Sunday, October 13, 2019

Dad Jokes & Xenophophia (Or 'The Story that Giving Helps Us Remember')

Per usual, this sermon was preached from lessons I did not choose. Here they are. If it's a half-decent sermon, it will make only modest sense without them.

What are you up to today? I’d ask him. Five foot ten and a quarter, Dad would answer. Every. Single. Time. I asked him. He was lying about the quarter inch. But let me ask you, all dad jokes aside, what are you up to today?

Most of the time, we know what we're up to. We know where to be, or where we want to be. We know where to go, or where we want to go. Societal norms direct us. Self-interest, too. If I want this, I’ll go there, if I want that, I’ll go here. Concerns about safety, rational concerns - and irrational ones, also - direct us. Expectations of benefit. Accrual of social capital. The desire for good reputations. When someone remarked to my friend one time the old cliche, “It’s a small world,” my friend answered, “Actually, it’s a rather large world, filled with strange things and wonder. But it’s easy,” he conceded, “to confine oneself to just a familiar cow path or two within the wonder and come to believe that it’s small.” My friend’s popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is unclear.

But he’s right. 

Everywhere, the invisible calculus. Everywhere, a thousand considerations go into taking this step and not that one. Saying “yes” to one friendship and “no” to another. And as much as we’d like to think we’re up to the task of independently and accurately assessing each step on its own, we develop invisible patterns until without even knowing it we’re walking in only the thinnest slice of the pasture and the possibilities provided us. By the way, that’s what - among other things - therapists are really good for; helping us spot the invisible patterns. Of course, if your therapist shares your blind spots with you, good luck. You may both stay on the same cow path together, and not even know it.

This brief and disputable account of one part of our shared human nature is helpful for spotting the mischief of Jesus in the gospel today. Jesus is traveling through the region between Galilee and Samaria. He’s traveling along the border. The border, which is the edge of a cow path decided by peoples. And the invisible patterns that constitute borders are not the same everywhere, but here - between Jews and Samaritans, in the region between Galilee and Samaria - the invisible pattern is the familiar mutual disdain of people each side is certain they are better than. Think Texas/OU weekend at the fair. Or any group of people your family of origin taught you to count as less than, especially if it wasn’t clear to you when they spoke that they were joking.

The highlight of the story today is of course the healings, but also Jesus’s own astonishment that only one of the ten people Jesus heals of leprosy comes back with a thank you card. Guess what, the one who came back? He came from the wrong people. From the people despised by Jesus’s people. But hey, says Jesus, at least he came back. At least he said thanks. Where are the others? The silence that follows as Jesus’s question hangs in the air is a judgment of ingratitude for the people who thought of themselves as being on the side of the good, even on the side of God. As better than the one who came back. Where are the others? he asks. 

Will Willimon has observed that gratitude is not an emotion that comes easily to people, generally speaking. Life moves fast and there are temples to get to, religious or otherwise. The crisis resolves and it’s back to the rat race. Business as usual. No time to lose. But a friend of mine one time gave me sage advice I cherish. He said you’re never running too late to go to the bathroom. Because what good are you, really, if you show up on time but full of - stuff, or so urgently occupied that you are unable to be present to the people around you? It’s probably the same with gratitude. We’re never too busy or running too late to lift up our hearts, to give voice to our thanks, but sometimes we forget or tell ourselves otherwise. What was the healing for, we wonder, if not to help us get back on the hamster wheel of running ourselves into the ground? 

So we move on. Maybe we find ourselves incentivized to get on with things because the gift we were given and the dependence it reveals wound our pride. Maybe we view God’s help, when it finds us, through the lens of entitlement, as a possession we were owed, even a kind of personal achievement, because we’re, you know, really pretty swell. Self-righteousness kills gratitude, because it claims as its own what is really God’s gift. What we’re talking about is learning to speak truthfully about the world, about our lives.

When you catch a sniff of self-righteousness in yourself, if you’re quick, you can grab a hold of the frayed end of a single, sacred thread. It’s the thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor. They’re on the same thread because God is always giving for the benefit of others, for people like you and me. And for people unlike you and me. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).”

Love of God and neighbor are on the same thread because it’s hard to be thankful to God for the good gifts of God without becoming generous by extension. Theologian Miroslav Volf writes that the true God gives so we can become joyful givers.” But it’s hard to be thankful to God when I’m pretty sure what I have is because I am better or more deserving than you, whether you’re a Sooner or Samaritan. It’s hard to be thankful and take what was meant to be a continuing blessing for me as well as all those around and beyond me and instead dam the waters around myself, where the waters grow stagnant by my imagined superiority, deserving, and/or self-importance. The same walls that keep me at a lofty and self-satisfied distance from the other side also keep me from seeing the truth about my life. These walls keep me from knowing my life as a gracious gift of the living and generous God. 

So let’s cut to the chase. If you pull that thread tight, the one connecting love of God and love of neighbor, if you pull it tight, all the way, you end up with something truly terrifying. Something like what Dorothy Day, that great saint and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, realized. She put her realization this way, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Ugh. Dorothy’s  popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is similarly unclear.

Why does he do it? Why does Jesus insist on traveling in the land between regions? Along borders. Off familiar cow paths? Can’t we all just stay away and mind our own? But watch this, says Jesus. Follow me. And then, as they do, as we do, Willie James Jennings describes it, "The disciple of Jesus Christ (becomes) a surprise to the world, especially to the cultural and economic worlds where people live in...segregated spaces and sequestered living places…” We become a surprise to the world exactly as we follow the One who goes through the region between Galilee and Samaria.

The thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor is the same thread that connects generosity and gratitude. Nothing so much as generosity - giving and forgiving - reminds us that everything we enjoy is a gift for which we rightly give thanks to God. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Nothing so much as generosity - giving and forgiving - reminds us that the good gifts of God are meant for sharing even across borders, for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. Generosity and gratitude are what humans do when we are, with God’s help, most fully alive. 

So what do you do when someone or something does something beautiful and humbling and you realize you are not yet as alive as you could be? What do you do when someone you have learned to despise - or simply not care about - becomes a sacred window through which you glimpse the abundance of life and, in order to grow closer to God, you find yourself with no choice but to draw close to the infidel? What happens when no one comes back, except for this foreigner?

In the reading from Jeremiah, God gives God’s people the unimaginable instruction to live out their faith in a foreign land. Among the oppressor. As foreigners. They will be the foreigner they have feared and despised. It will feel like the end. But God is evidently okay with this situation in the interim, an interim which will last for most of their lives. Even through they will find themselves involuntarily removed from their cow paths and comfort zones in ways that will test their faith to its limits, even there, God will repeat the blessing and instruction of Eden - “be fruitful and multiply” - and even in a strange land, as strangers, God will be with them.

So, it’s stewardship season, and you'll hear a lot more about that from people other than me in days ahead, but did you know that the practice of tithing, of giving a percentage of one’s income away, finds its roots in Deuteronomy 26, where the people are entering the promised land for the first time in their history not as foreigners?

It’s an instruction that begins "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess,” in other words, “when you are no longer foreigners, either as your wandering ancestors or as slaves in Egypt, to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, be generous, set aside a portion for the poor and those just traveling through.” It’s the same deliverance at the heart of the Easter Vigil, the exodus Christ completes by his death and resurrection, and so the word is true for us, also: in order to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, to tend the flame of faith with your life, be generous. Give to the ones most unlike you, because they are like you. Remember that you were once them, that you are them, that though you have a place now, remember that you are still pilgrims on a journey, believers in a promise, remember that your true home is in God.

You don’t have to. Do you want to?

It is important for me to give because generosity does not come naturally to me and it is easy to lose sight of my place in the story of God. It is easy to trade the single, sacred thread of Christ’s love for acts of self-deception. But practicing generosity has given me a heart that is grateful for it. In other words, I have come to see that even what I regard as my generosity is really one of God’s gifts. I might have had a much smaller life. I might have declined opportunities to grow in trust of God. I might have continued fearing loss in the many forms it takes, declining border travels and fearing those whom God has made my friends. But, thanks be to God, I am learning to speak truthfully about the world and about my life. Thank God I didn’t wait to feel generous before I tried it. Mostly, thank God I married a woman more generous than me. 

And so I thank God for the gift of generosity. First God’s own, made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Second, the generosity God gives the church to share, as the living God who makes God’s home in us works in us and through us for the blessing of others, for the restoration of all things in God. And finally, I pray that God will not stop emptying my hands of the things I would otherwise hold onto.

What else do you do, what else do you pray for, when you realize you are both wonderfully loved and yet not as alive as you could be? As alive as you will be.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

American Idols and How to Resist Them (Learning to Believe that the Treasure is Christ)

Before this sermon was preached, the church read these lessons and prayed this prayer:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As of this week, I’ve been a priest in the church for twelve years, the last seven of which I spent on the campus of a public university, at a missionary outpost of the Episcopal Church. Working among heathens, I mean, university students. Bright, young, minds. It was an incredible honor to walk with those students, to get close and see what God is up to with them, what God is showing them. To be a person of faith on campus, as a student, in a living and visible way in 2019, well, it’s something of a miracle, and one the church does well to come alongside, support, and to be interested in.

Of course, that doesn’t mean my only conversations on campus were with people of faith. Far from it. Across seven years I talked to a lot of folks who had either stopped or never started believing. “Fr. Jonathan, I don’t know how to tell you this, but…” 

My mechanic one time told me, talking about his own college-aged son who’d stopped going to church, he said, “I think a little bit of science can hurt a person’s faith, but a lot of science can make it stronger. It’s stopping at a little that presents some challenges.” Same with philosophy, I said. Universities, it turns out, have plenty of a little of both.

So I would find myself from time to time at coffee with a friend self-identifying as agnostic or atheistic and I would remind them, “You know, you atheists and we Christians have an awful lot in common. In fact, atheists have made some tremendous contributions to the Christian faith. No really, you are always reminding us how dangerous a thing it is to worship false gods. You and I both believe it’s a good thing to guard your loyalties from unworthy idols. True, we disagree on the gods we don’t believe in, but just think! In a world that will worship sports teams and Botox amidst all kinds of other things, you and I agree that our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank you for that witness and reminder.”

The earliest Christians were accused of being atheists. In a marketplace full of gods, pluralist Rome, melting pot of deities, it wasn’t such a big deal to believe in a god, it was a big deal to believe in just one god, to say, as the Jews and Christians did, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God; the Lord is one.” This put Christians a half-step at odds with their culture, and especially with the Roman emperors, who liked to join the game of build-a-god and claim divine status for themselves. They’d print on the coins that got traded across the empire, next to their faces, “Caesar so and so, son of god.”

