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Food for Faith

July 15, 2018

John the Baptist was jailed for objecting to a marriage—King Herod’s to his brother’s former wife. That could make an interesting debate. Resolved: marrying one’s sister-in-law is morally permissible. John took the negative, basing his argument on his read of Mosaic law.

Debate is on my mind because this afternoon I leave for SUMMA, where we use debate to teach thoughtful faith to high school students.

John’s story resembles Sir Thomas More’s, the High Chancellor of England who was jailed for objecting to King Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. The resemblance is that John and Thomas both took brave stands against royal weddings and both were killed for it. Ironically, on our debated question, John and Thomas were opponents. Sir Thomas had taken the affirmative, based on his understanding of the authority of popes.

Henry VIII had married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. The pope had blessed the union. Unfortunately, Henry and Catherine were unable to produce a male heir, raising fears on Henry’s part that his death might precipitate a civil war in England. With no consensus about his daughter Mary’s right to ascend the throne, that was a legitimate concern, as fans of Game of Thrones will readily appreciate.

So, in our debate, Henry had switched sides, arguing first that his marriage to Catherine was lawful and valid in the eyes of God, and then contending that it wasn’t. Henry offered the fact that he and Catherine had failed to generate a prince as evidence—a clear sign of the Almighty’s disapproval of their union. The Pope did not accept this argument. The marriage was valid, he judged, and that’s what led to the Church of England’s break with Rome. Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, denying the Pope’s authority to make decisions for the church in England because the church in every nation should be able to make such decisions for itself. After all, it was England’s peace that was at stake, not Rome’s. Under the new law, English government officials were required to take an oath consenting to this change. Thomas More, England’s highest legal officer, and a loyal Catholic refused. For this, he, like John, was beheaded--literally.

SUMMA was started to stop faith’s beheading, metaphorically. 

Separation of thought from faith is what I mean. For faith, it can be fatal and it almost was for the faith of the man I’ve been studying this year, Martin Luther King.

Dr. King had grown up in a thriving church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, where his Daddy was the pastor. He loved church, but King was smart and began to worry about how his learning from school squared up with what he heard in church on Sunday morning. When he got to Morehouse College his doubts intensified. Using an analogy to slavery, his mind felt chained. Then came emancipation.

Sermon - July 8, 2018

July 08, 2018

In our Gospel this morning, we have two very different state of affairs.  The first results in NO life-giving power.  The second results in EXTRAORDINARY life-giving power.  Both situations are important to our understanding of the Gospel.  So, we are going to think through them both--by starting in the middle.

Jesus sends the twelve disciples out on a journey to share his message with folks in other communities.  He sends them out in pairs but tells them to take nothing except a staff and a pair of sandals.  

Two things came to mind as I read Jesus’ instructions:

About a month ago, I caught a glimpse of a news clip on ABC: some popular televangelist said he needed a $54 million jet, so he could spread the gospel.

Secondly, I remembered a cartoon that a friend gave to me eight years ago.  I still have it.  It depicts Moses standing midway on Mt. Sinai with his staff in hand, speaking to the smoking mountaintop.  Moses says, “I’m just saying if you had told me we’d be wandering in the desert for 40 years, I would have brought my comfortable shoes.”

A Falcon Jet and comfortable shoes ------------------------ a staff and sandals

BIG difference.

But, we have something the first disciples didn’t have: we have experienced the faithfulness of God through Christ crucified and Christ risen.  So, with this experience in mind, it should give us pause to be more understanding of the folks in Jesus’ hometown.  I can easily put myself into their shoes.  Actually, I have been in their shoes.  Perhaps you have, too.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying in the synagogue—only that folks who heard it were “astounded” by what they heard.  “Astounded”—they were shocked, surprised, filled with wonder, stunned, shaken—perhaps shaken to their core.

The Gospel tells us these hometown folks first recognized the wisdom and power in Jesus’ words, but then something happened to suck ALL the power right out of the moment.  They chose to turn away, to deny the wisdom they had heard—perhaps out of fear of change, perhaps out of stubbornness to hang onto their own expectations, perhaps out of self-doubts, perhaps not having the courage to step into a path they didn’t fully understand.  Perhaps it was the power of standing in this new kind of presence that was just too overwhelming at that moment—felt too new, too strong, too soon.

