Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Remember, Consider, and Imitate Their Faith - One Possibility for Lent


"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. 
Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." Hebrews 13:7

This verse was a part of the readings assigned to the day's prayers, per Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, a resource I regularly utilize and which I wholeheartedly commend. In response to this verse, I am tempted to simply make a list of those folks, pray their names as a litany, and have that be the end of this post. I will probably still make the list and pray it, but not here, at least not today. I am grateful for these "leaders", to which I attach air quotes because they probably would not recognize that title with respect to our relationship together. They were and are mentors, friends, family, colleagues, influencers from a distance - like authors and podcasters, and they are the lives of the saints. 

"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." 

One in the litany for me is surely the Rev. Dr. Susan Eastman, who among other things taught a class on Paul and imitation (mimesis). One of the things I remember about imitation is that humans, with many other creatures, don't start imitating through force of effort. Minutes into our earthly lives, we are imitating those who share time and space with us, very much automatically. So when I read this verse from Hebrews, I assume the call is to re-imitate, that is, to return to imitating certain of the saints whose way of life became an open door or window through which we saw brighter colors and truer possibilities with respect to life in Christ than we had previously imagined or seen. Return to imitating these persons.

Of course, there may be aspects of their ways of life I didn't notice at the time or took for granted. Almost certainly I made assumptions along the way, in interpreting their lives, rather than simply asking. I think that is fine. For surely it is the case that we do not always see best what God is doing or how we have been shaped by the Holy Spirit in our own lives. It takes the Body to discern. Still, 1) much of the life of faith is imparted through relationship, and 2) what's more, the verse asks me to heighten my attention, open to the possibility that I might have missed something previously, to consider their lives and the outcomes attached to them, as I go about returning to this work of imitating leaders in the faith.

I love the verse's descriptive clause for leaders. Who are the leaders? The ones who spoke the word of God to you. Not just the preachers, of course, unless you are one of the lucky ones who have managed to been given and carry a generous understanding of the preaching vocation as one that belongs to all of God's people. Lauren Winner has given my favorite description of the task of preaching, which is something like loving the scriptures in public. We can all do that. But, more to the point, there have been particular people who have done that for us. Ordinary saints like Gwen McAllen, who stopped me in the narthex when I was somewhere near the 6th grade. I didn't know her well, apart from what I still remember as her regular use of the most generous smile I have, to this day, ever seen. She didn't wear a smile, exactly. She was a smile, a radiating joy. And one day she aimed that smile and joy at me, she noticed me, and handed me a copy of Mere Christianity. She said it had been helpful to her, and she had a hunch it would the kind of thing I might also enjoy. There are lots of other people with plausible claims to leadership in this world, but my 6th grade self intuited the descriptive clause in Hebrews: leaders are the ones who speak the word of God to you, which word invites us to grow in trust and confidence in the One who does not forsake us, freeing us to live lives freed of fear. Leaders speak this word of God to you. Mutual, reciprocal, yes, but they speak. They open doors of faith and hope and love to you.

Today's Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals ends with a collect that speaks a truth about the difficulty of imitating others, namely it involves lives of discipline we are not sure we need. Sometimes we even perceive imitation as impinging on our imagined duty to live as our claim autonomous lives. Of course, the kind of autonomy we think we are supposed to claim is a lie, but it a lie that dies hard. But here is the prayer which, with the call to consider and imitate, seems to hold great promise for Christians as we make our slow approach to that holy season called Lent:
Lord, convict us of the need for spiritual disciplines that call us to stillness, centeredness, and contemplation. Remind us that your word is living and present to nurture us, grow us, and sustain us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"You're Never Too Busy to Pee"

(And Other Wisdom My Daughter and I Scribbled Down While Waiting at the Orthodontist's for Her First-Ever Braces)

People are busy, we get it. YOU are busy. I am busy. Some things have to wait for better suited times, true enough. Given all of these truths, Annie and I nevertheless put together this list of things we believe you and I are never too busy to do. So imagine yourself rushing to a meeting for which you will be fortunate to arrive on time, or staring at a computer screen in the late hours of the night, wondering if there's any stray productivity that might yet be corralled into the day. Use these contexts as tests for what follows - and your own! Without further ado:

1. Use the bathroom.
2. Drink water.
3. Sleep.
4. Eat.
5. Experience fresh air.
6. Say 'I'm sorry.'
7. Say 'Thank you.'
8. Notice your surroundings and those around you.
9. Breathe.
10. Look for God in your midst / a given moment.
11. Treat others with kindness and respect.
12. Tell the truth.
13. Laugh.
14. Name your gratitude to God.
15. Notice how you're feeling and what you're thinking.
16. Be startled / surprised by the unexpected gift.

