Sunday, September 30, 2012

Another Sermon on Holy Friendship 

One way to summarize the Christian Gospel might be this: that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has given us all the we need to be 1) friends of God and 2) friends of one another.(1)

In Ephesians, Paul puts it this way: “For [Christ Jesus] 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.”

And while Paul doesn’t use the words “holy friends,” I think he gives us a pretty good picture of how Christ has opened space for holy friendships: the wall, the hostility that previously was between us, is broken down.

This, of course, challenges us to be honest because it implies that there was a wall there to start: a world in which friendships weren’t holy; forgiveness not ready; and company did not always mean good news. Bullies are real, fear of rejection is vivid, middle school is inevitable... Consider, for example, that most of us, as kids, when we learned to talk about friendship, we talked in terms of our liking another person. If we liked them, we were friends. (It probably comes closer to the truth to say that if we thought they liked us, we were friends.) Most of us like to be liked and that was what friendship meant. And that’s not all bad.

But what could it mean to be holy friends?

I ask this question because, in both our Old Testament reading and the gospel tonight, God’s faithful people are not friendly but fearful of one another. They feel threatened by each other and so do not live out the belief that God has given them all that they need. And in both cases this fear is at cross-purposes with the movement of the Kingdom of God. These examples seem especially relevant to us because American individualism - across blue, red, and green states and as embodied in high school class rankings - is nothing if not training in protecting one’s self from perceived outside threats.

A brief look, then, at each lesson.

In the Old Testament lesson, we find Moses sounding like a kid who doesn’t want to bring the groceries in: “it’s too heavy.” Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Leadership is difficult and even deserts you were excited to go into at first can be dry. Israel is in a 40 year post-doc. That said, Moses is almost comically over-the-top tonight:

“Shoot me dead, Lord. Look at your people. Miserable lot that are. Put me out of my misery and end it right now.”

So God who gave the grumbling people manna gives the grumbling Moses people with the spirit’s power to ease his burden. We read that “the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.”

So the spirit is shared, the people receive the word, and Moses receives a break. But when it’s all said and done and the commotion is ending, two men, Eldad and Medad, don’t stop. Someone forgot to tell them that the revival was over. And the people go to Moses and tell their beleaguered leader to put a cease and desist on Eldad and Medad to keep them from speaking the word of the spirit. Moses stares in disbelief. “Are you freaking kidding me?” he says. Or something like that.

The people are trying to protect Moses because they live in the raw and naked wilderness where they are keenly aware of all that they lack. Always grumbling and never enough: bread, meat, spirit. Subsequently, the people assume that what is had must be protected at all costs. The people probably figure also that, as guardian of the rationed spirit, Moses will likewise want to run the show and keep control. But in truth, Moses is literally dying for a salvation that isn’t up to him alone.

I wonder if you know the feeling of Moses. It’s the late at night feeling that falls like lead on your shoulders when you have given all that you can imagine giving and the challenge before you, the work set before you, seems as daunting as when you began. And no one else seems to see it. The enormity of the work or your weariness. No one cares as much as you do. And the distance between the difference you had hoped to see, the progress you had hoped to attain, and the effort you have expended is enough to break your soul, your spirit, with the despair of isolation: the fear that you are forsaken. For Moses, the death he asks God for would simply be the outward substantiation of the inner cut-off that he already feels; the cut-off from a voice - any voice - that will hear him.  

Then this glimmer of hope, this manna from heaven, some leaders start speaking, and the people’s instinct is to block and protect against the spirit God is trying to share for the life of Moses and the people. Not having enough, clinging desperately to what they have, they block the spirit by which God would gift them through each other.

Moving to the gospel, in Mark’s gospel, it’s a similar scene: some guy casting out demons in Jesus’ name, only he didn’t follow the Prayer Book rubrics. Or maybe he did, and the disciples didn’t believe in prayers out of books, like the Baptists. In any case, the disciples object, adopting a tattle-tale posture. Jesus has no patience for the finger-pointing of the disciples: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

The gospel, though, doesn’t stop with this parallel to Israel in the desert and the blocking of the spirit’s abundance; Jesus notes a second danger: not only are the disciples blocking the movement of the Kingdom of God, their preoccupation with this man’s potential shortcomings is blinding them to their own most-certain shortcomings. It won’t do to pray “thy Kingdom come” and allow the public lament for all the ways that the world out there is at odds with the Kingdom to prevent the inward examination of one’s own soul, finding there the good work of confession, repentance, and forgiveness received. The disciples, and we, must learn the honest prayer of conversion: “thy kingdom come, in me.”

