Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

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Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

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That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

Keeping one’s word

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Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.  These seem like simple words from Jesus.  As his disciples, as it is for all women and men, our word should be sufficient.  I can think of only only two reasons why the swearing of an oath would be necessary.  The first is because the stakes are too high.  Think about it, in a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth, under penalty of law, because the ramifications of lying are so very powerful.  Or, when an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the the Republic.  I’ve done a lot of this kind of promising of late.  Whether it was my signature on a Letter of Agreement here at Christ Church or the joint signatures of my wife and I on the 30 year note for our house: the need to be absolutely sure we mean what we say is strong.

The other need for an oath comes when the person can no longer be taken at their word.  This is the more insidious reason, and the one I’m sure Jesus was addressing in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  So, then, if I have promised to love my neighbor, and am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

We live in times that are full of untruths and half-truths.  Our news sources are more and more reliant on “inside sources” and in a culture where sales and clicks drive everything we do, stories are often brought to press that might not be fully vetted at the time.  Worse yet, according to the Pew Research Center nearly 20% of Americans use Social Media as their primary news source.  Anyone who has spent any time on Social Media can tell you that Facebook is probably the worst possible way to get accurate information.  The changing world is creating millions of people who think they are well informed, but are filled with half-truths or worse.  In this climate, yes meaning yes and no meaning no becomes harder and harder to live up to.

So, what do we do as followers of Jesus?  We do our homework.  We engage those with whom we disagree.  And above all, when we aren’t sure our yes really means yes or our no really means no, we have to get comfortable living in ambiguity.  “I don’t know,” must be an acceptable answer.  For, unless we are avoiding an issue about which we actually do know something, often times “I don’t know” is the most truthful things we can say about something.  As an added bonus, saying “I don’t know” is an exercise in humility, a topic about which Jesus will have plenty to say later in this sermon.

In a day and age when truth is relative and lies seem the norm, there is great power in the keeping of one’s word.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.

In What do you Trust?

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The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office has joined in the growing number of police departments that have added “In God we Trust” to their patrol cars.  As a member of the clergy, I should probably be more excited about this growing trend, but so often these moves feel like they are done in spite, which makes me feel icky (a deeply theological term).  Anyway, no matter how I feel about the new sticker and fully aware that my judgmental nature is well outside the “radiating the glory of God” category, I’ve actually found myself drawn to these words that we find printed everywhere from Sheriff’s patrol cars to the almost useless penny.

In God we Trust

This is such a profound creedal statement, that if it were really true, would change the face of the earth.  In Sunday’s various lessons, we hear a lot about trust, which in theology is called faith or belief.  For Abram to believe that Sarai was going to bear a child at 90 required something deeper than the intellectual assent we post-enlightenment westerners associate with belief.  Rather, Abram had to trust in God fully.  He placed his whole stake trusting that God would keep his promise. As a result of that trust, the entire course of human history was changed.

Paul, in his letter/sermon to the Hebrews offers a helpful way of looking at trust/faith/belief.  “Faith,” he writes, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is having trust in the one who makes promises, which, again, if we really believed this, the world would be a vastly different place.

Which leads us finally to Jesus’ final word on the parable of the foolish rich man that we heard last week. As he explains the parable to his disciples, the tells them that “where their treasure is, their heart will be also.”  He lays it down before them, wondering, do you trust my word enough to follow me fully in heart, mind, soul, and body? Or, is your trust in someone or something else? Is your trust bifurcated? Are you willing to follow me fully?

Placing our full trust in God is not easy. There are plenty of forces: powers and principalities; that clamor for a little chunk of our trust – us tiling fear, frustration, and the promise of a better future than God has prepared.  To stake out future solely on God can be frightening, but as Jesus, Paul, and Abram show us, the reward is well beyond anything this world can offer.

What the Lord Desires

“We affirm the minimum standard of the tithe is personal giving…”

These words make up the heart of point one of the Stewardship Statement made by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast on April 20, 1989, and reaffirmed on January 24, 2004.  With similar words, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has set forth “a personal spiritual discipline that includes, at a minimum, the holy habits of tithing, daily personal prayer and study, Sabbath time, and weekly corporate worship…” (2003-A135).  Still, it seems there is no better way to get the collective hackles of Episcopalians up then by discussing the tithe as a standard of giving.

