Thursday, October 20, 2016

"Thank God I'm Not Like You"
(On Resisting A Bad Prayer)

Most of us know better than to pray the Pharisee's prayer, "Thank you, God, that I am not like this other person." Still, the prayer can be surprisingly tempting in, among other things, an election year. So our certainty that the prayer is not to be a wise one to pray is not always enough. It is worth our time to ask - and answer - the good question, "Why not?"

Here are 3 reasons (not exhaustive) to be wary of the prayer that begins, "Thank you that I am not like..."

  • It might not be true
  • It forgets our connectedness and interdependence
  • It leaves no room for God's love of you (and the other) to be the most important thing about you, which is supposed to be the beginning of love without fear.
Where have you experienced the truth of any of these 3 observations? What would you add to the list? When have you known and lived out of God's ocean deep love for you and the other?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Beard Balm, God, and Other Good Things to Expect

Sermon preached at St. Luke's, Madison, and the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. These were the readings appointed for the day: Genesis 32:22-31Psalm 1212 Timothy 3:14-4:5Luke 18:1-8.

I am expecting a package. Or I was. It came yesterday. A beard brush and two ounces of beard balm with scents of vanilla and a hint of tobacco aroma. I don’t smoke, but it makes for great balm, and so I was excited to get this particular package. And, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I could watch my package make its way from Virginia across the mountains and then the corn fields on up across rivers and here, to east Madison. Each day, I’d click in, I’d check it out. Watch the map. Waiting for those three magical package-status words to appear: “Out for delivery.” Yes.

They say you can tell when a person’s expecting something. Anything. That an invisible anticipatory reality makes its presence known to the room. They say that it’s palpable. You can feel it.

From a new mother’s glow to 

the agonizing holding period that begins after the last of the grad school applications has been, finally - praise the Lord! - submitted to 

a child’s euphoric welcome of a parent come home from work after a long and wearying day to 

the anxious waiting by the phone in a place with good reception to make sure you’re in position to answer the scheduled call of a dear friend separated by miles and time and even to

a loved one’s last breath, when through tears and loss and grief and bedside hymns and hands held tight, the expectation of rest and peace from the illness that has riddled her life for so long is brought close; the prayer that she’s now to be made whole and held by the living Christ of our resurrection hope. 

Of course, expecting things is not always so rosy. Which is just to say it works the other way, too. Sometimes good people go around expecting, just waiting, for the other shoe to drop. Expecting the worst. There are all kinds of expecting. But no matter the occasion, for good or for bad, they say you can tell when a person’s expecting.

Much of what Jesus says in the gospels, and particularly in Luke’s gospel, is a critique of the religious system and what it’s expecting. The religious leaders, especially, appear to have stopped expecting that God will show up. In fact, the religious leaders have become, to Jesus’ eye, so good at not expecting divine interruption that the system works better if God doesn’t show up at all. Jesus’ own ministry, his life and crucifixion, can be understood in this way, as the rejection of God’s presence by the religious leaders of Israel in an attempt to protect the religious system of Israel. For all the shortcomings of the status quo, it is at least predictable. Israel’s self-preservation has become a priority, for some, over against the priority of responsiveness in living relationship to God. 

Now, this is important: to say that Jesus is challenging the religious leaders to wake up and lead out of responsiveness in relationship to God is not to say that Jesus is challenging the religious leaders to abandon the institution or religious system altogether. That would be our 21st century wishful thinking. On the contrary, Jesus is calling the system back to its foundations in relationship to God. Jesus is asserting that relationship with God is what gave life to the system in the first place and that in relationship with God is also how the system is rightly sustained. So, for example, time and again in the Bible any of the more than 600 laws of the Hebrew scriptures are explained this way: by doing this law, you will remember how God delivered Israel out of bondage in Egypt. So when you do this, do this to remember the Exodus. Do this to remember that God delivered you when you didn’t have hope. Do this to remember that when there was no way, God made a way. Do this to remember that the same God who did these things is still with you and cares for you. Always.

