Sunday, September 29, 2013

Give Like You Are God's Own
(the gospel's tellbull and wonderful news)

My kids have this new favorite bedtime storybook. It’s called, “Count the Monkeys.” The book is about, well, counting monkeys, but the joke of the book is that there are no monkeys in it. On the story’s first page, there’s a cobra that has scared away the monkeys. Then some mongooses come and scare away the cobra. Some crocodiles come next and scare away the mongooses. Then some bears, some bees, bee keepers, wolves, lumberjacks, more lumberjacks, and, finally... polka-dotted, bagpipe-playing rhinoceroses with bad breath - each group scaring away the ones arrived before them. With the arrival of the rhinos, toward the end, the stage is finally set to count the monkeys. But, then, on the next page, there’s this devastating message: “Oh no. It looks like we’re out of pages. This is terrible. We made it to the end and there are zero monkeys in this book. Now we’ll never get to count the monkeys.” And this is my wife’s favorite part, because she knows that Jude, our youngest, - who hangs on every word - will yell as she reads it, “Oh no! TELLbull! TELLbull!” It’s the cutest terrible thing you ever saw.

Today, I have some TELLbull news. Only it’s not especially cute. It’s real talk, and it’s difficult. And there are no mongooses to scare it away. In Luke’s gospel, we receive the difficult news that material success in this life is not a reliable, positive indicator of the health of your life with God. Prosperity in this life is not God’s endorsement of you. Contrary to everything American consumer capitalism will tell you, having stuff doesn’t mean you’ve got it figured out. 

Now, I’m well aware that, for a growing number of people, this is not terrible news, because closeness with God and the good health of one’s relationship with God are not on the short list of their practical considerations for daily life. But presumably, you are not among these people. Relationship with God is important to you. You are glad to be in the presence of God. I hope you are glad to be in the presence of God. Let’s take a second; turn and tell a neighbor, “I’m glad to be here.” But even you who enjoy the presence of God and are glad to be here may be tempted toward a twinge of insecurity in light of tonight’s terrible news. After all, and here’s the deeper question, if you can’t look at something concrete in your life - like your stock holdings, for example, or perhaps, closer to home, your coursework, job prospects, or dating life - to know for sure you are making the grade, how can you know for sure that you’re making the grade? And if you can’t know that, how can you know what it is to be good; how can you know what’s really important? What if, left to yourself, you can’t? This is the bafflement of the rich man of tonight’s gospel who finds his world and his every expectation turned upside down on its head. In life, this man had been admired and independent; had had all the answers. Now, he is pitied and helpless; alone in his questions. What went wrong? The rich man’s dilemma is picked up, mockingly, in the title-song of Pink Floyd’s 9th album, ‘Wish You Were Here.’ The song begins,

So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

So Jesus’ parable about a rich man who appears to have read the signs wrong exposes an existential fear - a deep and personal insecurity - about our ability to know what’s really real. But it and of itself, this fear does not account for how it is we end up trying to justify our existence primarily by our wealth. How is it that followers of the Jesus who said, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” - and who was crucified by the state - learn to think good measures for faithfulness might include six-figured salaries and 401Ks? 

It’s not just a rhetorical question. As I’ve already hinted, I think our national context is the beginning of an answer that, in part, accounts for the existence of money-centric Christians, Christians who fight questions of meaning with commercial profitability. By that, I mean it’s not entirely surprising that inheritors of Manifest Destiny should look to wealth as a sign of God’s favor, right? It’s less surprising still that a nation whose people are publicly referred to by our leaders as ‘consumers’ would see their value to their manifestly destined country in terms of their ability to buy expensive things for the good of the economy. So in one Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin tells his dad, “As the wage earner here, it’s your responsibility to show some consumer confidence and start buying things that will get the economy going and create profits and employment. Here’s a list of some big-ticket items I’d like for Christmas. I hope I can trust you to do what’s right for our country.” Undergirding an understanding of what it is to be American is an implicit commitment - and assumed ability - to buy stuff. In the American understanding, economic consumption is equated with being a person of value. 

So basic is this understanding of personhood and value that it can be hard to imagine an alternative to it. But "Jesus" names the alternative that would heal our imaginations.

