Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Creation care

Creation care is a priority for both the national Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Hawai’i. A friend who is both an active Episcopalian and environmentalist, sent me this link ( to a sermon, “Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks to the Environmental Crisis,” preached by the Rev. Nancy Petty at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh on October 21, 2018. My friend commented that the Rev. Petty had received an ovation from her congregation at the conclusion of her sermon. After reading the sermon, I understand why. I encourage you to take a few moments to read her thought-provoking, very timely sermon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead

Vietnam veteran Eugene J. Toni went to see the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. Standing under a full moon in March 1991, he flipped through the paperback directory of names on the wall, looking for friends. Eventually, he turned to the T's in a long-shot search for an uncle he had never met. Instead, he found his own name. He and his wife, Nancy, walked down to panel 17, counted to line 121. He said, "I showed her my name, and then we both looked at each other in amazed disbelief."[1]

Today’s gospel reading has three possible interpretations.[2] First, people may take the reading literally, expecting God to intervene supernaturally to heal an incurable disease, prevent bad things from happening to loved ones, and generally to solve the world’s problems. These misguided hopes at best offer temporary relief and usually break hearts when God fails to deliver. As an old tradition reports, when Lazarus was unbound, the first thing he said was, "Must I die again?" to which Jesus replied, "Yes." And Lazarus never smiled again.[3]

Second, John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead may be a historicized version of the parable of Lazarus and Abraham found in Luke’s gospel.[4] In that parable, an ill beggar named Lazarus daily lies outside a rich man’s house. Receiving no help from the rich man, the beggar dies and goes to heaven. Then the rich man dies and goes to Hades, the abode of the dead. There, the rich man laments his fate. When Abraham rebuffs the rich man’s plea for Lazarus to bring him water, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the rest of the family of their impending fate. Abraham replies that people who fail to heed the prophets will not listen to someone raised from the dead. As Christian beliefs about Jesus’ miracles developed, this parable calling for justice may very well have become the basis for John’s story of Lazarus’ resuscitation.

This interpretation offers a more realistic basis for hope, repeated in both today’s Old and New Testament readings, that God will end injustice, vanquish evil, and make all things new.[5] The dead are raised – metaphorically. Indeed, we can see signs that God is at work through people changing death into life. Extreme global poverty is declining, fewer people are dying of hunger, life expectancy is increasing, and child labor is disappearing.[6]

This interpretation’s demand for justice has special relevance in view of the hate crimes at Pittsburg’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Jesus was a Jew. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were Jews. An attack on Jews is an attack on the community to which Jesus belonged and t ministered.

Jesus, however, did not minister only to Jews. When a Syrophoenician woman begged him to heal her daughter, Jesus did so. And when asked who his neighbor was, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, identifying himself with the Samaritan. That the authors of the gospels preserved these occasional stories constitutes clear evidence that Jesus frequently, and in the eyes of his contemporaries scandalously, ministered to non-Jewish Palestinians, a fact conveniently ignored in many churches.

Walking the Jesus path by seeing ourselves individually and collectively as Lazarus, persons whose lives are transformed by God’s power, thus requires loving Palestinians and Israelis equally. Our faith precludes both anti-Semitism and ignoring the plight of displaced, devalued Palestinians.

Third, the gospel reading may symbolically describe the meaning of Holy Baptism, the living enacting Baptism’s grace. The old Lazarus dies; is wrapped in burial clothes (his baptismal garments), and then “rises” to new life, answering Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb even as the newly baptized is raised out of the baptismal waters.[7] New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan describes the story as process incarnated in event, the process by which God brings life out of death in the present.[8]

This spiritualized interpretation coheres with the grace evident in the lives of the (S)saints – whether spelt with a lower or upper case “S” – grace that manifests itself in our lives as wisdom, courage, and strength for coping with life’s perils and problems. Looking at you, or at any congregation in which I know people, I always see persons whom God has raised from the dead. I see addicts in recovery, broken hearts that were healed, once empty souls now filled with love, the lost who have found their way, and much more.

