Original Sin and the Apple

Sometimes I wonder if it’s human nature to feel like Eve.

If I’m told, “you really shouldn’t have another bite,” I want to eat it. It gets worse if it’s from a thin person, because I resent their slenderness. If it’s from a big person I ignore it because, what do they know?

Unsolicited advice?  Why not respond, “thank you, but I intend on doing the exact opposite.” It’s instinctive. Instead, the person who encourages us to rebel, to take matters into our own hands, that’s the person really on our side.

Admittedly, when I get the advice, the warning, the friendly feedback, I take a breath and remind myself the person has my best interests at heart. I consider if there is any truth in what they say. I play with the alternative – what if I took the advice? What if I ignore it? Continue reading

Holy Cross Day Sermon Prep

Holy Cross Day

I think of Moses’ serpent as a vaccine, a way of inoculation.

One rule is to just stay away from snakes.

But then another rule is when in the midst of snakes, stay focused.

How do we become inoculated in the world?  What do we seek to be inoculated from? Where are our contemporary snakes?

Moses’ snake is a form of power.  It is a form of grace. Grace is a way of talking about power: God’s power and our harnessing of it.

Or salvation, which may be a way of talking about having some space, some breathing room, some margins to move around in.  Making a little more room; not so much we lose a sense of integrity or lose our ability to act clearly, but enough so that we can see more clearly.

In Numbers, people can’t stand the change.  Who died?   Moses makes a symbol which seems to say:  take a look at the real thing here!  Don’t avoid the problems.  21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In Corinthians it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

I think of all the pundits writing about Syria.  Even the ones I like.  When we talk about signs and wisdom, we seem to be avoiding the problem of our own passions.  Christ Crucified is the clue:  how our passions make it so easy to kill our neighbor.

We’re reading John 3:13-17.  Most people emphasize 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In order to protect their being elected.  You believe, you go to heaven.  But the next sentence is the kicker:  3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Salvation, not condemnation.  Once it happened, the world could change.  One person at a time:  do you love or hate?  Can we be inoculated from the varieties of hate that destroy the lives around us?  Can you handle the truth of the passion and then choose eternal life?

Sermon Notes Proper 14 Year C

So it’s Monday, which means prepping for the coming Sunday.  Here’s what I’m beginning to think about.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.  I’ve got to choose between Isaiah and Genesis.

First, I cringe at the sentence, “incense is an abomination to me.”  Fortunately, we still have the Book of Revelation to trump that.

So Isaiah makes me consider that “learning to do good” is what is pleasing to God.  The “Learning” is interesting to me more than the task.  Admittedly, I think a risk here is to be vague without being concrete about what oppression, defense, and “ceasing to do evil” means.  Are Christians oppressed?  If so, how?  Is oppression about being shut out of economic networks?  It is not knowing how to plan for the future?  Most of the time, when my colleagues talk about “oppression” I sympathize, but then I’m not sure what it means.  Getting threatened – sure.  Just feeling bad about yourself?  Not convinced.

When God says, “Let’s argue it out” I wonder about how we talk to God.  What if argument is not about a war of words, but a way of learning how to think through the necessary tasks of doing good and seeking justice.  It mitigates the perfectionist, puritanical impulses of the utopian, making justice about a process of working through the problems.  Also “argument” prefigures the divine “logos” as logos, in Greek, can mean argument.  Jesus is the divine argument.

And then:  there is obedience.  I love preaching about obedience because it’s truly countercultural.  How is obedience different than being oppressed?  Sometimes it’s just easier and more liberating to just do the work you are told to do.  Can you imagine every musician in an orchestra demanding their own voice when rehearsing a symphony?    As the abbot of my order remarked to me:  Obey me in all the small stuff; argue the big stuff.  It makes life a lot simpler.

In Genesis (15: 1-6),  Abram seems a little disappointed in God.  Someone else will inherit his wealth because he has no children.   I think about how “inheritance” works – and what we do inherit from our families – cultures, traditions, wealth.  Those who inherit little are at a disadvantage in the US.  “What do you inherit” and “what will you pass down to your children?” are questions I might ask myself this week.

The passage in Hebrews references Abraham.  I’m struck by the kinds of characters God chooses:  it seems random, and not based on merit.  Rather, he’s the one who is chosen for absolutely no reason, except by faith.  But even that faith is the kind of argumentative sort.  Abraham is not exactly “obedient” but petulant and resentful.

