Monday, July 23, 2012

(Not So) Famous Last Words

"For many were coming and going, and the disciples had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."

Being a Jesus-follower can be wearying. I wonder if you've ever found this to be the case. This morning's gospel has the disciples fresh off their first missionary adventure: two by two, they'd gone out - with the word on their lips and oil in their hands, newly minted apostles (no longer simply those gathered, but now those who are sent). They are returned from proclaiming and healing and kneading the loaf of the Kingdom that's beginning to rise. They're excited - polished with the shine of those who have ventured the Unknown and found life there. Now returned, they stand before Jesus: like kids on show-and-tell day, brimful with stories and the need to debrief. Jesus promises them just such a moment of peace - some quiet together - also, they're hungry. But the promised moment does not come. The crowds cut them off. The crowds, too, are exhausted from following Jesus. They've caught the fragrant scent of the his Kingdom: the people of Peace. They want more. Suddenly, instead of quiet, there are people climbing on people, clamoring for a view, just a glimpse, jostling for position, a touch of his garment; there are noises and smells and elbows and dirt and babies crying and it is all so very much like us: real and irritating and itchy and overwhelming and - maybe most of all, for the disciples - disappointing. The Kingdom is rising, and it looks like a mutton-busting competition gone wrong. Mutton busting... you know, where the six-and-unders chase the sheep through the rodeo mud - falling face-first in the dirt, losing shoes, twisting limbs, wrestling over one another for the chance to tug at the ribbon tied somewhere on the end of a lucky sheep's tail.

This rodeo of emotions and irritation feels a lot like today, for me. You and me, saying goodbye. Seeking a moment's peace - some quiet - before you send me out. Trying to find inevitably inadequate words for the privilege and blessing it has been to walk the Way of Jesus with you as your priest. Wanting to make our goodbyes good ones - holy ones. At the same time aware that some of you are already wondering out loud if this isn't also a good time for you to say your goodbyes to St Christopher's. Others wondering out loud about why it is you'd be leaving. Still others wondering out loud from outside the walls of the church about coming back inside the walls - coming back home - once the the goodbyes are over and "he's gone." Still others wondering out loud about what to do if/when those outside return and "just how long is an interim anyway?"

And all of this is perfectly normal.

Still, in the rodeo of emotions competing today in the words and in the silences, it would not be unreasonable for us to gravitate to these words from the gospel: "As Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd." The world would understand if you went to these words for solace this morning, seeking to apply them to this moment and its uncertainty. It would be perfectly reasonable, by standards of reason, to seek peace in these words, the compassion Jesus has for the people without a shepherd. Entirely reasonable, maybe anticipated, even, or predictable. It would also be a terrific mistake.

The Good News of the Gospel is nothing if not this: ever after that first, dark, glorious Easter morning, you are never without a shepherd.

The road of Faith may be challenging - even wearying - not unlike unruly mutton busting sometimes - but you are never without a shepherd. His name is Jesus.  We like to say here at St C's that the Church is the People. (Amen??) If it is so, it is only because of the Christ who shepherds his flock. 

"So then," says St Paul, "you are no longer strangers and aliens (or sheperd-less sheep), but you are citizens with saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone."

Jesus Christ as the cornerstone: the Lord is my shepherd.

Now I realize that this runs of the risk of coming across as a boring last word - a Captain Obvious word - to a people I love. "Gee, Father Jonathan, we know this already. This is not novel or new. Tell us something we don't know." I pray this is so. I would never be so happy to bore you, than if, by the familiarity of this word and holding it before you in your daily living and its being written all over your hears, across your lives, in your souls, this word bored you silly.

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone; he is your center; the Lord is my shepherd. As one of the Wesley boys put it: "The best of all is, God is with us."

And proclaiming Christ as the center, we have come here each Sunday. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have lifted up our praises and offered ourselves. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have been washed clean by the waters of his death and resurrection. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have found food at his table. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have become food for the world.

"The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven," said St Augustine. "Become what you receive."

