Monday, December 23, 2019

Does it Feel Like Christmas?

Light of the World by Mark Missman
As I was preparing my Christmas sermon, I am reminded of a personal test of authenticity for things I read that occurred to me while I was in seminary. If, while I am reading (or listening to) something, I sense Christmas in it, that is a sign that the author/speaker is on to something. I think I first became aware of this when, while reading first volume of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, I suddenly felt the thrill I feel when hearing Christmas horns, bells, or carols. I know it sounds trite and potentially overly sentimental. It is certainly idiosyncratic. But when I sense Christmas in something I know it is tapping into deep truth. And it is not always something as heavy as a profound work of theology. It comes, as Christmas does, in simpler things. Here is what I think it is about.

In the Christmas story as recorded in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke along with the first chapter of John, there is a vision of God that is at once expansive and intimate. It is also full of hope and promise – expectancy. There is the intimacy of the holy family huddled in the stable coping with a newborn but without the usual resources of home and extended family. On top of that they will have to flee for their lives and become refugees before it is all over. There are the down and out shepherds working the night shift doing work no one else wanted to do. There are the Magi, foreigners, strangers in a strange land, eccentrics following a star and a rumor of glory. Yet the God of the universe is intimately engaged in this homely setting. And more, this cast of outcasts is caught up in the great expectation of God’s extravagant promise to bless the nations and resolve the enmity between humans and God and humans and each other. It reaches a crescendo when the shepherds are bathed in the glory of the Lord and the angel announces extravagant good news that a savior is born. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

There is fear and awe, but there is also the thrill of hope and possibility, of a great promise about to be fulfilled. The story contains all the darkness of oppression, violence, poverty, and displacement – both spiritual and physical. But in this small vulnerable baby the Love that moves the sun and all stars, the fire in the equation, has taken on human flesh with all its vulnerabilities – God with us. That Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. O little town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!

This is a God who is intimate, a God who is both immanent and transcendent, a God who dares to show up as a vulnerable baby, a God who makes good on his promises, a God who delivers. Of course, the real heart and climax of the story comes on Easter. But, the Christmas story summarizes the good news of which Crucifixion and Resurrection are the exclamation point.

It does not matter what time of year it is. If, when I am reading theology or hearing a sermon or even reading a novel, I sense echoes of such joy and hope, if I catch a glimpse of this God, I take notice. When I don’t sense such echoes – when I don’t feel Christmas – I also take note. Some theologians, authors, and preachers suck Christmas right out of the room. Others can evoke it without trying or even intending to. Those are the ones I pay attention to.

I first made the connection reading Barth, but it is certainly also true of Evelyn Underhill, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Frederick Buechner, Rowan Williams, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Dante, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, and many others.

Have you ever felt that thrill of Christmas while reading or hearing someone?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Why We Tithe

Since early in our marriage my wife, Leslie, and I have given away 10% and sometimes more of our income. That is a significant amount. It has not always been easy. It has meant sacrifices. But, over the years it has become such a part of our routine that, while there are certainly things we cannot do or buy that we might otherwise be able to, it has become as natural as paying the water bill.

Why do we do it? First of all, because we believe the story of Jesus Christ as understood in the Christian Tradition is the most beautiful and most true story there is. In Jesus “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7-8). Experiencing some of that lavish grace has evoked in us a desire to respond to his generosity with our own. God is generous. In giving, we tune our hearts to the Generosity at the heart of all things.

We want to sink our hearts into the heart of God. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21). Our giving has a sacramental quality as an outward and visible sign of the commitment of our hearts.

It is also a simple matter of obedience. Jesus tells us to give. So we give. Doing things out of a sense of duty is not a popular reason for doing things. But, we accept that it is our duty to be “faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God” (Episcopal Church Canon I.17.3). We believe the Church to be the body of Christ and the essential, if demonstrably imperfect, anticipation and witness to the kingdom of God. Therefore, we give to support the Church and its mission. Since I became bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, that giving has been mostly divided between the several congregations of the diocese.

We also take seriously the biblical mandate, reinforced by Jesus, to care for the poor and those in need. In one of his parables, Jesus suggests that we should “make friends for ourselves” by giving to the poor who will then welcome us into heaven (Luke 16:1-15). In another, he warns us against the ignoring the desperate and destitute at our gate (Luke 16:19-31). Our Lord’s brother, James, asserts that true faith means to “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). In Ephesians 4:28, we are charged to “labor and work honestly with our own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” as if that was the main reason for working.

Further, Jesus warns that we will be judged based on our care for those in need (Matthew 25:31-46). They are the sacramental presence of Jesus himself. As Pope Leo the Great (400-461) pointed out, “rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself” (Sermon 9.III).

