A Spirit of Hospitality

After I graduated from college, while in discernment for the priesthood, I worked for about six months waiting tables at a Red Lobster.  It was worse than it sounds.  Anyway, one lunch shift, one of my fellow servers was complaining that her check engine light had come on.  Back in the kitchen, we debated what might have caused it.  The chef was convinced that her car was about to die.  “Pontiacs are junk,” he told her, “you might as well get ready to buy something new.”  I also drove a Pontiac at the time, and I didn’t think they were junk.  I knew that there were lots of causes for the check engine light to illumine, including something as simple as forgetting to replace the gas cap.  “Nah, man,” the chef reiterated, “it’s a garbage car.”  And with that, we all went back to work.

Now, I’ve not always been a good loser.  I like to think that I’ve grown up a lot since then, but there was a time when I could get pretty petty about proving that I was right.  I have no idea why I cared so much about it, but my blood was boiling at the way that my suggestion had been simply dismissed by this guy who didn’t know anything more about cars than I did.  I stewed and festered on it for a while, until finally, when I had a minute, I marched out the front door, around the side of the building to the employee parking lot, and found, much to my delight, the gas cap, dangling from side of the young lady’s car.  I screwed it back on, and waited until the next time the three of us were back in the kitchen to let her know, or more accurately, to let the chef know, that I was right, and he was definitely wrong.

Actually following the way of Jesus is a lot harder than simply being like his disciples.  Like me, James and John didn’t like to look bad in front of other people.  We have several stories of their trying to one up the other disciples.  Even their mom got involved at one point, asking Jesus to make sure her boys got the best spots in his kingdom.  Our Gospel lesson this morning might be James and John at their best worst. Just days after they joined Peter in seeing the transfigured Jesus talking about the next steps in building the Kingdom of God with none other than Elijah and Moses up on the mountain, James and John were already deep in it.  They got involved in a dispute over which disciple was the greatest.  John, always worried about the Jesus brand had just proudly rebuked a man, who was not a part of the twelve, for casting out demons in the name of Jesus only to get rebuked by Jesus himself.

Luke tells us that at this point, with his disciples still far from understanding what he was about, Jesus began his final journey to Jerusalem.  In the Gospel, it’s a ten-chapter jaunt through the Palestinian countryside.  For us, it’ll be the focus of every Sunday Gospel from now until the end of October.  Along the way, Jesus will teach any who would follow him what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  As Jesus heads steadfastly toward the cross, we will witness miracles, sit at his feet as he teaches, be privy to private conversations with his disciples, and, hopefully, deepen our commitment to Jesus’ call to discipleship.  Before we get there, however, the Luke 9, “James and John show us how not to do it” episode has one last act.

The Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies.  In modern religious terms, it’d be like Louisville versus UK basketball or Auburn versus Alabama football on steroids.  The Samaritans were the descendants of those who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile.  Ethnically, it is likely that they ended up inter-marrying with slaves who were brought in from modern day Iraq.  Religiously, the Samaritans contended that they, rather than the exiled Jews, held most closely to the faith of their ancestors.  The key source of animosity between the two was upon which mountain God wanted the Temple to be built.  The Jews said Mount Moriah in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans argued it was Mount Gerizim situated some 45 miles to the north.  These two groups hated each other to such a degree that Jews travelling south from Galilee to Judea would go well out of their way to avoid Samaritan territory.

Jesus, however, was on a mission.  Despite the fact that it’ll take months for us to get from here to there, Jesus, having set his face for Jerusalem and the cross, didn’t have time for detours.  He and his disciples made their way straight through Samaria.  One late afternoon, as they sought a place to rest for the night, Jesus and his disciples found themselves unwelcomed in a certain Samaritan village.  Luke doesn’t give us much insight into why they weren’t invited to stay.  It could have been that the villagers hoped Jesus might stay for a while and he refused.  It might have been because Jesus and his entourage were Jewish and generations of hard feelings won the day.  We can’t be sure, but what we do know is that a lack of hospitality was a huge deal in the ancient world.  There were no Super 8 Motels in Jesus’ day.  When Mary and Joseph found “no room in the Inn” in Bethlehem, it wasn’t that the hotels were all full, but that every guest room in the city was occupied.  It was common for folks to offer food and lodging to travelers en route to major cities because one day, it might be you and your family in need of a meal and a safe place to rest for the night.

