Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When Did This Become Okay?

Yesterday, while perusing through my Facebook feed, I noticed a photo that caught my eye. It was a picture of the Obamas speaking with the rector I used to work for in Washington. I read the headline "As the Obamas Celebrate Christmas, Rituals of Faith Become Less Visible" and wondered what sort of article this would be. I then read the New York Times article, which, in part, says:
But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.
“He has not gone to church hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.
Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair...
...Mr. Obama has gone to church 18 times during his nearly five years in the White House, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, an unofficial White House historian, while his predecessor, Mr. Bush, attended 120 times during his eight years in office.
The article then concludes with-
"Mr. Balmer put it more bluntly: “If the calculus is, ‘Do I spend two hours going to church Sunday morning or do I get to watch college basketball Sunday afternoon?’ If he had to choose between the two, and knowing Obama, he’d probably choose college basketball." 
After reading the article, I was left disgusted and angered, pondering the question "when did this become okay?" When did it become okay to keep a public record of anyone's church attendance? In a nation that seems to be up in arms (and rightfully so) about several breaches of privacy, these authors seem to have no qualms about prying into the private life of this particular Christian (and his church attendance is a function of his faith, not his political office).

What is perhaps even more abhorrent is the baseless guess by Mr. Balmer that the President would choose to watch basketball over attending church. The President is the only one who could make that call. When did making such an audacious claim become okay?

Matthew 7:1 says "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," while James 4:11a records "Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law." But these phrases appear to mean nothing to the article's author, Ashley Parker, who had to issue a correction nothing that several of the numbers originally reported were "off," or to many of those quoted in the article.

When did such haphazard journalism become okay? When did it become okay to judge the faith of others? When did it become okay to publicly condemn the private religious practices of someone? Now some might say that it's about race, and to be sure, part of it is likely built upon that foundation. But more than that, this article seems to suggest that we've forgotten what faithfulness is about, and what metric (if you can even measure that) is used to measure it. Though parts of the article suggest that Obama has a deep faith, when did it become okay to then, in effect, say "but let's take a look at the record and see if he walks the walk or just talks the talk?"

In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox writes of the earliest church- "what bound them together, however, was not an organization or a hierarchy, and it was not a creed. Rather, it was a powerful confidence that they shared the same Spirit and were all engaged in the common enterprise of following Jesus and making his message about the coming of God's Reign of shalom known to the world." In other words, if you were on the Way (the earliest name for what we call "Christians") then you were on each others' side, something some seem to have forgotten.

Faith has never been about how much  money you give, how often you attend worship, how many prayers you can say in a day. Now to be sure, those might be signs of a deep faith, but they themselves are not the faith. To judge the intention, soul, or priorities of another person is extremely dangerous and myopic.

I have some unique insight into this whole notion of the religious practices of the presidents, at least as far as attendance at St. John's is concerned. While I never took attendance of the presidents, you of course noticed when they are present. To say that either GW Bush or Obama were "regular" attenders at St. John's would be a stretch. But I, indirectly, heard stories from them of the pressures of attending public worship- knowing that the media is waiting outside to ask you questions about policy doesn't exactly allow for a quiet and worshipful state of mind. Attending worship as the President isn't easy, as you have to travel with a caravan of bodyguards and police. I recall a particular Sunday when some visitors at St. John's forgot that they were at church and not in 4th grade and decided to pass a note to President Bush. The note was intercepted by the Secret Service, and while I don't recall what exactly the note said, I do remember that it wasn't full of kind words. Many presidents have chosen to worship at the White House, or at Camp David, or in places more conducive to worship instead of a three-ring circus.

To judge someone's faith based on how many times they have attended a worship service is not only a terrible way say anything substantive about their faith, but it is also un-Christian to cast such stones of judgement. When did such an open critique of one's religious practices become okay? When did confusing church attendance with religiosity become okay? Maybe it was just a slow news day. But either way, let's be clear- this isn't okay.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

December 29, 2013 - Christmas 1A

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Merry Christmas! Christmastide is the celebration of the Incarnation. The day when we remember and celebrate that God, who created all that is, who is the source of all that is, was born of a woman on earth. Our reading from John is the definitive Biblical passage that addresses this concept. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Its beautiful poetic stanzas inspire a sense of awe and majesty. But this first chapter of John is also one of the densest in the Bible. What does it mean that the Word became flesh? What does it mean that the Word is God?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December 24, 2013 - Christmas Eve - John 1:1-14

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Merry Christmas! I pray that this night has been full of joy with family and friends. And I pray that as we turn our focus towards Jesus, that your joy might be made even fuller. You, of course, noticed that I did not read the gospel reading that was printed in your bulletin. The Rector, Michael, is working to get over a bad fever. I had planned to preach on this gospel reading from John this coming Sunday, so it made more sense to go with that text. And it really is a wonderful reading, but not one we’re accustomed to hearing on Christmas Eve; though it is one of the approved options. Can you imagine what the Christmas pageant would look like if we used John as our manuscript? If you can, let me know, because I haven’t been able to figure that one out.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

December 22, 2013 - Advent 4A

O come, O come Emmanuel. Amen.
            Here we are, the fourth Sunday of Advent; Christmas Eve is just around the corner. In the previous weeks we’ve considering the Second Coming in terms of kairos and chronos time, and we’ve pondering the question “what are you waiting for?” Now we’re at the doorstep to Christmas and finally we get a reading about this baby who is the focus of the Christmas season. It’s an absolutely fascinating story. Mary and Joseph were engaged, but somehow Mary ended up pregnant. And I’m sure that Joseph had a few questions about how that happened.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

December 15, 2013 - Advent 3A

O come, O come, Emmanuel. Amen.
            What are you waiting for? That’s not a call to get busy, but rather a sincere question. What are you waiting for? Advent is a season of hoping and waiting. So what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Santa vs Jesus

Hopefully that title got your attention. Now that it's December, you can find articles galore about the "war on Christmas" and many will argue that we need to "keep Christ in Christmas." Often what they are referring to is the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays," which they say denies the real "reason for the season."

Christmas has been corrupted and watered down, just as Christianity has. Just as there is now a brand of American Christianity, we have a corresponding American Christmas. Both are a bit more selfish and secular, taking elements from the Prosperity Gospel and capitalism.

The commercialization of Christmas isn't really something I lose sleep over. While I don't really think it's appropriate to take a religious holiday and try to turn it into a cash cow, it only works because we fall for it. If it's the job of companies to make a profit, there really isn't anything wrong with selling us stuff. Plus, spending creates tax revenue, which provides money for programs for many citizens in need. And having an active economy is generally a good thing. Some people practice secular Christmas, doing all the decorating and shopping while holding no beliefs about God or Jesus. That's not really a threat to Christmas either.

The real "war on Christmas" is happening from within. It is happening by those same people who want to put "Christ back in Christmas." Some have called it- "the sentimentalization of Christmas." We say that Christmas is about family, hope, joy, peace, and giving. But the problem is that is a lie. Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation.

Christmas is not a season for giving, it is a season for receiving; namely for receiving Jesus into our world and lives. This is what Emmanuel (Hebrew for "God with us") is all about. It's not that we made a manger for God and said, "hey, come down and join us." No, it's that God disrupted us (and mostly Mary) by coming. God did not come for us to give a glimpse into what it's like to be a human. But rather, we receive through the Incarnation. We received a closer glimpse of God, teachings, and Resurrection, all because of the events of Christmas.

