Eyes opened to gratitude and joy

It was the kick-off Sunday for the annual stewardship campaign at a large evangelical church.  Fifteen or twenty minutes into the preacher’s sermon, just as he was getting revved up, the preacher yelled to the congregation, “If this church is going to serve God, first it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl!”  And the congregation yelled back “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl!”

Feeling the positive energy flowing back to him, the preacher then yelled: “And once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and walk!”  To which the congregation yelled back “Make it walk preacher, make it walk!”

Then the preacher yelled, “And once this church has learned to walk, it’s got to begin to learn to run!”   The congregation, now feeling the movement of the Holy Spirit in the room, replied boisterously, “Make it run, preacher, make it run!”

Finally, the preacher hollered with inspired conviction, “And in order to run, this church has got to reach deep down into its pockets and give, give, give!”  Upon which there was a pregnant pause before someone in the congregation yelled back, “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”

Another time at another church, during a particularly long stewardship sermon, a frightened little girl leaned over to her father and asked, “Daddy, if we just give him all our money now, do you think he’ll let us go?”  There is, indeed, a fine line between a stewardship sermon and a hostage situation.[i]

Why is that, do you think? Well, maybe it’s because of the Gospel passages the sages who created the Revised Common Lectionary always assign during stewardship season.  This week, for instance, we have Lazarus and the Rich Man.  This story includes the Gospels’ most extended portrait of hell, complete with tormenting flames and bottomless pits, and that hell is populated not by Hitler or the Unabomber, but rather by someone not a whole lot different from many of us: an affluent man with a comfortable lifestyle, who enjoys the finer things in life.  His worst crime, it seems, is that he wears nice clothes.

lazarus-and-the-rich-man

Lazarus and the Rich Man

And so, it becomes clear why we have a flight response during stewardship sermons.  The focus during stewardship season—whether it’s the emphasis of the sermon or the strategic choice of Gospel text, or both—seems to be on guilt.  The idea appears to be that making parishioners feel miserable enough about their material things and guilty enough about what they so far haven’t given to the church is the key to a successful Every Member Canvass.

But here’s the problem: Guilt doesn’t work, at least not in the long run.  It doesn’t draw us closer to God.  It doesn’t render us more generous.  It doesn’t enliven and sustain the work of the church.  You know this.  Indeed, very many of you who weren’t born and raised in the Episcopal Church found your way here after leaving some prior church community that used guilt as a cudgel.  Guilt does not give life.  Guilt leaches life, until all joy is replaced by self-loathing.  That’s the hellish torment.  That’s the bottomless pit.  And, in this priest’s humble opinion, as we seek to solicit our contributions for God’s joyous mission for the coming year at the Cathedral, such guilt has no place here.

How, then, do we apply the Gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man on this Stewardship Sunday?  How might it inspire in us generous hearts instead of wracking us with guilt?

The key, I think, is in the recognition of the rich man’s error.  There is no indication that he wished Lazarus ill.  There is no inkling that he defrauded Lazarus, or fired Lazarus from a job while taking a huge bonus for himself, or even kicked Lazarus as he walked by.  The affluent man in the parable actually could not have done any of these things, because, upon close reading, we sense that the rich man never saw Lazarus at all.  That is his error.  The rich man has goose stepped his way through life with blinders on, failing to see the evidence of grace and opportunities for goodness all around him.  As he passed through his gate day after day, he never saw—really saw—Lazarus sitting there in hunger and pain.  The rich man wasn’t evil, he just couldn’t see.  Or, more accurately, he chose not to see.

Let me tell you a story.  Last summer I led twenty-five Cathedral parishioners on a pilgrimage to Ireland.  Halfway through our trip, we were supposed to take a small boat from the southeast Irish coast to Skellig Michael, a steep, rugged island that was home to ancient Irish monks and has recently been made famous by the new Star Wars movie, in which it appears.  I’d wanted to visit Skellig Michael for years.  I felt certain that, if I could just get there, I would encounter God.

skellig-michael

Skellig Michael

Well, the morning in question the weather was bad and the sea was choppy.  The boats couldn’t make the trip.  Instead, as a consolation, we took a day-long bus ride around the Ring of Kerry.  No one in our group other than my wife Jill knew that my disappointment was really fury.  I stewed on the bus all day.  Jill did her best, in her gracious way, to keep me from interacting with our fellow pilgrims, because she knew in my extreme irritation at the circumstances I might say or do something I’d regret.  And so, I did not see the Ring of Kerry.  In my blinding anger, I did not see the beauty of God’s creation or the wonder on the faces of my twenty-five friends as they did gaze out at God’s glorious landscape.

When we arrived back at our hotel in Killarney, Jill suggested that she and I go for a walk so I could cool down.  We walked the path for almost a mile, and a cold spitting rain began to fall.  “Just great,” I mumbled, as the rain boiled off my steaming ears.

The path ended at the ruins of fifteenth century Muckross Abbey, a creepy and death-haunted ruin that some say inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.[ii]  As we approached, Cathedral parishioner and pilgrim Kay Pieringer emerged from the abbey.  “You have to see it!” Kay said, “In the cloister.  It’s amazing.”

“One more ruin,” I thought, “Nothing to be all that excited about.” But as we walked through the abbey and into the cloister, I stopped short.  There, growing up through the ruins—strong, proud, and emitting life—was an enormous yew tree, one of the largest yew trees, in turns out, in all of Ireland.