So a man who did his part to consume for the national good ends up in hell. The reversal seems to catch him by surprise. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them that being a good, MasterCharging, American patriot ain’t what it used to be; evidently, earthly wealth should no longer be taken as an implicit sign of God’s approval of those who have wealth. Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have received sufficient warning through Moses and the prophets. The rich man insists that they’ll listen - that they’ll see it - if some one comes to them, risen from the dead. Because we know that Jesus is the one who will rise from the dead, we know that Luke’s gospel is inviting us to see Jesus as the poor man on whom the story hangs. In the words of Paul, Jesus, “ though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Elsewhere, Isaiah will say in words the earliest Church heard as referring to Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” This is what the God who alone is good, and who has purchased our souls with a price, looks like - a lot like Lazarus.

So this is the TELLbull and wonderful news: material success in this life is not God’s endorsement of your being; but Jesus is. Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, is God’s emphatic affirmation of your worth, no matter what else happens in this life. Your measure is not determined by consumer price indices. You are not the sum of your expense receipts. You are of value, of immeasurable worth, simply because you belong to and are loved by God. Your measure was sealed in your baptism as God’s dearly beloved child. You’ve got nothing for which to grasp, nothing to withhold or lose. You are free to touch the poor man. You are free to give freely. Not because your giving enters you in a raffle to win a better prize, but because in the space of your giving, you most fully receive the gift of Christ.

The self-emptying of God has filled the chalice of salvation. This is the heart of the Christian’s understanding; this is the heartbeat of the Kingdom of God: that in the poverty of God revealed on the cross, our own poverty is exposed, touched, and healed. So we can no longer look down on the sister or brother in need and say there is a more important thing. 

One last story. I met a friend who told me she had only recently become a Christian. The single, best thing in his life. Two years now, and counting. We talked about transitions of friendships after her becoming a Christian, family acceptance and lack thereof, insights and surprises, on and on for a while. I listened. Finally, she looked up and said, “But you know what, there’s this nutritionist I’ve been reading for the last twenty years - her teachings have changed my life. I’ve been reading her books and shaping my life as a result of what I’ve read, and if I stopped following her teachings tomorrow, my life would be radically different, like all-over different, night and day from where I am now - a lot more would change if I stopped following her than if I stopped following Jesus. I’m not saying this is a good thing,” he said. “I’m just saying.”

My friend’s confession stayed with me that day, and late into the night. I was haunted by the reality that my friend was likely not alone in this honest struggle. Finally it hit me. If I could have had that moment over, I think I would have asked her...if she tithed - how much she gave. I know, a disappointing, lame, and churchy answer. But - hang with me here - there’s simply no way my friend could have worried that the Christian life wasn’t changing her own life enough if she had been giving large sums of money away - in ways that sought to mimic and participate in the generous self-giving of God. 

Real change - the life that really is life - says St. Paul - experienced not just in the pinch of economic sacrifices like giving up cable, but generosity conceived as the space, says the gospel, in which we receive and grow into our baptismal identity as children of God defined not by what we buy, but by God’s love for us. We live our true identities as God's children in the giving. In the loving. In the reaching. Not consumers of crap, but children of God. For this you were made. You are God’s child. You are so much more than the sum of your expense receipts. Give like you are God’s own.

Amen.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You Were Made For Joy
(How Showing Up Without Joy Is Killing The Church)



When I was something like eight years old, my Sunday school teacher - in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a chaotic class room setting - found herself in need of something that, because of her responsibility of oversight, she couldn't leave the room to get. I don't remember what that thing was, except that it was heavy, which was why she turned to us boys in the room and said, "Can one of you nice young men please go get it?" The other boys immediately shot me stares that said, "We are not nice young men. But we know one sucker who is." And feeling the weight of their stares and that judgment, I sighed, shrugged my shoulders, and valiantly muttered - while staring holes through the floor - "I'll do it."

Today, as a parent of two children, I can appreciate the calm restraint my teacher exhibited in that unremarkable moment; calm and restraint I am not certain I would have been able to manage had I been standing in her shoes. She looked at me with a beaming smile and said, calmly, "Thank you, Jonathan. Next time, don't be so joyful."

