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 as well as others.

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. As did Jesus who said the same thing.

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.

Friday, November 6, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 9. Jesus on Marriage and "God made them Male & Female," (ii)

In the last post in this series we looked at Mark 10:2-10, one of the few places Jesus said more than a line or two about marriage. The context of those comments was a debate with certain Pharisees about divorce. In his rejection of the one-sided ease with which men were allowed to divorce their wives (leaving them in a tenuous social and economic situation), Jesus quotes Genesis as a more basic text than Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which clearly allows men to divorce their wives. Quoting Genesis 1:27, Jesus said, “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” I argued that in the context of the debate it is most likely that this was about countering the notion that women were somehow a lesser version of human than were men. Both male and female are created in God’s image. There is no male priority, particularly when it comes to divorce.

Therefore, I do not think what Jesus says in that debate is as relevant to the question of gay and lesbian relationships as some others do.

That said, it is still the case “that from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” We do (mostly) come into the world as either male or female. Doesn’t that mean that marriage – and sex within marriage – between a man and a woman is the point of our being made male and female?

Maybe not. It is certainly significant that we are male and female. And sex between male and female is a good thing. But sex might not be the point. And neither is marriage. At least not in an eternal sense.

Let’s look at the other place where Jesus said more than a line or two about marriage. It occurs a little after his encounter with the Pharisees in Mark 10. This time, in Mark 12:18-27, it is some Sadducees who challenge him. Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection (they were “sad you see”). They present Jesus with a scenario based on Deuteronomy 25:5-6 which obliges the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother's widow in order to perpetuate the dead man’s heritage. The scenario involves one unlucky woman who ends up successively marrying seven brothers. In a sophomoric attempt to trap Jesus in what they see as the absurdity of physical resurrection, they ask, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus responds,

“Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”

Jesus’ answer is primarily about the resurrection and that God is a God of the living. But, as part of that he makes this interesting observation, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

There is a lot that could be said about that. Jesus doesn’t say we will cease to be male or female in the age to come. But, he does say there will be no marriage (Jesus was not a Mormon). That suggests a couple of things:

1. However good they are as part of this age, sex and marriage are not part of God’s eternal plan.

2. Being made male and female is significant. Gender matters. But, being male and female is not necessarily about, or for, sex and marriage. Sex and marriage are not necessary for the full expression of our being made male and female.

This is why the early Church gave priority to celibacy. Jesus’ resurrection had changed things and inaugurated the new creation. Celibacy was understood to be a way – for both men and women – to live into that new creation even now. St Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) refers to Mark 12 in an exhortation to consecrated virgins, “That which we shall be you have already begun to be.”

This is a challenge both to the modern notion that a fully human life must include sexual intercourse and the notion that marriage is the reason we are made male and female.

Jesus did not reject marriage. He attended the wedding at Cana and even provided wine for the celebration. He repeatedly spoke of the indissolubility of marriage. But, he does not appear to have been particularly sentimental or romantic about it. If anything he decentered and reoriented its importance (see What Jesus Commanded, Part 7:Sex, Marriage, & Family).

This last point is important. Jesus emphasized the new community that became the Church over other forms of community, including marriage and family. He identifies himself the Bridegroom of that community. For Christians the basic social unit is not the married man and woman. It is not the individual. It is not the biological family. It is not the country/nation. For Christians, the basic social unit is the Church. It is in that context that we live out our maleness and femaleness, whether married or single or monastic.

Marriage and sexual intercourse make us one flesh/one body (for good – Mark 10:8 or ill – 1 Corinthians 6:16). But there is a more fundamental way we become one body. In baptism we become one with Christ and members of one another. That oneness includes both male and female whether single, celibate, monastic, or married. It is in the oneness of that body that complimentarity of our respective genders is expressed and the image of God most fully revealed. For the body of Christ, God made us male and female.

I am not saying that being made male and female is irrelevant to marriage and sexual relations. I have been happily married for 34 years and have three wonderful daughters. I appreciate the joys and pleasures of married life. As a fan of Dante who has also benefited from reading Charles Williams and Vladimir Solovyov, I appreciate the Church's ongoing reflection and am open to the ways romance and marriage can point us toward God’s courting of his creation and each soul. But, the truth is, that is an understanding that is rare before the late Middle Ages and is thus relatively new.