The yew tree has been regarded as holy since pre-Christian times.  Ancient tales tell of druids’ staffs and wizards’ wands being made from yew wood.  And for Christians, the yew is a symbol of resurrection because of the unique way its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then grow up and around the original trunk, giving the tree renewed life.  There are yew trees alive in England that were planted when the Normans invaded almost one thousand years ago.

muckross-abbey-yew-tree

The Yew Tree at Muckross Abbey

I’ve never seen a tree more glorious.  Growing up from the ruins of that dead place, it was as sublime an earthly manifestation of God as I’ve ever encountered.  It was as impressive as Skellig Michael.  It was holy.  In an instant, my mood changed.  My hellish anger melted.  My eyes opened.  There was a twinge of regret—not guilt, but regret—as I realized the glimpses of grace I’d likely missed all day, when I failed to see.  And in that moment the chasm that throughout the day had prevented me from meeting God was bridged.

That is what stewardship is about.  It’s not about imparting guilt, but about seeing and responding to grace.  Eucharistic Prayer C asks God to “Open our eyes to see [God’s] hand at work in the world about us [and] make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in [God’s] name.”

That’s why we pledge our gifts to the Cathedral, because once our eyes are opened to glimpses of God’s grace, we also see where there are opportunities for us to be agents of God’s grace.  We see where there are needs we can meet and where there is joy we can share.  We see Lazarus sitting at the gate.  And we know, once our eyes are opened, that we cannot pass blithely by.  Our hearts are too grateful not to give.

On Wednesday of this past week, I filled out my pledge card for 2017.  Again this coming year I will tithe, I will give back ten percent of my income to the instruments of the church.  It was with eagerness and not hesitation, gratitude and not guilt, that I filled out that card.  I pray you will do the same, as we catch glimpses of God’s grace this very day, all around us, and as we empower the grace-filled ministry of the Cathedral for another year.

_________________

[i] Both of these jokes come from the internet, where else?

[ii] http://www.ciaranmchugh.com/?pagid=yew-tree-at-muckross-abbey

Sam Houston and the Dishonest Steward

The dishonest steward in this evening’s parable is in the practice of gouging his master’s clients for his own gain.  If someone owes his master $100, he demands twice that and keep the excess for himself.  He’s like our modern-day payday lenders, preying on vulnerable people by charging crippling interest for his own gain.  He’s making himself his master, in other words, using and abusing the position in life his true master had granted him.  Only when the steward falls from grace—and only then, when he’s at the bottom—does he give up the pretension to be his own master and let go of those self-serving portions of his collections, asking instead from his master’s clients only what they genuinely owe.  He finally becomes an honest servant, and his life is redeemed.  Remember that, as I switch gears for a minute.

There is no character in the story of Texas more interesting than Sam Houston, the old “Raven” himself.  Houston was one of those nineteenth century Americans incredibly blessed with countless gifts.  He was enterprising and smart.  He was a gifted leader.  At age thirty he was elected to Congress from Tennessee, and at age thirty-four became that state’s governor.  But it is also true that Sam Houston was crassly self-serving—like the steward in Jesus’ parable—throughout the first half of his life, always calculating what any action would do for him, always seeking to control and mold every circumstance for his own gain. And as a result, in 1828 his life fell apart.  His fall from grace, also like the steward’s in Jesus’ parable, was swift and steep.  Houston abruptly resigned as governor, lapsed into a devastating dependence on alcohol, and taking scarcely more than a bottle with him, disappeared into darkest Arkansas, suffering banishment from all he’d known and loved.

sam-houston-young

The young and self-serving Sam Houston

It took years for Sam Houston’s repentance and redemption to occur, but occur it did.  Houston eventually became a star so bright that his later accomplishments— leading the Army of Texas, serving as President of the Texas Republic, and ushering Texas into the United States—eclipsed everything he’d done before.  These later things were the result of a wife who taught Sam Houston what it meant truly to know the God who both loved him and called him to account.  As Houston came to know this God, he became a self-giving rather than self-serving man.  He gave up his pretension to be his own master and became a servant.

There is more to the Sam Houston story, an added blessing that could only have happened because of the redeemed man Houston became.[1]   It is near-miraculous.  In 1854, during an emotional slavery debate in the United States Senate where Houston then served for Texas, a group of Northern abolitionist clergy petitioned the Senate to be allowed to speak.  They were ridiculed, humiliated, and laughed down by some Southern senators, but Sam Houston rose to support them.  By all accounts he spoke with passion, even though he took an unpopular and risky position by speaking, especially among his Southern colleagues.

Eight years later, the Civil War had broken out, and Sam Houston’s son was far from home, fighting in the Confederate Army at Shiloh.  During an advance, the boy took a mini ball to the thigh and lost much blood, and he was left for dead on the battlefield.  That evening a solitary Union chaplain walked across the field and came upon Houston’s groaning son.  When the chaplain leaned down to offer a dying prayer, he checked the boy’s knapsack and found a Bible with the inscription, “Sam Houston, Jr., from his mother, March 6, 1862.”

battle-of-shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh

The chaplain immediately was taken back to eight years before, when as a young minister he had been shouted down and humiliated in a crowded Senate chamber, until Sam Houston, Sr., had risen from his chair in the ministers’ defense, not for self-gain but as a servant of grace.

