A Wal*Mart Theologian

One of the gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to attend continuing education events.  I’ve been to all sorts over the years, from emergent church events to Episcopal Church conferences to one United Methodist Conference sponsored gathering to a one-day social media bootcamp.  Even my four summers in the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee counts.  The broad spectrum of opportunities has helped me continue to grow in my ministry, but I’ve also started to notice some similarities.  Most, if not all, of these events end up in small group sessions.  Most, if not all, of these small group sessions require you to make an introduction.  I’ve introduced myself in a lot of different ways over the last decade, but perhaps my favorite is as a Wal*Mart Theologian.  That is, I am a firm believer that what I am preaching on Sunday morning has to also work in the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart. (1)

31542807_10155479293593807_3385684408328519680_n

This understanding of theology and preaching came back to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  This passage offers two fairly familiar parables from Jesus.  The first, maybe less commonly cited one, is about the sower who scatters seed, which grows, though he knows not how.  It is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how it is constantly in motion, coming ever closer to our experience, even if we can’t always see it or feel it.  The second parable is of the mustard seed, which, though small, will grow to be a large bush that offers shade to the birds.  It too is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how seemingly insignificant acts of love and grace can make a profound impact on a world desperate for redemption.

The particular nuanced understanding of what Jesus is saying isn’t what took me to the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart, however.   Instead, it is Mark’s narrative reflection on the way Jesus taught that caught my attention.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…

Jesus shared the Kingdom of God with the crowds by way of commonly understood images.  He didn’t sit in the Synagogue and pontificate academically about a systematic theology of soteriology, but rather, he told the people stories, using the world they knew, to try to explain the unexplainable love of God.  Jesus was a first-century Wal*Mart Theologian, and by way of parables, which we often scratch our heads over, dig too deep to understand, and make super complicated, he taught the people of God’s saving love.

While you are working hard, dear reader, to prepare a sermon for Sunday on the content of these two parables, remember the example of our Lord and simply tell your people of God’s mercy, grace, and love in a language all can understand.


(1) Wal*Mart made me angry several years ago, so I rarely shop there anymore.  I guess I’m a Kroger Theologian now, but regional grocery store brands don’t carry the same weight.

Advertisements

[Don’t] Get Caught Up

Last week, I noted that the Revelation of John is very rarely preached on in Episcopal congregations.  As it is with evangelism, the call to repentance, and discipleship, the lack of attention we Episcopalians give to the eschaton is to our detriment.  Rather that offering a positive glimpse into what God might have to say about sin, salvation, and the end times, we instead focus on not being “like them.”  We castigate the bad theology of rapture preachers, while offering little, if any, in the way of a coherent theology of the final judgment. This Sunday, as our congregations hear Paul’s description of the final hours from 1 Thessalonians, their minds will immediately gravitate toward that bumper sticker they might have seen on their way to work last week, and we will have nothing to offer them.

 

caeab-funny-car-bumper-sticker-rapture

What if preachers did take some time to carefully consider the final days?  What if, instead of laughing at those who read the Left Behind series and take is seriously, we presented an alternative vision of the triumphant return of Christ?  What if, instead of simply lamenting the clothesline theology of apocalyptic preachers, we offered a glimpse into the hope we confess at least once, and often twice, each Sunday, that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead?

Remember that Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings that we have.  In this first generation after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the prevailing wisdom was that Jesus would be coming back, like, tomorrow.  When he didn’t, and when people of the Way began dying, their fellow Christians weren’t quite sure what to do.  These words from Paul are a pastoral response.  Unlike Daniel or John, Paul is not writing from visions, but is offering, as best he can understand it, an idea of how God might handle the problem of “the quick and the dead.”  As William Barclay notes in his commentary, “It is not the details which are important.  What is important is that in life and in death Christians are in Christ – and that is a union which nothing can break.” (p. 235)

Two thousand years later, our people still wonder about these things.  As I noted above, we say we believe that Christ will come again every Sunday (and at least twice a day if we follow the Daily Office), but what does that mean in a world where some say we might we swept up into heaven with no warning?  It means that God’s grace covers us.  It means that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.  It means that when Jesus does return, whether today or a million years from now, we who call on his name have nothing to worry about.  So don’t get caught up in the rapture hype, but certainly, get caught up in the salvation that belongs to our God.

How will I know?

I may be alone in this. It could be the result of my recent change in geography.  I’m hoping it isn’t a sign of the times.  In the past month, for the first time in my ordained life, I’ve become aware of two instances in which the efficacy of one’s baptism was questioned.  Both were baptized in the Dominical form: with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, at least according to my read of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, is all that is needed for a baptism to be considered valid in our tradition.  Of course, those who are suggesting that age and mode matter above all else, don’t care much about William Reed Huntington’s attempt at church unity or what some papist rag wearing guys in purple shirts (probably a historical anachronism) voted on in Lambeth in 1888.  Realizing that, I turned to an old friend, Maxwell E. Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation, which every clergy person should have on their bookshelves.