What would you add?


Monday, February 11, 2019

Things I Wish They'd Taught in Seminary, Part II

In vulnerable or reflective moments, clergy and others sometimes share about "Things I Wish They'd Taught in Seminary" (read Part I here). It's not a bad imaginative practice, but it can be depressing when things like "how to fix a toilet" make the top of the list. Toilets aren't the responsibility of seminary; they are a part of ordinary life. Don't get me wrong, toilet repair is good to know and probably even requires special training for most of us - and it's true that most well-run churches have toilets - but the application to the rest of life is substantial enough so as to prevent its sequestration on a seminary training list. Of course, this is debatable, but I suppose any interesting list must be.

So what's on your list?

Here are a few of mine:
  • A class putting Priya Parker's brilliant book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, in conversation with liturgical, theological, and pastoral thought. Honestly, it's baffling how traditions like my own, in which the shape of worship is oftentimes exceptionally considered, tolerate (and convene) so many other gatherings (meetings, etc.) that are, by comparison, thoughtlessly conceived
  • Preaching the Gospel on the Sunday morning following an unresolved argument with your significant other on Saturday night. A seminar on this topic might rightly be considered a moral prerequisite for those traditions that allow clergy to marry. It's more than family counseling, too; it's theological clarification of what it is we preach.
  • Investing in the gift of seeing other people's gifts. John Paul II likes to ask 2 questions of every issue that came before him and the leadership teams he was a part of: 1) What light does the Gospel shed on this issue/opportunity? 2) Who can we ask for help? In the second question is contained all kinds of wisdom about humility, etc., but more fundamental, perhaps, is the truth that, if the ministry to which we have been called is reconciliation, there are no bonus points awarded for trying it by yourself. Similarly, if belonging and the mutual exchange of gifts are to be trusted and felt in the Body of Christ, making room for the gifts of others, even those gifts unknown to them, is not optional work; it is at the heart of discerning the Body together.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Jesus & the Super Short Sermon that Almost Got Him Killed

--- *ALMOST* ---
Sermon for St. Andrew's, Madison, February 3, 2019. Here are the readings!

My children fancy themselves experts of sermons. To be fair, they have had a lot of experience. But also, to their mind, the secret to sermons is not especially complicated. When asked what makes for a good one, they won’t hesitate to tell you: “The shorter the better.” Perhaps their wisdom resonates with you.

Now, I don’t want to mislead you. I have no intention of satisfying my kids’ high standard for preaching this morning. Instead, I want to look with you at the exception that proves the rule, the mystery of Jesus’ super short first sermon to his hometown of Nazareth, by the end of which the people are ready to throw him off a cliff.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. Nine words. One sentence. Well, that and a couple of somewhat hostile off-the-cuff remarks made in the receiving line. “Pretty words, preacher,” the local folk say, but it is by no means clear they mean this as a compliment. The next minute it’s, “Off with his head!” The response is as sudden as it is confusing because, per my kiddos, it shouldn’t be happening - he preached for less than five minutes, even counting the addendum! What exactly went wrong? This is important. If we can’t find consensus and peaceable agreement around even the shortness of sermons, what hope is there for anything or anybody in this mad, mad world in which we live?

So what did go wrong? I’ll confess, if I’ve learned anything about preaching in twelve years of doing it, it’s there’s no telling or predicting what folks sometimes hear, much less get upset about. On the other hand, the Spirit also has a regular habit of helping people hear things and opening our hearts in ways more edifying than the preacher ever intended or knows. That’s a grace and gift of God. All that is to say I don’t know  what went wrong for Jesus that day. Peter’s first sermon wasn’t much longer and featured that masterfully poetic opening - “we’re not drunk!” - and over three thousand people were converted. Life, it seems, is not always fair.

I figure the best we can do as far as this particular preaching mystery is concerned is explore the surroundings, some details. Details like Nazareth, the hometown that gives the preacher problems. Not surprising, really. After all nobody does paternalism quite like parents! Familiarity can be an unforgiving filter through which to try to speak a new thing. Details like the particular words Jesus claims for his own with that super short sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This scripture, the one he’s fulfilling, comes from Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

But wait a minute, what’s wrong with that? It’s not original, maybe, but it’s not plagiarism, either. He cited his source. Maybe there’s something else… Good news to the poor? Sounds fine to me. Release to the captives? Politically complicated, maybe, but I’m not opposed in principle. Recovery of sight to the blind? Absolutely. Physically and metaphorically, both. Let the oppressed go free? Yes! Again, working out the particulars will no doubt require some effort, but nothing we can’t and shouldn’t get behind. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? Sure. But what does that mean? Isn’t proclaiming the Lord’s favor just a flowery expression for all that comes before it?