Resurrection transforms us from the walking dead into the genuinely alive. Unlike Vietnam Vet Eugene Toni who was surprised at seeing his name on the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, we confidently trust that our name, along with the names of all God’s people, are written in what the author of the book of Revelation called the Lamb’s book of life.

When you entered St. Clement’s this morning, you came into a place of new hope, new life, new beginnings. God may not offer the answers we want. But God does offer a realistic, trustworthy hope for both a better, more just world and more abundant life eternally connected to God and to God’s people. May Jesus words, "Roll away the stone;" always echo in our hearts and minds, renewing and strengthening our hope. Amen.

All Saints Day sermon preached November 4, 2018

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] C. Thomas Hilton, "Christmas Fulfilled," The Clergy Journal, March 1992, p. 17.
[2] John 11:32-44. The three approaches to interpreting the gospel are from Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 428-430.
[3] A. Dudley Dennison M.D., Shock It to Me Doctor! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1970), p. 108.
[4] Luke 16:19-31. Cf. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), p. 93.
[5] Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a.
[6] Dylan Matthews, “23 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better,” Vox, October 17, 2018 at
[7] A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (New York: Fawcett Communications, 1992), p. 183, citing Morton Smith’s work.
[8] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 95.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Resurrection and life after death

What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of Jesus?

The earliest answer, from a chronological perspective, probably affirmed a literal, bodily resurrection. This view fit nicely into a worldview populated by persons of mixed divine-human parentage in which other individuals were alleged to have risen from the dead. This view also fit nicely into a pre-scientific worldview.

The physical view became problematic with the advance of science that began during the Enlightenment. Illustrative of scientific difficulties with positing a physical resurrection is that a physical body begins to deteriorate immediately upon death. Yet Christians over the centuries have preferred burial to cremation precisely because of their mistaken belief in the resurrection of the physical body.

The second answer, again from a chronological perspective, was to interpret Jesus’ resurrection spiritually, that is, the resurrected Jesus was a new-being, changed from physical into a new quality of being. This view cohered well with the seeming paradoxical descriptions of the resurrected Jesus found in the Bible. Jesus could move through walls to enter a locked room, but he could also eat and people could touch him.

As belief in a theistic, supernatural God waned and became more problematic during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christians struggled to articulate new ideas of resurrection. One idea is that resurrection denotes unending, eternal life in God’s mind. Another view of resurrection is that it denotes Jesus continuing to live in the minds of his disciples. In this latter case, events such as Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road may represent an event that occurred entirely in Paul’s mind. This differs markedly from a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection in which Paul would have encountered a presence external to himself.

Scripture offers no definitive clarity on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. All of the gospels were composed decades after Jesus’ death. Mark’s gospel, the first written biography of Jesus, ends without a description of the resurrection. Close comparison of the details in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John reveal a number of contradictions, e.g., the identity of the first person to know of Jesus’ resurrection. If the Bible offered an easy answer about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, then theologians, biblical scholars, and ordinary Christians would not engage in ongoing contentious, unresolved debates about it.

Somehow, Jesus continued to exert a powerful influence in the lives of his disciples. Jesus continues to exert a powerful influence in the lives of many Christians today. And this is in spite of the fact that nobody can know with certainty what happened on the first Easter morning.

Ultimately, debates about the specifics of Jesus’ resurrection are unimportant. Definitive answers may come only in an individual’s own transformation from this life to the next – if indeed that happens, a topic on which the longstanding Christian consensus is slowly dissolving. Furthermore, in our increasingly “flat,” globalized world with competing religions, few people will convert to Christianity simply by reading the Bible.

Instead, the real proof that Jesus lives is in the lives of his disciples. Do they love one another (this is how Jesus said that people would recognize his disciples)? Do they love their neighbor – all of their neighbors? Do they love God, allowing the light of the ultimate to shine forth from within them?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Seeking greatness

Many aspire to greatness. And even if we do not aspire to greatness, without ambition few of us would achieve very much. This morning’s gospel offers practical lessons in ambition and the goals for which we should be ambitious.