The "war on Christmas" has nothing to do with the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays," but instead the false premise that Christmas is a season of giving. Christmas is a season of receiving. Receiving God's presence in our lives. Receiving God's grace and God's dream.

How we respond to what we receive makes all the difference. And it makes a difference what story we tell. Do we focus on the (fictional and created by marketing strategists) modern-day Santa Claus who is all about giving gifts to good children (suggesting that you can earn things such a love or grace)? Do we tell the story of industry and consumerism in the narrative of the North Pole workshop? Do we tell the story elves on shelves who decide whether or not we are "worthy" of a gift? The story of joy being equated with presents piled high? The story of a family gathering where all the children are consumed with screens instead of spending time with family? A story about spending money and rushing around frantically to get it all done? 

Or do we focus on another story? We could instead focus on the story of Jesus' birth, which I think is a good enough story on it's own, no need to supplement it with reindeer or wish lists. Instead of focusing on wanting what we don't have (and don't often really need), we could focus on what we have received already. And then we can respond in a very incarnational way, by showing that love of God to those who truly need it- the poor, the captive, the homeless. We can even respond by telling this story of God's love by giving in the same way that God showed us love. God came by giving of the self- what if our gifts were relational? Instead of just buying stuff, what if we made our gifts, or gave the gift of time and memories? What if we told the story of Jesus on Christmas instead of the story of Santa?

The war on Christmas is that we've sentimentalized it, turned it into something it's not. It's no different that what has happened to Christianity in general in America. Christianity isn't about personal salvation, going to heaven when you die, or getting your blessings through faithful living- but many American Christians hold that belief. In the same way, Christmas is not about love, or joy, or peace, or any of those other sentimentalized ideas, nor is it about giving. Instead, Christmas is about Jesus, and it's about receiving him. It's easy to get that mixed up in our world of mixed messages and advertising, and, at least in my opinion, that's the real war on Christmas.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

December 1, 2013 - Advent 1A

O come, O come, Emmanuel. Amen.
            What time is it? A rather seemingly simple question, but as today’s readings suggest, perhaps there is more to that question than meets the eye. What time is it? Advent is the beginning of the new church year, so it is a time for beginnings. Advent is a season in the Church in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of God in the flesh. But we do this every year. Advent time is strange time. Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, but it seems that in Advent we’re supposed to forget that and be filled with expectation as we await his birth on Christmas. Some have used the phrase “already, but not yet” to describe Advent. Jesus has already been born, but not yet in Advent.
            Answering “what time is it” is a difficult question for us Christians. We are called to spend Advent waiting and hoping, all while Christmas songs fill the radio waves and stores urge you to not wait for anything, go ahead and buy that item today. Even our readings in Advent can’t figure out what time it is. Today we read Matthew 24, but the next three weeks we’ll read Matthew 3, then Matthew 11, and finally Matthew 1. It’s awfully hard to figure out what time it is when even our readings can’t seem to get things in order. Is it Christmas? Is it Advent? Has Jesus already come? Or do we wait for his coming? Is it okay to sing Christmas songs? What time is it?
            And why in the world do we start this new year in the Church with a reading containing an apocalyptic vision? It seems like our readings today should focus on the angel coming to Mary to tell her that she is pregnant instead of having a 30-something year old Jesus telling the frightening tale of the Final Judgment. I thought Advent was a season about preparing for Jesus to be born, not a season to worry about being raptured away. What time is it?
            This is a very strange picture of Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus as the compassionate healer, the powerful miracle worker, the suffering servant, but the bringer of judgment? It’s a jarring passage. CS Lewis famously said of Jesus that he “either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or he was himself deluded and self-deceived, or he was Divine.” Or in other words, either Jesus is liar, lunatic, or Lord.
Just two verses before our reading today begins, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Hate to tell you, Jesus, but there have been at least 50 generations since you said this and the sun hasn’t been darkened, time has not ended, and the thief is yet to come in the middle of the night. After reading this passage, one has to wonder if there is perhaps some possibility of it being lunatic. So does this mean that Jesus was wrong?  Perhaps it has something to do with the way we tell time. What time is it?
Jesus says that no one knows when that day or hour will be, not even him. No one must have told St. Paul about that though, because he rather certainly proclaims “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Jesus might not know when that day will be, but Paul seems to know that it’s happening right now. I’m so confused. Jesus seems to say that that fateful hour is somewhere off in the future, and we’ll never know when it will be. But Paul is saying that it’s happening now, that now is the moment to awake from sleep because now is the time that the thief is near. What time is it?
Methodist Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of attending a funeral in rural Georgia. The preacher began his sermon with his voice raised and his arms flailing. He shouted “It’s too late for Joe. He might have had plans for his life, but it’s too late. He’s dead. Maybe he wanted to make things right, but he can’t now.” And he continued “but it’s not too late for you. Why wait? Give your life to Jesus today.” After the service, Willimon talked to the family and said that he was sorry that they had to sit through that, that it was manipulative, callous, and inappropriate. The widow said, “yes, it was all of those things. But the worst part of what that preacher said is that it was all true.” Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. As St. Paul says, it’s time to wake up.
There’s no avoiding the topic of eschatology with these readings. Eschaton is a Greek word that means “final things.” And the problem is that we often mishandle conversations about the eschaton, or the Final Judgment. Either we interpret the words of Jesus and Paul too literally, and end up with a picture that looks similar to the Left Behind series, or we do what most liberal churches do, we simply ignore these readings. We say, “oh, Jesus was talking about something else.” And both approaches are wrong. There is no rapture, but there is a Second Coming. What time is it?
Advent really is a season of two advents. Advent is a word that has as its root meaning “coming.” In Advent, we celebrate that God came to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus, but we also await his next and final coming. I would guess that most of us would err on the side of ignoring the Second Coming. After all, that’s just such a backward and antiquated belief, isn’t it?
The thing is, we need there to be a Second Coming, and if we ignore the Second Coming, we also have to ignore today’s readings. We have to ignore a lot of what Jesus said. And we have to ignore the idea of hope. Our world is broken, there’s just no getting around that. The prophet Isaiah gives us a beautiful vision in the reading this morning, saying “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
But that vision is no closer to being a reality than it was the day Isaiah prophesied it. Drones and nuclear weapons have only made us better at killing each other. Since President Obama was elected, latent racial tensions have become even more intense. Atheism is on the rise. In thirteen days, our nation will mourn again as we remember the one year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook. Even after such a tragedy, we could not beat our swords into ploughshares; lobbyists prevented us from beating our guns into school supplies. The Kingdom, it seems, is not coming on earth as it is in heaven.
If you’ve been paying any attention to my preaching over the past several years, you’ve probably noticed that I often preach about the Kingdom of God, and our task of furthering it. But the important thing to remember is that we do not build the Kingdom. God does. Now we might lend a hand, but it is God’s work. And left to our own devices, things aren’t going to get any better. Without a Second Coming, we are condemned to only the possibilities that are already present in the human experience. But the hope of Advent is that Jesus will come again. The hope of Advent is that things will change. The hope of Advent is that there can indeed be something new. The Second Coming is where we will find our redemption.
But you might ask, what does this mean? I’ve never really believed in a Second Coming, how do I make sense of it. After all, Jesus said that we can’t know when it will be. So shouldn’t I just live my life as normal and hope for the best? Well, that depends. What time is it?
There are two ways to understand time; two different types of time. Both come from Greek thought and are known as chronos and kairos. Chronos is related to chronological time. If I ask you what time is it, meaning chronos, you might say- it’s Sunday, December 1st. Chronos time is quantitative. Chronos time can answer questions such as “what does the clock say” or “when does train arrive.” Chronos time can also try, incorrectly, to pinpoint the exact moment when Jesus will return.
But kairos time is different, it is qualitative. Kairos time is about it being the right moment. Questions that kairos time answers are “when should I tell her that I love her,” “when does a boy or girl become a man or woman,” or “when will God answer my prayer.” Kairos time can’t be pinned down or measured by the clock.
Chronos time tells us that there isn’t enough time. Chronos says that we’re running out of time to achieve liberty and justice for all. We want poverty to end, but we’re running out of time before Jesus comes again. We want to be found worthy when Jesus comes, but we’re running out of time. Or so, chronos would have us belief. But kairos has something different to say. Kairos says that it’s not justice that’s running out of time, but it is injustice that’s on the clock. Kairos says that redemption is still possible. It’s not that life is running out of time, but rather death. Chronos time is about schedules, anxiety, and isolation from one moment to the next. Kairos is the time of grace, of hope, of new possibilities.
We’ve all been trained to live in chronos time, and we don’t really know how to make sense of kairos time. But these types of time are important to understand, because the Second Coming is about kairos time, not chronos time. If the Second Coming is to be a historical event that only takes place at one moment in time, then Jesus was wrong. Many generations have passed since he spoke these words. If the Second Coming will happen in chronos time, then we can be like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. If we see the crooks coming, then we can worry about getting ready. But if the coast is clear, then it’s back to life as normal. If the Second Coming is about chronos time, as long as it doesn’t happen during our lifetime, then the words of Macbeth will ring true, that “Life is a tale told by the idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Jesus’ words mean absolutely nothing to us if the thief doesn’t come during our lifetime. No need to watch or wait. No need to worry about what time it is.
But what if the Second Coming happens in kairos time? That would mean that the Second Coming can’t be measured by the calendar or stopwatch. It means that, perhaps, the Second Coming is already happening, but isn’t quite consummated. Perhaps, the Second Coming is just like Advent, is a time of the already, but not yet. What time is it?
There is a reason why we prefer the parable of the Prodigal Son that tells us that there is always time for repentance, to the parable of the thief in the night that suggests that indeed, sometimes it is too late. Jesus tells us to watch, not necessarily for the chronos moment where the thief busts down the door, but for those kairos moments when the thief is already in the house. What if the Final Judgment isn’t something that will happen in the future, but is already happening? What if when you get to the gates of Heaven, St. Peter doesn’t give you an overall grade on your life, but instead takes a few random samples? What if that day you were running late and had a bit of road rage was the moment that your soul will be judged upon? How about that time you thought no one was looking? Because if the Second Coming is happening in kairos time, then the judgment is already underway, now is the moment. But it’s not finished. What time is it?
That’s why it’s so important to watch. And as St. Paul exhorts us to do, it is vital that we “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.” Watch for those kairos moments where you see the Kingdom coming, and give voice to them, help them along. There are some moments where I can watch my daughter, Ellie, and see her growing up before my very eyes. That is a kairos moment. And if we can pay attention, we can see those same sorts of moments in our world when the Kingdom is indeed coming.
But if we only pay attention to chronos time, redemption will never come. Isaiah’s vision isn’t going to come to pass. The saying is that a watched pot never boils, and it’s true that simply watching the clock for the Second Coming will not lead to there being more love, justice, peace, or reconciliation. But the Second Coming doesn’t happen in the sort of time that we live in. It happens, and is happening, in God’s time. What time is it?
So this Advent, as St. Paul says “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” In Paul’s time, clothing was what identified you. Peasants dressed one way, soldiers another, and dignitaries still another. You could look at someone and know who they were just by the clothing they wear. That’s not quite true for us today. So Paul is saying, make it obvious to everyone that you are following Jesus. Wear Jesus on your sleeve. Make it obvious that you’re watching for those kairos moments of the Second Coming.  

