Sunday, September 22, 2019

American Idols and How to Resist Them (Learning to Believe that the Treasure is Christ)

Before this sermon was preached, the church read these lessons and prayed this prayer:

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.

As of this week, I’ve been a priest in the church for twelve years, the last seven of which I spent on the campus of a public university, at a missionary outpost of the Episcopal Church. Working among heathens, I mean, university students. Bright, young, minds. It was an incredible honor to walk with those students, to get close and see what God is up to with them, what God is showing them. To be a person of faith on campus, as a student, in a living and visible way in 2019, well, it’s something of a miracle, and one the church does well to come alongside, support, and to be interested in.

Of course, that doesn’t mean my only conversations on campus were with people of faith. Far from it. Across seven years I talked to a lot of folks who had either stopped or never started believing. “Fr. Jonathan, I don’t know how to tell you this, but…” 

My mechanic one time told me, talking about his own college-aged son who’d stopped going to church, he said, “I think a little bit of science can hurt a person’s faith, but a lot of science can make it stronger. It’s stopping at a little that presents some challenges.” Same with philosophy, I said. Universities, it turns out, have plenty of a little of both.

So I would find myself from time to time at coffee with a friend self-identifying as agnostic or atheistic and I would remind them, “You know, you atheists and we Christians have an awful lot in common. In fact, atheists have made some tremendous contributions to the Christian faith. No really, you are always reminding us how dangerous a thing it is to worship false gods. You and I both believe it’s a good thing to guard your loyalties from unworthy idols. True, we disagree on the gods we don’t believe in, but just think! In a world that will worship sports teams and Botox amidst all kinds of other things, you and I agree that our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank you for that witness and reminder.”

The earliest Christians were accused of being atheists. In a marketplace full of gods, pluralist Rome, melting pot of deities, it wasn’t such a big deal to believe in a god, it was a big deal to believe in just one god, to say, as the Jews and Christians did, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God; the Lord is one.” This put Christians a half-step at odds with their culture, and especially with the Roman emperors, who liked to join the game of build-a-god and claim divine status for themselves. They’d print on the coins that got traded across the empire, next to their faces, “Caesar so and so, son of god.”

For Jews and Christians, it was bad enough that they lived in occupied territories ruled by blasphemous politicians claiming to be gods, but to be forced to carry the coins, the little pagan graven images in their pockets, in order to navigate the market and put food on the table added insult to injury. After all, the first Christians took to heart the commandment to “have no other gods before me.”

All of this is background for appreciating the truly shrewd, subversive instruction Paul gives Timothy in the epistle today. “I urge you to pray,” Paul says. I know, it sounds unremarkable, boring. I urge you to pray is just the kind of thing you’d expect a preacher to say. Don’t forget kids, brush your teeth and say your prayers! But in the immortal words of Rafiki, “Look harder…”

“First of all,” Paul writes, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone (so far so good), for kings and all who are in high positions (why not?), so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (read, pray no one starts a war while we’re asleep). This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For (news to some, the truth is) there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus…”

Did you catch all that there? Pray for the kings. God pities their ignorance and desires that even they would come to know the truth about the world. Forget the coins and absurd inscriptions. Pray for the kings who think they are gods. Maybe nobody told them, but there’s only one God. So I urge you to pray. Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts, who think the cosmos revolves around them. Who think salvation comes from congress. Who believe the end is in their hands. Poor things. Lord, give them the good sense to let us live in peace and quiet. And, Lord, while you’re at it, help us to remember that, no matter how many robocalls from unknown area codes they throw at us in election years, no matter how earnestly they attempt to persuade us otherwise, to make us accomplices to their delusions of grandeur, help us remember that you are God and they are not.

I was sitting across a table at dinner from William Cavanaugh, a political theologian, hero of mine, who - to my shock and astonishment - had just suggested to our dinner party that we should consider unplugging from the news of the day in order to keep our sanity. Turn off your phones! He said. “But Dr. Cavanaugh,” I objected, “There are people who would call that a tremendous exercise in privilege, say it’s irresponsible. Sure, they’ll tell me, straight middle class white guy, you can plug your ears and pretend it’s not happening. No skin off your back. What would you say to that person?” Dr. Cavanaugh nodded. “It’s a fair point. I suppose it depends on how you understand unplugging.” I asked him, “Well, how do you do it?” He said, “I unplug from the media madness by going to church, where my family and I were recently assigned a refugee family, Muslims from Syria, to partner with. Once a week, we play games and take them to Target, so they can get what they need. Only our sons speak a common language, so it’s awkward and clumsy, but…”

“Wait, you unplug by spending time with your church-sponsored Syrian, Muslim refugee family? That’s crazy. Literally no means that when they say they’re unplugging...That’s - a kingdom not of this world.” “Yeah,” he shrugged. “It’s what our church invited us to do.”

Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts. They don’t know what to do with a creativity as defiant as church; one that invites us to be part of an alternative people who agree that our worship is worth reserving only for what is holy and true.

Speaking of things holy and true. I wonder if remembering that only God is God and worthy of our worship isn’t also a helpful key for unlocking the mess of a parable Jesus gives us today. I say mess of a parable because by the end Jesus is piling on explanations like spaghetti noodles on a dinner plate. Of course the final takeaway is “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” And because we Christians appreciate the danger of worshiping false gods, I find Jesus’s highlighting the story as a matter of God v. Wealth (idolatry) helpful. It saved me from my initial assumption stated nowhere in the story is that one of the lead parts, the part of the rich man, is played by God. Unlikely. 

In case you aren’t persuaded by Jesus’s one-liner at the end, consider that the story that follows this story is about a poor man, Lazarus, in heaven and a rich man whose name Jesus fails to mention being licked by flames in hell. So the likelihood is high that God is elsewhere in our story.

Maybe it’s obvious, but it’s still worth appreciating. The confession God is not the rich man is not always easy for us to see or believe all the way. We can tell we are being tempted to believe that the rich man is God when we, from time to time, take wealth to be a sign of God’s favor in our own lives and in the lives of others; when we regard people according to their dollar value or the position we think we stand to gain from them. The temptation is ingrained in us to the point of reflex, simple fact. But then God shows up elsewhere in the story, shouting “Not it!” as we try to pin God down, and just then we discover some of the other gods Christians don’t believe in.

If God is not the rich man, the manager is performing his life for an insidious something other than God, caught up in a system making false promises, extracting moral injuries, in exchange for a status, a position he’s betraying others to keep a hold of. Then the plot unfolds, he loses his job but, much more than that, he loses whatever it was he thought he was getting in exchange. In what will later be commended as our hero’s shrewdness, the manager cuts some deals, gives up what he’s already lost, and resigns himself to life lived with the poor, to life as the poor. Among friends. 

At the point Storyteller Jesus is content to close the book and call that the story’s happy ending. The manager having found eternal homes with the also-rans of society. No wonder they tried to shut him up and run him off. No wonder most folks said “No thanks” and opted for the other, shinier, more compelling, gods instead.

But not Christians. Taking our cue from the atheists, we believe it matters what you worship. We believe in one God, the creeds have taught us to say. And we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Monotheism, believing in just one God, doesn’t come naturally to human beings. That’s why, when a person desires to be baptized, the church says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve got some other gods to put down. Here, let us help you.” 

Cue the prayer book’s baptismal liturgy: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.

And then, after turning to Jesus and professing the faith, the earliest baptizands were stripped of their clothes, lest a false god touch the water, lest the symbols get confused, lest it not be clear that it’s just the one God claiming this life for God. The rest gets stripped away.

Knowing that the world is full of false gods to distract us, the desert fathers of the early church fled to the desert and prayed that God would meet them there. Occasionally, they reported visions. The risen Christ appearing with radiant skin, in beautiful, expensive robes. Seasonal inventory at Nieman Marcus. They’d flee these visions, convinced that they were impostor appearances of the devil, unconvinced that extravagant robes were the uniform of the same crucified and risen Christ who promises God’s kingdom to the poor. Perhaps not coincidentally, the prophets of scripture, like Jeremiah today, are continually looking to Israel’s care for the poor as the lead indicator of Israel’s faithfulness; that is, their belief in just the one God.

Believing in just the one God, being a Christian, doesn’t come naturally. We need God’s help and we need the church, that is, we need practice and practices, we need one another and others, the gift of holy friends. Friends whose friendships make us holier for having been made friends. Friends who will help us live more truthfully than we would have lived without them. Holy friends who will take our hands and pry our fingers loose of the idols when we fall for them. Friends who can be trusted to help open our hearts, help us put down our lies, and make us God’s generous people in the world. 

