Monday, September 5, 2016

Shaped in Jesus' image

I like to watch a potter at work: strong hands, wet and muddy, shaping the clay as it spins on the wheel. I view myself as having little artistic ability, so watching someone transform a lump of clay into an object of use, or beauty, and especially into an object of both use and beauty, fascinates and mystifies me. This is what God is doing with us, making us into objects of use and beauty.
The image of God's people as clay being made into pots is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. This morning’s reading from Jeremiah depicts God as the potter.[1] Yet God finds the vessel shaped on the wheel unsatisfactory and so makes it into another vessel. Did God make a mistake? I don’t think so. Instead, I would suggest that two explanations of how the clay was molded into an unsatisfactory pot. First, the clay is imperfect. Most of us do not have to look very hard before we can identify faults with ourselves. Indeed, if anything, some of us are too hypercritical of ourselves.
Second, God's hands are imperfect because you and I are God's hands. Sometimes God works with the clay directly, as in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion or speaks directly to our spirit. More often, however, God speaks to us through other persons, who, like us, are imperfect.
This morning’s epistle reading provides an example of the imperfections that can be introduced into the vessel being created on the potter’s wheel because God's hands – you and I – do not move in perfect accord with God's will.[2] Onesimus was a runaway slave. Somehow, and although we know nothing of the circumstances by which it happened, we might assert that it was through the work of the Holy Spirit, Paul and Onesimus met. Paul became Onesimus’ father in God. What Paul means is that through his witness and ministry, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Onesimus has become a Christian.
Now Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner, who is also a Christian. The text is unclear whether Onesimus’ owner was Philemon or Archippus; the text refers only to the owner as brother, a term that Paul consistently used to denote fellow Christians. Paul could not indefinitely harbor a runaway slave. To do so was a crime; Onesimus as a slave was subject to whatever punishment his master might wish to inflict, no matter how cruel or extreme, even death.[3] Paul suggests that perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from his owner for a while was in order that Onesimus might become a Christian.
Here the text becomes problematic. Paul encourages Onesimus’ owner to welcome Onesimus as a brother, implying that Onesimus should be set free. Paul offers to make good any debt and emphasizes that Onesimus is to be welcomed as would be Paul himself. But for over fifteen centuries, most Christians rejected that interpretation. Instead, they strongly contended that the owner’s only obligation was to treat a Christian slave with kindness. Paul’s act of returning the runaway slave was interpreted as New Testament evidence in support of slavery. Those Christians failed to understand that the very institution of slavery is incompatible with Christianity. Every human being is worthy of dignity and respect because all are God's children, made in God's image.
Those Christians who argued that Christianity and slavery are compatible represent clear evidence of the imperfections both in the clay and in the human hands that God uses to mold the clay. No wonder God sometimes finds it necessary to remake a pot. This is why it is important to remember that we are the clay and not the pot: we may be remade, but we are not thrown away. In short, becoming a Christian is a process, not an event.
Becoming a Christian is costly. Onesimus as he returned to his owner was most likely filled with fear and trepidation. Similarly, Jesus tells those who would follow him to consider a king who contemplates waging war or a person contemplating a construction project.[4] What person would be so foolish as to begin either a war or a building project without first counting the cost? Yet many Christians today think only of what they can gain from Christianity, not of the cost. What price should we expect to pay for journeying as a Christian?
First, being a Christian means that all of my possessions and wealth belong to God rather than to me. I am only a steward, tasked to use my possessions and wealth for God's purposes rather than finding them a source of security or the path to a hedonistic lifestyle.
Second, becoming a Christian means that my life should progressively resemble Jesus of Nazareth's life. This process of transformation can be painful as we let go of parts of ourselves that we may like or enjoy but that are incompatible with the image of Christ. It also requires that we invest substantial time and energy in trying to discover who Christ is so that we know that which we aim to become. The familiar adage, if you have no goal any road will get you there, applies to the spiritual life. Holy Nativity, with leadership from its Vestry and Wardens, is becoming intentional about identifying and following a spiritual path.
Third, being a Christian means that you and I should expect to minister in God's name. We are not only clay; we are also God's hands helping to shape others. You should have a ministry, a service to God and others, that reaches beyond simply embodying Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. Perhaps your ministry is inviting others to explore the Christian faith or to join you in worship. Perhaps your ministry is that of teaching; we have many people at Holy Nativity with the gift of teaching. Perhaps your gift is one of hospitality, or service, or administration; we have people at Holy Nativity who have one or more of those gifts and who regularly exercise them. If you are not exercising a gift or gifts for ministry, why not? Is the cost too high?
Jesus said, Come to me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest; come and drink deeply of the water of life that truly refreshes. But he also said, Count the cost; being my disciple is costly; being made into my image can be painful.

