Monday, January 23, 2017

Why Christians Should Question How We Think About Fishing (Especially If You Don't Fish)

I like to tell about a favorite church sign I saw one day in North Carolina, at a church in a small coastal fishing town. The sign read, “Be fishers of people. You catch ‘em, I’ll clean ‘em. - God.” 

That sign invoked Jesus' promise to teach his followers to fish for people, but the sign also changed - if just for a moment - my picture of God. Suddenly, God Almighty was down on the river, under the shade of bald cypress trees, decked out in camo, sitting on the back end of a pickup truck, grinning with a big filet knife and a Coleman cooler filled with bagged ice and canned beer. The image raised for me all kinds of questions, like, “Where does God get God’s koozies?” And “What do they say on them?”

It’s a great reminder that, lots of times, our cultural experiences inform our first responses to Scripture. The Texan imagines camo and coolers. The Wisconsin fly fisher maybe gets excited at the prospect of fly tying with Jesus. We start with known categories, and all the more if we don’t fish. The non-fishers among us will want to reduce the metaphor to the basics: hook, line, and sinker. We’ll draw on secular fishing grammar: idioms like, “She took the bait,” which translates roughly, “I fooled her.” Or “bait and switch,” which means I promised them one thing and substituted another. Or “We hooked him,” which indicates that even we haven’t persuaded the other person, we’ve at least hit his emotional triggers in such a way that we can manipulate his energies. 

That most of our pictures for fishing involve baited hooks and deception conveniently fits the narrative many Christians and non-Christians have constructed for what Jesus is asking his disciples to do when he invites them to become fishers of people. Evangelism is an activity many people do not trust. Evangelism, the thinking goes, is a practice designed to get someone to do something they didn’t want to do in the first place, either by fooling them into it or changing their minds in ways they didn’t ask for or invite.

The mistrust of evangelism as unwanted meddling in other people’s lives further reinforces secular categories of the private and public, where religion is decidedly private. Religion is fine to have, but it’s best kept out of sight. Which is a terrifying expression of political power, when you think about it, because you’re talking about the power to make visible and invisible, where the lines demarcating “religion” from the rest of life are oftentimes arbitrary and decided by the state. If we defined religion as “that for which you’d sacrifice your life”, the military power of the state would show up in the search results, for example. If we defined religion instead as “that which commands our fullest attention and devotion,” the Green Bay Packers would trump the Catholics and Lutherans combined in this state. Can you imagine a secular agreement by which it is acceptable to be a Packers fan in a purely private sense?

But I digress. I think it’s enough to say that the militant relegation of religion to private categories is both founded on mistrust and somewhat arbitrary in where the line gets drawn. While some of the mistrust of religion has been earned, it is also true that this mistrust of religion is sometimes exploited to justify agendas we would not accept if society called them religious.

So Jesus hands us the promise of evangelism in a fishing metaphor rife with hooks and a cultural mistrust of religion, and we smile and nod our heads in the way a boyfriend or girlfriend smiles and nods to be polite to his or her significant other when, unbeknownst to the other - but well known to everyone else - we are already seeing someone else. He can say what he wants. We see that he’s kind and means well. But we’re not really interest. We’ve moved on.

But. Well. This won’t change everything, but what if we took a step back. You know, before we projected our cultural understanding of fishing onto Jesus’ conversation with his friends. After all, fishing for Jesus’ friends was different from the fishing granddad did with us. There were no hooks or lines or beautifully crafted ties of one thing made to look like something else. Admittedly, the gospels aren’t fishing manuals, but every time we see them at it, they’re casting nets. They’re gathering fish. They’re bringing what was scattered in the water together. And I wonder if this changes how we hear Jesus’ invitation to fish for people. In other words, what if it’s not about deception, the bait and switch, or emotional hooks and manipulating others. What if it’s not about giving people a change they didn’t want or didn’t ask for? What if it’s about gathering and being gathered? What does it look like to be a part of God’s work of gathering all people to God?