The Good News is that God has given us help, God’s own self, and plenty of holy friends who believe our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank God that in Christ Jesus God has given us everything we need to be God’s generous, Spirited people in the world. What a treasure. Christ IS our treasure. What a gift.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

No Shirt, No Sins, No Service (On the Contagious Mercy of God)

At every Eucharist, like this one, after the announcements, which - I don’t know about you - sometimes feel to me like a Super Bowl halftime, after the smoke clears off the field and the concert is over, the halftime is broken with a single sentence that kicks the game back into motion. It’s the sentence that announces the Offertory. And so the ancients of the faith have cleverly named it the Offertory Sentence. The Offertory Sentence marks the transition from the service of the Word, hearing the scriptures, to the service of the Table, breaking bread together and sharing the cup. “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” That’s the one I use the most. The prayer book steals it from Ephesians. There are other options, too. One oldie but goodie comes from Psalm 96: “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; bring offerings and come into his courts.”

Each offertory sentence takes a slightly different approach to signaling the transition, but each one, in its own way, is like a coach’s pep talk in the tunnel, meant to wake us up to the reality of the moment we are fast approaching, when we will soon lift up our hearts, make our sacrifice of praise, and prepare to find ourselves at the table of the Lord.

“I appeal to you, sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” That one is stolen from Romans.

There are others, like the sentence from Romans, that pick up that theme, that ask us to examine ourselves and our souls as we approach the sacred mystery; other sentences, though, encourage us to prepare less through examination of ourselves and our acceptableness, and more by consideration of our God and the truth about all things: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. For everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom, and you are exalted as head over all.” That’s 1 Chronicles.

Consider your soul. Consider your God. And, truthfully, it’s a mix of both, right? Sitting there in your pew as you contemplate breaking the bonds of inertia to make your way to this table. Consider your soul in the light of this God. The sentences are meant as invitations but, at least as I heard them as a kid, there was always also a warning, if only implied: “Hey you! Listen up. This here is important. You come up these steps, you best have your act put together.”

After all, it was hard for even my twelve year old self to hear any invitation to the table words without also remembering Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”

Uh oh.

It’s a dangerous thing to come to this table not knowing better. Un-put-together. I thought. And it is.

But then, in today’s gospel, we read that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” And I know they meant it as an insult, but the first time I heard it, I thought two things: The first was, “Well shoot, when was the last time someone could have accused me of eating with people as exciting as that? I should get out more often,” and, two, “Now there’s an Offertory Sentence worthy of this God.”

Backstory. I know I’m supposed to come to this place all good and right and put together. I get that that’s my job, yours too, and I get it - easier said than done - but here’s my real problem. I don’t know about you, but the God who meets us at this table is always messing with and messing up my ideas for what is good and right and proper. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t nearly as polite and nice as I was raised to be. Name-calling the religious leaders. Healing on the days he is told to sit still. Putting the last at the front of the line. Taking off the chains the rest of us had so neatly arranged on the backs of the prisoners. This one time he sees a woman put her last penny in the temple box and he says, “Will you look at that? A religious practice meant to help the community of faith look after widows. Now they’ve gone and used that law to scare this widow into poverty in the name of her God, while they put in some pennies and their brown-nose audience applauds. Clowns. Peter, James, John, let’s get out of here and go find some sinners God can actually do something with.”

This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them, they complain. Stays up too late, lamps lit, sweeping the house like a fool looking for coins that got dropped and lost their way. Heads into the world, leaves the friendly confines of home, to chase a sheep so lost it doesn’t even know it is. 

One of the religious leaders pulls me aside and explains so I can understand, “This fellow’s sense of the good, of what is right, what is respectable, does not conform to usual, institutional, and conventional social standards. This fellow sees things differently. This fellow breaks rules, it’s clear to us, religious leaders, that he isn’t very good. And this fellow has the nerve to say that we have got goodness all wrong. This fellow says we’re doing goodness wrong exactly because we’re sure we’ve got it right, because we’ve got it down to abstracted acts made comfortable and predictable, because we’re measuring goodness by the ability of a person to look the part, to show no weakness, to demonstrate no need of God. You understand the problem.”

We sinners know better. Apart from God, even the goodness of a Christian doesn’t amount to much. It’s not just that baptized Christians can’t be good without God, though that’s true, it’s that we’ve given up on pretending to know what good is apart from God’s helping us to see. The world is all so topsy-turvy, upside-down. No wonder it feels like crazy when God comes to set things right. Just when you think you know who to hang out with to get yourself a reputation for righteousness, BAM! New Creation. Christ calls and surprises. The poor find the kingdom and the last get made first. The king makes a throne between thieves, on a cross. How many times have you found yourself thinking, “Well, shoot, you know what, I was wrong. How could I have known that God would show up even there?” 