[1] Jeremiah 18:1-11.
[2] Philemon 1-21.
[3] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: the Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 270.
[4] Luke 14:25-33.

Monday, August 29, 2016

What Can Anyone Do to Me?

This morning’s epistle reading contains an intriguing question, “What can anyone do to me?” The context makes it obvious that the author refers only to bad things. My immediate reaction to the phrase was a single word, “Plenty!” Although criminals have never violated my person, I have had my house robbed and my car totaled when someone rear-ended mine after I had stopped at a red light. Everyone at least occasionally suffers unfair criticism by others. Illustratively, I once had a parishioner, upset with my insistence on complying with Navy and Marine Corps regulations governing Chapel funds, inform me that I was doing the devil's work when I refused to permit the continued expenditure of funds in good, but explicitly prohibited ways. Reports of financial scams and identity theft are a media staple. One of the enduring harms with which many people now  live as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an exaggerated sense of vulnerability. Is this morning’s epistle lesson wrong in implying nobody can cause us grievous harm? Alternatively, does it mean something else?
The reading from Hebrews instructs Christians to offer hospitality to strangers, inferring that in doing so we, like others, may unknowingly entertain angels.[1] Contrary to medieval theologians, cultural stereotypes, and fundamentalists, the word angels in the Bible more often refers to God's messengers than to supernatural beings. What the epistle says, in other words, is that by offering hospitality to strangers we may receive a message from God.
I suspect that a halo effect applies to how most of us think of self, parish, and nation. We tend to imagine that we are more hospitable than we actually are. If you welcome and entertain family and friends in your home, that is good. Hebrews, however, forces me to ask, Do you also welcome and entertain strangers in your home?
Does Holy Nativity warmly welcome and entertain strangers? We face a mixed scorecard. For example, our worship services, especially for those who do not read, are difficult to follow and require juggling several books and pieces of paper. Holy Nativity is in the process of taking a couple of important steps to improve its welcome. First, by the middle of September, I hope that the worship bulletin will contain the entire service, something that we once did but then discontinued. Including the entire worship service makes it easier for members, and far more importantly, for visitors to follow and participate in worship. And the Vestry has set as one of its goals for the next year developing an effective program to welcome newcomers on their journey from visitor to member. Volunteers are needed to help with that program. If you are interested, please speak Louisa Leroux who is leading that effort or to me.
Nationally, the issue of offering hospitality to strangers faces several roadblocks. The US erects barriers to keep out unwanted immigrants, creates programs to deport illegal immigrants, restricts access to healthcare to those who can afford to pay, and incarcerates non-violent miscreants for life.
Lest you consider my vision of hospitality too broad, recall this morning’s gospel reading.[2] Jesus, the invited guest of honor at a feast, told his host,
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…
Jesus implicitly acknowledges that his affluent if not wealthy host does not know the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind whom he should invite to dinner. Then, like now, the well-to-do generally ignored, or even ostracized, the poor. Furthermore, Jews in Jesus’ day sought to justify their exclusivity by citing their belief that being crippled, blind, or impoverished was a mark of God's disfavor.
Jesus gives us the same instructions. We, the body of Christ and the nation, are to show hospitality to the poor, the outcast, and the despised. Jesus envisions a global community in which all live as brothers and sisters. Is Jesus’ vision an unrealistic utopian ideal or the future that God intends for us and for our world?
If you are like me, you answer that question with a yes and a no. Yes, I am committed to Jesus’ vision of the future. The acclamation Praise to you, Lord Christ! which follows the gospel reading, expresses a prayerful hope that Jesus’ vision will come to pass. Praying “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” from the Lord’s Prayer expresses the same hope. Yet when I examine my life, I see that I fall woefully short of Jesus’ standard of hospitality. I too often fear people whom I do not know, people who seem to have different values or beliefs than I do, people whose desire for a better life appears to threaten my quality of life. Fear dampens or extinguishes the fire of faith, causing us to act in ways inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings and vision.
Former radio talk show host Kenneth Hamblin, who had just learned to scuba dive, was vacationing with his wife on Lake Powell. Diving alone, he ineptly fired his new spear gun at a carp near the end of his dive. Surfacing, he laid his spear gun on the water and was startled to watch it sink. The lake water was very murky – a dark, ugly place. He did not want to go back down after the gun and he could not see the bottom. Yet he could not admit to his wife that he had lost his expensive new toy. So back down he went, into the depths, following a weighted rope to help him stay under the boat. After his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see more than he had expected. Unfortunately, the rope did not reach the lake’s bottom. Although he did not want to let go and sink into the murkiness, he liked the prospect of facing his wife without the gun even less. So he overcame his fears, let go, and found the gun.[3]
Life can seem very murky. We know what we should do, but fear letting go of the lifelines on which we depend and to trust that God will care for us. Consequently, we decide to rely upon self, our money or other possessions, an addiction, or almost anything else. As we heard in this morning’s first lesson,[4] human pride begins by forsaking God, which inevitably leads to sin, fear, and brokenness. This morning take a chance. Let love prevail, both our love for one another and God's love for us. The message the angels, God's messengers, bring us is a message of hope, a message that will help us, like the author of Hebrews, to say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"