            What time is it? It’s Advent. That time of the year when time gets turned on its head. What time is it? It’s the Second Coming. What time is it? It’s time to put on our Lord Jesus Christ and watch for those kairos moments where the Kingdom is coming. This season of Advent, may we prepare ourselves to receive anew God in the flesh into our hearts and world. May we prepare ourselves for the Second Coming and Final Judgment. May we awake from our sleep and live for God. May we worry less about what time the clock tells us that it is, and give more attention to the time that the Kingdom’s coming tells us that it is. What time is it?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

November 17, 2013 - Proper 28C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            I’m going to start this sermon with a story that might seem more like a presentation on sales and marketing than it does the Gospel, but we’ll get there. If you’re like me and like spicy food, then you’ve heard of Sriracha. It’s a hot sauce that was created by David Tran 33 years ago after he moved to Los Angeles from Vietnam, and was craving the kind of hot sauce he remembered back home. But he couldn’t quite find anything that suited his palate, so he decided to make his own. The Sriracha brand has become synonymous with the word “hot sauce” in many places, and you can buy t-shirts and iPhone covers with the logo, there are cookbooks based entirely on this ingredient, and Frito Lay now sells Sriracha flavored potato chips. In 2012, Sriracha sold over 20 million bottles for a profit of over $60 million. So you’d expect that David Tran started with a great business model and has worked hard to build his hot sauce empire.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

October 27, 2013 - Proper 25C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            What will be your legacy? In the final chapter of the pastoral epistle known as 2 Timothy, St. Paul writes “through me the message might be fully proclaimed.” As I reflected on our readings for today, that one line jumped out at me as I wondered, “what message am I proclaiming?” When we began hearing from the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy a few weeks ago, I mentioned that these letter were written to churches that were already established and were meant to encourage the believers, keeping them on the right track. 2 Timothy is a letter about community and passing the faith along to future believers and generations. And so the sort of message that was being proclaimed was of great importance to Paul and his audience.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

October 13, 2013 - Proper 23C

Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyrs triumph over suffering and are faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember them in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with them the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
            Let’s begin with some audience participation. Please raise your hand if you can name the prophet Muhammad’s mother. No one? I had to look it up, it’s Aminah bint Wahb. And if any of us had been in the Westland mall in Nairobi, Kenya two weeks ago, our inability to answer that question would have gotten us a bullet in the head, as it did our brother in Christ, Joshua Hakim. He was just one the nearly 70 people who were killed in that attack by the Boko Haram terrorist organization. And this attack, which specifically targeted non-Muslims and Christians, is just but one example of the plight that our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing around the world.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

September 22, 2013 - Proper 20C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            This fall, I’m going to take my sermons in a different direction. My focus will be a bit more inward than outward. Of the 19 sermons I’ve preached this year, 3 have had what you might call a prophetic edge; they have challenged our relationship of complicity with our flawed economic and political systems. And while I firmly believe that sometimes preaching a challenging sermon is called for, I realize that it can create an “us versus them” mentality.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We Can (and Should) Do Better

Recently a parishioner commented that most of my sermons revolve around one theme, sometimes subtlety and sometimes rather plainly. In this person's mind, the theme is that of priorities. Essentially, what comes first in our hearts, in our work, in our words? While I probably wouldn't have articulated my major theme as such, I can't disagree with the observation. I likely would have said that the Kingdom of God is my central theological tenet, but that really is about priorities. God has made us a priority with God's abundant grace and love, and the question we are faced with is- how will we respond? 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syria, Just War Theory, and Faith

As you know, there is a crisis going on in Syria (CNN has a good overview of the situation) and this past weekend, President Obama informed the nation that "after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets... if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we just acknowledge the costs of doing nothing...if we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?" Today, the news has come that many Congressional leaders are backing the President's call for Congressional support of any military action.

