Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Year, New Call, New Blog...

The wardens and vestry of Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, MD have called me to be their Priest-in-Charge ... effective December 1, 2011. Yes, beginning a new call right before Christmas was a bit like dropping into a perfect tube on Hawaii's north shore ... and hoping you don't get slammed into the coral below! BUT, all is well, Christmas is behind us and now in Epiphany-tide we celebrate the Light of the World coming into our lives.

My sermons from Grace are now being posted on their site - hence the new tab at the top! Come by and visit and see what we are up to ... and read some sermons while you're there.

I will keep this blog going with occasional postings but the weekly ones will be on Grace's site.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pointing to Jesus - Advent II 2011

Is there a teacher you vividly remember? Was it the one who could keep you awake during those after lunch lectures? How about the one who believed in you when you didn’t really think you could master solving for x in algebra? I remember one … because he worked us like a dog! It was my freshman English teacher – Mr. Kurth at Edison High in Huntington Beach. I hated that class – I really did! I came to appreciate that hard work later, but in the moment it was no fun at all! He has us write what are now called “BCRs” or “brief constructed responses” every … single … night. And the BCRs were about the short stories of … Ernest Hemingway. Maybe it’s a chick thing, but I did not like Ernest Hemingway. I know his novels are different, but I just couldn't stand his short stories! They drove me nuts. He’d drop you into a scene like a commando landing behind enemy lines – no introduction, no back story, just PLOP! you fall into a boat fishing or in a duck blind or something like that. And I didn’t know diddly about fishing or hunting or running with bulls or any of that Hemingway stuff. I just didn’t get it! And you’d read these stories and just about the time you think you know what’s going on … POOF … it was done. No ending, no resolution … just as abruptly as you fell into the fishing boat, you were done … outta there … kind of like being raptured out of the story! And I’d be left thinking, “Whoooaaa! Wait a minute … what just happened?”

So in light of my history of reading Hemingway it may not be much of a surprise to you that Mark has never really been my favorite gospel. I gained an appreciation for it in seminary, but it always reminded me of Poppa Hemingway. Maybe Poppa learned his trademark abruptness from Mark. Mark throws you into the action right away … PLOP! … right into the wilderness with John the Baptizer – a “man’s man” who lives in the wilderness, wears animal skins, eats bugs and honey, and calls people to repentance. Just the kind of guy you’d invite to your next shee shee cocktail party, right? … yeah … sure …

John is a truth teller who paves the way for Jesus. But he’s the kind of guy that makes you uncomfortable. He asks hard questions. He condemned Herodias for divorcing Philip to marry Harod … and he lost his head for that one. But for some reason, Mark tells us that people from the big city, Jerusalem, and all the Judean countryside were going out to the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized by John. In some ways this is a repurposing of the traditional Jewish mikvah bath – a ritual cleansing done before going to the Temple (and most often done by women who were routinely considered “ritually unclean”).

John’s baptism is about confession and repentance; but Jesus, the greater one who comes after John, does not talk about confession at all. In fact, this is the only time Mark uses the word “confessing.” Perhaps this is because John’s mission was to bring about confession and repentance in order to prepare the way. Our Orthodox sisters and brothers call John the "Forerunner" ("the Baptist" isn't his last name). As a forerunner, his role is to get people prepared for the coming of the Christ. Confession and repentance open the heart to hear the message of the one who is greater.

John’s role and ministry, according to Mark, were to prepare the way for Jesus. While John clearly has a strong following of all these folks coming from miles around to be baptized, he realizes the message isn’t about him – it’s about preparing for Jesus. He clearly points to Jesus when he says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John may be a rough character, but his heart is open and he knows his message is about something much bigger than himself. He knows it’s not about him!

Many years ago, my father warned me about believing my own "press." He told me there would be people who think I'm terrific and want to put me on a pedestal and others who would think I'm lower than dirt - neither are true - the truth is somewhere in the middle. John was clear - he didn't let the "press" about his ministry make him into an egomaniac. He didn't move off the message of pointing to Jesus.

