Sunday, November 18, 2018

Love in the Atlas of Space

Image credit: NASA


Sermon preached on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost (November 18, 2018) at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, Indianapolis.

Readings: 1 Sam. 1:4-20; Ps. 16; Heb. 10:11-25; Mk. 13:1-8


Then Jesus asked, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.”


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Mother of us all. Amen.


Well good morning, St. Timothy’s! Some of you I know, but many of you I do not. My name is Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism. I’m very thankful to have been invited by your pledge campaign committee to preach here on this, your first Consecration Sunday.


I have to tell you - there’s an unexpected bonus for me being here today. When I received the worship bulletin, I was thrilled to notice that you’re using Eucharistic Prayer C. You guys, this is my favorite, favorite Eucharistic prayer, like favorite enough that I insisted on it at my wedding, and I haven’t gotten around to filing my funeral plans yet but trust me, it’ll be in there too. And as much as I love my home church of All Saints, if I’ve got one gripe about it, it’s that we use this prayer on exactly one Sunday per year - the Sunday after the Ascension. So the fact that I’ll get to pray this prayer with you today is a special treat.


Now, I could give you all manner of complex theological reasons that I love this prayer - and they would all be true - but let’s get straight to the real reason - the phrase, “The vast expanse of interstellar space.” That phrase is why people who don’t like this prayer - and believe me, there are many - call it “the Star Wars prayer.” But for me, this prayer takes me right back to being a kid. After I went through my dinosaur phase and then through my train phase, I entered my astronomy phase, and that night sky loving geek who still lives inside of me perks up a little bit every time I hear these words.


Let me be clear about exactly what kind of astronomer I was. To earn the astronomy merit badge in Boy Scouts, you had to get up in the middle of the night and point a telescope at particular coordinates so you could see the rings of Saturn or whatever. And are you kidding me? That’s too much work.


No, my kind of astronomy was found in my elementary school library, in the National Geographic Atlas of Space, and in those years before the launch of the Hubble telescope, where images from observatories on earth left off, hand-drawn art picked up. In one segment of that book, there were dramatic images of the various kinds of stars, and among these was the red giant. True to its name, a huge, red starr filled the page, and the caption described it as a luminous, but relatively cool star, and about the way in about 5 billion years our own sun will explode into a red giant, causing it to expand into the earth’s orbit and this whole earth and everything about it we know and love will be burned into a lifeless ashen sphere.


That’s heavy stuff for a ten year old.


That’s heavy stuff for us.


I mean, I know that 5 billion years is a long time off, but still, not matter what we do, if the fate of our world is to be swallowed up in the last gasps of a dying star, what is it all for?


The whole thing was distressing news to a ten year old bookworm astronomer. But it wasn’t news to Jesus. “Do you see these great buildings?” he asks his disciples, about the temple, the very center of their faith. Don’t be too impressed. “Not one stone will be left on another; all will be cast down.”


So what’s it all for, we might ask in the face of far off astronomical eventualities.


So what’s it all for, the disciples might ask about the destruction of the Temple, where for centuries the people of Israel had encountered their God.


And what does our Lord say? “Do not be alarmed.”


And what does our Lord say? “Beware that no one leads you astray.”


[Pause]


“What are the only man-made things in heaven?” Goes a Christian riddle. It’s a question about what difference our efforts here on earth mean ultimately mean to God. And the answer is, “The scars on Jesus’s hands.”


Ok, sure, let’s own that. That’s on us. But in a few minutes we’re going to take a moment to confess all of the ways over the last week our failures have wounded God and each other.


Bet let no one lead you astray friends - that’s not the main reason we’re here - wallowing in sin is not what we’re about today. We will receive forgiveness and do yet greater things.


Let no one lead you astray friends: amid all that is passing away, the nails of the cross are not the only fruit we bear.


There’s a passage of scripture whose reading has become so closely associated with weddings that it’s hard for us to hear it any other way.  But let’s pause for a moment in vulnerable uncertainty, to hear of the other heavenly fruit of our hearts.


If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never dies. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. (1 Cor. 13:1-8)


Love never dies.


“Do you see these great buildings,” Jesus asks, looking at the Temple from the Mount of Olives. “Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be cast down”


He was right friends. The Temple is long gone, but we are still here.