When James and John realized that a Samaritan village had dared to reject the group, they became indignant.  A lack of hospitality was a violation of the Law.  The sin that resulted in Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by fire and brimstone was a lack of hospitality to the angels of the Lord.  Certainly, James and John thought that they were doing the righteous thing in trying to show that they were right and these Samaritan were wrong. Following with what they knew about a lack of hospitality, they asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Now, we have no reason to believe that James and John could actually call down from fire from heaven.  But, wouldn’t that be tempting?  Scorched earth victories are a pretty popular pastime on social media these days.  People are willing to lose friends and alienate family members over being loud right on whatever the topic of the day might be.  Even at our highest levels of government, there is a willingness to, almost with ease, completely write-off anyone who disagrees with you on any particular issue.  The desire to be right, and to win at all costs, is slowly destroying our ability to live in community, to offer grace, and to love our neighbors.

One of the things that made Christ Church Bowling Green so attractive to me in the search process was how purple it is.  Not just your typical red congregation in the south.  Not just your average blue congregation in a college town.  Christ Church is a community of Christ’s servants who genuinely seek to learn and grow together, despite our conflicting opinions and understandings.  We are a congregation who, despite very profound differences is able to come to the altar each week and receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation side-by-side.  Scorched earth doesn’t work here.  Instead, in order to live with one another, we have to offer hospitality in our hearts and minds to those who differ from us.  As a result, at our best we are a community that is open to being changed, to growing in our faith, and unafraid to lose or admit that we are wrong from time-to-time.

This hospitable mindset is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in this place.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, warns the fledgling church that things like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarreling, dissension, and factions mean that the Spirit is not being followed.  Rather, the way we know that we are living in the Spirit of God is a life marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  May we continue to live in that Spirit, to grow in compassion and hospitality, and to remember always that we are not called to be right or to win, but simply with the help of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus in the way of love and grace.  Amen.

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Caught Unexpectedly

I’ve long since decided that social media is bad for your health.  Yet, like my love for potato chips, I keep at it.  Day after day.  I scroll through my newsfeeds, filled with anger, arrogance, and vitriol.  It certainly doesn’t bring as much satisfaction as the crisp of a kettle cooked and salted to perfection chip, but addicted as I am, my thumb slides, almost as if uncontrolled by my brain, up, and up, and up.

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At some point, it seemed like I had seen it all.  Obama didn’t do this.  Trump did that.  Hilary and Mitch did this or that.  If I wasn’t addicted to the swipe, I’d certainly be hooked on the anger.  The rage cycle is designed to keep us coming back so that the advertisers can get eyeballs on their links.  I’d probably gotten to the point of ennui, If I’m honest.  I couldn’t get angry one more time.  I couldn’t be sad again.  It was all, in the great biblical euphemism, vanity.  Yet, like a dog to its own vomit, I keep going back.

And then it happened.  I was caught unexpectedly by the image of a mother and who two young children, running away from a grenade of billowing smoke designed to sear the eyes and lungs.  What do I do with this information?  How do I react?  What do I feel?  I had nothing.  I was angry, sad, horrified, and embarrassed all at the same time.  I knew as a leader of a faith community that I was being called to say something, but I had no idea what.  So I posted this:

When words fail, I’m grateful for the wisdom contained in our BCP:‬
‪“Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us…”‬
‪And if you could take away tear gas, that’d be good too.‬
‪Amen.‬

Then, I opened the readings for Sunday and I saw this warning from Jesus, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”  He is talking about the eschaton here, but I think maybe he’s talking generically as well.  Don’t let that day, or any day, catch you unexpectedly.  There will come times when your faith will lead to you question the world in which you live.  Don’t be weighed down by worry, frivolity, or the swipe of your right thumb.  Don’t be so used to the noise that you miss the cries of the oppressed.  I still don’t know what to do or what to say, but I know that I can still pray.

Almighty God, tear down the walls that separate us, human beings divided and enslaved by sin, and gather us up on the banner of your Son, the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, and the hope of all humanity.  Amen.

Spanger

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Nope, not that Spanger

This morning’s God Pause from Luther Seminary, written by Joe Natwick, introduced me to a new word, more a portmanteau, that I had never heard before: spanger.  Just as one can become hangry -hungry and angry – when they have not had enough to eat and their blood sugar begins to drop, the author suggest that those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus can experience spanger – spiritual anger – when we see the world around us falling so short of the dream of God.  Natwick goes on to suggest that the only cure for spanger is a heaping helping of the truth.  That is, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to speak the truth in the face of injustice, oppressing, and degradation.

A quick Google search shows that Natwick cannot take credit for having created the word, spanger, however, he might be the first to use it as a combination of spiritual and anger.  Ironically, according to that ever-trusted resource, wiktionary.com, spanger’s previous use is as a pejorative term to describe a beggar.  Again a portmanteu, this earlier usage comes from combining spare and change, as in, one who begs for spare change.  This older usage, which dates all the way back to 2007, actually creates a scenario in which both uses of the word would work.

“My encounter with that spanger outside the coffee shop left me feeling spanger.”