John serves as an example to us in our ministry – and no, I’m not talking about a need to adopt the bugs and honey diet. Our ministry is not about us either … it’s about the one more powerful than us. We can lose sight of that because of our egos. Our need to be right, to have our egos affirmed, believing our own "press" or even going to the other extreme of believing ourselves unworthy or unqualified to minister on behalf of Christ – all of these point to ourselves and not to Jesus. John knows himself, his message, and his place – and all of his being is pointing to Jesus.

As we continue to prepare for Christ’s coming in our hearts, ask yourself – to what, or to whom, does your life point? Does it point to the one more powerful than you? In this season of preparation, we are invited to open our hearts through confession and repentance so that we might better be able to point to Jesus.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent 1 - 2011

Well, we’ve made it through Thanksgiving and survived the insanity of Black Friday. The world outside is now preaching a message of deep discounts on wide screen TVs, the “perfect gift” for Christmas, “every kiss begins with Kay,” buy this or buy that and life will be complete … and then you come to church and hear about stars falling from heaven, the sun and moon darkened … essentially the End of All Things. Sounds like “Captain BuzzKill” just reported for duty with a message of doom and gloom for all! Either Christians are the most dour and depressing people on the face of the earth, or perhaps … just perhaps … something else is going on – and I’m putting my money on the second option.

The first Sunday in Advent always … ALWAYS … begins with the end – the END of all things. This is a reminder that God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, and it points to the paradox of our faith where the first is last and the last is first. Our Lectionary Year B which features the Gospel of Mark is no exception to this pattern. I think it’s unfortunate that narratives about the end of all things have been co-opted by elements of the religious right best known for rapture theology and the “Left Behind” series of books. They seem to have hijacked the whole message about the apocalypse to the point where it makes most Episcopalians shudder to think about it. Let me put it on the record that the rapture, also known as dispensational theology, is a creative and selective reworking of Scripture. It essentially teaches that the second coming of Christ will snatch up and take to heaven all the true believers and all children under 12, because evidently your twelfth birthday is when you start on the Road to Perdition. Then Christ will leave and there will be a 1,000 year reign of the anti-Christ – a time of terrible tribulation for those left behind. Then, after 1,000 years, Christ will come again and take up the survivors of the ordeal who now believe in Jesus – and for those who don’t … well there’s always eternal damnation. Now if you pick up your Bibles, I dare you to find anything in them which indicates there will be a “third coming” of Christ – it’s not there. We declare in our Eucharistic Prayer A that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” – not “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … and then leave and then come again.” Rapture theology sounds like some kind of celestial escape plan which frankly is pure, unadulterated heresy. There … I’m on the record ... it's heresy.

We do need to take apocalyptic literature like Daniel, Isaiah, and Revelation seriously but we need to put it into some perspective. First, the word apocalypse is one that carries a sense of foreboding – and for those of us old enough to remember the movie, you’re probably envisioning helicopters and hearing the strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in your heads right now. It’s a scary word … right? But is it really? Apocalypse comes from the Greek word apocalypsos – which means “revelation.” Hmmm … yes, the name of the last book in the Bible is Apocalypsos tou Ioannou – the “Revelation of John.” It means that which is hidden is revealed. In fact, we could say that Jesus himself is an apocalypsos – a revelation of God’s self to a hurting human world. When we think of its real meaning, apocalypse loses some of its frightening connotations.

The second thing which can be troubling about apocalyptic literature is the certainty of those who adhere to rapture/dispensationalism that the images contained in these books are 100% speaking to our place, time and culture. As if these writers were somehow clairvoyant in their ability to predict the future and speak to it. I remember being in a youth group with a young man who attended a conservative evangelical college and he had the whole Book of Revelation figured out! All of the allusions and images were totally explainable in terms of current geopolitical realities … and the number of the Beast – “666” – was, in fact, representing ... the Soviet Union. I always wanted to ask him how that works now that the Soviet Union is no more.