So, we give to aid the poor and those in need. Some of the 10% Leslie and I give to the churches of the diocese goes to that purpose through things like local food programs and other ministries. Beyond that, we give directly to organizations and entities that assist those in need.

Another reason we give is that the New Testament and the Christian Tradition clearly teach that money and wealth are spiritually dangerous. The more one has the more dangerous it becomes. It is not neutral. It is seductive. It creates a sort of spiritual static. It is not for nothing that Jesus says it is easier for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to make it into heaven. He refers to wealth as adikias which means unrighteous. In Luke 16:15, he refers to the pursuit of wealth as an abomination (which is what the Greek word, bdelugma, means). Jesus also warns, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24). Further, 1 Timothy 6:10 famously asserts that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” In two places – Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 – greed (the love and accumulation of wealth and the things that go with it) is referred to as idolatry. Remember that Jesus warned against the worship of Mammon  (Matthew 6:24 & Luke 16:9). By any measure, my wife and I are among the wealthy. So, we take these warning to heart,

We will be judged based on our care for those in need. We will also be judged based on our idolatry. The only way I can be sure I do not worship Mammon/Wealth is by giving as much away as I dare. And maybe dare a little more.

Giving a significant amount also helps us to cultivate a spirit of detachment enabling us to hold things lightly. A common theme in the Bible and throughout the Christian Tradition is that accumulation and attachment to things gets in the way of spiritual growth, i.e., the love of God and love of neighbor. And so, the disciplines of detachment and simplicity are commended. The more we have, the more we put our trust in what we have rather than in God. As John Wesley said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for those that have riches not to trust in them" (On Riches). The stuff of this world is good and it is not a sin to possess enough with which to live. We read in 1 Timothy 4:4-5) that, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” But, when we possess much it starts to possess us. It warps the way relate to God and others. And so we give.

Why 10 %? In the Old Testament Law an offering of 10% was a specific requirement in some contexts, e.g., Leviticus 27:32 and Numbers 18:26-32. In 1982 the Episcopal Church affirmed the tithe “as the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians”. This was reaffirmed by General Convention as recently as 2009. The key word there is “minimum”.

The truth is Jesus asks for more, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33). While it is true that not all of his followers go all that way even in the Gospels, still Jesus particularly commends those who give everything to follow him. This was picked up in the early Church as for example when St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-200) wrote,
And instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.
Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XIII, paragraph 3

And Pope Gregory the Great (540-604):
Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away.

The wealth we have is not our own. It belongs to God and, under God, to those in need. The real question is not how much we give and to what and why? The real question is how much we keep for ourselves for what and why? 

To be honest, we have not gone that far. We do not give as much as we could. We still own a house, cars, and much else. And, to be honest, I do not believe that faithfulness requires that we impoverish ourselves completely. Still, the words of Jesus remain a challenge to us.

We do not give out of a sense of guilt. We thank God for the grace we have received but we do not want to "sin that grace may abound". We rejoice in our freedom in Christ but do not want to be in bondage to anything (1 Corinthians 6:12), including money, wealth, and things.. And so, we give. We also do not give because we think God will bless us with more wealth if we give. That kind of transactional “Prosperity Gospel” is contrary to the way of Jesus. We give because we love Jesus. We give because we love his Church, the body of Christ. We give because we want to love those he loves  the poor and vulnerable. Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Giving is how we do that.

Some Qualifiers

Giving 10% + is what we believe we are called to do and it is significant enough for us to feel it. It is also the case that, together, my wife and I make a decent income. We are still able to live pretty comfortably. We could give more. I also want to acknowledge that my compensation includes insurance and a generous pension. So, those are two things we do not have to worry about as much as some others. And to be perfectly transparent, we tithe on our take-home salary, not our total compensation package which includes those benefits. Not yet anyway. Aside from our mortgage, car payments, and some minimal student debt, we are comparatively debt free. We recognize that that is not everyone's situation. It is also important to note that we are both on the same page when it comes to this commitment. If you are married, and you and your spouse are not on the same page, that changes things. It would not be good for this to become a source of contention in a marriage. But, perhaps careful and prayerful conversation.

I recognize that others’ situation might well be different and giving 10%, even in the restricted sense that we do might not be feasible. So, maybe you aren’t prepared or able, at least at this point, to meet “the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians.” That is OK. After all we are told, “it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (1 Corinthians 8:12-15). But, I am also confident than many could give closer to 10% and nearly everyone can give more than they are currently.

I do encourage you to start somewhere. There is nothing magic about 10%. But, if not 10%, what percentage? It is good to think in terms of a percentage and to set a goal rather lest our giving be ad hoc and haphazard. Not giving  is not an option for faithful Christians who “know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). So, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” Hebrews 13:16).