So the Old Testament and gospel both name the reality that, even within the community of the faithful, fear of one another and the desire to protect the Kingdom can get in the way of our receiving the Kingdom.

Now, return to holy friendship, which asks the hopeful question: and how can it be otherwise? Or, put differently, if fearfulness is at cross-purposes with the Kingdom, in what ways is holy friendship in keeping with the Kingdom of God? How does holy friendship witness the abundance of God for his People?

Enter James. In James we receive a picture of the church not as fearfully pious individuals, but as the gathered community of praise. This community visits the ones who grow weak and lays hands on the sick. Nobody lays hands on the sick. And it’s an inconsiderate sick person who insists on shaking your hand. But these people lay hands on their sick; they touch them. Just as remarkably, sick members of this people consent to being touched. And not just in sickness - this people open their lives by confessing their sins and praying for each other. Their delight, indeed their salvation, is in leading one another to truth. In such a community, therefore, loving one another is expecting to learn from one another. And finally, in such a community, failure is not failure unless it is the failure to uphold one another in life in Christ.

The Pharisee asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” as if the question brought with it an implicit obligation. James asks this question with awe and wonder and energy at the opportunity, as if the treasure of God is there in the neighbor, the holy friendship born of baptism and the Spirit; the gift of God unexpectedly present, at work, even here, in the People of God.


(1) An obvious debt here to Sam Wells and his work 'God's Companions.' Read it. It's good.

                                                                                                      SFH, 9.30.12

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I Wonder
(a meditation for worship)

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

I wonder what you wonder about when you enter this space, within these walls. Once you know you’re on time - or, like me with my family, reconcile yourself to being late - and you breathe to bring your soul and your body together, become a true person again in a true time and place, I wonder what you notice. Or don’t notice. I wonder what captures your mind’s attention.

I wonder if you wonder about the narthex and the pamphlets on the tables and just what it is they want from you, anyway. Do you wonder about the font and holy water and what makes water holy? Do you wonder about who is here and/or if you know them? (Or maybe who is absent.) Do you wonder about the ones you passed by as you walked down the street and up the corner steps through the doors? I wonder if you wonder about the windows and/or the light that paints scripture like rainbows through the air. They’re beautiful. Do you wonder why this space is so very, very long? Long like life, and how, like life, in some places you can feel so very close to God, and other places can feel so very far away, all within one space.

I wonder if you wonder about the fragrance, what this place smells like. Is it for you the perfume of holiness - the reminder of a place worn thin by prayer - or is it the musty odor of a now-foreign world whose expectations you fear you’ve disappointed?

I wonder if you wonder about the ceiling. And what difference fans so high above you can make to those of us so far below. I wonder if you wonder about the organ and the music that frame our worship, and Augustine’s claim that to sing is to pray twice. Do you wonder about prayer, I wonder, and if any amount of it could help the Badger’s football team this year? Do you wonder about your life in the midst of this space and so much wonder and wonder if God hears your voice at all?

I wonder if you wonder about the saints that gather around the table. The communion of saints, visible, invisible, the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven; the way, in this place, heaven kisses earth. I wonder if you wonder about the bread and wine and the mystery, the share in incarnation, and how the Spirit invoked on bread and wine is likewise invoked on you.

I wonder if you wonder about preachers and sinners (which are of course the same thing) and how grace is a balm for the worn, wounded soul. I wonder if you wonder about your own soul, your own inevitable frustration (it will come) in learning to see that in this life you do not know yourself best of all. I wonder if you wonder about your hope in this moment.

When James says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” I wonder if you wonder if you want this. Or if he will. Or if God does. Or if God is. I wonder.

I wonder if you wonder about how it is the liturgy would train you, shape you, what kind of life beyond this hour God means to give to you.

This place is full of wonder.