What is clear though, is the faithfulness of Jesus reaching out to the hometown folks, and they do NOT reach back.

The Jesus Movement

July 01, 2018

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

C.S. Lewis said those words, which are written on the floor in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey. We visited there on our recent trip to England, finding Lewis’s memorial next to markers for Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, and T.S. Eliot. On another day of our trip, we spent time at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In this morning’s Epistle, Paul appeals to Christians in Corinth, who are relatively rich, for financial support for Christians in Jerusalem, who had fallen on hard times. Christ is the sun and Paul asks the Corinthians to consider his appeal by that light.

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich.

With this analogy, Paul captures in one sentence two dimensions of what Bishop Curry so famously called the Jesus movement in his Royal Wedding homily. The dimensions are vertical and horizontal. Vertically, eternally, Jesus is God’s movement down into a world fallen on hard times, sharing and spreading riches of divinity––grace, forgiveness, wisdom, healing, immortality. As Karl Barth describes it, God saw the world in need and didn’t pass us by like the priest and the Levite had passed by the man who had fallen among thieves on the road to Jericho. He sent his own beloved son to share our plight and lift our load. God descends so that humanity can rise: that is the Jesus movement in its vertical dimension.

Historically, it was the start of something. Christ came not as a tourist but a king, not only to feed but to show us how to fish, not only to share our plight but also to change it. Those changes are the Jesus movement on its horizontal axis.

So. Like the downburst from a summer thundercloud, love comes down and when it hits the ground spreads out in all directions.

Other stops on our trip included Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born, and Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx was buried. One of Marx’s mottos was: “From each according to his ability, to each according to her need.” That sounds like Paul, but the resemblance was short lived because Marx viewed the world by a different light, working toward a different end, by means hostile to faith and opposite to freedom.

Churchill’s father was the Duke of Marlboro. The first Duke of Marlboro had saved England from a French invasion at the Battle of Blenheim on August 13, 1704. Churchill was raised in the palace on that battlefield, a formative environment for a boy who would grow up and go to war to save the world from tyranny. He was born and ready for the role. Winston imparted fortitude to a people who had fallen on hard times, he according to his great ability and they according to their desperate need.

“Dying, we live.”

June 10, 2018

Note: In approaching this Sunday, after a week in which we suffered three deaths in our community, with two funerals here this week, I expected that finding the time for preparing a sermon would a problem. Then I saw that the readings included the text from 2nd Corinthians I drew from for a funeral, for Sandy Magness, last month.  While the funeral sermon was specific for Sandy, it applies I hope to everyone. So here is a sermon for you, in memory of Sandy.

 

 

I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. [i]

That was the Rev. Robert Boughton speaking about heaven in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.

Sandra Wyatt Magness (“Sandy”) died just after midnight Monday morning, April 30, 2018 A.D. She was born March 18, 1942, about three months after Pearl Harbor. When her parents had talked about adding to their family they would have known that war probably was coming and didn’t let it stop them. In war, even world war, life goes on.

Sandy lived for seventy-six years and six weeks. According to scripture, “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” which means seventy years even.”[ii] Back then, that seemed like a full glass. Now, most people would consider it a stingy pour. At the age of sixty-three, I’m beginning to appreciate their point.

We tap the glass, look up and say to the server: “If it is not asking too much, could you top me off?” Usually, now the server answers yes and fills the class up to the brim until it is running over. Sometimes a little cork or detritus from the bottom of the bottle is mixed in, that doesn’t taste so good. In asking for a top-off, that gives us something to consider. But even with the cork and detritus, most of us would gladly choose those extra years.

Thomas Aquinas would say this choice is natural. In a section of writing titled “Human Life as a Journey to God,” Aquinas wrote that just as we naturally desire the good things we have in life to last, we also wish life itself to last. “We shrink from death,” is how he put it.[iii] That’s our instinct: if three score years and ten is good, four score years is better, and better yet would be that many years plus five or ten. Through all our years that instinct guides us through life reliably, like the needle on a compass pointing towards magnetic north. It is a compliment to God. It is giving life its due.