Gathered in praise, fed by the Savior, sent out in the Spirit, called back to be fed, sent out again, enveloped in the rhythms of the new Jerusalem, that heavenly city, called back and sent out, and never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever left without a shepherd. Take heart. Be encouraged. Stand strong. You are never without the One who makes you God's own.

"Lo," Jesus says, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." This is the shepherd we praise and proclaim.

Y'all hold still a second. (What am I saying? You're already still. I should say, "Wake up and smile!") Say "cheese!"


I will miss you. Dearly. I thank God for you and the three years we have shared along this pilgrim walk. I thank God for your leaders, like Larry, and your Vestry. I thank God for the pleasure of working with a generous and gifted staff: Jo and Cassandra. I thank God for your friendships and the over 500 (500!!) occasions we had to pray with one another, bread bread and share the cup - at this table, on bedside tables, hospital end-tables. I thank God for the times the faithful few gathered to walk the Stations of the Cross or, more ridiculously, met up a the church by 6:30 AM, during Lent, to offer prayers for our common life. I thank God for the ways you embodied your love of the Shepherd in your care for one another and, especially of late, in your notice of and care for the strangers you did not know - whether at Starbucks or through the food pantry or ALPHA or putting a movie up on the lawn and inviting the neighbors so that they would have something to do instead of calling the police to complain about the noise. The gift of our time together, for me, has been to discern the risen Christ, the Good Shepherd, in the midst of people and occasions and tragedies and joys, even when we weren't especially looking for him. My training for such discernment was the rhythms of this table.

Bless you, and thank you, for sharing this gift. I pray you continue to find life in these rhythms, in the Way of our risen Lord. To have walked the way of the cross with you - and to have found it to be the way of life and peace - has been a wonderful and holy privilege.

Finally, then, may our Great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, continue to bless you with the Good News that he is enough for you - the Lord is your shepherd - and so also that he is enough for you, and so also that you already have all that you need and more than enough to share with the others: all of those whom God also loves, even each other.

Do not be afraid.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Challenge of the Face-to-Face Christ

My dad doesn’t answer unknown numbers on his cell phone anymore. He figures it’s a salesperson, and usually he’s right. He figures that part of what it means to be a friend is that friends aren’t selling you something. When it comes to everyone else, however, all bets are off.

I personally experience my dad’s cynicism through my mail box. Every day, with a childlike enthusiasm, I run out to the curb, check it, only to find myself inevitably sorting the mail into mostly two piles: ads for things I’m being sold and bills for things I’ve already purchased. Every day I fall for this.

I am beginning to think that it isn’t fully possible for a preacher or anyone else to overstate or adequately name the role that commercialism now plays in the lives of ordinary people. Consider, for example, what it would require for you and me to abstain from all purchases from now until next Sunday. I know, that’s crazy talk. Get serious, she says. OK, what would it take to abstain from all purchases from now until this Tuesday morning - just one full day elapsing between the start and the finish of our financial fast?

Now comes the truth: we aren’t just used to our always being sold something; we have come to insist on it.

For some of us, the ubiquitous nature of commercialism might simply register as a moral curiosity this morning - an individual application for individuals to consider. The problem, though, is that the impact of commercialism, even individually considered, extends far beyond the individual. The belief that I am always being sold something fundamentally alters my relationships with others - and maybe even with God.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks us to “imagine,” for example, “if at the end of Thanksgiving dinner you asked your mother-in-law how much you owed her for cooking such a wonderful meal. Would that increase or decrease her effort the next time you came by? (Assuming, of course, she would still invite back you after such an insult.)”

Dan’s point is that once humans like you and me assume we are interacting in the commercial market, we make subsequent assumptions of one another:  that our relationship is impersonal, indifferent; that the seller sees me as one of billions in a line of wholly replaceable consumers;  that anything approaching genuine relational interest must be contrived, pretended, for the benefit of the primary commercial interests at stake. In short, that the other person’s primary motivation is the money.