Here is a helpful rule of thumb from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.

See also:

Money: Intoxicant or Eucharist? (On Camels and Needle Eyes)

Saturday, November 16, 2019

John Updike on the Apostles' Creed

I was reminded recently of this from John Updike (1932-2009) on the Apostles’ Creed:

I call myself a Christian by defining 'a Christian' as 'a person willing to profess the Apostles' Creed.' I am willing, unlike most of my friends – many more moral than myself – to profess it (which does not mean understand it, or fill its every syllable with the breath of sainthood), because I know of no other combination of words that gives such life, that so seeks the crux. The creed asks us to believe not in Satan, but only in the 'Hell' into which Christ descends. That hell, in the sense at least of a profound and desolating absence, exists, I do not doubt; the newspaper gives us its daily bulletins. And my sense of things, sentimental I fear, is that wherever a church spire is raised, though dismal slums surround it, and a single dazed widow kneels under it, this Hell is opposed by a rumor of good news, by an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright.
– ‘Picked Up Pieces

One might wish for something a bit more robust from Updike. I do. Still, I find his almost wistful believing poignant. And there is something beautiful about the idea that a lonely voice professing the creed opposes the powers of Hell with a rumor of good news and “an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright”. Of course, that plenitude is our birthright. But we traded it for the lentil stew of our sin and idolatry.

See also:

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Make Friends for Yourselves – Thoughts on Luke 16:1-15

Jesus' parable of the “Dishonest Manager” in Luke 16: 1-15 is notoriously one of the more difficult to understand. Is he commending dishonesty? Is he just talking about forgiveness? Just what is Jesus saying in this parable?

First of all, a word about parables. All parables use images and metaphor to mess with our imagination and reorient it toward Jesus and the kingdom of God. But parables are not one thing. “Parable” is a broad category. Some of them are allegories in which one thing stands for another. Others are more like stories with a moral. Others are similar to proverbs. Still others are like riddles that leave you pondering. Many, including the Dishonest Manager, have an element of humor. And some are more like a joke in which the point is not so much the set-up as it is the punch line.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:1-13 is of the last variety. It is like a joke with a punch line. The story itself is not really the point. We will get hung up if we try to turn it into an allegory in which "the rich man" represents someone and "the manager" represents someone else, etc. It is not that kind of parable. We will also get hung up if we try to figure out why Jesus seems to commend this scoundrel of a manager as morally exemplary. But it is not that kind of parable. The story itself is just a somewhat ridiculous and humorous set-up for the punch line. And the punch line packs quite a punch.

And what is the punch line? It comes in verse 9: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest [unrighteous] wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” I told you it packed a punch. The manager dealt shrewdly with what he had in a worldly way. If we are children of light, we will deal wisely with what we have to make friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes. What does that mean?

1. Unrighteous wealth: Although the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version read “dishonest manager” and “dishonest wealth,” the King James Version and some other translations has it better when it translates the adjective as “unrighteous”. The Greek word, 
adikias, is translated "unrighteous" or similarly everywhere else in the New Testament so there seems no reason not to here.We have come to think of money and wealth as a good thing or at least morally neutral – as long as we do not come by it dishonestly. But it has not always been so. Jesus, and a broad and long tradition following him, sees money with great ambivalence. It has spiritual power and that power is dangerous. You cannot have much of it without that spirit starting to work on your soul leading you into all sorts of unrighteousness. Jesus goes so far as to call it an abomination in verse 15 (some translations have "detestable" instead, but it is the same Greek word, bdelugma, that is often translated "abomination" in Mark 13:14 and Matthew 24:15). So, the best thing to do is have as little has you need. So, what to do with it?

2. Make friends: It is deep in the tradition that giving alms to the poor is basic to faithfulness. Give and give and give. It is not only a good and faithful thing to do. It might just be salvific (see 
Mercy – Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy). Caring for the poor for their own sake is good in and of itself. But for Christians, as Pope Leo the Great (400-461) pointed out, rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself” (Sermon 9.III). So, making friends with the poor is one way we make a friend of Jesus. 

In verse 12, Jesus goes further, “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” So, if my “dishonest/unrighteous money is not my own, whose is it? God’s? Certainly. As we pray over our offering, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee” (1 Chronicles 29:14). But in the context, it seems Jesus is implying that the “other” to whom our money belongs is the poor. This was certainly the understanding of the early Church. This line from Ambrose of Milan (340-397) is typical, “You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”  Thus, understanding and clinging tom our money as simply our own is dishonest. The honest and faithful and righteous thing to do is use it to make friends with the poor.

