“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer

“The Trinity is a mystery which can not be comprehended through human reason, but is understood only through faith.”

-A very frustrated Saint Patrick

You may think it odd that I’m beginning my sabbatical on a Thursday, but if you’ve already looked at Sunday’s lectionary, you’ll understand completely.  This Sunday is the first after the Day of Pentecost, a day set aside [for the curate to preach, and] to celebrate the mystery of the Trinity since the early 14th century.  There will be any number of heresy’s espoused from pulpits around the globe come Sunday, but thanks to a well-timed high school graduation for my niece, none of them will come from me.  [TKT gets a break this Sunday as well thanks to a baptism scheduled at 10am.]

Every year, as I ponder the lessons for Trinity Sunday, I wonder why so many well worn and long anathematized metaphors get trotted out on Trinity Sunday, and this year, I think I’ve figured it out.  Clergy are afraid to say “I don’t know,” but the truth of the matter is that on Trinity Sunday “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer.  In fact, “I don’t know” is the ONLY acceptable answer on Trinity Sunday.

As Saint Patrick tells us in the video above, the closest we can get to understanding Trinitarian doctrine comes in the Athanasian Creed which is found in your Prayer Book on page 864, but even as it begins with some pretty strong language about orthodox belief, ultimately leaves us lacking when it comes to a full explanation of how the Trinity can be three-in-one and one-in-three.  It isn’t a bad place too begin, but the astute reader will quickly begin asking follow-up questions which cannot be covered in 657 words.

So, dear reader, especially the preachers among us, as we begin a short week with the fullness of the Trinitiarian mystery looming, I encourage you to stir up all your courage and bold proclaim “I honestly don’t know.”  You and your people will be better off, I can assure you.

Let’s Talk About Sex

The latest Geico ad featuring Salt-N-Pepa performing their classic hit, “Push It,” has me thinking about the fullness of the Salt-N-Pepa catalog.  There’s “Shoop” and “What a Man” featuring En Vogue, but the one that most men of my demographic will never forget is “Let’s Talk About Sex” which debuted in 1991, went Gold, and peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” is a song about the AIDS crisis and the American unwillingness to talk about sex.  It is, despite it form and the over-abundance of Cross Colors clothing, a word that we still need to hear some 24 years later.

In my post yesterday, I glibbly glossed over Paul’s treatment of prostitution and fornication in the Corinthian Church.  I joined the tens of thousands of other preachers who will decide to not touch the Epistle lesson with a ten foot pole, but we do so at our own peril.  The Church, especially my beloved Episcopal Church, is in desperate need of a conversation about sex.  We need to do the difficult work of establishing a biblically sound sexual ethic for the 21st century.  As we spend tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars working to develop a theology of marriage, we seem to have put the cart before the horse.  According to a 2012 article in Relevant Magazine, 88% of unmarried young adults, ages 18-29, had been sexually active.  88%!  And the number only drops to 80% for those who self-describe as evangelical.

It is important for the Church to have a pastoral response to those seeking to make life-long, same-sex, commitments.  We should affirm the norm of life-long monogamy, and a new theology of marriage is desperately needed, but we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.  In our infighting over same-sex marriage, we forgot to spend any time talking about sex. We’ve neglected to speak cogently about what God intends for us in sex.  Maybe, as we settle down on the marriage debates, we can come back to it, but by then, we’ll be in the third, or maybe even fourth generation of sexually active, unmarried young adults who, if they heard anything at all about sex, heard that they shouldn’t do it.  Well they are.  Now what?

Given my 1998 victory in the “Best Blusher” category for the Manheim Township High School Year Book, I probably won’t talk about sex from the pulpit on Sunday.  It’s embarrassing.  It isn’t easy to talk about it.  It makes us uncomfortable, but Salt-N-Pepa would remind us that in some cases, it is a conversation about life and death.  So please, let’s at least start to talk about sex.