Sandy’s compass was working just fine when we last talked, which was six days before she died. Realistically, she faced the fact that for her the end was near, but she didn’t mind saying that she’d prefer to live a little longer if she could. She was of “sound mind,” in other words.


[i]Gilead, Kindle edition., 188.
[ii] Psalm 90:10, RSV
[iii] McDermott’s transcription of the ST, 181.

“Quaint and Stubborn”

May 27, 2018

I was trying to find two words.  I had been thinking over two ideas and wanted the right word to hang on each one, to capture how it stands between that idea and the spirit of our age. Both ideas are ones you are used to hearing here in church, but almost nowhere else. One has to do with us, the other with God, and both with Jesus Christ.

The words took their sweet time coming. I’d try one after the other.  “Puzzling” and “curious” were too flat. “Farfetched” and “audacious” were too windy. There were more that didn’t fly.

 Then, brushing my teeth, I got my words: “quaint” and “stubborn.”

We start with quaint. In relation to the spirit of our age – in other words, the things we tend to take for granted – here in church we hold on to a quaint idea about what it means to be a human being. “We are made in the image of God.”   

In the back of our prayer book (page 845) you will find an informative section called “An Outline of the Faith.”  It’s in question/answer format, and it starts like this:  Question: “What are we by nature?  Answer: We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.” 

Made in the image of God: you, me and Kim Jong-Un.  (You see how I came up with “puzzling” and “audacious.”) Sounds like we have a very high opinion of our cosmic status.    

This sits in an odd relation to another story we all know and tend to take for granted.  According to this other story, such a high opinion is a relic of a pre-scientific imagination.  Humankind has grown up to realize that, in the cosmic scheme, we are of very little consequence at all.  Yes, we once imagined that our earth sits at the center of the universe, but Copernicus changed that. Yes, we once had reason to believe that our species is unique, set apart and over all the rest, but Darwin changed that.  We thought we were reasonable, then came Freud.  We thought we were nice, then came Nietzsche and Marx. As I say, we know that story.  And, in whole or part, we all believe it.  

Then we come to church and hear ourselves described as, yes, still, the crown and center of creation.  

You have made [us] but little lower than the angels.
You adorn [us] with glory and honor.  Psalm 8, verse 6.

That’s “quaint.” Now: “stubborn.” 

Let’s take another one from the Outline of the Faith.  “Question: “What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the only Son of God?  Answer: “We mean that Jesus is the only perfect picture of the father.”

Mother's Day

May 13, 2018

My late mother left behind a testament, a book-long memoir that tells the story of her life From There to Here, which is the title. Reading it, I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before, including how she felt when she lost her firstborn child.

The tiny baby girl was born the next morning and she never breathed. . . . I was stunned and devastated. I had never experienced any real grief or loss in my young life . . . . Faced with the classic problem of pain and evil, my gut feeling was that God must be crazy.

I was not a witness to my sister’s death at birth but of course, I don’t doubt it. A lot of what we take for truth we learn through another person’s testimony.

The Bible is a testament too. Reading it, we learn things about God we would not have known. There are other ways we have of learning truth: observation, experimentation, inference from experience, and so forth. Compared to those ways, its testimony is more open to doubt. The Bible knows this. John, writing in the Bible, talks about it, suggesting that if we accept human testimony about this and that, as we do, then we have more reason to accept the testament of God. “The testimony of God is greater,” he says.

You don’t doubt my mother lost a child because she told me and I just now told you. It happened almost eighty years ago. My Aunt Bertie is alive and she remembers. For verification, we could ask her. John and his audience were closer in time to Jesus’s life than you and I are to my sister’s death. There were still some around who had been there.

The question for doubters in John’s audience was not whether Jesus existed and did this or that. Their question was: Was this the one for whom we waited? People had taken sides. When John said “the testimony of God is greater” than human testimony, I think he had miracles in mind. He called them signs. The signs were a testament too, God’s testimony on behalf of Jesus as his son.