2017-10-16 09.16.24

As you can see, I’ve been hard at work, crafting a good argument for why infant baptism by affusion should be considered just as valid as a “believer’s baptism” by submersion.  I do so, fully admitting that I am a fan of and would much prefer to see the latter become normative over the former which is how I was baptized as well as both of my children.  The crux of the question comes down to, as it always should in theological debate, the Bible.  What does our foundational document say about baptism?

The full argument is beyond the scope of what I can handle in a blog post, but suffice it to say that like most things that end up in a Scriptural debate, the waters are murky.  If you want to argue that only adults can be baptized and it should be done in clean, flowing water, the Baptism of John will get you pretty close (ignoring that the waters of the Jordan were considered ritually unclean (Johnson, 11)).  If you think that maybe younger children should be welcomed and the means of water is open to debate, the stories of entire households being baptized in Acts can be used to support your argument (ignoring the reality that just because something is not said to have not happened, doesn’t mean it did).  So, how are we to know for sure that a baptism in efficacious?

Turning again generally to the Bible, and more specifically Sunday’s NT lesson, my ongoing side in these debates is that we will know that God was present in Baptism because we see the signs of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the baptized.  In the story of Jesus’ baptism, every account makes sure to mention the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  In various stories in Acts, we hear that the newly baptized are filled with the Spirit in the same way the 120 were on Pentecost.  In the prologue to 1 Thessalonians, again we are reminded that the surest sign of salvation is God’s Spirit at work.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

Those who argue that there is only one way for a baptism to be valid won’t be swayed by fancy arguments from a giant textbook, just as I won’t be swayed away from my belief that God is much bigger than any box we want to put God in based on “the Bible says it, so I believe it.”  I’m not sure that matters though.  What matters in the end is that when the signs of the Spirit are there, no one can deny God at work.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it in those baptized at 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.

The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.

racism20is20sin

True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

Why did Jesus weep?

It certainly isn’t as famous as John 3:16, but the trivia factor surrounding the shortest sentence in the Bible certainly makes John 11:35 a well known verse.  “Jesus wept.”  It is two words in English.  The Greek, because of the need of a definite article, has three words, but as I re-read the well-worn story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, I find myself wondering why John 11:35 exists at all?  Why did Jesus weep?

weeping-jesus-statue-581x388

From the very beginning, the story of Lazarus’ death sounds well orchestrated by Jesus.  If I was a less trusting person, looking for holes in the Gospel narrative, I might think that John worked really hard to make this story work into his theological presuppositions.  For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume the details as we have them are correct.  Jesus receives word that his friend, a dear friend, one whom he loved, had fallen ill.  The word used throughout the first few verses is the generic word for illness.  We would have no reason to think that Lazarus was on death’s door other than a) Mary and Martha sent for Jesus and b) Jesus specifically says that the illness doesn’t lead to death, which makes one think that it really could.  Jesus tarries for two more days, until he knows for sure that Lazarus has died.  He does so, by his own admission, so that God’s glory can be revealed and the Son of God can be glorified.  That is to say, Jesus knows what’s about to happen.  He knows that the death of Lazarus is a temporary thing.   He knows that he will bring him back to life.

Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus gets a guilt trip from both the sisters.  “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  In his first encounter with Martha, Jesus assures her that her brother will live again.  In the repeat performance with Mary, something seems to change.  The crowd that followed Mary weeping and wailing seems to have an impact on Jesus.  It is here, in the midst of the guilt and the sadness that John tells us that Jesus weeps.  Yet, he still knows that he is fixin’ to raise Lazarus from the dead.  He knows that this pain is temporary.  He knows that the glory about to be revealed will forever change his ministry.  So why weep?

I can think of a few reasons why Jesus wept.  First, I suspect the tears began to flow from his empathetic humanity.  He was the pain in his friends Mary and Martha and he shared their sadness.  Jesus was, after all, not some robotic deity who came simply to make a cosmic transaction and buy our salvation (I’m looking at you penal substitutionary atonement).  Instead, Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us, and experienced the full breadth of human emotion.  Here, in the midst of pain, grief, and guilt, perhaps it all caught up with Jesus and he wept.  Second, I wonder if the tears maybe came from his frustrated divinity.  Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus refuses to perform miracles as a sign of his divinity.  Though he is often asked to prove himself by some sort of holy magic trick, Jesus uses his power to heal sparingly.  He performs signs and wonders for a larger pedagogical purpose and not as some fancy parlor trick.  Yet here, in the details with which John pads this story, it seems that the raising of Lazarus is just such an event.  Everything Jesus does is to ensure that people take note of how impressive a feat this really is.  I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus’ tears come from his frustration that he had do to it this way.  Finally, I imagine that Jesus weeps as he realizes that the end is near.  The raising of Lazarus from the dead will prove to be the final straw in his ongoing theological squabble with the religious powers-that-be in Jerusalem.  In that moment, Jesus felt the full weight of what was coming.  Both his humanity and his divinity wished there was another way, but there, on the outskirts of Bethany, the stark reality came down upon him.  The only way to defeat the corruption of the world was to offer himself as a sacrifice to it.  Only in vulnerability could the cycle of violence be ended.  Only on the cross could he be raised up upon the throne.

