May 26, 2010

apophatic

Author, speaker, and general good guy, Tony Jones, is blogging a series of apophatic thoughts on God. Apophatic Theology is an attempt to describe God from the wrong way round, by negation, by stating what God is not.

As I continue to ponder the merits of a Trinity Sunday, I wonder it would be worth the peoples time for a preacher to engage the Trinity apophatically.

I wonder this because, quite frankly, it is impossible to describe God. Sure, God is loving. Or is God love? God is life-giving. Or is God life? God is true, or is it truth, or the Truth? See. It isn't easy. Be coming at God apophatically, we can begin to deconstruct the myth of God, but we must also be prepared to do some reconstruction, to lay a good foundation.

And for that, we must be willing to venture into the world of parable, analogy, and metaphor. As 21st century westerners, steeped in 400 years of enlightenment garbage, we have a hard time with that which is not fact. We like our details neat and tidy and true, but when it comes to God, the One who is wholly other, neat, tidy, and even true are hard to come by.

The Spirit, at Pentecost, arrived with a sound like a mighty wind and laid on the disciples like tongues of fire.

Jesus describes himself as the way, the truth, the life, the sheep gate, and the shepherd - among other things.

John describes the Father by saying, "God is love." (1 Jn 4.8)

It is uncomfortable to do apophatic theology and to dabble in metaphor, but when it comes to God, its about all we've got.

May 25, 2010

Access

SHW is currently in a Beth Moore Bible Study with some ladies from First Baptist Church in Gulf Shores. This is her second study with them, and she has really enjoyed the experience, the challenge, and the time in the Word.

Occasionally, however, it becomes abundantly clear that she is a lifelong mainliner in the midst of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was late getting back to work after lunch yesterday because of one of those moments as Beth, who admittedly comes from a place of deep woundedness, was coincidentally looking at the Romans passage that the RCL is using for Trinity Sunday.

Beth's focus was on the access to God that we receive through Jesus. For SHW, and myself, who grew up attending Sunday School and living in relatively healthy and loving families, our experience of the access to grace is a whole lot less miraculous that of Beth or anyone else who didn't grow up knowing God's love and the love of parents.

Our access is like going to the grocery store; the door automatically opens as you approach.

Beth's access is like entering the Delta Club in the Atlanta airport; you better know the code and have your platinum card ready.

In both cases, however, once you are in, you are in and you are welcome to stay.

For those of us who haven't had to work hard to access faith and grace, however, there is a word of caution - a reminder that for others, finding grace is hard, and we need to a) show that grace and b) be sympathetic to the struggle. Fortunately, we have the love of God poured into us by the Spirit to help us with both of those challenges.

May 24, 2010

Trinity Sunday

AKA Random Set of Lessons, Good Luck, Sunday

We have the Widsom text that asserts that Wisdom, which is often associated with the Spirit, was created???

We have the Pslam which at this point on Monday morning, I can't even begin to fathom preaching.

Canticle 2, Glory to You, which at least makes a reference to the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Romans 5.1-5 also mentions all three persons of the Trinity, but plays more on Pentecost themes than Trinitarian.

And Jesus trying to, but failing, make any sense of the relationship between the Godhead.

Good luck indeed.

What strikes me this morning, as it seems clear that one probably can't preach the day based on these texts, is that classic line from Romans 5, "we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Hope does not disappoint us. Amen? Amen.

This, I think, plays on the Creation theme that is present in the Pslam. God speaks things into reality, and so when he promises us something, it is already true. Our hope, set rightly on God's promise will not disappoint us because God speaks truth into being, because God loved us enough to send his Son, because God won't leave us alone, because the Spirit is active in our lives all the time. Our sufferings prove that it won't be easy, but our hearts, beating with the love of God, prove that our hope will not be in vain.

Maybe it is nice to not have to preach the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, nobody really gets that anyway. Why not preach hope instead; hope that does not disappoint.

