables us to live abundant lives.  Politics and theological arguments aside, that is good news.  Amen.

So… Is God Stupid?

In Sunday’s sermon, I posited that Jesus was not stupid.  In yesterday’s post, I suggested that the Chief Priests and the Elders might have been.  Today, I’m wondering, as I do every time the Parable of the Wicked Tenants comes around: Is God Stupid?  Clearly the landowner was.  Why in the heck did he think that sending his son, after the tenants had beaten and killed any number of slaves, was in anyway a good idea?  If he was going to diffuse the situation, shouldn’t he have gone himself and either a) fixed things with his magical landowner powers or b) killed the lot of them in a messy and violent way?

This is, of course, the argument that many people make about God.  Why did he send his Son to do the dirty work?  Didn’t he know what was going to happen?  Surely, if he’s omnipotent, omniscient, and all powerful, God could have fixed the mess that is humanity by either a) waving a magic grace wand to make us all suck less or b) kill us all in a messy and violent way (cf. Noah and the flood).  So what gives?  Is God stupid?

Well, yes and no.  Love makes us do stupid things sometimes, and God seems to be no exception.  Out of an abundance of love, God created the world and everything in it.  Out of an abundance of love, God created humanity in his likeness to be in relationship with him.  Out of an abundance of love, God attempted again and again to restore the relationship once we broke it.  And out of an abundance of love, God sent his only Son to save us from our selves.  This are all crazy, stupid actions on God’s part.  He didn’t do them ignorantly.  He knew what was coming.  He knew there were other ways to fix it, but he also knew that the best way, the way that allowed all of this to be about the abundance of love and not some forced relationship or blood nightmare, was to send his Son to live and die as one of us; to feel the fullness of our humanity; to enter into real relationships with real people; and to be raised on the third day to make the whole thing new.

Is God stupid?  Yep, stupid enough to love.

Parables and Purgatory – a cautionary tale

UPDATE: I had my talents and denarii confused in the post below. The debt owed the king is not 40 years wages, but 150,000 years. Apologies for my currency conversion mistake.

Back in the heady days of mid-summer, I may have slightly overstated my love of Jesus’ favorite rhetorical device.  For every beautiful Prodigal Son story there is wicked tenants parable to make one feel just a little bit uncomfortable.  Or, as is the case with this week’s parabolic interlude, a lot uncomfortable.  The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is an awful story that comes right on the heels of some powerful words from Jesus.

Our passage opens with an indignant Peter thinking that Jesus has lost his mind with this grace thing.  “Do you mean I’m supposed to forgive someone who sins against me as many as seven times?” He asks.  Jesus responds, “If you’re keeping count, you’re doing it wrong.  Forgive him seventy-seven times.”  It is a delightful exchange between Jesus and Peter that invites the preacher to wax poetic on the virtues of forgiveness in the abstract: a softball pitch for a nice, airy sermon here in the dog days to Ordinary Time.

But then.

But then Jesus tells a parable that I wish he would have never told: a parable full of bad people doing bad things that ends with perhaps the most judgmental words that Jesus is recorded to have spoken.  Click here to read the passage.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Do you feel icky about Jesus saying “in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” The Unforgiving Slave was tortured until his entire debt, ten thousand talents, forty years wages, was paid in full.  Oh and the same thing will happen to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.  

While Jesus doesn’t mince words, he does open the door for a theological understanding that is largely foreign to the casual Protestant and Anglican (not mutually exclusive, mind you) readers: Purgatory.  Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus’ proclamation judgment is not without some grace, namely “until your debt is paid.”  Roman and Anglo Catholics will read this with an eye toward Purgatory, that place of waiting where the soul goes after death to wait until necessary penance has been paid.  Some Anglicans will see in the story a place called “Paradise,” which is understood as something like pre-heaven while we wait for the Second Coming.  More Reformed believers will argue that Jesus has paid our debt in full on the cross.  I tend to fall in the middle camp, but in the case of this particular cautionary tale of a parable, I can see a fairly well reasoned argument for Purgatory.

A lack of forgiveness can lead to a lack in forgiveness.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God might “forgive us our trespasses/sins as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us.  It assumes that we are in the business of forgiving, and when we aren’t, it seems to suggest that maybe that prison of torture isn’t so far fetched a theology.  I’m not sold on Purgatory, mind you, but I think I’ll be working on my forgiveness this week, even if it requires 77 times before I stop keeping count.

Who is Jesus?