Jesus weeping is an important detail in the story of Lazarus.  Indeed, Jesus weeping is a key point in John’s theology.  To brush it aside, as the crowd does, and just assume he is weeping at the death of his friend, is to miss out.  I wonder, what other reasons might there be for the tears of our Lord?

On being blind

fanny_crosby

Blindness is everywhere I look today (bad pun #1).  On Wednesday mornings, SBC’s preschool has an 8:30 chapel service.  The lesson for this morning was an excerpt of Sunday’s Gospel lesson about the man born blind.  To illustrate that story, the School Director told the story of Fanny Crosby, a prolific poet and hymn writer who became blind at a very young age.  at age 8, Fanny wrote her first poems, which often focused on her condition.  She wrote,

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t! (1)

As I settled in to the office this morning after chapel, I opened today’s Lent Madness match up, which has, of all people, Fanny Crosby! going up against  George Frideric Handel, who was himself blind by the time of his death at age 74.  I’m still debating whether to file a complaint against SBC’s school for creating a bias in today’s Lent Madness voting.

After all of that, I’ve gone back and reread Sunday’s Gospel lesson with fresh eyes (pardon the pun in poor taste) and am noticing the obvious that blindness isn’t about the physical condition of the man who has his sight restored by Jesus, but rather is the ongoing condition of most everyone else in this story.  The blindness of the disciples opens the story.  Seemingly right in front of this man who is blind, and not deaf, they ask Jesus, “What’s with this guy?  Did he sin or his parents?”  It continues with his neighbors, who after his healing, though nothing about his physical appearance has changed, can’t seem to recognize this man who for years they had seen and known as “the man born blind.”  The Pharisees get in on the act, unable to see God’s hand at work in this healing because is happened on the Sabbath and didn’t follow their closely defined idea of how things were supposed to work.  Finally, the man’s own parents seem blind to the fact that in protecting their own hides, they have thrown their own son under the bus.

As the story ends, Jesus confronts the blindness of the Pharisees.  He calls them out for their unwillingness to see and their stubborn rejection of anything that falls outside of the tunnel vision religion they have carefully crafted for their own well being.  This ongoing blindness is the most dangerous, and one that can easily creep into our own faith communities.  It is so easy to see only what we want to.  We can pat ourselves on the back for being such a friendly congregation and never notice how radically unwelcoming that makes us.  We can fret the ongoing decline of membership numbers and not see how God is still using your congregation to deepen relationships, care for the downtrodden, and reach out to those in need.  Blindness goes both ways, we can miss the good and the ill in our midst, but the way of God is the way of sight.  God’s Son came as a light shining in the darkness.  Will we choose to see everything the light has to offer?  Or are we content with the perceived safety of the lingering darkness?

Horse Hockey!

Back before I went to seminary, I served as a part-time, co-youth minister at the Episcopal church in which I grew up.  As is common, there was a non-stipendiary, retired priest who hung around the parish.  He would fill in on the occasional Sunday, maybe teach a Sunday school class, and sometimes visit the sick.  One day, as I was checking my mail, Father S approached me with an offer to teach a short course for our youth group kids on swear words in the Bible.  “When Paul talks about garbage in Philippians, he actually uses the common Greek word for sh*t,” he explained, “the kids will most certainly find that interesting.”

Indeed they would, but so would their parents.  My partner in youth ministry and I agreed to decline the invitation, but I often wish I would have asked him to teach that class just to me.  As Christians, we often get all uppity around words that have come to be known as “curse words,” not thinking that even in our scriptures, we have examples of impassioned authors using harsh words to get their point across.

This Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson is just such an occasion.  While Ecclesiastes is probably best known for its third chapter’s prominent place in The Byrds’ classic “Turn, Turn, Turn,” there is opportunity for bits and pieces of chapters one and two to be read in the duldrums of mid-to-late summer, and the brave preacher will delve into this text and its famous euphemism of “vanity,” which scholars suggest is more accurately translated as “bullsh*t,” or as my favorite Army Colonel would say

a20d6baf1cd9e7786dab18c355d14378

Not unlike the point of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the author of Ecclesiastes is very clear that when we trust only in ourselves, the result is nothing but calamity, horse hockey, bullsh*t.  We can toil all we want to, but until we invite God’s will into our work, it will amount to nothing more than chasing wind.  We can build bigger barns, but until we follow God’s lead, they will collapse into ruin.  As the Psalmist writes, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”

Less controversial than suggesting all our work is useless crap, the Collect for Sunday turns this idea into is positive by asking God to be present in our work.

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.