[1] Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.
[2] Luke 14:1, 7-14.
[3] Ken Hamblin, Pick a Better Country (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 217-218.
[4] Jeremiah 2:4-13.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Will you choose health or disability?

The Ugly American, a 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, tells the story of an American engineer, Homer Atkins – a man with an ugly face – whom the military sent to Vietnam to build dams and roads. Homer's wife, Emma, accompanied him to Vietnam. She became curious that every woman over sixty in the village where the Atkins lived had a bent back. Then she noticed that after the monsoon season, older people using a broom with a short handle inevitably swept the debris from the streets. Since wood for longer handles cost too must, Emma found a long-stalked reed and planted shoots from this reed by her door. She tended these reeds carefully. One day when neighbors were in her house she cut a tall reed, bound coconut fronds to it and began to sweep with her back straight. When her guests questioned her about the reed, she told them where it grew. Four years later, after Emma and Homer had returned home to Pittsburgh, they received a letter from the village headman thanking them. The letter read: "In the village of Chang Dong today, the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful and bent. You will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory . . . at the foot are these words: 'In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.'"[1]
In today's gospel reading,[2] Jesus attends Sabbath worship in a synagogue. A woman, who has had a bent back for eighteen years, enters. Jesus recognizes her pain, touches her compassionately, and the woman stands erect, her back healed. I think that most of us would be amazed and grateful to witness a similar cure. Some of the worshipers in the synagogue, however, object. Jesus healing her on the Sabbath violated the Mosaic Law's prohibition against working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds passionately: "You hypocrites! You water your animals on the Sabbath. This woman is much more valuable than any animal." Through his words and actions, Jesus shows us who God is and God's great love for us.[3]
Jesus' passion reflects the depth of his love for his neighbor. Passionate love refuses to accept evil, regardless of its cause, duration, or the person or persons who suffer the harm. By healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus both emphasizes the personhood of women and the healing power of God's love.
Luke does not tell us why the woman's back was bent. The story with which I began this sermon about the bent backs of the elderly women of Chang Dong village in Vietnam describes a systemic evil: people could not afford long handles for their brooms and this caused women, who did most of the sweeping, to have bent backs by age 60.. Traditional Vietnamese culture devalued women and consequently the village power brokers, all men, did not prioritize discovering how to prevent women developing bent backs. The gospel's silence about the cause of the woman's bent back leaves open the possibility that she suffered from a medical problem, perhaps had a genetic defect, or was the victim of some systemic evil. Whichever is correct, Jesus' passionate love for his neighbors pierced an ethos of neglect and self-righteousness to straighten the woman's back. God calls Christians, we who try to walk the Jesus path, to love others with a similar passion, to act to end evil wherever or whenever we see it.
The healing occurred in the village synagogue. Village synagogues were small buildings, approximately the size of the open area around the chancel altar. The walls were lined with stone benches on which attendees sat. A wooden cabinet, called the Ark of the Covenant, occupied the position of honor opposite the door. The Ark stored the Torah, or whatever portion of the Torah that the village was fortunate enough to possess. The Ark also stored other scrolls the village owned, such as ones upon which the words of the prophets were written. Synagogue services began and ended with prayer. Then someone would read or recite part of one of those scrolls. A man would then expound upon the text's meaning.
The setting is important. [4] First, most village residents attended. Similar to the way in which their worship represented the essence of the Jewish village, our worship represents the center or essence of our Christian community. Second, synagogue attendees expected to hear God speak to them through their prayers, scripture reading, and teaching. Hopefully, we gather with similar expectations. Third, disagreements over the meaning of the scriptures were commonplace. More than any other major religion, Judaism teaches that vigorously debating a text's meaning sifts the chaff from the wheat, thereby distilling human opinion from God's message for God's people. In other words, Jesus healing the woman and then engaging in a disputation with some of the synagogue attendees about his actions benefitted both the woman and the gathered community.
Finally, Jesus in healing the woman laid his hands upon her. This action, which we preserve in ordaining clergy, consecrating bread and wine during the Holy Eucharist, and praying for the sick, symbolizes both giving and receiving power. By laying his hands on the woman, Jesus dramatically demonstrated God's embrace and acceptance of her as one of God's children. No longer was she an untouchable woman. Furthermore, by laying his hands on the woman, Jesus symbolically transferred the healing power of God's love to her.
Three men were walking by a river and they saw a man walking on the water coming toward them. The first one said: "Who are you?"
"I'm Jesus," came the reply.
"Well, I've got a real bad back," said the first person. Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, and instantly his back was restored to normal.
The second man saw this happen and said: "Jesus, my eyesight is really getting dim. Could you do something about that?" Jesus reached out and laid his fingers on the fellow's eyes and his eyesight was as sharp as when he was a youngster.
Jesus noticed that the third man walked with a limp and asked: "What is your problem my good fellow?"
"Don't touch me!" exclaimed the man. "I'm on disability!"[5]
The choice is ours. Will we, like the woman in this morning's gospel reading, muster the courage to seek healing or will we, like the man in that last story, prefer to live in misery and on disability?