What makes a “home,” a home and where do we find our home? What identifies the heavenly city, and can we find it here – even in NYC, or in the cities where we make our lives.  Perhaps in the school, our libraries, our Saloons, churches, are they places where we have already experienced the kingdom?  How so?

The gospel this week invites reflection about the apocalypse; or what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?  A month?  A year?  What if you knew that a planet was going to hit Earth (say,  like the movie Melancholia).   I’m also interested in exploring why Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give alms” and why I’m decidedly not going to do that.  Is it because the selling possessions and the end of the world are tightly linked?

I might explore the difference between a human economy and a commercial economy.  A human economy, as I would define it, is one where exchanges are not counted because trust between the different participants is assumed.  A commercial economy, by nature, requires a calculation of goods that are exchanged between strangers.  In both cases, the question is:  why do we trust our families?  Or our coworkers; or our commercial institutions?  What happens when they fail?

A Litany for the Blessing of a Car

A Car Litany

Priest: Let us pray to the Lord.

Response: Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Lord our God, You make the clouds your conveyance; You travel on the wings of the wind; You sent to your servant Elijah a fiery chariot as a means of conveyance; You guided man to invent this car which is as fast as the wind: Therefore, O Lord, pour now upon it your heavenly blessings. Grant unto it a guardian angel that it may be guided upon the rightful road and be preserved against all harm. Enable those who ride in this car to arrive safely at their destination. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all things, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever. Amen.

Or

Deacon: Let us pray to the Lord

People: Lord have mercy

Priest: O Lord our God, You make the clouds your chariot. You ride on the wings of the wind. You sent to your servant Elias a fiery chariot to carry him up to heaven. You guided man to invent amazing means of transportation.  Therefore, O Lord, we humbly ask You to bless our cars. Send to their drivers Guardian Angels to guide them and to protect them from all harm.  May they arrive safely to their destination through the intercession of Our Lady of Guidance and St. Elias-the-Living and all your saints. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all good things and to You we render glory, thanksgiving and worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.  People: Amen

Celebrant, Will you remain attentive, forgoing eating, talking, or texting while driving?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you drive safely at the speed of traffic?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be sober when you drive, and offer your keys when requested of you?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you forgo rushing red lights or stop signs?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you change lanes safely with space in between your vehicle and others?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you follow cars at a safe distance?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you relax when other drivers show bad judgment?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you pull over and rest when you are tired?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be humble enough to forgo driving in bad weather?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Almighty God, we give thanks for our reason and skill.  Let us remember that our ability to drive is a risk and that we are to remember the precarity of life in this world.  May all who drive do so with humility, attention and grace, so that we may be able to travel and visit the places we desire to go.

Or

O Lord God, listen favorably to our prayers, bless this …  and send your holy angels, so that all who ride in it may be delivered and guarded from every danger. And as you granted faith and grace to your deacon Philip, and to the man from Ethiopia who was sitting in his chariot and reading Holy Scripture, show the way of salvation to your servants, so that they may, after all the trials of their pilgrimage and life on earth, attain to everlasting joy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

AMEN

9/18/2012  The Collect is adapted from a Melkite Prayer; the closing prayer is adapted from a Roman Catholic prayer.

On Liberalism and Church decline: A response to Douthat

It’s true.  The church is losing numbers.  And yes, it has changed.

But I’m skeptical that the church’s decline has really been due to its liberality.  The liberal tradition is older.  Some trace it to Calvin, Luther or Erasmus; others Schleiermacher or Rahner; or the late 19th century pastors who dared to read Darwin.   Reading the bible was once a “liberal” act because it placed moral authority upon the reader rather than the clergy.  A few dare to trace liberalism to Jesus and the prophets.

The specific Religious Liberals, the modernists who conservatives critique have been around for more than 100 years.  Their authority and status built social security; promoted contraception and suffrage; they developed the framework that would build the UN, implement the Marshall Plan, justify decolonization and support civil rights.  They were church people who were comfortable in the halls of power, and had something to say.  For the most part, they were victorious.  Then in the 1960’s, in the midst of their success, that world changed.

This kerfuffle is not just about liberalism.  What changed is that the church became forced to compete.  And the pill.