3. They may welcome you into the eternal homes: Shaped as we are by the Reformation, we are used to thinking that all you need is faith. But it is hard to pay attention to Jesus (or to Paul for that matter) and come to the conclusion that it does not matter what we actually do. And the early church was clear that what we do matters and matters eternally. Giving alms to the poor is one of the things that matter. You all know I am big on grace. Grace is indeed the fundamental reality for Christians. But Jesus will not allow us the complacency of cheap grace. Who will welcome us to our heavenly homes? The poor whom God loves. We would do well to make friends with them now. James Forbes put it this way, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” Similarly, Pope Leo said, “Food for someone in need is the cost of purchasing the kingdom of Heaven, and the one who is generous with temporal things is made heir of the eternal” (Sermon 9.II).

Everything before verse 9 is set-up for that discomforting punch line. Everything after is an elaboration of the point that caring for the poor is an essential means of befriending Jesus and preparing for the kingdom of God.

Here is a story attributed to John the Merciful (early 7th century) that also makes the point well:

There was a certain man, Peter Telenearius, who, in order to get rid of the poor, threw rocks at them. One day when he was again surrounded by them, he had no stone handy, so he grabbed a loaf of bread and threw it at the head of one of them. Later he became sick and saw a vision in which his deeds were being weighed in the balance of divine justice. All his sins were on one side of the balance and on the other side was the loaf of bread thrown at the head of the poor. It had become acceptable to Jesus Christ as an act of mercy.

So, let us be children of light and make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome us into the eternal homes.

Of course, alms alone are not enough. We must also address the moral and systemic issues that cause too many to be poor. But that must never let us off the hook of giving of our own wealth for the sake of the poor. And for the sake of our own souls.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

On Luke 14:25-33 and Hating Father and Mother, etc.

This Sunday's Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) contains some hard words from Jesus regarding the cost of following him.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Hard words indeed. They are a reminder that faith in/loyalty to Jesus calls into question every other loyalty.

Loyalty to Jesus demands examining all the ways our hearts are entangled with other loyalties that compromise our ability to fully commit to him and his self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor – and enemy.

I have known people who were literally rejected by their family because of their loyalty to Jesus. But, it is also possible to allow love of family to compromise our love of neighbor. Or to choose loyalty to familial norms over loyalty to the norms of Jesus.

By extension, this means all other loyalties are suspect and to be "hated". Loyalty to nation. Loyalty to ethnicity. Loyalty to ideology. Loyalty to political affiliation. Etc. Each can be substituted for true faith in Christ. And each can interfere with our ability to love of the other.

Loyalty to Jesus means relentless and fearless detachment from other loyalties. Not that we are disconnected from others, but we must examine to what extent those connections begin to take priority over our attachment to Jesus and his way.

And all attachments, not least to money and possessions, must be relentlessly and fearlessly examined. One cannot be loyal to Jesus and Mammon. And those loyalties are harder to disentangle than we want to believe. Out attachment to our possessions create spiritual static. The more we have the more likely the static will interfere with our attachment to God and neighbor. The best thing to do is to give away as much as possible.

In 'Grace and Free Will' Augustine argues that this extends to our attachment to/love of our own lives when discussing whether or not it is a faithful option to kill in self-defense. He suggests, with Jesus, that it is not.

This is not easy stuff. But, the point is that Jesus knows that it is only through putting our whole trust in him and following in his way without distraction that we will find the fullness and depth of love, peace, and joy for which we yearn.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Tragedy or Comedy? An Expanded Sermon on Faith

What follows is an amplified version of a sermon I preached for Proper 14, Year C

What would you say? Are life and history a tragedy or a comedy?

I want to suggest to you that the Christian faith understands life and history to be a comedy. Not comedy in the sense that it is always funny, but comedy in the classic theater sense. Bear with me a bit here, I used to be an English teacher. Classically, a tragedy is a story that ends, well, tragically. There might be some humor along the way as there is for example in Romeo and Juliet. But, because the ending is tragic, it is a tragedy. A comedy on the other hand is a story that ends well. There might be lots of confusion and heartache along the way as for example in Much Ado About Nothing, but in the end, love conquers all and there is joy and laughter.

And that is the Christian faith – that in the end, Love will indeed conquer all and there will be joy and laughter for all eternity. Certainly, there is lots of tragedy along the way. But Christians believe that that is not how the story ends. Not my story. Not your story. Not the story of the world. The story of Jesus is a comedy. There is certainly some drama and there are definite rough patches. There is the poignancy of Jesus in the Garden and at the Last Supper. There is the seeming tragedy of Good Friday. But Easter comes and the story resolves in joy and laughter. And Christians believe that is a foreshadowing of how the story of the world ends. Faith is largely about living as though we believe that to be true.