This rather long introduction can be blamed on the Apostle Paul (or one of his disciples), who, in the letter to the Ephesians gives the Christians there permission to get angry, but with the strong caveat not to fall into sin.  This anger that the author of Ephesians speaks of is that righteous indignation that comes when we look around and see a world full of corruption, violence, and oppression, often under the guise of Christian virtue, that is so obviously not what God had in mind at the beginning of Creation.  This righteous anger should, as Natwick suggests, lead us to action.  It should spur us to speak the truth in love.  It should motivate us to work toward justice and peace.  It is God at work within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that propels us out into the world to break the bonds of oppression, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, classism, etc.

The portion of the letter to the Ephesians that we will hear on Sunday is the perfect response to those who would suggest that Christianity isn’t political.  Christianity, because it is interested in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, is, by its very nature, political, calling the kingdoms of this world to leave behind selfish desires and to remember the poor, the needy, the orphan, and the widow.  May our spanger over this world being so out of sorts compel us to good work to glory of God.

When Jesus gets blunt

This Sunday, as is the case every Fourth Sunday of Easter, Episcopalians the world over will celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  We will hear the 23rd Psalm for the second time in as many months.  Our collect will refer directly to the 11th verse of John chapter 10, and then our lesson will stop short of it at verse 10.  My friend Evan Garner, whom I’ve been remiss to link to of late, deals nicely with the difficulty preachers will have trying balance the niceties of Good Shepherd Sunday with the ongoing series of Jesus’ mixed metaphors on Good Sheepgate Sunday.  What I’m focused on today is the disconnect between Jesus as the Good Shepherd

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and Jesus as the hard-edged preacher that we hear in the first part of John 10 appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday in Year A.

Some context is helpful.  John 10 opens just after the healing of the man born blind and the ensuing confrontation with the leaders of the Synagogue.  Jesus healed the man with mud and spit on the Sabbath day, which was against the law.  The religious leaders took this violation out on the man whom Jesus had healed.  Jesus, reasonably, took offense to that and called them to the carpet.

John 9:35-41  35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.  39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. 

Our lesson opens immediately after that scene.  It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus is still speaking to the Pharisees as he says “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”  These are harsh words from Jesus: a blunt description of what he believes is happening in the Second Temple Jewish system.  The religious powers-that-be were so in bed with Rome, so focused on rules, and so eager to line their pockets with taxes and sacrifices that they were, in Jesus’ opinion, nothing more than thieves.  Worse than that, he calls them robbers, bandits, and insurrectionists, depending on how you would like to translate the Greek.  It is the same root used to describe Barabbas, the man who gets released on the Passover instead of Jesus.  The same word Mark and Matthew use to describe the men crucified on either side of Jesus.  This is not a term used for a common criminal, but for the violent, the depraved, and the treasonous.

We aren’t used to hearing Jesus be this blunt.  The way the Lectionary breaks this text up, it seems more palatable that Jesus is speaking into the ether, but he’s not.  Jesus is addressing a specific group of people, the religious elite, and calling them violent criminals.  Especially on Good Shepherd Sunday, what do we do with this knowledge?  How do we react when Jesus gets blunt?  Where’s cuddly Jesus with the fluffy sheep when we need him?

The Kingdom of God is Still Near

For those of us who run in Episcopal circles, the past few months have been really topsy-turvy.  While it is true that Episcopalians span the political spectrum, it is equally true that the majority of Episcopal priests tend to sit left of center.  The old joke that Episcopal congregations have altar rails to separate the Republicans from the Democrat might not be as true as it once was, but there is still a statistically significant difference between the political balance of the church’s laity and her clergy.  As you might guess, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has brought with it much consternation.  In recent weeks there have been two major controversies around the decision by some congregations to cease the habit of praying for the President by name and around two decisions by the Washington National Cathedral to 1) hold the usual interfaith prayer service on the eve of the Inauguration and 2) to allow a choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.  I will not weigh in on any of those questions because, by and large, it has been yet another opportunity for the Episcopal Church to shoot itself in the foot by behaving badly in disagreement.  We should have learned our lesson in 2003 following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but sadly, the rise of social media since ’03 has allowed us to be only more publicly cantankerous than we were before.

I will say this, however, that no matter what you think about what will happen when Donald J. Trump is sworn in at noon on Friday, the central message of Jesus is still true. The Kingdom of God is still near.  For my Republican friends, know that the Kingdom of God was near when the Affordable Care Act became law.  For my Democrat friends, know that the Kingdom of God is near even as it is being repealed.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent upon who is in office, but rather, its unveiling is the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, of which we are constituent members.