The chaplain remembered, and because of that speech he dropped all other duties and carried the wounded Texas boy in his arms from the battlefield.  The boy lived.  Sam Houston’s son was nursed back to health and returned safely to his father.

The old, self-serving Sam Houston never would have made the speech in 1854 that saved his son’s life in 1862.  That speech, like the steward’s action in giving up his commission, was self-giving, made without thought of personal stake or gain.  And yet, it resulted eight years later in nothing less than saving the most important thing in Houston’s world.  It was redemption to be sure.

sam-houston

An older, wiser, and self-giving Sam Houston

Whenever we fool ourselves into believing we are the masters of our lives, whenever we use the gifts we’ve been given as self-serving tools rather than self-giving blessings, the result is harm to others and, eventually, to ourselves.  We’ll find ourselves fallen from grace and all too often alone.  It is when, sometimes in a moment of reckoning when life seems to fall apart, that we give up our pretension and decide by grace to live differently—with the loving God as our Spirit and guide—that we find our lives given back to us anew, often in the most surprising and wondrous ways.  It is then that we truly find redemption.  It is then that we truly become the children of light.

____________________

[1] See Sam Houston by James L. Haley, pp. 403-404.

9/11, fifteen years later

This is an auspicious evening, and it’s one in which there is some tension.  On the one hand, we gather for the first time in this style of worship, which is both ancient in our tradition and new to Christ Church Cathedral.  We sing, pause, and pray in ways that intend to remind us of God’s deep peace which runs—like water from a sacred well—beneath all of the things on the surface of our lives that would disrupt God’s peace.  On the other hand, we observe today the fifteenth anniversary of that singular event of our lifetimes which spoke so powerfully that we had—and still have—difficulty finding words to counteract the horror of September 11, 2001.

twin-towers

In 2005, Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled, The End of Words.  His thesis is that our world has become so violent, so unpredictable, so chaotic, so insane that words have lost their inherent meaning.  Words are now but tools in the hands of those who wish to manipulate other people.  As a lover and crafter of words, it pains me to agree with this notion.  But too often today, publically and privately, words are combined to fool, frighten, or whip into frenzy, and each time this happens we feel, like the hundredth sheep in Jesus’ parable, a bit more lost.

Religious words can be among the most manipulated, and perhaps never more so than on and immediately after 9/11.  Some, during those days, invoked the Prince of Peace to sound drums of war.  On the opposite extreme, others utilized the Gospel to suggest that we’d brought terror on ourselves, as if we deserved that awful day.  Both extremes felt emotionally like being cast ever further from the sheep herd, more and more lost in some strange wilderness.

But the most abused religious words of all spoken on and around 9/11 were those of the hijackers themselves.  On United Airlines Flight 93, the terrorists were recorded saying—as they killed the pilots and ultimately crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field—“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…O, God, the most gracious.”[i]

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “[These] religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words [of] murderers [used] in order to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.”[ii]

In a world where the most holy and sacred words are used so cynically, so dishonestly, how can we ever put our faith in words at all?

ground-zero

But, lest we forget, there were other words that day.  From airplanes and from the Twin Towers, dozens of trapped people telephoned family members, friends, and sometimes mere strangers on the other end of the line.  Invariably, the words spoken on such calls are words of love.[iii]  It isn’t surprising that some of these calls express panic.  What is surprising is the large percentage of them that evidence a remarkable calm, even as steel collapses in wrecked buildings or hijackers scream in the background.  The recipients of the calls have fear in their voices.  But the callers are more often steely and intent:

A newlywed says to her father, “Dad, you have to find Sean and tell him that I love him.”

A young professional says to his mother, “I love you no matter what happens.”

The voicemail message a woman leaves for her husband records, “There’s a lot of smoke, and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”

These words overpower those other words of war and blame and terror.  Archbishop Williams says of those trapped in the Twin Towers and on the planes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in [his] mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone [he] loves.  [He] does what [he] can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile [phone]…These nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about—the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”[iv]

Perhaps never have we felt more like lost sheep than on September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed and the towers crumbled.  But we know that love never stops seeking the lost sheep.  We know that love will not give up.  We discover again in those telephone messages that even lost in the wilderness, even on the smoky 89th floor, even nose-down on a doomed airplane, love abides.  And what is love, but God, and specifically the Incarnate Jesus over whom death has no power?  With love—with the Christ of God, with that Word—we can emerge from any wilderness, found and embraced by the Well of life.

In my memory, the word “triumph” was used too often around 9/11.  But what would it mean if we said, with Archbishop Williams, that love triumphed that day?  Pointless, gratuitous love: love that does not panic; love that does not run away; love that seeks the lost; love that is faithful in the face of any threat.  As we prayerfully reflect on this fifteen years past, and as we look forward into the wildernesses ahead, we’ll know which words are those of the God of love, and when we hear them we’ll remember that we are never lost.

[i] http://www.mishalov.com/wtc-flight-93-transcript.html

[ii] Williams, Rowan.  Writing in the Dust: After September 11, 3.

[iii] http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/09/03/ar911.phone.calls/

[iv] Williams, 5 & 3.

