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?