The response will typically fall into one of three camps.  The vast majority will gasp at the idea of giving away 10% of their income as they throw a crumpled up $5 bill in the plate.  Others will hold firm to 10% as The Standard of giving to the Kingdom as found in Scripture.  A third group will be very adamant that the tithe is the Minimum Standard of giving.

So what is the right answer?  What does the Lord require of the faithful? In the lessons appointed for this coming Sunday, it seems as though God asks that we trust him enough to offer everything we have back to him.  In the ever popular stewardship story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus lauds the poor woman who drops her two copper coins in the kettle.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  The Widow trusted God enough to know that she would be taken care of, even in her poverty.

The Widow at Zerephath shows us the same sort of trust.  Surely, she looked at Elijah as if he were crazy when he instructed her to make him a small loaf of bread first, but she did as he asked.  She trusted in the God of Elijah, a God who was not her own, enough that in the midst of a 3 year drought, she gave away the last little bit she had.

I’m not suggesting that we should sign over all our assets to the church.  Nor would I dare to say that the poor should give more than their fair share.  And don’t get me started on the heretical scam that is the “seed offerings” of television preachers.  What I am suggesting is that all the arguments of percentages of giving, before or after taxes, is missing the point of giving back to God.  More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust.  The giving of our time, talent, and treasure is the sacramental sign of our trust in God.  When we give sacrificially, we show that we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be, and the hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way.

Truth be told, even as my family gives away 11%, there are days, lots of them, that I don’t trust God, and so my offering is as pitiful as the tattered $5 bill.  In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have, even down to the air we breathe and the blood in our veins.

A Community of Trust

This week, in the real life version of Draughting Theology, we will be discussing a chapter from Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religion entitled, “The End of the Beginning.”  In it, she cites as study that showed that in 2010, 1 in 3 Americans said that they “almost never” trust the government to do the right thing. (p. 27)  As I finished putting my notes together for tomorrow’s discussion, I turned to the Lectionary Page and re-read these themes in Sunday’s lessons: jealousy, quarreling, anger, insults, lust, and swearing oaths.  As I read these words from Paul and Jesus, reflecting all the while on DBB’s chapter, it became clear to me that one of the areas in which Christianity is failing miserably is creating communities of trust.

This is, as the study discussed above suggests, not just a problem for the American Church.  The lack of trust in institutions is widespread: see the decline of the United Way, the struggle to find active members in the American Legion or Rotary International, and the tenor of debate in and about Washington; but it seems to me that a tipping point occurs when the Church, the one place where trust should not be an issue, fails to create safe spaces for people.

The occasion for Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth was the constant bickering between Christians of various social strata and theological understanding.  They fought over who should get the Eucharist, whose evangelists were the bringers of the true faith, and what a Gentile had to do to enter the faith.  There was no trust, no willingness to leave the door open to the work of the Spirit, in the Church in Corinth, which is why Paul essentially called them “a bunch of whiny babies.”

In the midst of a difficult set of teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes time to offer examples of a communal lack of trust for his disciples.  If you think you are right and everyone else is wrong, you’ve failed the trust game.  If you want to jump ship on your marriage or our community of faith when the going gets even a little bit tough, you’ve failed at the trust game.  When your own self-interests trump the interests of others and the heart of God, you’ve failed at the trust game.

The truth of the matter is that the Church in America is failing to create communities of trust.  We’ve become so inner focused, so afraid of failure, that we’ve forgotten how to trust God and each other.  Even denominations that claim to be united by region (diocese, presbytery, convention) or national office, are crumbling into stratified fiefdoms in which the national leadership hoards its perceived power and money, while mid-level judicatories hoard their perceived power and money, while local leadership does whatever it wants in the name of protecting their own perceived power and authority.  We’ve become a nation of denominations filled with whiny babies.

The alternative, I suppose, is to model trust.  Trust in God to carry us through.  Trust in 2000 years of history to illumine the truth.  Trust in our books of order and prayers and confessions to help us find God’s dream for us and for his creation.  Trust that God’s yes means yes and God’s no means no, and that in the end, his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.