But it’s not the Temple that is gone, indeed, one day all things will go. But “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has troubles enough. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” And for those troubles we have the immortal gift of the love of God to bring us through.


You, St. Timothy’s, are well trained in the ways of love.


Last week you celebrated the veterans among you, those who know that the day of passing away is coming, and yet were willing to speed for themselves for the sake of the love of their country, their loved ones, for millions they will never meet.


Yesterday, at Diocesan Convention, I heard your own Donna Adams speak about St. Timothy’s responds to new people desiring a relationship with Jesus, not by a tight-fisted holding on to the way things have always been, but by being a place willing to change so that St. Timothy’s can belong as much to newcomers as to people who have been here a long time, so that you can all discover Jesus together.


In a moment you’ll have another opportunity to act on that love, by renewing your commitment to God and each other through your financial gifts. Now money is not the same thing as love, exactly, but if you look at your bank statements, your credit card receipts, do you not see something about the affections of your hearts?


The commitment you make today is up to you and to God, but the church gives us some tools to think about it.


St. Augustine, the great early church father, writing on the shores of North Africa, describes the concept of rightly ordered love - that is, the idea that you can love more than one thing, but that there is a proper order to love of God, love of family, love of neighbor, and that all genuine love is the result of the primacy of divine love.


And there is the concept of proportional giving - which we know in the 10% tithe that scripture repeatedly identifies as the standard. And if you hear that number today and you’re like whoa, that’s a lot - focus on the concept….it’s not the amount, but the percentage of what has been given to you that you identify as what it means to place God first in your financial life.


The letting go to be generous isn’t easy, but how great its rewards are! A conscious, deliberate letting go of control of our resources, our money, our control, makes room in our hearts for the eternal thing, the thing that will not pass away, to come in and transform us.


Belove, amid so much that is uncertain we are so blessed. In the dust of the fallen temple, in the dust to which we shall return, there is a “new and living way that Christ opens to us, through the curtain” (Heb. 11:20) of the word made flesh, and that is the path of life, the way of love, that hopes all, things, believes all things, the great love, divine, and human, that belongs to all of us, the love that never dies and at the last will bring us to the “fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11).

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Pelagian Heresy and the Way of Love

Sermon preached at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Indianapolis
Proper 23
October 14, 2018
Readings: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Ps. 90:12-17; Heb. 4:12-16; Mk. 10:17-31
More than once in church settings, I’ve been in conversations where at some point someone will finish stating an opinion on whatever the topic happens to be by saying, “and if that makes me a heretic, then I’m proud to be one!”

We take the word heresy a lot more lightly these days than we used to, and mostly I think that’s a good thing. Though in its strictest sense heresy is a contrary view on core orthodox Christian teachings, the accusation has been used as often as not to advance political agendas in both church and state, with catastrophic and bloody results. Fortunately, we are far removed from the days when the church was in the burning people at the stake business, but the public image of the church is that it is still very much in the scolding and self-righteousness business. So I’m generally on board with any effort to cut down on the judginess in favor of a bold witness to grace.

Still, looking back at the church’s earliest heresies is a worthwhile endeavor, because they are beliefs about the nature of God in Christ that our spiritual ancestors tested out and rejected, judging that they did not match what scholar Derek Olsen calls the “data” of their spiritual lives. Some of these can seem technical and arcane, like the many, many heresies about the nature of the Trinity - it’s not for nothing that preachers frequently refer to Trinity Sunday as “accidental heresy Sunday”. I would argue that despite the appearance of hairsplitting, the Trinitarian heresies are important, but that’s a whole other sermon.

Bur also dating from around the same time, in the fourth century, is one heresy that has lately made quite a comeback, Pelagianism. This heresy, named after an Irish monk whose actual involvement in its teachings is a bit murky, is the idea that humans are untainted by original sin, and that we are capable of choosing good over evil without divine aid. Or to put it more simply, that our own works can save us.

It’s an appealing idea, and one that at first glance seems to sit well with our church’s effort to be havens from the judgmentalism not just of other churches but also of a secular culture that constantly tells us that we’re not fit enough, skinny enough, healthy enough, rich enough, or pretty enough. It seems to reflect instead some kind of triumph of the irrepressible human spirit, and what’s not to like about that?