With her words, I felt my heart at the same time pierced and freed to leave the chains of self-pity and the judgment of my peers. I felt my heart return to me. Of course, she was right but, more than that, I was real again. I lifted my head, matched her smile, and told her I would be happy to do it.

I tell this story because I find myself wondering if showing up without joy isn't killing the Church. How is it possible to share in the life of the risen Jesus - even at a church finance meeting or a lawn clean-upday - without joy? Why are we here, without joy?

For sure, there's always the temptation to fake a plastic happiness. That's not what I'm talking about or hoping for. Christians need (and have received) the freedom to be real with one another. But we are told Christians gather in response to the call of the One who came to give abundant life. The joy of abundant life is far richer than plastic smiles.

I listen to a lot of sermons, and one of my favorite preachers is the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, of North Carolina. Recently, he's made a habit of telling the flock of whatever church he's visiting on a given Sunday what a joy it is to be with them. And then, he adds, "I hope you're glad to be here, too. Go on: turn and tell a neighbor, 'I'm glad to be here.'" 

Turn and tell a neighbor, "I'm glad to be here."

But maybe we're not. And that's the rub, isn't it? On a given Sunday, each of us is there for any number of reasons ranging from habit to guilt and resentment to shame to earnest seeking to a friend's invitation to dumb luck. And some of these reasons have been engrained in folks by the Church for so long - I'm looking at you, guilt, shame, and resentment - that it will take the Church's vocal permission to excuse them from the room. 

That's why my hope for the Church - universal and local - is that the Church gives you permission to leave. Because showing up without joy is killing the Church. Because you don't have to know why you're there or why it's important - you don't have to agree with everything that's said in that place - but you should find joy there, even if it's richer than happiness and doesn't look like the plastic cliche. You should find life here. You should be able to turn and tell a neighbor without crossing your fingers - on some, basic level - "I'm glad to be here."

So I hope the Church gives you permission to leave here because what I hope more than anything is that the Church gives you permission to fall in love deeply. 

I was interviewing for a position once and the interview team asked me, "Show us that you understand that the life of faith is not just a head thing, but a real, nitty-gritty, shaping-your-life thing." And I said, "Do you think I wear this clergy shirt for fun? I'm betting my life on the claims God makes on his people. I'm all in. I'm in love." 

I want the Church to give you permission to fall in love with the living God and to live lives that look silly apart from the joy of Jesus. By silly, I mean, being glad-to-be-here silly. I mean reordering-your-life silly. I mean opening-your-future silly. 

As a priest, I am betting my life not just on the God that makes claims on our lives but also on the presence of this God in the Episcopal Church. Now that's silly! By that, I don't mean that God is an Episcopalian, but that I have met the living God richly in this tradition of Word and Sacrament and holy friendships. I have wrestled with God in the space of this tradition, and the wrestling has left me walking with a limp I wouldn't trade for anything. The work I share with the students at St. Francis House and the university community here in Madison is the work of living joy. 

The Church - God's holy people - is about living joy. I pray you find friends and Christ-centered community who help you live your joy with God.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

On Becoming a Loser
(and friendship with God)


So, the Packers lost today. 34-30, Bengals. Boo. So it seems like maybe bad time to bring up the words of Saint Lombardi, who said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Oops. Winning is the only thing. I wonder if you can resonate, if not in football, then in other realms of life. I wonder if you can resonate with the great Jackie Robinson, who said, “It kills me to lose...I can’t stand losing. The way I am about winning, all I ever wanted to do was finish first.” All I ever wanted to do was finish first.

Winning - or 'not losing' - is a drive that shapes most of our lives. So, given that winning is a drive that shapes most of our lives, what happens when the unthinkable does happen? What happens when you lose? Not just generally - what goes on inside you? Maybe you’ve never lost? But assuming you have, even once, how did you make sense of yourself in that moment? How is that feeling different from the way you felt about yourself before you lost, when you thought you still had a chance to win? What changes? 