There is much about faith in the lessons this morning, especially Hebrews 11. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for the conviction of things not seen?” And what are those things hoped for and not seen? Of course, God is unseen and yet we have faith in God and the things we know of God through Jesus. We cannot see beyond the grave and yet we hope for life after death. But, while faith in God and the hope of heaven is part of what the passage from Hebrews is about, it seems to be pointing toward something a bit different. Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect is God.” He and the other faithful in Hebrews 11 were “seeking a homeland” and “desiring a better country,” the city God has prepared for them. That is the promise they saw and greeted from a distance. That is not just about heaven, but about the promise that in the end God will set everything right and all that is broken will be repaired, all that needs forgiving will be forgiven, and the old tired creation will be made new.

We get a glimpse of that new creation, that city whose architect and builder is God, in the last chapters of the book of Revelation.

the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband
(Revelation 21:2)

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
(Revelation 21:3-4)

the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more.
(Revelation 22:1-3)

And we see it in the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah 11:1-9 where,

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them. 
(Isaiah 11:6)


They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:9)

This is the kingdom of God which Jesus refers to in this morning’s gospel, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” “Do not be afraid.”

That is how the story ends – with joy and peace and much laughter (Psalm 126:2) in the presence of God forever and ever – not as a tragedy, but a comedy.

New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, proposes that our situation is something like this. Imagine someone found an old play in some dusty attic in England that turned out to be a long lost, but clearly authentic play of Shakespeare. Here’s the problem. Acts I, II, III, and IV are all complete. But all that remains of Act V is the very last scene. So, we know how the story end. And, given the way it ends – a happy ending with joy and laughter – we know it is a comedy. Now, if we wanted to perform this play, what would we do? It can’t be performed incompletely. So, what to do? N. T Wright suggests we would gather some experienced actors who really know their Shakespeare. Have them learn the lines of Acts I thru IV and the final scene of Act V. They immerse themselves in it. Then they act. And when they get to Act V? At that point they have to improvise. What needs to happen, what might happen, to continue the story so that it is true to what went before and leads to the happy ending of Act V.

N. T Wright says we are like those actors in Act V. We know the story so far. Act I is creation. In the first two chapters of Genesis, we learn that this world is not an accident. Rather is is the exuberant creation of God who has declared it “good”, “beautiful”, “delightful”. And God is especially taken with these creatures created such that they can return his delight and delight in God’s creation and one another. It is glorious.

But then there is Act II. Everything goes sideways. The Man and the Woman and all humanity refuse to delight in God, the rest of creation, and one another. As a result there is division, deceit, and loneliness; violence and greed; there is selfishness, envy, and unlove. We are all infected. We all infect one another.

But, in Act III, God begins to intervene to prepare a way out of the mess we have made of things. God calls Abraham and Sarah. And from them comes the people of Israel, Moses, David, and the prophets.

Act V is Jesus and the New Testament. Out of Israel, out of the Jewish people comes the One longed for who shows the way the play is supposed to be acted. Jesus lives, teaches about the kingdom of God, heals infirmities, and forgives iniquities. He takes on all of human sin and suffering, takes it to the cross and dies for us to set us free. And then, foreshadowing how the play ends, he rises from the dead and ascends into heaven.

So here we are. In Act V. Like N. T. Wright’s imaginary Shakespearean actors, we are cast in the role of those who live as though we know the story so far. And more importantly, we know how the story ends – as a comedy in with joy and laughter and all longing for love fulfilled. What might that look like?

Because we know that, in spite of some of the day to day evidence, our story is not in fact a tragedy we can relax a bit. We can learn to let go of our greed and grasping, our fear and suspicion. Jesus, after all, tells us to not be afraid. We can practice hospitality and generosity. We can “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:10-11).

As actors in a comedy, we can live with the assurance that, as Charles Williams wrote in his novel, The Greater Trumps, “Nothing was certain, but everything was safe – that was part of the mystery of Love.”

Because we seek a better homeland, the city God has prepared for us, we will hold lightly all earthly loyalties to family, ethnicity, nation, ideology, etc.

Because we believe this is a comedy that ends in mercy and justice, we can begin now to heed what we hear from Isaiah this morning. We can cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. We can seek justice rather than bloodshed (Isaiah 5:7).

We can rejoice in God’s mercy and forgiveness and offer the same to others.

We can look to Jesus as our director and contemplate those lines from Act IV that describe most clearly how to live toward the final scene of Act V: the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Philippians 2, 1 Corinthians 13, 2 Corinthians 5.