Lots of things that sharing the gathering work of God could mean, but three things I see when I look at the disciples to whom the invitation was first given. When we ask what difference the metaphor makes, we look to the lives of Jesus’ disciples, what they did, when they did become fishers of people. They lived it 
  • by forgiveness, received and extended, 
  • by telling their own personal stories of being noticed and called and loved by God, and 
  • by going out in pairs to heal and preach, in other words, by risking vulnerability and loving others in the same way as the one who loved and sent them. By love that lays down life for one’s friends. 
If we describe the phrase retroactively, by the lives of the first disciples, that’s what it is to fish for people. So evangelism now includes saying, "I'm sorry" and working to make things right. Evangelism includes the spiritual practices that will help us better attend to God's presence in our lives, to discover and better tell the story of God's love for us and the world in our own words. And evangelism includes being made into seamless garments, who are the same people on the streets that we are in the churches. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said, "Don't try to be hip. You're Episcopalians! Just be that. Don't stop being who you are." 

Evangelism becomes less us for them and more us with one another, because my salvation is caught up with yours. And it's hard. And vulnerable. With the potential to change all parties involved. It's honest. And demanding. And beautiful. And exactly what Jesus promised.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Marching & Imitation of Mary:Toward Faith That Is More Than Words

Sermon preached January 22, 2017, at St. Francis House. The readings for the day, by the Revised Common Lectionary, were these: 
Millions of women and others marched yesterday. I bet you’ve already seen the breathtaking aerial photographs. The pink hats with pointy ears. Signs of both inspiration and opposition. Millions of people discerning the shape of resistance. Maybe you were among the marchers! Maybe you weren’t. Maybe the shape of your discernment is different, even where you share many of the marchers’ values, hopes, and concerns. I want to say that that is okay. In 2017, there is an unprecedented amount of secular pressure to be on the right side of a thing, even from what appears to be the same side of a thing, and our impatience with one another quickly turns to shaming and the assumption that we must be in the same place to share the same space. But because Christians seek and serve Christ in one another and others, Christians resist impulses to shame. We speak truth in love, even challenge each other, but we also listen and learn from one another, as if Christ himself was there to be known, because Christ himself is there to be known. And so we recognize that the lives of saints constitute a diverse tapestry of faithful witness and response to the challenges Christian face. And we recognize our need of one another. I both am glad many people marched and trust the wisdom of those who didn’t. Truth be told, the marchers weren't all of one mind, either, but love makes room for each other. 

I saw one photo of women protesting from a ship in Antarctica. My favorite sign had an icon of the Virgin Mary on one side. It said, “I’m with her.” On the back was quoted a portion of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. Luke 1:52: “Cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.” 

I think all marching, at its heart, is trying to imitate Mary. Like Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel - who appeared before Mary and laid out the plan before nervously adding, “So, what do you think?” - marching is an attempt to say “yes” with our bodies. It’s a yes that says no to the thing being protested but also no to the remaining lip service in one’s life. Marching says yes to living it out. Marching sings Mary’s song. And marching sings the 1991 chart topping hit by the hair metal band Extreme, inviting us to a moral imagination that is “More Than Words.”

Whether yesterday or some other day, maybe you’ve known first hand the feeling, the change that happens, when a conviction of the head moves south, to the heart, yes, but then it keeps going. The conviction keeps going until it lands on your feet. And feet were made for moving. Maybe your feet started moving you even before you recognized the fact of it. Maybe you were just trying to keep up with others and movement that began with your feet only later traveled north to your head and your heart. There is wisdom in bodies and the imitation of holiness.

Moving feet to the beat of faith does not always look like marches on capitols. In fact, as many of yesterday’s speeches attested, most days marching will look far less dramatic. Most days, marching will look like day in and day out showing up to your life. Loving God and your neighbor. Caring beyond the fences of your obvious self-interest. At first making room for the interruptions of others and then, over time, interrupting your own self when you see, when you spot, the new possibilities, how a thing might become otherwise with sacrificial love. 

Joseph found himself marching with Mary and a newborn Jesus to Egypt when, by faith, he refrained from an apparently justified divorce. That’s right, marching that day took the profoundly unremarkable shape of not divorcing. Joseph knew the script, what to do, what he was entitled to do, what the rulebooks called for. But he took heaven’s cue and went off-script. He decided to show up the next day anyway. He decided to stay; to love. Marching, at first, just meant not leaving. The footsteps of faith are supremely ordinary steps taken over and over again in sacrificial love.

Speaking of ordinary steps.

