Thursday, December 24, 2015

God’s Translation & Ours

A sermon on John 1:1-18 for Christmas Day/First Sunday of Christmas

Translation can be a tricky business, and if those who are translating are not fluent in both languages the results can be humorous. Here are some examples of some mistranslations to illustrate how translation can be difficult:

A hotel sign from a hotel in Tokyo: “Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not person to do such thing is please not to read this.”

In a Bucharest hotel lobby there is this sign: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

In a Hong Kong supermarket: “For your convenience, we recommend courteous, efficient self-service.”

Again in Hong Kong, outside a tailor shop: “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.”

And again in Hong Kong, a dentist has this sign: “Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.”

A laundry in Rome has this advertisement: “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.”

At a Copenhagen airline ticket office there was this sign: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.” That’s not mistranslation; that’s just honesty in advertising.

A doctor in Rome has this advertisement: “Specialist in women and other diseases.”

And, lastly, my favorite. In an Acapulco hotel there is this sign: “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.”

Translating is tricky business. I’m sure that if we went to Italy and spoke Italian they would have all kinds of funny stories about how our fractured attempts at speaking Italian didn’t come off quite right. The same would be true in Mexico or Hong Kong. Translation is a difficult thing from any language to another.

I wonder if one way to look at what we celebrate during Christmas season – the Feast of the Incarnation – is to think of it as God’s translation: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God" (John 1:1) "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God has spoken in human terms in the life of Jesus. Jesus, not just in his teaching, but in his concrete, fleshly life – the things that he did, the things that he taught – every living moment was a translation of the idiom of God in heaven, of the life of the Trinity, into the language of a human life. Jesus is a translation into human, fleshly terms of the life of God. God spoke the language of "Heaven" in the language of “Human”.

Because of our sin, our brokenness, our ignorance, we don’t even speak Human all that well, let alone the language of Heaven. Our Human is broken Human at best, sometimes barely understandable. A heavy accent of sin, of fear, of selfishness, of violence and hatred inflect our Human. Not just our speech, but our attempt to live humanly. But, Jesus as the truly Human One, he is the Human who speaks Human fluently.

In that sense, understanding Jesus as fully God and fully Human is to understand that he is the one fully bilingual person. He speaks the language of the kingdom of God, the language of the life of the Trinity, fluently. But he also speaks Human fluently. And he speaks both simultaneously, not the way we usually think of bilingualism where one might speak Spanish in one context and then English in another. It’s not that sometimes Jesus is speaking Human and sometimes Jesus is speaking Heaven. The miracle of the Incarnation is that he speaks both at the same time. When he is being most human, Jesus is speaking the idiom of the Trinity, the idiom of Heaven, in fleshly terms. And, when Jesus is being most Godlike, he is speaking fluent Human the way we are all created to speak it – to live it. Jesus’ life is the vocabulary of both Heaven and the truly Human. The vocabulary of his life, his faithfulness, his obedience, his love, his joy, his peace is the vocabulary of Heaven lived in the flesh and the vocabulary of the flesh lived in the context of God.

We will never speak more than broken Human this side of the kingdom, let alone speak the language of Heaven with anything like fluency. But we are invited by God’s grace, and through the Holy Spirit speaking in us and through us, to learn to speak true Human and true Heaven. In coming as the true Word, Jesus has made a way for us to be that true word as well – the body of Christ speaking the language of the kingdom in a world that desperately needs to hear it.

When I was in seminary, there was a table in the refectory called the “mesa Espanol” – the Spanish table. There, faculty and students would gather at lunchtime to practice their Spanish with one another so they could become more fluent. The church is like the “mesa Espanol.” We gather week by week (and during the week) to practice the language of the kingdom of God. It is the language we hear spoken in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. As we practice with one another, and as we seek to speak and live that word in the world around us, by God’s grace we become more and more fluent.

