Sunday, May 19, 2019

Why Bother Praising God?

The Death of the Virgin Mary, Chora Church, Istanbul. Image: University of Michigan Library.



O Queen of Heaven, rejoice, for the son you bore has arisen as he promised. Alleluia. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Why are we here today? Why do we bother praising God?
I mean this as a serious question, and actually an urgent one for those of us who believe the church has good news to share, but aren’t quite sure how to share it.
After all, no less a Christian hero than Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, which has brought countless gang members out of the nihilism of street justice into truly hopeful and hope-giving lives, asked in a recent talk in Indianapolis, why we don’t quit doing the things that kind of make God want to go to sleep: namely praise and prayer. Now he might have just been talking about bad liturgy, in which case I’m 100% on board. But he was saying more than that.
Don’t tell God things God already knows, he suggests. God knows God is almighty, that Jesus’s sacrifice was really important and amazing, that the Trinity is a great and majestic mystery. God doesn’t need this information from us. Does singing: “Come my way, my truth, my life,” actually have any influence on whether or how Jesus shows up in our worship, let alone our lives?
Focus on what God really cares about, he says, works of justice and mercy. That’ll keep Jesus alert.
He was tongue in cheek. of course, You don’t give your life away to those the world would just as soon throw away in the way Father Boyle has without a deep spiritual grounding in prayer and worship. He is addressing a balance of priorities in Christian communities and in the whole of the Christian life.
But even in his exaggeration it’s a challenge worth answering – because it’s one I’ve heard from people inside and outside the church alike. If we’re getting something out of being here this morning, we have a duty to give an account of the faith that is in us, so that we can share it with others who may need what we’re getting here too.
There are probably a lot of answers to this question, but there are two that particularly stand out to me right now.
First – we want a relationship with God, right? If we believe that God just dispassionately set the universe in motion and then sort of wandered off, maybe checking in occasionally to see if anything interesting is happening, none of this matters.
But if we actually desire a relationship we need to act like it. On my good days I am an adequate husband. Which means that I recognize that I didn’t just make my vows to Frank and then move on, assuming that he not only remembers exactly what I said that day at the altar nearly six years ago, but also just knows that from day to day my heart remains unchanged.
At a bare minimum, if he, say, hypothetically yesterday, throws a going-away party for a beloved parishioner who is about to move to New Jersey and for the three days prior to the event I was at a monastery and the day of the event I was working in the southern part of the state and arrived home literally five minutes before the party started, the least I can do when someone praises my hospitality is say, “To Frank be the glory.”
I will not presume to know whether Frank particularly appreciates the glory (perhaps he will tell me later), nor whether my declaration gives him any information previously unknown to him, but I do know that my act is part of the constant recalibration of the direction of my heart to maintain my vows against all the distractions the world offers.
And I should not overly dwell on marriage as a metaphor for the relationship with God. The church has done that for centuries with occasionally useful results, but just as often strange and unhelpful implications for gender roles. Our friendships, work relationships, and other family ties are worthy of this kind of attention. And so is God.
The second reason to praise God is to remind ourselves of who we are in that relationship. That includes our ultimate humility, that no matter what, however much we might exercise, or moisturize, or take groundbreaking medications, we will all one day go down to the dust. So we praise God for what we have while we have it. The relationship also includes our ultimate worth. The sisters at Holy Wisdom Monastery outside Madison, Wisconsin use a paraphrased version of the Magnificat, the Blessed Mother’s great hymn of praise, and, not coincidentally, justice and equity. In that paraphrase, the phrase “he has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” is restated: “the Holy Mighty One acclaims my worth.”
***
I’ve been thinking a lot about the poor animals on that sheet in Peter’s vision – the four footed animals, the beasts of prey, the reptiles, the birds of the air.
To start, what’s the deal with the sheet?
When I was a kid, when we took our two cats to the vet, we only had one proper pet carrier. So one unlucky cat would go in that, and the other - even more unlucky - cat would be placed in a pillowcase closed up with a knot. That was about as fun to accomplish as you’d think it was.
Fortunately the vet was a short drive away, but let’s just say the cats had trust issues with bedlinens.
So I can’t help wondering about the demeanor of the animals on this sheet.
And as a former vegetarian who retains vegetarian sympathies, the “kill and eat” thing makes me a little uncomfortable
Neither of these are the point of the story, of course, at least not directly. The main point here is about how God’s grace leaps boundaries we set for ourselves, or maybe inaccurately perceive as being set for us by God. And we can either resist or play catch-up as the Holy Spirit races ahead of us.
And so it is appropriate that today, the psalm responds to the expansiveness of God’s grace in unified praise of God by the whole creation. The sun and the moon, men and women, young and old, mountains and hills, sea monsters (my favorite): they all praise God.
And oh, by the way, so do wild beasts and cattle, creeping things and winged birds, all those critters that were on Peter’s sheet.
“Kill and eat.”
You know those barbecue joints where the mascot is a smiling pig with a fork – sometimes even a butcher knife? This feels a bit like that.
It’s spring, which means right now you can walk around in any halfway wild place and hear the great cacophony of creation perpetuating itself, while in constant peril.
Frogs in ponds chirping morning and night. I used to think they were the sounds of invisible creatures that put me to sleep on summer camping trips, but that was just me being impatient – stand still long enough by a patch of reeds and you can tune your eyes to find swarms of male frogs climbing over one another, knocking each other off perches, until they find a female that will have them.
A nesting pair of bluebirds guarding a box, whose song you think is about nothing until you get a little closer, learn that song was a warning that you didn’t heed, and they dive-bomb you.