 

 

 

 

 

Entertaining angels unaware

There is a scene near the end of both the book and the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” when all appears to be lost.  Harry is trapped in the deep and dark chamber under Hogwarts.  His nascent love, Ginny Weasley, is unconscious and near death, and the giant basilisk, a venomous, serpentine monster, lashes out at Harry.  Things are desperate.

And then, just as all hope is lost, Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix flies unexpectedly through the cavern on outstretched wings, piercing the gloom with sound and light with the means to save Harry.  The symbolism is potent and cannot be missed: The phoenix is the bird that rises from the ashes of death into new life, and in this case the phoenix becomes the instrument of Harry’s salvation.  This particular phoenix is an extension of his master, Dumbledore, and Dumbledore is surely Harry’s guardian angel.

Fawkes and the Basilisk

Dumbledore’s Phoenix is Harry’s angel versus the Basilisk.

Joseph Campbell, who wrote the seminal text on the Hero’s Journey (which I taught last semester during the Dean’s Hour) says that when, in the universal and mythic story of the Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves his home and sets out for new and strange lands, helpmates will appear.  Our great stories surely substantiate Campbell’s claim.  Gandalf appears to accompany Frodo when the hobbit leaves the shire.  Obi-Wan emerges from the Tatooine  desert to teach Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force.

The pattern repeats in Holy Scripture, and the Bible isn’t shy about naming such helpmates angels.  Jesus himself, once he has entered the wilderness and faced the temptations of the Devil, is immediately tended by angels, who, it seems, have been perched in waiting just off scene all along.  The most striking example of all is in the book of Tobit from the Apocrypha—a book everyone should read—when the young man Tobias is sent by his father on a long and treacherous quest.  God looks favorably on the boy, and God sends the archangel Raphael, disguised as a grubby nomad, to guide Tobias on his way.  More than once, it is only by the intervention of Raphael that Tobias escapes things that would otherwise drag him down.

The story of Raphael and Tobias, along with several others in Scripture, are the impetus for the opening sentiment in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unaware.”

We can—and I do—affirm with Joseph Campbell that God will not fail to send helpmates.  But the reality is that we rarely know who, among all those we meet on our paths, could be God’s angels.  We don’t know from whence help may come.  It would be easier if Raphael would show up in a blaze of angelic glory, announced with heralds in the heavens.  But because God’s helpmates are so often disguised, if we are complacent and inattentive we may miss them altogether.

Tobias and Raphael

Raphael and Tobias

So, how can we best assure that we catch a glimpse of our guardian angels, that we take the time to acknowledge and notice them for what they are, so that we can become the beneficiaries of their saving aid?  The answer comes in Hebrews’ wondrous paradox: The best way, the most assured way, is to live our lives so that we are angels to others.  The author of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.  Remember those who are being tortured [in body or in soul], as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

You see, if we will take the time and the chance to be an angel to someone else in need, we may discover in that pause that the person to whom we are tending is exactly the angel we, ourselves, have desperately sought.

We tend, I think, to assume that such encounters must be momentous, the stuff of mythic sagas or Hollywood blockbusters.  We’ve read and watched everything from The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings so often that we tend always to imagine ourselves as the epic hero.  Our experience of saving helpmates must be something like Harry Potter with that phoenix!  But our hero’s journeys are rarely so.  Let me tell you a story.  When I had just graduated from the University of Chicago with a newly-minted master’s degree in theology, the associate rector of my parish assigned me to create and teach a new adult Sunday school class.  That first Sunday, we had twenty attendees.  By the fourth week, though, the only people in my class were Jill and a great guy named Dale Conder who was too nice to quit.  The following Monday, I conferred with the associate rector, who asked me my subject matter.  “Oh, I’m teaching big stuff,” I said, “Complex theological ideas that even include some German and Greek words.  You know, earth-shattering things!”

And the priest replied, “Barkley, it’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering.”

He was right.  It’s not usually the bombastic sermon, or the sublime experience, or any other big thing that saves us, that serves as the point at which an encounter with one of God’s angels makes the difference between life and death.  Our lives are not, usually, lived like Hollywood epics.  It’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering.  The moments that matter are, rather, what I call the small occasions of grace, that blessedly happen on our otherwise mundane days just when despair or the Devil seems about to get the upper hand: the phone call received at the right moment, the hug, the expression of solidarity or care, the gesture of comfort.  Often, the angel who brings this occasion of grace doesn’t even recognize the depth or power of what he or she is doing.  I can think of a dozen moments in life when God has placed an angel along my path, when through some person—sometimes random, other times well-known—a small occasion of grace found me at just the right moment, when it had seemed like all was lost.  I believe you know what I mean, and I daresay there have been other times of which we’re scarcely aware when we have been such angels for someone else.

Gentle touch

Why is it that the world works this way?  How is it that God creates angels out of otherwise ordinary women and men, that God renders angels of us, with such profound power in such small gestures?  The answer is why, at the end of the day, our audacious claim that Jesus is not merely a man, but is God incarnate, matters.  Hebrews tells us today that the same God who knit the stars in the heavens and our children in their mothers’ wombs—remembers usGod remembers those who are in prison as though God is in prison.  God remembers those who are being tortured as though God is being tortured.  God remembers those who grieve, and who worry, and who face disappointment, and who are alone, as though God is all of these things as well.  Because, through the Incarnation, that same God became the fragile man who was imprisoned, and tortured, and grieved, and abandoned.  Even God has felt the need for those occasions of grace.  There is no substitute in this world for the empathy that comes from one who has walked the darkened paths we sometimes walk.  You know this, and so do I.  And the promise of our faith is that, in Jesus, God has walked all those paths.