Matt Klein saw me write most of another sermon on Thursday at Johnson Public House over a fine vanilla latte. It was a fine sermon about Jesus calling his followers to become fishers of people. About how the way we think of fishing - which is nothing like the way Jesus’ friends, with their big nets, would have fished - gives evangelism, faith sharing, today a bad rap. About how fishing is not bait and switch or hook, line, and sinker, deception and/or manipulation but gathering and being gathered together in nets, about being made whole. When we ask what difference the metaphor makes, we look to the lives of Jesus’ disciples, what they did, when they did become fishers of people. They lived it by forgiveness, received and extended, by telling their own personal stories of being noticed and called and loved by God, and by going out in pairs to heal and preach, in other words, by risking vulnerability and loving others in the same way as the one who loved and sent them. By love that lays down life for one’s friends. If we describe the phrase retroactively, by the lives of the first disciples, that’s what it is to fish for people. 

So far, so good.

But then, yesterday, with all those feet and all those hats and all that hurt and all that beauty and hope, and even imperfect and unfinished as resistance goes, a prayer of a beginning, it occurred to me that becoming fishers of people didn’t start with the disciples’ even mostly understanding what they would become. It started with a simple “yes” to “follow me.” It started with sand covered steps in sandals and “Good bye, Mom.” It started with movement. Someone today says to a preacher, “Your sermon moved me,” usually it means the sermon evoked an inner emotional response. Bad pizza can do that. But when was the last time the Gospel moved you, not just in an inner sense, but in a feet under your body sense, in a “I’d still be doing some other thing over there, but now I’m here, if not for that Good News” sense, in a “I realize that, without Jesus, this whole thing looks crazy” sense? In a, “I was lost but now am found” sense? In a “How else was I gonna get close enough to see Jesus?” sense? I do think that movement leads followers of Jesus to the space of forgiveness, storytelling, and sacrificial love, but I also trust the wisdom of the body, and yesterday reminded me of the wisdom of bodies, and I wonder what the movement of your faithful feet has shown and taught you about the goodness and mercy of God.

Finally, a last word. It would kill me if exploring marching as a metaphor for the Christian life the day after the Women’s March was somehow read as my equating participation in one party or another with Christian faithfulness. Let me be clear: I am not the first and won’t be the last thoughtful person to denounce the idolatrous patriotism of the president’s inauguration address, and I won’t be the first to observe that the cure for idolatrous patriotism is not fulsome allegiance to the other - or any other - political party, however much we might share with and learn from them. The cure for idolatrous patriotism is sustained and loving collective attention to and movement after the voice of the one who first said, “Follow me,” and who today says it still. Because justice begins with right relationship to the God who created us for the praise and worship of God. (This is why Compline has us say, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…” like three billion times. Because justice is human creatures giving glory to the God who made and saved them and acknowledging the giftedness of all things for the flourishing of all people.) 

Christians don’t follow a donkey or elephant, Christians worship the Lamb. And the lamb says, love your enemies, bless the other side, put down the swords, share what you have, give glory to God, love one another. Following this one will not make our lives apolitical but will show us the fullness of the alternative to the powers of this world we have been given in Jesus Christ. It may take you to St. Louis! To move with this one is to move toward love without fear not just of losing, but love without fear of giving, love without fear of forgiving, love without fear of being forgiven, and love across all fences of our obvious self interests.

Pray the Spirit so moves God’s people! Not in the pizza sense, but really moves followers of Jesus, as in, with their feet, toward the glory of God and love for each other. Let the Song of the Lamb be the song that we sing as we walk together with our own sand covered feet the Way of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Isaiah, Ahaz, and the End of the Beginning

A sermon for St. Luke's, Madison, preached December 18 on the 4th Sunday of Advent. The lessons appointed for the day are:
Well, we’ve made it to the end of the beginning. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The next time you’re in church, it will probably be Christmas. With any luck, Advent has done its work of slowing us down and inviting us to the good work of true preparation. Not just ribbons and gifts but the soul and new life and responsiveness to God. 