(And this might be why consuming can be so addictive; if we assume the world is fundamentally commercial and that the sellers don’t have interest in us unless we are buying, consumption may be the only way we can be sure we are worth anything at all.)

Even if that last thought is a bit of a reach - and I am not sure it is - the central point is that commerce - consumerism - plays with our relationships with one another. The solution can begin as simply as learning to treat those who sell to you - who serve you - as friends, but the fact that treating those who serve you as friends will change the relationship for the better only proves the initial point, which is that the context of the commercial transaction has already made the relationship less friendly, less open, and less genuine than it might have been otherwise. Put plainly: consumerism changes the way we love one another, and maybe, as we said earlier, the way we love God, too.

Full disclosure: I don’t know for sure that any of these commercial dynamics are at work in - or on the mind of - our prophet Amos this morning; I only know that as an American Christian in the year 2012, it is impossible for me not to ask. Here’s why:

In our lesson from Amos, Amos brings a prophecy to the king Jeroboam and the people of Israel. It isn’t good news. “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

So far so good, right? I mean, it’s not happy good, but we’ve come to expect as much from the Old Testament (joking).

But here’s the connecting point to what we’ve already said: after Amaziah, the priest, tells the king about Amos’ prophecy, Amaziah goes back to Amos and says, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

“O seer, go, flee to the land of Judah, earn your bread there...”

Notice how Amaziah gives Amos the door-to-door salesman treatment, suggesting that Amos has only commercial interests - “go make your money somewhere else” - and so also insinuating that Amos is everything professional vendors are supposed to be: in it for the money, disingenuous, impersonal, contrived, indifferent. And in a strange way, this can be comfortable; the assumption affords Amaziah a distance from which to take or leave the message. We know this routine, too; we sometimes prefer it.

Amos counters by telling Amaziah that he is not a professional prophet; he is a particular person called by God to speak a particular word in a particular time and particular place to a particular people. In short, Amos embodies the remarkable truth that God’s People are not invisible to God. A generic word won’t do. And no, God is not so distracted that he doesn’t have time to be personal. He sees them. Through Amos, God is speaking to them. If you think it’s hard to feel ignored by God, try being noticed.

The God of Israel, and so also, say Christians, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the God of the personal, of the intimate: come to Israel, born to Mary, face to face with Peter when he says: “Come, follow me.” More than that, God is personal in that through the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, we have discovered the truth about truth and what it means to call God “Father.”

Jesus is the particular Word that comes to the people of Israel and, in the unfolding of time, also to us.

Amaziah, assuming a commercial context, patronizes Amos and uses that context to dismiss the word Amos brings to Amaziah: that sounds like a good word, Amos, for somewhere else - another people, another place, not for us, not for me. But Amos has not been sent to somewhere else. God has sent Amos to Israel. God is speaking to them. God does not count Israel as simply a part of his larger target demographic for the commercial success of his message; this is the word come to them, the word intended, uniquely, for their ears.

And so with us, when we come here and encounter the Word - or, better, are encountered by the Word - I wonder if we hear him coming as a salesman or as our Savior? “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says the Lord. Do I reckon him to be in the midst of an impersonal neighborhood canvas, complete with automated recordings on the phone, or do I believe that this Word has come on this day to me - that in this moment and only in this moment Christ is present to be found; that he comes to you and me and us particularly, with particular love making particular claims on the life we are already in the midst of living? (That is, that he longs for my particular response.) Are there days, I wonder, when I prefer the anonymity of consumerism to the intimacy of the God who speaks particular claims on my life?

The Good News is that God is more relational than we are. Infinitely more so. That in Jesus Christ, God’s Word comes to us. The hard news is that God’s Kingdom invariable engages, tangles, touches the kingdoms of the world and, more than that, the particular kingdoms of the lives in which we are our own kings.

A mentor of mine, my priest through my years in seminary, in welcoming the guests of the assembly each week, relayed his prayer that all who passed through the doors of the church would find it to be a place of challenge and rest. Every week, those same words. I came to understand that he prayed that the church would be a place of challenge and rest because he prayed that the church would be a place of encounter with Jesus - chiefly through the gift of praise and the sacraments of baptism, and the Eucharist.