May 20, 2010

self-help

I've been known to blast self-help theologians like Joel Osteen, and I think for the most part, my critiques have been fair. This morning, however, I do need to make an exception, though it is scriptural rather than touchy feely.

The lesson from Romans, one which gets read at funerals all the time, reminds me that, as disciples, we need to claim our position as Spirit filled children of God.


"You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption."

How often, though, do we choose fear over blessing? How often to we fall back to our old ways rather than being open to God's dream? How often do we neglect to listen to God and end up in a pit of despair?

Following God doesn't mean life is going to be easy, gentle, "your best" or full of riches. What it does mean is that when the going gets tough, you can rely on the fact that God is there, walking alongside (or in some cases carrying you through). It isn't about having your best life now, it is about having God's dream for you be fulfilled.

May 19, 2010

Ruach

Ruach is the Hebrew word for breath. It is also the word used in Hebrew scriptures for the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God, in the mind of the early Jews, was the breath of God.

As preparations for Pentecost continue, I'm drawn to the first Collect choice for this Sunday. "Shed abroad this gift [of the Spirit] throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth..."

The Spirit continues to be the breath of God and it is breathed in and out by the body of Christ here on earth; you and me. As we share the good news of God's redemption by word and deed, the Spirit is propelled from within us and enters another just as simply as they draw a breath.

This is a new realization for me as my prevailing image of the Spirit is the very Pentecost-y wind image. I have no control over the wind, it blows where it chooses, and though I have no real control over my breath, I do have control over my location. Am I breathing the Spirit in a holy huddle or am I breathing the Spirit among those who haven't had the pleasure? Where does this Spirit need to be shared, through the preaching of the Gospel, so that it truly may reach the ends of the earth?

May 18, 2010

God's deeds of power

Craig, a friend/colleague of mine, invited me to lunch yesterday with a friend of his who is studying for his DMin in the Missional Church at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. It was an interesting lunch, filled with good conversation. I learned about the Catapult Conference in September in Mobile. And I put some words around the changes I'm seeing for the first time. I'm sure others are talking about the shift from membership to networks, but I'm beginning to picture what that looks like now.

One topic I didn't expect us to touch on was the Church in Africa. It brought back all sorts of memories from my Church in Sudan class in seminary. The Church in Africa is, by and large, a 1st century Church. There is persecution happening all the time, AND the are miracles happening all over the place.

And not just, happy clappy miracles like two warring sides coming to the table.

Real Miracles. Faith Healings.

They are happening all the time, in large numbers, and we in the West hear very little about it. Miracles happen here too, of course, but we are less apt to see them and less likely to claim them as those who, in the midst of hardship, have nothing else to praise but God.

As we prepare ourselves for the great celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, I wonder how ready/willing/able we are to follow the example of the disciples and tell of God's deeds of power. Are our eyes open to the possibility of God's hand at work in the world around us?

The Good News is that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into this world every day. That in-breaking brings with it God's miraculous works of healing, restoration, upbuilding, and hope. May our eyes be open to God's deeds of power so that they might be on our lips as words of hope.

May 17, 2010

Satisfied

"Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied."

Ummm... let's just say if you are satisfied by now, you'll never be satisfied.

I'm not preaching Pentecost this year, thanks be to God, and I assume that Keith will preach the Acts lesson, but I know he is drawn to this phrase by Philip in John's Gospel. I'm drawn to it too. How often do I tell God, if you'll just do this for me, I'll be satisfied. And then, after said request is fulfilled, I come back with, now if you'll just do this, then I'll really be satisfied.

Ummm... he sent his only Son to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to God. I should probably be satisfied.

There are some that will never be satisfied with God. Some who will never believe because he just hasn't done enough for them. But for those of us who claim to be disciples, well then what Jesus said, what he did, and the power of the Spirit active in our lives should be enough to be satisfied.