[1] Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958).
[2] Luke 13:10-17.
[3] James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 132.
[4] The various elements important for healing are adapted from Dale A. Matthews with Connie Clark, The Faith Factor (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), pp. 223-247.
[5] Source unknown.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Digging for bedrock

Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest, Jungian therapist, prolific author, and professor at the University of Notre Dame. In perhaps his best-known book, The Other Side of Silence, he summarized his experiences working with Notre Dame students
When [students] first came in to talk, it would be about some book or idea. If I passed muster in that situation, then in another hour of listening and talking I might hear about problems with parents or a brother, or in the dormitory; their sense of loneliness and isolation and problems of identity. And after that test I might then be admitted to a room full of sexual fears and tales of sexual peccadillos, some not so minor. But there was still another level of sharing which I found only when they were quite convinced that I would not doubt or ridicule or pressure. It was then I was admitted to their religious experience, their sense of the presence of God, their feeling of closeness and desire to serve and know Him better. (p. 16)

As Kelsey elegantly describes, religious beliefs and spiritual experiences reside at the deepest level of the self. Not only does sharing our religious beliefs and experiences with another person require becoming vulnerable, but, contrary to our prior presumptions, discovering that some of our beliefs or experiences do not rest upon bedrock can shake, if not completely shatter, our religious identity.

Jesus appreciated the importance of building one's life on spiritual bedrock (cf. Mt. 7:24-27). Unfortunately, Jesus failed to provide his followers with a clear statement of what constitutes that bedrock. Episcopalians tacitly acknowledge that omission. At ordination, new deacons and priests affirm that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation, a commitment without a definition of salvation or statement of what is necessary to obtain salvation. Furthermore, the Creeds, often interpreted in divergent and contradictory ways, offer no reliable guidance for distinguishing between bedrock and densely packed sand.