You see, the writers of apocalyptic literature, and even Jesus, were not magically able to predict the future. These writers were not writing for us sitting here in the 21st century. They didn’t predict the European debt crisis, the Arab Spring, or the Green Bay Packers being 11 and 0 for the season (who could have predicted that?). These writers were writing for their own people, place and time – and addressing their current social situation. So what was going on when Mark wrote his gospel?

From its structure and word usage, it is very likely this gospel was written between 66 and 70 AD – during the time of the Jewish-Roman War. During this conflict, the Jewish rebels tried very hard to get the Jewish Christians to take up arms with them and fight the Romans – but the Jewish Christians refused. This refusal became a wedge between the early Christians and Jews. The Romans were expelled from Jerusalem and Galilee by the rebel forces until Emperor Tiberius ordered General Vespasian to put the rebellion down and put Jerusalem to the torch. Tiberius ordered the Temple destroyed – except for one wall for the Jews to grieve over (this is the Western Wall – or Wailing Wall – still standing today). Estimates are that up to a half-million people living in Jerusalem were killed by the Roman army and when the army was finished, Jerusalem lay in ashes and would be uninhabited for 40 years thereafter.

Why did the Christians not take up arms and fight alongside the Jewish rebels? Perhaps it was because the teachings of Jesus had warned them of false messiahs, false messages, and the danger of misplaced trust which we call Sin. Early Jewish Christians were not centering their worship in a place - they centered it in a person, Jesus Christ. And this serves as a warning to us today.

We humans have a tendency to project God’s favor or wrath into our own earthly causes quite liberally. And yet Jesus' life and ministry show that the divisions cause by earthly causes are not sign of the kingdom of God. We live in an increasingly polarized culture where people want to believe they are doing “God’s will” even when their very actions spread division, discord, and even hatred of anyone opposing their beliefs. Jesus’ ominous message tells us that war and division are not where we are to look for God among us.

Rather than viewing this Scripture as “doom and gloom,” I think we can view its message as one of hope – hope because it reminds us that the powers of this world do not have the final word. Jesus’ admonitions to “be alert” and “keep awake” are a call for us to be more keenly aware of the presence of God among us right now – often in places and people we don’t expect and certainly not in human conflicts. My daughters have spent the last few summers going on mission trips with Group Workcamps and the kids are advised to be alert for “God sightings” – those places where we see God’s presence or even those times where we’ve been Christ for another. As we prepare this Advent for the coming of Christ – Emmanuel, God with us, let us keep awake and be alert to where Christ is showing up right now, right here, right in our midst – and especially where we least expect it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

2011 - Feast of Christ the King

The end is here! No, not the “capital E - end of all things End.” Today is the end of the church year – the Feast of Christ the King – and we hear about sheep and goats. The bulletin cover today shows the icon known as Christos Pantokrator – Christ the All Powerful. This icon has been copied many times and the oldest known version of it is found in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai in Egypt which dates from the early 8th century. I chose this for the cover because it connects with our gospel reading today. Cover up the left side of Jesus’ face (his left, your right). Take a good long look – how would you describe the expression on Jesus’ face? Gentle? Peaceful? Kind? Now switch and cover the right side of Jesus’ face. Different, isn’t it? How would you describe the expression on his face now? Harsh? Angry? Notice which side evokes which expression – kind and peaceful on the right (where the sheep are) and harsh and angry on the left (where those goats are). This icon, in part, represents the separation of the sheep and the goats in today’s gospel text.

Now, what is up with the sheep and goats? Why favor the sheep? A friend of mine sent me this reflection from Rev. Fr. Victor Spencer who lives in South Africa:
One thing has always puzzled me about this gospel: why do goats get such a bad press from Jesus? I’ve lived in rural Africa for most of my life and know both sheep and goats well. A couple of comments in sermons suggest that sheep and goats are difficult to tell apart. I can only suppose that such comments are made by urban people who have never seen either in real life.