Last week, in a real change of pace for this blog, I spent the whole week dealing with the lesson from Romans 12.  Conveniently, the Gospel lessons for last week and this week actually work better together, so this week I’ll get to deal with them both all at once here.

To review, last week’s Gospel lesson was from Matthew 16:13-20.  There we were in the third week of trying to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”  On Proper 14, we heard the story of Jesus walking on water in which Peter twice calls Jesus “Lord.”  The first time it is with some level of suspicion, “If it is you, Lord…” while the second time it comes in the voice of sheer terror, “Lord, save me!”  We also are told that once Jesus safely the boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus calling him “the Son of God.”  For Matthew, who is careful to not upset the Jewish Christians in his Church, who always talks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than the “Kingdom of God” this title is very important.  Jesus isn’t just any old Messiah-type person, and there were more than a few of them running around, but Jesus is the Son of God.  

On Proper 15, the Canaanite Woman calls out to Jesus with still another title.  Yes, he is “Lord,” but for this Gentile woman, he is also the “Son of David.”  Here too we see Jesus being given a Messianic title, but this time it about the fulfillment of prophecy.  As the Messiah, Jesus will restore the throne of David and God’s steadfast love will remain upon it forever (1 Chronicles 17:13).

Proper 16 begins the two-part story of Peter’s Confession, Jesus’ Passion Prediction, and Peter’s Rebuke.  Here we see Jesus called not just Lord, but “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  While the Canaanite woman is praised for her faith, as an outsider, she didn’t quite have the big picture of who Jesus is.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples who have followed Jesus, more or less faithfully, for roughly two years, gets it perfectly right.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of Man, who has come to bring salvation to the whole world.

Which brings us to Proper 17, and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, in which Jesus goes on to elaborate on just what it means that he is the Messiah.  Being the Messiah means upsetting the status quo.  It means being betrayed and arrested.  It means enduring great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders.  It means being killed by the Gentile occupiers.  It means a bunch of stuff that Peter and the gang don’t want it to mean, but it also means Resurrection.

Jesus is the Messiah and the Messiah has power even over death.  That’s who Jesus is, hard as it may be to hear and understand for Peter and, quite frankly, for us.  As the story unfolds, we’ll learn more about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but for this week, we’ll have to sit with the confused disciples and try to understand how the Messiah can be killed and still be God.

Do I know any weeds?

The Parable of Wheat and Tares is a difficult parable for lots of reasons.  As I noted yesterday, there is the whole issue of eschatology to deal with.  My friend Evan spent today’s post pondering the existence of hell, which got me thinking about that which ends up in the furnace, the weeds.  This parable is a Presbyterian’s dream because it seems to indicate that we are predestined toward a final destination: God’s granary or the unquenchable fire.

Yet even that raises questions.  As the parable goes, God’s sowers do the good work of planting good seed.  This is, we can assume, those who, as our Romans lesson suggested last week, live in the Spirit.  The wheat are those who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, who seek after the good and perfect will of Father, who seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.  The wheat, quite simply, are the good guys.  The weeds, on the other hand, are not planted by God.  They are the work of the evil one, the deceiver, Satan, who comes under the cover of darkness and spreads bad seed on God’s field.  The weeds, Jesus tells us are children of the evil one: those who seek not after the will of God, but after their own selfish desires; those who tear down rather than build up; those who ignore the plight of the widow and orphan.  The weeds are the bad guys.  On a runoff election day in South Alabama, the imagination begins to swirl with images of a holy label gun being used to brand candidates as weeds or wheat.

Here’s where the parable and systematic theology break down.  What does it say about God that he allows the devil to come behind and sow bad seed?  How does God allow Satan to ruin his good creation?  This parable sets forth a God who is, at best, only as strong as and yet more foolish than Satan himself.  This is not the God of all creation that we espouse in the Creeds.  How is it possible that there are weeds running around among us good wheat?   And how can we tell the difference?  Do I know any weeds?  Am I a weed?  I think we have successfully broken this metaphor, which is the primary indicator of getting the parable wrong.

This parable, like last week’s story of the Sower, isn’t about us.  It is about God and his kingdom.  It is about the one who loves us enough to let of muck things up, loves us enough to find us where we are, and loves us enough to not let us stay that way.  It isn’t a systematic theology, but a story that invites us to ponder God’s larger plan for creation and his vision for the age to come.  It isn’t an easy parable, that is certain, but it is full of good grain that invites us to think  about and pray for the Kingdom of God.