Three factors dramatically redirected my search for bedrock from which to derive theological and ethical norms: the historical-critical study of the Bible; recognizing that other sources of knowledge as well as the Bible inescapably inform theology and ethics; and globalization. Historical-critical studies launched the twentieth century quest for the historical Jesus, a figure no longer identical with the Jesus depicted by harmonizing the four gospels. Clashes between other fields of study and theological/ethical studies fueled both growing secularism and underscored the inadequacy of a literal reading of Scripture, e.g., progress in understanding race, gender, and sexuality contradicted traditional Christian teachings on those topics. Globalization exposed Christian exclusivity as tenuous if not indefensible and became another catalyst for reexamining Christian theology and ethics. Collectively, these three factors have been widely perceived as requiring a fresh evaluation of whether the purported bedrock upon which Christianity had constructed its theology and ethics was truly bedrock or simply densely packed sand. As theologian Mark C. Taylor in his book, About Religion, observed, "It is obvious that we are living during a time of extraordinary transition: something is slipping away and something is beginning."

Consequently, it is unsurprising that many theological and ethical precepts that Christians regarded for centuries as bedrock have lately been shown to be sand. The Episcopal Church's rejection of remarriage after divorce unless the spouse had committed adultery, limiting ordination to men, and teaching that same sex unions are inherently sinful illustrate sand historically perceived as bedrock.

The whole Church, including Episcopalians, has frequently avoided confronting issues raised by contemporary biblical studies, other sources of knowledge, and globalization. Sometimes a desire to avoid conflict resulted in clergy pandering to parishioners' deeply held beliefs, a phenomenon James Smart described in his 1970 book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Other times, clergy mentally shelved seminary content in order to preserve cherished theological ideas acquired before seminary. Still other clergy have struggled to integrate contemporary biblical studies, knowledge, and globalization into their ministries but lacked the skills and parishioners' trust to overcome the fierce resistance they encountered when people realized that the changes required jettisoning beliefs widely considered the bedrock of the Christian faith. Whatever the explanation, Christians have largely acted like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the problems would disappear. They were therefore shocked when theological and ethical changes seemed to occur virtually overnight, although decades of debate preceded acceptance of these ideas.

Finding the bedrock upon which to develop Christian theology and ethics is a daunting and ongoing task. Some Christians persist in arguing for an unrealistically expansive view of that bedrock. Others, like me, favor a minimalist understanding of Christian bedrock. In view of contemporary biblical studies, continuing advances in human knowledge, and globalization, the theological nucleus that constitutes the bedrock at the heart of Christian theology seems reducible to three elements: love God, love others as yourself, and follow Jesus to learn how to love God and others. Understanding even that brief credo entails looking through a glass dimly. For example, to what reality does the word God refer? Hence, searching for bedrock is an ongoing endeavor, which Paul Tillich labelled the "Protestant Principle."

Rethinking Christian bedrock inevitably ignites controversy. Globally, disputes about ecclesial authority, sexual mores, and biblical hermeneutics have brought the Anglican Communion to the precipice of schism. Locally, disagreements about biblical hermeneutics, sexuality, and other topics have prompted a minority of Episcopalians to leave this Church for another church. Future clashes may focus on questions about the extent to which virtual Christian communities can or should replace physical communities, the desirability of ecumenical and interfaith unity, etc.

I find digging for bedrock exhausting. Finding time for theological reading and conversations means leaving other important tasks undone. Even then, I am constantly aware of how little reading and excavating of the detritus atop the bedrock that I actually accomplish. I am also keenly aware of how inadequate my efforts to describe Christian bedrock are. Nevertheless, we must dig for bedrock. Otherwise, the exodus of people who recognize the sand that prior generations regarded as bedrock will simply grow until Christianity twenty or fifty years from now is a tiny remnant, resembling the Flat Earth Society more than it does Jesus.

Rethinking Christian bedrock is an iterative and collaborative process. No single Christian, not even a Pope, can authoritatively define Christian bedrock. My July contribution to the Episcopal Café's Magazine (“Life after Death,” Part One and Two) contended that critical-historical biblical studies, advances in knowledge, and globalization require reconsidering Christianity's historic teachings about life after death. My musings prompted a lengthy rebuttal posted in The Living Church blog that defended the Church's historic teachings. Both the rebuttal and most of the comments on the Café's website opposed my attempt to rethink the meaning of life after death. Sadly, no respondent proposed an alternative reconstruction of Christianity's historic teachings about life after death. Failing to conduct fresh excavations to uncover Christianity's real bedrock condemns the Church to a slow, lingering, and irreversible decline that will inexorably culminate in its own death. The Church's only hope, as Bishop Spong declared in one of his book titles, is to change or to die. I, for one, prefer the challenge of change to death.