Thursday, August 16, 2012

Enough is Enough

At the gym this morning I looked up at the tv screen to see news out of DC that there was another shooting. The sad part is that I had to really scour CNN's website to find that link. It wasn't front page news, in fact it wasn't even easy to find on the US main news page. Have acts of gun violence become so commonplace that they're not really news worthy?

My immediate reaction to seeing this was outrage and I remarked to someone next me "I'm really getting tired of these shootings." Violence happens; I get that, but what is really getting me angry is the Christian response. And as I preached last Sunday, this is a sort of holy anger that alerts me to the fact that things are not right. The way to address this is to imitate Jesus.

In the past few weeks we've seen shootings in Aurora, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, DC, and Iraq. Enough is enough! Yesterday I was reading Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail (full text) and was struck by his complaints against the Church-
"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection...I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church...In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church... there was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society...things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo."
We are guilty as charged. Enough is enough! As Christians, we are called to work for the Kingdom of God  and all that stands against it. This would include gun violence, and therefore against guns. Now I understand the arguments of those in favor of gun rights, but I'm also familiar with the Gospel of Jesus, who proclaimed living in such a way that the Kingdom of God might come on earth as it is in heaven. And I am convinced that gun ownership is not a hallmark of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus was clear when he said "put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." Of course, you can also find violent images in the Bible as well. But it seems clear to me that the most effective way to exegete the Bible is to use canonical criticism, looking at the whole of Scripture instead of just picking verses to make a point (eisegesis). And overall, we see the arc of the Bible as bending towards peace, love, harmony, justice, redemption, and Resurrection- not violence.

I'm not advocating taking away anyone's Second Amendment rights, but I'm saying that Christians might consider surrendering that right. It is time that we put down our guns and teach our children and our world that we will not die by the sword. It is time that our actions proclaim what our faith does- that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. We do not need guns to protect our property (didn't Jesus say something like "store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal"?). Plus, if we were truly concerned about protecting our family's safety, we'd be more concerned about texting drivers, drunk drivers, and red-light running drivers. It is time to trust Jesus more and the false sense of security that alarms, guns, and armies give less.

I'm not going to get into statistics here because that's not what this is about. I can cite sources that say that most gun injuries are confined to the homes that have guns, I can point out that if everyone in that Aurora theater had a gun that many more people would have died, I can suggest that other nations with stricter gun-control laws see less violence. But if you disagree with me, you'll have your own statistics. I'm not trying to win an argument in this blog post, I'm trying to proclaim the prophetic call to turn back to God.

You might also say that people kill people, and if it wasn't guns, it would be something else. Recently my brother posted a photo of an assault rifle on Facebook and said something like "can't wait to play with my new toy." I challenged him on calling it a "toy." His rebuttal was that the golf clubs that I use to play golf could be used to kill someone, just like his gun. But the point that we are missing is that guns are killing machines. That is why they exist. And our lax attitudes towards them in video games, movies, and shooting ranges has poisoned what should be our disgust and terror of such killing machines. One thing that really affected me when I was in Israel earlier this year was seeing so many guns. When we see a gun, our stomachs should churn and the hairs of our neck should stand. Guns should not be normal as they have become in our culture; as they would not be normative if God's peace broke out all over the earth.

Hunters might protest and say that those guns are different, and I'll cede that point. But even so, we don't need to hunt with sniper rifles or automatic weapons. And there is a message sent to those in a household where guns are present. The message may be subtle and unstated, but it is there. It says "guns are normal." Hunting can be done humanely (though it isn't always) and it is a fact of life that we see throughout the animal kingdom. But killing, even for food, should never be a sport or done for fun. It is a dangerous message and a slippery slope.

It is time for Christians to, as King encourages, actually do something about this problem in our nation. It is time to realize that those who are disciples of Jesus (and by that I don't mean those that show up on Sundays and say they love Jesus but don't want to sacrifice anything to make the Kingdom come, but I mean people who get what it means to follow the crucified and resurrected One) to put down the guns and work for peace. We might encourage others to do so, and stand up for laws that encourage better restrictions on gun (and all kinds of) violence. It is time for us to realize that the Way of Jesus is not easily reconcilable with groups such as the National Rifle Association. It is time for Christians to take seriously the prayer that we use most often and live it out- "thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." Because enough is enough!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Time for Boot Camp

So last week I decided that my workout routine needed something new and dynamic; I needed to challenge myself and my body. I began attending Boot Camp (shameless plug- Absolute Fitness is a great place to work out) for some heart-pumping, muscle-testing exercise at 6 am. The first day, while I was sweating profusely and trying not to pass out, I thought "this is what we need at church."

