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.

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The Trinity Incomprehensible

The audio for this sermon is available on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.


In 1939, Dorothy Sayers, a novelist, playwright, poet, and Christian humanist, published a pamphlet entitled “Strong Meat.”  The odd title is based on the King James Version of Hebrews 5:14, in which the author admonishes his audience for being ready only for milk and not solid food.  “Strong meat,” the author writes, “is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”  In her pamphlet, Sayers offers a tongue in cheek version of the strong meat of the Christian faith.  It ends with a catechism-like set of questions and answers on the basics of Christian theology.  In response to the question, “What is the doctrine of the Trinity?” Sayers writes, “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.  Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.”[1]

With that inauspicious beginning, we note that today the Church calendar turns to Trinity Sunday.  It is the only day on the Kalendar on which we remember a specific doctrine of the Church.  Note that Trinity Sunday isn’t a feast celebrating the Triune God.  No, that would be too easy.  Instead, today we are invited to reflect specifically upon the dense theological doctrine of the Trinity.  If my week had gone better, I would have happily preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity in hopes of moving us from Sayers’ incisive understanding of the working definition of the Trinity that many of us hold, to a fuller understanding of how God can be one God, co-eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being.[2]  Alas, there was other work to be done this week, and the seven books on Trinitarian theology on my book shelves remained un-opened.  Rather than doing the inevitable heretical dance of the unprepared preacher, I thought that perhaps we might celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity this morning by exploring what our lessons teach us about the role we are invited to play in the ongoing relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the most part, it seems like the lessons for today were selected simply because they explicitly mention all three persons of the Trinity.  While that might be the case, I am also of the belief that with God, there are no coincidences.  If we dig into these lessons and pay attention to how the references to the Trinity are used, there is a whole lot to learn.  Take, for example, the short lesson from Second Corinthians.  Things in the Church in Corinth were not going well when Paul wrote his letters.  There had been quite a bit of infighting among the Corinthian Christians, and by now there were a lot of hard feelings.  In his first letter, Paul addressed the issues head on, and yet, some of the problems continued.  Here in his second letter, which he called a “letter of tears,” Paul used some strong language to draw very clear lines in the sand about what it means to claim to follow Jesus as Lord.  Our lesson comes from the end of this difficult letter, and it strikes a surprisingly hopeful tone, given all that has passed.  “Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

The tradition teaches us that the very nature of the Trinity is that of a perfect relationship of love.  It is out of the abundance of that love that creation happens.  There is so much love between and among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that creation is made just so God can have something else to love.  As such, we who follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, are made to take our place in that ongoing out-pouring of love.  Agreeing with one another and living in peace is really difficult.  Anybody who has ever driven through Nashville at rush hour or gone grocery shopping on the Saturday before Easter can attest to that fact, but as beings created by God’s love, saved by Jesus, and sustained by the Spirit, the reality is that we have everything we need to live in love and peace with everyone around us.  Our very nature as Trinity-created-beings defaults to love.

This is made even more clear in our Gospel lesson for today.  After spending most of Easter season not dealing with resurrection stories, here in the Season after Pentecost, we’re back with the resurrected Jesus and his disciples.  Matthew’s famous “Great Commission” occurs several days after that first Easter Day, some seventy miles from Jerusalem.  The eleven have travelled to Galilee based on the word of the two Mary’s who were commanded by both an angel and the risen Jesus himself to tell the disciples to go to Galilee and meet him there.  Truth be told, one way or another, these men were headed back to Galilee.  Either Jesus would appear to them, as the women had promised, or they would pick up their fishing nets and return to the life they had once known.  As they slowly made their way up the mountain, I’d take the under on whether three of the disciples really believed Jesus would meet them there.  And yet, there he stood!  They worshiped even as they couldn’t believe their eyes, and Jesus began to speak.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  God didn’t wait for the disciples to get their act together.  God didn’t require them to perfectly understand what was happening.  God didn’t even ask them to stop doubting.  Instead, the authority of Father, vested fully in the Son, was handed over to the confused disciples through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the doubt and the confusion; the joy and the worship; God invited the disciples to join in the love-filled work of the Trinity: creating disciples by sharing the grace of Jesus and teaching by word and example what love looks like.

In some ways, Dorothy Sayers’ definition of the Trinity was absolutely spot on.  The love of the Father is incomprehensible.  The grace of the Son is incomprehensible.  That the Triune God would invite us, in our mixture of doubt and worship, to share that love and grace with the world is incomprehensible, but that is, I think, precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about.  It wasn’t made up by theologians to make things more difficult, but rather, our Trinitarian understanding of God as a loving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an attempt to explain how our broken humanity can even begin to receive the strength required to do the challenging work of loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.  In the end, it is probably easier to understand the Trinity than it is to live into our calling as Trinitarian Christians.  It makes more sense that God is co-eternally three persons of one substance than it does to try to love the world in the way God loves you.   That kind of love is incomprehensible, but then again, so is the Trinity after which it is modeled.  None of this means that we should quit trying, however.  Instead, this Trinity Sunday, I commit, and I hope you will too, to developing a deeper understanding of the Trinity by living into it: loving the world like the Father does, sharing Christ’s grace with everyone I meet, and allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen me to care for those in need.  It might seem to be an impossible task, but nothing is impossible with the God of incomprehensible love who is incomprehensibly Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being.  Amen.