When Israel welcomes the refugee or cares for the widow and orphan, these are not to be understood as random acts of kindness. These are ways Israel remembers her story. The story of Israel’s own deliverance as strangers in a strange land into this new land of promise. The story of the Exodus is the story of Israel’s becoming God’s people and knowing this One as their God.

But increasingly and maybe predictably the laws are enforced without reference to the story. The system made to grow the people of God in their trust of God in the face of an uncertain future becomes a series of boxes to check and a busy list to attend to. The life of faith becomes a set of appearances to keep.

Enter Jesus. In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus tells a story about a woman in need and a judge who wants sleep. The judge doesn’t care for the widow, but her petition is granted because he’s got an early appointment the next morning. And the moral of the story is this: God isn’t anything like the reluctant judge! God’s delight is delivering. Be expectant! The parable highlights God’s faithfulness to God’s promise. It’s meant to be an encouragement. But then, at the end, Jesus wonders out loud, “Is anyone expecting God to show up anymore?” In the people’s religious observances, is anyone remembering the story? Is anyone savoring the memory of God’s mighty acts? Is anyone appealing to and longing for the fullness of God’s promise, or is it enough simply to appear respectable and pay the bills? Is there one among us bold enough to pray, on the grounds of that first Exodus, for freedom from the things that truly bind us? And then, set free from those things, to put them down in expectation of the new things of God? Where are the hearts broken and set on fire by all that breaks and delights the heart of God? Where are the prayers of the people who expect Israel’s God to show up and save?

Now, this is important. Expectant hearts are not passive hearts. Expectation is not hands in your pockets waiting for God. But expectations shape the things expecting people do. If you expect me to throw you a ball, you put out your hands. If I expect you to call, I charge up my phone. If you expect your friends are meeting you at Monte’s after church, that’s where you’ll go, too. When God’s people are expectant, they go to the places where God has promised to be in a posture of expectation. And they say you can tell when a person’s expecting. 

Where, then, has God promised to be present? Here, at this table. In bread broken and wine poured out for you. In the cup of forgiveness. “Do this and remember!” In the waters of baptism, of Jesus’ own death and new life. In you! Baptized child of God. God’s beloved. In your burdens and joys. Especially in your weakness. In the Assembly of God’s faithful, gathered for praise and the retelling of the story, God has promised to be present. Also in the lives of the poor and the powerless, because God in Christ became poor for us. In the promise that as we go from this place to seek and serve Christ in each person, Christ in turn is there, in each person. Even in enemies, Christ is there to be found. In the newcomer and stranger. In every act of hospitality. Out there, in this world, which as Genesis tells it is the cosmic temple of God’s reign; where God is at work before we ever show up. What does it look like to go out into that world, expectant of God’s mercy, as if it were a package with those three magic words, “Out for delivery”? 

This life of faith can be used, as it has sometimes been used, to protect God’s people from the need to trust God. You can use the life of faith to save you from your Savior. But you can also live this life of faith to grow your trust in the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. And, indeed, Christ calls us so to live. One is death; the other is life. Today Jesus says, “Choose life.” Come to this place, this people, this table, and all of the places God sends you from here, out in the world between these tastes of the kingdom, expecting to grow in trust of the One whose table this is, expecting to take uncertain steps toward the living God you won’t control. When was the last time following Jesus took you out of your comfort zone, down a path you wouldn’t have otherwise taken? Take the adventure. Step out and trust God’s love of you. Remember the story. Commit to coming and going in expectation of the living God. And, for the love of God, tell the rest of us when and where you see God at work in this world. And we’ll follow together, into those places, singing the songs, with hands held high and open in joy and expectation of our God.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Postures of Expectation Toward God

This semester, we've been delving into the parables of Jesus in our midweek Bible studies at St. Francis House (the Episcopal Student Center @ UW-Madison). Tonight we're looking at Luke 18 and the parables of 
  • the persistent widow and 
  • two folks who pray very different prayers before God. 
Below are some of the questions we'll be exploring. It's always a good time with awesome people. Everyone is welcome. So come on over at 7pm. We'll meet in the SFH Lounge, followed by Compline in the chapel at 8pm.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

"My Life Is Worth More Than Yours"
(And Other Lies That Lead to Hell)

Sermon preached at St. Luke's, Madison. Here are the readings for the day: Amos 6:1a,4-7Psalm 1461 Timothy 6:6-19Luke 16:19-31.