So what is the Christian response to all of this?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September 1, 2013 - Proper 17C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in theological terms, are we called to orthodoxy or orthopraxy? Orthodoxy means right belief and orthopraxy means right action. That is do we listen to St. Paul who wrote “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing” or shall we listen to St. James when he says “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith...so faith without works is dead.” So which is it?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

August 18, 2013 - Proper 15C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.
            Sometimes the hymn writers just get it, and that is certainly true for William Alexander Percy, the author of today’s sequence hymn. Today we get a view of Jesus that is unsettling. This isn’t Jesus as the shepherd of our souls, or Jesus the friend of sinners, this is a far more aggressive and angry Jesus than we’re accustomed to. This is a challenging Jesus, perhaps a Jesus that we wish would just keep his mouth shut. This Jesus makes us uncomfortable with words such as “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!... father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is Charity?

This graphic is making the rounds on Facebook today. Quite interesting. The question is asking what sort of action is called for when we speak of "helping the poor." Is it directly helping a person in poverty through an act of charity (donation, serving at a food shelter, etc.)? Or is it in working to reform and re-envision our culture to be one where the plight of the poor is addressed?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

July 28, 2013 - Proper 12C

Lectionary Readings

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            I’ve been looking forward to preaching this sermon for quite a while. Three years ago, I had just begun the work of ministry at St. Francis, and after spending a week with our high-schoolers on a mission trip, I preached my first sermon here. I don’t know if you all recall the sermon or not. It likely wasn’t that memorable, other than the fact that I preached it from the chancel steps without notes, something you probably haven’t seen since then.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 - Proper 10C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

These are the hardest sermons to preach. All you have to do is utter the phrase “Good Samaritan” and even those with a passing knowledge of the Bible will know what you’re talking about. We have “Good Samaritan” laws that try to promote helping those in need. Even the series finale of the hit show Seinfeld was based on these sorts of laws. So how is a preacher to preach on such a well known text? As Jesus told it, this story was subversive and shocking, but in our culture is has become genteel. Most people hear this passage and assume that the moral of the story is “be nice to strangers,” which it is not. Some preachers will approach the text by examining the question “who is my neighbor,” urging their congregation to respond with compassion to everyone they meet. And that too, is missing the point.

This is an extremely rich parable, and it refuses to be summed up in one pithy little statement. In fact, referring to this passage as the “Good Samaritan” is misleading. We’d do better to call it “The Parable of the Man in the Ditch,” or “The Unlikely Neighbor.” But even those statements don’t capture the full grandeur and all of the subtle lessons that Jesus has put into his masterful telling of the parable. So let’s walk through this passage and see what exactly we are being told to “go and do.”

As the text begins, a lawyer arises to test Jesus and set a trap for him. Lawyer really is a bad translation, this man was a religious scholar, someone who studied the laws of Judaism. So don’t read this passage as an indictment against attorneys, this man had a religious motivation in his approaching Jesus. He came to test Jesus, to try to undermine his teachings. Maybe he wanted to see, if perhaps, the rumors might be true, if there was a chance that he might be really be a prophet, or even more, the messiah.

But his motives were not so pure, as the way the dialogue unfolds, we see that he is just waiting to pounce on Jesus if he fumbles the question. We see this most clearly in the question- “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question itself is a trap because it doesn’t make any sense. The easy answer is that there is nothing you can do to inherit anything. By definition, inheritances are free gifts, you cannot do anything to earn them. He has asked Jesus an impossible question.

When do we do the same? When is it that doubt causes us to test God? How many times do we pray “God, if you really want me to do this, give me a sign.” And in doing so, we’re just waiting for a chance to get out of if it. When do we ask those impossible questions? When do we make those deals with God that are setting us up for failure, you know the sort- “O God, if you’ll just do this one thing for me, then I’ll do this grand and wonderful thing for you.” But as we’ll see, our traps of insecurity and fear don’t pull God into them.

So Jesus, rather brilliantly, answers his question with a question, not falling for the trap. He asks “what is written in the law? What do you read there?” Any Jewish legal scholar knew the answer- love God and love neighbor. As the passage from Deuteronomy this morning proclaims so beautifully- “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” This isn’t rocket science. The word of God isn’t something hidden from us, it isn’t something that we struggle to understand. It isn’t something that we have to go and search for. It is as near as our mouth and heart. This is one of the most important blessings with which God blesses Israel: the nearness of God and God’s word. So this religious scholar had no choice but to answer the question in this way- love God and love neighbor. And when he responds in that way,
Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly. But the man can’t leave well-enough alone.

The text says that he wants to justify himself. The word “justify” might also be translated as “vindicate” or “make oneself right.” The spring on the trap didn’t work, so he’s grasping at straws now. Parables are meant to draw us in, to invite us to participate in the story. So now is a good time to consider how we fit into the story thus far. If someone asked you- “what is written in the Bible?”, how might you respond? Have you read enough of the Bible to answer that question? Have you meditated on God’s word to have a response? How near is it to your heart and your mouth?

And when is it that we seek to justify ourselves, when we would do better to just keep quiet? When the argument is over, and our traps have failed, why do we keep grasping for straws? This parable is an invitation, both to consider how near to us God is, and to discern the motives for our actions- are they in keeping with God’s word, or are we just trying to justify ourselves?

So Jesus then begins to tell the parable. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. This was not an unheard of happening. Thieves could easy hide and jump on travelers who were not well-protected. They stripped him, beat him, taking all of his possessions, and left him there to die. And I wonder where we still have Jericho roads in our world. What are those pathways that still exist that are full of danger? What are the institutions that still exist that beat people up?

The past several weeks have been historic ones for the Supreme Court. The case that got most of the attention was the ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. And while that is something to celebrate, let us remember that it is just one step in the step towards liberty and justice for all. But there was another case decided that I’m afraid will set up many new Jericho roads. The Court recently struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for discrimination and racism to find a new home in the voting booth. The Court said that the nation has changed in the past 50 years and such a law is no longer needed. I wonder if the security personal on that Jericho road were removed because there hadn’t been any muggings recently. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent- “[This] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

There are many Jericho roads, where those who are forced to travel them are just waiting to be mugged and beaten. You can find these roads in North Carolina if you’re unemployed, as our legislature has decided to strip benefits. You can find these roads in the housing projects, where the road from poverty to prosperity is full of robbers just waiting to knock people down. You can find these roads in our jails, which are disproportionally full of minorities. You can find these roads in our education system in North Carolina, where we rank 46th in the nation in dollars spent per student and are continuing to cut funding to public schools. You can find these roads in Raleigh, where Medicaid expansions are being rejected in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. You can find these roads among migrant workers and our immigration system. You can find these Jericho roads everywhere.

And along comes a priest, coming from Jerusalem and returning home to Jericho. Priests had shifts at the Temple in Jerusalem, and this priest had likely just finished his few weeks of service in the Temple. Some people try to give this priest a free-pass and the quote laws from the Torah about ritual purity, suggesting that the priest would have been making himself unclean by touching the beaten man, thereby making himself unfit for his duty to God. And that would be a great argument, if it worked.