As the economist Albert Hirschmann noted in Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the 1970s, Churches became less like families and more like franchises.   Previous generations did not leave a family.  In franchises, however, if the institution didn’t satisfy the congregants, who by this time had become consumers, they went elsewhere.  The beliefs of churches became products;  the doctrine of the church – or its practical mores – became another part of the free market.  And so, some left the church for other traditions, sports, or the church of rock and roll.   Some just decided to sleep in and didn’t care what the neighbors thought.  This liberalism freed us from some degree of oppression; it also liberated us from the burdens of obligation.  Thus attendance declined.

The other shifts were the cultural changes that gave women more power; and in particular changed the way the culture thought about sex.  Granted, the changes have, when coupled with capital, not been easy; but the liberal church accommodated those changes in practice, if not in doctrine.  That’s the particular liberalism at stake now, and why monosexual and patriarchal institutions are flummoxed by the Episcopal church’s movement.  In the Episcopal church, gay people and women have power.  It is not equal to the power of straight, white men with hair, perhaps; and it still reflects the culture; but the voices are not mute.  And this change is what threatens business as usual.

The church, the liberal church, hadn’t prepared for these changes institutionally. As the culture changed, progressive Priests were trained in the pastoral – professional model, assuming the reign of Christendom, that the culture would naturally return to their roots.  We didn’t think the world would become a mission field as people joined other tribes.

And so I will agree with one element our conservative commentators imply:  our church’s liberalism, our personal branding, our identification with niche of the Christian progressives, will not substitute for strong and powerful leadership.  In a highly balkanized environment, where communities are self-selecting and religious labels are like brands, our work is cut out for us.

Putting a sign on our office door saying we are inviting persons isn’t going to convince anyone they should spend time in a Christian community.  As one atheist said to me, “I’ll never enter to church, but if I did, I’d go to an Episcopal one.  Especially if it had Gospel music and lap dancers.”  It felt great to get his approval; perhaps he needs not join a Christian community.  But our numbers, if they matter (and perhaps they don’t), aren’t going to suddenly change because we’ve got the right progressive credential or passed a resolution to illustrate how awesomely liberal we are.

Conservatives often say, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.” I understand the sentiment.  For if our actions derive solely from cultural approval they will undoubtedly fail.  The qualities of leadership have much more to do with confidence, responsibility and an interest in other people than a particular political faith.  Certainly our rejoinder that the incarnation commands an openness is an appropriate one.  But its another task, and a very different one, to live that out.

The liberal church at this point could behave like Esau – it has inherited a church that once had power; but overwhelmed by the responsibility with the power and wealth that remains.  It could be too willing  to sell our inheritance for a moment of sustenance and temporary survival.  Or we complain:  “This expense could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”   Our shame about the misdeeds of the past may disable us from claiming a power and authority we could proclaim.  It seems righteous to diminish our ambiguous inheritance, but perhaps we would merely abdicate it to the market, and it would be sold for a pittance, and we’d continue to diminish our own voice.

Let’s admit that inclusivity is not necessarily inviting.   Shouting to the world “you’re invited” can be a meaningless act of theo-political theater.  What matters is our ability, person to person, to make connections within our communities – even if they do not directly benefit the church.  Our choices may signal to others that Episcopalians can fit in to educated society; that we can have coffee with religion’s cultured despisers, but our liberality will not substitute for the hard work of building relationships.  And this takes not merely resolutions, but another sort of resolve.  For it doesn’t matter if we’re liberals in the office.  It matters if we’re followers of our savior in the world.

The consequence is that clergy cannot merely be pleasant pastoral directors of its sheep-like congregations (who in Episcopal Churches behave nothing like sheep, by the way), but persons who seek to share in building a liberated humanity, one where the values of empire have been turned on its head.    That is not merely proclamation; nor is it pastoral care; it is the slow and steady work of reconstructing a certain sort of world.

And what of the snark, Church growth?  Nobody really knows how that happens:  it could be demographic luck; a handsome clergy family; strong laity; priests who’ve just stuck it out a long time.  One journalist suggested to me that the Episcopal church could grow if we just were more aggressive:  “You know your natural market, right?  Disenchanted Catholics.”

Of course, 50% of my church is exactly that.  Every priest knows the joke that church growth for Episcopalians means divorced Catholics and drinking protestants.  There are certainly some technical church growth habits parishes could practice more conscientously; but we still don’t know how to evaluate their success, and success isn’t guaranteed.  I will say that most of the people who’ve entered are those who want to be connected, and want a spiritual practice that sustains them in their life.