In fact, goats are superior to sheep: more intelligent, less suicidal, better milk, more self-sufficient, less diet-conscious. Sheep are silly creatures: run on the road in front of traffic, straying blindly and unable to find their own way home, starving while standing in long grass. So, in Jesus’ parable, why are the goats consigned to perdition and the sheep to paradise?

So, the silly sheep who are stupid and fumbling along without a clue are favored and the goats who are intelligent, self-sufficient and seem to have their act together are rejected. Where does this leave us?

From what Fr. Spencer has shared about goats and what our culture in America values (things like self-sufficiency and intelligence), it seems to me that most of us fall into the “goat” category, don’t we? The goats seem to represent the values of this world and the needs of our egos for self-sufficiency and achievement. This is the realm of believing that we can “make it on our own” and when we retrofit that belief onto our spiritual life, religion turns into some sort of “merit system” of doing the right things so we can earn “brownie points for Jesus.” The goat in each of us hears this teaching about “doing for the least of these” as a checklist of things we need to do (“Feed the hungry. Well I donated to the food bank. Check! Cloth the naked – yep, got that one too! I gave some gently used cloths to Goodwill.”). When we do that, we miss the whole point of this story!

Jesus doesn’t give us a checklist of “to dos” in this teaching. Instead, he wants us to set aside our own ego needs and humble ourselves to be with the hungry, naked, imprisoned, homeless, infirmed and dying. This is what the sheep do – remember they have little to nothing to bring into a relationship. They aren’t smart, they aren’t self-sufficient, their suicidal tendencies leave them in peril – they bring empty selves into relationships. It’s the sheep who have the humility to companion the last, lost, little, least and lifeless. The clever goats are so full of themselves there isn’t any room for the other … certainly not the other who is broken and hurting.

It’s taken me a long time to get this. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing achievement and hard work – we need to work hard but perhaps we need to hold achievement a bit more lightly. That’s hard for me – I’m an eldest child and a one on the enneagram – which means I tend to be an insufferable perfectionist (and my husband can tell you I can beat myself up pretty well). What I am saying is that achievement, self-sufficiency and hard work are not the “be all and end all” of life. That’s idolatry and we’re really good at that in our culture.

My work in hospice really taught me a great deal about journeying with people and bringing nothing for that journey. What could I possibly do for a dying person? What could I possibly say? Nothing … at least initially. My patients taught me that just being with them was enough. I didn’t have to be smart or self-sufficient or have credentials and degrees … I just had to show up, hang out, and listen.

Dying people have the healthiest egos of anyone on the planet precisely because they’ve let go of them. They are out of the achievement rat race. They are no longer self-sufficient. That really hit home for me the first time I had to help our nurse change a patient’s diaper – yes, a diaper. We all recoil and think “Oh Lord, don’t let that happen to me” but I have news for you – unless you die suddenly, it will happen to you. We think it would be embarrassing or shame filled … but that patient (and many others thereafter) accepted my help with grace – even saying “thank you” when we finished our work. Achievement and self-sufficiency will pass away – grace filled relationships grounded in humility will not.

Jesus invites us into relationships grounded in humility. So don’t be tempted to think this teaching is another merit system of spiritual achievement or even a condemnation that you haven’t done “enough” for the least among us. Instead, see it as an invitation to go beyond achievement, leave self-sufficiency behind, and learn to be with the last, lost, little, least and lifeless. They have much to give you … but you can’t receive their gifts if you are already full of yourself.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Proper 26 - Year A - October 30, 2011

 "...do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach."