Weirdly, no. “The year of the Lord’s favor” is a phrase familiar to Jesus’ first listeners, and it has some baggage. I’m not saying enough to kill a preacher over, but it’s worth a second look.

The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was the year in Hebrew Scripture, occurring after seven sets of seven years - every fifty years - in which the people were told to hit the reset button. Debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and property rights were returned to previous owners. Physical forgiveness of actual debts. If you had lost your future to a string of bad decisions, today it would be returned to you. If you had cost someone you loved their livelihood by the choices you’d made, today they would be restored. If you had cheated your neighbor and not gotten caught, this day of Jubilee would come as both the reminder and judgment that illicit gains could only take you so far.

So Jubilee spoke freedom but also a critique of the game people so often turn life into. Jubilee built on the logic of Sabbath, that once a week rest that temporarily paused human striving and remembered the God of creation, actively deferring one’s sense of identity, belonging, and value to God. Both Sabbath and Jubilee call the People of God back to their true identity and trust in God. Sabbath and Jubilee practiced the trust the people had learned through 40 years of desert wandering, the Exodus from Egypt, when God fed them manna in the wilderness, that daily bread that could feed them, but could only be kept for a day, before the maggots spoiled it. Do you remember? It had to be gathered again each new day. The same daily bread Jesus tells his disciples to pray for. One day at a time. Forming lives of living trust in the living God. Jubilee is the giant reset button to our every effort to live this life not mindful of our daily dependence on and relationship to the living God who loves us. Jubilee is an invitation to trust God with our lives and put down every way of being in this world that takes out mistrust of God on our neighbors by fear, exploitation, and violence.

It’s honest and important to note that scholars aren’t at all sure Israel ever actually observed the Jubilee; only that Scripture records God telling Israel to observe the Jubilee. So Jubilee isn’t so much an insight into Israel as an insight into the God of Israel. Jubilee reveals God’s heart and desire for God’s people and their common life together. In God’s heart and desire, there is forgiveness of heavy debts. In God’s heart and desire, there is mercy for stupid choices and bad luck alike; there is remedy for injustice. In God’s heart and desire, there is an open-handed posture to which God’s people are invited, one that models that all things come from God and so are gifts of God, intended for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. In God’s heart and desire, most of all, there is that deep trust of God. Because the people trust God, the people can give back and share even the things the laws say they own. Because God’s people belong to God, they learn that they belong to one another, too. It is into this celebration, this self-revelation of God — bizarre to us and to them - that Jesus enters and self-identifies. Jesus is perpetual, embodied Jubilee. Not every fifty years, but always. Here, in his person, and in the community he gathers, the people called ‘church,’ of which Christ is the head and for which Luke is glad to offer extended details in the sequel to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles. Buy your copy today! Jubilee in his presence. Not every fifty years, but always. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

There are lots of places in the Christian life where love of God and love of neighbor connect, overlap, and intersect; Jesus’ short sermon is one of those important places. Jesus names the ways relative categories like status, success, possessions, and positions - social, political, even religious - make it hard to remember to trust; make it hard to be honest about our need of God and our neighbors. In other words, what we celebrate as love is often self-interested and deeply in need of healing. There’s a reason why they chased him to the edge of the cliff. But to willingly forget our need of God and our neighbor - to forget that our life and death is with our neighbor - is to forget what it is to be made in the image of God; it is to forget both who we are as God’s children and the generous, abundant life to which God calls God’s children. It is easy to forget. We gather today and as often as we gather to remember and be re-membered. In Jubilee, in Jesus, God resets the score and invites us to reimagine the game we thought we were living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God makes known to us in Jesus.

The name for the people so gathered and called is ‘church,’ and our life begins around this table where the one whose life is Jubilee calls us to be present to his presence in our midst. Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, help us meet your presence with our own unguarded lives, today, right now, and always.

Amen.

Leave the Shiny Things at Home (my final sermon in Madison)

The readings for Sunday, July 7, 2019. My final sermon in Madison, preached at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, at the invitation of my co...