What are we looking for?

I am a walking dichotomy.  On the one hand, I write a blog that I hope a lot of people will read.  I post on instagram and facebook, hoping for lots of likes.  I lead a congregation that I hope will grow.  On the other hand, I have deep misgivings about the rise of religious celebrity and the cult of personality that seems to be at the root of much of what calls itself Christianity in 21st century America.  The world in me wants to be somewhat church famous (with the justification of, it’ll lead more people to follow Jesus in what I’ve deemed to be the right way).  The Holy Spirit in me wants to be anonymous and to let God take care of the soul saving work.  The world in me looks down my nose at folks like Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, and people still using the Royal Wedding sermon to prop up our Presiding Bishop.  The Holy Spirit in me argues that there is no competition in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a struggle I deal with on a regular basis.

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Being rich because of the poor is a lot of fun.

This dichotomy is hitting home this week as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Advent 3A.  Eight chapters after we first met John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea last Sunday, this week, we’ll get the continuation of the JBap story.  John has been arrested.  As was the custom of the time, his disciples ministered to him in jail.  As they brought him food and clothing, they also shared news from the outside.  Jesus was on the move.  His fame was beginning to increase.  He was preaching repentance, healing the sick, and his followers were growing.  Something was missing, however.  John had expected the Messiah to do or say something that Jesus wasn’t, and so he asked his disciples to go meet Jesus and to make sure he really was the one they had been waiting for.

In response, Jesus hits this dichotomy of worldly fame and godly faithfulness right on the head.  First, Jesus lays out a vision for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Despite thousands of years of expectation, both before and after the coming of Christ, the vision set forth by Jesus isn’t about power, prestige, or fame, but rather, its about humility, compassion, and good news for those on the margins.  Second, Jesus challenges all who would wish that God was more interested in political power by reminding them, and us, that what brought people out to see John, and by extension, what brought them out to see Jesus, wasn’t those in the soft robes of the palace, but the messiness of the wilderness.  It is there, amidst the locusts, dust, and the poor that the Kingdom of God will be found.  It is in humility, poverty, and suffering with, not in expensive suits, fancy houses, private jets, and book deals that the Kingdom of God will be found.

Ultimately, I think we are all walking dichotomies.  Our motivations are often mixed.  Our deepest desires are shaped by the world even as we strive to live for the Kingdom.  In Christ, however, we have our exemplar.  In John the Baptist, we have one who came to point to the way, even as he struggled with this dichotomy himself.  Across thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history we have all kinds of examples of those who feebly struggled to live for Christ and not for self, and this Tuesday in Advent, as I’ll once again be asked to leave a room while the Vestry talks my stipend for 2020, I’m grateful for the examples of those who don’t trust in fame or riches, but in the power of the lamb.

The Pharisee

As I’ve disclosed on this blog before, I’ve never been much of a reader.  There have been periods in my life when I’ve done a lot of reading, but it was all required to graduate.  The books I have read for fun, and enjoyed, are usually so obscure, it has been hard to find another one like it.  So, I plod my way through books, sometimes enjoying them, sometimes, setting them aside.  One of the many detriments of not being a reader is that my imagination is often lacking.  Television and movies do that work for me.  Every once in a while, however, I can get there.  I’ve been reading Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, and when I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation, I shouted (ask our Christian Ed Director, I actually shouted), “That’s who I pictured for that character,” when the scene cut to Tim Blake Nelson playing Ralph Myers.

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My peculiar imagination went into overdrive this afternoon as I read through the well known parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector appointed for Sunday.  Perhaps because it came on the heels of reading “Paul’s” words at the tail end of 2nd Timothy, but as I read this parable today, I began to picture Paul as the antagonistic Pharisee.  In his letters (and the several ascribed to him), Paul shows an amazing ability to brag on himself while suggesting that he isn’t bragging.  Maybe it is a quality that Jesus’ audience associated with the Pharisees, but as I heard, in my mind, the man say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” I couldn’t help but hear Paul rehearsing his pedigree as an Apostle who “fought the good fight,… finished the race,…. kept the faith.”

It was then that I was reminded of a challenge that faces every preacher – don’t make it about you.  It can be so tempting to make yourself the hero in every story, the faithful example in a world of heathens, the example for your flock to follow, but it would seem that’s not really how this leadership thing in supposed to work.  As is clear in the parable (though clear parable is an oxymoron (sorry for the excessive use of parenthetical notations)) the proper approach to leadership in the Kingdom of God is humble leadership, even servant leadership.  It is about leading by actions and not by words.  It is about loving those to whom you have been called to lead.  So, I’m sure Jesus didn’t have Paul in mind when to told that parable, but sometimes, it is fun to imagine.


In case you wanted to watch the trailer for Just Mercy, here it is.

Here is your God

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Matthias Gruenewald’s Crucifixion

The more I think about the role of John the Baptist in salvation history, the more amazed I am at his humility, and the more cognizant I am of my need for the Holy Spirit.  As I read both Isaiah’s prophecy and Mark’s summation of John’s work, I was reminded of Gruenewald’s painting of the Crucifixion on the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Here we see lots of imagery, all smashed together, to a very positive effect.  Beginning at the left, we find Mary, white as a ghost at the ghastly sight she has been forced to behold being comforted by the Disciple whom Jesus Loved.  At Jesus’ feet is a woman, likely Mary Magdalene, alabaster jar nearby, kneeling in worship of her Lord upon the cross.  Two the right of the emaciated Jesus, covered in wounds, his whole body pricked with thorns, we find the Passover Lamb, whose blood is being poured out from a wound that matches the spear prick on Jesus, into a chalice, a reminder of Jesus’ commandment that we make Eucharist in remembrance of him.