We can pray and pay attention to the Holy Spirit’s choreography. And trust that we are not left only to our own devices, but filled and accompanied by that same Spirit.

None of us knows when the final scene will come. And there is nothing we can do to make it come. Faith includes trusting that God, the Divine Author, will bring the story to its end in his good time. We can only live as though we know what the final scene is. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "No one has the responsibility of turning the world into the kingdom of God, but only of taking the next necessary step that corresponds to God's becoming human in Christ." (Ethics, p. 224-225). That is what faith is, living now in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen as we prepare to receive our inheritance, that better homeland, that city God has prepared for us.

So, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This story is not a tragedy. It is a comedy.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Hopeful Universalism of Macrina (and her little brother Gregory of Nyssa)

Today is the feast day of Macrina (330-379), older sister and theological/spiritual mentor of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the most formative theologians and leaders of the early Church. Both of these great theologians pointed to their sister as their mentor in the faith. She was the theologian behind the theologians. Another brother, Peter of Sebaste, also became a bishop and saint.

In his book, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory recounts a dialogue with Macrina in which he asks his sister and teacher a series of questions about the nature of the soul and the resurrection and related things. It might be that Gregory uses Macrina as a literary device to convey his own thoughts similar to the way Plato sometimes uses Socrates in his dialogues. Or maybe this really conveys things he learned directly from Macrina. In any event his respect for her is clear. Towards the end of On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina says this:

To evaluate the way a person has lived, the judge would need to examine all these factors: how he endured suffering, dishonor, disease, old age, maturity, youth, wealth, and poverty; how through each of these situations he ran the course of the life allotted to him either well or badly; and whether he became able to receive many good things or many evil things in a long lifetime or did not reach even the beginning of either good or evil, ceasing to live when his mind was not yet fully developed. But when God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions.

He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained.

This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself; for the good which is beyond hearing, sight, and heart would be that very thing which surpasses everything. But the difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person. This process of healing the soul would consist of cleansing it from evil. This cannot be accomplished without pain, as we have discussed previously.
On the Soul and the Resurrection, pp. 115-116

Note that Macrina and Gregory are not soft on the reality of death and judgment – this cannot accomplished without pain. We will be judged.There is reason to bear in mind the “Time of Scrutiny” (Sirach 18:20). There is still good reason to take our own piety with utmost seriousness and to invite others to participate now in "the blessedness which we hope for."

They do seem, however, to understand The Judgment as having more to do with purgation and healing than final eternal punishment and torture. It is unclear whether or not they believed it is possible that some souls might hold out eternally against blessedness. But, they seem convinced that God, in his relentless love, will never give up on anyone - even beyond death and forever.

This hopeful universalism is quite different from an "all-y, all-y in come free" complacent universalism. Macrina anad Gregory are not alone in expressing some version of this. One could add Isaac the Syrian (7th century), Maximos the Confessor (7th century), Frederick Denison Maurice (19th century), C. S. Lewis (20th century), Karl Barth (20th century), Hans Urs von Balthasar (20th century), and many others. I find it attractive.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Real Resurrection is Essential to Christian Faith

The story might have ended there, except that three days after he had died and been buried, he came back to his disciples, resurrected—fully and physically alive.
(The Story of Jesus, in Brief, The Episcopal Church Website)

Wood burning in the sanctuary of St. James, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Every year around Holy Week and Easter some clergy person gets published questioning the Church’s historic teaching on the resurrection. This year it was Serene Jones, Dean of Union Seminary in New York. In an interview with the New York Times, Jones is quoted as saying, “What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

My basic response is three-fold:

1. That just goes to show that we are really talking about something other than Christian faiththen. Of course, if someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb it would not affect the faith of a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist either.

2. What are the underlying certainties and beliefs to which this person subscribes that make resurrection untenable or unnecessary? It might be a naive attachment to naturalism. But it is often something more theological. An example of this can be found in Marcus Borg. In a footnote in The Meaning of Jesus, Borg admitted there were three theological reasons why he rejects the historical factuality of the empty tomb none of which has anything to do with “objective”  history:

There are also theological reasons why I do not like an emphasis upon the historical factuality of the empty tomb. (1) It can have a distorting effect on the meaning of Easter faith: Easter faith easily becomes believing in the factuality of past events, rather than living within a present relationship, and the truth of Christianity becomes grounded in the “happenedness” of this past event rather than in the continuing experience of the risen Christ. (2) In conservative Christian apologetics, the factuality of the empty tomb is often used to prove the truth of Christianity and even its superiority to all other religious traditions. But I do not believe that the truth of Christianity can be proved in this fashion, and I do not believe that God is known primarily or only in our tradition. The claim conflicts with what I know of other religions, and it is difficult to reconcile with Christian notion of grace. (3) Finally, this emphasis virtually requires an interventionist notion of God, which I do not accept." 
(p. 268)