James and John seek Jesus out in private.[1] They begin, I suspect, somewhat abashedly, by asking Jesus to grant any request they make.[2] In this they are like children with a parent, or a sailor with a chief, when the requester knows that the request isn’t quite right and is likely to be denied. You know the feelings I’m talking about, I am sure. We have all tried this technique at least once or twice.

Matthew reports that James and John were even more subtle. They did not go by themselves to see Jesus, but went with their mother and had her ask Jesus.[3] Some scholars suspect that Matthew’s account may reflect an effort to make James and John look less ambitious, less political, instead portraying them as saintlier.

In any case, the gospel seems a clear rejection of “office politics.” The path to true greatness does not consist in networking, currying favor, having more “face time” than anybody else, or in changing our attitudes, values and opinions to match the prevailing wind. If honest, most of us try “politics” to get what we want from our parents, our spouse, our co-workers, our boss, and our friends at least some of the time. The twinge of conscience which I hope we feel when we use these tactics is God reminding us that these tactics are wrong and are not the path to greatness.

More surprising than Jesus’ rejection of politics as the path to preferment is Jesus’ rejection of advancement on the basis of achievement. Once James and John have asked Jesus to sit at his right and left, Jesus asks if they will be able to drink from the cup from which he is to drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which he will be baptized.[4]

From the vantage point of the twentieth century, these are clearly allusions to Jesus’ crucifixion. James and John do not seem to have grasped what Jesus was talking about. The word used for baptism in this verse means submerged. In other words, Jesus asks James and John, are you able to be submerged into my life? Are you, are we, able to face every test and trial which Jesus faced?

James and John glibly reply, “We are able.”[5] Jesus acknowledges that they indeed are able to drink from his cup and receive his baptism, but that this does not qualify them for preferment in God’s kingdom.[6]

With God, we know that selections for preferment or promotion are not capricious. We know that God loves us too much to arbitrarily choose one person over another. And while the criteria for selection remain mysterious, we know that they are neither based on spiritual politics or ability, skill, accomplishments or merit. God chooses whom God will favor.[7] We also know that humans have a role in determining what happens. Apparent capriciousness or blatant unfairness point to human actions, not to what God has done or is doing.

While God has chosen those whom God will favor, the path to greatness is clear: the one who would be great must be the servant of all, and the one who wishes to be first among all must be the slave of all. This is diametrically opposed to the prevalent notion that the path to greatness consists of positions of prominence, prestige and power.

To seek to be the servant of all is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. God could have responded to sin in many different ways: by destroying all creation, wiping the canvass clean; by abandoning creation, throwing the partially finished canvass on a cosmic trash heap; or by patiently, lovingly reworking the details until each part was perfected, creating a living masterpiece. This was the course God chose. Jesus points the way to perfection, the way of sacrificial love which takes God as its center and finds fulfillment in others.

During the terrible Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of this century (the leaders were so nicknamed because they practiced gymnastics and calisthenics), the “boxers” captured a mission station, then placed a flat cross on the ground. They gave instruction that those who trampled the cross as they came out of the building would be set free; those who walked around the cross would be executed. The first seven students trampled the cross under their feet and were released.

But the eighth student, a young girl, knelt beside the cross and prayer for strength. Then she slowly walked around the cross to face the firing squad. Strengthened by her example, every one of the more than ninety other students followed her to death.[8] This young student’s ambition of faithfulness brought her true greatness. May God grant us the same courage and faithfulness.

[1]Mark 10:41.
[2]Mark 10:35.
[3]Matthew 20:20-23.
[4]Mark 10:38.
[5]Mark 10:39.
[6]Mark 10:39-40.
[7]Mark 10:40.
[8]Erwin W. Lutzer, Where Do We Go From Here? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), 45.