I want to invite us into a short silence just now; we’ll end our silence with a song Rebekah will teach us.

Song (Taize):
Let all who are thirsty come, let all who wish receive the water of life, freely. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen. Come, Lord, Jesus.

For St Francis House, 9.23.2012

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Farmers are Better Preachers than Preachers

Last Saturday, Bek and I took the kids and her parents to Appleberry Farm. Apple-picking is a fall ritual for Bek, and we've been enjoying the prospect of our first Wisconsin autumn for some time. So we get there and there are pumpkins and hills and bee colonies and German brats soaked in apple cider, with onions, served on soft rolls. And of course apples. We leave with a bag full of apples, a jar of apple butter, a half-dozen apple donuts, a jug of apple cider, and honey (from the bees).

We also paid a dollar each for a hayride that ran the perimeter of the farm, with periodic stops at which our tour guide explained things like how the slope of the hill on which the orchard is planted protects the trees from cold and why bees are so important. At one such stop, our guide explained that the farmers train the trees to grow wide because "a tree that only grows up and doesn't branch out won't bear as much fruit."

And maybe it's because the Lectionary has been strolling us slowly through James these past weeks, but the farmer's words in that moment preached the sermon by themselves; the reminder that love of God and love of neighbor are of one piece, a seamless garment, because of the love of the One who loved us on the tree.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Duck and the Secret Word
(Groucho Marx, the Gospel of Mark, and the Cross)

Full disclosure: I don’t come by the following example honestly - or at least not directly. My fascination with Groucho Marx stems largely from my prior love for Alan Alda, whom I first knew as the endlessly witty Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, while watching reruns of M*A*S*H on TV late at night with my Granny on her living room sofa while drinking Dr. Pepper and eating Moon Pies.

Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce was a surgeon in the Korean War; his quick wit and penchant for zaniness both 1) helped him hold on to his sanity in the context of the war and 2) strongly resembled Groucho Marx’s own quick wit and zaniness. Sometimes Hawkeye would even wear exaggerated eyebrows and a mustache, with glasses and, of course, a cigar, in unspoken homage to his hero.

Anyway, long before M*A*S*H, Groucho had this game-show called “You Bet Your Life,” which began as a radio show in the 1940s before landing on television in 1950 and running for another decade.

I can’t tell you the rules of the game because 1) I wasn’t around much in the 50s and 2) in the reruns I’ve seen, the game largely takes a backseat to Groucho’s ad libbed interviews with contestants. But according to one who would know:

Some show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the "secret word", a common word revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant said the word, a toy duck resembling Groucho with mustache and eyeglasses, and with a cigar in its bill, descended from the ceiling to bring a $100 (prize).

The duck and the secret word; because remembering Groucho Marx has me wondering if Mark’s gospel didn’t also wish it had a toy duck to drop down from the ceiling.

Mark’s gospel has a similar set-up. At the outset of the narrative, before the show starts, the audience gets the secret word; Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

No one else knows this, the identity of Jesus, but we in Mark’s audience know from the beginning. As soon as we hear them, we begin waiting for someone else to come along and say the secret words: “Son of God.”

Cue the contestants, set the story in motion, and the suspense is not so much how the narrative will end, but will any of the characters say the secret word before the story’s over?

Immediately, a demon says something like it in chapter one, but presumably, being a demon, he cheated. In chapter two the scribes ask, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And the answer to their question is the secret word, but the scribes themselves don’t say it.

More questions come, and they seem to dance tantalizingly around the secret word. In their own way, the questions of the scribes of the Pharisees throughout Mark’s gospel point to the secret.

For example, when the scribes of the Pharisees ask why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus says that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus’s answer is less about their being sick than announcing that he is the Great Physician, the Son of God.

Later, when the scribes ask, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”, Jesus again takes a question ostensibly about his disciples’ moral behavior (or lack thereof) and interprets it for what it really is: a question about who Jesus is (or thinks that he is). Thus Jesus’s answer, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” Again, we know what they do not know: that Jesus is the bridegroom, the Son of God.

Meanwhile, the demons shout the answer again, but again, it doesn’t count. It’s like the kid who has heard the riddle before shouting from behind you while you’re trying to tell the joke, “I know, I know!” Jesus sternly orders them not to make him known.