“But I have vegetarian sympathies!” you want to say, even as you want to point to the actual predators, the big birds of prey, making wide circles far above.
As if the bluebirds care about your vegetarian sympathies when you look like a threat to their eggs. As if those sympathies are any comfort to the cow who bites it on the occasion you want a steak.
And anyway, pity the grubworm the bluebird finds to feed its young.
Do the animals praise God with the intention the psalmist poetically declares?
Probably not, and yet while it is humans who are created in God’s image, all creation bears the imprint of its creator. God looked upon the animals and saw that they were good, and by their very being, they respond, “Yes, we are.”


The relentless chirping of frogs is a song of desperation and reproductive imperative, but it is also a chorus of the name of God, “I AM, and will continue to be.”


And what is the cry of a dive-bombing bluebird but “Get away from my nest, you jerk. I AM and will continue to be.”
So non-human animals -- instinctively, involuntarily -  songs of praise are just kind of what they do, never mind the odds of getting scooped up by a snapping turtle or felled by a hawk.
As for us humans, our ingenuity means that for the most part, we have overcome the Hobbesian Trinity of life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” that is, unless your name appears on our list of those killed by gun violence in this city, or you’re a child victim of yet one more school shooting because responsible adults refuse to take responsibility for our country’s children, or you’re a young mother who suffers the randomness of just going into a hospital with an infection and having a fatal allergic reaction to the antibiotic meant to heal you.
But for most of us, most of the time, things are pretty good. And in that context we can offer God praise for the beauty of the earth, the miracle of our pulse, the fullness of our breath, knowing that at any moment it might be taken away.
***
On the Western edge of Istanbul stands an ancient church called Chora, just inside the city walls built by the emperor Constantine. The church is best known for its spectacular 14th century mosaics depicting stories from the life of Jesus and Mary, his mother. The mosaics are incredibly well preserved – due to the four hundred years that the church served as a mosque. Because of the Islamic prohibition of human figures in art, the mosaics were covered in layers of plaster until the church was reborn as a museum in the mid-twentieth century.
The most striking image is a large scale scene of the death of the Blessed Mother. Mary is lying on a bier draped in red and black cloth. At her head stands St. Peter, honoring her body with incense using a three-chained thurible not unlike our own. St. Paul bows at her feet, and the other disciples as well as the women who stood watch with her at the foot of the cross, surround her in awe.
At the center of the image, bathed in an almond-shaped aura of light is Jesus, having descended from heaven, standing next to Mary’s reclining body. He carries an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. This baby is also Mary, whose soul he receives in his arms as she breathes her last.
This image brings up thorny theological questions about whether Mary died a normal death, and waits to be raised at the last day, or received some sort of special treatment in the form of the doctrine of the Assumption, or its cousin, the Dormition.
But such theological arguments are beside the point.
The great mosaic at Chora Church is less a statement on the finer points of theology than a brilliant allegorical take on the descent of heaven to earth, God making a dwelling among humankind in the New Jerusalem, God’s ultimate desire in the Incarnation.
It is a portrait of Jesus Christ the beginning, the Alpha, the one through whom all things were made, including the infancy, childhood, and motherhood of Mary, that bore him into the world in flesh and blood.
And it is a portrait of Jesus Christ the end, the Omega, who at the end of Mary’s earthly pilgrimage receives her as she received him, in swaddling clothes. He removes the sword that pierced her soul, and wipes away all her tears.
We praise God because we have being. We praise God because we finite creatures desire a relationship with the infinite source of that being. We praise God for acclaiming our worth even in our smallness. And we praise God because in the Resurrection, swords are broken and death is destroyed, and that now and at the last, we are held in the arms of Jesus Christ, our beginning and our end.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon delivered at the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis, on the fifth Sunday of Easter (May 19, 2019). Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Ps. 148; Rev. 21:1-6; Jn. 13:31-35.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Very little is known of the life of Polycarp, the bishop of the early church whose ministry and martyrdom we celebrate today. He lived in Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of Greece, and was martyred in or about 156. Like Paul, he wrote a letter to the Philippians, which is perhaps most notable for referring to or quoting multiple Christian texts that ultimately became part of the New Testament. So while Polycarp was not himself a biblical author, he can be regarded as a biblical architect.