In his gospel, John calls Christ “the Word.” In Christ, God is testifying: This is who I am. As my mother wrote papered words to tell us what was on her mind and in her heart, so God writes “the word made flesh” to show his heart and mind. Those who believe this, John says, “have the testimony in their hearts.” So that is God’s testament to the power of three: in Christ, in scripture, and in our hearts. Karl Barth called this the three-fold nature of the Word of God. When it speaks in our hearts we are reborn.

Of his disciples, Jesus counts heads and reports that none were lost, with one exception, Judas. Of the rest, “I protected them,” he says. Now he prays that God will guard them after his departure. Whether God protects us was a question then, as it is a question now, on which people will take sides.

The Beatles claimed “All you need is love”

May 06, 2018

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Over the last several weeks we’ve been hearing of many miraculous stories from the book of Acts and through John – both his gospel and letters – we have been very repetitively hearing about love, and this last two weeks abiding and obeying commands. It’s an easy time as we’ve reached week six in celebrating Easter with all these repetitions to zone out…to miss it…but there’s some stuff going on here…

The word love is getting thrown around a lot. It’s a word we hear all the time.

We think about it a lot.

The Beatles asserted – All you need is Love

In the musing on love all is not good news – the J. Geils Band  in the 80’s exclaimed – Love Stinks

Tina Turner asked, What’s love got to do with it?

The Captain & Tenille claimed (before their divorce) – Love will Keep us Together

Huey Lewis is wowed by the Power of Love

Love.

What’s funny in the English language is that we have one word for love: Love. We use the same word to say to our spouse or significant other to express ourselves that we say to express our feelings about pizza: I love you. I love pizza. Love. This concept can seem so vague while being so significant.

No wonder it's befuddling when we hear that God is love.

It helps us to consider the word love in the Greek – the language of it’s writing in the New Testament. In Greek, there are four words for love – Eros, Philos, Storge, and Agape.

In our readings today, the repetitive use of the word love is actually 2 kinds of love (Strong’s concordance helps us here) they are cognates of Philos – friend love or confidant, beloved and the other is a cognate of agape – in its meaning it is wide: a benevolence, unconditional – transcending circumstance or behavior…it just is.

Sane, Wise, Ancient, Modern, Sound, and Simple.

April 29, 2018

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” he said when the number of Christians in the world was approximately twelve. The branches were apostles. Today, the number of Christians is greater than two billion. Among the larger branches at 85 million people, ours is known as the Anglican Communion. After St. Paul took the word to Rome, Roman traders carried it across the channel and English Christianity took root. Under Elizabeth I, it began to spread out across the world and eventually to Arkansas.

Martin Thornton is an English priest whose writings have been influential in my ministry. According to him, from those ancient times, Christianity in England acquired a flavor that endures. He called it “the English School of Spirituality.” It is a good way of being Christian, he believed, and I do too. This is his description of the English School:

“Sane, wise, ancient, modern, sound, and simple: with roots in the New Testament and Fathers    . . . with its golden periods and its full quota of saints and doctors; never obtrusive, seldom in serious error, ever holding its essential place with the glorious diversity of Catholic Christendom.” Its rediscovery, he said writing thirty years ago, was England’s most pressing task.[i] Again, I agree, and I think that someday it will happen.

Sane, wise, ancient, modern, sound, and simple: what do those words mean as descriptions of our spiritual tradition?

“Sane” could mean, superficially, pragmatic. We do not seem crazy to our unbelieving friends and neighbors, because we live within the social norms that are generally applicable. (We don’t drive horse and buggy like the Amish.) As times change we tend to be adaptable because at our best we’re open to change when given good reason. We pass down the old Anglican saying that we should avoid “too much eagerness in seeking change and too much stiffness in refusing it.” The via media, we call that, “the middle way,” our recipe for sanity.

But there is a deeper meaning to the word sane, and a lifeline to sanity in Christ through our spiritual tradition.