But it doesn’t. For one, the text clearly says that the priest was heading down from Jerusalem, which is a city on a hill. If he was going down, he was finishing up his priestly duties and would have had plenty of time to go through the purification rituals before his name came up on the Temple rota again. Furthermore, those rules only applied to touching a dead body, and the priest doesn’t even walk over to see if the man was still alive. He doesn’t attempt to get help, instead, he can’t be bothered with this. So he crosses over to the other side and goes on his merry way.

Perhaps the priest thought that if anyone asked about it, he could use those purity laws as his excuse. Or perhaps he could say that he was so focused on where he was going that he didn’t even notice the man. What are our excuses? What excuses do we use to keep the dirty, poor, and needy at an arm’s length? When do we look the other way and pretend that we didn’t see injustice?

This priest’s error was in confusing holiness with Godliness. He thought that he had excuses for avoiding this inconvenience- his duty was to remain holy so that he could do his ministry. But he forgets that before anything else, he is called to Godliness, to loving God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself. Let us not make the same mistake.

Next down the road comes the Levite. Levites were a group of people that assisted the priests in the Temple. And this Levite was also coming down from Jerusalem, signaling the end of his shift in the Temple. And what I’d like to point out is that he did the same thing that the priest did. Now priests led the worship and rituals in the Temple, and the Levites assisted. And what is so abhorrent about this part of the parable is that the Levite did the same thing as the priest. He knew that the priest, who lived just down the street from him in Jericho, had left the Temple a few minutes before he did. So he knew that the priest must have passed by this wretched man and not done anything. And he did the same thing- nothing.

You’re probably familiar with the psychological phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” that says that the more people who see someone in need, the less likely anyone is to act. Momentum can be hard to break. It is difficult to go against the grain, to be the voice of dissent when injustice is happening. This incident is an extra damnation against the priest, who set the example for this Levite. And we would do well to consider what examples we are setting. What does the way we live teach our children and grandchildren? How do our actions, as people who claim to be Christians, reflect on Christ? What example do we set for those around us?

But the Levite bears some of the blame as well. And his inaction begs us to consider those moments when we just go with the crowd. The Levite didn’t have the courage to be different. He couldn’t find the strength to do what he knew was right, but would have made him vulnerable. After all, the wounded man could have been a trap. Perhaps the robbers were waiting for someone to approach the man and then attack them as well. But the riskiness of doing the right thing does not make it any less the right thing to do. Let the example of the Levite be a wake-up call to act when action is called for and to speak when a voice needs to be raised.

I really wish that we could have read this gospel passage in its original Greek this morning, because the words jump off the page in the next section. These first two encounters use the exact same sentence structure. But as Luke tells Jesus’ parable, this next section is jarringly different.

This next sentence begins with the word “Samaritan.” And I wish there was a way for me to make your gut churn when you heard that word, as it would have for Jesus’ audience. The conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans was intense, to say the least. It was grounded in a theological dispute, but became an ethnic hatred. The feeling this injured man, a Jew, would have felt when a Samaritan approached him would be the same as if in 1950s Alabama a black man approached a white woman, or if a Palestinian approached a Jew today in the Middle East, or if a Sunni came upon a Shia, or Nazi soldier approached a Jew in 1930s Germany. To say there was tension is an understatement.

And this part of the parable is often overlooked. The beaten man had to accept help from the Samaritan. Even in his half-dead state, he could have let ethic hatred drive him to tell the Samaritan to leave him alone. And it begs the question, would we accept help from anyone? Is there a group of people for which you’d rather die than admit that they saved you? Being helped by someone, especially someone you don’t like can be a challenge. Booker T. Washington was once asked how much he charged for a speaking fee, and he said “$50, unless you host me, then $150.” Putting ourselves at the mercy of others takes a lot of trust and vulnerability. Receiving hospitality, especially for those of us who like to appear as if we’ve got it all put together, can be just as hard as giving hospitality. So let this injured man be a lesson to us, that we accept the grace of God, regardless of what vehicle it uses to get to us.

Do you wonder why the Samaritan stopped to help the man? And not just stop, but he tended to the man, he poured expensive oil and wine on him. He put him on his own animal and guided him to an inn, and paid for his stay. Why did the Samaritan lavish compassion and mercy on him?

Again, the differences in the Greek text make it so clear. In the first two encounters, the text says “a certain priest/Levite was going down that road, and seeing him, passed him by on the other side.” But when the Samaritan enters the parable, the text reads “a Samaritan was journeying and seeing him, had compassion.” What I want to point out is the difference between going down that road, and journeying. The priest and the Levite were going down from Jerusalem, they had a destination in mind. They were on a mission, and they weren’t willing to be distracted. They were so focused on what they thought they should be doing and where they thought they should be going, that they couldn’t make any room in their life for compassion. But the Samaritan was not “going down,” he was “journeying.”

It’s really a question of how you go about life. Is your life a closed system, or open to new possibilities? Do you keep your head down to avoid distractions, or do you take in the sights? What happens when someone threatens to throw a wrench into your plans- do you get frustrated, or do you see it as a new opportunity for grace?

As the parable concludes, Jesus asks the question “which of these was a neighbor?” And this is a rather ironic and intentional reversal of how the parable started. The religious scholar came to Jesus and asked, “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus concludes by asking “who was the neighbor?”

And in that subtle shift, Jesus is communicating the point of this parable. The neighbor goes from being the object of the sentence, to the subject. And point of the parable isn’t to figure out who we’re supposed to be nice to, to discern who our neighbor is. That’s easy, everyone is our neighbor. The tough part of this parable is in figuring how it is that we can be a neighbor to everyone that we encounter. Jesus concludes by saying “go and do likewise,” or in other words- be a neighbor. And that is the point of this parable.

As you can see, this parable isn’t quite as simple as being about the “Good Samaritan” who teaches us to be nice to everyone. Jesus tells this parable to challenge us and reverse the way we see neighborly hospitality. We are invited to consider how it is that we try to trap God in our uncertainly. We are urged to explore the Jericho roads in our own time, that we might make them safer to travel. Our excuses are nothing that should prevent us from doing the work of Godliness. Though it can be difficult to break precedent and be that voice calling out in the wilderness, it is our calling as Christians. We might consider how we can be more open to receiving hospitality from others, and be willing to cross racial, economic, and ideological boundaries to offer help to those in need. And we are invited to enjoy the journey of life, so that we might be able to see what lies around us instead of just going through the motions. It’s a very rich parable, but if all you remember are three words from this sermon, remember these three- “go and do.”