No one else comes close to naming the secret word. Jesus has twelve disciples by now, whom he frustrates with his insistence on confusing parables. When they ask why he does this, he tell them that “the secret of the kingdom of God” has been given to them, but he will continue to speak in parables publicly in order that the others “may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn and be forgiven.”

While the disciples may be flattered by the knowledge that Jesus has given them this secret, it is by no means clear that they themselves know what the secret is. Exasperated, they cry out in the storm, “Teacher, do you not care than we are perishing?” And while in the moment they are asking Jesus to save them from the winds and the waves, they may also be asking Jesus not to take their knowledge of the secret for granted. Despite their privileged relation to their Savior, they do not know who he is. After the storm subsides, they ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Some time later, a healing. Only it doesn’t work at first: a blind man asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus puts saliva on his eyes and lays his hands on him and asks, “Can you see anything?” And the man looks up and says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again; and he looks intently and his sight is restored, and he sees everything clearly.

It is only after all of this, and at this point, that tonight’s gospel takes place: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. And Peter comes as close as anyone has so far to saying the secret word: “You are the Messiah,” he says.

Jesus then describes the suffering, rejection, and death that this will mean. Peter’s subsequent rebuke of Jesus reveals that the secret word has not been spoken yet. Like the man who asked Jesus to heal his blindness and at first saw people walking like trees, Peter cannot see the Messiah whose death will mean salvation. And we still wonder what it means to see the Messiah whose death means our salvation.

Fast-forward seven chapters later, then, and although we know the story, we are nevertheless not prepared to read that

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And some ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Did you hear it?

The duck drops. When all of the others have packed up and gone home, the duck finally drops. Here, on the cross, is where God is revealed.

And in every moment before this moment; in every moment it didn’t drop - every minute we, like Peter, thought it would - we are left with the things we thought we knew about this God, but were wrong: we had thought, for example, that the true God would look like us, with our aspirations for power, prestige and position, that he would come with our relentless efforts to beat down violence with yet more violence and our cruel propensity to wield our words against each other (as James suggests), that he would understand our instinct to overwhelm the enemy and take him by force - or, alternately, to abandon him - but all of these  exposed by the centurion’s announcing the secret; exposed as our confession of the God we wish we had gotten instead. And this is just the beginning, really. If this, on the cross, is how we learn who God is - the cross shattering all we thought we knew about the living God - what else that we thought we knew stands to be reordered, re-examined, broken open, in the light of this secret? Things like what love is, how truth is known; things like justice, peace, and ourselves?

Here, on the cross, is our God. This is the secret. Our secret is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, heavenly Father, you gave your only Son up to death on the cross that the world might know the love of God for the world. We confess that you are not the God we would have chosen but we marvel at the Good News that you have chosen us. While we rightfully wonder what praying to be united to a crucified Savior will entail, we ask to be so united, because seeing this secret, we can ask nothing else. We love you. We pray this in Jesus’s Name.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Reminder I Carry in My Prayer Book

Some of the best advice I received as a young seminarian was that, whatever devotional prayers I elected to use in preparation for and celebration of the Eucharist - once elected - I should never fail to pray them. I have in years since discovered his discipline to be the invitation to a space of great joy and nearness to Jesus, especially when so much of the liturgy can feel (and this is not by itself a bad thing) like performance. So I have this collection of prayers taped on the inner cover of my prayer book. I have long since committed them to memory, but should memory ever fail me, I won't have an excuse for laxity. I cherish this inner prayer life.

Recently, I added what is not so much a prayer, but what very much shapes my prayers. It is Luther's exhortation to "sin boldly", in context. Beautiful context. It is too long to fit taped on an inner cover, so I carry it as a book mark. The literary context is the end of a letter to his dear friend and collaborator Phillip Melanchthon. The liturgical context, as my bookmark, is in the preacher's preparation to proclaim the Word, remembering the daunting and bewildering words of the Second Helvetic Confession: "The preached Word of God is the Word of God." Here it is:

"If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God's glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly - you too are a mighty sinner."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

8 Easy Steps to the Life You Didn't Choose

In a recent post, I observed that, looking back, most of my spiritual missteps have derived from the temptation to do too much, too soon. What can seem like a noble impulse, a holy ambition, too often signals existing mistrust, impatience, insecurity and self-doubt. The temptation can be especially strong as one arrives at the beginning of an exciting, new ministry. These thoughts have led me in recent days to reclaim a modest practice from a liturgics class in seminary: the praying of the hours.

