Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

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This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.

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[Against you]

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My friend and colleague Evan Garner wrote this morning about the importance of reading lectionary passages within their larger context.  This is an important rule for preachers, and one that I often, in haste, ignore.  Reading his post this morning inspired me to look around within the context of Matthew 18 to see what Jesus is up to that would bring about this teaching on discipline within the Church.  (For those following along, this is that third usage of this word in Matthew, but the Greek actually lacks ekklesia here.  The NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language created the situation in which the Greek word for “brother” is translated as “a member of the church.”)  This lesson follows on the heels of the Parable of the lost sheep. There Jesus shows just how ridiculous and extravagant God’s desire for reconciliation really is.

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”  Well, actually no, Jesus, that seems like a really good way to lose 100 sheep instead of one.  And yet, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  God desires the restoration of every human being into right relationship that in Christ, God set forth to find every stray soul wandering the countryside.  Immediately after this parable, Jesus begins our lesson for Sunday.  It is helpful, as Evan points out, to note that this story about disciple comes withing a larger context of forgiveness.

It is also helpful to take note of content as well.  Many Christians are familiar with this text, especially the first line, “If another member of the church sins against you,” but how many of us pay attention to the footnotes?  In my HarperCollins Study Bible, footnote n comes right after the word you and reads, “Other ancient authorities lack against you.”  Isn’t that interesting?  Perhaps this isn’t a lesson in how to deal with one-to-one interactions, but a more general rule about how the church should handle sin.  Digging deeper, I pulled out Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. and found that the United Bible Society, as it put together its fourth edition of a Greek New Testament, chose to put the Greek words translated as “against you” in brackets, denoting that they are unsure of their place in the original text.

So what? You might rightfully ask, and I’m glad you did.  This lesson has long been used in unhelpful ways, usually as the result of the words “against you.”  Rather than being a tool for one church member to take issue with another, this lesson, when it lacks “against you” becomes a call to the whole church to a) be honest about sin, b) name it when we see it, but yet c) to offer grace continually.  Recalling that Matthew was a tax collector, who was invited by Jesus into his inner circle, those who followed in his tradition and finally put this Gospel to parchment would have taken note that the culmination of Jesus teaching on church discipline was to treat the unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector.  The call here isn’t to harsh excommunication of one who has sinned against you, but a loving invitation to repentance for all who continue to live in sin.  Thanks be to God that we are treated as Gentiles and tax collectors in need of forgiveness and lost sheep in need of being found.

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week.  I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song.  It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering.  It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving.  Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul.  As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving.  I know this is true in my life.  Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love.  Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.

The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.”  So how do we change?  How do we work toward being more loving?  How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend?  First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible.  Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God.  Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us.  When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service.  Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship.  With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

Outdoing one another in showing honor in light of the #NashvilleStatement

Like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I have read with sadness the recently published Nashville Statement signed by more than 150 leaders in the Evangelical tradition.  As I read these words, I wondered aloud, again like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, “Why now?  What purpose does this serve in a world where White Supremacists march the streets with impunity, where the threat of nuclear was is more real than ever in my lifetime, and where a hurricane has cost $23 billion of property damage and dozens of lives?”  I’ve struggled for the right words to say; how I might respond, not that the world needs to know my thoughts on the matter, but I do write a blog and bloggers always think people care about their opinions.

Of particular note, at least in my opinion, are Articles 7 and 10 of the Nashville Statement.  Article 7 is of interest because it seems to suggest that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that is made.  Here is where our ability to have a conversation on this topic breaks down.  Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, that which would become Evangelicalism in the United States made a conscious decision to hold science at arms length and to trust in the inerrancy of Scripture.  This is why we have things like the Creation Museum, which seeks to discredit the scientific suggestion that world was not created in seven, twenty-four hour periods because one of the two Biblical accounts of creation says so.  Fast forward to 2017, and with no clear scientific study that says where homosexual attraction comes from, it is a no-brainer for the anti-scientific bias in evangelicalism to say, without hesitation, that homosexuality can be and “adopted self-conception.”  Without room for scientific exploration on the subject, there is no way sexual orientation will ever be seen as something other than a choice, and a sinful one at that.  There is no room in this mindset for conversation on the topic, even if the rest of the world still sees it as an open question.

