Jesus, Superhero

The people of Israel forget and remember God.

They live when they remember.

The church has its bones.

But it didn’t believe what it said.

Instead, it made rules and pointed at the unclean people,

But it did not say,

God flows through you.

Though you have been spiritually dead,

Sleepwalking,

Like a zombie,

King Jesus has wakened you.

 

It said very little. It was consumed in its causes, rummage sales and dinners.

 

But this does not mean you,

If you are Lazarus,

become a Zombie,

or that Jesus is King Zombie.

Instead, Jesus is like the Hulk.

Or a Transformer.

 

Mary and Martha got mad at Jesus.

He could have saved his friend,

but he wanted to show people he was a superhero.

 

It was a little self indulgent, but the work was done,

and I’m sure Lazarus just needed a bath. Even though that part isn’t in the scriptures.

 

Perhaps Jesus modeled what life could be in church.

We bring our frustrations and anger, and just let them be.

We don’t hide them, but focus them.

We become a space

where others can simply be unburdened.

They don’t have to worry about being contained.

 

We don’t wag our fingers.

We don’t give them a list of rules.

We don’t ask them to be in the vestry or hand over their wallet.

 

Instead we let them be, offer a meal, and

trust that the rock will be moved,

And we’ll feel the living God flow through us again.

 

Perhaps He always is,

But we’re just sleepwalking through it.

 

 

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

On Deescalating (A Sermon on Matthew 5: 21-37)

A few weeks ago I saw a photo of three Orthodox Monks standing in between protestors and the police in one of the central squares in Ukraine. They merely held a cross and prayed.

Although there are times when a priest must take a side, in that moment they illustrated Christ by being in the way, interrupting the escalating dynamic, offering space for each side to stop the violence. It may be that one side is more righteous than the other, but the solutions are available without further loss of life.

Last week we heard Jesus make some rigorous demands upon the faithful: don’t get angry; don’t be lustful; don’t divorce. Reconcile. It’s easy to get caught up in the prurience of the passage (Matthew 5:21-37) and lose sight of the fundamental challenge. Jesus is not becoming a puritan, suppressing our sexuality.

He’s saying: don’t escalate.

Deescalate. It’s easy to get wound up, to become overwhelmed, to create more problems, to enter into a frenzy. So if you are getting into one, stop. Do what you need to to get your mind back on track, centered, calm.  Don’t become your own obstacle.

The intuition: be careful – we don’t know who else we will harm.

Yes, sometimes in our current context it chafes to be told to rein in one’s emotions. And perhaps there are times when that control is avoidance, merely delaying the inevitable emotional outburst. Instead, Jesus pulls us out of the frenzy. It’s a mistake to hear this only as Jesus wagging his finger. He is equally encouraging us to let ourselves be soothed.

Last week, a man named Michael Dunn was on trial for shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager, at a convenience store for listening to hip-hop music loudly. It may be another example of racism; or why Stand Your Ground (or “Shoot First”) Laws are immoral; or why we need further gun control. At the very least, however, we had one man who could not negotiate with his own anger, and his racism and weapons exacerbated the event, the murder of a young man.

When Jesus says, even anger leads to judgement, it is precisely this sort of case he illuminates. The man could have responded with humor or simply left the scene quickly. Instead, he chose to escalate.

Deescalating is a mechanism of reconciliation; it is a crucial precursor to the challenge of forgiveness. Deescalation changes the dynamic between individuals and groups, allowing for the possibility that our responsibility, our impact upon each other, for each other, is shared. We all go to heaven, or send each other to hell.

Deescalating may be difficult. Yet discerning and identifying the complexity of our shared life is one of the purposes of prayer and faithful action, and we affirm that the benefits of stepping back, from letting honor be God’s and not our own, we diminish the possibility of creating hells for ourselves, or for others.  All over, from cyberspace, to Stand Your Ground, to political protests evince the dangers of rapid escalation, and how it creates an obstacle for healthy relationships.

When we are in the midst of conflict, when we must negotiate the valleys of community life, let our words be simple and plain. May we work first to support one another, perpetually offering space for reconciliation.

Jesus, Survivor

From a Sermon, Christmas II, Matthew 2:12-19

Jesus was a survivor.

The wise men had reached Herod.   They are about to tell him that Jesus has been born, the Messiah, and this makes Herod, and all Jerusalem – hipster central, where all the good restaurants and cool kids reside – nervous.  For Jesus is a country kid who might challenge the king.    Herod asks the magi to find the child and tell him.

But after the magi visit, Joseph and Mary are warned.   And when the magi skip town, he is enraged.  And in the verses the lectionary skips over, Herod, infuriated, slaughters the children in and around Bethlehem.

It evokes another story: the child Moses escaping the law of the Pharaohs.    But also the other stories of destruction and survival.  Jesus would have remembered that story of survival.  He would have remembered the prophet Jeremiah.  And he would have remembered the scattering of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity.  Continue reading

Happy New Year!

