Giving away that which is passing away

       Since 1999, the late Hugo Chavez and his disciples in the Fifth Republic Movement have been in power in Venezuela.  Their policies of cultural and political hegemony have exacerbated an already delicate situation in the South American country such that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than six million Venezuelans have left their home country because of a lack of reliable food, water, and electricity and the constant threat of violence.  The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the third-largest external displacement crisis in the world, behind the worn-torn countries of Syria and Ukraine.  Refugees from Venezuela are often left with only the clothes on their backs as they escape violence, oppression, and degradation.  The vast majority of them have settled in Latin and North America.  More than 50% have landed in Peru, and close to a quarter are here in the United States trying to navigate the convoluted and expensive asylum process.[1]

       Adding insult to injury, earlier this week, 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers – men, women, and a dozen elementary aged children – were put on airplanes with no indication as to where they were going.  Vulnerable, confused, and afraid, they were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a mostly rural, island community about three hours south of Boston.  Stuck in the middle of an ongoing fight between Republicans and Democrats, these 48 human beings were nothing more than pawns for politicians as they argue the merits of their own version of immigration reform.  Faced with 48 new residents who arrived unannounced and without much more than a backpack’s worth of belongings, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had a choice to make on Wednesday afternoon.  They could throw up their hands and say, “not our problem.”  They could call on immigration officers to come handle it.  Or, as they did, they could welcome the stranger in their midst, loving their Venezuelan neighbors as themselves.

       According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times[2], at about 5 pm, less than two hours after the flights had landed, the Dukes County Sherriff addressed the asylum seekers.  “We’re going to take care of you,” he said through a translator, “Get all your personal belongings together and then we’ll move… The most important thing is we get you food and shelter and water.”  Their first stop was the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where they were given food, water, and temporary shelter.  Ninety minutes later, school buses rolled out from the high school to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown where they spent two nights.[3]  Edgartown Pizza provided dinner.  Mocha Motts brought coffee.  Local lawyers supplied legal aid, while dentists and doctors offered medical care.  When faced with a people being used as “unrighteous mammon” for political gain, the people of Edgartown and Martha’s Vineyard showed compassion, grace, and love, and they proved themselves faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The 150 members of St. Andrew’s were, one might argue, faithful with the little they have while ministering to human beings that others considered to be unrighteous.

       Our Gospel lesson for this morning is probably the most difficult parable Jesus ever told.  In most parables, we can easily figure out the allegorical relationships.  In the parable of the lost sheep, we realize pretty quickly that God is the shepherd and human beings are the sheep, but here, it’s not quite so simple.  God being a greedy master who violated the Torah and charged exorbitant interest on his loans doesn’t quite work.  Jesus as the unrighteous servant who cheated his boss to save his own tail isn’t quite right either.  It’s not real obvious what exactly Jesus wants us to glean from this parable as it is read in isolation this morning.  When we find its place in the larger story, however, things begin to come into focus.  The parable of the shrewd manager comes on the heels of three parables about lost things.  We heard two of them last Sunday.  The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The lectionary skipped over the parable of the prodigal or lost son, and now here we are with this strange story about debt relief.

       I can’t help but wonder if Jesus ended up telling this story because of the bad pun about the Pharisees that Mother Becca told us she grew up learning – “that’s not fair, you see.”  I wonder if the reaction to the three lost stories was the same as the reaction of the elder son to his prodigal brother’s return and his dad throwing a party in response, “it’s just not fair!”  “All this rejoicing at those who were lost, who because of their own bad choices failed and became lost, it just isn’t fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about Narcan saving the lives of those who have overdosed on fentanyl, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who are having a portion of their student loan interest forgiven, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who left everything they knew to escape poverty and violence in Venezuela and ended up in Texas searching for a better life, “it’s not fair.”  Jesus is clear in this crazy parable, life in the Kingdom of God isn’t fair.  Life in the Kingdom of God is a life in which God has written off the debt of sin that all of us carry.  None of us deserve the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus, and that is precisely the point.

       Our response to the illogical and unfair grace of God is what Jesus seems to be getting at in this parable.  We can choose to think that none of this is fair, to hoard grace for ourselves, and to ignore the needs of those around us, but that won’t take us very far in the ridiculous economy of God.  It might make us feel better in this highly individualized, 21st century America, but it won’t carry much weight in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our other choice, the one I think Jesus would have us choose considering this parable, is to realize that none of this is fair and to give away as much grace and mercy as we possibly can – to take every last thing entrusted to our care and to share it with our neighbors, strangers and friends alike.