But experience suggests that Pelagianism just isn’t true. I was thinking about this recently when I was on retreat at a monastery in Michigan. Each night at compline the monks say a confession that is slightly modified from the one we say on Sunday, to emphasize that the monks’ sins are not just against God but are also against their own community. “What sins could they possibly be confessing?” I wondered. After all, a monastery seems like an environment that is optimized for virtue.

But then the next day while I was walking past the office I noticed one of the brothers watching internet cat videos during the time the monks are supposed to be working on the maintenance and improvement of the community. Later I learned that one of the monks had had a major health crisis that had him using a walker sometimes, but mostly a wheelchair. And while I only saw the brothers treat him with kindness and respect, any of you who have cared for an aging loved one know the awful thoughts that come unbidden and involuntary, no matter how much you love them.

Moreover, it is only on the surface that Pelagianism seems to endorse the nobility of the human soul. It is the duty of our churches to welcome people in, wherever they are on their spiritual journeys and whatever troubles or failings they have. Or as the sign at the Church of God down the road from here at 10th and Franklin put it as I was driving here this morning: “The Church: Where it’s ok not to be ok.” But, if we take the idea that humans are capable of making the right choice, always, on our own, to its logical conclusion, then all our shortcomings, failings, betrayals, and sins are not the result of the battle for our hearts waged by the hosts of heaven and the great Adversary. Instead, they're just our own fault. And so, by soft-pedaling original sin because it sounds so judgy, we risk squandering the church’s twin treasures of forgiveness and grace, trading them in for blame. And so the church becomes an unsafe place not to be ok.

A rich man kneels before Jesus and asks what is required of him to receive eternal life, and Jesus gives him an answer he cannot bear to hear, to sell everything he owns, give all the money he earns to the poor, and come to the truest possible relationship he can have with God: utter dependence.

I wonder what the man hoped to hear. You all know the story of Naaman the Aramean in 2 Kings: he was a great general. And yet however great he was, however many battles he won, he could never have full standing among his people, because he had leprosy, and was thus unclean. He encounters the prophet Elisha, who tells him the way to be healed, to bathe in the Jordan seven times. Naaman doesn’t want to do it - he was expecting something a lot more dramatic, and also, he complains that the Jordan isn’t that nice of a river anyway. He almost goes home uncured and still unclean, until his servants convince him, saying, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said to you was “Wash, and be clean?” So Naaman washes, and is healed.

The rich man would have known this story, and in his pursuit of eternal life he was expecting something difficult, some way to earn extra credit over and above following the commandments. But he wasn’t expecting to be told this, to be stripped of his entire constructed identity, his wealth, his power, his possessions, and his choices, and as an unburdened child of God to follow his master, Jesus. And so he went away, for the cost of obtaining salvation on his own merits - total self denial - had been revealed to him. And he grieved, because he knew he didn’t have the strength to do it. So much for eternal life.

This teaching is too hard for the disciples, too. “Then who can be saved?” they ask. Jesus answers, “for mortals it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” In other words, salvation is by God’s grace.

Except for Peter - Peter doesn’t have a problem with this teaching. He’s all, “Hey Jesus, I’ve got this. I have left everything behind. I have followed you.” Sure Peter, sure. Let’s talk about this again after you deny Jesus three times.

When the rich man asks Jesus his question, notice what Jesus does before his delivers his impossible answer. He gazes upon him and loves him. The Word made flesh, living and active, recognizes one of his children, sees him as he is, in his sin, vulnerability, uncertainty, and need, and takes him into the heart of God. The man asks the question because he knows deep down that even though he has done all the “right things,” followed all the commandments from his youth, something is missing. Jesus’s true answer is grace.

So how are you doing, St. Matthew’s? If there’s a thing I worry about all the time in my role on the bishop’s staff, it’s that tension between loving - so deeply loving - the God who gives us life, while finding that being the church, and all the things we think we have to do to sustain it, can be so exhausting. I won’t make you say if that sounds familiar to you, but the struggle is real in a lot of places.