Translation from Human to Divine is tricky business. But, the day will come – God has promised – when we will be gathered up into the very life of God and we too will begin to be bilingual – speaking truly Human, speaking truly God. The Incarnation is God translated into Human that we might be translated into the Divine. That is the promise of the Incarnation. It is the promise of Christmas.

Bonus (not part of the sermon):

Here are a couple of interesting passages from the New Testament in the King James (Authorized) Version:

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.
 Hebrews 11:5


Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins. 
 Colossians 1:12-14

Friday, December 18, 2015

What I said at the Mosque

A few years ago, I was invited to an event at a mosque near the church where I was rector to be one of the speakers on “How to Promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society.” It happened to be on Christ the King Sunday. Here is what I said:

Thank you, Imam Kauser and members of the mosque, for hosting this event and for welcoming us to your place. I am honored to have been invited to share some thoughts on how to promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society. It is an important topic that needs attention in a world in which there is so little peace, love, and harmony.

I want to begin, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, with diversity and difference. I do not think we do ourselves any favors by denying the reality and the significance of our differences. In fact, I think we need to start by recognizing and honoring our differences.

Some differences don’t matter all that much – what sports team we support. Others matter more – our political convictions. Some differences, like race, have a tragic history in this country. Differences between nations lead to the odd situation in which Muslim and Christian Americans fight together in battle against other Muslims and Christians of different nations. And there are differences of faith which are themselves too often a source of disharmony.

How do we pursue peace, love, and harmony in a diverse society? I suggest we are talking about hospitality which is a central virtue in both Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament, we are encouraged, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

But hospitality requires that we have a place into which we welcome others. That is why acknowledging our differences matters. It is only if I know the place where I am and can recognize the contours of my place that I can be hospitable. That is true of our homes. It is true of this mosque. You have welcomed us to your place. It would not be right for me to walk around this place with my shoes on or treating casually what you consider holy. It is similar when you have visited St. Barnabas. And it is true of the “place” of our respective faiths with their peculiar understandings of God and life.

We see things differently. We understand God differently and those differences are important. I expect that Muslims have difficulty with ideas such as the incarnation in which God in some mysterious way became human, or that the Messiah died on a cross to reconcile us to God, or that God is somehow three persons yet still one God. To be honest, Christians sometimes find these mysteries baffling. And no doubt there are elements of Islam that Christians find hard to accept. We must begin by acknowledging and honoring those differences rather than pretending they are not real or do not matter.

So, what I have to say I say as one whose place is that of Christian faith – not as an American, not as a liberal or conservative, not as a generic spiritual person (I don’t believe such a thing exists), but as a Christian. I am confident you, our Muslim neighbors have your own way of coming at this.

How should Christians engage non-Christians? We begin with Jesus. Today we celebrated Christ the King Sunday. It is an audacious thing for us to claim Jesus Christ as King. It is a provocative thing, because we do not just claim that Jesus is King of Christians but of everyone, indeed, of the world. The fundamental Christian affirmation is, “Jesus is Lord”. But, Christians do not always live out the implications of this affirmation. We have been good about claiming Jesus is the Way. We have been less good about living the way Jesus is.

And, what is the way Jesus is? In short, it is the way of self-emptying love. Jesus tells us to love our brother and sister within the Church. Indeed, even to speak derisively of one another places us under judgment (Matthew 5:22). Jesus also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). You, members of the mosque, are our neighbors and if Jesus is the Lord and his is the way, as a Christian, it is incumbent upon me to love you. But, Jesus goes even farther and commands that we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.(Luke 6:27-28). Brothers and sister, neighbors, and enemies – that does not leave anyone beyond the obligation to love.

So what does that look like in this context? In 1 Peter 3:15 of the Bible, we are told that if we reverence Christ as Lord in our hearts, we should, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" and, very importantly, it adds “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” We are not to be bashful about the hope that is in us and the particular faith on which it is founded. But, we are commanded to be gentle and reverent. As the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker wrote,

“There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.”