What in God’s Name is the Son of God thinking? In his teaching to the disciples and the crowds, Jesus tells them to listen to the scribes and the Pharisees and do as they teach but not as they do. This sounds like the old “do as I say, not as I do” admonition which, as any parent knows, is a recipe for leadership disaster. In fact, the phrase “do as I say, not as I do” was coined by 17th century English jurist John Selden in a work published after his death entitled Table Talk. In it, Selden is quoted as saying: “Preachers say: Do as I say, not as I do. But if the physician had the same disease upon him that I have, and he should bid me do one thing, and himself do quite another, could I believe him?” Selden’s question speaks to the importance of the congruity between words and actions.

Jesus seems to say that the Pharisees are not congruent in their words and actions – they do not do what they teach. However, the inference in scripture is that the Pharisees generally do follow their teaching – remember Paul reciting his credentials to the Philippians a few weeks ago? “As to the Law, I was blameless.” Scripture witness seems to show the Pharisees following the Law quite meticulously and in light of Jesus’ other accusations it is likely Jesus is talking about something else.

Jesus’ critique of the religious professionals of his day continues as he speaks of their practices which are being done to “be seen by others.” Actions such as making a big deal out of their religious garb (the phylacteries worn on the head and arms which contained the Shema within them and the fringes on their prayer shawls), taking the seat of honor at public events, and to have others treat them with respect. In essence, Jesus says they are doing this for the wrong reasons – they are self-serving and in it for their egos.

The ritual clothing and distinctive practices of the Pharisees were not inherently wrong. Phylacteries and fringes were intended to draw the mind and heart of an observant Jew back to God. In Roman occupied territory, not only were other religions present but the Romans encouraged a tolerant syncretism which would seek to incorporate the worship of the local deity or deities along side of worshiping the emperor and Roman gods. This syncretism shows up in our culture when people say things like “it really doesn’t matter what you believe because we all worship the same god.” The Jewish answer to that was “No, we don’t all worship the same god” and I would say this is true for Christians today too. So distinctiveness is not a mark of exaltation as being better than as much as it is a mark to help us understand who we are and whose we are – and to respect the very real differences between faiths and cultures.

Unfortunately, distinctiveness can be twisted into being a sign of “better than” whether we want it to be so or not. In the early days of the English Reformation, there was a huge debate about the use of vestments. Known as the “Vestments Controversy,” it pitted bishops who were against the “wearing of popish rags” against those who sought to preserve the traditions of the Church. Bishops who were against the use of vestments argued that the wearing of vestments caused clergy to inappropriately elevate themselves over the laity – an accusation which for some may be true. Bishops who supported the use of vestments argued that clergy were set apart for distinct service – no better than laity, but different than laity – and vestments were a sign of one’s service.

Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds about the issue of authenticity. His issue isn’t with the words, or distinctive practices per se – it is about the motivation behind them. If distinctiveness becomes a vehicle for exaltation, then our motivation is not of God. If titles become a means of exercising power over people instead of empowering others, then our motivation is not of God. If we are seeking the justification of our egos instead of setting them aside to serve others, then our motivation is not of God.

Our catholic tradition upholds the importance of self-examination. We do it every week when we confess our sins in worship. We also have the sacrament of reconciliation – also known as confession. Jesus’ teaching today is grounded in honest self-examination and repentance. This rite is important because it calls us to examine our words and actions but more importantly to examine our motivations behind our words and actions. Are my words incongruent with my actions? Are my words or actions based on what’s best for me and my ego or are they seeking the best for the community? Are my words or actions self-serving or God seeking? These are questions each of us must revisit over and over.

Jesus teaches us the paradox that those who are greatest are servants – or as Fr. Richard Rohr says in his latest book Falling Upward, “The way down is the way up.” Only when we let go of our ego need to be special and exalted by others will we be truly free to live for God and for each other.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Faith or Certainty? Which will it be? Proper 14 - Year A

As a hospice chaplain, I am called to be present with people whose spiritual journeys are many and varied. My patients run across the spectrum from people who have a deep and abiding faith tradition all the way to atheists. Regardless of their belief systems, everyone seeks meaning in the end of life journey and my role is to journey with them to find that meaning. And every patient has a unique journey and life story.

