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.

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Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

A cure for hopelessness

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him because they were “harassed and helpless, likes sheep without a shepherd.” (NRSV) A little digging in the Greek and my favorite outdated resource Robertson’s Word Pictures tells us that the plight of the crowd was even worse than that.  Other translations render it thusly:

  • Their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. – NLT
  • They were faint and cast aside – YLT
  • They fainted and were scattered abroad – KJV

The Greek word translated at “harassed” or “faint” is ekloo’o which means anything from “being set free” to “troubled” to “despondent and faint hearted.”  The crowd was bordering on hopelessness.  This is because, as the second word, rhipto, translated as “helpless” or “cast aside” insinuates that someone or something else was acting upon them.  They were, as we might say today, feeling like the victims of a divide and conquer technique.

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We live in a world of unprecedented connection and unmitigated isolation.  Those things that have been created to “bring us together” have in many ways become the place in which we most often tear ourselves apart.  Facebook’s unfollow feature allows us to feel like we are connected with hundreds, even thousands of “friends” while actually living in a echo chamber of our own ideologies.  Each succeeding social media platform comes into existence so young people can escape being “followed” by their parents and grandparents.  In the end, our plight is worse than the crowd that followed Jesus because, we are not only being divided by outside forces, but often it is we ourselves who work to define ourselves against something or someone.  At some point, I have to wonder, will we wake up one day and realize that we too are like sheep without a shepherd, faint hearted, helpless, and despondent?

Jesus’ reaction to the crowd in search of hope is to commission his disciples to offer hope, but as we learn from the various Gospel narratives, more often than not, the disciples are the same flock of harassed and helpless sheep to which they are sent.  Our calling is no different.  Despite our ongoing need for a Savior to show us the Kingdom of God, we are called to help others find their way to Jesus.  Sometimes, it will be us showing them the Kingdom.  At other times, perhaps they will be the light of hope for us.  Ultimately, the cure for the hopelessness of division and faint heartedness is a community of compassion, faith, and love that can remind us, with regularity, that the Kingdom of God is as near as a relationship in Christ.

Wanted: FT Laborers for the Harvest

As I scrolled through my Instagram feed this morning, I came to several realizations.  First of all, I noticed just how many of my friends are involved in pyramid sales programs.  I say this with no condemnation since my wife wold Mary Kay for several years.  I can see the value in the system of a leader training underlings and gaining value from their contribution.  It is a fair system that rewards those with the drive to work. As  the old adage goes, “When you work for yourself, you can work whenever you want to, as long as you always want to work.”  I have friends who are selling personal fitness lifestyles, personal care products, and some strange patch that helps you Thrive.  Those wraps and Advocare seem to have fallen out of vogue, but over the years, I’ve seen it all.

My second realization, which prompted a post on social media, was that “on the whole, my friends who sell shakes, patches, and face creams are better evangelists for their thing than my clergy friends are for Jesus.”  That is, by and large, these friends who are selling a product are using every opportunity to do so.  Their feed isn’t filled with extraneous noise, but is on message all the time.  Whether it is a post about family, about vacation, or about the product, each one comes with the message that whatever it is they are selling makes whatever it is they are doing better.  Several of these friends are team leaders, and I assume they are modeling for their team members what it means to “live the life.”

On the contrary, posts from my clergy friends and those who are strong lay leaders rarely have anything to do with “living the life.”  Sure, you could extrapolate that the post from a quasi-news site about the latest bad thing the President has done is about the Christian call to justice, but it certainly isn’t explicit.  You could notice that the pictures from an exotic vacation are actually of the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, but the hashtag wouldn’t lead you to Jesus.  In this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus commissions his disciples as laborers for a plentiful harvest.  The task is singular: to stay on message that the Kingdom of God has come near.  Everything they do: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; is about “that abundant life.”

How can we, as followers of Jesus, use our lives as witnesses of the Gospel?  Is there a calling in this culture of consumerism, in which even my 8 year old has noticed that somebody is always selling something, to share an alternative message of God’s steadfast love?  How do we use our influence to share the Gospel, literally the Good News, that the Kingdom of God has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?

Given to Good Works

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. – Collect for Proper 23

Several years ago, there was a viral story making its way around the intertubes about Pastor Jeremiah Steepek who supposedly dressed himself up as a homeless man in front of the megachurch to which he had been recently called, to see if anyone would stop to care for him.  As the story goes, “He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food… NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”

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Much righteous indignation followed this post around the internet, especially among Mainliners who were certain that their church would have been better to Pastor Steepek’s alter ego than those feel good evangelicals.  For those who were intent on thumbing their nose at evangelicalism, Christianity, or organized religion in general, it didn’t much matter that the story wasn’t actually true, it proved the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

This Sunday, Episcopalians around the world will pray that we might be “given to good works,” a phrase that feels unnecessarily archaic, but means that through God’s grace, we hope to be predisposed to helping our neighbor.  This prayer is absolutely lovely in theory, but like the members of the fake Pastor Steepek’s church, I wonder if we really want to deal with what it means.  Because what Sunday’s Gospel lesson tells us we are praying for is the ability to see the people that we would rather not see.  We are praying to see the injustices that we would rather ignore.  We are praying to see the works of the Devil that we would rather explain away.  We are praying to see things that will break our hearts and motivate us to act in ways that will take us far from our comfort zones.

Being “given to good works” sounds nice, but when it comes right down to it, good works aren’t always easy, fun, or even, safe.  Still, let us pray for the grace to see the world in all its brokenness, to be moved to action, and be given to good works.

Two or Three in the Age of Social Media

Today has been a long day, and it is not yet over.  It has been a long day, but it has been a good day.  This morning, my Rector, mentor, colleague, and friend, TKT underwent surgery to remove a mass on his right lung.  At the beginning of the day, there was much uncertainty: would the initial biopsy show cancer; could the mass be removed; would they find anything else once they were in here; was he healthy enough to withstand a lobectomy or would they have to do a full pneumonectomy?

In the five weeks since the initial realization that something was in his lung that should be, there have been a lot of people praying for TKT, but last night, when he posted on Facebook about today’s events, thanks to the power of social media hundreds and thousands of people were praying.  And to think, Jesus set the bar at only two or three.  As we gathered in the pre-op waiting room this morning, the family and I recounted where the prayers were coming from: Alabama, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina, Kentucky, even California and everywhere in between.  Despite all of the uncertainty this morning, there was a peace in that room, the sort of peace which “surpasses all understanding.”  The sort of peace that comes when two or three are gathered with a whole cloud of witnesses around the globe and Jesus is in their midst.

The surgery turned out better than expected.  No cancer in the initial biopsy allowed them to go for the more invasive surgery.  Only the top lobe of the right lung had to be removed, and by 3 o’clock he was sitting up, awake and alert with morphine pump in hand.  Thanks be to God for a long, but good day; for faithful friends; for ongoing prayers; and that Jesus keeps his promise to be present when 2 or 3 or 300 or 3000 are gathered together.