Fear of losing can sure suck the life out of winning. You students especially know the pressures that come with sky’s-the-limit expectations. Let me ask you: have you ever found yourself making choices that ran opposite to all you knew about goodness, God, yourself, and the world, simply because it might mean the difference between winning and losing, and losing was not an option? I think of the sports world again and PEDs and blood doping and cycling, and those rare athletes who get caught, and the rarer athletes who are glad to get caught, because it ends, once and for all, the win-at-all-costs charade and gives back to the individuals the permission to return to what was most important in life, in the first place. Sometimes losing can save your life.

Jesus tells a story tonight about a man who played the game and lost. Specifically, this man lost his job. In the words of one not-quite theologian, “You’re fired.” A couple of days to wrap up business and turn in his keys and his fob for the company car. And we get it. Even students years away from hitting the job market sweat out the prospect of joblessness. At least the english and philosophy majors do. So on the one hand, we can imagine the rich man’s dread. What does he tell his wife? Where does he go from here? We can empathize with the economic and emotional pressures - the loss of control - this guy is feeling.

On the other hand, despite our attempts at empathy, we are still Americans - living in the richest, most powerful, arguably most violent, and influential nation in the history of the world. What do we know about losing really? About powerlessness? And more than that, we are Episcopalians! Did you know that 27% of American presidents have been Episcopalians? Easily the most popular denomination among those who have called the Oval Office home. Next closet is the Presbyterians more than 9 points back, at 18%. That’s power, baby!

So the rich man muses, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?,’ and Episcopalian Americans especially find ourselves arrived at a quandary. We cannot imagine losing anything. At the same time, we have more stuff not to lose than maybe anyone else in the history of the world. The having and guarding - to keep us from losing what no one else has ever had to this extent - that part, we get. The losing itself, not so much.

So let me name an elephant in the room with respect to ourselves and our gospel: Christianity (not just Episcopalians) is in the process of losing her position. Long gone are the days when you could expect the school programs to leave Wednesday nights open for youth group meetings at the local church. Heck, Sunday morning is not a given anymore. Used to be being a Christian made you respectable. Gave you clout. I walk the streets in Madison, wearing my collar, fighting looks that tell me most people think, from my uniform, that I either hate them or am not safe to have around their children. Because I both love people and am a helluva dad, these kinds of looks are hard to brush off. But right or wrong, that’s the starting point for a lot of people these days.

It’s the world we call post-Christian. And it’s dishonest to say we lost out-right, because much of the post-Christian world stands on the foundations laid by Christians. And it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Not good, maybe, but not bad, either. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible to be a Christian anymore. It does mean that when one looks at the life of Jesus, and takes seriously the shape of the life that led to the cross, it is not at all clear that Christians should ever have needed the kinds of power we historically associated with Christianity in order to be faithful followers of Jesus in the first place.

So the rich man’s question is there for us: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” And maybe it’s God taking the position away; maybe the master taking the position away is one of the many idols we’ve confused with Jesus. In any event, living the life of faith in your lifetime will not look like the Episcopal Church, circa 1952. And I hope this is not news for you.

To be sure, in this post-Christian world, you can still live the life of faith; can still continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. Only, you may find a day when doing so will not afford you 501c3 tax-exempt status. That’s okay. Jesus understands.

Because there are times when losing can mean ending the charade and receiving permission to return to what was most important in the first place. Sometimes losing can save your life. If the Church is losing position, I hope losing will mean rediscovering this kind of permission. Even the permission to fail. If anyone should understand permission to fail, it’s Christians. Christians who know that death has been defeated, and with it the need to win our lives. No more posturing over-against or harboring hopes of defeating the others. Just the good stuff. Nothing to lose. Discovering a way of being that needs a Savior. 

So the man formerly-known-as-rich loses. And his first instinct is to make friends with the boss’ money. He cooks the books. Cuts some deals. Clearly, his is a self-serving generosity. He’s hoping to score a backyard bungalow somewhere after he loses all he has. For this reason, some theologians and preachers write-off Jesus’ endorsement of the crook in this story. Even though Jesus says the crook gets commended by his boss for his shrewdness, and even though Jesus turns to his disciples, post-story, and says, “You guys do the same,” some in the tradition insist that the moral of the story must be something like, “Jesus loves the rich man in spite of his thievery.” It follows from this interpretation that Jesus can’t have meant what he said in the end (when he told his disciples to do the same thing), but that perhaps he was being sarcastic.