Now I realize that Episcopal liturgy has been called "Pew Aerobics" for some our routines of changing stances from standing, to sitting, to kneeling throughout the service, but I have something else in mind. There are a few great things about this Boot Camp that the Church would do well to learn from-

1) Community- If I were doing an hour of intense cardio in my house, I'd be much more likely to sleep in some days because there is no accountability. I'd also be more likely to not push as hard or take longer breaks between repetitions. But in working out with others, we push each other to work harder and we know when someone isn't there. For one, we learn about what's going on in people's lives by asking "hey, didn't see you yesterday. Everything okay?," but we also build relationships with them.

2) Dedication- It takes a certain level of commitment to be at a gym by 6 am, but it is intentionally carved out time. To participate, you have to give something up- namely, sleep.

3) Results- The workouts have a purpose, getting you into shape and making you healthier. Whether our goal is to have a toned body or to loose some weight, this sort of regimented workout will help you on your way towards the goal.

I hope the direct parallels to the Christian life and worship are evident here. It's a truth that is known in most churches- small groups are what make the community. At St. Francis, we have some wonderful small groups and ministry teams, but I wonder how we might better opens these often closed groups to new members.

A renewed sense of dedication, or even change of pace, in our prayer lives can be refreshing and invigorating. I love praying the Daily Office in the context of Morning Prayer each day, but sometimes new words and techniques can take us to new places in our relationship with God. I'm reminded of a phrase I picked up at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy last year- "itensify your preparation, and increase your follow through." They were talking about training for tennis, but I think the same can be said of our prayer lives- "work hard and make sure your finish what you start." But I wonder, what things do we work harder at than prayer? Do we read more often? Spend more time watching tv? Put more energy and focus into exercise? 

Spiritual directors have often helped me to remember that all of our life is prayer. If prayer is relationship with God, then when are we not in relationship with God? Dedicating ourselves to a "spiritual boot camp" might help us to intensify our preparations throughout the day, not just when we're on our knees in prayer or reading a Bible.

And finally, what is the point of our prayer lives? What are the results we seek? Is it adoration? Is it peace? Loyalty? Something else? If you don't know why you train, then it's awfully hard to know if you're doing it. 

What does your spiritual workout look like? Where does it work? Where do you need some new routines? 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