Our different genders are important. but the importance is about more than sex. I have written before that I think the difference matters and that consequently I hold that heterosexual marriage is different from the unions of gays and lesbians (see here). But, might the latter also point toward the divine courtship?

What I wonder is this. If membership in the body of Christ, rather than marriage and sexual relationships, is the primary and eternally significant place where our being made male and female is expressed, might there be a place within that body to accommodate committed monogamous same-sex relationships if they exhibit all the other marks of holiness that we hope for in marriage between a man and woman or in a community of vowed monastics?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Money: Intoxicant or Eucharist?

A Sermon on Mark 10:17-27
Year B, 18 Pentecost, Proper 23

For thirty years Thomas Cannon was a postal worker. During that time rarely made more than $30,000 a year including overtime. What made Thomas Cannon unusual is the fact that over the last twenty-five of those years, he gave away $96,000 to various individuals and groups in need. Math has never been my forte, but I figure that comes to about $3,800 a year. On a salary of $30,000 a year!

Cannon said, "If people work hard to buy a Cadillac, nobody asks why. But if they give it to philanthropy, nobody understands."

In his entire life, Cannon, who died in 2005, never knew luxury. His preacher father died when Thomas was 3 years old. Although he received a degree in art education from Hampton Institute, Cannon opted for the steady salary of the post office to support his wife, Princetta, and their two sons. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Cannon settled into his post office job. The family lived in a tiny, kerosene-heated home in a neighborhood of Richmond that was poor even then and has since acquired a reputation as a drug marketplace. Cannon never gave a thought to luxuries: "We had food, we had clothes, we had all the basic necessities," he said. (Who needs $96,000?) Here was a man with a carefree and generous attitude toward money.
(From Parade Magazine, September 21, 1997, page 16)

Which brings us to this morning's gospel. A man ran up to Jesus and asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life? I've followed the commandments to a “T” and led a blameless life. Surely, that's enough." Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, "You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." In other words, “If you want heaven, if you want to start shaping your life in that direction now, if you want to point your heart toward your deepest joy; you lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me."

As if that weren't bad enough, after the man refused his offer, Jesus said, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Ouch! It is one of those hard passages that begs to be played with so that it will say something other than what it seems to say. Surely Jesus didn't mean to say it is impossible for people with more than enough money to go to heaven. After all, that's you and me. We are the rich man. The rich people. Just by virtue of the fact that we live in the United States. By any standard, past or present, most of us are among the wealthy.

This gospel is hard for us to hear – and not for us only. The rich man was shocked. The disciples were perplexed and astonished. Ever since, people have found this a problematic text. Consequently, various ways have been proposed to interpret this passage in order to make it softer.

1) A particularly popular one is that the eye of the needle refers to a narrow gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. A camel, the story goes, could just squeeze through the gate after being relieved of its cargo. NO. There is no evidence of such a gate and the interpretation does not show up until the late middle ages when an imaginative monk put it in a commentary on the gospel.

2) The Greek word for camel is spelled like the Greek word for rope. A rope still won't fit through the eye of a needle, but it is less preposterous than a camel. NO. There is no evidence that the writer of the Gospel of Mark had a spelling problem or that Jesus did not pronounce his words clearly.

3) Jesus is only referring to those who trust in their money. NO. That’s not what it says. Look again. Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Someone who is rich. Period. John Wesley was probably right when he explained that, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who have riches not to trust in them.”

There’s no getting around it. Jesus said what he said and meant what he said. He was a master of hyperbole, the exaggerated image. The absurd image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle drives home a point. And the point is that there is something perilous, spiritually, about wealth. Like anything in our lives, money and wealth can be used as a means to praise and serve God and neighbor. Or it can be used to hide and shield us from God and others. The problem is money and wealth have a particular and powerful tendency toward the latter. Jesus suggests that the best thing we can do with our wealth is give as much of it away as we can.