Our task, in light of the ongoing dis-ease in our country and the wider world, is to see Christ in each other, to be about building the Kingdom on earth, and to be discerning God’s will for the world in which we live.  It is that final piece that causes the most problems, since both sides of our current debates are good at claiming God is on their side, but if we work hard at the first bit, at seeing Christ in each other, and especially looking for Christ in those with whom we disagree, then the Kingdom of God comes even closer than it had been before.

As we approach an historic moment, with some who rejoice, some who mourn, and some who fear, I’m looking toward the Kingdom, looking for Christ in my neighbor, and committing now, more than ever, to work toward God’s dream for creation that God so loved that he sent his only Son not to condemn for its failures, but to save for its potential.  The Kingdom of God is still near, dear reader, pray that your eyes might be open to see your place in bringing it into reality.

Bathroom Mirror Worthy

One way to surround yourself with Scripture is to write a few of your favorite Bible verses on Post-It notes and hang them on your bathroom mirror.  That way, every time you brush your teeth, wash your hands, or do your hair, you can’t help but see things like “God is love” (1 John 4:8) or “God has a plan for you: plans to prosper and not harm; plans for hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) or “Faith is the confidence of things hoped for, the assurance of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).

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Maybe not this many

As I read the lessons appointed for Sunday, I ran across a quote from the Track 2 Psalm that was tailor made for my bathroom mirror.  “Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; * do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:9,  BCP).  If I could figure out a way to refrain from anger in car line, my life would be so much easier.  If could manage to leave rage alone, I might not need blood pressure meds.  What really caught my attention was the Psalmist’s refrain through Psalm 37, “Do not fret yourself.”

According to Google, fret is a word that is actually coming back into vogue.  This is probably due to our increasingly stress based lifestyles of working too hard to make enough money to pay of the too much stuff we’ve convinced ourselves we need.  There is a second definition of fret, however, that is actually closer to the original Hebrew meaning. While we all know fret to mean “to be constantly worried or anxious,” it can also mean to “gradually wear away (something) by rubbing or gnawing.”  To put this in perspective, the Grand Canyon was made by water fretting rock.

In the Hebrew, this word that appears three times in Psalm 37, means “to be kindled into flame” or “to heat oneself in vexation.”

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Be it anxiety, stress, or anger, the constant force of negativity in our lives will eventually lead to a flame, which can easily grow into a flame thrower that does real damage to those around us if we’re not careful.

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In this bathroom mirror worthy passage, the Lord invites us to lay aside fretting, to not lot those things that would gnaw us into worry, frustration, and rage get the best of us, and instead, to take delight in the Lord.

Anger isn’t sin, but supressing it can be.

I got my feelings hurt yesterday.  As I laid in bed, I stewed and stewed and stewed to the point of almost boiling over.  In the rare case that something like this happens, my usual response is to get out of bed, sit down in front of my computer and write an email to the person who upset me.  I don’t send it, at least not for twelve hours, and usually the act of getting the thoughts out of my head, down my arm, through my fingers, and into an email is enough to help me let go of my anger.  Last night, I chose a different path, mostly because my laptop was packed away and I was too lazy to set it up.  I just kept laying there until it occurred to me that I should pray.  What a novel idea for a priest in the Church!

I prayed for the people who hurt me.  I prayed for our relationships.  I prayed for our future together.  I prayed that I might be forgiven for my wrongs and that I might be able to forgiven them theirs.  I was still hurt when it was all over, and I think that’s OK.  I didn’t feel quite as bad, didn’t feel quite as ugly, didn’t feel quite as angry.  And while I did write that email this morning, it was from a much better place, and I most likely won’t send it.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians goes against the cult of nice that pervades the modern Church by suggesting that it is OK to be angry… for a little while.  Lately, we’ve become so obsessed with not hurting anyone’s feelings, we’ve turned their natural reaction when we do, anger, into a sin.  We’ve said that trying to be nice counts more than your feelings in response to our failure, and that is a) not Biblical and b) impossible to sustain as long as people are involved in community.

It is OK to get angry when someone hurts you.  It is not OK for that anger to lead you to sin, and yes, I think passive aggressive behavior might be the leading sin in the Church today.  It is not OK to let that anger linger and ultimately be defined by it.  We need to relearn the virtue of anger, how to work through it, how to pray through it, and how to forgive.  As long as the Church continues to assert, passive aggressively (of course), that anger is a sinful emotion we will teach people to suppress it, stuff it deep down inside which allows it to fester, to build, and to control our lives.

So go ahead and get angry, but do not sin.  Get angry and then follow Jesus’ advice by praying for your enemies.  Get angry and pray for forgiveness your own failings.  And no matter what, follow Paul’s advice and don’t let the sun go down on your anger.  Work through it right then and right there.  You’ll feel better in morning, I guarantee it.