As developed in early centuries of the church, the hours-as-prayer run more-or-less like this:
  • Matins (during the night, at midnight-ish); also called Vigils or Nocturns
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn, or 3 a.m.)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = approximately 6 a.m.)
  • Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = approximately 9 a.m.)
  • Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = approximately 12 noon)
  • None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = approximately 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (around 6 p.m.)
  • Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring, generally 9 p.m.-ish)
It looks intimidating, but it's not: every three hours in a twenty-four hour span equals eight times for prayer. And no, I am not keeping all of these. I am shooting for Prime through Compline. And some of the prayers, like Lauds and Terce, are really short. Others are more extended. But even the short ones make me stop; they shape (and restrain) the rhythm of my work. They are interruptions that call me back to what is, and to the who the One who was and is and is to come. They restore my soul.

Some years ago I wrote a newsletter article that I reread today; it captures something of my experience of the rhythm of the hours - by which I slowly surrender the illusion of my immortality and receive as gift what Stanley Hauerwas calls "the sheer beauty, the absolute contingency, of existence." Indeed, Hauerwas says that prayer may be the joy that comes from acknowledging this gift. Anyway, here is my earlier reflection:

“Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.” - from Compline, of the Book of Common Prayer

The nights are darker, sooner.  Long walks through cool grass know the familiar crunch of brown and dried-out leaves again.  One has to believe that, someday soon, temperatures also will join the slow autumnal change, the visible decay of summer’s life into winter’s hibernation.  If you are anything like me, feeling like July was just one blink from yesterday, you may ask yourself, “Just where did the time go?”    Where did it go, indeed. 

Time is a funny kind of math; we spend it, we manage it, we count it, but for the life of us, we cannot add time to itself.  Here’s an example: I read recently that the average American watches four hours and thirty-five minutes of television a day.  According to the math, that’s 131,000 hours over the average life-span, or 14.94 years.  And yet, even if you or I gave up all television viewing today, we wouldn’t get a six-and-one-half year rebate at life’s end.  Time simply does not collect that way.  Each loss belongs to its own day.

Indeed, one of the most humbling aspects of being human--sleep--requires that even the most productive days have a reset button, a sign that says, “Go no farther, but rest, wake-up, and begin again.”  There is a rhythm to the created order--an unrelenting monotony that cries out, “Strive if you must, but know the limits of your days.” 

The limits of our days restrict us to that which is before us; so doing, these “limits” free us to waste time in most extraordinary ways: watching the winds gust, leaves fall; finding the fingerprints of an Other in the deep, streaked blue of sky, among the quiet sparkle of stars; in the tanned face of the stranger, in the bright voice of a friend.  Because of the limits of each day, there can be no blurring of all time into a seamless ambition for more progress.  Each day has its ending.  Each new day owns a dawn.  And so we watch; we listen.  Finally, it strikes me that the embrace of each day is the beginning of prayer, which allows us to waste time with God. 

It is not by accident that the Christian life is marked by daily prayer.  The dailiness of prayer is not just good Christian “discipline”; it is the unveiling of our dependence on God; it is the shaping of each day in, around, and through the presence of God in our midst; it is the necessary stillness that calls us to the surrender of our whole lives to God. 

The Christian life is sometimes made out to be a pretty intimidating monster of its true self.  “Where do I start?”  “What if I can’t recite the Prayer Book by heart?”  “What if I find myself struggling down the road?”  “What if, after all is said and done, I’m just not good enough?”  But watch with Christ; rest in peace.  Stop your busyness--if only for a handful of minutes--and pray.  Set regular times aside and pray, one time, each day.  Begin to reclaim the rhythm of your days.  Dwell in the day set before you.  Practice the humble patience of one aware that the Spirit’s desire is to soak us--you and me--with his fullness of joy and his presence.