God is not some Deist clockmaker, aloof in the heavens, and neither is God some capricious king, doing his will without thought of those on its receiving end.  God is the one who knows what we’re facing because God has faced it all, and God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  And that is why God sends angels.  That is why God makes angels of us.

It is a mighty responsibility, and the paradox holds.  We can only be angels, and we can only meet angels, when we pause to notice others in their need.  What angel might you meet today?  As an angel, whose life might you save through an occasion of grace?

Good but not safe

There is a dinner table scene in the lowbrow 2006 Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights,” in which NASCAR star Ricky Bobby’s family pauses before a meal of Domino’s pizza and Taco Bell to say grace.  Ricky begins not in customary Episcopal Church fashion, but rather with the words, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…”

The prayer meanders, until Ricky says again, “Dear tiny baby Jesus, with your golden fleece diapers and your tiny balled up baby fists,” at which point his NASCAR trophy wife, Carly, interrupts and complains, “You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up.  You don’t always have to call him baby.  It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”

Ricky, indignant, responds, “Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me?” and he continues, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly, but still omnipotent.  Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.  Amen.”

Ricky Bobby dinner scene

It’s a hilarious scene, especially for folks from the South.  (At my first parish in Memphis, I actually had among my flock a former Talladega, Alabama homecoming queen!)  But, as is often the case in comedy, part of its humor is the extent to which it parodies truth that hits close to home.  Like Ricky Bobby, we prefer the infant Jesus.  We may not invoke images of golden fleece diapers, but we do wait all year for the nativity pageant.  We cherish gauzy images of a cherubic babe in swaddling clothes, nuzzled in Mary’s arms, with Joseph hovering protectively nearby.  They remind us sentimentally of our own gathered families, or of the idealized family we always hope for.  The baby Jesus is warm, and peaceful, and calming.  We want Jesus to have power but also to be a sweet comfort—to be, as Ricky Bobby says, “cuddly but still omnipotent.”

But Carly the NASCAR wife is right.  Jesus did grow up.  And when we hear the words of the adult Jesus, they sometimes seem to upend the doe-eyed, Precious Moments manger scene.  Never more so than today: “Jesus said, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Notwithstanding the myriad jokes about that last relationship, this is a terribly frightening “red letter” passage.  From the mouth of Jesus, we receive words commissioning fire, division, and the deepest family discord.  This Jesus is all grown up, and he doesn’t seem to be bringing particularly good news.  What do we make of these words?

There is a militant brand of Christianity that uses this passage and the few that resemble it to craft a warlike image of Jesus.  Jesus becomes a kind of tribal chieftain, standing sentry in front of his followers to protect them from invaders, and encouraging his followers to brandish weapons to do violence in his name.  This is the Jesus of the Crusades, of the centuries-long European religious wars, of the more recent Troubles in Northern Ireland.  This Jesus is no less alive and well today.

Jesus with gun

“This Jesus is a paper tiger, propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context.”

But this Jesus is not Jesus.  This Jesus is a paper tiger propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context.  You see, the most reliable way to interpret scripture is with scripture, and the notion of a Jesus who beats his chest and sounds the drums of war cannot be maintained with the trajectory of the Prophets or the Gospel.  After all, the very pinnacle of the Bible’s prophetic announcement is Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of God to which people of every nation will stream in peace, where God will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and war shall be learned no more.”[i]

That is the vision Jesus comes to complete.  He confirms it in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the peacemakers”[ii]) and when his very disciples seek to protect him from the mob through violence (“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”[iii]).  Jesus is the Prince of Peace[iv], and we must interpret today’s difficult passage from Luke in a manner that is consistent with the character of his Gospel.  So, what does it mean that Jesus brings fire and division, that family conflict is sown in his wake?

When Jesus speaks these words today, he does so only after twelve chapters in which he has consistently revealed what it means to follow him.  Jesus has shared parables, such as the Good Samaritan.  He has preached the Beatitudes.  He has embraced those whom society has discarded.  And yet, in ways that clearly frustrate Jesus, most of those around him, including his twelve disciples, don’t seem to get it.  They want to be associated with the guy who can exorcise demons and control the weather (that’s all quite exciting), and they love the Jesus who sometimes speaks soothing and comforting words, but they don’t seem to understand—in fact, they seem willfully to misunderstand—the deeper implications of Jesus’ message.  One man says, “I’ll follow you, but let me finish plowing my field first.”[v]  Another walks away when Jesus explains that discipleship requires financial sacrifice.[vi]  See, Jesus’ first century audience isn’t much different than us.  They want the warm and comforting Jesus, who has power but who exists mostly to ease their anxieties.  They want the Jesus who is cuddly and omnipotent.  They want the Jesus who is safe.

