Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Finding Faith in Finances: an out-loud self-examination

Lots of people in lots of places from lots of churches are ready to tell you (if they haven't already) that churches need new people in order to meet their financial obligations.  For many, this information is simply a given.  It's how the church is going to 'work'.  The starting place for what we do.  So church growth, which of itself might have been a good - and really exciting - thing ("Go! Tell my disciples that I'm risen from the dead!") instead becomes code for financial solvency. 


I've never seen this mindset work, because it all but destroys the church's ability to value the next visitor through the doors as a person beloved of God (as opposed to a pledge).  Still, some folks dismiss the beloved-of-God argument, reminding me and my ilk that the church, in the end, is a business (a statement I might want to nuance, but probably can't talk the other person out of). 


Even so (and this is my point in writing), my interlocutor is not off the hook, I think, because by her own pragmatic standard she must still answer the question: 'What if the newcomers give as generously as you give?  Is that good or bad news for the Church?'  (It's an honest question only made potentially insulting by the conscience of the hearer.)

We are (and I am) never not called to stewardship, discipleship, our lived response to Jesus, as priority number one. 

Growing on the outside (the good kind that sticks) requires growing on the inside.  But growing on the inside might become so fruitful that we lose our financial motivation for outward growth altogether.   What then?  What if we wake up one day and all we're left with is the that awkward and embarrassing command he left us with: "Go! Tell my disciples that I'm risen from the dead!"?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Forgiveness, the Future, and the Freedom of God

*Sermon on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/11/2011 at St Christopher's, Portland, TX.*

Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times.  And if you grew up on the King James Version (God’s own translation, some folks will tell me) it’s even more, seventy-times-seven, or 490 times.  The word order in the original language is what makes the confusion.  Did Jesus say ‘seventy times and seven’ - you know, like four-and-twenty blackbirds?  Or was he testing the disciples’ knowledge of their multiplication tables?  That’s the question in the translation.  That's why the difference.  But you know what?  Something tells me it doesn’t matter.  That, either way, Jesus doesn’t expect Peter to keep track.  Do you get that sense, too?

Seventy-seven times.

Ask me to do something three times, or even seven times – like Peter suggests – and each time will feel like the first.  I’ll stop.  I'll take a step back.  I’ll think through it.  I’ll start with step one and move on to step two.  I’ll remember step one and step two after the fact.  Ask me to do something seventy-seven - or 490 times - and at some point, if I make it all the way to the end, not only will I not be able to remember each step, at some point, in a real sense, I will have stopped doing the task; I’ll have simply become it.

And so I wonder if that's what Jesus wants for Peter, to become forgiveness.  I wonder what it means to become forgiveness.  Like a cloth soaked through with holy oil, drenched with forgiveness, such that forgiveness is the fragrance others smell on me.  We’ve all known people whose perfume has a way of announcing, “I may have left the room an hour ago, but don’t dare forget I was here!”  Aunt Mildred.  Would that forgiveness would be such a scent on me!  Is that what it means to become forgiveness, I wonder?

On most days, I can’t imagine becoming forgiveness, what it would look like, but I still believe that it is theoretically possible, even for me.  I’ve simply encountered too many living cloths soaked through with holy oil to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

One such holy cloth in my life is Mark.  Mark was a paraplegic young man at the summer camp for the physically and mentally challenged where I was a rookie counselor after my junior year of college.  Mark had attended Michigan State, and though he couldn’t speak, he finished two years there.  He was a remarkable man with a soft spot for Dr. Pepper and the Chicago Cubs.  My first interactions with Mark were unbelievably awkward.  I didn’t know how to start.  I was nineteen and had never helped a grown man use the restroom or spoon fed the same man apple sauce.  My awkwardness melted quickly, however, because Mark was a holy cloth drenched in forgiveness.  His eyes spoke compassion, and his sound board emitted the absolution that his mouth couldn’t speak.  He found something in even my broken efforts to love.  Mark’s patient forgiveness of me opened a friendship more real than any I had imagined was possible on this earth.

Another holy cloth in my life is Father Tony.  I'll be honest, I don’t know Father Tony well, but once a year, every year, he’s there, a retired clergyman hunched over and reading the lessons as we travel through the church of the Holy Family at a midweek Eucharist on our way to the beach.  And he reads the Scriptures so slowly and tenderly it’s like he’s speaking them back to God as a love song.  As if he’s singing a beautful descant in harmony with the written words and the descant says, “Look!  Look!  My forgiveness and the whole love of God are here in these words and if it’s all the same to you I’m going to linger in these words and stay awhile.”

I wonder what it means to become forgiveness.