Obedience is so Mid-Century Modern

The photograph above looks really dated.  There is nothing about the actuality of mid-century modern architecture and style that should ever be repeated, and yet, many hours of HGTV tells me that we’re in for a 1960s reprise.  For some reason, as I read the Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, all I could think of was the awkwardness of the late 50s and early 60s.  Obedience just seems like such an outdated word, something to which we can never return.

Marion Hatchett tells us that this Collect comes from the Book of Common Worship in the Church of South India.  That text, published in 1964, was the culmination of a decade and a half of hard work to bring together disparate traditions into one, big, ecumenical tent, and it was, like any liturgical text, a product of its times.  In most of the world, a bride still pledged obedience as part of the marriage vows (in a very American move, TEC eliminated the word in the run up to the 1928 BCP).  In a world still reeling from a World War and coming to terms with growing tensions between America and Russia in the Cold War, obedience to the ideologies of your country and its allies was of utmost importance.  Heck, Father Knows Best had only gone off the air in 1960.

In the intervening five decades, a lot has changed, not least of which is our attitude toward the word obedience.  As a culture, beginning with Baby Boomers and gaining strength in each successive generation, we’ve come to be suspicious of those who would claim authority and command our obedience.  These days, everyone wants to be their own boss and make their own rules.  Even one of the football teams vying for a National Championship this evening is doing so by embracing horizontal leadership and without yelling.  Obedience is a lost art, and yet this Sunday, like every Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we’ll pray that Christ might be “known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

I wonder if our 2015 minds can even begin to imagine what that would look like?  Have we strayed so far from obedience that we can’t imagine a world united under Christ’s reign? Have we become so obsessed with I’m OK, you’re OK “theology” that we can’t fit obedience to God in our image of discipleship?  Obedience just feels so outdated, so counter cultural, dare I say, so radical, a claim that perhaps its worth exploring in a sermon this week.

Thin Places

Modern day mystics, as well as plenty who wish they were, are fond of using the term “Thin Places” to speak about places on earth where it feels like the boundary between earth and heaven has faded away.  The term is often used to describe retreat experiences like those available on the Island of Iona, at Taize, or even at our own Beckwith Camp and Retreat Center.  I’m not a fan of the term, per se, but I understand its meaning.  There have been several places in my life where I’ve been aware of the boundary between heaven and earth has faded away: in the 1881 Immanuel Chapel at VTS, at my ordination at Saint Thomas’ Church in Lancaster, and standing behind the altar at Saint Paul’s in Foley; to name but a few examples.  The truth of the matter is that one need not travel to a far away place to experience a thin place, but rather, one simply needs to be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in the world.

This term, “Thin Places” came to mind this morning for a very different reason, however.  It came as I read the Propers for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord in Year B.  Talk about a thin place, there seems to be little, if any, real meat in these lessons.  They beg for the preacher to thrown caution to the wind and dive headlong into a dense theological treatise on the Trinity (Gen 1:1-5), Baptism by the Spirit (Acts 19:1-7), or the role of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-11).  I beg you, dear reader, please don’t try to make a Thin Place thick this week.  Instead, maybe you could engage the thin place, be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in you, and preach about that.

Sometimes the process of writing the sermon is the sermon itself.  Sometimes the prayerful study, the wrestling with the words, the agonized listening for God is the word our people need to hear the most.  The Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany has us asking for God’s help to “boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”  Maybe more than any theological ruminations on the nature of baptism, our people need to hear what that looks like in real life: how confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior is about more than paying him lip service, but about every thing we do; how when we live our lives for Christ, everywhere we go becomes a Thin Place, an opportunity to bring heaven to earth; and most especially, about how unbelievably hard it is to live that way, unless we’re tapped into the Spirit and open to God’s grace and favor.

It is a tough preaching week, and thankfully I won’t have to do it, but I am praying for you, dear reader.  May your find your sermon prep to be a Thin Place, where the boundary between heaven and earth simply slips away.