“You don’t get it!” Jesus finally cries out, to them and to us.  “What I’m asking you to do, what you must do if you are to follow me, is be willing to set aside your old life.  The only criterion by which you can decide whether you can continue in your old path, in your old commitments, in your old relationships, is if they, too, are in service to the Gospel.  In first place, you have to love as I’ve taught you, and serve as I’ve taught you, and give as I’ve taught you.  It will hard.  It will require you to swallow your pride and often your words, to let go of your anger and frustration, and, sometimes, your social safety.  It may require you to let go of some of your very family who will not live for love, and it will require you to claim as family a lot of people you may not like.  And, it’s not a seasonal gig, by the way, like the nativity pageant.  It’s everyday.  Living for the Gospel will be so different from the life you’ve been living that it will feel a lot like dying and being reborn into a new life.[vii]    Because that’s the only way for grace to take seed and grow in this world.”

Jesus knew the implications of living the Gospel.  Already in his story, his own family, including Mary, have come and tried to make him stop, to give up this different way of living for the cozier and more staid life back home in Nazareth.  He told them no.[viii]  As painful as it must have been, when his family told him to give up living as the agent of grace, Jesus chose the Gospel over his family, and he asks no less willingness from those of us who would live for grace.

Can we do that?  I will try, at least, to say it for myself, and as I do, I invite you to say it for yourself internally, and pay attention to how it feels.  Here goes: Before I am an American, before I am a Thompson, before I am a man, I am a follower of Jesus.  I will give all of these other things up, if I must, in order to live for the things for which Jesus lived, in order to love all the ones Jesus loved.

Can I do it?  Can we?  Can anyone?  I hope so.

Aslan-Not-Safe-But-Good

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the child Susan desires more than anything to approach the lion Aslan, who is the figure of Jesus.  Susan stands next to her host, Mr. Beaver, when she asks, “Is he…quite safe?  I feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The Jesus we are called to follow is not a cuddly child in a manger.  And lest we forget, even when he was, the baby Jesus was quickly in flight for his life due to the division caused by his mere birth.  The Jesus we are called to serve is not safe.  His claim on us is total.  He refuses to be boxed away like the Christmas crèche and ushered out only on special occasions.  He refuses to offer easy comfort when the comfort we seek is at odds with God’s grace.   This Jesus is good, but he’s not safe, and if we choose to follow him, the life we’re currently living may be in danger.  Because if we choose to follow this Jesus, it means risking and renegotiating all of our prior relationships, our prior identities.  It means, as we walk through the world, as we enter our homes, as we live our lives, we live first for love and for grace.  Then, we will feel our anxieties truly ease.  Then we will know peace and calm in our souls, when we are first his disciples.  May we always be.

__________________

[i] Isaiah 2:4

[ii] Matthew 5:9

[iii] Matthew 26:52

[iv] Isaiah 9:6

[v] Luke 9:62

[vi] Luke 12:13-21

[vii] Luke 9:23-26

[viii] Luke 8:19-21

Greed

This past May I traveled to Israel, for my first ever trip to the Holy Land.  Our first four days were spent in the north, in Galilee, and that sojourn included a visit to New Testament Bethsaida, just north of the Sea of Galilee.  It is in Bethsaida that Jesus called several of his disciples.  Bethsaida is one of those fishing villages in which Jesus spent considerable time.  But Bethsaida was not always a small hamlet.  A thousand years prior to Jesus’ life, in the time of David, it was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur.  It was to Geshur that the young David traveled to find a wife.  It was to Geshur that David’s son Absalom fled after he’d murdered his brother Amnon.

Bethsaida is now the site of a major archaeological dig, and the findings there are amazing.  With my colleagues, I walked along the stone pavers of a road upon which Jesus himself trod.  Most striking of all is the main gate to the ancient Davidic-era city, when Bethsaida was Geshur’s capital city and a walled fortress of a place rather than a fishing village.  The gate is actually a fortress all its own, encompassing a series of granaries protected by enormous walls that are six meters thick, by far the strongest, most monumental walls of the ancient world.  The walls are so thick as to be conspicuous, in fact.  Talking about the ancient inhabitants of Bethsaida, Archaeologist Kate Raphael says, “The feeling you get is that [the city’s inhabitants] are either terrified of something on the outside or they are protecting something really valuable on the inside.”[i]

Bethsaida walls

The Bethsaida walls

I thought of the Bethsaida ruins again this week when I re-read for the thousandth time the “Parable of the Rich Fool,” as it is known, in Luke’s Gospel: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And the man thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then the rich man said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my silos and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.  But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’”

This is a parable about greed.  Indeed, the precipitating warning for the parable has Jesus saying, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”  But in what, exactly, does greed consist?  In our era, greed is often identified with our capitalist economic system.  In the 1980s, after all, the character Gordon Gekko famously declared in the Hollywood film “Wall Street” that “Greed is good.” Gordon Gekko was a caricatured image of a rapacious and unscrupulous Wall Street raider, but as so often happens, over time the caricature was assumed to be capitalism’s real life definitive norm, and capitalism itself was equated with greed.  That’s unfortunate for many reasons, but most especially because the caricature contributes to attacks on a paper tiger that doesn’t conform to reality.  Is capitalism just greed in the aggregate?  Is it merely a vehicle for vampires seeking prey?  No.  According to a study reported in The Economist magazine, in the last decade world poverty was reduced by more than fifty percent, and the drivers of this reduction, revealed by the specific places on the globe where poverty decreased, were open capitalistic markets.[ii]  Now, I’m obviously trained as a theologian and a priest, not an economist.  I have personal, amateur opinions on appropriate market regulation, important consumer protections, and the like, but that’s for coffee hour conversation, not the pulpit.  From a theological point of view, I’ll simply say that, overall, an economic system that lifts, in a decade, half of the world’s impoverished people from misery and closer to sustainable living is a virtue we should cherish and hone, and it can’t be what Jesus is decrying in his parable.