However, there is also evidence, all over the country,  of thriving liberal churches.  Not all are megachurches, but they are healthy, self sustaining and making a difference.  I can name a few immediately.   They have strong, uncompromising, inviting leadership.  They communicate to the needs of the people; they organize; they are social entrepreneurs.  The congregants are excited about their congregations.  Powerful and connected leadership builds churches.  It’s built conservative churches.  It can build liberal ones.

Liberalism was never the reason the church declined; but I suggest neither shall it be our savior.   It is enough that we will remember our risen Lord; and because he is risen, we are fearless; to risk loving the unloved.

Faith and Doubt

A parishioner once took me aside and asked, “I just don’t believe in all of this stuff.  I look around at all the people here and wonder, ‘does everyone else believe this?’ and I’m amazed. Am I the only person who thinks like this?”

Of course, he isn’t.  Plenty of people in the pews have their own doubts and questions.  They cross their fingers at the appropriate time of the Nicene creed; some sing because they can’t bear to say it.  We compartmentalize, dividing our heads from our hearts.   An Episcopalian who hasn’t questioned the church, God and organized religion wasn’t raised in the tradition very well.

The parishioner had good reasons to be skeptical. He’d had a hard life and, like lots of faithful people, struggled with the basic question of suffering and God’s goodness.

The apostle Thomas had doubts.  He hadn’t been there the day before when he’d seen what the others had seen. He may have thought most of his friends were a bit dim and too credulous.  Why should he take them at their word? They’ve said they’ve seen a body!  That’s ridiculous.

I imagine that Thomas as a due diligence officer, a regulator, or an auditor. He knew that there are people who take short cuts, eager to make a quick buck, the swindlers who take advantage of our gullibility and propensity to see what we want. He’s the guy who wants to know how a magician did the trick, and demands that it be done twice so he can figure it out.

So then Jesus reappears to the disciples.  He breaks bread and offers peace.  He shows the wounds.  But Thomas still isn’t operating on faith at this time:  no – the body was right there.   Asking for faith is easy when you’ve got evidence.

But perhaps, seeing the body was the secondary part of the faith.  The real leap of faith was to accept the offer of forgiveness.  Forgiveness for betraying Christ; forgiveness to the persecutors for their persecution; the forgiveness that breaks a cycle of  violence.   The momentary reconciliation that offers the possibility of more life.

This forgiveness means we assume the best in others; we offer them breathings space, charity and discretion; breathing space offers freedom; and freedom unlocks our own potential.   It may be a mistaken, foolish, and risky act, to have faith in another person.
Of course, we need not ask this of our political leaders, of our inspectors, of those who have to make snap judgments in a broken world.  They need to be right more than wrong.  They can’t afford these moments of grace.  They have to calculate the costs.

But perhaps faith is another way of saying, we’re allowed to be wrong in who and what we trust.  Though we may be battered, bruised and hurt by the vicissitudes of chance, the power says that with this faith we still stand up again, although that same love may put our familiar lives at risk.

Sermon Notes Proper 28c

Isaiah 65:17-25  “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”  and offers a vivid description of what was normal:  precarity; death; calamity.    God will create “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

It’s an opportunity to discuss memory – how it prefigures and affects how we live into the future, our hopes and desires.  Can we ever see things anew?  I may spend time reflecting on precarity itself.  God looks forward to a time without sorrow; and this means a mitigation of the everyday calamities in biblical culture.   One paradox is when we are so distant from precarity, we forget God.

Thessalonians is an exhortation within Christian community.  How might Christians work with one another?  Some Christians are lazy.  The exemplars live by example, seeing to do well through encouraging imitation – rather than, perhaps, by diktat.    I’m instinctively wary of the rigor of the command, but perhaps Paul reminds us of our obligation to each other.   They seek avoid idleness but to work so that they might not be a burden.  That said, what of people who are truly burdens?   Within a community we share the work; but we still serve others who are destitute.  We are still called to serve the poor; but we have high expectations of ourselves

“All will be thrown down.”  Jesus gets apocalyptic here.  He denies those who claim the world will end, and yet also giving instructions about what to do.  Luke clearly thought Jesus understood that the end of the world was impending.   This may be an opportunity to talk about transformation, and that we have nothing to fear.