Ten years now after the first 9/11.  And I am still wondering what it means to become forgiveness.

Whatever it means to become forgiveness, I believe that it at least means being dipped in the holy oil of this morning’s gospel.

I love and hate this morning’s gospel.  Like a mirror that magnifies your image too much and the zits and warts show up.  I always catch myself, for example, at the words: “and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’”  Seizing him by the throat.  I know that emotion.  I’ve felt it rush through my neck like hot blood.  Seizing him by the throat.  The very opposite of forgiveness.  (If you don’t know forgiveness, there’s still a good chance you can pick out its opposite.)  The erosion of the soul.  The first hint that I have forgotten the Good News that changes everything.

This morning’s gospel reminds me that my judgment of you leaves me forgetting that, once, a very long time ago, he died for me, too.  Because I also had a very large debt.  Much larger than the one you owe me.  And it’s not that the line of credit has been perpetually extended.  He didn't raise my debt ceiling.  It is not that I’ve refinanced divine favor at a lower, more advantageous, rate of interest.  That’s not Good News; that’s a noose.  No, the Good News is that the debt itself has been forgiven.  Every last red cent.  It’s gone.  I’m free.

Once upon a time, the promise of this freedom was wasted on me, because I had always assumed I was already free.  But then I learned that there’s a real difference between the freedom of an un-captured man on the run and the freedom which tells a man he doesn't have to run anymore.  My freedom had been a kind of running away, a hiding.  But he tells me I’m free, no more running.  “You’re free.  Stop your panting.”  It is a wonderful thing to be that kind of free.

So I come up for air, dripping with oil after being dipped in this gospel.  And maybe you owe me a debt.  Whatever you owe me, I no longer need it, because the debt for which I was pinching my pennies, the debt for which I was saving, is gone.  I am free.

I have noticed some things that people drenched in forgiveness seem to have in common: for starters, they aren’t afraid to fail.  Good Lord, can you imagine what a life delivered from the fear of failure might feel like?  A friend on my twitter feed posted this week: “Today’s challenge: fail early and often!”  That's a friend of forgiveness.

Another thing I’ve noticed about people drenched in forgiveness: they take time to love.  They seldom seem rushed.  Like the old priest and his love song.  They talk with you as if you are worth the time it takes to visit.  They don’t give many answers, but they take time and listen with a purpose.  They tell you when they don’t understand.  Because more than appearing to hear you, they really want to hear you.

A last thing that I’ve noticed about people drenched in forgiveness: they laugh a lot.  At themselves.  With others.  It doesn’t matter.  Not the cynic’s laugh you learn from TV, but the laugh of one whose joy is not dependent on her standing.  The joy that receives the present moment and the universe, the whole cosmos, as if it were a gift from God himself to share.  Because they understand that it is.

Do you know what I enjoy most about people drenched in forgiveness?  They open the future.  They walk in a future wide enough for both of us.  That can imagine us together.  Forgiveness is what makes a Sunday marking the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 wide enough to also hold a barbecue luncheon at a small Texas church and the vision we have gathered to share.  Forgiveness makes it possible to celebrate the future without betraying the pain of the past.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote a book called, “No Future without Forgiveness.”  We have received forgiveness - we receive it as often as we gather and drink the cup of this table - and so the future is open to us.  Standing on the edge of that future this morning, can I make a request?  Let’s make our way boldly, leaning full-weight on the forgiveness of Jesus.  Let’s not hold back.  Let's need him all the way.  Let’s make our way joyfully, remembering the true freedom made open to us.  Let'ss make the way generously – giving of the forgiveness that has been given to us.  Freely you have received, says St Paul, freely give.  Forgiving into a future wide enough to share, because God is Christ Jesus is sharing his future with us.

Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times - or seventy times seven if you're old school and prefer the King James.  The word order in the original language is what makes the confusion.  But you know what?  Something tells me he doesn’t expect Peter to keep track. 


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reclaiming the Mystery

**From the Fall 2011 Newsletter at St Christopher's.**

“Stay loose, learn to watch snails, plant impossible gardens, make friends with freedom and uncertainty, look forward to dreams.”
Motivational sign on a children’s classroom wall

I have the highest admiration for teachers.  Teachers talk a lot about summer breaks and how much they look forward to times of escape from the classroom, but the twinkle in their eyes this time of year betrays how much they also look forward to children and stories and class pets and the lessons that together they’ll learn with their students over these next nine or so months.  It’s that twinkle in their eyes this time of year that I admire. 