The job of the church is not to perpetuate the institution with the doing of the things and the keeping up of appearances.  It is to love and follow Jesus, to tune our lives to the heartbeat of the one in whose love he invites us to abide.

What that takes is not more things to do or boxes to check, but a return to first things, recognizing that we are the people of God’s pasture, the sheep of God’s hand, and listen for our shepherd's voice.

That can be really hard in the noisiness of the world and the business of our lives. But Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has proposed one way to do this, returning to the core practices of discipleship that date back to the earliest Christians. He calls it The Way of Love, a seven-fold rule of life for living in a world where being serious about following Jesus is increasingly counter-cultural. And now more than ever, the world needs serious followers of Jesus.

Whether for a church of an individual, the practices of the Way of Love are intended to help you stay rooted in God’s love for you. I'll just summarize it here.

First, turn: once upon a time the word we’d use for this is “repent,” but that vocabulary term has acquired a reputation. But what this means is that wherever you are in your life, acknowledging your faults as matter-of-factly as you can, turn to the one who created you and sustains you.

Learn: know your faith. Engage with scripture. It’s stories are your story.

Worship weekly in community, to be nourished by God’s word, by each other, and by the Body and Blood of our Lord.

Establish a routine of prayer, an act of self-giving of time and attention to God on your own behalf and on behalf of others.

Bless: Let your life of faith be a blessing to others through acts of service and evangelism, sharing how a relationship with God has transformed and sustained you.

Go into the world with eyes trained to see where God is active, where people are celebrating, where hearts are broken.

And last, rest, for we are not made for endless striving. Sabbath is God’s gift to us.

These are not things to do so much as a way to be, not a way to earn God’s love so much as a way to receive it. Which is not to say this is easy. How might your life, your family’s life, your church’s life look when this is the guide?

The concept of original sin gets a bad rap today - too pessimistic about human nature, too judgmental - but it is profoundly liberating, because it means the wars fought in our hearts are not solely of our making, and we have Jesus fighting on our side as our redeemer, mediator, and advocate. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who is every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we me receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Marriage, Divorce, and the Time Between


A few people have asked for a transcript of this sermon; if that's you, read on:


Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2018)
Proper 22, Track 2
Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis
Readings: Gen. 2:18-24; Ps. 8; Heb. 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mk. 10:2-16

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

Far be it from me to try get into the heads of the compilers of the lectionary,but  the effect of today’s selections, I think, is to inspire a few statistically probable kinds of sermons:

There’s the one that extols the virtues of marriage, possibly with some sage marriage advice weaved in.

There’s the one that decries the casualness of marriage and the commonness of divorce, maybe with a side helping of shaming those who are divorced, especially women. I’m going to circle back to this subject.

In more recent years, we might also hear the interpretation that this is the passage of scripture that proves Jesus is not on board with same sex marriage, what with Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and so forth.

Being on the cusp of my fifth wedding anniversary puts me in a frame of mind to walk through door number one, extolling the virtues of marriage.

But before I go there, let’s take a quick second to talk about same-sex marriage. A common critique of our church’s favorable view on the subject is that “we haven’t done the theology,” or that the church has succumbed to “cultural Erastianism,” which I heard during our summer vacation in the words of a priest who thought a lengthy lecture comparing the contemporary cultural status of the Church of England to a sixteenth-century heresy was precisely what cruise ship passengers attending a Sunday evening Eucharist had signed up for. But I digress. We have done the theology.

In the first two chapters of Genesis, there are two separate accounts of creation that each convey complementary truths about God’s intention for the world. Jesus refers to both of them in the passage of Mark we hear today.

In the first account, at the creation of humankind, God creates humans male and female, each equally in the image of God. This tells us that equality of men and women is what is intended from the beginning of creation, and we can include in that equality of the partners in marriage, whatever the gender configuration.

In the second account, the source of the bit of Genesis we heard this morning, the beginning of the sequence of events that leads to Eve’s creation from Adam’s own flesh is God’s tender observation that “it is not good for the man to be alone.” The problem God is solving in the creation of Eve is not the problem of human reproduction, but the despair of loneliness. Eve is the remedy to Adam’s loneliness (and, I hasten to add, she is also her own person). Opposite sex desire is statistically most common and is indeed necessary for procreation, but if we trust that our individual sexualities are gifts from God, then same-sex pairings are no less blessed.