So I’ve got to say, I find this parable of Jesus’ of course absolutely terrifying but also really fascinating, particularly in the polarized religious and political climate that is 2016. After all, the two main features of this passage - hell and a man living in homelessness - frequently get divided into two separate camps among Christians, just as Christians, along with about everyone else, get divided, at least every four years, into two separate parties, left and right.  

In overly simplistic, broad strokes: American evangelicals, on the one hand, have this reputation for insisting on a physical hell over and against Christians who would rather discard the idea. Progressives, on the other hand, are seen as lifting up the social dimensions of salvation, like care for the homeless, in contrast to those Christians who would reduce the life of faith to a scorecard kept between each individual and God.

But here, in this passage the party lines fail usHell and care for people without homes intersect in this challenging story and become a unique crossroads through which all Christians travel and find something new. The evangelical can’t cite this passage as proof of hell’s existence without being confronted with salvation’s social dimensions. Neither can the progressive point to this scripture in promoting care for the stranger without acknowledging Jesus’ physical, if not literal, portrayal of hell.

This morning, I want to explore the story of hell and Lazarazus, the man outside the gate, through three questions: 
  • Is hell real? 
  • What are human beings created for?
  • What does the one who rises from the dead show us about how we belong to each other?
Let’s start with the question “Is hell real?”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus describes hell as a point of no return. A place of eternal punishment. This is where most objections to hell begin. It seems unfair that the chasm would be uncrossable and the pain would be unending. In the understated lyrics of the largely forgotten musical group The Heritage Brothers, “Forever is a long, long time.”

Of course, it’s not clear from the story that the rich man knows what he’d do with a chance to do things differently. Astoundingly, the rich man’s imagination for bridging the chasm is to have Lazarus come over and serve him. He never does see Lazarus, even in hell and with the revelation of God's priorities, except through the lens of a self-interest that says, "My life is of more worth than yours. Sacrifice yourself for me." If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact opposite of the last command Jesus gave his disciples before he died for us.

So there’s an uncrossable chasm that neither the rich man nor Lazarus can cross. But, interestingly, sound and sight can bridge the gap. Abraham can speak to the unnamed rich man. The rich man can see the poor man, Lazarus, whom he hadn’t bothered to see in his lifetime. But their positions it seems are fixed.

The spacial ambiguity of Jesus’ depiction of hell - its being both far away and strangely near - led some students in this week’s bible study to observe that it feels like heaven and hell are 1) closely arranged in this story, if not 2) occupying the very same space. This fits in a way the earliest Christian thinking about hell and evil: namely, that evil is not a thing you can grab but a privation and absence. Evil is what isn’t; it’s the existence of non-things. Which isn’t to say evil isn’t real; it’s to say how evil is real. A hole in a blanket is a thing, but it’s also a non-thing. It’s a very real non-thing whose presence can quickly and really ruin a blanket. So it’s real. Exactly because it isn’t. This understanding of the nature of evil led one theologian to paradoxically quip: “The reason the devil’s so angry is because he doesn’t exist!”

Evil is void, departure from God’s purposes for creation. Evil is undoing, unraveling, the resounding “It is good!” God pronounced over each and every created thing in that seven day liturgy at the very beginning. Evil is humanity’s forgetting or rejecting what humankind is made for. 

Which brings us to question two. What are human beings made for? 