One of the patients with whom I journeyed was named John. John was an atheist, but not one of the angry “new atheist” types. John was extremely intelligent and had studied cosmology intently and felt that this all could happen without a God. He was tolerant of those who believed in God and expressed his understanding that some people need to believe in God and lean on that belief to find answers or meaning in life. He just didn’t need that. I assured him at my first meeting with him (as I was wearing my black clericals) that I was not there to change his mind or demand conversion – I said, “That’s now how I roll. My function on the team is to accompany him, help him put his affairs in order, support his family and to reflect with him on what brings meaning to his life’s journey.” John was cool with that.

Ironically, my pastoral visits with John were the longest of any of my other patients. I’d arrive at his house around 1:00PM and the next thing you know it would be 5:00 o’clock! John once said, “You know, I always think we’ll have a short visit but it never turns out that way.” John loved to talk about his music collection, his love of science (especially physics and string theory) and his family. At times, John would poke at my faith but I didn’t let it get to me – in fact, we laughed about it quite a bit. He shared with me how he was raised in a strict Calvinistic upbringing that imaged God as a punishing judge. He just couldn’t believe in a God who would predestine some people to be damned regardless of what they did or didn’t do.

John also had a hard time with the whole “God thing” because he was a concrete thinker. He wanted proof and certainty of God’s existence and he could not accept the punishing God of his childhood. At our last visit, we discussed the concept of a God beyond human projections – a God who is, if you will, bigger than any one religion and who embraces all of creation. John said to me, “You know … I could believe in that God. Maybe we need to rescue God from religion.”

We all live in the tension between living by faith and the desire for certainty. This is the tension we find in today’s Gospel reading. Now one of the conventional ways of reading this story of Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s attempt to walk on the water is to focus on Jesus’ words to Peter after being snatched up from a sure drowning – “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” This could lead us to believe that if only Peter had more faith, he would have surely been able to walk on water too and if he’d only kept his eyes on Jesus, he would have been ok. Now if you walk away from hearing this passage with the message of keeping your focus on Jesus, that’s a good message – nothing wrong with that at all. But today, I want to approach this story from a different angle as a story about the tension between living by faith and the desire for proof.

The story of Jesus walking on the water appears in all four gospels, but only in Matthew do we have Peter stepping out of the boat. Matthew is writing his gospel for Jews who believe Jesus to be the Messiah and so he uses imagery in this story which had deep meaning in the Jewish community. First, Jesus tells the disciples to get into the boat and go to “the other side.” The “other side” of the Sea of Galilee is gentile territory. This would have raised some concerns for the Jewish hearers of Matthew’s gospel – “Wait a minute. The Scriptures say we are not to mix with those bacon-eating gentiles. Why would Jesus do that?” Additionally, the disciples get into the boat at evening and row into this headwind all night long. Night was considered a time when evil spirits came out – a dangerous time to be traveling and most folks would avoid night travel whenever possible. And one more element of danger – the disciples are on the water. Water is indicative of chaos: it cannot be controlled and it can kill you. So Matthew’s audience is feeling the anxiety of the danger of night, going into the unknown on the “other side” and being on the water. And now, Jesus comes out in the fourth watch of the night – sometime between 3 and 6AM – and he’s walking on the water.

This idea of walking on water, or moving on water, is a common image in ancient near east literature. From the Genesis story where the Spirit of God moves on the face of the water (a walking on water image) to the Epic of Gilgamesh from the ancient Sumerians to our gospel stories of Jesus walking on water, the common image of walking on water is that this is something God does but humans cannot do. So when Jesus walks on the water, he is revealing himself as divine – but the disciples think he is a ghost and they are terrified.

In response to the disciples’ collective fear, Jesus responds with what translates literally from Greek into six words: “Have courage! I AM. Fear not!” It’s important to remember that up until the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, there is no mention of fear in this story. These are fishermen in a boat being battered by a headwind - something they had likely experienced before. They were likely tired from rowing against the wind, but they were not afraid until they saw Jesus and mistook him for a ghost.