To commit oneself to another’s understanding, to display the kind of patience that leaves a student believing she is loved, these are remarkable qualities.  I often wonder what it is that inspires certain individuals to offer themselves in this way. 

Recently, I read a reflection from a career educator who was grousing about standardized testing and the government jargon that comes with it: language like “meta-concepts” and “the implementation of outcome-based instruction,” for example.  The teacher observed that, in all of the official standardized instructions he had read, “I never come on words such as ‘delight’ or ‘joy’ or ‘curiosity’ or, for that matter, ‘kindness,’ ‘empathy’, ‘compassion for another child.’  Nothing, in short, that would probably come first for almost any teacher working with young children.” 

What inspires some people to become teachers?  Not government jargon.  No, the words that make teachers are the words of children. 

I believe that the same dynamic is true in the Church.  That is, necessary words like “church growth” and “building committee” and “capital campaign” sometimes jostle over and against the childlike words of faith you knew when God first found you.  I still marvel at the clarity and wonder with which Annie simply says, “mercy.”  I wonder: what are the words that you knew when God first found you?

Here are mine:  Christ.  Light.  Beauty.  Love.  Mystery.   

I want to encourage anybody with a desire to rediscover your first words of faith with the news that your leadership at St. Christopher’s is committed to that journey. 

This fall, no fewer than four new discipleship groups are gathering at church and in homes to share meals, stories, and life with one other along the pilgrim walk of faith.  Others are working on your behalf to feed the poor, tutor children, lead our worship.  A vibrant core of leaders is committed to opening and sharing the opportunity to grow closer to Jesus and become more like him. 

As your Rector, and working alongside these leaders, it is my strong conviction that the present opportunity before our parish is Jesus and the unending life that he brings, and that if we take hold of this opportunity with both hands, the rest of what matters will come.

So Rally Day is around the corner – September 11! – and I really hope you’ll come, but here’s a fair-warning disclaimer: the call that you’ll find there is not cutting-edge.  The gimmicks have all been shelved.  The call is ancient; the faith is as true as the words of children; and it is the Savior who calls you to reclaim the words that first met you on that slightly strange day you first looked up and all at once knew that God loved you.

Wonderful mystery: he’s calling you still. 

    Faithfully yours in Christ,
    Father Jonathan+

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Friendship, Confrontation, and the Kingdom of God

Sermon from 9.4.11, St Christopher's by the Sea

If I asked you to summarize the gospel we heard just now with just one word, I wonder if that word would be “friendship.” Somehow, I doubt it.

Matthew’s gospel this morning is about confrontation. Truth-telling. The one-on-one airing of grievances. Maybe most generously, it’s about ‘speaking the truth in love.’ And I suppose how you feel about speaking the truth in love depends on which word you accent the loudest. Truth or love. But then, a part of us wonders: is it always, or even rightly, a tradeoff?

Holy counsel for how to approach someone you believe has sinned against you. What to do next. Not asking forgiveness this time, but asking to be asked for forgiveness. Because you have been hurt.

And a part of us gets queasy at the thought of confrontation like this. It’s not easy to admit you’ve been hurt. It takes courage to name hurt to the very same person who, knowingly or unknowingly, inflicted it. Confrontation like this makes most of us queasy, and the rare people who enjoy confrontation like this are by and large the reasons that the rest of us don’t like confrontation like this. Because some of us feast on being wronged and banging truth on another’s head like a hammer. And others of us avoid conflict at any cost in order to avoid our being feasted on. And on our bad days we call this mix of tolerance and evasion “love.”

You know, on second thought, maybe we should just skip this one. Turn the page and move on. You didn't ask for this. Come back next week. I’m sure there’s a happier gospel coming.

(That’s a joke. It’s not how we roll, and besides, I think there’s more here than just that.)

Jesus said, "If another members of the church sins against you..."

No question, this passage is about how to approach someone you believe has sinned against you, has wronged you. Step by step. But this passage is not about getting even. Jesus makes clear from the get-go that the goal of these steps is to “regain the one”, to be reconciled, to let love move. So not only is the process not about getting even, the process is not even really mostly about you or me. It’s least of all about standing up for yourself and your rights. No, this passage is about how you know what a real friend is, and how you can be a holy friend worth having.

How can I be a holy friend worth having?

If I asked you to summarize this gospel with only one word, I wonder if that word would be “friendship.” That’s the case I believe these scriptures are making.

Because confronting is something we only do for those we really love.
Because confronting is one way of saying: “I refuse to give up on you.”