Easter 7C Sermon

This past weekend, Cassie, Eliza and I had the joy of celebrating with Cassie’s brother, Nate, as he graduated from Eastern University. As I reflect on his college years, I remember a trip we all took to Cocoa Beach, FL when Nate told us about his “quest for knowledge,” a quest that will continue with graduate studies in the fall. Now, when I was 19 and in college what Nate called a “quest for knowledge” we called “being a nerd,” but Nate can make anything sound cool.

I understand the whole “being a nerd” thing because I was one; or more truthfully, I am one. I enjoy learning new things, and I especially enjoy immersing myself in a job and learning as much about it as possible. When I’m eating in a restaurant, I still look around at all the servers and think about how I used to handle getting triple sat. When I’m stuck in line at the grocery store, I look at the magazines, not to read their covers, but because of my days as a Continuous Improvement Intern at a printing company, I look at how well they were printed, cut and bound. From my brief stint in the construction business, I find myself looking at how a floor meets the wall; looking to see if it is square. A straight line where the floor meets the wall is usually indicative of quality construction that starts with a square and true foundation. And as you’ve all heard before, without a good foundation, nothing works out right.

Having a thirteen month-old, I’ve given a lot of thought to the foundation we are laying for Eliza. For her physical foundation, we’ve spent the extra money to buy the best formula available and pondered the right time to take away bottles and pacifiers. Emotionally, we strive to show her our love and care at all times. Socially, we work on interactions, smiles, waves, and words. Spiritually, we say prayers each night and read books about the Lord’s prayer, Baby Bibles and the like. I’ve also thought a lot about my own foundation; those supreme and overarching principles taught to me by my parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, teachers, and priests; lessons like, “always push in your chair” or “be nice” or “treat others the way you’d like to be treated.” These are good lessons, and a pretty solid foundation.

But, sometimes our foundation gets in the way of God. Jesus, the stone that the builders rejected, is to be our chief cornerstone, and in order for him to fit, some good stones need to be removed. This week, we hear of the need to remove the “don’t cause trouble” stone from our foundations. Paul, Silas, and Luke are in the very Roman city of Philippi preaching, teaching, and worshiping with the fledgling church there when a young fortune teller begins to make a scene. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation,” she shouts over and over and over again, day after day. Finally, Paul loses his patience and, in the name of Jesus, commands the spirit to leave her, which it promptly does and with it leaves her owners’ ability to exploit her for money. Paul and Silas are dragged to the marketplace and set before the magistrates accused of “disturbing the city.”

When was the last time you were accused of disturbing anything or anyone because of Jesus? I can’t think of an example either. We’ve been taught over and over again to “not cause trouble” despite the fact that sometimes disturbing the peace, uprooting the status quo, is exactly what we are called to do. When we pray that God might “exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before” we shouldn’t mean, “punch my ticket to heaven someday.” Instead, we use the word exalt like John does. For John, Jesus was exalted when he was lifted high upon the cross, when finally his disturbing the religious and political powers that be lead to his death. Jesus was exalted when the authorities had had enough of his call to bring the values of heaven to earth right here and right now.

This isn’t easy. I get that. Moving foundations requires a whole lot of time, energy, and heavy equipment... if we try to do it ourselves. But for God, moving foundations is as simple as sweeping his hand across his creation. By the grace of God our lives are filled with earthquakes that shake our foundations and loose our chains. God gifts us over and over again with the chance to be set free from the confines of our old foundations so that Christ can take his rightful place as the cornerstone of our lives. When those earthquakes happen, we have three choices. First, we can rush to find all the old stones and rebuild our old foundation exactly the way it was before. Second, we can sit around and do nothing while the world builds its unsquare and untrue foundation around us. Or, we can be changed. We can invite Jesus to be our new cornerstone and rebuild a brand new foundation, square and true, around him. Paul and Silas had built their house on the foundation of Jesus, and it led them to Philippi and to prison; the place where people went when they disturbed the powers that be. Whenever Christian Discipleship gets in the way of vested interests, trouble follows.