Which leads me to Article 10, the much more destructive of the two.  I commend to you Carol Howard Merritt’s reflection for the Christian Century on this topic.  Because of the inherent danger in it, I will publish Article 10 in its entirety.

Article 10
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

Those of you who read this blog with regularity will know that my favorite word in the Church is “adiaphora,” which means “things indifferent.”  The idea of adiaphora within Christianity came into focus during the Protestant Reformation as debates between Roman Catholics and early Reformers tended to be based on fundamental disagreements over that which was a core doctrine of the faith.  By adopting Article 10, these Evangelical leaders have drawn a clear line in the sand.  Human sexuality and gender identity are, for them, matters of core doctrine, and one’s beliefs on these matters are a part of what it means to be redeemed in Christ.  It is Article 10 that brings me the most sadness because a friend of mine from high school whom I deeply respect for his faith, even if our theologies on topics like this don’t match up, is one of the original signatories of the Nashville Statement.  Article 10 seems to say that he does not see my faith as valid, and that the only clear path for me as a Christian who affirms God’s love for all God’s children, including the LGBT community, is the road to hell.  I have reached out to my friend and let him know that while I disagree with him on this issue, I will continue to pray for his ministry as I hope he will mine.

This, finally, leads me to the Bible, the topic which this blog purports to be about.  Sunday’s lesson from Romans 12 is a quick-hitting list of admonitions from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  As we hear them, they can make us feel good, but in such rapid succession, it might be hard to note how difficult these Godly admonitions are to live by. This is especially true at the end of verse 10 where he writes, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”  Another way to translate that might be “lead the way in showing respect.”  This is affirmed in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church in which we vow, with God’s help, to respect the dignity of every human being.  We affirm that it can only be done “with God’s help” because, quite frankly, human beings can be hard to love.  Our ability to show respect at all times, is flawed, but it is by God’s grace that we are able to lead the way in showing respect.  With Paul’s words in mind and in light of current events, from Charlottesville to Pyongyang and from Washington DC to Nashville, I pray that I might have the grace and courage to lead the way in showing respect to everyone, even as I pray the same for you, dear reader.

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Humanity’s Utter Depravity

Despite the protestations of my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, I am very comfortable calling Anglicanism a Protestant denomination.  It may not have been true in 1549, but by the time Thomas Cranmer published the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he had spent entirely too much time with Martin Bucer, and the Protestant Reformation of Continental Europe had made its way across the English Channel.  Thankfully, however, Cranmer’s affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, his coming of age under the rule of Henry VIII’s strongly Roman Catholic thumb, and the tumultuous nature of the monarchy in 1550s England from Protestant Edward to Roman Catholic Mary to Settlement-minded Elizabeth, kept the worst of the Continental influences, like Calvin and Zwingli, from taking Anglicanism beyond being Protestant and becoming fully Reformed.

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My language in the previous paragraph betrays the fact that I am grateful for our avoidance of some of the excesses of Continental Protestantism, I do realize that there are times that Anglicans find their theology lacking some fullness because of it.  One such example came to mind to me this morning as I considered the second half of Peter’s Confession which we will hear read on Sunday.  Last week, Peter declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, just seconds after that declaration, Peter’s mind has already been drawn away from things heavenly and become focused on human things.  There might not be a better example of humanity’s utter depravity, a topic Episcopalians avoid like the plague, than Peter’s immediate about face in this moment.

As faithful Christians, we strive to follow the will of God.  We engage in prayer, we read the Bible, we interact with other disciples, all in the hopes of discerning God’s will for ourselves and for the world God has created.  Like Peter, we have moments when we nestle into the bosom of God, and there we find revelation.  The mind of God is slowing revealed to us, again and again, as we return to the Father.  Again, like Peter, it seems we almost immediately slip away again.  We get prideful about how our own work brought us to deeper understanding.  We get nervous that God might call us to do something we don’t want to do.  We get envious of those who seem to hear God more clearly.  No matter how it happens, it seems that the utter depravity of humankind is distinctly highlighted the closer we get to the heart of God.

It seems to me that we should name this condition.  It is in ignoring it or being afraid of it, that we give our proclivity toward sin its power.  Instead of avoiding the reality of our sinfulness, what Calvin called our “total depravity,” we should see it, name it, and welcome God’s help in moving beyond it.  While Episcopalians ever get comfortable with our total depravity?  I doubt it.  Reformed Christians, we are not.  However, the more we do come to terms with our sinfulness, the more we are able to lean into God’s grace by taking up our cross, laying down our depraved lives, and following Jesus.