Not long after the events of 9/11, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas found himself on a panel at the University of Virginia discussing America’s response to the murderous events of that day. He closed with a prayer, asking God for the grace to make us people capable of breaking the chain of violence. To break the chain of violence, he said, would require that we remember that God is God and we are not. He then prayed that we would be given instead to small gestures of beauty and tenderness. Stanley was rejecting war as a Christian response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

A fellow theologian and good friend, Robert Wilkens, was incensed at the perspective presented in Stanley’s talk. Stanley tells the story: “I did not want to lose Robert as a friend, but our differences were deep. Robert wrote soon after the event, asking me if I disdained all “natural loyalties.” He argued that our lives are interwoven with the lives of others whom we rightly use force to protect. We are a better people, he said, because of the sacrifices made in World War II. He was angry that I failed to acknowledge the ways in which our relationships with others bind us to protect them. He was angry that I seemed to be forsaking all forms of patriotism. That Robert wrote to challenge me I regard as a profound act of friendship.”

I share that exchange in part because of our nearness to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but mostly because of that last sentence: "That Robert wrote to challenge me I regard as a profound act of friendship.”

Neither of them changed the other’s mind, by the way.

But later, Stanley writes, “Robert and I remain friends.” The unity that transcends their differences, they both realize, is in their love for Christ and his church.

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Stanley Hauerwas reflects of another time in which he was confronted by a friend. (Stanley has a knack for finding confrontation, I suppose.) He says, “That he came to me directly to call me to task indicated that he thought it still possible I was capable of recognizing the truth.”

I laughed when I saw that one. Do we sometimes hide the truth from each other because we think the other person isn’t smart enough to understand? That is, is our silence a kind of put-down?

Because confronting is something we only do for those we really love.
Because confronting is one way of saying to another person: “I refuse to give up on you.”

It’s not that we’ll talk them out of it. It’s not even that we’re always in the right. It’s just that talking about someone - no matter how many times we say, “Bless his heart” - is not as blessed as the occasion we pull him aside or put our arm around her and say the three words that open up everything: “Can we talk?”

Can we talk?

Can we talk? I don’t know if you know this, but it really hurt me when you did that. Can we talk? It grieves me to see you treat yourself that way. Can we talk? I believe God has more in mind for you than that. Can we talk? You may think that your behavior is not a big deal, but I believe you might be harming your soul. Can we talk?

Because, if your concern that a sister or brother is on the wrong path does not bring you to your sister or brother, then your concern is only in your head. It’s not physical. It’s like love without arms or faith without works. More often than not, it’s worse than dead, it’s gossip.

We might paraphrase Ezekiel along the lines of today’s conversation this way: the wherewithal to see sin without the courage to name it to the person involved is its own kind of sin. It is evil.

A preacher's disclaimer: I’m not speaking just now with a particular person in mind. Except maybe myself. Truly. But if you’re hearing a voice that feels like it’s speaking to you, don’t blow it off. It’s a true voice: the Spirit of God in conversation with your conscience. The Spirit alive in your conscience, your very soul. Listen to it.

How many times have we heard or said something to the effect of: “I could never say that to her face; I love her too much.” But indeed, if you did love her, you could not but say that to her face. Or would you hide the truth, salvation, from the one you claim to love?

Learning to be a holy friend worth having, in whom Christ is present, has everything to do with these words.

One last thought on that note - a thought that makes this whole business so much more than mere moralism:

As he dies for us on the cross, Christ himself confronts the sinful powers of the world; it is, in a sense, the ultimate confrontation. Christ is killed because Jesus’s refusal to join the madness of the world convicts the world, and us, of madness. Because he is who he is, we see ourselves as we are. We don’t like it. But also, in that same moment, in that same breath, the tenderest instruction at the place of confrontation: for there, on the cross, he whispers, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

“Greater love has no one than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus says. On difficult days, when you are unsure of what it means to call Jesus your friend, remember that it surely means at least this much: that he had the courage to confront us on the cross with the unyielding love of God.

Such a friend we have in Jesus.
Thanks be to God.


Connecting Places: the Church Visible

The Church is people. That's a reality we can't remind ourselves of too much, I think. Part of how we live into that at St. C's is in getting outside of ourselves on a regular basis. Each week, I'll post a few out-of-the-building meet ups. I'd love you to join us at any of these. Or invite us to where you are! We travel well.

September 6
9:00-11:30 a.m. Food Pantry Distribution Day at St C's

September 7
10:00 a.m. at Texas A&M Corpus Christi

September 8
2:00 p.m. Bell/Whittington Public Library

September 12
10:00 a.m. Starbucks

September 14
6:30 p.m. ALPHA at Dairy Queen

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

Each year, just before Advent, I request the Bishop's renewal of my license to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. These annual le...