To encounter the living Christ is rest, yes, and also challenge. Amos reminds Israel of this. Jesus, in his prophetic role, fulfills this. Let me slow down, then, and ask you: when was the last time you encountered the presence of Jesus as challenge - not just generally, abstractly, anonymously, for anyone - but intimately, particularly, presently, for you?

I ask myself, too: when, for example, I encounter Jesus, in his prophetic role, announcing the peace of the Kingdom, am I tempted to lament the wars of others without also praying myself to be made more peaceful? Alternately, do I seek the grace to name the violent, restless parts of myself - to let God’s Word come home in me? When Jesus as prophet challenges the wealth of the world, do I dismiss him as talking to Bill Gates and/or Buffet - or do I allow that he might also mean me? When he preaches love of the least and the lost - even though some days I might feel small and spun around - can I hear him jarring me just enough from my self-absorption to hear him calling me to love those I look down upon sacrificially?

Not professional, but particular, the call of this Savior to me, to us: called to be God’s discerning and responding People in this time, this place, this season; discerning and responding to the presence of the living Christ in this time, this place, this season.

The Good News is that God is more relational than we are, and so God’s People are not invisible to God. If you think it’s hard to feel ignored by God, try being noticed.

This, my sisters and brothers, is the Gospel’s alarming, Good News: God’s Word is for you.


Sermon preached July 15, 2012.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

T.S. Eliot on Church Conventions and the Honest Gift of Dirty Laundry

Culling through books with my dad last night in the office, I came across a short chapter in The Anglican Moral Choice, from the Anglican Study Series, published in 1983. The particular chapter that stopped me was written by T.S. Eliot. He called it, "Thoughts After Lambeth," and he wrote it in 1932, or two years after the Lambeth Conference of 1930. As I thumbed through the pages, I found much to enjoy in terms of perspective and on the heels of our own General Convention, 2012.

To be honest, my first thought when I saw Eliot's name by the title and decided to make the long journey from the table of contents to the essay itself was, "I bet it has a great intro." Eliot didn't disappoint:

"The Church of England washes its dirty linen in public. It is convenient and brief to begin with this metaphorical statement. In contrast to some other institutions both civil and ecclesiastical, the linen does get washed. To have linen to wash is something; and to assert that one's linen never needed washing would be a suspicious boast."

It IS something to have linen to wash. I hope this fact does not get lost in the midst of the good, ongoing, and hugely popular work of the restructuring conversations within and without the Episcopal Church. And it is certainly not to be taken for granted that the linen does, in time, get washed. Despite the sometimes clunkiness of the Church's ordered life together, as is so often the case in life, we in the Church now find ourselves with challenges others might envy; that this is so does not diminish or trivialize the real quality of the challenges (having laundry does not excuse one from the responsibility of caring for it), but faithful and reforming Christians of all persuasions must not walk the line of internal critique so fiercely that we slip into ingratitude for God's enduring work in, through, and sometimes in spite of, God's Church.

Faithfulness in the present moment need not feed on resentments of the past or fears of an unknown future.

We have linen to wash.

Praise God!

More reflections from Eliot post-GC to come.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Becoming God's Beautiful People

Do y’all remember Ezekiel? Ezekiel, of ‘Dry Bones’ fame? The hip bone connected to the leg bone connected to the thigh bone? Yup? That’s Ezekiel.

In our Old Testament lesson this morning, God is talking to Ezekiel, and God tells Ezekiel that God will send our hero to a stubborn, rebellious people; that these people may or may not listen to Ezekiel; that these are people who come from a long line of not listening. They’re good at it by now; they’re seasoned; they’ve practiced. And God will send Ezekiel to the people who come from people who are good at not listening with the job of speaking. “Oh boy,” Ezekiel must have thought. Like selling veggie burgers to Texas cattle ranchers, on commission, or peddling life insurance to adolescents who are sure they will never die. An impossible call. An uphill challenge that God gives Ezekiel this morning.