Sunday, July 7, 2013

July 7, 2013 - Proper 9C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            If you go to the Middle East today, you’ll find that one of their core values is hospitality. Receiving the stranger and offering them food and water is not only the nice thing to do, but it is the only acceptable thing to do. Hospitality is a part of that culture, and that was just as true during Jesus’ time in the Middle East. And here in the West, we talk about hospitality as well. We often use the word “welcome” as a rough synonym for hospitality. But hospitality means more than that. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word literally means “love strangers.” What if we not only welcomed strangers, but loved them? That would get us closer to Biblical hospitality. This morning I’d like to examine three aspects of this Biblical hospitality, as seen in this passage from Luke. The three parts are offering, being vulnerable, and interdependence.
            First, we’ll begin with offering something in hospitality, as this is the most common form of hospitality that we know. Jesus suggest that there are two things that the disciples are to offer those they meet, peace and the Kingdom of God. As they enter a house, their first word is to be “peace.” “Peace” was an ancient greeting that conveyed tranquility, wholeness, harmony, and health, being based on the Hebrew word shalom. And I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if “peace” was the first word that we offered to one another instead of “hey, how are ya?” And not just what if we said “peace” instead of “hello,” but what if we meant it? What if we were setting the tone for our interactions by offering peace? By saying “peace,” what if we were committing ourselves to trusting that we won’t be taken advantage of, to promising to offer only harmony and health to the other person? It might not change the world overnight, but I’d be willing to bet that you might start to see small changes in your relationships.
            But I’d also like to point out that peace does not mean an absence of conflict. Conflict is a good and healthy thing when handled properly. Conflict is natural, but what you do with conflict will determine whether or not it will lead to peace and healing or to war and strife. Too often we say that we can’t be at peace because we can’t agree with each other, and that’s a fallacy; and the sad truth is that it leads to negative conflicts. I don’t expect everyone to agree on everything. In fact, part of what makes the Episcopal tradition so rich is the fact that we live what we call the via media, the “middle way” between the poles of Protestant and Roman, between Conservative and Liberal. And Jesus knows that he disciples will encounter some conflict as they go out and tells them how to deal with it.
            If you’ll remember the reading from last Sunday, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire to consume the Samaritans. But here, that isn’t how Jesus suggests that we handle conflict. Instead, Jesus suggests not staying in an unhealthy relationship. If the person will not receive your peace or offer it back to you, you leave. It doesn’t mean that you won’t come back another time, but don’t stay in a place where peace is not possible. But as you leave, your parting words are not to be threats or insults, but rather a reminder that “the Kingdom of God has come near.”
            And this is the second offering of hospitality that Jesus offers us- the Kingdom of God. What is the Kingdom of God? Well, it’s like a mustard seed, and it’s sort of like a lost coin, and it reminds you of a father welcoming back his lost son. Jesus never defines the Kingdom of God, he simply says that has come near, or “is among you,” in other translations. And this is a point that should not be overlooked. Far too many Christians have fallen for the trap of thinking that the Kingdom is the same as the afterlife. Why would Jesus say “the afterlife has come near?” He wouldn’t; it makes no sense. And our preoccupation of who goes where when they die is nonsense as well. If you’ve paid attention to my preaching here over the last three years, you’ve probably realized that the present Kingdom of God is the core of all my theology. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon without at least once mentioning the Kingdom of God.
            What the disciples are to offer is the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come near. And as Jesus presents it, this Kingdom comes with peace, with healing, with community. We pray it all the time- “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” What does that look like to you? What would it mean if the Kingdom drew closer today? How can you help to realize that prayer?
            The first move of hospitality outlined by Jesus is in the offering of peace and the pronouncement of the Kingdom of God. When we offer hospitality, how might we be sure to include those elements?
            Next, hospitality involves vulnerability. Notice that Jesus makes his disciples reliant on others from the start. He tells them to take no purse, bag, or sandals. For one, they will get these things from others; but secondly, they aren’t going to make a career or build up their net worth. They won’t be collecting souvenirs or donations that they’ll need to carry. He sends them out, telling them not to be weighed down by the burdens of possessions or money. And there is great vulnerability in this action. What if they don’t find anyone to feed them? Or give them a place to sleep? Or what if they’re a vegetarian and their host sets out a pot roast for dinner? It takes a lot of vulnerability.
            Jesus wants them to go out and truly be with the people whom they visit. And I hope that we notice that this is a reversal of how we often think hospitality works. Normally, hospitality is seen as welcoming. And we’ve really gotten this wrong in America. We think that hospitality is saying “come on in, we’ll show you how we do it around here, and we’ll even teach you how to be like us.” But as colonialism in Africa showed us, that doesn’t really work. When the first missionaries arrived in Africa, they didn’t find much success. Christianity grew very slowly when the Africans were told how to be Christian. Once the missionaries left, Christianity exploded. When they were allowed to know God in Christ through their culture, it clicked.
            So hospitality isn’t as much about “welcome, let me teach you,” as much as it is “can I stay with you and learn from you?” Martin Luther King famously said that Sunday morning is the  most segregated hour in America; and nearly 50 years later, he’s still right. And part of the reason why he is still right is that we’ve forgotten how to be vulnerable in our hospitality.
            We don’t risk being changed, or doing what is uncomfortable, and therefore we don’t really know each other. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be like lambs being sent into the midst of wolves. How often do we feel like lambs surrounded by wolves? When does our faith or hospitality endanger us or make us targets? When was the last time we risked something in being hospitable?
You can see this all around, churches are trying to welcome and attract young people by trying to be hip and cool. And all the research shows, that despite praise bands and guitars, despite letting people wear blue jeans instead of suits to church, despite preachers that look like a CEO giving a keynote address, young people haven’t been impressed with the efforts. They aren’t coming because churches aren’t doing what Jesus suggested that we do.
We’re not going to others on their terms. We aren’t learning their customs, we aren’t eating their foods, so to speak. It takes a lot of courage and trust to go out on that limb, to leave behind the known, to be utterly dependent on the other. But that is exactly the sort of hospitality that Jesus is suggesting to us.
And this vulnerability of doing things differently is seen in our reading from 1 Kings as well. Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, has leprosy, and finds his way to the Israelite prophet Elisha, who tells him to bathe in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman’s initial reaction isn’t “good, this is easier than I thought,” instead, he resents the fact that he travelled all this way to not even get a face-to-face meeting with Elisha and then be told to bathe in a river that is dirtier than the rivers back home. There was a sociological experiment done a few years back where a group of people were given free movie tickets, while another group had to pay $10 for their tickets. They were shown the exact same movie, but people who paid for the tickets were both more likely to have actually showed up to the show, but also gave the movie considerably higher reviews than the people who got free tickets.
We expect that good things are expensive and difficult. We expect that anything worthwhile will take a lot of time and energy. And we tend to overlook the easy stuff, the things that are right in front of us. The median cost for a wedding in the US is $18,000. After a wedding, I’ve never heard anyone say “that was worth $18,000.” But instead, the couple will often say that the best moment was something simple. The same is true of my seven month old daughter; she gets more use out of the bag that the toy came in than the toy itself. We tend to take more ownership of things when we have to invest a lot in them. It does take a bit of vulnerability to trust that what we need will be given to us, and it isn’t something that we need to earn ourselves.
If you look at mega-churches, you’ll see this phenomenon playing out. Mega-churches tend to espouse a rather difficult faith. They will tell you what you can and cannot drink, what shows you can and cannot watch, what beliefs you can and cannot hold. But that simply isn’t how God works. God isn’t present as much in rules and prohibitions as much as God is present in some simple bread and wine, or in the face of the person next to you. We like clear definitions and boundaries, but in the simple answers, we don’t get as much clarity as we’d like, and that takes some vulnerability. The grace, mercy, peace, and love of God isn’t something we earn, it is a free gift. Let’s not make that any more complicated than it needs to be. Let’s be more vulnerable in our hospitality, let’s really be with each other, learning from each other, and accept the love of God that is all around us instead of trying to define how it works.
Finally, hospitality takes interdependence. And given that we just celebrated Independence Day on July 4, that word choice is intentional. Independence is seen as a virtue; being able to take care of yourself is a noble thing. But in this passage, Jesus seems to be elevating the status of being interdependent.
I’ll be honest with you, I have some real uneasiness about the relation of patriotism to discipleship. There is a tension between being a citizen of the United States, or any other nation, and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. There is friction between being a citizen of an empire, a citizen of the last true superpower, and being a disciple of the Prince of Peace. And I struggle with it. Now pride is a natural thing for us to feel. There is nothing innately wrong with feeling a deep connection to the place where you were born and live. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the triumphs of your community. But we must realize that the flag and the cross are competing symbols. They both compete for our deepest loyalty and devotions. Which lapel pin do we wear, the cross or the flag? Do we give priority to the flag in the pledge of allegiance, or to the cross in the Creed?
Jesus gathers 70 disciples and sends them out. In Genesis 10, there is a list of nations, and there are 70 nations on it. It is no coincidence that these numbers match. Nationalism and patriotism was very much alive in Jesus’ time in Israel. People expected a messiah to come and be of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews. But Jesus seems to be saying that God is bigger than Israel, and I think Jesus would also remind us that God is bigger than the United States.
Let us remember that since our founding, the United States has been called a “great experiment.” The United States is not the end of the road, but, at its best, it is a step towards the Kingdom of God, where we will experience true liberty and justice for all. But like all experiments, it’s not perfect, and it will fail, but we hope and pray that our failing will lead to a better design the next go-around. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s great words- “sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God’s side.”
And the only way to live into that prayer is to be interdependent, not independent. Being independent, disconnected from others, seeing ourselves as superior to others, does not lead to anything good, and it does not lead to the Kingdom of God. American exceptionalism is an idol that has taken us away from the giving, vulnerable, and interdependent hospitality that is so characteristic of the Kingdom of God. So let us remember, that as Jesus commissions us and sends us out, it is to be interdependent on others.
Just as Jesus sent those seventy out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, so too does God send us out to do the same. May we go, setting the tone with our first word of peace. May we vulnerable enough to learn from others, to see the new ways that God is working. May we be interdependent, growing with each other into a fuller realization of the Kingdom.