If you would give your whole life to God, take a deep breath, and begin with today.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Orbit and the Generous Table
sfh homily, 9.9.12

Welcome or welcome back (or welcome forward?). It is meet, right, and a lot of fun to be gathered in worship with you as we begin this new semester. I am so looking forward to this new year as your chaplain. The ministry of St Francis House belongs to you students, and God at work in you - in this Body - is a blessing, gift, and joy for me to engage with you. I pray you also will know this Body as a blessing, gift, and joy. I pray that the work of this house strengthens, challenges, and supports you in your calling as student. Also, I hope it gives you occasions to laugh. Welcome back.

“As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs."

Kind of catchy, huh?

It was the unofficial advertising jingle of the Roman Catholic Church - as represented by church official Johann Tetzel - circa 1517. Pope Leo X had a basilica to rebuild, and the decision was made to grant indulgences - remission of the temporal punishment of sin - to all those who gave financially to the project. While money did not buy forgiveness in the technical sense for the living - and certainly not apart from the good work of repentance and confession - money alone was deemed sufficient to secure indulgences for the dead. Thus the jingle: “As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs." A young and fiery friar Martin Luther heard the slogan and had a thought (or ninety-five) about it.

So my wife is reading and enjoying this book about Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel. The book is ostensibly about art and Michelangelo’s incredible ceiling, but of necessity the book ends up wandering onto other subjects: Renaissance culture, political structures, religious institutions and orders, the history of popes. It was the last part that got her, mostly the affairs, and the indulgences, when one night she broke from her book to vent her disgust. My wife is from good Protestant stock; she was rightfully appalled.

Among Christians, including our sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church - who, to be clear, took seriously Luther’s objections and have officially revised the practice - indulgences have become an occasion to shake our collective head at the backward Church of yesteryear. Who does something like that? What an embarrassment... So glad to have matured as a Church, spiritually, as people...

So once upon a time I am at this Vestry meeting and the agenda has long since disappeared under a heap of what are being officially labeled “pastoral concerns,” the foremost of which is that one dear old lady likes to say “amen” loudly and in places not printed in the prayer book and another dear old lady doesn’t say anything loudly, except what she doesn’t like about this other dear lady, and she is sad to say (though she’s been saying it a lot lately) that she just might have to leave the church. “Sad,” someone says. “What should we do?” says another. “I was at a Christmas party,” says a third, “when the amen lady told me she doesn’t pledge, doesn’t count herself an Episcopalian, either.” “Well, we are an Episcopal church; it’s who we are,” said another. “The other dear lady is a generous giver of record,” offered someone else, casually.

Yes, so glad we’re all beyond all the backward mess of yesterday’s unenlightened Church.

“My brothers and sisters,” asks James, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

The sin of the sale of indulgences was, among other things, the sin of partiality. Partiality: the idea that maybe God affords greater grace to the ones who can, well, afford, it. Of course, nobody preaches this outright; it tends to be something that gets preached accidentally, by our practice.

In James, which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about caring for the widow and orphan and other things that to some ears sound like old-fashioned moralism; that is, they’re good things to do, but what do they have to do with the living Jesus? And if we can only hang on to that question, we will be surprised to learn that James gives us an answer. He hints that he has one when he juxtaposes partiality and belief in Jesus: “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord?” There is a strong link, it seems, between our care for one another and our embodying belief in Jesus risen from the dead.

When Jesus summarizes the law as love of God and love of neighbor, James sees a complexity of expression: that winning with God means winning with my neighbor and God. That regardless of cash in hand, political persuasion, GPA, future prospects, or moral failings, in Jesus, God has made prepared holy space for each one around the table. And we profess belief in the God who sets this generous table by insisting for a place for each one in our own lives, by our life as the gathered Body of Christ.

“Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” In these words, James reminds us of God’s generous table and the invitation to the feast of those who love him.

Now, the rest of life would tell you to be suspicious of James - to watch his words carefully and not be fooled. The rest of life will tell you, for example, that your winning means - must mean - your neighbor’s losing because life is a zero-sum game. The rest of life would tell you to grab what you can and save the rest for “just in case”, that my success means someone’s failure; better to burn the bridge behind you, lest the others follow you the path of your triumphs and enjoy what you enjoy; the rest of the world lives by constructions and structures of power over weakness and vulnerability for fear of losing those things one believes are secure.