Yesterday was the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Name.  The church says Jesus was circumcized on this date, affirming that Christianity is linked to Judaism, and that Christ had a history, a location, a culture.

For some this signifies the incredible.  Some would prefer God, or Jesus, to be a lot like a superhero.  In that case the story seems more like a comic book, a fantasy of the origins like the Green Lantern or The Hulk.  But the merit of the story is that we can’t get out of our historical context and cultural location.  Although we may feel righteous about who we are in our current context, we are always embedded and bounded.  For some this is a trap, a prison; but in another way it is a lot like gravity – without it, what kind of collisions would ensue?  Could we behave comprehensibly without the cultural knowledge we do have?

I often find that people are likely to judge the people of the past based on our contemporary morality.   But when we enter their judgement, we remain unaware of what they believed was truly at stake.  The cosmology of the ancients, their everyday experience of the world remains foreign.  I doubt that most of us would survive well even in 19th century America, not to mention 15th century England, 13th century Mongolia, 8th century France or 1st century Palestine.  We are learning much more than they did; and certainly we are not completely different emotionally, but those worlds are foreign places.  Our world has become both large and small – we intuit the cosmos, and yet it seems that the world as at our footsteps.

Holy Name reminds us that our God, by being embodied, works within our own materiality.  We may not necessarily name accurately who God is like.   Although it seems, however, as if we have implicitly limited God, we do not say that God cannot be placed in other cultures.  We still say we see God engaging any place where love is the primary form of grace. 

The good news is that the sources of liberation and hope we need are already here.  Discovering the sacred heart of God is not done just through becoming an expert; it is not done through becoming perfect; it cannot be except through the lens of our cultural context, the traditions and signs that are available.  For this reason, a theologian must identify the present symbols and signs  – the objects that convey meaning – and question them here.  People only experience the divine through the words and culture they inherit; the cross and the empty tomb reveals their worthy, if ephemeral, nature. 

The Invisible Among Us

Sermon Given on October 13th, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23.

It’s tough being on the outside, to be excluded from the group.

 We don’t choose to be excluded most of the time, except for those moments of principle:  it simply happens to us.  We get sick; we become part of the class of people who is unhealthy.  Sometimes we are quarantined; and then we feel contagious, so we avoid others; or deserving so we are ashamed.  If not, we ask, “how did I become such as one of these, a leper, an outcaste?”

We’ve been a part of the tribe;  we begin to notice the way people avoid our faces, who stop returning our phone calls, who quickly end their conversations with us.  Or there are the voices of pity and feigned concern, just enough time to assuage their guilt and truncate the relationship.  We become lepers.  Continue reading

Sermon Notes on Proper 20 year C

Almost every week I write about the questions I’m asking as I read the lectionary texts for the week.  This is not an academic enterprise, but my reaction to the text as I read them.   I ask the questions in advance because it helps me preach without a text.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What does it mean to be healed?  Can having money be healing?  Is it possible to have a sense of being complete, of joy through spending?  Certainly when we have none it’s possible to question our own worthless.  Is healing a feeling of peace?  When do we feel whole?  Why is it fleeting?  What is it like to move from satisfaction to dissatisfaction? 

In Psalm 79:1-9 the author says:

79:5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
79:6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.
79:7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
79:8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.

Here it’s almost as if, after asking for God to punish other nations, he is saying “Oops, I guess I wasn’t that great a guy also.”  This is how we feel about other nations – and religions.  But then he reframes his prayer:

79:9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Often our prayer is like a movement.  It goes from one stage to the next.  Our spiritual and emotional lives are always dynamic.  We initially seek revenge; but that is not where God is.  Instead of destroying others, we need to be saved from ourselves.

In the first letter to Timothy (2:1-2) the author seems to say, don’t look in my direction, King.  I don’t need your approval, I just want the best for you.   So just assume I’ve got your best interest at heart.  Don’t kill me.  I don’t think this is obsequiousness, but conveys the sense that the work of the church is not the same as the secular work of kings. 

The gospel of Luke this week (Luke 16:1-13) is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. 

I think of the manager as being average:  not frugal; just a cog in the machine.  The rich man gets wealthy through exploiting the work of others; and his manager is no different.

The manager thinks differently.  The prosperous are those who count every penny; they measure relationships through a careful inventorying of what allows them to accumulate.  The middle manager knows he will not have that kind of luxury to make those calculations. 

Debt and the accumulation of wealth are deeply linked.  Some argue that the origin of money itself is upon the backs of owing lives:  of the debt implicit in slavery.  Money is the accounting of a life.  The middle manager is divesting himself of that sort of debt.   

When Jesus says “dishonest wealth,” I wonder if he is implying that all wealth arrives through some sort of dishonesty.  It is not that people make money just through lying, but that we accumulate through denying the truth that a life cannot be counted. 