Life is sometimes crazy. In daily ministry, we see true insanity: dementia, mental illness, panic, phobias, rage, addiction. Even Barbara Bush, as sane a first lady as they come, at a bad time suffered from depression and fought thoughts of suicide. She knew they made no sense, but there they were.

 “I felt ashamed,” she wrote. “I had a husband whom I adored, the world’s greatest children, more friends than I could see—and I was severely depressed. Sometimes the pain was so great, I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car.” [ii]

No one is immune from crazy thoughts.



[i] Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, 14l

 

[ii] From Barbara Bush’s memoir, quoted by Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, April 21-22, A13.

 

Point of Reference

April 15, 2018

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hear Madeline L’Engle from her novel Charlotte Napier’s The Love Letters (p. 81). It’s a bit visual – so, lean in...:

“Supposing you were sitting in a train standing still in a great railroad station. And supposing the train on the track next to yours began to move. It would seem to you that it was your train that was moving and in the opposite direction. The only way you could tell about yourself, which way you were going, or even if you were going anywhere at all, would be to find a point of reference, something standing still, perhaps a person on the next platform; and in relation to this person you could judge your own direction and motion. The person standing on the platform wouldn’t be telling you where you were going or what was happening, but without him, you wouldn’t know. You don’t need to yell out the train window and ask directions. All you need to do is see your point of reference.” 

I imagine in some way we’ve experienced this type of disequilibrium leading to orientation.

Point of reference. Found outside of ourselves.

This is where we find ourselves in this third week of Easter.

Our gospel reading today is almost identical to last week’s reading from John; though last week focused on doubting Thomas, the Twin. But here today, we again see Jesus showing himself as a real person. Body and all.

We need to keep in mind that as we’re in our real-time of remembering and Easter was two week’s ago, in our readings, it’s much later. The gospel of Luke and John’s epistle were written in the late first century. Not only had folks been Christians for a while, but by late in the first century, there were 2nd generation Christians. The faith, as young as it was, was being passed on already.

Amid this, there was still great controversy on who Jesus was which would continue and begin to shake out in the 4th century and beyond as councils took place and creeds were developed.

Jesus was a problem.

“Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”

April 08, 2018

Note: This was my sermon on the second Sunday of Easter a quarter century ago: 1993. I was thirty-eight years old. It is dedicated to all of you who suffer with and for your aging parents.

Last Sunday after Easter dinner I drove to Louisiana to see my mother and father, who live on a beautiful farm called Inglewood Plantation. They bought the farm from my grandfather just after World War II, farmed there for several years, then managed it from a distance as my father went into the oil business in El Dorado. At age forty, he resigned his position as executive vice-president at Murphy Oil Corporation to become a priest. He took to heart these words of Jesus:

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of man also came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. 1

I was in the sixth grade when he was elected Bishop.  Our family was in Athens, Greece the day of the election. I was sharing a hotel room with my cousin Claiborne, who now holds the job my father had had with Murphy Oil.  

My father is Christoph Keller, Jr. I am Christoph Keller, III.  The phone rang in the middle of the night.  It was Bishop Brown in Little Rock. “Is this Chris Keller.”  “Yes.” “Chris, this is Bob Brown. You were elected on the 7th ballot.”  Imagine my surprise.

At supper last Monday evening my mother and I talked about Christoph Keller, Jr.  We miss his wisdom, strength, and extraordinary depth of spirit.  He still possesses kindness, remarkably.

He began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease around 1983. My mother warned us then that something was happening to our father. I asked her Monday what had been the early signs.  She said she noticed that he no longer finished books. Dad always underlined as he read. Now the marks ended with the first chapter.  He also struggled with arithmetic. Waiters and taxi drivers were picking up some extraordinary tips.

I spent some time Monday afternoon alone with dad. It was a gorgeous day in central Louisiana. We sat outside near the garden. There is a luscious smell this time of year from “magnolia fuscada.”  Dad sat in the car, with the doors open, and I stood by. He didn't want to get out, and there was no reason for me to make him.  He cannot really talk, and it seems to distress him when people try to make him communicate. So I just stood by, leaning on the car and soaking in the spring.  It was like keeping vigil. It felt good.

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