Opening Day of Parable Season

Like my friend and colleague, Evan, I love Summer Parable Season.  It helps fill the void between the end of Wimbledon and the start of Fantasy Football Season.  Y’know that time when, unless it is a World Cup year, all we have to talk about his awful baseball is and how the season will never, ever end?  As I opened the Lectionary Page this morning, my heart skipped a beat to see that this Sunday we move from the doldrums of Jesus’ expository preaching to the fertile fields (pun intended) of parabolic preaching.

Before we can dive into this week’s parable, however, I think it is wise to spend a few moments in a section of Matthew that the Lectionary skips.  In Matthew 13:10-17, we hear, from the lips of Jesus himself, why he chooses to use these little gems, which I have likened to auditory hand grenades dropped by Jesus in our brains just waiting to explode with meaning.  He does so because, well, his disciples don’t get it.  “Why do you talk in parables?” They asked Jesus.  “Because,” he says, with an obvious tie in to last week’s Gospel lesson, “I want the people to listen, to see, and to think.” (author’s paraphrase)

Jesus doesn’t just hand us a set of blue prints on how to build the Kingdom of Heaven.  Instead, he invites us to use our God given ability to think and come up with ways in which we can be co-creators of the Kingdom with God.  As I’ve said elsewhere, every Christian is a theologian.  Too often, this particular role has been delegated to clergy who have in turn allowed the academy to do all the heavy lifting.  This is to the great detriment of the Church.  Instead, every member of the Body of Christ should be encouraged to work out, in community, their understanding of God and how God works in the world.  Together, we grow in faith and develop deeper relationships with God and with each other as a result of the sometimes difficult work of imagining things that are beyond our comprehension.  Jesus modeled this work for us in his use of parables to teach, and I encourage you, dear reader, to take some time over the next few weeks to read and prayerfully consider what these parables of Jesus mean for you.

Enjoy parable season!  I know I will.

A Eucharistic Aside

As I’ve said before, one of the classes I’m taking here as Sewanee is a preaching class called “Preaching the Feasts.” I signed up for it because, like most preachers, I find preaching the red letter days to be both a) more challenging and b) more exciting that the ordinary (pardon the liturgical pun) Sundays of the year. What I found as the class began, however, was that this wasn’t just a class about preaching the feast days, but preaching the theological and doctrinal questions that the feast days bring up. I guess one should read the course description before signing up rather than merely scanning the course title and professors names because as you might imagine, this class is not easy for me.

The description for this blog is, “A blog about the Bible.” My task, four days a week, is to relate some portion of the lectionary to my life and the lives of those around me. My sermons are, to use the well worn and baggage laden phrase, biblically based and applicable to real life. So, when I’m invited to preach a feast day without reference to the Biblical text, my brain hurts. I preached an ok, albeit vignette heavy, sermon on Holy Saturday for class this week. I was told by the professor that it was “more pastoral than theological,” but all in all it went all right. As I think about the challenge of this course, however, I’m realizing that in order to overcome my love of the Biblical text, I’m going to have to deal with a feast that is specifically doctrinal.

Which leads me to my Eucharistic Aside. Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, a feast that does not actually appear on the calendar of The Episcopal Church, but which is remembered in many Anglo-Catholic parishes. Perhaps in my low church context, it could be replaced by World Communion Sunday, which is also not an authorized feast, though propers are provided in the Prayer Book for “Of the Holy Eucharist” in “Various Occasions” and without a fixed date. What each of these “feasts” do, however, is invite me to look beyond Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper or Paul’s recollection of it in 1 Corinthians 11 and instead think about my theology of the Eucharist. What does it mean that I subscribe to a theology of transignification? How is Christ really present in the Eucharist? What does it do for us? Why is it central to our life of faith and worship?  What does it mean to venerate something, as in the Collect for the Holy Eucharist:

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a
wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion:
Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and
Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit
of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tonight, I’ll be attending my first Corpus Christi service: A Service of Solemn Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Setting aside the 39 Articles and the rubrics of the Prayer Book for an evening, I’m actually excited to ponder the impact that the Eucharist has me personally, on us corporately, and on how we look at the world around us. As preparation, I’m re-watching the Eucharist edition of the New Tracts for our Times.