A friend of mine, a priest, celebrated her last Sunday at a congregation and this was the reading assigned to the day. The irony of Ezekiel’s call to speak to a people trained not to listen on her last day as the congregation’s priest wasn’t lost on my friend. Ezekiel, my friend quietly thought to herself, the patron-saint of preachers.

But of course the temptation toward self-righteousness in the face of this lesson from Ezekiel does not belong exclusively to preachers. All of us can think of people in our lives for whom we’ve screwed up the courage to share the Good News of the Gospel or issued the invitation to join us at the children’s Christmas pageant and meet for drinks after the show (you know, so they won’t think we are extremists) - to no avail.

Far more commonly, though, when we’re talking about those who do not listen, we’re not talking about friends and acquaintances so much, but rather loved ones with whom we share our homes and all we have. The preacher is not unique in this respect. That is to say that even though we Christians talk about wanting our churches to feel like family, very few of our families actually make it to church together: witness the wife or husband who comes alone to the assembly and does so faithfully for years. Witness the children who have reached the age of defiance and the parents who, in exasperation, have quietly grown weary of coercing their children’s faith.

As a twenty-something Christian in the process of discerning a call to the priesthood, maybe ten years ago, I was invited on a family’s camping vacation to Lake Eerie: a few nights in tents that mercifully turned into hotel stays on account of the weather. Only after I had accepted the family’s invitation did the mother reveal the secret purpose in her bringing me along: I was to hang out with her two boys, fish with them periodically, and, as the opportunity presented itself, fix her oldest son’s faith.

Now, I was new to ministry at this point but not so green that I couldn’t see the futility of this charge. “Hey there,” I imagined myself saying to the boy whom I’d only met once before in passing, “Let’s talk about Jesus.” The boy, rolling his eyes, “Ugh. Did my mom put you up to this?”

Everybody knows not to step between a momma bear and her cub; why do we ever think human moms and their babes should be different?

I didn’t lead the son back to Christ that weekend. We played a lot of games, fished some (meaning I bludgeoned more than my share of the bait minnows against the rocks in my failed attempts to cast), and by the time I had to leave, we had begun to build some trust. No super-conversion for me or the boy, but I did a lot of talking to Mom and Dad that weekend, and I learned and listened to the broken hearts of two dear parents whose living faith and beloved son had come to live on different cliffs of a seemingly impossible canyon.

Ezekiel is told to speak to the people, with no promise that they will hear him. A difficult call, to get up and speak.

And yet, God’s candor with Ezekiel - when he names the stubbornness of the hearers, that some will refuse to hear - equally opens a startling possibility for Ezekiel that might also open hope and/or life for the parent, the spouse or, God help him, the preacher on a morning like this one. The startling possibility is that God has released us from the burden of changing the others. It’s not your job. I wonder if you are among those who need to be startled by this possibility: that God has released you from the burden of changing the others.

So comes the good question: if God does not call us to speak to the others in order to change the others, why in God’s Name does God call us to speak?

The beginning of an answer can be found in the chapter just before God’s call to Ezekiel, chapter one, sometimes called Ezekiel’s Inaugural Vision. “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north - an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures.” This is the setting for God’s calling Ezekiel to speak.

And if all this sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. From the book of Revelation: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down in worship.”

The picture of the heavenly realm, the four living creatures, and the new earth, the New Jerusalem, is the picture of what creation speaks when there is no one left to change. Every tribe, every nation, every people brought together, collected, gathered at the center, still called to speak. And the word for what we will speak when there is no one else to change is praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

With the author of Revelation, Ezekiel understands that the call of God for the People of God, the word that must be spoken, is praise.