Ok, preaching to the choir here. Back to door number one, extolling the virtues of marriage, with sage advice on how to make it work.

For this topic, I consulted one of the great fathers of the early church, Jerome, who spent many years during the fourth century as a hermit in the Egyptian desert, which he seems to have believed uniquely qualified him as an expert on the relative merits of marriage and virginity. In his treatise “Against Helvidius,” where he argues stridently that the virginity of the Blessed Mother was not limited to the time before Jesus’s birth but was in fact perpetual, he describes the virtues of the institution of marriage like this:

The prattling of infants,
The noisy clamoring of the whole household
The clinging of children to the neck,
The computing of expenses,
The preparing of budgets.

Wait, what? Oh, there’s more:

The pounding of meats by a busy band of cooks
The chattering of a crowd of women weavers,
And in the meantime, you’re told that your beloved has arrived home...with friends!

Is the couch arranged?
Are the floors swept?
Are the drinking bowls in order?
Tell me, I ask you, where is there any opportunity to think of God in all this?

*cough*

Hey guys, new idea. Do you mind if we just shift gears and talk about the apocalypse instead?

I’m serious, but bear with me. This is going to take a minute.

The book of Judges shows up only once in the three-year Sunday lectionary, but if you read the Daily Office practically the whole thing will show up in the summer of every even-numbered year. It was in one such year that I first made the acquaintance of one of the Judges of Israel called Jephthah. Jephthah took Israel to war against some of the inhabitants of the land. Before one such battle, Jephthah “vowed to the Lord, ‘if you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Jephthah and his armies prevail, and when he returns home, he is immediately greeted by his daughter, his only child, who comes out of the door of his house, dancing. Jephthah says to her, “I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” He kills her.

I was shocked when I first encountered this story, and in the time since it’s become a minor obsession. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scoured commentaries trying to understand the hidden meaning of this text, which itself is curiously neutral on the events. Believe me when I tell you that the author of Judges doesn’t hold back from calling people wicked, but Jephthah receives no judgment, positive or negative.

If you look at the commentaries, the most common explanation treats the story as a sort of fable, the moral of which is, “don’t make stupid vows because you’ll have to keep them, no matter what.” More sophisticated treatments focus on the tragedy of Jephthah, who will have no descendants because he sacrificed his only daughter, but still evade the moral question of whether Jephthah was right to keep the vow. It was only when I read Robert Boling’s commentary in the Anchor Bible series two weeks ago that I got somewhere. He concludes his discussion of Jephthah by saying he was “an exemplary...judge.” Exemplary, as in, an example to be followed.

And so I finally understood. There is no hidden meaning in this story. It’s not mysterious at all. It just tells the facts of an event where a father murders his daughter. But it is a mirror that reveals something about the hearts of its readers and commentators: that we will come up with any justification to excuse the behavior, however horrifying, of any man, as long as that man’s actions in general line up with our own self-interest. Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, so the murder of his daughter is a family matter. I’ll let you come up with your own contemporary examples.

I wasted hours on the commentaries about Jephthah and the burnt offering of his daughter, when I should have focused on just one that mattered, in Psalm 51: “Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

In other words, Jephthah, you idiot. You should have broken your stupid vow.

Which brings us back to the apocalypse.

When you’re reading the Old Testament, it’s important to remember that after the point where our Genesis reading left off today, we’ve got about 6 verses until sin worms its way into the hearts of Adam and Eve. In the subsequent dozens of books covering thousands of years, we have the history, poetry, and prophecy of a relationship between God and creation with sin as the constant interloper. In other words, when the Old Testament is describing events that happened, sin is part of the story.

When Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about divorce, something different is happening. Jesus is bringing the Kingdom of God near.  In appealing to Genesis, Jesus reaches back before the Fall, to where God’s original intent for marriage was revealed, for it to be lifelong and faithful, and characterized by such intimacy that two join into a single flesh. That is the design for marriage crafted for Eden, and as close as some marriages may come to resembling that ideal - at least some of the time - we are all cut off from its full flower by the cherubim with flaming sword stationed at Eden’s gate.