Worthless!?!

I loved my time at Virginia Theological Seminary.  I made life-long friendships.  I was formed as a priest.  I learned and stretched and grew.  I enjoyed the vast majority of my three years in Northern Virginia, but the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t a great time in the academic life of VTS.  I took Liturgics from a preeminent Episcopal Church historian.  I took Church History from a theologian who ran back to parish ministry about as fast as he could.  There was no Pastoral Theologian on the faculty for two of my three years and when they finally hired one, she was a Presbyterian who didn’t much know our Prayer Book.  My Systematic Theology courses were taught by a Bishop who liked to tell stories and a guy with a faked Ph.D.  The Biblical Studies faculty was probably top-5 in the country, but, well, some things were left lacking in the end.  Despite those flaws, I wouldn’t say my time at VTS was worthless.  No, it was actually very worthwhile.

It was worthwhile because sometimes you learn amazing things from people working outside of their fields or from Bishops who have wined and dined with religious leaders from Moscow to Rome.  Take, for example, Bishop Dyer’s explanation of God’s grace (roughly paraphrased). By the very nature of your creation, God has hired you for a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year job to build the Kingdom on earth.  When, for so little as a second, you fail to do that work, which we all fail to do, there is no possible way to make up that debt as you are already fully committed to the work at hand.  Someone needs to help you out by filling in those extra seconds, days, months, and years.  This, in Bishop Dyer’s explanation, is what Jesus did on the cross, he worked overtime and brought the Kingdom to earth.

I’m reminded of all of this by the Gospel lesson for Sunday, in which Jesus uses a very difficult word to describe his fellow human beings.

worthless

worthless

“When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

That’s a tough word to swallow.  Forget for a moment the implications for the first 250+ years of America’s history and the slave trade, and just think about the deep psychological power of the word “worthless.”  I desperately scoured through BibleWorks to find that Greek word meaning something else, but I kept coming back to “useless, worthless, good for nothing, and unprofitable.”  From my research elsewhere, I’m pretty well convinced that God does not see us as worthless.  I mean, “he so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son.”

So, dear reader, I’d like your help.  As Jesus talks to his disciples here in Luke 17, what is the point of this hyperbole?

 

How Much Should I Make The Check Out For?

As I noted on Tuesday, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a bit sticky for Episcopalians, especially those who hold Episcopal Office and like the color purple, but as I’ve reflected on this text this week, I’ve come to realize a group for which this lesson is even more difficult to hear and preach.

The ELCA has Bishops too!

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Lutheran Bishop are the group most likely to find difficulty with the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Not only to they like that purple-ish color their Episcopal brethren and sisteren are so fond of, but the guy who got the whole thing started, Martin Luther, was the guy who coined the phrase of “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia,” Only Scripture, Only Faith, and Only Grace.  With a clear nod to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (2.8) which reads, “we are saved by grace, through faith.”

If you read the lesson carefully, it sort of sounds like Father Abraham is espousing some sort of works righteousness.  As in, Lazarus suffered and that suffering earned him passage to the bosom of Abraham, but Dives ignored the poor, which earned him a ticket straight to Hades.  The observant listener will quickly pull out their checkbook and ask, “how much do I need to give to get to heaven?”

The challenge grows when coupled with the tail end of the lesson from First Timothy, which reads, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

The savvy preacher will figure out how to allow their parishioners the time to write their checks before reminding them that Luther was, in fact, right; that we are saved by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ; that nothing we can do (i.e. no matter how big the check), we cannot earn our way into heaven.  Still, it is a tricky lectionary this week, full of chances to slip down the slope of good old fashioned Medieval Popery.  Good luck preachers.  I’ll be praying for you.