[1] Sayers, Dorothy Strong Meat 1939, accessed 6/8/2017 http://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/sayers-strong/sayers-strong-00-h.html#ch02dogma

[2] A paraphrase of the Proper Preface for Trinity Sunday, BCP, 380.

Jesus was Tired

It is hard for me to believe, but it has been more than two years since the candidates for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast took part in the walkabout portion of the discernment process.  Over the course of several days, the candidates traveled around the diocese attending a series of large gatherings in which they were invited to answer questions, many canned, so that we might be able to get to know them a little better.   The folks from St. Paul’s in Foley attended the event in Daphne, which was the fifth and final event in a rugged week for these candidates.  I remember being glad that I was able to attend this final walkabout meeting because I wanted to see how my future bishop might behave at the end of a long week.  “I need a bishop who can take my call at 5pm on a Friday when I’ve just learned the treasurer has been embezzling money,” I told one person.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the ministry of a bishop means long hours, lots of personal interaction, and the ability to be “on” at the drop of a hat.  All four candidates seemed to handle the situation pretty well, and I left feeling like we would be in good hands with any of them at the helm.

When preaching on Sunday’s Gospel lesson, most preachers will focus on the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well – with good reason – but this morning, still fighting through the haze of last night’s nighttime cold medicine caplet,  I’m struck by the context that John spells out for his readers.  “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”  Jesus was tired out by his journey.  Not only does this detail do the hard work of humanizing Jesus, a noble task in John’s lofty and cosmic Gospel, but it also gives us a lens through which we see the rest of the story.  When Jesus rather curtly demands a drink from the woman at the well, we are more apt, I think, to brush it off because he was tired.  And maybe we read the story of this deep encounter between Jesus and the woman with more awe because of how spot on Jesus seems to be, even in the midst of his exhaustion.

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Just as I needed a bishop who could do the hard work of ministry when s/he was tired, so too I appreciate the Messiah who, though worn out by the journey, is still ready to show love and compassion.  It is dangerous to moralize Jesus’ behavior since we can never actually be like Jesus, but I think this detail is a helpful reminder to all of us who represent Christ in the world that even when we feel like we need to hide away for a while, even when we are tired and ready for a break, even when we would rather do anything else but be around God’s beloved and hurting people, we are called to love, to show compassion, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ both by our words and through our actions.

Boarderlands

In the northeast of France there is a small sliver of land known to history as Alsace-Lorraine.  Known for it industrial strength in the latter half of the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine became a coveted piece of property for the Germans who ultimately took it from France after winning the Franco-Prussian War. For 47 years, from 1871 until 1918, it was a part of the German Empire.  For most of that time, Germany ruled Alsace-Lorraine with great attention, for fear of losing it back to France.  After World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed its territory, but realizing that 47 years and some continued German interest during World War was enough to establish some pretty distinct habits, the French government gives Alsace-Lorraine a lot of autonomy, allowing local law to reign.   Such is the messiness of a borderland.

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While on his way from Galilee, where much of his teaching took place, to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed, tortured, crucified, and buried, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the unseemly territory of the Samaritans.  Like Alsace-Lorraine, Samaria was something of a disputed territory.  The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, but were those who had been left behind in the Babylonian Exile.  They married those outside of Judaism, they adjusted their worship in light of the destruction of the Temple, and because of that, they were resoundingly hated by the Jews.  That this unclean territory existed between Galilee and Judea meant that there was a wide swath of borderland to pass through as one traveled between the two.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus precisely in that messy place; en route to Judea, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria.  To make matters worse, and to clarify that he really was in no man’s land, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper colony.  In all of history, there might be no more an in-between place than a leper colony on the border between the Jews and the Samaritans.  You might not want to waste as much time as I have on this borderland thing, but the placement of this story geographically is worth noting.  The preacher might want to help her congregation see just how “out there” Jesus is in this moment because while we read this story as being about forgiveness, if we focus on  Jesus, then this story is all about crossing boundaries.

With compassion, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of geography, of politics, of religion, in order to care for those who have been permanently placed in no man’s land.  They have been removed from society.  They no longer have an identity beyond “leper.”  Note that the tenth leper who returns to give thanks isn’t identified as a Samaritan until after his healing takes place.  These lepers weren’t even considered human beings.  And yet, Jesus sees them.  He treats them as worthy of love and care.  In that place of in-betweeness, Jesus heals them, restores their humanity, and makes them whole.