August 12 - Proper 14B

Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the truth- come whence it will, lead where it might, cost what it will. Amen.
            Are you serious? You’ve got to be kidding me! Another Sunday where the Gospel passage is from chapter 6 of John. In fact, we have five Sundays in a row of this whole “bread of life” saga. What do these lectionary composers expect preachers to do with five Sundays in a row of the same passage? How many times do they want us to explain the same thing? Are they testing our patience to see how long before we get bored? It’s ridiculous.
            You might wonder why I’m so angry about this. Well, this is a sermon about the place of anger in our lives and in our faith. And while preaching for five weeks in a row from the same passage in John can be a challenge, I’m not really that upset about it. We all know anger, but we’re not really sure what to do with it. My thesis for this morning is that anger is a forgotten Christian virtue. But it is one of the more misunderstood and dangerous virtues.           
Let’s start by looking at the dark side of anger. Often, anger is seen as a sin. In fact, anger is one of the 7 deadly sins. Sometimes it’s referred to as “wrath,” but that is also an acceptable translation of the words for anger we find in today’s readings. Wrath is a rejection of God’s grace, it is to abandon hope of restoration, it is full of pride and impatience. Anger in the Bible is related to the word for “puff up” or “swell,” so it has to do with an inflated sense of ego.
            And what we do with this sort of anger is even worse. We either hold it in and let it grow into a monster until it finally bursts forth and wreaks havoc, or we let it out too easily and are constantly bickering and snapping at others. Neither is helpful, and neither is virtuous. Anger also causes us to judge others too quickly and we start playing the blame game. This is what we see happening in our reading from John today. Jesus says that he is the bread of life and as our text notes, “they began to complain about him.” They got angry, and they got combative. They say “is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Essentially, they’re insulting him and saying “where does he get off saying that?” They do evil in their anger- they discredit him, they launch personal attacks, they dishonor the God in him. Sound like any political commercials you’ve seen lately?
            When we get angry, too often we attack. And when this anger spews out in this way, we distort the subject of our anger, dehumanizing them. This is what allows people to justify their acts of violence towards others. When anger allows us to dehumanize and invalidate the grace and love of God in each person, and in all of Creation for that matter, then that anger is indeed a sin. This sort of anger distracts us from seeing people as the beloved children of God.
The other way that anger affects us is by distorting us. Mary Gordon once wrote an essay about anger. She tells the story of hosting a family gathering. She was the only one in the kitchen, doing all the preparing and all the washing of dishes. And you all know how that is, you get angry when you hear everyone laughing and see them sipping their wine without them offering any help. Earlier that day, she promised her mother and children that she would take them the pool to relax after the meal. So once the guests leave, the children and mother get in the car with their bathing suits on. They wait a few seconds and they started leaning on the horn, “beep beep beep”. She flew out the kitchen, and jumped on the hood of the car and started banging on windshield. She screamed “I’m not taking you the pool, I’m never taking you to the pool, and I won’t let you in my house again until the day you die.”
Have you ever feel like that? I’ve never jumped on a car, but I’ve wanted to punch through a windshield before. When she calmed down, one of her children came to her and said “mom, you really scared me.” She asked “what was scary about me?” And the child responded “I was scared because I couldn’t recognize you.” Anger makes us something that we are not. It can destroy us and make us unrecognizable even to our closest loved ones. Anger can define us when left unchecked. But instead, anger should drive us to love the good. So with that in mind, we turn to looking at the virtue of anger.
When anger appears virtuous it grows out of love. When we love someone or something, we are invested in. CS Lewis once wrote that “there is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” Anger is the proper and healthy response to having your heart wrung and broken. Being angry is natural when you are disappointed in the loss or failure of the object of your love. We hold those whom we love to high standards, we trust them, we believe in them- and so when expectations are not met, we get angry. We get angry that goals are not achieved and purposes are not lived into. Anger is our sign that things didn’t go the way we expected. If we can’t be angry about things that are important to us, we should take a hard look at our devotions and commitments.
This sort of anger is similar to the burn you get on your hand when touching a hot stove. It says to us “danger ahead.” Or you might compare anger to a flashing yellow traffic light, alerting us to be cautious because things aren’t going as planned. William Sloane Coffin famously remarked that “anger is what keeps us from tolerating the intolerable.”
This is a sort of righteous anger, the kind of anger that we find in God, Jesus, and the prophets. We see it in the interactions between God and Moses, Abraham, David, and Job. Anger can very much be a Christian virtue if it is a part of true love. Jesus, in anger, overturns the moneychanger’s tables in the Temple and had many a heated and angry debate with Pharisees. Prophets such as Micah, Jeremiah, and Obadiah are filled with righteous anger at people who pervert justice and abuse the widow and the orphan. Their anger keeps them from tolerating the intolerable, and thereby their anger allows them to call people back to the Kingdom of God.
If we take a closer look at the story from 2 Samuel this morning we can see a great illustration of both anger as a sin and anger as a virtue. I don’t often like to say things such as “if you think your life is bad, just look at this story from the Bible” because sometimes people truly are living in the valley of the shadow of death and things are that bad. You know the saying “it was a flood of Biblical proportions;” well, David’s family is a dysfunctional family of Biblical proportions. So we’ve been reading about David’s affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. That’s pretty bad. But then one of David’s daughters is raped by her half-brother, Amnon, who then is killed by his half-brother, Absalom, who was Tamar’s full brother. There’s a nephew, Joab, in the family as well who had bad blood with Absalom, David’s son. Absalom is killed in today’s reading by Joab and then Joab is later killed under Solomon because David ordered it. Like I said, dysfunction on the Biblical scale.