Because we are all created by God and in the image of God, we must treat one another with due reverence. In the end we are connected to one another by the God who created us all. Here is another quote from Richard Hooker:

“God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, ‘I need thee not.’”

So, my Muslim neighbors, I am happy to come to your place – your physical place to be sure – but more significantly, the place of your hope and faith. Show me around. You might even invite me to stay. And I welcome you to visit the place of my hope and faith. I may invite you to stay. We can engage one another, discuss and even debate our differences. We might learn from one another. Sometimes we will agree. Other times we might walk away shaking our heads convinced that the other is just plain wrong. But, if we do it with reverence and gentleness, we will be practicing a hospitality that leads to harmony even as it acknowledges and respects our differences.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world

According to a recent report from Christianity Today, America’s favorite Bible verse is Romans 12:2 in which the Apostle Paul encourages Christians to "not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

Romans 12:2 is a good and provocative verse. But, by itself it does not tell us much. What exactly is the pattern of this world that Paul is warning against? What transformation is he encouraging? What kind of thinking needs renewing? On its own, without any context, Romans 12:2 can be made to mean whatever I want it to mean. But, in our time, it is imperative that we get what Paul is actually talking about. Too much of our political rhetoric and the sentiments it is tapping into conforms to the pattern of this world.

The context of Romans 12:2 – what immediately precedes and follows it – reveals what Paul has in mind. Let’s look at that context:  

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

The passage begins with “Therefore” indicating that Paul is drawing a conclusion from what has gone before. What has gone before in the letter to the Romans is Paul’s grappling with the universality of human bondage to Sin and the particular “problem” in his view that his fellow Jews have not responded to Jesus as the Messiah who has come to deliver all humanity from that bondage. At the end of Chapter 11, he declares the wonder of God’s unsearchable and inscrutable mercy in spite of our universal disobedience:

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
           Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
                        to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.

It is in the context of God’s unexpected and unimaginable mercy that Paul encourages the church in Rome – by the mercies of God – to be living sacrifices, not conformed to the pattern of this world, but transformed by the renewing of their minds.

Again, what does that mean? What might it mean to be conformed to the pattern of this world? What might it mean to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?

Paul answers those question in the rest of Romans 12.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. (Rom. 12:3)

Do not be conformed to this world’s pattern of self-aggrandizement, self-assertion, and self-promotion. Rather, be transformed by humility.

Paul goes on

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom. 12:4-5)

Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world in which we are told that we are individuals first and each person is primarily responsible for and to themselves. Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world polarized by politics, race, ethnicity, nationality, and other divisions. Rather, be transformed by the understanding that we are in fact members of one another and the recognition that we cannot separate ourselves from others whether we like them or agree with them or not.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. (Rom. 12:9)

Talk of love is cheap. Genuine love requires being willing to be a living sacrifice for the sake of the other. The evil we are to hate is never another person. In fact we should be more critical of the evil that arises within our own hearts.

love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom. 12:10)

Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world with its addiction to disparaging and tearing down others. Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world where every disagreement is a cause for battle. Rather, be transformed and compete to show honor – even to those who you believe have dishonored you.

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (Rom. 12:11-12)

In a world full of despair and grievances, given to complaining; be hopeful, patient, and prayerful. Be patient in affliction – maintaining love and joy, peace and gentleness toward all.

Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (Rom. 12:13)

The pattern of this world is to celebrate wealth and the accumulation of stuff along with a vigilant guarding of what we consider our own. With that comes a resentful and suspicious spirit toward those in need. Paul summons us to be transformed by generosity and detachment from worldly wealth and possessions.

Practice hospitality.