For Jews and Christians, it was bad enough that they lived in occupied territories ruled by blasphemous politicians claiming to be gods, but to be forced to carry the coins, the little pagan graven images in their pockets, in order to navigate the market and put food on the table added insult to injury. After all, the first Christians took to heart the commandment to “have no other gods before me.”

All of this is background for appreciating the truly shrewd, subversive instruction Paul gives Timothy in the epistle today. “I urge you to pray,” Paul says. I know, it sounds unremarkable, boring. I urge you to pray is just the kind of thing you’d expect a preacher to say. Don’t forget kids, brush your teeth and say your prayers! But in the immortal words of Rafiki, “Look harder…”

“First of all,” Paul writes, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone (so far so good), for kings and all who are in high positions (why not?), so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (read, pray no one starts a war while we’re asleep). This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For (news to some, the truth is) there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus…”

Did you catch all that there? Pray for the kings. God pities their ignorance and desires that even they would come to know the truth about the world. Forget the coins and absurd inscriptions. Pray for the kings who think they are gods. Maybe nobody told them, but there’s only one God. So I urge you to pray. Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts, who think the cosmos revolves around them. Who think salvation comes from congress. Who believe the end is in their hands. Poor things. Lord, give them the good sense to let us live in peace and quiet. And, Lord, while you’re at it, help us to remember that, no matter how many robocalls from unknown area codes they throw at us in election years, no matter how earnestly they attempt to persuade us otherwise, to make us accomplices to their delusions of grandeur, help us remember that you are God and they are not.

I was sitting across a table at dinner from William Cavanaugh, a political theologian, hero of mine, who - to my shock and astonishment - had just suggested to our dinner party that we should consider unplugging from the news of the day in order to keep our sanity. Turn off your phones! He said. “But Dr. Cavanaugh,” I objected, “There are people who would call that a tremendous exercise in privilege, say it’s irresponsible. Sure, they’ll tell me, straight middle class white guy, you can plug your ears and pretend it’s not happening. No skin off your back. What would you say to that person?” Dr. Cavanaugh nodded. “It’s a fair point. I suppose it depends on how you understand unplugging.” I asked him, “Well, how do you do it?” He said, “I unplug from the media madness by going to church, where my family and I were recently assigned a refugee family, Muslims from Syria, to partner with. Once a week, we play games and take them to Target, so they can get what they need. Only our sons speak a common language, so it’s awkward and clumsy, but…”

“Wait, you unplug by spending time with your church-sponsored Syrian, Muslim refugee family? That’s crazy. Literally no means that when they say they’re unplugging...That’s - a kingdom not of this world.” “Yeah,” he shrugged. “It’s what our church invited us to do.”

Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts. They don’t know what to do with a creativity as defiant as church; one that invites us to be part of an alternative people who agree that our worship is worth reserving only for what is holy and true.

Speaking of things holy and true. I wonder if remembering that only God is God and worthy of our worship isn’t also a helpful key for unlocking the mess of a parable Jesus gives us today. I say mess of a parable because by the end Jesus is piling on explanations like spaghetti noodles on a dinner plate. Of course the final takeaway is “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” And because we Christians appreciate the danger of worshiping false gods, I find Jesus’s highlighting the story as a matter of God v. Wealth (idolatry) helpful. It saved me from my initial assumption stated nowhere in the story is that one of the lead parts, the part of the rich man, is played by God. Unlikely. 

In case you aren’t persuaded by Jesus’s one-liner at the end, consider that the story that follows this story is about a poor man, Lazarus, in heaven and a rich man whose name Jesus fails to mention being licked by flames in hell. So the likelihood is high that God is elsewhere in our story.

Maybe it’s obvious, but it’s still worth appreciating. The confession God is not the rich man is not always easy for us to see or believe all the way. We can tell we are being tempted to believe that the rich man is God when we, from time to time, take wealth to be a sign of God’s favor in our own lives and in the lives of others; when we regard people according to their dollar value or the position we think we stand to gain from them. The temptation is ingrained in us to the point of reflex, simple fact. But then God shows up elsewhere in the story, shouting “Not it!” as we try to pin God down, and just then we discover some of the other gods Christians don’t believe in.

If God is not the rich man, the manager is performing his life for an insidious something other than God, caught up in a system making false promises, extracting moral injuries, in exchange for a status, a position he’s betraying others to keep a hold of. Then the plot unfolds, he loses his job but, much more than that, he loses whatever it was he thought he was getting in exchange. In what will later be commended as our hero’s shrewdness, the manager cuts some deals, gives up what he’s already lost, and resigns himself to life lived with the poor, to life as the poor. Among friends. 

At the point Storyteller Jesus is content to close the book and call that the story’s happy ending. The manager having found eternal homes with the also-rans of society. No wonder they tried to shut him up and run him off. No wonder most folks said “No thanks” and opted for the other, shinier, more compelling, gods instead.

But not Christians. Taking our cue from the atheists, we believe it matters what you worship. We believe in one God, the creeds have taught us to say. And we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Monotheism, believing in just one God, doesn’t come naturally to human beings. That’s why, when a person desires to be baptized, the church says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve got some other gods to put down. Here, let us help you.” 

Cue the prayer book’s baptismal liturgy: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.