I think this is why, just after our lesson this morning, God instructs Ezekiel not to rebel like the rebellious house, but to open his mouth and eat what God gives him. So God gives Ezekiel a scroll, the words God will give Ezekiel to speak. Before they are words for the others, they are first words for Ezekiel, his own food to chew, digest and live by; literally to embody; in time they will be God’s words for the People but just now they are God’s call to Ezekiel; first God at work in Ezekiel. And the call for Ezekiel is to live and embody the worship and praise of the God of Israel.

This, then, is God’s call for you: not to change them (pointing outside) or them (pointing to the epistle side) or them (to the choir) or them (to the gospel side) but love them; to love and praise him; stay close to him. Not hawking veggie burgers to cattle rangers, but becoming God’s beautiful People.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that Christians are called to be peaceful in a violent world, not because this will change the violent world, make it peaceful. Rather, he says, in a world of violence, Christians who worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do no other than be peaceful. Thus living peacefully is an announcement to a violent world and a pointer to the God whose triumph through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has made it possible to be people of peace.

I think Ezekiel would want to say the same about praise, that God’s People are called to live lives of praise, but not because our praise will change either the world or our loved ones down the hall. Rather, in a world that has forgotten who and Whose it is, Christians who follow the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do no other than praise him.

So our message, then, is never “for them,” if by “for them” we imagine things they ought to be doing - attending, giving, participating; like my wife might have a list of things “for me” to do, chores to perform on my off day. Rather, the words we speak are the only things we can speak after coming here and receiving the Word and the Body and the Blood that find their place on our tongues. Our praises extend beyond this place into the world because we cannot unlearn the selves we are becoming at God’s loving, forgiving, generous hand.

And yet we do live “for them” in one important way: exactly to the extent that our lives become pictures of praise - the praises we paint across the canvas of our days by our words, songs, and actions - in and through our lives, we gently show others the beauty of the God who has made such lives possible, lives made alive by the Word that we eat.


Sermon preached at St Christopher's, July 8, 2012.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Note to New Friends

Dear Friends in Christ,

Grace and peace!

My family and I won’t arrive in Madison for a few weeks yet, so I wanted to take the opportunity to 1) say “hey” and 2) let you know how much I am looking forward to joining you soon. My daughter Annie - 2 ½ - is likewise very excited and proud of her dad for landing a gig that will involve her sharing a home with Bucky the Badger. (Shhh...we’ll sort that out later...)

All four of us are very excited to be joining the St Francis family. I am particularly eager to meet each of you and hear your stories - to learn how God is at work in your life. I look forward to beginning our common life and the spiritual formation God will work in and through us, with Christ as our center. I especially look forward to the ways God will bless the university community, the city of Madison, and beyond us, through the ministry of God’s friends at St Francis.

I’m mindful of the limitations of a letter like this for purposes of introduction. If one is not careful, things could easily go the way of a bad personal classified: “I like reading, knitting, hiking, and long walks on the beach...”) Let me leave it, then, with the assurance of my prayers for you in these summer days before we meet. I am very grateful for your prayers, too, especially as my family says our goodbyes in Texas and starts filling boxes. (Our meeting in person will be the carrot at the end of the gnarly stick that is moving for Rebekah and me.)

Oh, a last thing. I’m using the summer to read a book about St Francis; it’s called Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale. It’s a novel (thus, fiction) about a pastor of a mega-church who loses his faith on a Sunday morning in the middle of his sermon and subsequently begins a pilgrimage in which he discovers an ancient faith of depth, generosity, and incredible freedom through the life of St Francis and the Franciscan community. The novel/biography format is ambitious and feels clumsy at times but the content easily excuses any rough stylistic edges. Of course I’m thinking of you at St Francis House as I read, and I am finding in the pages prayers for our life together. It’s cheap on Kindle. If you’re looking for a summer read, try it, and let me know what you think.

See you soon,
and Christ’s Peace.