Over against this narrative of scarcity, James persists in his challenge: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?...Can your faith save you?”

The cynic steeped in the old rules might answer, “It’s plenty good, James - you asked if faith could save me. Why are we talking about them?” But James appears to suggest that my salvation is bound up with the other and her need. Not that doing right by the man or woman in need scores me salvation points or something; but that our salvation is one because of the One who would save us. That we are richer, more ourselves, when we live in the orbit of the table that calls us together. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” we say in the Prayer Book liturgy. Partiality forgets this.

Christians profess belief in the God who sets the generous table by insisting on a place for each one in our own lives and in the future that belongs to God. The desert fathers and mothers used to say “Our life and death is with our neighbor.” Our life and death is with our neighbor. And here on this campus, who is my neighbor? Salvation with our neighbor.

Not partiality, but the conviction that we are richer, more who God has made us to be, when we live in the orbit of the table that gathers us.

Just now, as we set out on the adventure of a new year together, I want to name the gentle orbit of the table that gathers us. Life and death with our neighbor, beginning with the neighbors here, means to receive the gift of salvation in tangible ways; tangible, visible ways by which we experience and show forth the blessing of God - a unique and challenging gift. What the wrapped gift of this salvation requires is the commitment of its opening.

For over ninety years now, believers and nonbelievers have found in the gathering of saints at St Francis House the space to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, and with neighbors. Our life and death is with our neighbor; the Body of Christ as God’s gift to you for your flourishing, making possible things like holy friendships, disagreements, laughter, truth-telling, confession, forgiveness, and praise. For over ninety-years here, a people have gathered to commit themselves to practices that bind them together, so that together, they may discern Christ present to them as they eat from the table he sets. “Where two or more are gathered in my Name,” Jesus tells his friends, “I am there in the midst of them.” And so with us: never alone, now entrusted with the Spirit, given the holy task of upholding one another in this life in Christ: listening well to one another, speaking-truth to each other, sharing difficulties, yes, and certainly celebrating joys. Opening our own lives so to be upheld.  Professing belief in the God who sets this generous table by insisting for a place for each one in our own lives, by our life as the gathered Body of Christ.



After the Creed, we made our way to the baptismal font. In light of James' strong connection between faith in God and love of neighbor, I invited the students - as an extension of our profession of faith - to dip each one's thumb in the holy water and, making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person next to them, say, "My life and death is with my neighbor." We stayed circled around the font for our prayers, the confession, and the peace.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Not Only with Our Lips
(reflections on proper 17)


O, that crafty Lectionary! It’s Labor Day weekend and in God’s sense of humor the Lectionary is poking today at how we conceive of our labors, our good works. After the Reformation, for largely misunderstood or misrepresented reasons, works became a dirty word for some among the Protestant faithful. Justification by faith, good. Justification by works, bad. Oh, they probably couldn’t hurt, works. But it’s bad to say they help. And so we Protestants learned to work hard, but never to admit to our enjoying it. Or something like that. In any case, over against this ambivalent relationship to our labors, our good works, on Labor Day weekend no less, the Lectionary knocks on the door of our souls and asks us to open our minds to our labors, to reconsider, reexamine, how we relate to them, and how God relates to us through them.

The opening collect kicks us off, asking God to bring forth in us the fruit of good works. Simple. Bold. Daring. Deuteronomy follows with Moses charging Israel to diligently observe all of the commands of the Lord their God. (Here the word “observe” presumably means more than “stare at” or "monitor the movements of"; Israel is to practice, embody the commandments of God.) This thematic chorus reaches its crescendo in James - James, in which Jesus’s name appears only twice and the sum of religion is summarized as care for the widow and orphan; an emphasis on works so strong that it made Luther queasy - but with it a necessary caution against the self-deceptive quality of so much of our speech, the dangerous seduction of empty words. And all of this coming as precursor to Jesus’ blistering indictment of the scribes and Pharisees for lack of obedience to the commandments of God: they polish the kettles, but fail to honor the mother, the father. The specific content of Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees resembles that memorable line from the Great Thanksgiving of our Prayer Book in which we pray “that we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.” Embodiment again: not just with our lips, in our lives. Because labor, our works, are integral to how we relate to God.

