June 30, 2019
For freedom, Christ has set us free.
St. Paul’s declaration rings loud like bells on Independence Day. Then, in Luke, we face the fact that freedom is no holiday. Christ turns toward Jerusalem, warning would-be followers of emotional pain and physical distress.
For freedom, I use Walker Percy’s definition in his fifth novel, The Second Coming. Will Barrett, the protagonist, remembers the moment a light came on inside his head.
What was my discovery? That I could act. I was free to act . . . to turn right or turn left or sit down on the culvert.[i]
Freedom is power to do either one thing or another. Go right, go left, sit down: your call. Laws are constraints on freedom. To the Galatians, Paul was emphasizing their religious freedom. Faithful Jews had been constrained by divine law to circumcise their newborn males and to abstain from foods including pork and shellfish. Paul declares that life in Christ is free from those particular constraints.
As Americans today we float on a historic rising tide of freedom. In 1689, John Locke’s First Treatise on Government undermined the belief that our natural condition is servitude to kings. Using expert logic step by step, Locke led readers to understand freedom as a birthright. According to Locke, we give it up only to a limited extent when people voluntarily join with others in society, to the benefit of all who join and their descendants. In America, that idea would spark a revolution.
Since then, freedom has by fits and starts expanded over time. At the start, only property-holding white men had the vote. Now, voting is a birthright. A civil war, and the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, plus the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, accomplished that expansion. After his success in 1965, Martin Luther King kept pushing, now for expanded economic freedom. Dr. King remarked that a black man had finally won the legal right to buy a hamburger in a southern restaurant––now King wanted to make sure that man had some money in his pocket he could buy it with. Fifty years ago this past week, the Stonewall rebellion in New York opened another front in freedom’s expansion. The world is better now because of it. By “better” I mean more happy and fair. We have pushed, tested, and debated freedom’s limits through our American experiment, with good results.
The great HBO series, John Adams, ends with Adam’s admonition to Americans:
Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.
June 23, 2019
Today’s story is in all the synoptic Gospels, but we are reading it today through Saint Luke’s eyes—compassionate, healing, inclusive eyes. For Luke, it is the LOVE of God that heals us. For Luke, humility and hope are central characteristics of Christian living.
Jesus steps into Gentile territory and is met by a man of the city who lived in the tombs, among the dead and had demons. Demons. The man’s name, Legion, suggests thousands of demons as if the demons here represent the epitome of all that can be wrong, all that can come between God and God’s good creation.
Focus on the result of this man’s coming face to face with the LOVE of God and God’s MERCY. With one command from Jesus, the demons come out of the man—they exit out of this story. The demons leave and the man now sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind. Saint Paul would say, clothed with Christ and he would call him a child of God. Henri Nouwen would call him a wounded healer. Note: the man, himself, is NOT a demon. The demons left. This man, now representing the very core of our common humanity, is NOT a demon. The demons left.
Demons like violence, hatred, extreme anger, revenge, fear, anxiety—they left. Demons like abuse of power, greed, lust, addiction—they left. Demons like projections onto others, blaming others, intolerance, extremism, excessive pride, self-deprecation—they left. Demons like apathy, they left. Apathy—I remember where I was kneeling the day that I said our corporate confession, and for the first time, heard, really heard the part about confessing the “things left undone.” Many, many times I knowingly confessed: “things done.” And then, suddenly taken aback as “things left undone” came into focus.
Brilliant theologians for a very long time have struggled to answer the question about the origin of evil. We are still asking the same question. It seems to me, though, that our Scripture points more toward the practical problems of evil and God’s response to it. So, my questions focus on God’s response. The Good News, after all, is all about God’s response to evil. I trust God’s response.
Evil is real and serious and comes in many forms. Some forms I’ve experienced myself, some I know only from paying attention to the experiences of others. It’s complicated. I’ve seen bad things happen to good people; I’ve seen good people do bad things; I’ve seen seemingly bad people turn out to be better people than I thought possible; I’ve seen seemingly good actions create a secondary-type-evil; I’ve seen the potential for evil rip through my own heart and soul.