But let me throw one alternative out there. What if Jesus did mean what he said? (Crazy, right?) What if coming to grips with losing - what if surrendering our attempts to win our lives apart from God - is to end the charade and receive our lives back as gifts? What if ending the charade is exactly what Jesus did on the cross and in the early hours of that still-dark Easter morning? What if ending the charade is what it means to be friends with God? What if friendship with this God means a weight off our shoulders, a deep breath and long look around, and the possibility of previously impossible friendships with those around us? What if new friendships with the master’s money really is the stuff of eternal homes?

It’s not just a hunch, right? What we’re doing now is reading this story from a half-step back, in light of the rest of Luke’s gospel. It’s Luke’s gospel, after all, that gives us the parable of the rich fool, who thinks he can win, stores up all he has, and, on the day before he dies, has no one but himself and his stuff to talk to. It’s Luke’s gospel that gives us the parable of the banquet in which all the folks who should be invited to banquets - the ones in manager’s positions - say no, and the host tells his servants to go out to the streets, to bring in the blind, lame, the crippled, and poor. The one’s who aren’t distracted with winning. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends his followers out twice - in a kind of echo of this parable - to announce the nearness of God’s Kingdom, to make friends with the master’s peace. And all of this in the initial context of Jesus’ first sermon in which he calls himself the Jubilee year, the year in which debts and divisions of material wealth were forgiven, thereby ending every illusion that the powers by which we separate ourselves from one another are anything other than the sin Christ defeats on the cross. Over and over again in Luke’s gospel, we hear it: the theme of friendships made possible by the God who, in Jesus, against all odds, befriends us. 

Friends of God and one another. Love of God and love of neighbor. This is the beating heart of the Gospel and of the New Jerusalem.

So go be a loser. The sooner the better. Make friends for yourselves, as if those friendships mean more to God than anything. Make your generosity with others an affront to this world and a witness to the disarmingly unguarded love of Jesus. 

Amen. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"How Will We Say Goodbye?"

This fall, Tuesdays will be my Kindermusik day, meaning I'll leave the office by 3 p.m. in order to take Annie to the music class we'll share at First Pres in Waunakee. Last year, I wrote about the gift these music classes have been to my family and what I was learning from Kindermusik. This year, it's the same, only different: the kids are a year older, and each one has moved on to new, age-appropriate classes within the Kindermusik program.

For Annie and me, this developmental transition is marked in lots of ways, but the biggest one is that we no longer spend the whole class together. Dad makes a cameo for some imagining and sung introductions at the outset, says goodbye, reads Garrison Keillor poetry anthologies to himself in the church's parish hall, and is summoned back to the room at the end by the children's singing, just in time to see what the children have learned and join in the goodbye song.

As you can imagine, this "parent-exits-stage-right" maneuver does not go over really well with all of the kids, especially the first few times. So, at an early parent-only meeting, our teacher encouraged each of us to develop a goodbye ritual with our children, to make the transition easier. We were invited to have the conversation with our children in anticipation of the moment and to seek their input around the question, "How will we say goodbye?"

The routine itself was all up to us, but Miss Amy asked that whatever we come up with include three things:

  • touch 
  • eye-to-eye contact
  • repetitive words or song

So a couple of nights ago, I broached the topic with Annie. I explained that I wouldn't be staying in the Kindermusik class for the whole time this year, and that Miss Amy had invited us to talk about how we would like to say goodbye to each other each week. Annie took the news in stride, and our goodbye ritual came together pretty easily, riffing largely off of our already-established "good night" routine, with some material borrowed from our "have a good day at school" routine. I touch her forehead, trace the sign of the cross, and say, "Thank you, Jesus, for Annie. Amen." I kiss her head. And then I add, "Good bye. I love you. Be yourself." Annie added a fist bump at the end.

And maybe it's because I am approaching the anniversary of my Granny's death - September 16 - and I remember how hard it was for either of us to name that it might be goodbye, much less to talk about how we wanted to say it - but I have been reflecting a lot today about the gift it is to be invited to ask, "How will we say goodbye?"