The Rev. Jonathan Melton

(L to R) Annie, Jonathan, Rebekah, and Jude

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death and the Generous Waters

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Last Sunday we observed that the lesson from Mark - in which Jesus calms the seas - has everything to do with death and the reminder that only those who lose their lives will find them. We spoke about the call for Jesus’ disciples to learn the sacrificial love of Jesus: the love that lays down life. We made these observations while the circumstances surrounding the death of Mollie Judith Olgin and the attempted murder of her partner, Mary Kristene Chapa, at a park not a half-mile from our church, were still unclear.

Now more is known, but not much more. A murderer is still at large. A young woman is still dead. Another is still fighting for her life. Our community is still shaken.

While the readings last week named the relation of death to the gospel for disciples of Jesus in ways that challenged us, this week the readings come to us with unexpected compassion in the face of unexpected death and the pit of our community’s very real grief. The psalm, for example, has been replaced with a reading from Lamentations: a song of God’s mercy in which the author exhorts us to cling “to hope even when tasting the dust.” The Old Testament lesson, from the Apocrypha, reminds us that “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” And Mark’s gospel introduces us to Jairus, who tells Jesus that his daughter “is at the point of death.” It is at the point of death, we are told, that Jesus finds her and heals her. Today we do not need the reminder that our daughters and sons are at the point of death; but we wonder how or if Jesus will touch them - how or if Jesus will touch us.

Of course we believe Jesus has touched us - has reached out to us; that wedged between thieves on a dark, Friday afternoon he reached out his arms on the cross for us. So we are reminded that Jesus did not come to save his disciples’ lives, except by losing his own. We remember this when we wear signs of the cross on our bodies: that we worship the crucified Lord whom God raised from the dead. Sometimes the cross does not seem strange enough to us, I think. Weeks like this past one can help the cross become strange again, in the best sense. But this strangeness has its cost, shattering as it does our illusions about ourselves and the unbroken lives we’d like to live. It is a terrifying and wonderful thing to find salvation through the God who dies on a cross.

What can it mean to be touched by the Lord who saves us like this? What must it mean to imitate this kind of love through the power, the help, of the Holy Spirit?

We’re talking about how the death and resurrection of Jesus shapes the response of his followers in the face of tragedies like the shooting of these two young women.

Parenthetically, much has been made, nationally, of the young women’s sexuality. Locally, I have heard a number of people voice their desire that this tragedy not draw attention to gay and lesbian agendas. Certainly the Christian Church is of a divided mind on this, with godly people abiding on both sides. What must be said, I think, is that Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am first in line. That is, those who are not able to condone Mollie and Kristene’s lifestyle find themselves most certain that Jesus would stand with Mollie and Kristene, even as he befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, and others. Those who approve of Mollie and Kristene’s lifestyle may (perhaps deeply) resent the above rationale and find themselves needing no additional scriptural warrant to stand with the victims and their families. Ultimately, we all find ourselves in the same place: in both cases, called to grieve violence - to not be robbed of the tragedy - to pray for the victims, their families, yes, the assailant - the enemy - and longing to see Christ’s peace touch the brokenness that belongs to all of us. In these times we Christians are learning to stand with those with whom God also stands.

Which brings us back to the question: how does the death and resurrection of Jesus shape the response of his followers in the face of tragedies like the shooting of these two young women?

To begin to open this question, I want to turn to the one reading this morning that perhaps least directly addresses unexpected death. In fact, it’s a stewardship letter. It’s the second letter Paul sends to the church abiding in Corinth.

You may have already picked up on some of the clues that tell us Paul is talking to the Corinthians about money in the lesson this morning: when, for example, he encourages his listeners in their “generous undertaking,” it’s not a euphemism. Paul wants them to give money. When he tells the Corinthians that he is testing the genuineness of their love against the earnestness of others, he’s talking about the Macedonians, from whom Paul also took a collection. When Paul exhorts his friends to give generously so “your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means,” it’s a Pauline way of saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.” All of this you know already from the plain meaning of Paul’s words.