But this child of God in Luke’s story is a holy scene that points to God’s response to evil. And the response, we see through Jesus, involves compassion and mercy. Somehow, Jesus sees past the demons, sees the core of this man’s humanity, sees our common human condition and isn’t ashamed to be in relationship with him.
June 16, 2019
The boss said, ‘Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you.’ And I said, ‘Callahan?’ And he said, “nope, Irwin.’ And I said, ‘I don’t reckon you’ll find anything on Irwin.’ And he said, ‘You’ll find it.’ . . . We clocked off five miles more, and I said, “But suppose there isn’t anything to find?’ And the boss said, ‘There is always something.’ And I said ‘Maybe not on the Judge.’ And he said, ‘Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’ Two miles more, and he said, ‘And make it stick.[i]
My college roommate’s father wrote those lines. Robert Penn Warren was his name. All the King’s Men was the title of the novel. The “boss” was a fictional facsimile of Huey Long. In 1947, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Now a second quote, non-fictional.
Five years earlier, King had come to Montgomery in search of a quiet but socially relevant pastorship. Then, through no initiative of his own, he had been caught up in something larger than he had ever imagined. The vision in the kitchen had given him the courage and faith to accept that, but even when the protest ended, he realized that he was not free, that he could not and would not escape from the responsibility of the larger role into which had been cast. After almost three years of struggling against himself, he realized that this decision . . . was not really his to make. It was made for him, whether he wanted it or not.[ii]
David Garrow wrote those lines in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1987, Bearing the Cross won the Pulitzer Prize for history. I spent last year reading Martin Luther King, including Garrow’s book, where Garrow’s admiration for King shone from cover to cover. In my year of reading King, I spoke of him often in Sunday sermons and I am sure my admiration for him shone through too. I think that without Martin Luther King the United States might have been split irreparably. More than anyone outside the bible, it was he who taught us not to judge by the color of skin, but by the content of a person’s character. By no means is that the only thing he taught or did, but it alone would have merited his Nobel Prize.
About fault-lines in the content of Dr. King’s character I haven’t said much. I did say once that his weakness was marital infidelity and his was a severe case. That was not a secret.
I bring it up now because while we were in England last month newspapers there were covering a story that the press back home was mostly kept under wraps. David Garrow has published new research that shows Dr. King in harsh light. As a recognized authority on King, he said, he felt duty-bound to report it. On a local scale, I feel the same. As often as I’ve praised King from this pulpit, I now feel obliged to reckon with ugly information Garrow brings to light concerning Dr. King’s promiscuous, and frequently inebriate, entanglements with women, not his wife.
June 09, 2019
Pentecost is here. The great 50 days of Easter are completed today. Our narrative from Acts gives us plenty to chew on as we ponder the significance of this day.
There is wide revelation of God’s heart going on in the midst of much action.
The outpouring of the Spirit in this passage involves most senses for those present: sound – like a rushing wind. Touch – they seemed to be aware of this wind filling the entire place they were in. Sight – they saw divided tongues as of fire that rested on each of them.
Sound, sight, touch…did they think they were losing their minds? Or were their expectations of God’s abilities for things to happen with a power that was experiential normal?
This was a crazy and chaotic day for the church. And today we celebrate it.
But why? Why should it matter to us that the Holy Spirit was poured out this way?
Jesus had told them, before the Ascension, to “wait here for the promise of the Father…John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
As the disciples interact with Jesus in that passage over this order to stay, they clearly show that they don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. But they stay. But it may have had to do not only with Jesus’ order to them but that they were afraid. After Jesus death and resurrection, they were often gathering together to support each other while the Jews and Romans were running around trying to tame this resurrection story.