The burden of wealth (however much we have) offers us great opportunities and responsibilities. It might or might not be that having money and stuff is, in and of itself, sinful. But wealth and money are particularly dangerous to the soul. Money, along with the things it can get for us, is not neutral such that it can be used just as easily for God's kingdom as for anything else. No, money has a power of its own. It takes a good deal of spiritual discipline to have much of it and not let it seduce our hearts or intoxicate us.

Money is a lot like wine that way. You can get drunk on it and destroy your relationship with God and your neighbor. And just as many alcoholics deny they have a drinking problem, few of us are willing to admit that we have a money problem, that we have an attachment to our money and belongings that is dangerous to our souls and separates us from God.

You can use wine to get drunk. You can also use it to make Eucharist. The Eucharist is the particular place where we enter into communion with God and one another. In Eucharist wine is a means of grace. Perhaps we can learn to see money eucharistically so it can also become a means of communion and of grace. How do we use our money eucharistically?

1) Remember Jesus is present with you. He is your true wealth –not your job, not your income, not your house. He is your security. He is your hope for the future. Begin to see everything else as revolving around him. The more we attach ourselves to Jesus, the more we can lose our attachment to money and stuff.

2) Trust in the power of God working in you to release you from the grip of money and
possessions. Like all addictions, this one is hard to overcome. But, Jesus assured his disciples and us that, though it is impossible for mortals, for God all things are possible.

3) Learn to see it as not an end in itself but a means to serve and encounter God. Every time we give, especially when we give until we feel it, we make room in our hearts for God’s Spirit to move in our lives and to draw us deeper into his heart and to fill with his life. Giving can become prayer and praise.

4) 'Eucharist' means 'thanksgiving'. Give thanks for al you are given. But, constantly remind yourself from whom it all comes and to whom it ultimately belongs. When we present our offering to the altar we say, "All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee." We can learn receive it with thanksgiving and pass it on in gratitude. Giving becomes a way of giving thanks, of making Eucharist.

That was the man's problem in the gospel. He had allowed himself to be deceived into believing his wealth was his own. When the real owner showed up and told him what to do with it, he was not prepared.

What if we began to imagine, to really believe, think, and act as though everything we have was on loan? A gift? Not only what we give but what we have left after we give. It's all God’s, so we are accountable for how we use all of it. The real question is not how much of my money will I give for God, but how much of God’s money do I need to keep for myself? What would God have us do with it?

This is a troubling passage. It is good for us to be troubled by it. Maybe it will shake us loose a bit from our attachment to money and wealth. And the anxiety that often comes with it. Then we can engage our money eucharistically – with gratitude, freedom, and trust in God.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

When the World Will End

A few years ago a radio preacher, Harold Camping, made a splash by predicting May 21, 2011 as the day of Doom. He was wrong.

Then there is much talk about the Mayan calendar and the speculation that because it only runs through December 21, 2012, the end appeared to be near. But, not so near after all.

Now Chris McCann, the leader and founder of something called the eBible Fellowship, has predicted October, 7, 2016 will be “the day that God has spoken of: in which, the world will pass away,”

We woke up on May 22, 2011 and again on December 22, 2012 with the world still going on pretty much as it has. And, though October 7 is not over yet, I expect to wake up on October 8, 2015 with the world no more annihilated than it was two days before.

I am confident that the world will not end today. I know this because I am an Episcopalian. As an Episcopalian I know when the world is going to end. It is really quite simple. And, because I care, I am going to let the world know so everyone can plan ahead.

The secret is in the Book of Common Prayer. There is an elaborate set of rules for determining the date of Easter each year. Helpfully, there are Tables for Finding Holy Days in our Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 880. The Prayer Book even saves us the trouble of applying those rules by listing future Easter dates in the following pages.

And here it is . . .

The Book of Common Prayer has dates for Easter through 2089, but no further. Therefore, I predict the end of the world will come on or after April 4, 2089.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Actually, anyone wondering about the end of the world would do well to consider the following:

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
– Jesus, Matthew 24:36

For he says, 'At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.' Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation
– Paul, 2 Corinthians 6:2

And here is something from C. S. Lewis’ fine essay, "The World’s Last Night."