And then, after turning to Jesus and professing the faith, the earliest baptizands were stripped of their clothes, lest a false god touch the water, lest the symbols get confused, lest it not be clear that it’s just the one God claiming this life for God. The rest gets stripped away.

Knowing that the world is full of false gods to distract us, the desert fathers of the early church fled to the desert and prayed that God would meet them there. Occasionally, they reported visions. The risen Christ appearing with radiant skin, in beautiful, expensive robes. Seasonal inventory at Nieman Marcus. They’d flee these visions, convinced that they were impostor appearances of the devil, unconvinced that extravagant robes were the uniform of the same crucified and risen Christ who promises God’s kingdom to the poor. Perhaps not coincidentally, the prophets of scripture, like Jeremiah today, are continually looking to Israel’s care for the poor as the lead indicator of Israel’s faithfulness; that is, their belief in just the one God.

Believing in just the one God, being a Christian, doesn’t come naturally. We need God’s help and we need the church, that is, we need practice and practices, we need one another and others, the gift of holy friends. Friends whose friendships make us holier for having been made friends. Friends who will help us live more truthfully than we would have lived without them. Holy friends who will take our hands and pry our fingers loose of the idols when we fall for them. Friends who can be trusted to help open our hearts, help us put down our lies, and make us God’s generous people in the world. 

The Good News is that God has given us help, God’s own self, and plenty of holy friends who believe our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank God that in Christ Jesus God has given us everything we need to be God’s generous, Spirited people in the world. What a treasure. Christ IS our treasure. What a gift.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

No Shirt, No Sins, No Service (On the Contagious Mercy of God)

At every Eucharist, like this one, after the announcements, which - I don’t know about you - sometimes feel to me like a Super Bowl halftime, after the smoke clears off the field and the concert is over, the halftime is broken with a single sentence that kicks the game back into motion. It’s the sentence that announces the Offertory. And so the ancients of the faith have cleverly named it the Offertory Sentence. The Offertory Sentence marks the transition from the service of the Word, hearing the scriptures, to the service of the Table, breaking bread together and sharing the cup. “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” That’s the one I use the most. The prayer book steals it from Ephesians. There are other options, too. One oldie but goodie comes from Psalm 96: “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; bring offerings and come into his courts.”

Each offertory sentence takes a slightly different approach to signaling the transition, but each one, in its own way, is like a coach’s pep talk in the tunnel, meant to wake us up to the reality of the moment we are fast approaching, when we will soon lift up our hearts, make our sacrifice of praise, and prepare to find ourselves at the table of the Lord.

“I appeal to you, sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” That one is stolen from Romans.

There are others, like the sentence from Romans, that pick up that theme, that ask us to examine ourselves and our souls as we approach the sacred mystery; other sentences, though, encourage us to prepare less through examination of ourselves and our acceptableness, and more by consideration of our God and the truth about all things: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. For everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom, and you are exalted as head over all.” That’s 1 Chronicles.

Consider your soul. Consider your God. And, truthfully, it’s a mix of both, right? Sitting there in your pew as you contemplate breaking the bonds of inertia to make your way to this table. Consider your soul in the light of this God. The sentences are meant as invitations but, at least as I heard them as a kid, there was always also a warning, if only implied: “Hey you! Listen up. This here is important. You come up these steps, you best have your act put together.”

After all, it was hard for even my twelve year old self to hear any invitation to the table words without also remembering Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”

Uh oh.

It’s a dangerous thing to come to this table not knowing better. Un-put-together. I thought. And it is.

But then, in today’s gospel, we read that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” And I know they meant it as an insult, but the first time I heard it, I thought two things: The first was, “Well shoot, when was the last time someone could have accused me of eating with people as exciting as that? I should get out more often,” and, two, “Now there’s an Offertory Sentence worthy of this God.”

Backstory. I know I’m supposed to come to this place all good and right and put together. I get that that’s my job, yours too, and I get it - easier said than done - but here’s my real problem. I don’t know about you, but the God who meets us at this table is always messing with and messing up my ideas for what is good and right and proper. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t nearly as polite and nice as I was raised to be. Name-calling the religious leaders. Healing on the days he is told to sit still. Putting the last at the front of the line. Taking off the chains the rest of us had so neatly arranged on the backs of the prisoners. This one time he sees a woman put her last penny in the temple box and he says, “Will you look at that? A religious practice meant to help the community of faith look after widows. Now they’ve gone and used that law to scare this widow into poverty in the name of her God, while they put in some pennies and their brown-nose audience applauds. Clowns. Peter, James, John, let’s get out of here and go find some sinners God can actually do something with.”

This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them, they complain. Stays up too late, lamps lit, sweeping the house like a fool looking for coins that got dropped and lost their way. Heads into the world, leaves the friendly confines of home, to chase a sheep so lost it doesn’t even know it is. 

One of the religious leaders pulls me aside and explains so I can understand, “This fellow’s sense of the good, of what is right, what is respectable, does not conform to usual, institutional, and conventional social standards. This fellow sees things differently. This fellow breaks rules, it’s clear to us, religious leaders, that he isn’t very good. And this fellow has the nerve to say that we have got goodness all wrong. This fellow says we’re doing goodness wrong exactly because we’re sure we’ve got it right, because we’ve got it down to abstracted acts made comfortable and predictable, because we’re measuring goodness by the ability of a person to look the part, to show no weakness, to demonstrate no need of God. You understand the problem.”