Additionally, what has become our Christian Pentecost was also the name of an Old Testament Feast that was going on at that time: Shavuot in Hebrew, Pentecost in ancient Greek or the Feast of Weeks in English – a celebration of the Harvest. In the Jewish calendar, this Feast is still celebrated and began last night at sundown.
So, they’re there. Waiting. Likely also participating in this celebration of the harvest. As are so many others – people already living in Jerusalem and immigrants. We hear today: “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” This feast was an opportunity to express gratitude to God for the harvest. How beautiful is that?
Here is where we see more of God’s extravagant power.
Everyone in this stew of people groups at the chaos of sound gathered and began to hear their native languages being spoken.
In our contemporary American culture – and really in many cultures in the world – what’s so amazing and perhaps challenging about this, is the graphic example of God’s embracing of diversity. Of otherness. Of people who are different than us.
June 02, 2019
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Those words are from the Book of Revelation, with its description of the End Times.
In the Bible, when Jesus speaks of end times, he forecasts separation: of two standing in the field, one will be taken and another left. He advises we pay no attention to the television preachers who believe they know when it will happen: “About that day and hour no one knows,” not even him, he says. Expect the unexpected: like a thief in the night, the Son of Man will come. So be ready, wakeful.
What are we to make of such apocalyptic promises and warnings?
In part, we know that they are true—that each of us will die and that this end may arrive like a thief at an unexpected hour. One is taken; one is left. Any good lawyer will tell us all the ways we need to be prepared. Scientifically, we know the]] sun and earth are also perishable, and the universe itself won’t last forever. Science is full of apocalyptic warnings, without promises.
The Bible folds its warnings within promises.
It paints a vivid picture of both the warnings: The Sun became black as sackcloth . . . and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth (Rev. 6:12) and the promises: And the sea . . . and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged . . . according to [their] works. (Rev. 20:13) And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven . . . and I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men . . . and God shall wipe away all tears . . . and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow . . . nor pain . . . for the former things are passed away. (Rev. 21;2-4)
Marcus Borg, the late influential scholar, often advised us to take the Bible “seriously, not literally.” If he would have said instead “we should always take the Bible seriously, though not always literally,” then I could agree. Sometimes seriousness requires the literal interpretation. Jesus’ death on a cross is an obvious example. His resurrection is another.
What about the Second Coming—should we interpret it literally or not?
Richard Hooker, the great Elizabethan theologian, advised that taking scripture seriously means reading it in faith, with reason. At points, the Bible's interpretation is uncertain. At these points, reason looks for guidance from elsewhere in the scripture where the meaning is more clear. Light a candle from the campfire at the center, take it with you to see a little better in the woods.
May 26, 2019
May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When you think of heaven what’s the very first thing you think of?
My guess is that we don’t often think about heaven directly – in terms of what it will be like. Or maybe when we think of it it’s a big pool of vague ideas maybe not connected to scripture at all. Or perhaps pondering heaven raises a plethora of questions that stop us in our tracks.
Our reading from the book of Revelation today helps us to understand some characteristics of heaven. This is a book Russ described last Sunday as themed on the restoration of all things.
It was written toward the end of the 1st century. Maybe 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian church in that time was slowly finding its identity – it was not in the synagogue and not part of the Roman empire – in fact, horrifying persecution had already begun.
The gospel of John – which we also heard from today, thought of as the last of the four gospels written, was written before Revelation – maybe 10-20 years – and in our reading today we hear a bit of the development of the church – it’s literally looking for a home and existing in gatherings in homes. It was not fitting in a tidy way between the synagogue and the empire. No wonder John focused on these comments by Jesus: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Home. Words of security in the fits and starts of place while the Christian faith is developing in its self-expression.
As John writes Revelation he is addressing the Christian church then – and speaking of the way’s life will get harder before it gets easier as the Roman empire amps up on persecution. But he’s also addressing us – it’s a multifaceted book. It was written to encourage and inform its present audience, but also written to encourage and inform future generations.
In today’s reading we are hearing a description of the new Jerusalem – and within that, aspects of what heaven will be like.