Advent goes about this peculiar work each year through an unusual, if predictable, cast of characters. Of course there’s the holy family. Mary, Joseph, the baby she carries. There are the weird stories Jesus tells during Advent about people disappearing in fields, warnings that God is like a thief in the night, the fall of the temple, and all that precedes the end. You know, bedtime stuff for kids. There’s that sharply dressed, camel-hair-wearing young man (with the beautiful beard) named John, fixed on the banks of the Jordan River, eating bugs. And of course there are smaller cameo appearances by Elizabeth, Gabriel, etc. But before we skip to the cameos, there’s at least one more in the mix, among the principle actors, prone to being overlooked, so steady and regular we are likely to take him for granted. But alongside Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, John the Baptist, and the unknowability of the end of time, Advent rightly makes room for Isaiah.

The truth is, Isaiah is the source of some of the best Advent material. That shoot and stump picture from a couple of weeks ago? The branch and green leaf sprung up from the root? Isaiah. How about, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given?" Isaiah again. “And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And Handel says, “Thank you!” All of it, Isaiah. And not just the happy bits. The babe born on Christmas will of course grow up, and we’ll follow him. We’ll follow him all the way to the night before he dies, Maundy Thursday, and on that day Isaiah will be there to meet us again. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” From Isaiah 53. And on that day we’ll read the whole psalm.

Like a good iPhone app you take for granted, Isaiah has been running quietly in the background this whole Advent. In fact, today’s is one of the shorter readings from Isaiah, just a snippet. A curious day maybe to highlight the prophet, but today’s short reading from Isaiah gives us everything we will want to remember when we do get to the great and holy feast we are about to celebrate. But maybe that reading came just enough minutes ago that you need a refresher. It was the first reading. No worries. I’ve got your back.

In the first reading today, Isaiah shows up and offers Ahaz a pretty good deal. This is where a lot of folks check out. Who’s Ahaz? Why should I care? (Can I get an 'amen'?) Ahaz is the King of Judah. Do you remember how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt? And how some time later the people of Israel told God they wanted a king? And God wasn’t wild about the idea, but God eventually said yes? Well, it didn’t take long for the kingdom to split and soon there were two kingdoms of Israelites. Two kingdoms of people delivered by one God out of slavery in Egypt. Israel and Judah. Ahaz is the king of Judah. 

So Isaiah goes to Ahaz. And he tries to give Ahaz the kind of blank check with God that most of us would kill for. He says, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ask for a sign. Name it. Anything goes. And I don’t know about you, but I want that deal! Not sure about the new job? Want a sign that it’s really for you? Uncertain about a relationship, or the next stage of your life and the decisions before you and which paths will lead to flourishing? In the face of despair, do you long for some signal, a wink, to tell you that God hears your cries - the cries you won’t cry for anyone else - could you stand some assurance that it might, in the end, work out after all? This is the kind of promise Isaiah puts before Ahaz. As deep as Sheol or high as heaven, he says. But Ahaz refuses and in a way that might sound familiar. “I will not put the Lord God to the test,” he says. And this should sound familiar. Jesus uses these same words to answer the temptations of the devil in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. I will not put the Lord God to the test. This echo of Jesus makes Ahaz sound almost noble. But Isaiah is no Satan and Ahaz is not noble. But it takes a little background to see why. That’s right! You deserve the full story.

The full story is that Israel’s armies are coming after Judah. Israel has allied with Aram, no relation to the other two, who is also coming after Judah. Two against one. They are coming after Judah because Judah refused to partner with them to protect themselves from the mighty Assyrians. Judah hears they’re coming and is terrified; the kingdom of Judah prepares for the worst. God speaks to Ahaz, the king, through Isaiah and says, “Listen up, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.” Through Isaiah, God promises that the evil threat won’t come to pass. But then Isaiah warns Ahaz, listen up, “If you don’t stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all.” And that’s when Isaiah, reading the body language of Ahaz - sensing that he’s not really buying it - says, “I know you’re finding trust hard right now. Please trust. Ask God for a sign to make it easier for you to trust! War might seem better, but your God will protect you. Wait on the Lord. Seek God, stand with God, and God will stand with you.” So when Ahaz finally gets around to saying, “I will not put the Lord to the test,” he may sound pious, but what he is really saying is, “No, thanks. I have put my trust somewhere else, thank you very much.” And of course it won’t be the last time a person hides behind piety in order to not trust God. That “somewhere” else Ahaz is trusting? It’s Assyria, who will in the very near future drive both Israel and Judah into exile. Before too long, historically speaking, the holy city of Jerusalem will fall.

But here’s the crazy thing. When Ahaz refuses God’s blank check offer through Isaiah, God doesn’t take back the offer. Instead, God writes out the check; God gives the sign: the young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel. This will be the sign. The promise still stands. The lands of Judah’s enemies will be deserted. But there is also judgment of Judah’s refusal to trust the promise. Judah’s own land will be deserted, too.

If it all sounds a little too BC for you, consider that we might not be so different from Judah’s king, Ahaz. We may not call ourselves besieged by enemies, though we may, if we’re honest, sometimes well feel like that; but we almost certainly do find ourselves, like all people, entangled in conflicts - maybe like Judah, even with family, people who were supposed to be close to us - and sometimes we’re conflicted within ourselves and the relationships feel suddenly serious, like they might take everything away from us. A flash of panic as a mix of outside circumstances, perceived betrayals, threats, and broken promises (sometimes our own) conspire to undo us. And there it is, in that flash, the very real prospect of losing it all. Have you been there? And it can seem like there’s no future, no way out, and so you enlist any and all available powers. Grab the big stick! Go for the kill. Make exceptions to your principles and the practices of your faith. Violence? No, not normally, but you know, under these circumstances…Just this one-

To which Isaiah says, ‘no!’ Trust God even in the furnace of your fears. Or where else is trust really trust? "Stop, God’s People," he says, "and count to ten." Return to the principles, those faithful practices, shaped by the story of God and your trust in God’s promise, the practices that, when you felt threatened, you’d rationalized away and traded for expediency. Put down the swords. Look up to the hills. Return to the Lord. Trust in God. Unclinch your fists, says Isaiah. Trust in God. Remember Moses and Egypt and God’s bringing you out. Trust in God. Sing the old hymns. Trust in God. Lift up your hearts. Trust in God. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Trust in God. Give of your wealth. Trust in God. Dream new dreams. Trust in God. Love your enemies. Trust in God. Proclaim the new kingdom. Trust in God. Take this bread. Trust in God. Make room from the stranger. Trust in God. Stand with the poor and the prisoner. Trust in God. Drink the cup of forgiveness ’til it’s empty. Trust in God. And guess what, it won’t go empty. Trust in God. 

It takes some thinking through, to trust in God. Because every “yes” to trust in God means at least one “no” to the shortcut you and I were going to take without him. So take the time to think it through. Because here’s the crazy thing: when Ahaz refuses God’s blank check offer through Isaiah, God doesn’t take back the offer. Instead, God writes out the check; God gives the sign: the young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel. 

As we approach the coming Christmas feast, see the babe for what he is: the sign that God can be trusted and that, trusting God, it is not just the babe, but us, too, who are born to new life on that day.



With gratitude for Michael J. Chan's helpful commentary on the context of the lesson from Isaiah.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Why Do We Lock Our Doors?" (and other questions I wish they'd ask their mom)

My wife likes to remind me that she gets the kids' hardest questions. Whether this is a function of the amount of time the three of them spend together or her being (sometimes to her chagrin) our youngest child's safe place in this world is tough to say, but there's no denying that the questions about death, sex, politics, and war mostly fall to her. The kids are probably better for it; Rebekah is sensitive and kind in a way that escapes all describing.

I did get *the* hardest question, though. Maybe the most theological, too. I mean, Bek still wins on accumulated points but, as a stand alone question, I'd put this one next to any of the others. The kids and I were backing out of the driveway on the way to school one day, flirting with timeliness in our customary way, when one of the kids off-handedly asked, "Dad, why do we lock our doors?"

"Which doors?" I asked, playing stupid.

"All of them. Cars. House. And not just us. Why does everyone lock their doors?"

I honestly don't remember what I said. I bet it was awesome, age-appropriate, and "just right."

I do remember my fist thought as their questions flashed through my mind:
To keep people out. Duh. Because people struggle - we struggle - to trust one another. So we habituate mistrust.

We rightly recognize these habits as unfortunate, if not unnatural. These words from Jean Vanier, though, reveal both those habits' full cost and the wonderful truth that it need not be so, for he opens up the possibility that trust is not just earned; it can be given and made known in one another:
To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them. (1)
Of course, naming the beauty of things and people will also require habits. New habits. How does such re-habituation begin?

(1) In From Brokenness to Community (1992).