Staying for a moment in that very first garden, with creation, God reveals in creation at least three aspects of what it means to be human. The first is to be made in the image of God and for relationship with God; walking with God in the cool of the day. The second thing it is to be human is to be made for relationship and enjoyment of one another, including the invitation to be fruitful and multiply. The third thing is means to be human is to be good stewards of the land and the rest of the created order. This is God inviting humanity to lift up creation and give names to what we find (tigers, hippopotami, and absurd little creatures like the platypus) and ask God’s blessing and give God thanks. It’s the same pattern we fulfill in the Eucharist, when we take our place in the new creation and we offer bread from the land and wine from the fruit of the earth and lift up our hearts and, in a sense, become more human for doing what we were created to do, as we give thanks to God and share God’s joy.

Finally, then, our third question: How does the one who rises from the dead show us how we belong to each other?

In order to answer this question, it helps to look at how evil, or holes in the blanket, got in the way of humans being fully human, almost from the start, in each of the three ways of being for which humans were created. The first hole occurred in the part of the blanket called relationship with God. Adam and Eve did things they discerned they should not have done. Rather than seek God’s help, they hid, and the blanket tore. The first hole. At the same time, another blanket, a veil, came between God and the ones he loved most. 

If you’ve ever wondered if God really loves you, if God’s love is for you, and if you’ve feared you can’t trust God’s love with your whole self, no hiding, you’ve felt the snag of this hole in the blanket. 

The second hole occurred in that part of the blanket intended for our mutual enjoyment of each other. You can see this hole most clearly when you hold the blanket up to the light of Cain and Abel’s story. One brother kills another because of insecurity and jealousy, because Cain felt out of place with God. When the rich man steps over Lazarus, leaving him on the ground, preferring his own life to another’s he’s not being original, but imitating Cain and the generations after him. 

If you’ve ever felt the desire to block a sister or brother from flourishing in a future you both share, you’ve felt the snag of the second hole in the blanket. 

The third hole occurred when human beings, aware of the brokenness of humanity’s life with God and one another, began to wonder if it was possible any longer to lift up the gifts of creation with thanks. Truthfully, I mean. They looked at the land and saw scars of their mistrust of God and one another. You’ve felt this hole if you’ve ever let shame’s voice for you become louder than God’s voice for you and wondered if anything could make it better. 

For the people of God, some days it felt like a mess, not a gift. Lift that up to God? Some days it felt like the blanket was more holes than fabric.

But then, at his baptism, Jesus received the blessing of God’s goodness once again for all creation. In his death, he tore the veil that separated humanity from God, and by his resurrection and ascension, the first hole was mended, healed, and Jesus brought humanity into the full presence of God. The second hole found healing, too, when, on the night before he died, Jesus washed the feet of his friends, poured out the cup of forgiveness for them, and told them to love one another with everything in them, even when it meant seeking and extending forgiveness, over and over again. Love one another, he said, as I have loved you. When we look to this one, rising from the dead, we are meant to remember that mending with God has made us people made for mending with one another. 

The first two holes repaired, humanity began to hear again the groans of the earth, the same earth she had been certain her brokenness had doomed. Humanity looked again to the one who is risen from the dead and remembered that here, in this one, creation is being made new; that God isn’t done with us yet; that God in Christ is doing new things. Jesus Christ is the one who lifts and offers the toil of the land and the fruit of the earth and blesses what he lifts with himself. All of creation is being made whole, finding new life, in him.

What is the one who rises from the dead supposed to show us about belonging to each other? That’s it’s possible. That, in spite of everything, God in Christ has made us friends of God and one another. That holes are for mending. That evil has been overcome by God. That it is possible to be human again: one with God, one another, and the rest of creation. That God’s people have been given all that we need to love God and one another, to seek and serve Christ in each other, to sing God’s praise, and give thanks, with joy. The risen Christ shows us that mercy is God’s delight - even for you and me - and we will know God’s mercy as we extend nothing less than God’s mercy to one another, our sisters and brothers, and all of those standing outside the gate. For this Christ died. For this he lives.