LEHMAN/GEKKO

Gordon Gekko

 

What then, is greed all about, from Jesus’ point of view?  The key is in the event that immediately precedes the parable.  A man approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

Any priest or family lawyer knows immediately the background of this request, because it is our lot often to be in the middle of just such disputes.  What has happened prior to this request is so common as to be tragically mundane.  There are siblings.  There are family possessions—things—and the desire for those things has taken precedence over the relationship between the siblings.  The man who approaches Jesus wants his inheritance more than he wants a relationship with his brother.  I suspect the other brother feels the same.  Both are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former.  They crave the tangible; the finite; the things they can have, hold, and possess; the material wealth that they can pretend imputes intrinsic worth to them.  They crave this more than they value continuing community with those they have loved.  And that is greed, whether in an economic system or a person, whether in a society or an individual.  Greed is the desire for anything so intense that it comes to believe its object is of greater value than human relationships.

Greed need not only be directed toward material things.  Greed can be the desire for physical or emotional protection.  It can be the craving for acclaim or esteem.  It can be the gnawing need for attention or pity.  The objects of greed are infinitely varied, but in every instance, greed is defined when the desire for its object takes precedence over relationships, when desire concludes that community with others is disposable, so long as greed obtains its object.   Relationships are always sacrificed on the altar of greed.

How does God respond to human greed in all its forms?  “Fools!” God says in Jesus’ parable, without pulling punches.  No object in this world, tangible or intangible, has that kind of value.  The things we desire in this world are, like the world itself, ephemeral.  They do not feed the soul.  They don’t, when hoarded and held like fetishes, give life either to the bearer or the world.  And, those silos, those walls we build to hold the emotional and physical objects of our greed make us hard, cold, suspicious, and mean. They do not protect us. Ultimately, as Jesus says unequivocally today, our greed, our silos, our walls sacrifice even our relationship to God.

silos

You see, greed is an addiction, make no mistake, and as with any other addiction, its craving grows with time.  Ultimately, the objects of our greed grow to become, as St. Paul says in Colossians today, idols.  And the very emotional, psychological, and physical silos we build with the pretense of protecting those idols instead simply separate us from our brothers, our sisters, our friends, and our God.  The end game of our greed is that we eventually stand emotionally, psychologically, existentially, physically alone.

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul responds to a community in which the danger of greed—of relationship-sacrificing desire—is very present.  But Paul is an apostle of hope, and he doesn’t merely diagnose the problem.  He also prescribes the treatment.  To the Colossians, Paul exhorts, “Put greed to death,” and he adds that we must also let go those by-products of our greed, those things that flow from our cravings and are the actual weapons that kill our relationships: anger, malice, slander, abusive language.  In a word, Paul says we must change.

But how do we do that?  If our epistle reading went just a few verses further, we’d see.  Listen to what Paul says there: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

Bear with one another, and clothe yourselves with love.  That prescription requires no object at all, nothing into which greed can latch its teeth.  It requires only the very thing all our greed denies, the primacy of relationships of love with those round about us.  It requires the effort and vulnerability and risk to put intimacy in first place, to embrace the humanity of stranger and friend, to recognize the present love of God that binds us all together, and, in light of all these things, to pause and be thankful.

At the Bethsaida ruins, north of the Sea of Galilee, those enormous granary walls are not the only conspicuous things discovered.  There is also “evidence of fiery destruction, arrow heads, spear points and sling shots that bear silent witness to [a] fierce battle that took place when the city gates were breached and put to the torch.”[iii]  Those massive walls, all six meters thick, did not, in the end, protect those within.  They did not preserve their objects.  They ultimately failed.  Those walls, it turned out, weren’t permanent, nor was the grain they held.  The things of this world never are.

We can wait for our silos, our walls, to fall down around us, leaving us alone in their ruins.  Or we can tear them down ourselves, with God’s grace, letting go of the objects of our greed (we all have them) in favor of human relationships of risk and vulnerability, giving up our various idols in favor of love for God and for one another.  We can exhaust ourselves building walls, or we can clothe ourselves with love, bearing with one another—both here and out there—in kindness and compassion.  When we do the latter, craving will cease.  The peace of Christ will reside in our hearts, and we will be truly thankful.

______________________

[i] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.732284

[ii] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim

[iii] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.732284

Skimming the headlines

“Scientists say giant asteroid could hit the earth next week, causing mass devastation.”[i]  That headline screamed across the online news feed on July 9th, Saturday a week ago.  The opening sentences of the story were these: “Scientists have discovered a massive asteroid that is on course to hit the Earth next week and are scrambling to find a way to divert the object.  The asteroid has been named 2016-FI and measures approximately 1 km across. If it strikes a populated area, it could wipe out entire cities and potentially devastate an entire continent.”

asteroid-hits-earth-2

As you might imagine, the story went viral.  If we’re faced with interstellar cataclysm, I suppose one should want the news to spread exponentially.  I wonder if Home Depot saw a spike in sales of bomb shelter supplies…  And yet, here we are.  The week of danger has passed with no asteroid, no Armageddon.