Now, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was supposed to have fixed all that. You can see that in the great icon of the Resurrection, where Jesus drags Adam and Eve from their tombs. Or more viscerally in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: there, beneath the part of the church where tradition locates the site of the crucifixion, there is a chapel before a crevice in the rock where Christ’s blood was surmised by some to have trickled down to where Adam’s body rested in wait, for Jesus to descend to the dead to undo the curse of mortality that he and Eve wrought.

But hang on - mortality is still a thing. We die.
Sin is still a thing. You don’t need to look far to see that.
And it didn’t take the early church long to see that there was a tension between the victory over sin and death already being won, yet the fulfillment of that victory coming in the future.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

This summarizes a concept theologians have called the “already/not-yet” or “the time between,” that is the intervening period between Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the fulfillment of God’s plan for creation at his coming again on the last day.

In other words, right now.

We continue to live in a time when even though the victory is assured, the Lord of Hosts continues to battle the forces of darkness that are still among us, and to paraphrase Dostoevsky with a hat tip to Fleming Rutledge, the battlefield is the human heart.

That means that even though we can recognize the way Jesus describes marriage - as a lifelong indissoluble physical and spiritual bond between two people - as what God intends, we also know that the Kingdom of God while near, is not quite here, and we’re not going to get there under our own power.

We still have to take Jesus seriously. The vows we make to one another before God have to mean more than the empty promises of slick salespeople or political ads. So we’re fortunate that marriage comes with many sub-vows, so even if we’re not firing on all cylinders on all the vows all the time, we can do at least well enough the keep the main one intact, with God’s help.

But in this already/not-yet we also know that things go badly wrong, that there are breaches of trust that can’t be healed, or it’s the right promise wrong time, or wrong person, or the wrong promise altogether. In the Kingdom of God there is no coercion, no betrayal, no forced marriages, no Vegas weddings. But here, there are. And as we stand today, outside the gates of Eden and the New Jerusalem both, we work with the tools we have. Which sometimes means walking apart.

To get super-specific on what The Episcopal Church teaches about divorce, when you go home look up Title I, Canon 19 in the Constitution and Canons. I know you all have copies. But the TL;DR is that when a priest becomes aware of trouble in a marriage, her first job is to ensure the emotional and physical safety of the spouses before making any attempt to encourage reconciliation; that the legitimacy of children is never in question; and that in the event of divorce former spouses have a continuing duty of concern for the well-being of one another and their children.

As for the virtues of marriage, St. Jerome was not a fan. Truth be told, the man was obsessed with virginity in a way that was a bit extra, if not outright creepy. Writing to Eustochium, a young disciple whose mother had pledged her as a perpetual virgin (thanks, mom!) the nicest thing he could say about marriage was, “I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because the children they produce are virgins.”*

Yeah.

But let’s return to his list of complaints. The flipside of prattling infants he bemoans was for me being bossed around this summer by a four year old girl with stuffed dinosaurs she had named Brendan and Frank. The flipside of managing household budgets is the thoughtful joint stewardship of God’s generosity. The flip side of the crowd of chattering weavers - actually I’m not really sure what that’s about. Matching placemats, maybe. The flipside of a spouse who brings friends home is having friends who love you to bring.

“Where is there anywhere to think of God in all this?” Jerome asks. I ask you, “where isn’t there?”

The very best version of a marriage we will see in this age is one where ultimately death severs the bond, leaving one spouse to carry the grief that is the echo of love. Our certainties are uncertain, friends, except for this one: that Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our salvation, has gone before us through the gate through which we all must one day go.

I don’t know what we shall become in the future, after this time between, but here and now we are God’s children**.

And whether at the hour of death or in the age to come - whichever gets here first - when we see the one who will judge our frailties and probe our hearts, we will find a friend and not a stranger.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

* Jerome, Letter XXII
** 1 John 3:1-2, “New Testament in Modern English” trans. J.B. Philips, paraphrase

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Comfortable Christians

Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 25, 2017).
Readings: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (October 23, 2016). 
Readings: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

BLOGFORCE Challenge: 5 Ways My Spiritual Life Changed When I Got Serious About My Pledge


This post is in response to the Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question: "What impact has financial giving had on your spiritual life?"