I take it as significant that the question is plural. Not "How will I say goodbye?", but "How will we?" Because we are talking to each other. Not building an abstract theory, but living a concrete relationship.

Of course, death does not always afford us opportunities for the goodbyes we would choose. But then, most people choose not to think about their deaths in the first place, which is to forfeit the possibility of conversations like, "How will we say goodbye?" altogether. People today pray for swift, sudden, and painless deaths. People in other ages prayed for holy deaths - can today's generations make sense of such a prayer? - with opportunities for just these kinds of good closures.

How will we say goodbye?

I pray that I get to - that God would grant me a holy death. That Annie and I will have the chance to talk about it beforehand, too. I pray I remember Miss Amy's three rules: touch, eye-contact, and repetitive words or song. Of course, I want Annie's input, but I can imagine something not unlike our newly minted Kindermusik dance: a hand on the the forehead, a small cross traced. "Thank you, Jesus, for Annie/Daddy. Amen." A kiss on the head. "Good bye. I love you. And can we sing the 'Alleluia' song?"


Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Joy of Footnotes
(If You Think It's Hard to Live Without God, Try Living With Him)



I wonder how you feel about footnotes. I used to skip them, as a rule. Too much investment, too little reward. A three-hundred-page book becomes a lot shorter without them. Only, recently - in the last few years - have I discovered what I’ll call the joy of footnotes. For sure, some authors make me think I was right for all those years to pass them over, trotting out opaque references in any of several languages I don’t know (boo). But others, perhaps seeking to reward the faithful reader who make the arduous journey through the footnotes, use the footnote as a kind of honest, reflective space. Like: “We both know I’m writing a professional article right now and my professionalism does not allow me to say things the way I might like to say them otherwise. But look, just now the rules are different - it’s a footnote! - let’s be real for just a minute.” I discovered the joy of footnotes because of authors who use them to be real. Indeed, I know authors whose articles I regularly skim so that I can grasp just enough context to make sense of the footnotes, which I savor slowly, like delicious morsels.

Allow me to share one such footnote:

At the end of his essay entitled “Long Live the Weeds and the Wilderness Yet”: Reflections on A Secular Age (1), Stanley Hauerwas includes this footnote about a separate essay penned by atheist Steven Weinberg. Here’s what Stanley writes:

Steven Weinberg ends his lovely essay, “Without God,” explaining why he cannot believe in God with the confession, “Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation - that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without wishful thinking - with good humor, but without God” (76). 

Stanley writes, “We have no reason to question Weinberg’s sentiment that he finds it hard to live without God, but it never seems to occur to those who express such a difficulty that it is by no means easy to live with God. The idea that somehow believing in God makes it all make sense cannot be held by anyone that has been shaped by the Psalms. One of the great virtues of [Charles] Taylor’s book [A Secular Age] is how he helps us see that atheism may not be all that interesting.”

How wonderfully honest. “It never seems to occur to those (who find it difficult to live without God) that it is by no means easy to live with God.” 

In Luke’s gospel tonight, Jesus asks his followers to count the cost of life with God. Evidently, he’s not cheap. First it’s the awkward comments about family relatives, then the statement about hating one’s life and carrying the cross. By the end, Jesus will say what American Christians can only dismiss as the truly absurd: “...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." And in between, Jesus will give a kind of parable in which he compares the costs of discipleship with the costs of war. But it’s clear by the end of the parable that the point of counting the cost does not lie in assuring oneself that one has enough to buy off, defeat, or otherwise outlast God, with a little left over to spare; rather, the point of the parable pushes the hearer to the point of surrender: “...what king,” Jesus asks, “going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” 

Peace. Jesus has come to announce the peace of God. And the peace of God is peace with enemies, as on a battlefield, an end to war. The gift of this parable is how it reminds us that peace with enemies - indeed, love of enemies - is not just debatable moral advice; loving one’s enemies is how God in Jesus first came to us, announcing God’s peace, even while we held onto our hopes of conquering God.