The love of money

Can we clear something up?  “Money is the root of all evil,” is not an ancient proverb.  It isn’t an old saying.  It is just a bad paraphrase of what “Paul” actually said to “Timothy” toward the tale end of his “first letter.”  The actual saying that people are trying to recall when they ignorantly say “money is the root of all evil” is “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”  Yet, that isn’t even the whole sentence.  We’ll get to that in a minute, let’s look at this piece of text a little more closely.

Philarguria – the Greek word translated “love of money.”  Prior to looking this up, I assumed it was two words, but there it is, a single word that means “a greedy disposition love of money, avarice, covetousness.”  It is a pseudo-hapaxlegomenon, appearing in the Canon only here in 1 Tim 6.10.  It also shows up in the Apocryphal book 4th Maccabees in a section that sounds like it could have been written by an Enlightenment philosopher or perhaps even Richard Dawkins, subtitled in BibleWorks as “The Supremacy of Reason”, “In the soul it is boastfulness, covetousness, thirst for honor, rivalry, and malice;…”  It obviously has roots in philos, which is one of the four Greek words that gets translated as “love” in English Bibles.

Rhiza – the Greek word translated as “root,” which has deeper connotations as it also can mean shoot or offspring.  The love of money is a basis of and chief provider for

and here’s where my Greek transliteration gets fuzzy

Panaton ton kakon – the Greek phrase (very loosely transliterated) that is translated as “all kinds of evil,” but is more literally “all the evils.”  An internet meme waiting to happen.

The Young’s Literal Translation captures it best, “a root of all the evils is the love of money…”

It is a pithy saying and one that is easily repeated and often misquoted, but the deeper question that goes unaddressed in remembering only half of 1 Timothy 6.10, is “why?”  Why is the love of money a root for all the evils?  The answer is “in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  As I said in last week’s sermon, the pursuit of wealth is quite possibly the single strongest opponent to faith in God.  It distracts us from the work of the kingdom, which, more often than not, invites us to give our stuff away, to share it with our brothers and sister, and, most assuredly, calls us to care for the poor, outcast, widowed, and orphaned.

Money isn’t the root of all evil. The love of money takes our attention away from God’s dream and focuses it squarely on ourselves. As Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame (and my doppleganger) is prone to say, “Well, there’s your problem.”

I love good foreshadowing

We are well into our trip with Jesus on his single-minded journey to Jerusalem.  Yet, we still have a good two months to go until Advent arrives and the new Church Year begins.  It’ll be six months or more until we arrive at Holy Week and hear the end of the story, and by then, we’ll be in Matthew’s Gospel.  So, it is helpful to get a reminder every once in a while of what is really going on in the lengthy trip we’re taking with Jesus.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson gives the preacher a good opportunity to reflect on where we’re going.  The story itself is eminently preachable, You’ve got a chance to talk about Hades and hell and the reason why one is referenced in this parable and not the other.  You can preach about the disparity between the rich and poor.  You can try to dance around works righteousness in a parable the sounds an awful lot like, “if you help the poor you go to heaven.”  And of course there is the, “if you read the Bible, you’ll know what you should do” line from Father Abraham.  Any one of these could be 12 minutes of gold, but what strikes my fancy here on Monday afternoon is the foreshadowing that Jesus sneaks into the parable right at the end.

The rich man, sometimes called Dives, is arguing with Abraham about warning his five brothers of their impending doom and says, a’la Ebeneezer Scrooge, “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  Father Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

What a scathing accusation for Jesus to make as he approaches Jerusalem and the cross.  He has began to argue more frequently with the Pharisees and Scribes.  They think Moses and Prophets say one thing, but Jesus suggests they are saying something very different (Sounds like our current religio-political climate).  The Scribes and Pharisees simply close their ears and shout “I can’t hear you!”  The underlying assumption for them is that if God really wanted to get their attention, he will, but what Jesus knows and foreshadows in this parable, is that even a man coming back from the dead won’t change the minds of those who have closed their eyes, ears, and hearts to the Lord.  We are still en route to Jerusalem this week, and I’m thankful that Jesus snuck a reminder in to his parable.