Rather than be conformed to the pattern of this world with its suspicion of those who are other or different or unknown, we are to be transformed by open-hearted hospitality to strangers. Surely this includes our Muslim neighbors.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. (Rom. 12:14)

In a world where cursing opponents is the norm, be transformed by the practice of blessing even those who persecute you. Paul had no illusions that this was easy. He knew real persecution. Still, blessing and not cursing are essential to the transformation Paul is talking about. If we are to bless and not curse those who are actually persecuting us, how much more those who merely make us uncomfortable because they differ from us? Anything else is conforming to the pattern of this world.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Rom. 12:15)

In a world where it is common to rejoice when one’s opponents weep and weep when one’s opponents rejoice, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. In a world where it is normal to divide the world into those whose rejoicing and weeping matter more and those whose rejoicing and weeping matter less, be transformed and rejoice with all those who rejoice and all those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Rom. 12:16)

Disharmony is the pattern of this world. To live in harmony is to anticipate the kingdom of God. Pride and self-righteousness are the pattern of this world. Seek humility instead. It is the fundamental transformation. Be prepared to acknowledge that you know less than you want to admit. Be prepared to be the one who is wrong.

Associate with those who are lowly – the poor, the weak, the marginalized, those who others are attacking.

And then it gets even harder:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:17-21)

Can anything be more counter-cultural and otherworldly than this? In a world where vengeance is the operative motivation for the main characters in much of our entertainment? Where vengeance animates our attitude toward those by whom we feel threatened? Where violence toward those we don’t like is justified and rationalized? In a world where politicians have recently played on our fears and suspicions of those different from us?

Again, Paul is not being sentimental here. He has no illusions about what he is calling us to. He had real enemies.

We are to show kindness to our enemies – food and drink, etc. The line about burning coals probably means embarrassing or shaming our enemy when we return good for evil, by out-loving them. Perhaps that will lead them to repent making reconciliation possible.

Dare we in our day return good for evil? This is hard. But, the alternative is to conform to the pattern of this world – the pattern of division, hatred, vengeance, and violence.

Responding to God’s unsearchable and inscrutable mercy, do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds and extend that mercy to others, learning the hard discipline of overcoming evil with good – with generosity, hospitality, patience, and peace. That is what it means to be “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

We Will Be Judged

I believe there is a Judge and we will all be judged.

“Charity disheartens us, worries us, taxes us because when it comes to charity no excuse, no way out, no explanation is of any avail. I love or I do not love, I give or I do not give. It is certainly no accident that all the parables of the Last Judgments hinge not on faith – the righteous being the faithful believers, the unjust the miscreants – nor hope – the righteous hoping for the restoration of the Kingdom, the others having given up on it – but on charity. Have we helped our neighbor, loved the least of these? This is the only criteria, the only crisis, the only test. The Judgement singles out not the athletes of faith, not the militants of hope, but the workers of charity. By consequence, charity becomes for each of us the site of an individual Judgement that, in the end, includes the whole span of time we call our life.”
– Jean-Luc Marion (What Love Knows, Prolegomena to Charity, p. 155)

I believe faith – orthodox faith in Jesus Christ – matters. I am prepared to defend the hope that is in me. But, I also affirm – because the Bible tells me so – that "the greatest of these is love." And Jesus is the embodiment and definition of love (see John 15:12).

I also find comfort and peace in the assurance of grace. The one who judges is the one who prayed, “Father forgive them . . .” as he was dying on the cross. Still, I don’t look forward to standing before his gaze with my all my unlove revealed.

Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy

Monday, December 7, 2015

Resisting the Story of Darkness and Death with the Story of Light and Life

A sermon preached at All Saints, Appleton, WI on December 6, 2015:

In the tender compassion of our God 
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Luke 1: 78-79)

On an August morning in 1942, three buses rumbled up the road to the French mountain village of La Chambon. The buses were accompanied by police cars, police of the Vichy government which, in league with the Nazis had sent them to gather up Jews and take them back to concentration camps. The officials knew that the village of La Chambon was a major hiding place and way station for Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust. When they arrived, the police captain confronted Pastor Andre Trocme, the spiritual leader of the village. 

The policeman went to Pastor Trocme and asked, “Are you hiding Jews in this village?”  

Pastor Trocme, committed to truth-telling, responded, “Yes.”  

The policeman ordered, “Give us their names.”  

Pastor Trocme replied, “To be honest, I don’t know their names.”

“Show me where they are,” the policeman insisted.   

Pastor Trocme said, “No, I won’t do that. They are my brothers and I am commanded by my Lord to love my neighbor.”

The police then searched the village. They were unable to find any Jews or anyone who would identify a Jew. They left in frustration warning Pastor Trocme and the villagers that they would be watching and that they would be back.

Pastor Trocme and the folk of La Chambon continued to offer refuge to Jews and helped thousands escape the terror of the Holocaust.

The story of Pastor Trocme and the village La Chambon is inspiring. You can read about it in the book Lest Innocent Blood be Shed by Philip Hallie. It’s an inspiring story because, in the midst of a world gone mad, in the midst of the darkness of the Nazi terror that engulfed Europe, this village chose to be light in the darkness and to walk in the way of peace and life. When others played it safe, these people risked much to save human lives 
 lives that many of their countrymen did not consider worth the risk. But they did it for the sake of love. They did it for the sake of Jesus. 

They knew what they were risking. To be caught harboring Jews, or helping them to escape, not only put their own lives at risk but the lives of their whole family. Even children of rescuers were sent to concentration camps. If you wanted to be the friend of Jews, you could share their fate. It was all the same to the Nazis. The villagers of La Chambon believed it was a risk worth taking. The risk was real. Some members of the community died for their efforts.

La Chambon offers a model of what the Church is supposed – to be a resistance movement. We believe that with the coming of Jesus the dawn from on high has broken upon us, and shines on us who have dwelt in darkness and the shadow of death.  Following that Light we can be free of fear knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. And we can dare to follow that light as it guides us into the way of peace.

And that means resisting the darkness. We have been confronted in new ways with that darkness in recent weeks by those captivated by the death-cult that is the so-called Islamic State. And captivated is the right word. Those who belong to ISIS or are inspired by them are captives of a dark story. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Islam is necessarily a dark story. Certainly, not all Muslims subscribe to this dark version of Islam. But, ISIS and groups like them are fully committed to a very dark story that inspires death. Representatives of ISIS have said they love death more than we love life. They have demonstrated that. They have also demonstrated that they believe their version of reality – their story – enough to sacrifice their lives for it.

The best way to oppose the dark story of the people like ISIS is to affirm and live a different story. And we have a different story – “Gospel, after all, means “the Good Story.”

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah sang this hymn at a time when his world seemed pretty dark. The Romans occupied Israel. For all their sophistication, the Romans practiced their own version of a death cult and could be just as ruthless, cruel, and violent as the Nazis or ISIS. It was in the shadow of Roman occupation that Zechariah proclaimed that the dawn from on high was breaking. With the birth of his son, John, who would be the forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah, a new story was beginning. It is a Story of forgiveness of sins and deliverence from death. It is a Story that, as St. Paul wrote, opposes the spirit of death with the spirit of life and peace (Romans 8:6). We are in the season when we celebrate the advent of that Good Story.

But, I think that prompts some questions. Do we believe our story as firmly as they do theirs? ISIS says that they love death more than we love life. They have also demonstrated that they believe their story fully enough to die and kill in order to play a role in that story. Do we believe our story as fully? Are we prepared to risk our lives for its sake as they are for the sake of their story like the villagers of La Chambon did for the Jews? Are we prepared to look hard at the ways the darkness infects our own imagination making our hearts fearful and stingy, suspicious of others and prone to violence? If not, will we not be choosing to live our own version of the dark story that has captured our enemies and those who wish us harm?

Let us affirm and live a different story. Let us be a people of the resistance, like the villagers of La Chambon. Let us live as though we really believe the dawn from on high has broken upon us, freeing us from the darkness and the shadow of death. Freed from fear, let us follow the Light guiding our feet in the way of peace.