We can be tempted to read it all quite literally. But it’s steeped in the limitations of words. John is likely ‘seeing’ something God has shown him – he self describes being caught up into something - and is reaching for words to describe it. In the opening chapter of the book he writes: “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard a voice behind me like a loud trumpet” [even in that phrase we see him searching for ways to describe – ‘like a loud trumpet’] the voice was “saying, ‘Write in a book what you see.’” (Rev. 1:10). We may speculate that he is seeing things that are not of this world, so there is difficulty finding words to describe something no one has seen before.
May 12, 2019
In the Book of Acts, we meet Dorcas, a woman “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” In baptism, responding to five covenantal questions, we promise to perform the same.
Here is the first question. “Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers?” We answer: “We will with God’s help.” That is a promise to stay actively involved in church. Coming to Sunday church is a good work.
I know not everyone agrees. Bill Gates, for example, has said for the record that he finds better ways to spend a Sunday morning. Richard Dawkins sees Gates’s bet and raises him a dollar: faith is dangerous he claims, and to “implant it in the mind of children is a grievous wrong.” So let’s test my claim that coming to church is a good work.
That coming to church is work, I am sure we can agree. For those who come with children, the work multiplies by two, per head. The question isn’t “Is it work?”––but “Is it good?”
“Good” is an important word in the Christian faith. Let’s define it. According to Aquinas, “everything is good so far as it is desirable.” Things can be desired, he continues, in different ways. If something is desired for its own sake, he calls it “virtuous;” if it desired for the sake of something else it is “useful;” and if it is desired for the satisfaction of an appetite he calls it “pleasant.”
Is coming to church pleasant?
You may have heard the old joke about the fellow whose mother told him he had to go to church. I heard it in the sermon when I was installed, at the age of twenty-eight, as vicar of Trinity Church, Van Buren. It goes like this:
One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, "I'm not going."
"Why not?" she asked.
“I'll give you two good reasons," he said. "(1), They don't like me, and (2), I don't like them."
His mother replied, "I'll give you two good reasons why you SHOULD go to church: You are 59 years old, and (2) you are the priest.
I have been regularly attending church for sixty-four plus years, thirty-seven of them wearing vestments. Looking back, I can report that coming to church is often very pleasant, but in all churches there are days, and in some churches, there are years when it is not. I might guess that extra sleep would be pleasant more reliably so I will not claim that going to church is good because we like the way it makes us feel. That isn’t guaranteed.
April 21, 2019
Yesterday, my son sent me a New York Times Easter interview, asking for my comment. The interviewee was Serene Jones, President of Union Seminary in New York.
For the Times, Nicholas Kristoff asks for her thoughts about the resurrection: “Happy Easter Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection. I have problems with that.”
Her answer is agnostic. “Those who claim to know whether it happened or not are kidding themselves,” she says. “But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
Kristoff follows up: “What happens when we die?”
Again, the answer is agnostic. “I don’t know!” she says. There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.” End quote.
My faith is. My faith is tied both to the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the promise of the afterlife. And so is my belief that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed. I pray from the bottom of my heart that throughout my ministry I have been clear on that.
I have always liked to read and write. One of the things I’ve loved about the ministry is that reading and writing are included in the job description. Of the writers I’ve read, perhaps the greatest is Marcel Proust, author of In Remembrance of Things Past. I spent some time with that novel early in my ministry.
It felt very relevant to my work. Proust saw what good and evil lurk within the human heart and he believed that the heart and mind, conscious and subconscious, are the stage on which the real drama of human life is set.
Proust's explorations were into what he called "states of soul". The scenery, at times, is scary. This writer is especially attuned to the dark life underneath the sunny boulders of pious sentiments. Understand Proust and I promise you will never be shocked by murder, no matter how friendly a neighbor the accused might have been, nor how sunny his television personality.