At this point, I’m mindful that the mantra “less with the lips, more with the lives,” is a precarious mantra for a preacher in the middle of a sermon. There’s a reason that Jesus targets the preachers today. But while I won’t argue the critique that I have lots of room to grow toward showing forth God’s praise in my life, I’m not going to sit down just yet. Here’s the real question: how can our lips and our lives move together?

That beliefs belong just on lips, or locked in heads, and not in lives lived is not just an extension of a misrepresented justification-by-faith doctrine; the silencing of lives is also, says theologian Stanley Hauerwas, something encouraged by - cultivated by - a liberal democratic society in which the unnamed, functional byproduct of faith is culturally acceptable only as an accident, that is, when its substance and foundations go unnamed; religious beliefs in post-Enlightenment thinking are essentially private, without public, material expression. Beliefs, in this thinking, are abstract propositions to which one mentally assents in the head. Not surprisingly, Hauerwas rejects this definition. Says Hauerwas,

Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance.

All of this is extremely challenging and interesting to me. If my lived life was taken as the lived performance of a creed, what would it profess? Better put, given the corporate nature of the Body of Christ into which I was initiated at my baptism, if our common life were taken as the performance of a creed, what would our performance profess? Would one discern from our performance of the faith the centrality of the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead? And what does a community that performs belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit look like, anyway? Would one find in our footsteps, for example, the plantings of forgiveness, given and received? Would one recognize in our lives the fingerprints of the liturgy and the shaping of the Spirit in our midst? Would they find in our dealings with one another and strangers a generosity in imitation of Christ poured out for us? Would one encounter the lived fruit of the Spirit, in regular practice: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, even in an election year. Putting all of these questions together, I wonder if a good prayer for our community wouldn’t be that the performance of our lives would make no sense - would be unintelligible - apart from the Good News of Jesus crucified and risen.

What can it mean to embody, practice, perform resurrection? And is this what James is on to when he talks about the law of freedom - the mysterious gift by which the way of obedience, the way of the cross, that becomes for us none other than the way of life and peace?

I think all of this is why I cherish the lives of the saints. The above conversation is not always running in my head, but I am called back to it, stopped short, every time I see a life so authentically performed. Not perfect lives, certainly, but broken lives performed in ways and places that point to God. I bet you can call some to mind.

I remember meeting a retired priest who told great stories. He had been a JAG officer, he told me, when was younger. He had also been mayor of his small Texas town. Lots of travels. Now he was coming up on 40 years in the priesthood. I did the math. He had been ordained sometime in his forties, I figured, relatively late for the church at that time. I asked him why the change.

He told me about a man, a cattle rancher, he met while serving as a JAG officer, post-WWII, overseas in Japan. The man had given nearly all of the cattle he raised away, to peasants mostly, with the stipulation that they also give any offspring cattle they raised to others.  My friend asked the man why he did this. The man filled and broke my friend’s heart with his slightly garbled answer, something about abundant life.

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

Not perfect lives; but lives that have fallen for Jesus in ways that leave marks on the body; lips and lives moving together.

And when you look at what they do, when considering their example, their works, the labor of their lives, you must assume that they’ve either lost it or found it. Traveling with a group of youth to the monastery at Taize, France, a small group gathered together for conversation, a teenager asking an almost inappropriate question of one of the brothers. “How did you do it?” he said. “Do you even know what you walked away from? No offense, you have no real job. No family. I know my parents’ hopes, their dreams for me, how disappointed they’d be...what on earth led you to let all that go?”

Of course it isn't always so extreme. I overheard someone say recently that Christians don’t struggle to sacrifice everything; we struggle to sacrifice anything. Maybe that's true. But of course we will sacrifice some (significant) things if we are performing the creed of Jesus.

Our patron saint, St Francis, is once purported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” Full disclosure: St Francis preached sermons to birds, so it is fair to wonder what exactly he meant by that. More helpfully, Francis also said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” And on Labor Day weekend, our working as our preaching. Our believing in and through our being. Showing forth our praise, not only on our lips, but in our lives.

Lips and lives together.


Preached at SFH, September 2, 2012.

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