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 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 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.
April 06, 2019
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
That is St. Paul, from his first letter to the Corinthians. Scholars estimate that letter to have been written “in the late winter or early spring,” 55 A.D. The last supper Paul describes had taken place twenty-two years earlier, at that same time of year. When a story is written down while people remain alive who had witnessed the original event, we say it is written in “living memory.” That can stretch to more than eighty years. Most if not all of the New Testament was written within living memory of Jesus.
Concerning Phyllis, I am going to start with a story some of you have heard, of something that happened, involving her, not quite a quarter century ago—still easily in living memory. I wrote it. I remember it, and I am still here. So is one of the two principal participants, the other being Phyllis. The story begins at a celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is how the last supper lives in sacred memory, which it will do forever.
One Sunday morning at St. Margaret’s church, Janie McDonald arrived early to prepare the flowers on the altar. I use the term altar loosely; St. Margaret’s was meeting at that time at Cinema City, Breckenridge Village, where our altar consisted of a standard folding table suspended on a board raised on packing crates, covered by a bedspread. Janie stood by while the altar crew put the thing together.
Janie, unbeknownst to anyone, was in a grim state. She was upset, pained, frightened. The date was October 22, 1995. Janie had dreaded that date for years.
This has to do with Janie and her father. Janie and her father shared a birthday – September 22. How delightful it had been for Janie’s father to receive a baby daughter for his birthday. Growing up, how much fun it had been for her to share that birthday with her Daddy. The birthday was emblematic: they were close in every way. They looked alike and seemed to feel and think alike. All their friends in Stuttgart knew Janie for her Daddy’s girl.
On October 22, 1968, Janie’s father committed suicide. Their ages at the time were symbiotic: Daughter was 14, father 41.
March 31, 2019
Even if I waste my life, I am welcome home.
As bible readers know, not all of Jesus's stories end like the Prodigal Son. Elsewhere in Luke, a stern householder turns back a crowd of latecomers who’d wasted first and second chances. Please sir let us in, they beg. “I tell you, I do not know you,” he says as he locks the door. Last Sunday in church we heard Jesus comment on the deaths of some people in a building collapse. Do you think they were worse sinners than you?” he asked. “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just like they did.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus warns another crowd, “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves thrown out.”
March 17, 2019
You have heard me mention Karl Barth from time to time, the Babe Ruth of modern theologians. Today I’m going to tell you his theory of religion, which is comforting to me in times of controversy about change. I have our friends the Methodists in mind.
February 24, 2019
Last week I preached at the funeral of Candice Earley Nolan, wife to my cousin Bob. As an actress, Candi played leading roles on Broadway and soap fans remember her as Donna on “All My Children.” I hope you won’t mind my making Candi’s funeral homily my sermon for today. It fits today’s Epistle, where Paul emphatically affirms the power of God to raise the dead. Candi was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.
February 10, 2019
Mid-January I went duck hunting with my cousins, my son, and some friends—three hunts in two days with six or seven guns each time, over rice and in flooded timber. We saw some ducks, and worked a few, but no one ever fired a shot. It was a bad season from Missouri south: too warm for too long up north and way too wet down here.
January 20, 2019
Inside, in church, today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Outside across America, this is a weekend for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside, we listen to Isaiah: For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn. Outside, we listen to King, who for his people’s sake would not keep silent, and for his country’s sake was restless to the end. Inside, we reckon with Israel, the ancient people who struggled with their high call. Outside, it's our turn to do the same.
Tolstoy said happy families are alike and unhappy ones are different. That is probably about half-right. Though ancient Israel and modern America are worlds apart, our pain in one respect is similar to theirs. It is the anxiety of having fallen short of a high call, of disappointing something, someone, that we hold dear.
America’s call rings out from the sacred text of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says why the new country would be exceptional among nations: race, language, and geography don’t define us, nor unite us. Love of freedom, with acceptance of the truth that all are equal, does.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s take on American uniqueness. The Constitution was the how of the American experiment, the Declaration gives the why. Immigrants from anywhere and emancipated slaves could hear in the Declaration principles that rise above ancestry and nationality. As Lincoln put it in 1858:
“When they look back through that old Declaration of Independence. . . They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . . flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]
That quote was from Allen Guelzo’s book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It was “the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” as Dr. King unforgettably declared underneath the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, holding America’s feet to the heat of its founding flame.
When I think about what makes King’s prophetic message so importantly distinctive, two qualities stand out. First, was his devoted belief in the inherent value of what he called human “personality,” by which he meant what Thomas Aquinas meant by soul. People add up to something more than the sum of our separate parts. Second, was King’s conviction that black and white folks need each other to rise to our potential.
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)