The additional context for our reading is a financial collection several years in the making that Paul is taking for the needs of the Church in Jerusalem.  What makes this collection particularly interesting is that the great fight that threatened to split the early Christian Church was whether the Jews were going to recognize God’s call to the Gentiles; when Paul writes the Corinthians to ask for money for the Church in Jerusalem, he is asking a community that includes Gentiles to support Christians in Jerusalem who might not recognize these Corinthian benefactors as sisters and brothers in Christ. Paul asks them anyway.

On what grounds does Paul ask these Corinthians to give?
I listen to NPR a lot, and so I know - as you might also - that this is their fundraising season, and also that there are lots of reasons one could be given to give. Reasons like matching donations. Make your $50 gift and it will be matched, making your gift worth $100. Lots of reasons, like incentives: give x amount and you will receive an autographed coaster or Neil Diamond’s greatest hits on 2 CDs. Economic reasons like you are already using public radio and not giving makes you a free-loader. Utilitarian reasons like the world is better off with alternatives to Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen. But Paul doesn’t give a reason like any of these reasons.

Instead, Paul writes to the Corinthians that “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.”

Paul isn’t talking, of course, about Jesus as a socialist or communist; he’s talking about something far more terrifying: Jesus Christ, who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.

This is the foundation of Paul’s appeal when he asks the Corinthians to be generous.

Assistant Professor of New Testament Carla Works writes that “[h]ow believers use their resources - time, money, talents, and attention - is a reflection of what they believe about God and God’s actions in the world. Furthermore, how those resources are used preaches a message to others. Paul wants the Corinthians’ actions to be a reflection of the gospel in which they believe.”

It gets less publicity, it’s not quite as sexy, as the other fruit of the Spirit, but generosity is among them; and, if we take Paul seriously, generosity finds its foundation in the generous - gracious - God who has emptied himself to make us God’s children.

The generosity of the Corinthians is to be a reflection of what they believe about the God who raised Jesus from the dead and reconciled the world to God. Put more provocatively (and Paul was not one to shy from provocation), Paul hints that miserly Christianity denies the resurrection.

And of course we’re talking about money because Paul is talking about money, but we’re not stopping with money. We’re wondering what it means to be a generous Christian with our belongings, yes, but also with our words; generous Christians by our thoughts; generous Christians in our hearts and lives. We’re wondering how we can take the worst the world thinks about us and surprise the world: with humility, with gentleness, with forgiveness, with loving-kindness and no strings attached. We're wondering, especially, what it means to be generous in the face of death.

Karl Barth once famously wrote that “Grace exists only where the resurrection is reflected.” The resurrection is reflected, I would argue, in lives that are lived as if Jesus has conquered death: lives lived generously, open-handedly, lavishly. And this is not just a pep-talk for individual Christians to remember in the fall; this is our mission, all together, as the people called God’s Church.

And yes, this is why Christians pray for our enemies. Yes, it is as dangerous as it sounds. In his novel Chasing Francis, Ian Morgan Cron asks vicariously through his fictional character Brother Thomas, “Do you know how Simon Tugwell described Franciscanism? He called it ‘the radically unprotected life,’ a life that’s cruciform in shape...It’s to live dangerously open...It’s to be real because we know the Real. Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian?”

Our generosity, as Christians - in time, talent and treasure - also in speech, in love, in mercy, in peace, in forgiveness - is a reflection of what we believe about the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and reconciled the world to God; our generosity is a reflection of the God who invites us through the waters of baptism to die and live with him.

This morning we will baptize Wyatt Funk into the generous and Spirit-filled waters of baptism, the waters that make present for Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wyatt’s parents and godparents will join us in the commitment to do all in our power to support Wyatt in his life in Christ. Wyatt’s promise will make us vulnerable because we are promising to imitate the generosity of God toward Wyatt - and one another. We are praying to be generous in the way our Savior was generous when he said, “Take, eat, this is my body.”

This morning we will promise, again, to give of ourselves when it is convenient and when it is not convenient in order that, with God’s help, we may grow to embody the love of Christ for his People. In these times, we are learning to stand with those with whom God also stands. We are learning what it means that God also stands with us.


Sermon preached at St Christopher's, July 1, 2012.

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