A haughty text

At various times in my ministry, I have described myself as a Walmart Theologian.  Though I rarely shop there anymore, my basic test for a theological point is whether or not it will stand up to the Walmart test: can I explain it to a parishioner who I might run into in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store?  If the answer is no, then I need to work a little harder at bringing the Good News out of the ivory tower in which I have spent plenty of time, down to the grass roots, where people live.  This goal is one of the reasons why I sponsored legislation to authorize the Contemporary English Version of the Bible to be used in Episcopal worship.  It is a text that is theologically sound, translated by scholars, and is still able to be presented “in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding, both of the readers and hearers” (Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549), published in the 1979 BCP on pages 866-7).

This line of thought came to mind yesterday as we read Psalm 138, as I reflect on verse 7,
7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
It returned this morning as I read from the NRSV the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans,
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

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A haughty text, indeed.

Haughty, it seems to me, is no longer a word of the people.  According to Google, it is used 700% less often in literature now than it was in the early 19th century.  While we might have an basic idea of what we think haughtiness might mean, it is so rarely used as to feel like it fails the basic premise of Paul’s writing.  If we are called to not be haughty, then it seems we should maybe find a better way to say it.  The CEV puts it this way,
16 Be friendly with everyone.  Don’t be proud and feel that you are smarter than others. Make friends with ordinary people.
Still a bit stodgy in its construction for my taste, at least the CEV clears up the language a bit.

As we engage with an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture, it would be of benefit to those who we seek to engage with the Gospel if we offered them texts that were able to speak to their hearts, lives, and the way in which they speak.  Though it may never happen that Church Publishing puts out a CEV lectionary book or lectionarypage.net changes over to the CEV, I think it makes sense for parish leadership to evaluate, from time to time, the texts we use, always asking ourselves, does this meet the Walmart text?  Does it live up to Cranmer’s “easy and plain understanding” marker?  Or, is it time to seek out scholarly and sound Biblical translations that can be heard and understood by the majority of those who come through our doors.  Maybe it has just been a haughty couple of weeks, and I’m not suggesting we rush to replace the NRSV at Christ Church, but rather, just a note to myself, as much as anyone else, to take note when the words don’t resonate.  Don’t just shrug it off, but really listen to how the Scriptures speak.  If they are no longer “living and active” in our lives, that is when it is time to think of new ways to read and hear.

Some People!?!

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“Some people are saying…”

These words happen everywhere.  When things are good and when times are tough, it matters not.  No matter the circumstance, they are the four words every pastor hates to hear.  “Some people are saying…”  First and foremost, this is a clear indicator that what will follow will be a complaint of indeterminate validity and seriousness.  Let’s also be clear that “some people” always includes that person telling you, and more often than not (read 75% or more of the time) it only includes the person who has brought this “issue” to your attention.  There is no winning a “some people are saying” conversation. The pseudo-anonymity creates an immediate barrier to conversation.  Unless your pastor knows who those “some people” are, their context, their history, and what is happening in their lives, she has no way of knowing where this complain is coming from.  “Some people” always means that what “they” want is right and everything else is wrong.  Whether “some people” are talking about music, preaching, Christian education, or what donuts are served at coffee hour, the fact that they hide behind a wall of uncertainty is an immediate sign that nuance and negotiation are off the table.

I bring this up because Jesus seems to invite the “some people” response in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks, and the “some people” begin to speak.  “Elijah.”  “John the Baptist.”  “Jeremiah.”  “One of the prophets.”  Like it is in the parish, these responses seem to betray what is happening in the heart of the spokesperson.  There is, to be sure, no real clarity about who Jesus is at this point.

Until.

Until Jesus changes the question by asking, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter steps out from behind the protection of anonymity and declares, right there on the doorstep of “Philip’s Caesartown” that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter strips away all pretense, all fear, and declares with full awareness of the political ramifications that Jesus is the true Anointed One, and that Caesar can’t be the son of God because Jesus is.

When we move beyond “some people” and get to taking responsibility for ourselves and our faith, God will do remarkable things and, as it was for Peter, God will open our eyes to see that which is obscured by the rood screen of mistrust, fear, and anonymity.  In truth, what “some people” say doesn’t matter, instead, what really matters is, “what do you say?”