Jesus’ words are a call not just to courage but to faith. “Have courage! I AM. Fear Not!” calls the disciples not just to be strong and not fear, but again Jesus reveals himself as divine with the words “I AM.” The way it is phrased in Greek would have jogged the memory of Matthew’s community – “I AM” is the same phrase Moses heard from the burning bush on Sinai. Jesus reveals himself as the incarnation of the great I AM. He is Emmanuel – God with us – and his words to the disciples were a call for them to believe that God is with them even in their struggle against the forces of chaos and uncertainty.

But … that’s not quite enough for Peter. He replies, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Instead of believing Jesus’ words, Peter wants proof: “if it is you.” A similar phrase is used by Satan against Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to be turned to bread.” It will also be echoed in the words of the crowd at the cross: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” All of these are demands for proof: “Prove yourself Jesus.” So Jesus tells Peter, “Come.”

Peter sets out of the boat but when he feels the wind he becomes fearful – he’s doing something only God can do – and he begins to sink. When Peter cries out “Lord save me!” he has learned that Jesus is God and Peter is not. When Jesus tells him he has “little faith” perhaps this is a statement about Peter’s demand for proof instead of believing Jesus’ statement: “Have courage! I AM. Fear not!”

Admittedly, there are times when all of us would like some certainty, some proof of God’s existence. There are times I wish God would just write in the sky what Anjel is supposed to do. But certainty and proof are the opposite of faith. If we are certain, there is no need for faith. All of us struggle with storms in our lives and times of chaos and uncertainty: losing a job, an illness, moving to a new town, death of a loved one, tensions in our families. It is in these hard times where we might have trouble trusting Jesus’ words, “Have courage! I AM. Fear not!” I think the image of the disciples who stayed in the boat, continuing the struggle of rowing in the storm is important for us. The disciples continued to struggle together in community. As we face difficulties in our lives, it is important to remember we do not struggle alone – we have community as the Body of Christ. Rather than going it alone as Peter did in his quest for certainty, we can rely on our community to hold us up and help us hear and trust when Jesus says, “Have courage! I AM. Fear not!”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are you the real thing?

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Story. Set in the years of WWII, it is about a boy named Ralph Parker and his hope of getting an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas (with the compass in the stock … and this thing which tells time). While this desire for the Red Ryder BB gun occupies the main story line along with the protestation refrain of “You’ll shoot your eye out,” there are a number of subplots in the overall story. One subplot involves Ralphie awaiting the arrival of his Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Ring for which he had consumed “gallons of Ovaltine” to get. After sending in those Ovaltine labels and checking the mail every day, Ralphie’s decoder ring finally arrives. That evening, he and his brother Randy tune in the family’s radio to listen to the Little Orphan Annie show. At the end of each show, Pierre Andre (the announcer) would give out the secret message for the members of Annie’s Secret Society to decode. Finally Ralphie would get to be in on the message. He writes down the code and takes it to “the only place an eight year old boy could get any privacy” – namely the bathroom – so that he could decode the message. After feverishly working to crack the code (all the while having his little brother pounding on the door to use the only bathroom in the house), Ralphie uncovers the secret message: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” “A crummy commercial?! Son of …” well … never mind (those of you who've seen the movie know how that quote ends!). What makes us laugh about this vignette is that we’ve all had a Ralphie moment just like this. We've all had a time when we set our expectations of a situation or a person very high only to have it come crashing down around us.