       It isn’t hard for me to imagine how Christ Church might respond to a situation like the one St. Andrew’s Edgartown found itself in on Wednesday night.  Whether it is Room in the Inn, Churches United HELP Ministry, Wednesday Community Lunch, or hosting Narcotics Anonymous meetings, there’s a lot of stuff we do around here about which some would say “it’s not fair,” but using the resources we have for the betterment of our neighbors is exactly what this congregation has shown itself to be about.  We are, and will continue to be, faithful with what we have been given so that we might be entrusted by God to be faithful with even more.  That we have so much isn’t fair. It is only right that how we use this massive physical plant and our abundant and historical finances should be wildly unfair to the glory of God.  Giving away those things that will pass away is the only way to cling tightly to that which shall endure, eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  Amen.


[1] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/vensit

[2] https://www.mvtimes.com/2022/09/14/migrant-workers-land-vineyard-via-texas/

[3] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/09/16/episcopal-church-on-marthas-vineyard-takes-in-migrants-flown-in-by-surprise/

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Martha/Mary Both/And

       Every occupation has its own set of terminology.  For some, like the military, it is a whole host of acronyms.  ACC isn’t a college athletics conference with a bad tv contract, but Air Combat Command.  For others, it is a series of abbreviations.  In the printing industry, a sig isn’t short for something you smoke on a 15 minute break, but rather a signature, the basic unit of binding.  Still others have to understand measurements that the average person doesn’t.  I may have spent two years working for a heavy construction company, but I still have no idea how much a yard of dirt is.  Even in ministry, we have lots of terms that are rarely used elsewhere.  Two of my favorites are Greek words that we have incorporated into English.  One is a hapax legomenon, which is a word that appears only once in the original language of the Bible.  The other, adiaphora, means “things indifferent” and is used to describe the parts of theology that we can disagree on without impacting the core of Christianity.  That Jesus is the Son of God is vital.  Whether or not we have candles on the altar is adiaphora.

Part of going to seminary was learning a wide variety of these words and phrases.  Most of ministry thereafter is breaking the habit of using them.  For those of us who went to Episcopal seminaries, there are several words and phrases that, while very popular in the classroom, we thankfully rarely use in real life ministry.  “Let me push back on that,” was a popular retort that if used in a clergy meeting today, would likely get you an audible eyeroll from the group.  The worst offender must be “It’s not really an either/or, it’s more of a both/and.”  I could feel my blood pressure rise when I heard someone say that in class.  To this day, it makes my shoulders hurt just to think about it.

And yet, here this morning, I’m going to suggest that the key to understanding the story of Martha and Mary is to embrace the both/and.  So often, this well-known story gets boiled down to a competition between two sisters with Mary as the winner.  I mean, Jesus said “Mary has chosen the better part,” clearly, she wins, but what if it wasn’t a competition.  What if we stopped pitting women against each other to keep them from standing up against the injustices of sexism in the church and admitted that neither Mary nor Martha actually did anything wrong in this story.  Or, maybe, they were both actually wrong, and that is precisely the point.  Jesus didn’t come to condemn either Mary or Martha, but to save both Martha and Mary, and you and me.

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus and his disciples arriving in a village where they were welcomed by a woman named Martha.  Context clues tell us that this Martha and her sister, Mary, are the siblings of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead in John’s Gospel.  In this story, however, there is no mention of Lazarus.  Curiously enough, there is no mention of any man by name.  The home Jesus and his disciples enter doesn’t belong to Lazarus or to Martha’s husband, but to Martha.  This would have been highly uncommon in the first century.  It assumes that Martha is a widow and a woman of means.  As was her cultural obligation, Martha sets to work offering hospitality to her guests.  She would have drawn water so that they could wash their feet.  Next, she’d bring wine to drink while the bread began to bake.  In the kitchen, maybe she was whipping up some hummus or pitting olives as she tried to hear the lesson Jesus was sharing in the living room where her sister, Mary, was just sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha’s frustration grew and grew, until Luke tells us she became completely distracted by her anger at her sister.  What started out with good intentions of welcoming guests had become a burden that hampered relationship.