I do not find that pictures of physical catastrophe – that sign in the clouds, those heavens rolled up like a scroll – help one so much as the naked idea of Judgment. We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves even now to ask more and more often how the thing we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at the each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world – and yet, even now, we know just enough to take it into account.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 8. Jesus on Marriage and "God made them Male & Female," (i)

Marriage, Divorce, & Remarriage

Marriage does not appear to have been a topic Jesus was inclined to say much about. He does not say nearly as much about it as he does other things. When he does talk about it, his primary concern appears to be divorce, remarriage, and adultery. And the way he understands them to be linked.

In the two incidences where Jesus says more than a line or two on marriage, he is not the one who brings it up. The conversation is initiated by others in an attempt to trip him up. One of those conversations is recounted in Mark 10:

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

Since this passage is thought by many to be one where Jesus precludes any possibility of the faithfulness of same gender unions, we will look at it now.

First of all, to state the obvious, this passage is first and foremost about the question of divorce. There was a debate among the Pharisees themselves about the grounds for which a man might divorce his wife (it was exceedingly rare for it to go the other way). One school of thought, associated with Rabbi Hillel, interpreted this broadly such that a man could divorce his wife for almost any cause. The other school, associated with Rabbi Shammai, argued that a man could divorce his wife only for serious transgressions. That is the context for the question posed to Jesus. Is he relatively strict or relatively lax? “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” is how the question is asked in Matthew 19:3. 

The other context of this question from the Pharisees was John the Baptist's preaching against the divorce and remarriage of Herod Antipas, preaching that got John imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Are his opponents trying to trap Jesus and get him into similar trouble?

But, Jesus does not take their bait. Instead, he reframes the question. Rather than play the male game of debating when a man could divorce his wife, Jesus sets the text of the first two chapters of Genesis alongside the text in Deuteronomy that this questioners are focused on( Deut. 24:1-4)..In doing so, significantly, he seems to indicate that he takes some parts of the Old Testament as more authoritative than others.

And Jesus’ teaching on divorce is clear enough. A straightforward, literal, face-value reading of what Jesus actually says is clear:

1. Divorce is wrong – “what God has joined together, let no one separate”
(Mark 10:9)

2. Remarriage is impossible – “the two have become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). That cannot be undone. Uniting sexually with anyone else is adultery. Thus any remarriage is living in sin. This teaching is reinforced in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. In Mathew, Jesus does allow that sexual immorality on the part of the wife is a legitimate  perhaps necessary  grounds for divorce. But that is it.

Jesus is emphatic and uncompromising. One could conceivably repent of a divorce, in which case the ideal would be to reunite with one’s spouse. But, if that is not possible, remarriage to someone else is out of the question – at least as long as the spouse is alive. This is because Jesus appears to deny the actuality of divorce. Once the two have been joined together by God and become one flesh, no judge or writ, and certainly not the whim of the husband, can undo it or separate them. Hence, any “remarriage” is de facto adultery and sinful. So, while one might repent of, or feel remorse for, being party to a divorce; it would be impossible to repent of the adultery that is remarriage while remaining in that subsequent marriage.

This is a hard teaching. In fact, in Matthew’s account of this encounter (Mt. 19:1-10), Jesus’ disciples protest, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

But, make no mistake, that is the plain meaning of what Jesus says. And it was almost universally the teaching of the early Church. It is still the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, however much the annulment option allows for a release valve. Until quite recently, it was the accepted teaching of the Anglican tradition (See the three representative quotes in the comment section below).

If Christians allow for divorce and remarriage now, that allowance is not based on the plain meaning of what Jesus said when he spoke directly on the topic.

But, Jesus quotes another passage from Genesis to address the phenomenon of divorce as understood in his context. And this is the basis for the third thing he has to say on the matter:

3. Men need to get over their presumption that they are more significant than women and therefore divorce is their prerogative – a prerogative that the Deuteronomy passage seems to support. According to Jesus, from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” There is no male priority. Women are not lesser versions of human. Both male and female are created in God’s image (Mark 10:6). Husbands are no more free to abandon or divorce their wives than wives their husbands.