You reap what you sow

It has been a little over month since JCC passed on to larger life.  Throughout the course of his illness and in the 30+ days since his death, his partner and friend VG has commented on many occasions how amazed, even surprised, she is at the care and compassion she’s received from her church family.  I’ll admit that I’m pretty proud at how Saint Paul’s has stepped up to support VG and her family over the past few months, but I’m keenly aware that her case is a special one.  I’d like to think we’d rise up in the same way for everyone, but the reality is that people have been willing to go above and beyond because J and V have spent the last two decades sowing joy and gladness everywhere they went.

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It isn’t just that our church has stepped up, but every community they’ve been a part of from social clubs to doctors offices have reached out in loving support for VG during these difficult days.  J and V sow the Spirit.  They bring with them smiles, laughter, compassion, and the occasional hard truth.  When I was down and out with the flu, it was V and J who dropped chicken soup at my front door.  When I missed V’s 80th birthday party, she wasn’t afraid to let me know of her disappointment.  I had missed an opportunity for community.  When volunteers were needed at Foley Elementary, J went, even as his eyesight failed him more and more each day.

As Paul told the Christians in Galatia, those who sow in the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Even as she mourns, V is experiencing eternal life through the Spirit here on earth.  Paul doesn’t leave us on our own to figure out what sowing the Spirit looks like.  It isn’t dependent upon personality.  You need not be an extrovert to make it happen.  Instead, it is quite simply doing the right thing.

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

They will know we are Christians by our…

One of Jesus’ more famous sayings comes early in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples on the night before he died.  After washing their feet, he gives them the new commandment that we heard two weeks ago: Love another.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In my context, as an Episcopalian in the Central Gulf Coast, John 13.35 has become larger than life as it is a key song in the Cursillo Community, a strong voice for renewal in my diocese.  While there is quite a bit about Peter Scholtes’ song that is left to be desired, it is a solid reminder that our call as disciples is to love one another.

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Of course, this isn’t the only thing Jesus says his disciples should be know for.  In fact, in the very same speech, some four chapters later, which we will hear on Sunday, Jesus says that the world will come to know the Father through those who are in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father and the Father is in Christ Jesus.  What it means to be “in Christ” is a little ambiguous in the NRSV, but several older translations (King James and Young’s Literal) spell out what it means to be in Christ.

“… as Thou Father art in me, and I in Thee; that they also in us may be one, that the world may believe that Thou didst send me.”

The world will know that we are disciples of Jesus, who was the one sent by God to save the world, by our unity.  If this really is a criteria for God’s successful evangelization of the world, then we are doing a pretty poor job of living up to it.  American Christianity, in particular, seems to have as many flavors as there are ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  How, then, can we live into the ideal that Jesus set for us in his Farewell Discourse?  The key seems to be that we go back to the first test of discipleship: that we have love for one another.

Unity comes from love.  It comes from respecting differences of opinion while honoring the core values we share.  Unity can be found between Southern Baptists, Congregationalists, Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in our shared love for Jesus Christ and for one another.  We may disagree on governance, on scriptural interpretation, on the relationship of science and faith, on same-sex marriage, on liturgy, on an educated pastorate, on musical style, and even on the date of Easter, but in the end, our unity can be found in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father.  Would that we could show the world that unity instead of the messiness of our differences that they might come to believe in the one whom God has sent.

The Abiding Place of God

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“In my Father’s house there are many mansions” color woodcut by Irving Amen

John’s Gospel message can be summed up in several different ways.  For many, the heart of the Johannine message is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that any who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”  That’s a good one, and so is the very next one, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”  There are also the seven “I am” statements in which Jesus not-so-subtly declares himself by the unspeakable name of God.  Those are a pretty powerful witness to Jesus as well.  Others might look to Jesus’ statement mission in 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  All good, I tell you, all good.

However, as I read the first Gospel lesson choice for Sunday, I was struck by another thematic highlight in John’s Gospel, the abiding place of God.  It begins in the Prologue with John’s famous verse, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson says it, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  That verb, to dwell/abide/move in, reappears in noun form twice in the fourteenth chapter.  The first time is in the famous funeral lesson line that is represented in the Irving Amen woodcut above: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”  Other translations say “dwelling places.”

It occurs again in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, as Jesus promised Judas (not Iscariot) and the rest of the disciples that God: Father, Son and (maybe) Holy Spirit will make make God’s abiding place alongside those who love Jesus and follow his commandment to love one another.  So it is that as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and be enthroned on the cross as the King of kings, he assures them that his death won’t be the end of God’s plan to live in our neighborhood.  In fact, in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God will make room for more than just the Son to abide among us, but for the fullness of the Triune God to abide with those who strive to be disciples of the Gospel of love.