The challenge with all of these things - family, money, cross, enemy-loving, these buttons Jesus is pushing today (does he leave any out?) - is that most of us have grown up in churches that have desperately tried to convince us that Jesus didn’t mean it like that. But I wonder if instead of defending ourselves, or Jesus, or parsing intention - how rich is too rich? - I wonder if it isn’t enough simply to name from time to time that “it is by no means easy to live with God” - which may simply give us permission to let God disappoint us. 

We wanted God to appear one way. And God, when God came to us, was not that way. We wanted a god to give us the American dream - a good education any hiccups, trending toward a spouse and 2.5 kids, a home of our own, a good 401k - and the Son of Man came with nowhere to lay his head. We wanted victory for Israel and for us at all costs; Jesus came and, “like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth.” We wanted an endorsement for our many attempts to be our own gods, or - failing that - to uphold the illusion of control in our lives, and God came, instead, as the One who gave up his life for us on a cross and exposed every illusion of our control. What can it mean to follow such a God?

The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells a story about a prince who falls in love with a beautiful peasant girl. Unwilling to overwhelm and intimidate the girl with his princely stature, the prince disguises himself as a peasant and works in the fields, next to her. As days go by, the story’s suspense is not so much whether the couple will fall in love - we know they will - but the suspense comes in the question of when he will finally show himself as he is. When will he confess his love, have that love returned from her lips, and at long last rip off the tattered peasant’s cloak?

Kierkegaard thinks that Christians sometimes think of the resurrection of Jesus as the moment God throws off the cloak to reveal a God other than the God we see in Jesus. But Hauerwas reminds us that, for Kierkegaard, “the only problem with so thinking of the resurrection is that Jesus has no purple under his flesh. Jesus is peasant clothes, flesh, all the way down.” The content of Jesus’ life matters. For Jesus “is not playing at being a human. He is human all the way down. The resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ.”

A good reminder: that the resurrection is not an end to a deception - like the prince’s deception - about who God really is, but the resurrection is the Father’s “yes” to Jesus, the Son of God. The question for our lives is what it means to follow a God who looks like this. 

But to say that living with God can be difficult is not to reduce the life of faith to questions of works righteousness and whether you can put up with performing kiss-up favors and superficial sacrifices sufficient to win you an eternal life in which you can, finally, do what you want in the end. The question is of receiving Christ in your life on Christ’s terms, trusting God to meet you in the broken bits, with the forgotten ones, and at the cross. For if Christ is there, then there is the place of joy.

The challenge in all of these things is that most of us have grown up in churches that have desperately tried to convince us that Jesus didn’t mean it like that. But I wonder if instead of defending ourselves, or Jesus, or parsing intention - I wonder if it isn’t enough simply to name from time to time that “it is by no means easy to live with God.” 

Because here's the Good News: that it is by no means easy to live with God exactly names God’s unfailing commitment to live with us, no matter what. Praise God,

and let God’s People say,
Amen.


SFH.9.8.13

(1) In 'Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian,' Hauerwas, 2011.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"They Can Laugh"
a "guest" homily by Peter Kreeft


Homily for SFH, September 1, 2013:

Welcome back to school! You are back, others are still coming, and so it seemed right to read you a story, to have an old-school story time. This story comes from the theologian and poet, Peter Kreeft. It's a short story, called Heaven's Dog

This is a story that echoes images from our readings. It's a story about food and banquets and finding your place. It is a story about love and those things for which your heart desires. It is a story about God's Kingdom. Here it is:

I had a dream.

I died, and approached the great judgment seat. I knew I would be judged by Omniscience, and therefore I could not quarrel with the judgment.

The first thing that was revealed to me from the Omniscience, by a kind of instant and unquestionable telepathy, was that God knew exactly what was in my unconscious mind as well as my conscious mind. He knew me better than I knew myself. I was not surprised at this. But then he revealed to me one of the things that had been in my unconscious mind, and this surprised me. Yet once I saw it, I knew it was true. Omniscience does not lie.