We sinners know better. Apart from God, even the goodness of a Christian doesn’t amount to much. It’s not just that baptized Christians can’t be good without God, though that’s true, it’s that we’ve given up on pretending to know what good is apart from God’s helping us to see. The world is all so topsy-turvy, upside-down. No wonder it feels like crazy when God comes to set things right. Just when you think you know who to hang out with to get yourself a reputation for righteousness, BAM! New Creation. Christ calls and surprises. The poor find the kingdom and the last get made first. The king makes a throne between thieves, on a cross. How many times have you found yourself thinking, “Well, shoot, you know what, I was wrong. How could I have known that God would show up even there?” 

So about my proposal. A new Offertory Sentence. Liturgical halftime. Imagine, if you will. Any birthdays? Anniversaries. Fine. Before we proceed, uh, just so you know, this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. No shirt, no sins, no service. Cue the offertory. 

Kierkegaard said that being aware of your sins is the doorway to Christianity because only sinners can begin to see the new possibilities of God, of seeing that more in Christ is possible than the lives we’d imagined before God showed us, the flotsam we’d settled for when we settled for lives we could achieve without God’s meddling and help. This place is for sinners, the ones who know that holiness is not a solo gig, a perpetual performance, pious proof of perfection. Holiness is for the vulnerable and broken. Holiness is for being called together into an adventure God knows we’re not up to, apart from God. Holiness is for life lived with the One who, by his wounds, makes us whole. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

One of you told me about a preacher at a nearby church. He got up and announced to the congregation gathered that Sunday that he had it on good authority that a good fifty percent of the folks there that day were sinners. He stared and let the silence sit thick over them as they sneaked side eyes at each other. And I thought, well shoot, only fifty? They’re under-performing!

A few weeks ago, another of you stopped by my office to introduce yourself. Brief reprieve from some administrative minutiae. Asked me how I was enjoying the church so far. “It’s wonderful,” I exclaimed. “The people! Everybody has been so unbelievably welcoming, warm, and kind.” “Well, give it time. It’ll change. There’s a reason, after all, we go to church here.” And I thought, I’ll be darned, this church gets church. 

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” Paul tells Timothy today, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

So. Does that mean Paul was wrong about the danger of the table? That there’s no way to mess it up? Not quite. The danger lies in what Paul calls “not discerning the body.” Not seeing the others. Or, just as bad, seeing the others without seeing how we belong to each other. Judging some in the body to be more or less worthy, until the we of the body becomes us and them. They. A spiritual director one time put it this way, “Comparisons are demonic.” The danger is in presuming to know where and in whom God shows up. The danger is in forgetting that the same forgiveness I come to drink here from the cup is here for you, too, and is every bit as effective. If God says yes to you and yes to me, we are left in this strange space called church, left with the good work, sometimes hard work, of living lives that say yes to each other. 

And wouldn’t you know - there’s an offertory sentence for that! “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Stolen from Matthew who stole it from Jesus.

It can be easy to think of forgiveness as the wave of the wand that resets the score, something that temporarily gives you a clean slate again, gets you off the hook, so that you can get back to the work of being blameless, trying to outperform the others, of not needing God or God’s help, but Paul writes to Timothy that the mercy God showed to him wasn’t about restoring Paul’s self-image; it was about God’s imagine; it was about making God visible. It was about putting God’s patience on display to encourage the others, that they could trust mercy, too. If God can love someone like Paul, why not me? In other words, God’s strength isn’t just made known in our weakness, in a real sense it depends on it. In other words, the mercy you receive is not your own. Even God’s mercy to you is a gift for the others, waiting to be made known and multiplied in love. 

God’s kindness toward us is the seed of our compassion toward our neighbor, sister, brother, stranger. They will know we are Christians by our love, the old song goes. Not by the earthly love that looks for a reason to justify love’s withdrawal - anyone can do that, that love’s a dime a dozen - but the love that holds on to and remembers that while we sinners Christ died for us. Even then, Christ got up, sought out, sat down at supper with us. This is the love that tells the world about God. 

The love God has made known to us, long before we got things right, God has put that love to work, turning our lives into moons that reflect the light of the sun, making our lives for a witness. God has put that love to work, for wholeness, for sharing, for seeking out, for making right, for making known, for opening others, for continually converting our own hearts, for the redemption of all things.

“So, that’s the reason,” writes Will Willimon in his memoir. “We are put here, located in love, bred for the joy of knowing we, even in our sin and lostness, are owned. Our telos, our baptismally bestowed purpose, is to allow ourselves to be loved, to be lost and found, to say yes (with our lives) to the Yes that God has said to us.” 


Offertory Sentence:
Listen up! This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Come, let us adore him.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Music, Theology, and the Holy Spirit (Theology on Tap S.3, E.1)

We had a great start to the Theology on Tap Fall Season last night! For those who wanted a second look and those who couldn't be with us, here is the video, with table questions, we explored. We're expected another packed house October 2 and would love for you to come be a part of the evening!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Ain't No Children's Table in the Kingdom of God

This sermon was preached August 24 and 25 at Holy Trinity by the Lake. Here are the weekend's readings.