I appreciate his honesty. It's more than one often gets from those who claim their scholarship is free from dogmatic constraints. But, I don't see how his preconceived assumptions, as assumptions, are any different from those who say, The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. If one starts by assuming that God cant intervene in time and space and that any claims to the uniqueness and primacy of Jesus Christ are ruled out on principle, one will reject the idea of resurrection to conform with those prior theological constraints. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote,

The assertion that Jesus is risen from the dead remains a matter of dispute in a special degree because it cuts so deeply into fundamental questions of understanding reality."
(The Apostle's Creed in Light of Today's Questions, p. 114)

Or, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote,

The simple truth is that resurrection cannot be accommodated to any way of understanding the world except one in which it is the starting point."


The problem of making sense of the gospel is that it calls for a change of mind which is as radical as is the action of God in becoming man and dying on a cross.
(Proper Confidence)

The resurrection of Jesus summons us to enter into a particular way of seeing and being in the world. In short, it requires conversion. And it won't do to try to redefine resurrection to mean something conformable to other dogmatic convictions in order to avoid that conversion. It won’t do to reduce it to a metaphor for the enduring power of love or whatever. To talk about Jesus’ post-Easter existence as something other than his being “resurrected—fully and physically alive,” empty tomb and all, is to talk about something other than resurrection and is in itself quite empty. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams insists:

In short I want to claim that that the story of the empty tomb is not in fact incidental or secondary to the exposition of what the resurrection means theologically . . . But, it will be asked, does this mean that I think belief in the empty tomb as an historical fact to be essential to belief in the resurrection? Actually, yes.
(On Christian Theology, p. 194)

I suggest that the witness of the Church to the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus –fully and physically – has never been tied to biblical literalism and neither should it be beholden to the criteria of modernist skeptical criticism. If it happened, there is nothing more true or grounded by which to measure its reality. One can only live into and bear witness to that reality. It is the fundamental assumption of Christian faith which grounds and anticipates the fundamental Christian hope.

3. I guess my faith is not “stronger than that”. The truth is I often find it hard to believe in God. Much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy. Talk of god in a baby’s smile or the beauty of nature doesn’t quite cut it. Generic talk of “the Holy” or “the Sacred”? I don’t know what that means.

Even talk of God as love, by itself, seems to me to too easily slip into sentimentality. All such talk falls flat in the face of the horror story that is much of human history and the extravagant brutality that exists in with and under the extravagant beauty of creation.

The only way I can believe in any God is if it is the God who in Jesus Christ poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross. And then blew the doors of death off their hinges in the very real, very historical resurrection of the one who took all death and sin and suffering into the grave.

The promise of Easter is not merely that “love is stronger than life or death”. It is the promise of new creation in which all the very real, historical physical and spiritual suffering and death we endure and inflict are overcome and will in the end be healed.

That still might not always be easy to believe. But, it is the only thing I know of that, if indeed true, is solid enough and beautiful enough to bet my life on. Which, in the end, is what believing is about. 

And that is what enables me to hang onto the belief and hope that love is in fact stronger than life and death.

See also:

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Some thoughts about cathedrals

Some have been asking why people are inspired to give to the rebuilding of Notre Dame, but not to help the poor and suffering. To give to the former and not the latter would be a mistake. In fact it would be fundamentally absurd given what the cathedral actually represents.

But, I suspect that in fact many of the people inspired by the grand vision of reality represented by Notre Dame are the same people already inspired by that same vision to give and act on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the distressed, and the oppressed. It is not either or. The same vision inspires both.

Some thoughts about cathedrals, particularly Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame.

These cathedrals are great hymns of praise composed of wood and stone and glass. They were designed and built by people inspired by a vision of reality in which life is about much more than at first meets the eye  a vision of reality, soaring like a cathedral ceiling, committed to the conviction that, if one has eyes to see, the world is shot through with grandeur and overflowing with meaning and purpose. According to this vision, if one has eyes to see, all of creation, and every human being in particular, shines with all the color of heaven like light shining through stained glass.

The vision of reality that inspired the building of Gothic cathedrals has also inspired saints and others to see the last, the least, the lost, and the lonely lit with the color of heaven. That vision has inspired
people like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Oscar Romero, and people like them to serve and advocate for the poor, the sick, the distressed and the oppressed. that same vision has inspired some of the grandest art, music, prose, and poetry known to humanity. That same vision has inspired the founding of hospitals, schools and aid agencies. That same vision continues to inspires food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, political advocacy, and countless acts of kindness, hospitality, and generosity. etc.