So about my proposal. A new Offertory Sentence. Liturgical halftime. Imagine, if you will. Any birthdays? Anniversaries. Fine. Before we proceed, uh, just so you know, this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. No shirt, no sins, no service. Cue the offertory. 

Kierkegaard said that being aware of your sins is the doorway to Christianity because only sinners can begin to see the new possibilities of God, of seeing that more in Christ is possible than the lives we’d imagined before God showed us, the flotsam we’d settled for when we settled for lives we could achieve without God’s meddling and help. This place is for sinners, the ones who know that holiness is not a solo gig, a perpetual performance, pious proof of perfection. Holiness is for the vulnerable and broken. Holiness is for being called together into an adventure God knows we’re not up to, apart from God. Holiness is for life lived with the One who, by his wounds, makes us whole. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

One of you told me about a preacher at a nearby church. He got up and announced to the congregation gathered that Sunday that he had it on good authority that a good fifty percent of the folks there that day were sinners. He stared and let the silence sit thick over them as they sneaked side eyes at each other. And I thought, well shoot, only fifty? They’re under-performing!

A few weeks ago, another of you stopped by my office to introduce yourself. Brief reprieve from some administrative minutiae. Asked me how I was enjoying the church so far. “It’s wonderful,” I exclaimed. “The people! Everybody has been so unbelievably welcoming, warm, and kind.” “Well, give it time. It’ll change. There’s a reason, after all, we go to church here.” And I thought, I’ll be darned, this church gets church. 

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” Paul tells Timothy today, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

So. Does that mean Paul was wrong about the danger of the table? That there’s no way to mess it up? Not quite. The danger lies in what Paul calls “not discerning the body.” Not seeing the others. Or, just as bad, seeing the others without seeing how we belong to each other. Judging some in the body to be more or less worthy, until the we of the body becomes us and them. They. A spiritual director one time put it this way, “Comparisons are demonic.” The danger is in presuming to know where and in whom God shows up. The danger is in forgetting that the same forgiveness I come to drink here from the cup is here for you, too, and is every bit as effective. If God says yes to you and yes to me, we are left in this strange space called church, left with the good work, sometimes hard work, of living lives that say yes to each other. 

And wouldn’t you know - there’s an offertory sentence for that! “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Stolen from Matthew who stole it from Jesus.

It can be easy to think of forgiveness as the wave of the wand that resets the score, something that temporarily gives you a clean slate again, gets you off the hook, so that you can get back to the work of being blameless, trying to outperform the others, of not needing God or God’s help, but Paul writes to Timothy that the mercy God showed to him wasn’t about restoring Paul’s self-image; it was about God’s imagine; it was about making God visible. It was about putting God’s patience on display to encourage the others, that they could trust mercy, too. If God can love someone like Paul, why not me? In other words, God’s strength isn’t just made known in our weakness, in a real sense it depends on it. In other words, the mercy you receive is not your own. Even God’s mercy to you is a gift for the others, waiting to be made known and multiplied in love. 

God’s kindness toward us is the seed of our compassion toward our neighbor, sister, brother, stranger. They will know we are Christians by our love, the old song goes. Not by the earthly love that looks for a reason to justify love’s withdrawal - anyone can do that, that love’s a dime a dozen - but the love that holds on to and remembers that while we sinners Christ died for us. Even then, Christ got up, sought out, sat down at supper with us. This is the love that tells the world about God. 

The love God has made known to us, long before we got things right, God has put that love to work, turning our lives into moons that reflect the light of the sun, making our lives for a witness. God has put that love to work, for wholeness, for sharing, for seeking out, for making right, for making known, for opening others, for continually converting our own hearts, for the redemption of all things.

“So, that’s the reason,” writes Will Willimon in his memoir. “We are put here, located in love, bred for the joy of knowing we, even in our sin and lostness, are owned. Our telos, our baptismally bestowed purpose, is to allow ourselves to be loved, to be lost and found, to say yes (with our lives) to the Yes that God has said to us.” 


Offertory Sentence:
Listen up! This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Come, let us adore him.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Music, Theology, and the Holy Spirit (Theology on Tap S.3, E.1)

We had a great start to the Theology on Tap Fall Season last night! For those who wanted a second look and those who couldn't be with us, here is the video, with table questions, we explored. We're expected another packed house October 2 and would love for you to come be a part of the evening!

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

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