I wonder if you grew up, like me, in a family where at large family gatherings, especially dinners, generous use was made of The Children’s Table. Capital T. Capital C. Capital T. The Children’s Table was occupied mostly by, well, children, although the youngest adults were fair game and might find themselves there, too, if The Main Table ever ran out of room. Youngest adults, of course, was a relative phrase but if you made it to forty you were more or less safe. Probably. The situation was mostly practical. More bodies than seats means something has to give. Split ‘em up! Divide and conquer. Banish them to … The Children’s Table.

Of course it was more well-meaning than that. And of course nobody who made the table assignments would have thought about it as banishing. But of course, also, to divide the tables by age over against some other arbitrary qualification, feature, or interest (like musical tastes, biggest ears, or most memorized lines from The Princess Bride) was to make silent assumptions about who was interesting to whom and from whom you might expect to hear either entertaining or edifying things. 

The silent assumptions often made things more predictable, people knew where they stood in advance, even as the assumptions made in silence silently shrank the family’s imagination for what was possible. And this is a longstanding pattern with precedent: think Jesus’s disciples when they tried to keep the kids away, lest the kiddos interrupt what Jesus was about to show the “true followers” in a space protected from noisy, smelly, inquisitive children. Think the feeding of the five-thousand, when the disciples shrugged their shoulders, unconvinced that the gifts of a child could be of serious use or constitute a genuine blessing for the life of the community. “All we’ve got is this child. And his lunch box. How can what he brings to the table possibly be enough?”

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic for a while, the assumptions we make about age and who is worth listening to. Different generations of people have been thinking about it recently, too. I’m sure you’ve seen or read the mostly unhelpful articles. Millennials wonder when Boomers will hand over the reigns. Boomers for their part are understandably in no hurry to be written off by Millenials. Meanwhile, Generation X invisibly wonders why the Millennials and Boomers are fighting as if they don’t exist and aren’t also standing in line. Did you know that, astoundingly, three of the previous four presidents, including our current one, were born in the same month of the same year, 1946?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this, a zero sum game, one generation, winner take all, guarding against the others. But choosing to witness the alternative, a community that collaborates, listens, honors, and shares real and vulnerable space in common life, one that fosters relationships of mutual blessing - mutual gratitude, amazement, and wonder - in the midst of our differences, well these spaces take intention and effort. More than that, these spaces require the belief that each of us has been given true gifts that would truly bless and build up the others; it requires the belief that being in community opens us to the possibility that God might change us from the people we were before we opened our hearts to each other. If we are lucky, we come to more than make room for this possibility; we come to pray for and delight in it.

These sorts of spaces take work. Never finished work. But it’s good work, holy work, and work worthy of the time and energy it takes. Especially for Christians. After all, Jesus refuses the disciples’s refusal of the children, and he even blesses the lunchbox of the boy, to feed a hillside of people. A friend said to me one time, “I want to give a talk about friendships and significant others. But then I realize that that was absurd. For Christians, there are no insignificant others.” One of the things being a Christian is to discover is that we belong to each other, because we belong to God; that my life and death is with my neighbor. We who are many are one body, says St. Paul, because we all share the one bread.

But each of us, I suspect, has days when we do wonder if we belong to each other or what kind of place we can have in the body. After all, love and belonging, in a world as determined by humiliation and competition as this one, are hard things to trust.

In the first lesson today, we find the prophet Jeremiah evidently in need of some convincing he belongs to the body. Specifically, he needs some coaxing to speak up. He’s been at The Children’s Table for so long he has come to believe it’s his true place. Why should The Main Table listen to him? What would he have to say to Israel that anyone in Israel should take seriously coming from his mouth?

As I listen to my own very vocal toddler at home, it occurs to me that of course Jeremiah’s doubt about his voice and its place in the body is not a doubt with which he was born. He learned it when he was young. From others who taught it to him. Even others who cared deeply for him. But then one day Jeremiah hears a voice that gives him voice. The voice belongs to God.

But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord."

Like Moses before him, like just about every other character in the whole daggum book, young, old, and in between, the ones who wonder out loud if they’re cut out for the call and the invitation God gives them, God insists to Jeremiah that the most important thing about him, the assurance he should have that he is enough, so that he can speak without fear, is that God is coming with him.

Trivia time! Did you know, by your baptism, this is true of you, too? That the most important thing about you - more important that you’re greatest failure, more important than your biggest win - is God’s love for you and presence with you? You, beloveds, children of God. Sealed by the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own. Just like Jeremiah, called out of fear. 

I pray we can all receive this reminder today and each new day remember the good news that God’s love is our belonging and that we have a full place at the table, and that we are called to lift up this Good News to one another and others, but Jeremiah’s call asks us to particularly notice and consider the young ones among us and the ways we as Christ’s body visibly communicate the fullness of their belonging, or not. In other words, Jeremiah is, yes, a general reminder to see, encourage, and make room for each other, but Jeremiah is also the very specific reminder that children are very often among the marginalized and invisible, even if we don’t always think of them this way. Like the man Jesus found covered in chains that other people had put on him, whom, like the woman in today’s gospel, Jesus nonetheless healed, when children are found on the margins it is very often because we put them there.

That’s why I don’t think it’s too much to call Jeremiah’s story a healing. So many healings in the Bible have to do with people set free from the rule and rules of those in power. Of course, it takes help sometimes to see in the first place that we possess the kind of power a person might do well to be freed from. A person at The Main Table might not think much about The Children’s Table. But Jeremiah did. Thank God, Jeremiah trusted the voice that gave him voice. Jeremiah spoke up. Thank God, Israel listened. Thank God, the Word bridged a void. Praise God redemption took root. 