I might explore what is wealth for?  I’ve suggested before that it is to be spent and circulated, not hoarded.  But I also think that there are components of wealth the gospel critiques.  In our own culture, I believe the gospel would critique our culture of convenience, our implicit frugality in trying to get the cheapest deal, and the hastening of time and space which our economy has created.   It is not merely money that Jesus critiques, but money as a certain sort of technology that alters the way we manage our social life.

It is also possible that this is a problem of administration.  The reason why capitalism became successful was because of the interplay between prudence and discipline with accumulation.  Virtues associated with the church became a part of making money.  All economic institutions from the corporation to the state require administrative virtue if they are to be effective. 

What does it mean to serve wealth?  Money is an effective incentive, and counting matters.  But why does it matter?  For what do we strive?  It is not the buying things that is the problem; it is how that convenience, that quick gratification distracts us from God.

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, Proper 18 Year C and Syria

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research. 

Syria is on my mind.   Although I’m someone who wants to think that the involved institutions have the best interests of the country and world, I wouldn’t know what the answer is.  Many of the arguments either for or against are unconvincing.  Words like “credibility” and “confidence,” for example, are less important than a completed task.  For most people, feelings about the president seem to be prior to clear thinking or collaborating on finding a suitable solution.

Furthermore, I’m struck by the utter lack of creativity by the mindset that insists that the only proper reaction, ever, is a military response.  It was the view of the previous administration; it’s apparent it is the view of whoever holds the reins of power.  

It’s easy to be misdirected.  What is revealed leads us away from what is concealed. Platitudes and conviction overwhelm logic, and humility and fear disappear in a wisp of bluster and braggadacio.   It’s hard to sell a war through humility, but I wish there were more people who could just say, “I don’t know” and admit that there are no good answers.

In the reading this week, Jeremiah speaks out of a country that’s been dismantled, dispersed.  The middle east even then was complicated.  How would he seek to bring the people together out of exile?  The Assyrians sought to conquer and scatter, while Jeremiah pleads to remember.  And then, like now, the challenge for us is to remember, to gather up the broken pieces around us, and with the grace of God always be ready to rebuild.  Our community, our church, our world.

In the gospel, Luke this week has Jesus admonishing:  “you cannot follow me unless you sell all your possessions.”   Jesus reminds us that the economic must be subservient to the human; it represents kinds of social relationships.  To sell possessions means always allowing ourselves to circulate.  This circulation allows for a dynamism for us, one that allows us to better handle the cycle of disappointment and success that marks the human experience.  We cannot get out of it; we can only see it clearly.   Those who hoard and accumulate will find themselves even more afraid of losing status; unable to handle everyday disappointments. Perhaps this may explain how the wealthier we get, the less resilient we become. 

The gospel this week also makes me wonder about how little we actually plan well.  The evidence is that we don’t always know what actually makes us happy; we are poor judges of risk.  Planning well is expensive, hard work, and requires patience.  We tend to underestimate the resources it takes to make an institution viable.   Instinctively, we often complete things on the cheap, hoping our band aid solutions will last for the long term: perpetually afraid of disappointment, we diminish the possibility of glory.

Sermon Notes, Proper 17 Year C

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research.  This week’s readings can be found here.

Jeremiah 2:11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

What is beneficial about a Chrstian pattern of life, if anything?  Jeremiah seems to indicate that the faith of Israel is simply ineffective – the other Gods do not work.   Worshiping other Gods is inefficacious, like using a cracked pot to carry water.  In this sense faith is practical.  This should assuage the scientist and even the agnostic.  What we do works, even if the reasons seem obscure or imprecise.

Usually people worship other Gods because they seem effective.  So what are those Gods, and what do they bring?  How are they mistaken?

Hebrews13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Sometimes I think that we could learn a lot about how church life should be from going to three *** restaurants (like this one I went to, when I got my doctorate).  Jesus refers to himself as the server – as if he’s the waiter who ensures that the wedding feast moves without a hitch.  To some extent He is invisible, making the plans.

Do our congregations do the work of hospitality?  It’s not easy.  Hospitality forces us to get out of ourselves and attend to the visitor.   Being an effective server also requires technique, skill and discipline – there are many ways to render a visitor invisible or uncomfortable.   Our “discipleship” is not just about formed thoughts but about the work of providing a space for others to experience the Sabbath.   We underestimate the preparation that requires.  Perhaps we should study church plans the way restauranteurs plan restaurants.

The Gospel inspires me to wonder what do we value?  When do we insist on taking credit?  What does it mean to be recognized?  Why would we be recognized?   To be seen is a deeply human need; and when we are not the humiliation can be too much.  But perhaps a deeper trust diminishes that need enough so that we can still be effective agents in the world though the only person who knows us is the one who made us.