Much as I remember exactly where I was when I made the decision (or was called, whatever) to become a Christian, I can also name the precise moment I decided to become serious about giving to the church. In a nondescript ballroom in the basement of the Sheraton in downtown Indianapolis, Walter Brueggeman was giving the keynote address at the conference for The Episcopal Network for Stewardship.

I don't remember what he said exactly - it was something about Micah and locusts. But what I felt was a clear sense that my priorities were not in order. A few months prior, the death of my car coincided with receiving a promotion at work. For the first time in my life I bought a new car. It was, frankly, a status purchase, something I might even have admitted at the time. And sitting in that ballroom I started thinking about how my pledge to the church was less than the monthly payment on that new car - like a lot less - and I didn't like what that said about my priorities in life.

In the intervening years I have been working towards giving 10% of my income to the church (I started at about 1%). I'm about 6 years in, and am at roughly 8% today. Here are some things I've learned along the way:

1. Giving really is a spiritual discipline. The church is literally the only thing I write a check for these days (I still like the offering plate), and while it lacks the meditative ethos of prayer or study of scripture, it ranks with them. I have learned that giving money means not just giving dollars away, but also a bit of yourself. That's because money represents the options you have; when you give money away, you give those choices and the dignity that comes with them to someone else as well.

2. 10% may not be that much, but it's still kind of a lot. Going on this path has been a challenge. It has meant delaying much-needed bathroom renovations, making compromises about paying down debt, and sometimes making things uncomfortably tight in December when I try to catch up from missed payments earlier in the year. It requires creativity and sacrifice.

3. Generosity begets generosity. I have noticed in myself that giving to the church has not cannibalized my other charitable giving, but has increased it. Successfully making my pledge for several years in a row without destroying my finances has increased my confidence to give more to other causes I care about, because I have a stronger sense of how to figure it out.

4. "He who is faithful in a little, is faithful in much." There are multiple pillars to spiritual maturity - giving, reading scripture, prayer, participating in worship, serving others - and none should be neglected. However at this moment in my life, prayer and scripture study are really hard for me. Managing the financial end of things helps me know that though I'm not giving myself to God as fully as I might right now, these comparatively inexpensive disciplines are not beyond my grasp.

5. Giving feels good. I never expected a reward of giving to be a sense of peace in the soul. But God created us to love God, and love one another, and generosity is part of that. Why shouldn't a bit of warm fuzziness be a part of giving's reward?

Blog Force Participant

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why Does It Matter That We're Christians?

My sermon for Proper 10 (July 10, 2016) at All Saints Indianapolis was significantly influenced by the Rev. Marcus Halley's post "What white churches can do about racism, aside from just praying". You should read it.




It has been just three weeks since the topic of a sermon in this church was mass murder. In the intervening time we’ve continued to hear reports of the deadly drumbeat of global terror: Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina.

And then this awful week: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile: black men killed at the hands of police for no comprehensible reason.

Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens: Five police officers, white and Latino shot dead by a lone black gunman, again for no comprehensible reason, as a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest ended with police and protesters taking pictures together.

And then the usual: The presidential statement, the usual suspects writing boneheaded tweets, then deleting them, families whose grief can only be made worse by having their loved ones’ terrible final moments streaming in an endless loop on the Facebook newsfeed.

And then the piles of
Thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers

Given the recent track record of thoughts and prayers i"n preventing such disasters, I think it’s fair to ask, "Why does it matter that we’re Christians?

A moment ago we heard one of the most famous stories in the Gospels or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jesus is talking with his disciples when a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus tells the lawyer that he already knows the answer, and the lawyer recites the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus confirms he has responded correctly: “Do this, and you will live.”

But then the lawyer goes on to ask:“Who is my neighbor?” Now this is not a genuine question. The lawyer wants to “justify himself.” He’s seeking the loophole that narrows down that list of neighbors to a manageable, finite, group of people, preferably a lot like himself.

So Jesus tells this story: robbers attack a man and leave him half dead on the side of the road. A priest comes along, sees the man, and crosses to the other side of the road, so he can pretend that he doesn’t. The same with a second passerby.

Then the third man, a Samaritan, finds the man, binds his wounds, puts him on the back of his animal, and pays for him to be cared for in an inn.

“Which one was this man’s neighbor?” Jesus asks.