So we who follow Jesus and seek to take him at his word go out of our way to listen to our children. Children like Greta Thunberg, fifteen years old when she spoke of climate justice at a conference organized by the U.N. last year. We listen to the students of Stoneman Douglas High School who became voices in their community, locally and nationally, in the days after a gunman wreaked hellish havoc on their lives and on their school. It is one thing of course to say we disagree about the strategies or proposals that speak to the concerns to which our children give voice. It is quite another to dismiss their voices as naive or unseasoned or anything else. Dismissing the voices of children is the one thing, it turns out, our Savior expressly forbids.  

On the Day of Pentecost, when fire fell on the first disciples, the Holy Spirit, on what we’ve come to call the Birthday of the Church, scripture tells us that these words from the book of Joel were coming true:  the Lord said, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29).

Yes, even on the ones who don’t drive the local economy, the retired and those at recess, both alike, that’s where the Spirit is painting new pictures, showing salvation, revealing the new things of God in this world, bestowing blessings with the power to give life to the whole church, to all of us. That’s why a friend likes to tell me it’s smart to get yourself at least two mentors, 30 years in both directions, one older and one younger. Because, look. You and I worship a God who emptied the grave - who are we to pretend to know where or in whom God won’t show up?

So we come to this table today. And we notice there’s just one table to share. There is no children’s table. Or maybe there’s just one children’s table. Because we only come to the table at all as God’s children. Either way, as God calls us to this meal together, around one shared table, God calls us to become a dinner party unlike any other in town. Where there are no insignificant friends. Where the host invites the young and old alike to speak out loud the visions and dreams God gives them.

Because it doesn’t have to be the way the world imagines, a zero sum game, one generation, winner take all, guarding against the others. Baloney. But here we commit - and already in two short weeks I have been so inspired by the breadth and depth of our particular church family’s commitment - here, we commit, we choose to witness an alternative life together, a community that collaborates, listens, honors, and shares real and vulnerable space in common life, one that fosters relationships of mutual blessing. Because one of the things it is to be a Christian is to discover is that we belong to each other, because we belong to God. 

Thank God, and amen.

Monday, August 19, 2019

What Did Baptism Get Us Into?

Sermon preached at Holy Trinity by the Lake, August 18, 2019. Here are the readings appointed for the day.

Good morning! My name is Fr. Jonathan, and - speaking for my wife and kids, as well as for myself - it is so wonderful to be with you. I have been carrying a heart full of gratitude these last several weeks for Holy Trinity, for the process by which God has called us to walk the life of faith with you, for the many of you who tended to that discernment, and for the even more of you who have extended a welcome whose warmth is more than worthy of the outdoor temperatures. Thank you, and I thank God for you. I look forward to our getting to know one another, and I thank God that as people like you and me seek to draw near to God, we are not left on our own; God gives us the good gift of one another; the good gift of holy friends with which to break bread and share the cup. What a gift that God in Christ has made us friends of God and each other.

I’ll be honest, Fr. Keith and I are still working together on the particulars of my position’s responsibilities, but Christian formation is at the top of the list, especially formation of children, youth, and young families. So you can imagine my delight when I spotted the Spirit-inspired gospel lesson appointed for today. Did you catch it?

Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, asking the disciples a question he’ll answer himself:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

A good beginning.

Now, stop. Can we be real for a second? You and I need Jesus for lots of reasons, but most of us don’t need Jesus to have conflict with in-laws. Most of us can manage that on our own. Amirite?

Same with the other family dynamics. Sometimes, the father/son and mother/daughter stuff clears up with age, but not always. Any therapist worth their salt will eventually want to talk to you about what they call your family of origin because, even in the best of circumstances, that’s where the deepest wounds lie. We all have them, followers of Jesus or not.

Jesus knows this, but apparently Jesus is unwilling to promise that following him will not add to the challenge. After all, Jesus’s first followers left their families to become his disciples. Jesus’s own relationship with his family was not without its difficulties. By contrast, many - though not all - of us were introduced to Jesus through our families, but even if that was the case for you, this does not mean you aren’t familiar with the waters the first disciples navigated. In seven years of campus ministry, I shared space with countless young adults going or not going to church for the very first time as a decision independent of their families. No one looking over their shoulders. In fact, if a parent endorsed me to their college student child, it was very often the kiss of death for our relationship. Because families are complicated. In six years of parish ministry, too, I’ve met a lot of folks for whom the words “grow my church” really meant “please help my family members want to be here, too.”

Jesus doesn’t promise that following Jesus won’t add to the challenge. But neither does Jesus ask us to add to the challenge for its own sake. The main character in today’s gospel is not division; the main character in today’s gospel is the God who comes to ordinary, mostly boring folks like you and me and shouts the life-changing invitation: “Follow me!”, giving us far more interesting lives than the ones most of us would have managed on our own, left to our own devices, had we not been found and called by the God who delivered Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. So we follow, not just once, not just a couple of times, but each day, every day, every hour, filled with new wonder and expectation, ready to be called out and surprised. The Methodist pastor Will Willimon says, “The (whole) Christian life is spent figuring out what baptism got us into.”