Finally, at the far right, we see a strange looking character.  His hair and beard seem unkempt in Renaissance terms.  He is wearing a cloak of camel hair and holding a codex, likely the book of the Prophets.  He is clearly John the Baptist.  Now, we know the Biblical witness tells us that John had long since died when Jesus was crucified, and yet, here he is, standing at the foot of the cross, when all but Mary, Mary, and John the Evangelist had abandoned him.  Notice what he is doing.  John is pointing at the disfigured man, writhing in pain upon the cross.  The words at his outstretched finger are Latin and read “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John was a wildly popular character.  The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees feared his popularity, even after his death.  It would have been easy for John to lose perspective and to begin to think that it was all about him.  Like a preacher in the receiving line, John could have begun to think that maybe his own work had brought him to the level of his fame, but he did not waver.  His task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.”  He did his job so faithfully, that Grunewald felt compelled to include him in what would become one of the most famous paintings of the crucifixion in history.  John, the one who came to point the way to the Messiah.

Keeping one’s word

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Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.  These seem like simple words from Jesus.  As his disciples, as it is for all women and men, our word should be sufficient.  I can think of only only two reasons why the swearing of an oath would be necessary.  The first is because the stakes are too high.  Think about it, in a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth, under penalty of law, because the ramifications of lying are so very powerful.  Or, when an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the the Republic.  I’ve done a lot of this kind of promising of late.  Whether it was my signature on a Letter of Agreement here at Christ Church or the joint signatures of my wife and I on the 30 year note for our house: the need to be absolutely sure we mean what we say is strong.

The other need for an oath comes when the person can no longer be taken at their word.  This is the more insidious reason, and the one I’m sure Jesus was addressing in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  So, then, if I have promised to love my neighbor, and am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

We live in times that are full of untruths and half-truths.  Our news sources are more and more reliant on “inside sources” and in a culture where sales and clicks drive everything we do, stories are often brought to press that might not be fully vetted at the time.  Worse yet, according to the Pew Research Center nearly 20% of Americans use Social Media as their primary news source.  Anyone who has spent any time on Social Media can tell you that Facebook is probably the worst possible way to get accurate information.  The changing world is creating millions of people who think they are well informed, but are filled with half-truths or worse.  In this climate, yes meaning yes and no meaning no becomes harder and harder to live up to.

So, what do we do as followers of Jesus?  We do our homework.  We engage those with whom we disagree.  And above all, when we aren’t sure our yes really means yes or our no really means no, we have to get comfortable living in ambiguity.  “I don’t know,” must be an acceptable answer.  For, unless we are avoiding an issue about which we actually do know something, often times “I don’t know” is the most truthful things we can say about something.  As an added bonus, saying “I don’t know” is an exercise in humility, a topic about which Jesus will have plenty to say later in this sermon.

In a day and age when truth is relative and lies seem the norm, there is great power in the keeping of one’s word.

A Timely Reminder

If last week served no other purpose, it reminded me, once again, that there are two strongly prevailing and often at odds visions of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in America in the 21st century.  Whether it is the furor over the election of Donald Trump as President or the ongoing lack of real conversation between the perpendicular arguments of pro-life vs. pro-choice, the world has seen Christians arguing among themselves, at best, and outright denying the faith of the other, at worst over the course of the last month, well, maybe more like a year, or decade, or more.

It is in that climate that the liturgical calendar turns its page to the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the only words that anybody can remember from the prophet Micah.  At the tail end of a long list of rhetorical questions about what actually pleases God, come these words, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

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Those who have hung around this blog for a while know that my favorite Greek word is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  It is a word that would be helpful for every Christian to make a part of their vocabulary.  Most of what masquerades as deep theological debate these days is actually vitriolic arguments over adiaphora.  That’s not to say that having a well informed theology is important.  For example, if one were to take “thou shalt not kill” seriously, then it would behoove that one to take an holistic view of that commandment.

That being said, it does Christianity at large a huge disservice to publicly argue about matters indifferent with the sort of anger with which Christians have come to be known of late.  I am particularly grateful, then, for the words of the prophet Micah as a baseline for what it is we are to be about.  God has already told us what really matters in the heart of God: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.  The current state of religious debate fails at the latter two points, and it is usually in the context of debate over the former.  There are gray areas in what justice looks like, I am fully willing to admit that, but until those conversations happen in the context of loving kindness and humility, we as Christians will be unable to move forward toward effectively working toward the goal of building the Kingdom.

In Rotary Clubs, there is the Four-Way Test for every decision:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Perhaps as Christians, we might take a more trinitarian tack, and ask ourselves these questions before we hit the comment button on social media:

  1. Is it JUST?
  2. It is done in LOVING KINDNESS?
  3. Does it promote WALKING HUMBLY with God?