This is an important part of Jesus' teaching on divorce. And it might indicate why he took the issue so seriously. In his time and place, a woman unattached to a man was in a desperate situation and very often left choosing between destitution or a prostitution. Thus, the ease with which some men were prepared to divorce their wives left women in a seriously tenuous and vulnerable position. Perhaps this is why in both Mark and Matthew this debate about divorce is followed by Jesus welcoming and blessing the little children – another group that was particularly vulnerable in first century Palestine.

Let me be clear. I believe that divorce is a serious breach of Christian faithfulness. But, I also accept that sometimes – more rarely than in current practice – divorce is the least worst option. And in such cases remarriage can be a holy thing even though not the ideal. I think the Church needs to do a lot more thinking and teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But that is not the point of this blog post.

My point is this. This text, including, “God made them male and female,” is not addressing same sex relationships. It is about divorce and remarriage. And, if all we had to go on was what Jesus says when he addresses the topic, the Church would have to forbid all remarriage except in the case of sexual immorality of the wife. Whether or not Paul allows for remarriage of a believer after being rejected by an unbelieving spouse is another question, the answer to which is unclear. Certainly he does not allow for the believing spouse to be the initiator of a divorce (see 1 Corinthians 7). 

As I said above, until recently, it has been the accepted teaching of most of the Church that remarriage was not an option. The Eastern Church has historically allowed for remarriage – once only   but the legitimate reasons for divorce has always been quite limited. In any event, they go beyond the strict meaning of the scriptures in doing so.

It makes sense that the scriptures and the Church look askance at divorce. The image of God's covenant and "marriage" to Israel along with that of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church as the bride of Christ are foundational. As is the promise that God is faithful to his end of the covenant. Christian marriage is a witness to that faithfulness. Any divorce, and still more remarriage after, would seem to be a counter-sign.

The reality and prevalence of divorce and remarriage undermine marriage. As far as threats to marriage go, gays and lesbians committing themselves to one another in bonds of faithful, self-sacrificial love is not even in the same ballpark.

But in our time, many Christians do allow for divorce and remarriage. We need to explain why. Why do we allow divorce and remarriage in our churches? Why do we recognize the legitimacy of remarriage? If, in spite of what Jesus said, we have decided that remarriage after divorce is not always sinful, why not? What rules of interpretation do we use to come to a different conclusion? Is it just arbitrary? Or have we discerned that there are things about the cultural and historical context that need to be taken into account?  How much does our experience inform how we engage Jesus and the rest of the Bible and Church Tradition on this issue? How does it inform our conclusions? Is it that we have decided that what Jesus teaches about divorce needs to be interpreted in light what he teaches elsewhere, say, concerning mercy?

Some of us have direct experience and most of us know people who have been in marriages that were awful. Most of us know people who have been divorced. Most of us know people who have remarried and whose subsequent remarriage has all the marks of a good and holy union. Do we believe those remarriages are inherently sinful? It might well be that Jesus would say that those unions are adulterous and sinful regardless of what appear to be their good fruit. Perhaps the faithful thing to do for Christians who cannot live with the person to whom they are married is for them to live apart under the discipline of sexual abstinence and resisting the temptation to any other romantic relationships? But, that does not seem consistent with the mercy he teaches elsewhere in the Gospels.

I am inclined to agree with Martin Luther who allowed that there is more than one legitimate reason for divorce. He held that celibacy after a divorce was preferable, but if one was unable to endure that vocation one could remarry because "God will not demand the impossible.”

What does all this have to do with changing my mind on same-sex unions?

The passage where this opponents test Jesus is not about gays and lesbians. It is about divorce and remarriage. Not only is it primarily about divorce and remarriage, taken at face value, it is a stark teaching. Most Christians are prepared to interpret the passage in such a way as to allow for less stark practice.

I suggest that if Christians accept that it is possible to remarry after divorce and that the remarriage is not inherently adulterous and sinful they might also entertain the possibility that those passages in the Bible that refer to some kind of same gender sexual relations are also open to alternate readings. And perhaps trying to become heterosexual or remaining celibate are not the only faithful options for gays and lesbians. Perhaps, "God will not demand the impossible.”

That said, while it is not the point of what Jesus is up to here, he does say, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’" I’ll take another look at that in the next post.