Will Willimon knows something about what baptism got us into. Willimon comes from the deep South. South Carolina. His family had been a family of considerable wealth until it was destroyed near the end of the Civil War. He describes the way the day salvation found him in the person of an African-American roommate who one day began a conversation he would later call a conversion by asking, “Does it bother you that there are laws to keep us separate?” (1)

Can I ask you, when was the last time God called you in a way that invited you to leave the space of what you’d known before God called you into something new? Can you think of a time when God invited you to leave the familiar, to cross an unknown threshold or enter a brand new metaphorical land?

In the 12th century, a young man named Francis was busy minding his own business, coming of age in a wealthy family, when God called him to repair God’s church. He showed up to the church the next day with a hammer and a bucket of nails, ready to do his part, but God had a good laugh and said, “That’s not what I mean.” Instead, God called Francis to give up his wealth. Francis stripped naked in the middle of town, and an embarrassed bishop covered him up with his coat. Francis left the family inheritance behind and went on to start what we now know as the Franciscan order. He lived on the kindness of others, preached to birds and wolves alike and, less well known - while the rest of Christendom went off to war, to fight the Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed the battle lines; he traveled to Egypt to befriend the Muslim sultan there, to seek and proclaim the peace of Christ.

Look out, you’ve been warned. God only knows what absurdity God might call us to next. So we Christians stay ready, we continue to grow, to move, to expect God in strange things, unknown people and unlikely places, because God continues to call us. Not once or even a couple of times, but each day, every day, across a lifetime, so we get up, we go out, filled with that wonder, trust, and expectation. Made alive to the resurrection truth that more is possible. Made alive to the Good News that God is doing a new thing, a new thing that, with childlike eagerness, God really wants to show us.

I remember the day I met Phil Stevenson in West Texas. Phil was a former JAG officer turned small town mayor turned priest. Now he was coming up on 40 years in the priesthood. Because his path struck me as a strange one, I asked him about his journey, what led him to his change of vocation, his present calling.

He told me about another man, a cattle rancher, he met while serving as a JAG officer, post-WW II, overseas in Japan. The man raised cattle and gave away nearly all of the cattle he raised, to peasants mostly, asking nothing in return, with the lone stipulation that they also give any offspring cattle they raised to others. He’d left his family, his county, all he knew to become a wellspring of life for strangers, and to become poor alongside them. Philip asked the man why he did this. What had led him to this change? The man filled and broke my good friend’s heart with his answer; he’d seen another’s life transformed by the Gospel and God’s call, he began to believe God’s Good News might call him, too, and he found himself one day willing to be made open. He spoke about having found a great treasure; he talked about abundant life.

You can almost hear the author of Hebrews wanting to break in at this point… And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, Rahab, David, Samuel, and the prophets, Mary, Sarah, Rebekah, and Elizabeth, the heavenly hosts with all the saints, all those with whom we keep the feast; those who wait to eat until we join them, all those of the great family of faith, the cloud of witnesses we know and to which we belong through the wonder and waters of baptism.

No life, it seems, is beyond God’s imagination for holiness, beyond God’s capacity to transform, redeem and, even God help us, be made interesting.

We leave our old lives behind, true. We lay down our tired swords of self-righteousness, self-preservation, and fears that our gifts aren’t enough, that we can’t be enough. But with those swords laid down, our hands free and empty, God gives new and unexpected life. We lift up our hearts. We are fed at this table. We are met here by Christ. Christ Jesus "who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8).

As surely as the risen Jesus bears his wounds, we will bear wounds, too, by our following. The Good News about our wounds is that God knows them. Your pain is not hidden to God. The God who calls you, sees you, knows you, and loves you. And as we continue to know ourselves more truly in the light of this love, we know we cannot help but continue to turn toward the one who calls us his own, lest we betray the burning God has placed upon our hearts for God.

Question: what has this turning looked like in your life? What might it look like still? What visions, dreams, and holy words has God shown to you? How has God surprised you? They’re rhetorical questions right now, but I’d love to hear about it, if you’d be willing to share it. It’ll be the best coffee or other beverage of my week. Question: who else knows the story of your turning, of your seeing? Of God’s speaking, and your response, with God’s good help? Of considerations and hesitations and half-grasped decisions that maybe didn’t make sense to others - or even to you - apart from their pointing to Jesus, crucified and risen.

My wife pulled me from the bedtime routine some nights ago to share the magazine story of Katie Davis, twenty-two, living in Uganda, founder of a child sponsorship program, local feeding program, and self-sustaining vocational program - empowering local women to make and sell bead necklaces. Oh, and she is mother to thirteen of the children, whom she’s adopted. Says Katie, "People tell me I am brave. People tell me I am strong. People tell me good job. Well here is the truth of it. I am really not that brave, I am not really that strong, and I am not doing anything spectacular. I am just doing what God called me to do…”

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose Mary-like beauty compels our attention, give us hearts that jump within us with the good news of your salvation. We confess that amid the tedium of the everyday our worship of you sometimes feels like a job - just “one more thing.” Thank you for the unsettling of our lives, wherein we discover the splendor of the kingdom made possible by your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray that you will ever be here, unsettling our attempts to domesticate the wildness of your Spirit. (2)



(2) From Prayers Plainly Spoken, by Stanley Hauerwas.

Dad Jokes & Xenophophia (Or 'The Story that Giving Helps Us Remember')

Per usual, this sermon was preached from lessons I did not choose. Here they are . If it's a half-decent sermon, it will make only mode...