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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Preventing sexual assaults

An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me some comments and questions about preventing sexual abuse:

With so much going on about sex assaults, it is time for the church to get involved. Since few parents talk about protection, evidently, then having the church offer classes on behaviors and power may make all congregants wiser. Including how to protect both men and women would be a good start. The classes need to definitely include going Dutch when going out and not trusting others buying you drinks, food or gifts. Would discussing what to do if encountering a potential situation in which assaults might occur avoid assaults from happening?

These lessons may not stop determined assailants but might lessen the probability of it happening.

Churches, frequently under the auspices of local ecumenical or interfaith groups, used to offer sex education classes. In the 1960s many school districts refused to conduct sex education classes. In some areas, churches and other religious congregations banded together to offer these classes. Participation by the Roman Catholic Church frequently depended upon whether the classes would address issues on which the Roman Catholic Church’s position differed markedly from mainline Protestant and Jewish groups. These issues included abortion, artificial birth control and pre-marital sex. Fundamentalist Protestant groups usually refused to participate for their own reasons.

When sex education became part of the curriculum in most school districts, the courses offered by ecumenical and interfaith groups ended. Another factor that contributed to the decline were a spreading confusion about sexual ethics, e.g., when if ever is pre-marital sex moral. Nevertheless, a few congregations still offer sex education classes, especially fundamentalist congregations.

The Ethical Musings’ reader is right. Churches and other religious groups need to resume offering sex education classes. Among the topics these classes should cover are:

·       Debunking cultural stereotypes such as “boys will be boys” for the shams that they are

·       Exploring what it means for people of different gender and gender orientations (i.e., all people, whether heterosexual or LGBQT) to respect the dignity of one another in general and when in an intimate relationship

·       Learning to see the image of God in each person, especially one’s partner

·       Basic physiology and sex education (subjects no longer taught in many schools as a consequence of the culture wars)

·       Alternatives for birth control (abstinence may often be the best option but presuming that sex will never occur is absurd; this may also be good information after formation of relationships in which sex is appropriate)

·       Responsibilities to one’s sexual partner, including informing them of any sexually transmitted diseases one may have and mutual responsibility for birth control

·       Setting and maintaining boundaries, both emotional and physical

·       Steps to help ensure one’s safety in romantic relationships (dating, hooking up, online dating, etc.)

·       Why is abortion so controversial? When does life begin? Is abortion ever moral? If so, when and how should an abortion be performed?

Sex is basic in a human’s life. Sexual drives are powerful (Freud got this right, even if he was wrong about the details and much else). When the Church is mostly silent about sex, why should we expect young people, for whom sexuality looms so large, to attend?

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Whoever is nor against us is for us

A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt when a boy interrupted, “My Mom looked back once while she was driving,” he declared triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”[1]

Jesus has been described as the most tolerant person who ever lived. His words are striking: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”[2] Biblical scholars regard this as an authentic teaching of Jesus because his disciples preserved it even though its openness would have assuredly made them uncomfortable.[3]

The disciples’ discomfort is understandable. Humans share an innate proclivity to belong to well-defined groups such as a family, clan, nation state, sports team, or religious body. It’s unsurprising that the Church gradually shifted away from the openness so clearly expressed in the gospel, constricting “into a rigid, restrictive and exclusive system of belief.” Every question had only one right answer.[4] Commitment to doctrinal conformity was a primary catalyst for eastern and western Christianity splitting and for innumerable efforts to root out heretics: Gnostics and Manicheans in Christianity’s early years, the Inquisition’s persecution of Cathars and other dissidents, and burning Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer at the stake as a heretic.

In the reading,[5] the disciples complain to Jesus that someone else had cast out a demon in his name. Jesus did not soothe their angst. Instead, he responded with an unexpectedly inclusive vision of Christian community and identity: “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by eating with Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and, most notoriously, the dirty, non-religiously-observants peasants. One contemporary echo of this “deed of power” that welcomed everyone to the table is rejecting contemporary social polarizations, for example, by numbering both Republicans and Democrats among your friends

Jesus outrageously heeded not only the pleas of Jews but also of non-Jews for healing. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is learning to see God at work throughout the cosmos, lovingly healing, guiding, and empowering Episcopalians, non-Anglican Christians, non-Christians, and the non-religious.

Jesus shocked people by respecting and valuing women, treating them as humans rather than as chattel, talking to them and befriending them. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is the Church removing gender and gender orientation as barriers to ordination and/or marriage. Another echo is to stop treating anyone, especially women, as sex objects instead of as humans. Every individual incarnates God’s image and is worthy of respect and dignity.

Jesus sent his disciples into the world with only the clothes on their backs, confident that the persons to whom the disciples ministered would generously support the disciples out of gratitude for the acceptance, love, and spiritual gifts received from the disciples. An echo of this “deed of power” is discarding our traditional reliance upon fear to motivate people to commit, at least superficially, to Christianity and then using guilt to manipulate believers to give of their time, talent, and treasure to the Church. The Church will truly thrive only if it faithfully lives into Jesus’ teachings, helping people connect with God.

The human Jesus surely enjoyed his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But Jesus recognized the fallacy of trusting his desires for the future, praying to God not my will but yours be done. He trusted God’s leading. An echo of this “deed of power” is our looking inward and seeing that we are works in progress. We may be less honest, less humble, less just, and less courageous than we think. Our most cherished theological and political beliefs may be wrong. Our self-image as a person who honors the dignity and worth of all may clash with deeply held prejudices of which we may be only dimly aware. Listening to the stories of women, members of the LBGQT community, and the marginalized underscores our need for humility and seeing ourselves as works in progress.

The notion that salt might lose its saltiness can easily puzzle us. First century Palestine was a poor area. People often obtained their salt from Syria, buying a cheap, chemically unstable form of salt that when exposed to rain and sun, or stored in a damp house, lost its saltiness. Jesus commends the more expensive, chemically stable salt, a metaphor for people who by their values and examples consistently heed his teachings.[6]

In an old eastern fable, a man possessed a magic ring set with a wonderful opal. Whoever wore the ring became so sweet and true in character that everyone loved him. The ring was always passed down from father to son, and always did its work. Then the ring came to a father with three sons whom he loved equally. What was he to do when the time came to pass on the ring?

The father had two identical copies of the original ring made. On his deathbed, he called each of his sons to him in turn, told each he loved them, and to each, without telling the others, gave a ring.

When the three sons discovered that each had a ring, a great dispute arose as to which was the true ring that could do so much for its owner. They took the case to a wise judge. He examined the rings and then spoke. "I cannot tell which is the magic ring," he said, "but you yourselves can prove it."

"We?" asked the sons in astonishment.

"Yes," said the judge, "for if the true ring gives sweetness of character to the man who wears it, then I and all the other people in the city will know the man who possesses the true ring by the goodness of his life. So, go your ways, and be kind, be truthful, be brave, be just in your dealings, and he who does these things will be the owner of the true ring."[7]

May we be good salt performing deeds of power, quick to offer a cup of water to the thirsty, quick to embrace neighbors near and far, ever mindful of Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Amen.

[1] Source unknown.
[2] Mark 9:41.
[3] Cf. Edward J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark,” §59, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, et. al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968).
[4] Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby and Stephanie Spellers, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition (New York: Seabury, 2010), Kindle Loc. 249-52.
[5] Mark 9:38-50.
[6] The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), pp. 819-820.
[7] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), Vol. 2, p. 12.