Many of us are still inspired by this vision of reality. It is a vision rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate with particular attention this week.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Loving vs. Infatuation with Jesus

I had a friend in college I'll call “Bob”. Bob was drop dead cute. He had big brown puppy dog eyes and girls just swooned around him. I hated that!

Bob was never without a girlfriend. His problem was he could never keep a girlfriend for more than a couple of months. Bob would fall "in love" with a girl and he would be absolutely sure that this was the woman for him. Everything about her was perfect. She was pretty. She was bright.
She had all the qualities that he was looking for – for a couple months.

After a couple of months, about the time something was expected of him, things started to change. Bob started to realize that he was dealing with was actually another person. She was not just a projection of all his fantasies but actually had her own perspective and her own opinions. She had her own way of doing things. She had her own expectations. She had expectations of him. At that point, Bob would break up with her, disillusioned. Before long, he would fall in love with another girl and the whole sequence would start over again.

Bob was given to projecting his fantasies onto the girls with whom he was infatuated. But, those fantasies kept bumping up against the actual person. He was good at infatuation, but not so good at actual love.

I wonder if that isn’t how most of us engage Jesus much of the time. We are in love with the idea of Jesus. We are infatuated with Jesus. We want to welcome Jesus with shouts of

Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

But mostly we are just projecting our own expectations and wishes onto the idea of Jesus. When Jesus turns out to be something other than our preconceived notion of what he is or should be, we must either change or do something to avoid changing. Or was must try to change him. And, like those in this Passion we just heard, our Hosannas turn to, “Crucify him!”

[Let’s be clear here: In the passion narratives, when the gospels refer to "the Jews" the Jews are the representatives of all humanity are not peculiarly culpable.]

It’s not just that Jesus did not conform to the expectations his fellow Jews had for the Messiah. Jesus – and the God that Jesus reveals – messes with the usual categories of all of us for what God should be. And Jesus calls into question many things that each of us wants to assume about what is right and good and true about the way life should be lived.

It’s not just that the Jews expected a Warrior Messiah and got a non-violent, self-sacrificing Messiah instead. It’s that all of us prefer the Lion of Judah to the Lamb of God.

All of us want to enlist God in our battles – literally when we go to war, but also our political and other battles. We want to assume that God is on our side. What we want – what we are infatuated with – is a God we can exploit for our own comfort and to our own ends. We want a God we can use to prop up our own preconceived notions about what life is all about. We want a God we can exploit against those who threaten those notions. Indeed, we often want a God we can enlist to beat up our enemies – rhetorically at least, but often enough, literally.

But that is precisely where the God we know in Jesus frustrates our infatuation. A God who humbly empties himself is hard to exploit as a tool for our own purposes. Certainly it is hard to use such a God as a stick with which to whack the people we don’t like.

The God revealed in Jesus will frustrate all easy certainties about what God is like and what God wants. To believe in such a humble God turns our expectations of God upside down and demands of us a corresponding humility. It calls us to resist being too sure that God agrees with us or only likes the people we like. It means being prepared to let go of even our most cherished fantasies of what God is or should be. It will require that we not gloss over or ignore those things Jesus says and does that challenge our prejudices and assumptions about God and life. To move from infatuation with the idea of God to love of God in Jesus Christ requires a willingness to get to know the one we claim to love. If the God we claim to love is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Philippians 2 is a good place to start.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
            did not regard equality with God
            as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
             taking the form of a slave,
            being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross.

It’s right about there that we find out if we truly love Jesus or are just infatuated with him, when we realize that following him means the cross,  when we realize it means denying ourselves for the sake of the other, when we realize it means emptying ourselves and walking the way of his suffering.

Jesus looks down from the cross at the very people who are taunting, threatening, and crucifying him. And he prays, “Father, forgive them.”

How will we demonstrate our love for such a God as we engage others? Will we love and forgive and welcome others in the name of Jesus? Or will we find excuses to avoid, ignore, or reject them? Will we be perfect in mercy as Jesus says his Father is, pouring out mercy on everyone? Or will we decide only some people really deserve mercy – those we like and those who look like us. Will we withhold mercy from others?

Our love of the God of Jesus will mean that we welcome him – all of him – with our hosannas. And that means welcoming all other people, beloved by this God, with hosannas. Do we love Jesus? Or are we just infatuated with the idea of Jesus? As we enter Holy Week, may we enter more deeply in love with Jesus as he really is and follow him in the shadow of the cross, singing our hosanna’s as we recommit to denying ourselves that we might love with his self-sacrificial love.