When the disciples come back to Jesus from their missions, they are excited about their mighty acts and successes, but Jesus says “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this… but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Now that’s worth shooting fireworks off over. Let us remember that that our glory is not found in our hospitality or our success, but instead in the glory that God has been hospitable to us, in giving us God’s peace, in being vulnerable enough to come to us in the person of Jesus, and in being interdependent with us through the Holy Spirit. And for that, in the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, I say, “glory, glory, hallelujah.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

June 16, 2013 - Proper 6C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            So often the Old Testament presents us with the most illustrious and captivating stories in all of the Bible, and today’s reading from 1 Kings is no exception. It would make a great opera, as it has all the needed tragic and dramatic elements. It tells the story of the king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, a princess from Phoenicia who follows other gods, Jezebel, and their plot against the Israelite Naboth. It is an old story, but one full of wisdom for us today. It should be rather obvious after hearing this reading that one of the major themes deals with justice.
And to put us in the right frame of mind, I’d like to begin with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu- “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say ‘Now is this political or social?’ He said ‘I feed you.’ Because the Gospel to a hungry person is bread.” I begin with this quote because, at times, this might sound like a political sermon. At times, I will say thing that sound like they’ve been taken from a Republican stump speech. At other places, you might hear me as Democratic speech writer. And other times, I just might sound plain crazy. But I want to make it clear: I am simply preaching the text as it was read this morning, pointing toward the Gospel truths.
As Americans, we’re obsessed with the law and justice, and our reading from 1 Kings is very much concerned with law and justice. Supreme Court cases get major media attention, we have several shows about law and order, and courtroom drama is now its own television genre. And in particular, the Constitution has become our focal point. We look to it to discover what is right and what is wrong. But anyone willing to give our country an honest look will soon realize that the Constitution does not lead to justice. We have billion dollar mud-slinging contests to decide who will win the White House every four years, and perhaps the most important job that any president has is appointing Supreme Court justices. And not even for one moment does anyone seriously think that any president will appoint impartial judges to the court; but instead they stack the court with like-minded people. As the prophet Habakkuk notes, “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” And he might as well be talking to modern day America. One has to wonder if what we have is actually a justice system, or rather a punishment and revenge system.
One of the themes that we’ll run into in 1 Kings is the problem of idolatry. And we have made the Constitution an idol. But compared the Word of God, the Constitution is just a piece of paper with ink smeared on it. The justice of our courts is nothing compared to the justice of God. King Ahab of Israel forgot that. He didn’t have our Constitution, but he had his own vision of how a nation should be run. He turned from the Covenant with God, making idols out of everything. And we have begun to do the same. So let this story about Ahab and Naboth be a reminder to us that we keep our focus on God’s law and not laws that we create to suit our own desires and needs.
As we enter the text, it begins with a simple business proposition- “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” Ahab is committing the sin of coveting. He wants what is not his. And if this doesn’t speak to our human nature of being selfish and materialistic, then I don’t know what does. Here we have the king of Israel, with more land than he could ever need, with two palaces, with armies and servants, and yet he still isn’t satisfied. He still wants more. He isn’t content with what he has.
And how often do we fall into that pattern? We all do it, so there’s no sense denying it. As St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in thee.” But we put our hearts in other places. We have other priorities that end up higher on the list than God. We have soccer tournaments that keep us from church, we have budgets that focus more on our own standard of living than the standard of living of those homeless people that live in our communities, we put our faith in political leaders who are just as corrupt as Ahab and Jezebel. We live in a culture of planned obsolescence, always wanting the next best thing. We have all committed the sin of Ahab.
Ahab shows us the dangers of desire; the evils that can come through coveting. You perhaps have seen in the news over the past few weeks the unfolding saga of the young girl in need of a lung transplant and the action of her parents to move her to the top of the transplant list. Now I’m all for a parent doing everything in their power to help their child, nothing wrong with that. But where sin enters the picture is when it devolves into coveting in the way that Ahab did. The problem comes when we focus on our own needs and desires above and against the needs and desires of others. In all of the media coverage, I have yet to hear about what happens to those who get “leap-frogged” on the transplant list; as those parents who have enough money to hire lawyers and create a media-storm seem to get whatever they want, while not considering how their actions might affect others. We often say “you have to follow your heart and be true to yourself.” And the danger in this is that we make desire our ethical standard. We must consider where our desires leads us.
Ahab didn’t consider what taking the land of Naboth might do to him. Ahab commits the sin of saying “I want,” and that is where the whole debacle begins. When we covet, we lose ourselves. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the character of the same name in the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab. The captain becomes obsessed with catching the white whale, and is willing to sacrifice is ship, the lives of his crew, and his own live in chasing what he covets. It consumes his entire life, and he exclaims “to the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” When we covet as Ahab, both the captain and the king, did, we lose our relationship with ourselves and with others.
So after this proposition is made, Naboth responds to the king, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ancient laws in Israel prohibited the selling or trading of land, as the land was seen as a gift from God to the family. Even when the law was ignored and land transactions did happen, every 50 years, when the Jubilee year came, the land would revert to the original owner. Naboth was not willing to forget who he was. Ahab was after something that he could not have, and Naboth respected God’s law, even though Naboth stood to gain a lot of money or an even better homestead.
There is an interesting point in Ahab’s speech- he says that he wants to turn Naboth’s land into a vegetable garden. It seems innocent on the surface, but there is a deeper meaning. The other time in the Bible where a vegetable garden is referenced is in Deuteronomy 11:10, where God says “For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.” Ahab intends to take the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and turn it into a new Egypt, a place of slavery, a place of oppression, a place without God’s justice. And so Naboth refuses to allow this atrocity to happen.
Ahab returns home and sulks. He is so overrun by jealousy and covetousness that he has made himself sick to the point where he can’t even eat. Jezebel enters the story, and seeks to console her husband. She says “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” For the first time in the story, we see the wisdom of that old phrase on display- “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
What I find to be perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole story is that Ahab doesn’t say anything in response to Jezebel. He does not ask, “how are you going to do that?” He doesn’t say “you can talk to Naboth about it, but be mindful of God’s justice.” Instead, he just sits there, complicit in the evil that he knows is about to be done. At the end of the passage, justice comes down on Ahab, reminding us that we are responsible for the actions of those under us. If you’d like a modern example of how this works, I suggest you ask President Obama about it. When we turn a blind eye or abdicate responsibility, the entire house of cards will fall and it will come crashing down on us.