In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist is having a “Ralphie moment.” Last week's reading was "John the Baptist - the Early Years" where we heard John preaching a very fiery message of repentance and casting an image of the one to come as a Messiah who would come with power and judge the world. He would gather the wheat into the granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire! John’s image of this powerful figure who would destroy the wicked and reward the righteous is disquieting on one hand but on the other it’s a rather attractive idea. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we can all look around us and see that the world isn’t right. We see bad things happening – downright evil things happening – all around us. There is something comforting in an image of a Messiah who’s going to come down here, clean up this mess and set things right. This is what John had preached. But now John is in prison and he hears about Jesus’ ministry … and it doesn’t square up with the Messiah image he had been touting.

This Jesus of Nazareth was not acting like the Messiah John expected. He didn't come bursting onto the scene to stick it to the man by confronting the leaders John condemned – the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead, Jesus was paying attention to the last, lost, little, least, and lifeless – all the marginalized people who in the eyes of the world were “nobodies.” Children, widows, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the dying and dead – all of these people were getting Jesus’ attention and he was giving them hope and a future where before they had none. This wasn’t what John wanted to see. And so John sends his disciples to question Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In Greek, the statement is a bit more harsh because the word for "another" implies an opposite as in "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for someone totally different from you?" John wants to know if Jesus is the real thing or an empty promise.

Jesus’ response was to quote the signs of the Messiah from Isaiah: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus doesn’t give them a neat “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, Jesus puts the ball back in John’s court and tells his disciples to test the authenticity of his ministry by what had been foretold in Hebrew prophecy and what they see and hear about Jesus. Decide for yourselves whether the man and the message are congruent.

The congruency of the promise and the person meet a deep spiritual longing in all of us. We live in a world full of “crummy commercials” of empty promises and hype over substance. We are now living in a time of transition which sociologists call “post-modern” and ecclesiologists (those who study the Church) label as “post-Christendom.” The post-modern/post-Christendom world view stands in contrast to the modern/Christendom one. There is debate about the definition of post-modernism but there are two characteristics which are emerging. First, the post-modern world view carries a deep distrust of institutions as opposed to a modern view which generally trusts institutions. Institutions have a tendency to fail us; however, the modern person will tend to cut the institution some slack where the post-modern won't be as quick to let the institution off the hook.

The second characteristic is the post-modern experiences truth in this world as conditional rather than absolute as the modern does. A modern person would say truth doesn't change - truth is just that ... truth. The post-modern would argue that truth changes over time. Where the modern would quote the Declaration of Independence saying "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" as an absolute truth, the post-modern would argue that when this was written it only meant white, property owning males and the definition of "all men" has been modified to include more people during our history (a changing face of truth).

I believe much of the polarizing “culture wars” playing out in our country today are a clash between these two fundamental views of modernity and post-modernity: whether one trusts or distrusts institutions and whether one sees truth in this world as absolute or conditional. It's not about liberals versus conservatives as much as it is about moderns and post-moderns. In light of this changing world view between modernity and post-modernity, how does Christianity fit? What does it have to offer? I suggest what Christianity has to offer is something which bridges these two world views by going deeper into the spiritual longing they both have: the longing for something authentic.

Christianity is not about being an institutional religion; it is about a lived relational authenticity: a real relationship with God and with each other. This is precisely the authenticity Jesus offers John and his disciples. It is the authenticity we are to offer the world as the Church – the Body of Christ.

People coming into our church today, this congregation right here, are seeking authenticity and asking a question of us similar to that which John asked of Jesus: “Are you the one or should we wait for another?” or perhaps, “Are you the real thing or should I keep my 7AM tee time on Sundays at Hollow Creek Golf Course?” People want to know if this Church is the one they can count on to be real: the Church which walks the talk of faith, the Church which lives the teachings of Jesus and doesn’t just give them lip service, the Church which cares about the same “nobodies” Jesus cared about … the last, the lost, the little, the least, and the lifeless, a Church which believes eternal life starts now and not just when you die.

Authenticity has always been our spiritual hunger. Christ embodied the realness and fullness of God for our sake and we are called to do the same for the world as the Body of Christ. In a hurting world full of empty hype, broken promises and “crummy commercials” do we have the courage to be the real thing for Christ’s sake?