Mary, for her part, was violating all kinds of social norms.  Women, not just the woman of the house, would have been expected to help prepare the food and serve the men.  Only once all the work of hospitality was complete would they join the men.  Mary didn’t do any of that.  Instead, Luke tells us she sat at the feet of Jesus.  To use a phrase my mother taught me, Mary had her head so far up in the clouds, she was no earthly good.  It’s no wonder that Martha got frustrated.  Things were supposed to work a certain way, and Mary wasn’t living up to her part of the deal.  So, Martha went to Jesus and protested both her sister and her teacher.  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  Jesus could see beyond the surface and knew that what Martha was feeling wasn’t simply distraction, but in fact, a storm was raging inside her soul.  “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said in what I imagine to be a soothing and compassionate tone, “you are worried and stirred up by many things.”  Jesus could see that Martha’s work of hospitality had become an obligation and a burden.  He knew what she really needed was for task not to simply be work, but a ministry in response to the love of God.  She needed to rest and recharge at the feet of Jesus.  In saying that Mary had chosen “the better part,” Jesus isn’t prioritizing study over work.  Instead, Jesus is inviting Martha into a both/and way of thinking.

We are all called to welcome guests and serve the coffee, just as we are all called to rest in God’s love and learn from Word of God.  Nearly five years ago, the Vestry of Christ Church spent a weekend at All Saint’s Camp discerning our mission.  The culmination of that weekend was the mission statement that you hear at least every Sunday, and probably see more often than that.  It’s time for another round of discernment, but I still think there is a lot for us to glean from these carefully chosen words.  Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to: worship God with joy and wonder; learn and grow together; and radiate God’s love to all.  Our mission is, at the very least, a both/and statement.  We take seriously the work of Mary as we find ways to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn how we are to live out this life of faith, and then, as a natural outlet of that learning, we follow the example of Martha and radiate God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.  Learn and serve.  These are not competitors in some zero-sum game of faith.  They are dance partners in this journey that help nurture and sustain us for the work to which we are called.  Learn and serve.  Mary and Martha.  Both/And.  Amen.

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)

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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.

[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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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

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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.

The Glory of the Trinity

William Reed Huntington, in a series of lectures that were published in 1870 as The Church Idea, posited a future for Protestantism in American that was called “The Church of the Reconciliation.”  His basic premise was that some 350 years after the Great Reformation and the many theological squabbles that followed that the Protestant denominations in America were so similar to one another, that it wouldn’t take much for them to reunite as a Pan Protestant American Catholicism.  Rather than getting caught in the weeds of doctrine, Huntington suggests that the historic creeds are all that is needed as a shared doctrine of the Church of the Reconciliation.

“In the Church of the Reconciliation no more ought to be demanded of the laity, on the score of theology, than an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Dost thou believe all the articles of the Christian Faith as contained in the Apostles’ Creed?’ and no more ought to be demanded of the clergy than assent to the same articles of faith as they are more exactly stated and more fully expanded in the Nicene Creed.”[1]

The fullness of our understanding of the Trinity, for Huntington, was found in the Nicene Creed, for clergy, and the Apostles’ Creed, for laity.  In the almost 150 since, some have suggested that even that is too high a doctrinal bar.  I’m not willing to lower the bar beyond the historic creeds, but I do understand the feeling of Dorothy Sayers, who sixty years after The Church Idea articulated the feeling most of the clergy and laity I know have about the doctrine of the Trinity

Q.: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A.: “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.

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So what is the basic requirement of belief in the Trinity if the doctrine can’t be articulated by metaphor, can’t be understood by mortals, and can’t possibly sum up the fullness of the Godhead?  I think the Collect for Trinity Sunday tells us all we need to know:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity…”

Acknowledge the glory and worship the Unity.  There is nothing in there about comprehending the mystery.  Noting about properly articulating the difference between homoousios and homoiousios. Orthodoxy flows, it would seem, from orthopraxis.  In acknowledging the beauty, splendor, and magnificence of the fullness of the Godhead through worship, we accomplish all that is properly required for Trinitarian belief.  The rest, as Dorothy Sayers might say, is for theologians to mess around with.

So here’s your task, dear reader, on Trinity Sunday.  Show up at church, worship the fullness of God’s majesty in the midst of the mystery and God might just answer our prayer to one day see God in his full and eternal glory.

[1] The Church Idea, 171.