The lawyer can’t even choke out the word “Samaritan.” Saying the name of a longstanding enemy of the Jews is too much for him. “The one who showed him mercy,” he says instead.

Which is good enough for Jesus: “Go and do likewise,” he instructs the lawyer.

Jesus is telling this story to the lawyer, but he is also telling it to the disciples. A few weeks prior to this encounter, Jesus and the disciples entered a Samaritan village, looking for a place to stay. They refused to receive him because he was heading for Jerusalem. The disciples were so offended that they asked Jesus if they could respond by raining down fire from heaven on them.

Jesus rebuked them and here he shows them why. It’s not just that Jesus is merciful (though he is); it’s that Jesus knows that enmity need not and should not be a permanent state. There is no heart that cannot be moved to compassion. And the ones who rescue us from dying in a ditch may be the ones we neither expect nor even want.

It feels like we live in tenuous times. There are prominent voices that want us to think that we have to make a choice between believing that racism is real, and deadly, and must be stopped; and that the police who put themselves at risk deserve our respect and support.

We’re in a "Civil War" blares the headlines of one newspaper. “Watch out Black Lives Matter; Real America is coming for you” tweeted one former congressman.

This idea that we have to choose whose life we’re going to value more: make no mistake - it is a lie straight from the pit of Hell. Pitting one against the other is the work of the evil one and we are not going to do the devil’s work.

Now we will choose a side:
We will choose the side of Jesus.
We will choose the side of the cross.

And I’m going to suggest four ways to make that choice.

First, pray. Now, when you pray, Do not be like the hypocrites who like to offer “thoughts and prayers” in official statements so they can be seen in public. They have received their reward.

Instead, pray as Jesus taught, in private and keeping it simple. Pray for God’s will to be done. Pray for bread. Pray for forgiveness. Pray to forgive. Pray that your heart may not be infected by evil.

Second, we should not be in the business, as the lawyer was, of justifying ourselves. When you do an internet search for Alton Sterling - you know how Google suggests things as you type? - the third result that comes up is “Alton Sterling Record.” That’s live evidence, in ones and zeroes, of people trying to justify themselves, wilfully blinding themselves to what is happeningb y convincing themselves that somehow a previous arrest or conviction is a reason for instant execution, with neither judge nor jury. Don’t let that be us.

Third, let’s not be too quick to cast ourselves in the role of the Samaritan. Let’s take a look at the parts of ourselves that are lying wounded on the side of the road. What kind of sickness is it that alienates us from others in suspicion and fear? What kind of blindness is it that can only see the evil of racism when it is presented to us in the form of snuff films automatically streaming on our Facebook feeds? Can we see that those crying out for justice for oppressed black communities, for police trying to keep order in a country awash with guns, are also offering us healing for our illness?

And then look at the Samaritan. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “The Good News to the hungry is bread.” The priest may well have been muttering thoughts and prayers as he passed by, but the Good News to an injured man is healing. It was the Samaritan who saw him and cleaned and bandaged the wounds and provided for him to be cared for in the inn.The Samaritan brought the kingdom of God near the man in the ditch.

What we speak and pray here is important, because by the grace of God our hearts are transformed. But just as we believe that Jesus Christ is truly here through the sacrament we will soon celebrate, so we are called to be truly there: out, seeing the suffering, not moving to the other side of the road, and not just identifying, but doing the practical things we can do to be the hands and feet of Christ bringing about the kingdom of God.

After the horrific killings in Dallas on Thursday night, there were a flood of images from Dallas - and elsewhere - of people coming out to embrace police officers and give them flowers in their apprehension and grief. Black and white, clergy and lay. Natasha Howell, a young black woman, recounted an encounter with a white police officer in a convenience store.

She writes:
"He asked me, 'How I was doing?' I replied, 'Okay, and you?' He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, 'How are you really doing?' I looked at him and said 'I’m tired!' His reply was, 'Me too.' Then he said, 'I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now is it.' I said, 'No, it’s not.' Then he hugged me and I cried."

In that moment:
Who was the Samaritan here?
Who was lying on the side of the road?

Who knows? But that’s a vision of the Kingdom of God, friends, And we have a part to play in bringing it near.

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