What I saw was my own unconscious expectations for this day of judgment. I had expected to go to heaven, to be saved, since I believed in the Savior. But I had also expected to be assigned a sort of middle position in heaven, neither high among the saints nor low among the rabble who jut barely, surprisingly sneaked in by the skin of their teeth. I had not consciously realized before that this had been my unconscious expectation, but once the Omniscience revealed it to me, I recognized it as indeed what I had expected.

Then came the judgment. The first part was no surprise: I was to granted entrance to heaven. All right. But the second part was quite a shock. I was the very lowest soul in heaven. I was the rabble. I had gotten in by the skinniest skin of my teeth.

This truth was put to me in an image. I do not know whether I was supposed to interpret the image literally or not, but it seemed literally real. I saw a great banquet hall, and saints small and great feasting at long tables, like a great medieval king's celebration. Where was my place, I wondered? Then I saw a mangy, skinny, gray, ugly, flea-bitten dog under the table, gobbling up scrams and bones thrown to him. The dog was also constantly kicked, playfully and thoughtlessly, by the high-spirited banqueters. It had to keep dodging out of the way, and was often unsuccessful, so that its body was full of bruises. For some reason, I was more fascinated by the dog than by the banqueters. Soon I understood why. That was me. If I accepted my proper place in heaven, it would be as the dog.

The vision of the banquet faded, and I realized I was now being offered an alternative. If I chose, I could be, instead of a dog at heaven's table, a prime minister in hell. I saw myself in the councils of hell, dressed in gold robes, admired by all, hell's greatest theologian, prophet, and guru - even hell's greatest saint! All other humans there were looking up to me. And as prime minister I would be in a position to sit in on hell's high (or low) councils and influence their decisions. I could soften or mitigate their evil work on earth. I could be heaven's spy in hell. It seemed I could do far more good in hell than in heaven, where I could only gobble up scraps and kicks from my superiors.

Hell, like heaven, seemed quite real, quite earthly, even physical. I saw no torture chambers, no fire and brimstone, only honors and influence. I would have a fine time in hell and a terrible time in heaven. I had to choose between being first in hell or last in heaven.

Then I remembered the verse from the Psalms: "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness."

I also remembered a sermon by Augustine on "The Pure Love of God." He says in it something like this. To test whether you have the pure love of God, whether you obey God's first commandment, to love him above all else, imagine God himself approaching you and offering you everything in the world, everything you want. Nothing will be impossible for you, and nothing forbidden. Nothing is a sin, and nothing is punished. Whatever you imagine, you can have. There's only one catch - concluded God - you shall never, never see my face.

Augustine asks: Would you take that deal? If not, look what you've done. You've given up the whole world, and much more - all conceivable worlds - just for God. That is the pure (true) love of God.

I then knew why I had to choose to be last in heaven rather than first in hell, or earth, or even any paradise except heaven. I knew that to see his face, even as a mangy dog, is infinitely better than to rule all worlds and have all other goods.

I cried to God, "Let me be a dog; let me eat scraps; only let them by from your table!" And he smiled and opened heaven's gate to me.

I expected to be turned into a dog and be kicked. Instead, shining men and women crowded around me with congratulations. I asked them, "Wasn't I supposed to become a dog?" "Oh, yes," they said. "That's what you are. Right now. Just like us. You see, each of us was offered exactly the same choice as you: last in heaven or first in hell. And each of us chose what you chose. That's why we're here. Everyone gets what they choose. Each of us here is last, lowest, humblest. The Savior is the humblest of all. And each in hell is the highest, proudest, firs test. They're all prime ministers there."

I woke up, and the first thing that came to my mind was that "dog" is "God" spelled backwards. I thought that was God's little joke on us. Each of us is sort of God backwards, God imaged, God shadowed and reflected, infinity finitized. The thought of being a dog was not so shocking to me as the thought of sharing God's own life; for the difference between myself and a dog is nothing compared with the difference between myself and God!

If we are humble enough to accept who we are - God's dog, God's pets - we will be given table scraps from God's own table, God's own life. If we stand on our dignity and demand our rights, I fear that is exactly what we will get. Everyone in hell gets justice. Everyone in heaven gets bones and scraps of God, and even, perhaps, a high-spirited kick now and then. They can take that in heaven, because they can laugh at themselves there.

The End.