A long section is titled "Swann in Love." We tour the stages of romantic love almost as though they were on display at Epcot Center. Circle the lake from the left, starting with Infatuation. Don't miss the gift shop here. Continue moving clockwise through Desperation. Enjoy an extended stay at Bliss: this scenery is exhilarating and you won't believe the special effects. Jealousy is next, a good place to stop for a bite to eat. Next is Betrayal. Be sure to enjoy a ride on the Tower of Terror here. Then follows Desolation, a long exhibition. Will it ever end? Finally, we are released into Recovery. Some tourists step right back into Infatuation for another go. More sensible or experienced travelers kiss the ground in Recovery and vow never to return. Many, however, do.
April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday. Here we are…we’ve been journeying through Holy Week these past few days, and tonight, we come to the institution of the Lord’s supper – what we practice as communion each week. We have a narrative that is packed with stuff…and informed by content from the other gospels.
As we’ve been at other times during Lent, we are again around a table. A meal is being shared…
We glean from the other gospels there’s been a bit of tension among the 12. It seems they’ve been arguing about who is the greatest among themselves. We even hear of James and John’s mother kneeling before Jesus and asking for a ‘favor’: could her sons sit at Jesus’ left and right hands in the kingdom…Jesus is about to save the world, and, as we would be in their shoes, they are completely self-absorbed…
On top of this dynamic, there’s Judas at the table…the betrayer who’s about to set the plan in motion.
And most importantly, Jesus is about to suffer and die. It’s his last time with the 12 before this happens. He knows this, we heard him say: “I am with you only a little longer…” – and it fuels his choice of words and actions. Can you imagine? Having dinner with folks and knowing it’s your last time to say what is important before you die?
I am sure the vibe around this table was very heavy.
The punch line comes at the end of our passage:
“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” Jesus says. And -
“I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
An example. Love.
At this meal Jesus, through action, proclaims “This is who I am, and this is how I live.”
Hear again from our gospel reading: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God, and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”
This answers central identity questions - which are:
Who am I?
April 14, 2019
The gospel is music. It opens loud with a joyous aria: the birth of God.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, being found in human form.
St. Paul said that: Philippians, chapter 2, verse 6.
From its exhilarating beginning, the score rises, falls, and rises between two themes: passion/resurrection. Passion is the solemn underscore, and today through Friday it fills the room with mournful cello, pounding drums, discordant cymbals. But even today and all through the week, just at the border of our range of hearing, a single, tight violin string holds the resurrection note: faint but taught, thrilling. A nightmare unfolds from the garden, through the courts, into the streets, out of the city and up the hill, and all through the tumult, that glorious note does not relent.
Next Sunday that note will open like a flower and fill the room with resurrection brass and timpani. But still, today’s events will insist on being heard – a soft, low, cello passion chord that gives the resurrection music bottom.
In the dance of these opposing themes – over-score and underscore, passion/resurrection – we hear the gospel, and in the gospel, we are shown the meaning of our lives. In that meaning, we are saved. We are saved that we might play music, sing it, live it.
The last time I preached I quoted this from Karl Barth:
In the Gospels, everything runs to meet the passion story, yet… everything in he passion story runs to meet the resurrection story, and … nothing can be understood except from these two, or better, from the turning point between [them].[i]
Our own lives, in all their parts, move to meet the resurrection through the passion. The way of the cross, we call this, which is the way of eternal life. On that way, we endure our nights in the Garden of Gethsemane. The thing we were afraid of happens. We call the doctors or police. They can’t help us this time. There is nothing left to do but follow Jesus to the garden, drop to our knees and pray his prayer. “Father, if it be thy will, take away this cup.” Sometimes God does and sometimes not.
I think of my mother as a newlywed lying still for a solid week under doctor’s orders. “It’s polio. Do not move. In seven days we’ll know if you will walk again.” “Father, if it be thy will, remove this cup.” That time, God did remove the cup. In seven days, she walked.
[i] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, Volume 1, part 2, page 56.