You see, the article turned out to be one-part news and another part social experiment.  The news it shared had, it turns out, nothing to do with meteors.  After those panicked opening sentences, the article revealed its actual content, a research study by Columbia University which found that sixty percent of links shared on social media are never actually read by those who share them.  Consider that.  An almost supermajority of the online information in which so many of us traffic is passed along to others without being vetted, and often without even being read beyond the headline at all.   As confirmation of the trend, the very article announcing it, with an inflammatory title and three supporting opening sentences about a cataclysmic asteroid, itself went viral.

The study’s lead author says, “People are more willing to share an article than read it. This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

We ingest headlines without considering content.  We absorb provocative statements, but we do not test their veracity.  We allow our opinions and, indeed, our beliefs to be influenced by superlatives, but we rarely analyze nuance.

click bait

The study and the article focused on online media, but the same phenomenon surely extends from the virtual into the everyday.  We now, more than ever, live in a surface-skimming world, which is characterized by fast movement, speedy conclusions, and self-satisfying echo chambers in which we too often seek only that data—from media, from our leaders, from our circles of friends, indeed, from our church—which reinforces the things, theories and conclusions we already want to be true.

This brings us to today’s Gospel passage, about Martha and Mary.[ii]  Most often this anecdote from Luke is interpreted as a case of competing virtues.  Martha works for Jesus, while Mary communes with Jesus.  Both are important, just as volunteering at the Beacon, for instance, and attending worship are both important.  “How can we best attend to both?” a litany of books about Mary and Martha on Amazon.com asks.  That’s a fair question and one worth asking, but it is also a question that considers this passage out of context, and as such, it’s not the question the passage itself implies to the reader.  This passage is not, I would suggest, a comparison of Martha’s labor versus Mary’s intimacy, so set that aside for the next few minutes.  What, then, is it about?

In context, Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary immediately follows Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan.  That parable flows directly into this story; there’s not a single verse in between them.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, as we were reminded last week, is Jesus’ radical, grace-filled redefinition of our neighbors and our responsibilities to and for others as disciples of Jesus.  Its implications are profound for everything we do in the world, for our understanding of our responsibilities, and for our conception of the ways we both receive and extend love and grace to those around us.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan can’t be glossed over quickly, with the easy assumption that we understand its depths.  It demands that we pause and take stock, that we read it again and again, even that we anguish over whether or not we want to believe and follow Jesus’ words.

 

But in the very next verse—the very next verse—Martha pulls Jesus into her house, sits him down like an ornament, and moves on into the next room.  She doesn’t pause at all.  She doesn’t ask questions of Jesus.  She doesn’t wonder about the nuances of his teaching.  She doesn’t take stock of her own life and consider the transformation that may be required of her, of her values and her commitments in the world.  Martha only reads the headline, so to speak.  To quote the Columbia University study with which I began, she makes no “effort to go deeper.”  Perhaps Martha believes she has Jesus figured out.  Perhaps she assumes uncritically that whatever Jesus has to say will agree with, rather than challenge, the life she already lives.  Surely, Martha becomes impatient with those who actually want to hear Jesus, to consider and understand him, to vet the whole article before living it and sharing it.

Martha_and_Mary_He_Qi

No so, Mary.  Mary is entranced and likely even perplexed by the words of Jesus.  She can’t go about her routine as usual, because the words of Jesus—not merely the headlines (so easily misconstrued) but the heart of the Gospel message—have stopped her in her tracks.  Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary wants to give Jesus a warm hug, but that she wants to sit at his feet and listen.  Mary wants to understand the challenge that Jesus presents to her worldview.  She wants to wrestle with what the Gospel means for the way she acts, interacts, speaks, believes, decides, cries, sings; not just as she sits there in the comfort of her living room, but in every moment hereafter.  Ultimately, Mary will share what she hears, and it will go viral like nothing our internet has ever seen, but what she shares won’t be a sound bite; or a willfully misinterpreted verse, wrenched from context; or a cozy platitude; or a half-baked theology that serves to undergird the way of life she already enjoys.  Mary, who has taken the time to listen, who has made the effort to go deep and allow the words of Jesus to absorb into the marrow of her soul, will share the Gospel, the love of God-in-Christ that redefines everything.

St. Paul knows that Gospel.  He shares it, too, and never more profoundly as in today’s Letter to the Colossians.  If ever we wonder whether Jesus is merely a headline, to be slapped up and then quickly forgotten, listen to Paul:

“For in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”[iii]

Jesus can’t be skimmed.  He can’t be touted as a headline in defense of some argument, or support of some theology, or in reinforcement of a life already chosen.  Jesus is the whole thing, and we either take the whole of his Gospel of crazy, radical, life-altering love in all of its implications, or none of it.  God knows, our world needs it.  Like Mary, we must be entranced and perplexed and challenged to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, so that we can be changed and then share those words that are to “have first place in everything,” through which Jesus “reconciles to himself all things,” and by which we encounter grace and find our lives in God.

__________________

[i] http://yackler.ca/blog/2016/07/09/scientists-say-giant-asteroid-hit-earth-next-week-causing-mass-devastation/

[ii] Luke 10:38-42

[iii] Colossians 1:16-20.