But what I want to point out is how David treats Absalom. Absalom had rebelled against his father, David. He had taken David’s concubines for himself and was wanting to overthrow his father as king. David was full of anger, but that anger did not overcome the love he had for his son. His anger remained virtuous- it signaled to him that there were problems in the family, but he did not resort to revenge. So he says “deal gently with Absalom.” He would not let his anger destroy the relationship or define him. Joab, on the other hand, was full of sinful anger. He disobeys orders, abuses his power, and murders his defenseless cousin. His was an anger of retribution, of taking justice into his own hands, of hatred.
We all experience both kinds of anger from time to time. However, it is our decision to control our anger like David, or to let our anger control us, like Joab. I’m angry. I’m really angry at times. I’m angry about followers of Jesus who in the gun-control debate put the Second Amendment above the peace of Jesus. I try to avoid fast food, but when I eat it, my favorite meal was a spicy chicken sandwich with waffle fries. But now I can’t make that order without getting a side of prejudice- that makes me angry. I’m angry that Christianity has become a cultural assumption in America instead of a decision for sacramental and sacrificial living. I’m angry at politicians who seem to lie constantly and only care about their own agenda instead of the good of people who they represent. But you and I both know that this sort of anger is only going to fester until it destroys me, or those around me when the anger bursts out. So what are we to do with this anger? How do we let anger be a virtue instead of a sin?
Anger tells us that something isn’t right, and imitating Jesus is the way to address that. We heard St. Paul discuss the place of sinful anger and imitation of Christ in his letter to Ephesus this morning. Theologian Richard Niebuhr talks about the “ethic of response.” This is different from people who wear bracelets that say “WWJD?” and ask themselves “what would Jesus do?” That’s a dangerous question because you’re allowed to answer for yourself. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable speaking as if I were Jesus. Instead, the ethic of response is about responding to God’s nature and activity.
So God loves us, therefore we should love others. God created the world, so we should give thanks and protect the earth. God redeems us, so we should accept forgiveness. God is judge, so we should commit ourselves to good instead of evil. As Ephesians 5:2 notes, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” So our task is not to try to figure out how Jesus would act in a different situations, but instead is to respond to what Jesus has already done. He has already loved us, already showed us that death is not final, already proclaimed the good of the Kingdom of God over and against the kingdoms of greed, power, oppression. Not WWJD?, but instead “how do we keep the ministry that Jesus begun going?”
As a quick aside, I know many of us perhaps have some issue with the line in John that reads “no one can come to me unless the Father draws them.” It sounds very exclusive and unloving. Instead though, Jesus is simply talking about this very point- the ethic of response. We cannot come to God on our own, but only as a response to God’s drawing us in.
St. Paul encourages us to imitate God and be a fragrant offering. That’s wonderful imagery. Be a fragrant offering. Think for a moment about fragrances. Perfume or cologne on the one you love or the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. To be fragrant is to be a visible and perceptible vehicle of love, of hope, of grace. If we are fragrant, that smell will overpower the sin of anger and allow us to stay on the path of virtue.
Fragrances are also pleasing. I’m pretty sure that you can’t buy any perfume with the name “sewer,” “rotten food,” or “used diaper.” Fragrances should smell like Jesus. And what did Jesus smell like? Well, he was earthy, in the sense that he wasn’t afraid to do some dirty work, but he also smelled like the lilies of the field. His body was anointed with oils and perfumes for death, reminding us that there will be sacrifice in imitating him. But overall, the message of the Gospel is one of liberation, of love, of justice, and that indeed is a sweet smell to our souls.
Good fragrances are also attractive, meaning that they draw us in. If you’re in a crowded room and someone walks in with a nice perfume on, your attention turns to them. In imitating God, we strive to do so in an attractive and constructive way. We don’t need to cram our beliefs down the throats of others. We don’t need to fight over a truth that is not fully knowable on this side of life, but instead we should fight for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven. We don’t need to focus on judgment or other extensions of sinful anger. That isn’t very attractive, and I think that it’s pretty clear that the Church is guilty of being unattractive. There is a reason that so many young adults are staying away from the Church, we’re not really doing much by our actions to appear attractive or genuine.
In imitating God, we are able to better control our anger and let virtue reign instead of wrath. This passage from John about the bread of life offers a final consideration in living with anger. It’s something that we all know- when you’re hungry, you get irritable and angry. Empty stomachs have probably led to many bad decisions throughout history. Skip a meal and you end up cranky. And here I’m shifting to metaphorical meals. Jesus is the bread of life, whoever comes to Jesus will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. Imitating Jesus will satisfy our needs. Not our needs for a job, not our needs for a new car, not our needs for a cure to our illnesses, but instead our needs for spiritual hunger. And once our soul is filled, then we can attend to our bodily needs. If our souls are hungry, anger will likely lead to sin; but if we are content in our soul, we can use anger as a virtue. Feed on Jesus, he is the true bread come down from heaven that will nourish us.
Though it often gets a bad name, anger is indeed a virtue with a place in the Christian life. Anger can destroy us, or it can save us. Anger is a warning that tells us that something isn’t right, and imitating Jesus is the way to address that. Anger indeed is a virtue, but one which we must be responsible and response-able to. Anger must be kept within the bounds of love and kept on a leash, and anger should make us able to respond to injustice and apathy when we encounter it.
May almighty God grant us the virtue of holy anger that awakens us to evil and keeps us from being consumed by sinful anger. May God gift us with the strength and fortitude to imitate Jesus Christ our Lord in being a fragrant offering, responding to the grace, love, and justice of God. And may we be nourished this and everyday by Jesus, the bread of life. Amen.