We also know that one of Polycarp’s early admirers was St. Irenaeus, best known as the author of “Against Heresies.” Specifically, Irenaeus praises Polycarp for holding the line against the gnostic heresy. Gnosticism has been romanticized in recent years, perhaps most prominently in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. Gnosticism asserts a complex system of heavenly realms and emanations, and further claims that the spiritual and material worlds are so fundamentally opposed to one another that the incarnation, the idea that Jesus is simultaneously fully divine and fully human, could not be right – that God could not stoop so low as to assume human flesh, let alone die on a cross. At most God might appear to do these things, as if in an elaborate game of pretend.

Now, we do not place our faith in elaborate games of pretend. Paul writes, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” In other words, at the very heart of our faith is our God who took our form, truly suffered, truly bled, and truly died. We have a God who is not fundamentally opposed to our material beings, but a God who so loved the world that he shared our suffering and our fate – and in his resurrection points to our ultimate end.

This is hopeful and amazing news for a despairing and cynical world. And a core vocation of the church is, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, to give “expression [to] the very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed to deeply that we no longer know that they are there.” But, he goes on, “hope is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts.” Those facts being such claims as that your net worth and your self worth have something to do with one another, that hard work alone is what it takes not to be poor, that ill health is the just reward for bad choices. Christian hope challenges these facts as falsehoods. When we talk about evangelism in this church, what we mean is being a hopeful people amazed at the gift of God’s love, and being people who share that hope and amazement.

But part of the reason the church often fails its calling to give expression to hope and amazement is that it is distracted by its decline as an institution, and all the challenges, material and spiritual, that come along with that. Which brings us to why you are here today, financial leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. The church must be able to deal with the financial realities of budgets, payroll, and accounting, without being imprisoned by them. Your role, financial leaders of the diocese, is to help the business operations of your local context run so smoothly that your congregation as a whole can be focused on the Gospel. Good administration of a congregation is not the one thing that will drive a church to proclaim good news, but without it, a congregation will necessarily focus inward as it struggles with chaos and crisis. Better that a congregation spend its time struggling with how the Gospel calls them to be a transformed people.

Today you will be hearing about practices that can help your congregational leaders make good decisions by understanding the resources they have at hand. You will learn about practices of transparency so that people who make sacrifices to give to the church know that their gifts are being used faithfully and to the glory of God. You will learn about how you can use online giving technology to allow newcomers to your church to be generous, even if these days they don’t carry cash.

For the rest of the day you will be immersed in business operations, accounting controls, and accounting software features. It may seem at times that we have wandered far from the Gospel. In those moments remember that even among Jesus’s disciples, one was charged with manning the common purse. (Now, that disciple was Judas, so today we are going to ask you to do better.) But the important thing to remember about money is that it can be transformed into anything. Money enables choices. These can be foolish or wise, sinful or holy. My hope for today at that what you learn will help you and your church to use the gifts you have been so generously given to bring the kingdom of God that much nearer to your congregation and your neighbors.

- Sermon delivered to Financial Leadership Workshop in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis on the Feast of Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr, March 23, 2019. Readings: Ps. 121, 1 Cor. 2:1-5. Walter Brueggemann quotes from The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. 

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