We should also consider how we are like Ahab at this point in the narrative. What are we complicit in? When do we look the other way when it benefits us? There is a great alternative form of the Confession, that, in part, prays “We repent of the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” And it’s a great line- the evil done on our behalf. For the most part, if we have a comfortable life, it is the direct result of someone living an uncomfortable life.
I’d like to draw your attention to the growing movement in Raleigh known as Moral Mondays. It is a group of faithful people gathering to peacefully protest against the disgusting legislation being presented before our State legislature. The issue is that the North Carolina General Assembly is considering bills that will remove Medicaid and unemployment benefits from many; that would add a consumption tax that will adversely impact the poor, who will face increased prices on basic goods; and that will force college students to return to their often distant homes to vote, seeking to control election outcomes. In short, the Biblical teachings and imperatives to protect the poor, respect the stranger, care for widows and children, and love our neighbors are being ignored, much in the same way that Ahab and Jezebel ignored God’s justice in favor of their own desires and power.
Do we really think that $4 gasoline, out of season vegetables in every grocery store, and $10 jeans have no repercussions? There is a price to be paid for convenience, but we’re not the one’s paying it. Naboth is. And far too often, we are like Ahab, turning a blind eye so that we can get what we want. The saying is “out of sight, out of mind,” but nothing is out of God’s sight.
And so Jezebel begins scheming, and commits several evils in the process. This is the ultimate nightmare as far as Biblical crimes go. In this one story, Jezebel orchestrates and compounds the sins of Adam, Cain, and David. First, she creates a national crisis by proclaiming a fast. This decree would be as if the president instituted martial law as a means of preventing voters from going to the polls; it is an extreme abuse of power that would have caused panic. It was a way for Jezebel to control the situation and not give Naboth a chance. The fast would have been declared as a way of making amends to God. It was a way of saying, “there is a sinner in our midst, so we need to fast and find them, lest God’s judgment come down on us all.” It’s a rather heinous act to appeal to God’s justice as a way of perverting that same justice. And I can’t help but think of the infatuation that Fox News has had with Benghazi over the past 6 months as a modern day parallel of having an inquisition and crisis for political gain. In both cases, it is a distraction so that people don’t pay attention to the other issues that are going on. And Jezebel is setting Naboth up for doom by creating the conspiracy of someone having angered God.
She then lies and bears false witness, both in concocting the story, but also in signing decrees in Ahab’s name. Naboth’s initial response was “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Jezebel likely committed the same crime that every news outlet commits on a daily basis- she probably just misquoted Naboth. It is quite likely that she reports Naboth to have said “The Lord forbid that I not give you my ancestral inheritance.” And in doing so, Naboth was swearing an oath before God, and then breaking it by not giving the land to Ahab. And so the trumped up charges of “cursing God and the king” begin to stick. Words are powerful, they can be used to build up or tear down. And Jezebel’s twisting of words urges us to consider how we use them.
Jezebel’s plan is working perfectly, and Naboth ends up being stoned to death for blasphemy against God. This is perhaps one of the greatest crimes that we can ever commit: the killing of an innocent. As I mentioned before, we have an imperfect criminal justice system. We are not God. And so why we insist on utilizing the death penalty is beyond me. This story clearly shows that the death penalty can be improperly applied. Naboth was put to death, following the exact laws of the land- there were two witnesses that corroborated the crime. And as we’ve seen, DNA results have cleared those wrongly convicted, the death penalty is unfairly applied to minorities, and it doesn’t really bring about any sort of justice, but instead focuses on vengeance.
And now that the land owner has been killed for violating God’s law, the king can rightfully take the land instead of it staying with the family, who now has a cursed name. This is the last of the evils that Ahab and Jezebel do. The prophet Elijah comes to Ahab and asks “Have you killed, and also taken possession?” The end of the plot has finally been realized, Ahab has the land. It is a story about the ultimate abuse of power.
You’ll recall the story of King Midas, the king who turned everything he touched to gold, which wasn’t so bad until he touched his daughter and turned her into a statue. Power weakens those who are eager enough to exploit it. King Ahab will live to experience this truth, as Elijah tells him “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood…Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.” There is an old hymn that sings “this is my Father’s world, oh let me never forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong / God is the ruler yet.” It is a truth that Ahab would come to learn, and we would do well to remember that lesson.
So what do we do in response to a story like this? How do we live faithfully when justice is so often perverted? We forgive. Justice unravels when we lose sight of who we are in relation to God. Once justice is broken, it is awfully hard to restore. Somehow, we must break the downward spiral of justice and injustice, the cycle of retribution, the vendettas of vindictiveness. And forgiveness is the one thing that can do this.
To some of us, forgiveness in the face of the evils of Ahab and Jezebel might seem na├»ve or soft.  We worry that we’re not doing anything to stop these evils from happening again. And we end up pushing forgiveness aside, because we think it gets in the way of justice. So we charge into the situation with our own vision of what justice should look like, and the pursuit of justice becomes an idol for us, and before long, we can’t remember if we’re Naboth or Ahab.
We must remember that justice belongs to God. Though the sins we commit are horizontal, going from person to person, there is also a vertical element to our sin. We sin against God just as much as we do others when we violate divine justice.
To be clear, forgiveness isn’t the last thing that Christians are to say in the face of injustice; but it is to be the first thing. We say, “you can harm me, but you can’t take away my allegiance to Christ. You can be cruel to me, but you can’t make me become like you. You can hate me, but I can forgive you.” Forgiveness is God’s justice; it is the way to make things right and restore order. Of course, repentance and restitution have to be part of the equation, but without forgiveness, the cycles will never be broken.
As the former dean of Duke Chapel, Samuel Wells, writes, “why do we forgive? Because Jesus in his cross and resurrection has released the most powerful energy in the universe and we want to be a part of it. Why do we forgive? Because Jesus is dying for us to forgive.” And he goes on to say that forgiveness is the Christian word for justice. When Christ came earth and entered the vineyard, he didn’t come as an Ahab to claim authority and bring about revenge; he came as Naboth, a man who was killed on false charges. And the way that Jesus sought justice wasn’t in condemning the wrong, but it was in saying “Father, forgive them.”
It’s a rich story about justice and forgiveness. We see the problems created by the sins of idolatry, the dangers of desire, and the evil scheming to get whatever we want, regardless of the cost to others. This ancient story gives us a good opportunity to consider justice in our own lives and nation. Where do we sit by and let justice be perverted? Are we able to recognize those moments when we are Ahab or Jezebel and need to be forgiven?
If only we could be a people who were known for forgiveness instead of being obsessed with the law and our own idea of justice. Perhaps when modern day Elijahs confront us, we will repent of our sin. Perhaps then we could be less like Jezebel and Ahab. Perhaps then the Kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven.