Tuesday, November 23, 2010
My best friends in and through this first year in Portland are more than ninety years old. Rebekah laughs at this, but in fact I have a surprisingly good number of friends near or past ninety. Some make it to church; others don't - still they cherish the frequent reminder that they are the church. Not the old or first church. Just church.
I have found in these friends a remarkable perspective with respect to the present. They aren't naive with respect to present challenges, but they are quick to identify the things that really matter. Such a perspective is often capable of being thankful and truthful at the same time, no small feat, I think, and in stark contrast to the perpetual anxieties that plague so many of us. These friends frequently appreciate the connectedness of things. They know their need of God, and they pray out of that need - and love. More than a few times in conversation with these friends a seemingly trivial observation has opened up to holy consolation - the sigh and the voice of the Spirit in the midst of His two or more (but mostly just two) gathered in His Name. Grace.
To borrow the constant refrain of one of my friends, "I am thankful" - for their witness and their friendship and the love of the Lord we praise.
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Monday, November 22, 2010
"My heart is ever restless, until it finds its rest in you." St. Augustine
I sat in with some of our youth and their fearless leaders the other night on youth movie night. They had picked out the movie together: The Lion King. Great movie. But hadn't they seen it? I wondered to myself. As it turns out, mine was a fool's question. Of course they had seen it - they knew every word, every song, by heart. That's why they wanted to see it together.
Starbucks has borrowed the church's motto this winter: take comfort in rituals. I suppose the kind of comfort that Starbucks commends is also found in a film that is so familiar it feels like coming home with friends.
Of course, that so many of us will be "coming home for the holidays" suggests that we aren't always at home on our other days. We're scattered. Not just by our busyness, but by the plain geography of things: one brother lives in Nashville, another in San Marcos; more family live in Dallas, Cleveland, Boston, Berkeley (CA), and Gonzales. That Texans are accustomed to driving long hours to stay connected helps a little, but the fact remains that staying connected does require our driving long hours - because we're miles away from home, if we can name a home at all.
I've been told that a town has "made it" when it has its own Starbucks, or Home Depot, or whatever else the standard might be. When in a strange place, we no longer ask where the "good restaurants are". Rather, we ask where this or that chain restaurant is. Because we're always strangers, we use these commercial clues to feel at home - to build a familiar history, a common language, in a land where intimacy must sometimes be imagined.
Truth in advertising: I'm writing this from Starbucks this morning. I like my familiar, unfamiliar places. Still, I know that at least part of the comfort is imagined: visiting a Starbucks in Victoria is a new experience that only feels familiar because of the corporation's culture. While it may feel cozy, the place and the people are strangers to me.
It should be said that some of us are lucky enough to truly know a place. You've grown up there. Maybe your family goes back for a generation or more. You know the nooks and crannies and feel at home because you know the people - and you are known to them. The knowing makes all the difference.
It is the same with Jesus, I think. We people called church are scattered and busy and not always in places or stations of life we would have chosen for ourselves. We engage in more busyness, trying to make home out of things that feel familiar - even when they're not. The days that lead up to Christmas are especially vulnerable to this. But the ones who truly feel at home are home because where Christ is, home is. They are at home because they know Jesus. The knowing makes all the difference.
That knowing Jesus makes a difference may sound daunting or super-spiritual, but it shouldn't. Knowing can be as simple as keeping a family commitment to bless your food together before the meals you share. Knowing can be as simple as telling Christ's story alongside your own holiday remembrances in weeks ahead. Knowing can be as straightforward as beginning each day with a "thank you" and ending each day with "I love you," and, where called for, "I'm sorry" - a prayer life not more complicated than the honesty of your heart.
The great image of Scripture is of Jesus standing at the door of my heart - "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" - and the miracle of this image is that the stranger who stands at the door would enter the patchwork world that I call my home - and make it his own. What wonderful, Good News!
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That was the sign that they put on the cross. The cross on which they killed him. The worst part is their words were true. Their words were true words. This is the King of the Jews. But the distance between the lips that spoke those words and the intentions of their hearts was great. So when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him.
The one they called King of the Jews.
The people’s actions betrayed their belief in, their allegiance to, another King. Herod or Rome or the expectations that they had for Jesus that Jesus wasn’t living up to. Messiahs were supposed to be warriors. God at war for God’s People. Jesus failed that expectation: like a lamb that was lead to the slaughter, so he opened not his mouth. This is the King of the Jews?
Messiahs were supposed to look like Judas Maccabaeus, who, 165 years before Jesus, led the Jewish revolt against the Syrian armies, achieving victory after victory, killing tens of thousands, culminating in the triumphant reentry into Jerusalem and the restoration of temple worship - the festival remembered today as Hanukkah.
Messiahs were supposed to look like Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who, while the Jewish people languished in Babylonian exile, overthrew the Babylonians in 539 BC and restored the people of Israel to their land.
These were warriors, great victors, messiahs! Agents of God fighting for God’s People.
“Behold, the King of the Jews,” Pilate offers. But no one is taking him seriously. Not even Pilate.
To be fair, Pilate tries to release him. Offers the Jews release of one prisoner; wonders out loud if they don’t want this king.
Do you remember the name of the man that they call for? Barabbas. His name literally means, “Son of the Father” - a man wanted for insurrection and murder. In other words, a man not unlike Maccabaeus - a potential war-hero. Suddenly, the people have a choice between kings - both claiming to be sons of the father - one promising the blood of the oppressor through power and force; one giving his blood for the forgiveness of sinners.
Barabbas’ victory over oppression will require that he be more oppressive than Rome. Another word for vengeance. Jesus’ victory over oppression will require the vindication of God - what only God can give - resurrection from the dead: victory over the powers without using those powers, lest the powers that destroy merely change hands. Barabbas’ victory depends on his instilling the fear of death in his enemies. Jesus’ victory over death entails the freedom to forgive his enemies.
This is the King of the Jews.
And in every day after this choice between kings, this fork in the road, we are left to fight the temptation of this moment, Christ on trial before the powers: the temptation to speak the truth in a way that betrays the truth, so vast is the distance between the words of our lips and the submission of our lives to the King who died on a cross. King of the Jews. What can it mean to submit our lives to the King who died on a cross?
Brian Volck, a Catholic pediatrician from Cincinnati, Ohio writes that, as Christians, “moreover, we’re supposed to emulate this king, to pick up our own crosses and follow him, presumably to the point of forgiving the guilty.”
The difficulty of forgiving the guilty is not lost on Brian. He goes on to assert that “[only] lunatics would do such a thing – lunatics like Dom Christian de Cherge’, one of the seven Trappist monks kidnapped and killed during the Algerian Civil War. Though the so-called Armed Islamist Group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and murders, the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remain unclear. Only their heads were recovered.
Brian says that “Dom Christian knew such a grisly death was possible, perhaps even likely, in the increasingly dangerous environment where these Trappists lived as witnesses to Christ, servants to the people as their Lord served them. In anticipation [of this possibility], he wrote a “testament,” to be opened in just such an event.” This is what Dom Christian wrote:
“‘If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?’
“In the last paragraph of his testament, Dom Christian directly addressed his then and still unknown murderer:
“‘And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this thank you and this adieu to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.’”
Happy good thieves. If this Christ is King, then this is our place. The thief on the cross, seeking the forgiveness of the Crucified King, extending to others the forgiveness, the mercy, we find there.
Brian goes on to write that “I never want to face anything like Dom Christian’s test of fidelity to the Crucified King. I almost certainly never will. I expect my trials will be vastly more manageable and infinitely less painful. Yet I tremble at the thought of witnessing even a hundredth portion of Dom Christian’s forgiveness and acceptance toward the several who annoy me and rouse my passions. That, however, is where we are called to go, bearing our considerably lighter and all but invisible crosses in witness to our king.”
What do you think? What if the sometimes abstract idea of taking up my cross begins with the utterly concrete practice of my forgiving the ones who hurt me? Knowing that I am only able to forgive because Christ first shed the cup of forgiveness for me. What do you think?
I remember somewhere far along the dating path with Rebekah a particular day that left us both nervous. We knew we loved one another; we had even begun to broach the subject of marriage - life joined to God and one another - with each other, and to delight in the prospect. But Rebekah had a concern that stopped us both short: “If we keep getting closer,” she said, “and I want to - but if we keep getting closer...” She paused. “I know I’m going to hurt you. And I don’t want to hurt you.”
Thank God that the forgiveness of God means the ability to forgive one another and so also the courage to risk even the kind of love that makes us vulnerable - that hurts. Thank God that the forgiveness of God makes it possible to be truthful and present with God and one another.
What an unexpected gift.
I don't have to tell you that it doesn't have to be this way. One can imagine, for example, what a Barabbas marriage might look like - love without forgiveness - love that hinges on power over, fear of, and back-up ammunition; where intimacy is coerced and guarded and abrupt.
Still, you and I rejoice to have been invited to a different kind of wedding: the wounded King forgives us as he calls us to the feast: the table at which he is both the dinner-host and meal. “Take, eat, this is my body.” “This is my blood; for the forgiveness of sins.” The Crucified is also the Risen King. Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.
Like happy, good thieves.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Our convocation has organized a two-part study of the Anglican Covenant, so that members of our local churches will have corporate opportunities to read the Covenant with friends and so engage the document as the larger Church has asked us. Four area clergy meet on a rotating basis, with two of them covering one section, and with two sections covered each night at each site. These are my notes for my section (2), which I’ll be presenting at St. Mark’s and All Saints tonight and tomorrow, respectively.
Communion as a gift of God
A brief reflection on section 2 of the Anglican Covenant focusing on the following affirmations of 2.1:
- communion as a gift of God
- its gratitude
- in humility our call to constant repentance
- the imperative of God’s mission
- to the full visible unity of the Church in accordance with Christ’s prayer that “all may be one.”
These are not five distinct affirmations, but aspects of one affirmation, that
Our communion with God and one another is only made possible by the forgiveness we encounter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul in Ephesians 2:14
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
From Pope Benedict XVI:
“It is impossible to detach morality (what we do) from Christology (who Jesus is), because it is impossible to separate [morality] from expiation and forgiveness” (Called to Communion, 152).
This is another way of getting at what Archbishop Rowan Williams has already said: “God’s Church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a Church”; we are part of the mission of God by virtue of God’s forgiveness of us in Jesus. (see also 2.2.2.)
The Church is the first fruits - the first healed, broken bits - we are exhibit A - communion is a gift we receive, yes, to share - but only because we receive it. So our mission includes our constant thanksgiving and constant repentance - as much as anything else - as we constantly seek and joy the forgiveness of God, that alone makes it possible to be friends of one another.
Communion is not something we can take for granted.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote:
“It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. “The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?” (Luther).
“So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went “with the multitude...to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday” (Ps. 42:4) (Life Together, 17-19).
How are gratitude and repentance and the ability to be for others connected?
“In the Eucharist I can never demand communion with Jesus alone. He has given himself a Body. Whoever receives him is Communion necessarily communicates with all his brothers and sisters who have come members of the Body. Communio includes the dimension of catholicity by virtue of the range of the mystery of Christ. Communio is catholic, or it simply does not exist at all” (Called to Communion, 82).
The Church is mission; and the Church is always for others.
Section 2.2 can be read as expanding the imagination of the baptismal covenant from the context and foundation of Communion and Mission as inseparable gifts of Christ, especially as 2.2.3 and 2.2.4 exhort the Church to always challenge herself and grow in her faith in the work of mission, and 2.2.5 recalls us to the starting point, naming “Christ [as] the source and goal of the unity of the Church and of the renewal of human community.”
This summary has appeared to some (including my wife) as much longer than seems necessary, taking time to dwell on “obvious things”. For many folks, with respect to Christian mission, Nike seems apropos: “Just do it.” My counter is that the empirical history and recent of the Church with respect to mission is replete with examples of the Church engaging in unreflective mission for the sake of doing good. The problem with this approach to mission is that the good becomes separable from the character of the doing. That is, it becomes possible to presume to do good things apart from becoming godly. This is a recipe for self-deception because it presumes to know the good abstractly, apart from the stubbornly particular God who died on a cross for us.
Another way to name this challenge is to consider what life would be like if there was no one left to convert. Would this be the end of Christian mission? For Christians, the answer must be “no,” because our mission is inseparable from the praise of the God who makes communion with God and one another possible:
When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we first begun.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Sermon preached at St. Christopher's, November 14, 2010
Are we there yet?
Are we there yet? The backseat chorus hits the ears of cringing parents, driving faster than they would like to openly admit. Are we there yet? The laboring soon-to-be mother asks the panicking soon-to-be father, both of them hoping to remember the bag that they packed in the trunk some weeks ago in preparation for this expected, unexpected time. Are we there yet? The spouse puts her hand to her head and crunches the numbers one more time, both of them wondering if this is the month they finally reach their goal - that first down payment on the house they’ve longed to own for years now. Are we there yet? The child, again, asking the question, but this time with some fear and trembling, as her noticeably older father drives her to the freshman dorm of a campus far away. Are we there yet? Her earnest eyes searching for her nephew from across the hospital room. She isn't afraid of the end; her faith is as strong as her body is frail. She just wants to know if this is the time. Are we there yet?
And for the faithful Christian - for you - wandering the pilgrim road, walking the way of the cross, I wonder if you ever find yourself wondering with respect to the life of faith when, if ever, you'll get there - when you'll finally arrive.
Life can sometimes feel like one of those cheap movies in which the character runs toward the castle and the character runs toward the castle and the character runs toward the castle and for the life of you, you can't figure out why he hasn't yet reached the castle - the starting distance wasn't more than a hundred yards away and its been five minutes now of what is looking suspiciously more and more like the same repeated movie clip. When will we get there? Why aren't we there yet? Where are we going?
Where do you hope you are going? Not just heaven or hell, but how, for example, do you pray that the life of faith will shape you and your family? What is your hope for the person that God means for you to be? Who do you think God means you to be? How do you determine whether the last step taken has been a step toward or away from that goal? And how do you know when you’re there?
The election will try to convince you that we’ve finally arrived this time. Or that we’ve never been farther away. The advertising sequence on your television will try to convince you that you’re just this close - almost there - almost presentable, just a few, important purchases short. Lucky for you, there’s a limited-time offer. This week only. Did you hear the McRib sandwich is back? The cynic of our day will tell you that patience in our day has become another word for being sold a bill of goods. Because the end that is promised never quite fully arrives. Because we live in a world that’s always selling one more thing. Why aren’t we there yet?
In the gospel this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that there will be an end. The stones in the temple will all be undone. The disciples, rightly suspect such an undoing to be a terrible sign that nonetheless speaks of God’s action, God’s judgment, and the beginning of all things being set right. The end they’ve all been waiting for. Their question is natural: when will this be? What sign will prepare us? Are we almost there yet?
Jesus’ answer seems to tease them: he readily admits that things will get crazy - that false leaders will be many, that wars and rumors of wars and famines and plagues will abound, BUT...
But these will not be the signs the disciples think they need, because what Jesus thinks should most concern them will have already happened.
Jesus says, “Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you...you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.” Indeed, Jesus himself will be betrayed by friends and put to death.
The disciples are interested in the closing credits; Jesus means to make them mindful of what will be required of them in the meantime. Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for the suffering they will experience while they wait for the end.
One Christian theologian recently observed that the single, biggest threat to the Church today is not atheism, but sentimentality, and that sentimentality is the belief that my children should not suffer for my faith. That my faith will not prove costly.
Isn’t that the thrust behind the question, “Are we there yet?” It’s the desire for an end to the discomfort - even the pain - of the present. So we ask, “When will it get better?”
And Jesus doesn’t answer.
Instead, he gives them three things not to do in the meantime.
Now, one might think that it’s easier not to do things than to do things (like laundry, for example - easier not to do than to do), but, in fact, the things that Jesus gives the disciples not to do prove challenging. It’s hard not to do them. What are the three things we need not to do?
The first one comes in verse eight: Do not be led astray - do not chase false prophets. This is a challenge because prophets don’t generally come with labels - false and real. It takes patience and practice discerning the difference. This is a challenge because when the end is slow in coming, we get antsy, and we need to remember why we’re here and who called us here. This is a challenge because it requires that we cling to and embody the character of the one that we follow, the crucified and risen Jesus. Will be be faithful or will we finally give in - seeking to accomplish by violence and power what Christ accomplished in his service, forgiveness, and death? How much are we willing to learn from the one whose victory looked a lot like defeat?
The second thing not to do comes in verse nine: Do not be terrified. The angel’s message to Mary: Don’t be afraid. Easier said than done, especially if we take seriously Jesus’ first warning that there are more false hopes than true hopes running around. If the economists really don’t have all the answers - if the next purchase made will not bring me peace - if this war is not a necessary part of God’s bringing the Kingdom - if the success of my children will not heal my life - it would appear that there is much, indeed, to fear. Who’s in control, after all?
And yet, exactly because none of these false prophets parading around is true, we can finally put to rest the terrifying fear that we’re missing out on the one prophet we need. God has already given us the one prophet we need: his name is Jesus. The fact that we cannot save ourselves is bad news turned Good News the moment we realize that it’s not all up to us; when we realize that the true prophet has a gift in mind for us that we could never make, discover, invent, produce, or otherwise acquire for ourselves.
So don’t chase false prophets. Don’t be afraid. Neither are easy not to do in this world. And the third and last thing Jesus says not to do is perhaps the most perplexing of all. He tells the disciples that suffering and persecution will happen. The life of faith will hurt. Moreover, he tells them that suffering and persecution will give the followers of Jesus opportunities to witness to Jesus alive in their lives. So, Jesus says (and here’s the third ‘don’t): “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
In other words, be prepared by not being prepared. Don’t try to control this. Don’t hide your vulnerability - your weakness. Don’t try to do this by yourself. In truth, our very weakness is the witness to the strength, the space, making room for the glory of God. Don’t follow false prophets. Don’t be afraid. And don’t try to do this by yourself. Three hard things not to do.
Of course, for you and me in God’s Church, there is other work to do - praise God - there is good work to do! Alongside the three don’t’s of this morning, it’s important to remember the good work that God gives us: go forth into the world, proclaim the Good News, teach, make disciples, baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pray without ceasing, love one another, give alms to the poor, forgive, forgive, forgive. But today’s lesson grounds us and the work that we do in the work that God has already done. And so, because we do not work alone - because we do not work apart from the good work of God - Jesus reminds us as we go, proclaim, teach, baptize, love, give, and forgive: don’t chase the false prophets (that is, don’t be distracted - don’t forget the Lord you serve); do not be afraid; don’t try to do this by yourself.
Because no, we aren’t there yet. But lo, he is with us, even to the end of the age.
And these are words that change it all.