For eighteen straight years from 1789 until 1807, Member of British Parliament, William Wilberforce and a small group of abolitionists introduced legislation to end the trading of slaves in the British Empire. In a culture not unlike ours, where religious enthusiasm was generally regarded as a social transgression and was stigmatized in polite society, Wilberforce spent eighteen years facing frustrations, political challenges, and even death threats in the name of Jesus Christ. He stood confidently on the foundation he had built on Christ.

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His life’s crusade is a reminder to us that we are not called to “play nice” but rather to strive each and every day to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer to reality here on earth.

The story of Wilberforce’s life is told in the 2006 film, Amazing Grace, which if you’ve never seen, add it to your netflix cue today, it is a powerful story of how God rebuilds us for his purposes. A song from that soundtrack, however, many of you do know. Chris Tomlin was asked to rework the hymn Amazing Grace, originally written by Wilberforce’s priest, John Newton. Tomlin’s only may two real changes. The first was to reintroduce Newton’s original final stanza, “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, Will be forever mine.” The second was to add a chorus trying to tap into that conversion experience of Newton and Wilberforce, that moment when God created an earthquake that shook the very foundations of their lives. “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free. My God, my savior has ransomed me. And like a flood, his mercy reigns. Unending love. Amazing grace.”

You might not be a nerd like me, but I pray that you’ll take sometime to look at the foundation of your life. Does it need to be shaken? Does the cornerstone need to be replaced? When God tears down your foundation, and I promise you he will, be ready not to rebuild it the same way, but to place Christ, square and true, at the corner and be exalted with him even in his suffering. Amen.

May 13, 2010

be careful

As I sat down to right my sermon for this weekend, I came to a harsh realization, shaking things up can very easily sound like the old, mainline, democratic platform. As I thought of ways to share with St. Paul's ways in which they can cause a disturbance all that came to mind were: Arizona Immigration Law, Climate Change, Poverty, and other things that Joe Biden would love me to preach about.

The problem, of course, is that I am not a platform anything and while St. Paul's has some democrats in its ranks, the majority of us are moderate to conservative. So... hmmm... maybe disturbing the status quo does involve some "niceties" or at least the task is to be careful.

As I struggled for a quality example, I ran through the Church calendar to see if there were any lesser feast saints who might fit the mold, and low and behold I stumbled upon one of my favorites, William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce is a champion for liberals because of his role in the end of slavery in the British Colonies, but his Christian faith led him to be rather conservative on other issues including labor unions, women's rights, and even the curtailing of certain personal freedoms.

He's an enigma. His faith, prayerfully discerned, lead him to a wide variety of ways in which he stirred the pot.

So, my friends, when you hear about God's call to disturb, don't immediately assume God is on your side. His ability to create earthquakes means he'll always be moving.

May 12, 2010

Be Nice

Thanks to an amazing Employee Assistance Program through the Episcopal Church Medical Trust I've started meeting with a therapist. I remember some professor in seminary telling us, "everyone should see a therapist, especially priests." Seems like good advice for those of us who carry the weight of other's secrets, pain, sadness as well as their joys, passions, on convictions.

Our first session was last week, but one line is still ringing true in my head as I study the Acts lesson for this Sunday. She said, "When I turned forty, I realized that I was done being nice. I'll be polite and kind, but not nice."

Yesterday during our lectionary group, Keith brought up the fact that in order to follow in the footsteps of Paul and Silas and be disturbers, we have to overcome a lot of trained behavior. "Don't cause any trouble." or "Be nice." are things we all heard a million times during our formative years. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, pastors, you name it, just about every adult figure in my life told me, at one time or another, that I was supposed to a) be nice or b) not cause any trouble.

But the my homiletics professor told me to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I can to the former, but the latter, I am not equipped. I have 30 years of "being nice" to sort through. I have a child to support. I have a thousand reasons why I shouldn't rock the boat, and I'm sure you do too.

But then the earthquake happens. Paul and Silas, accused disturbers, are in prison singing hymns and saying prayers, and the very foundations of the prison are shaken. God has a habit of shaking foundations; both literally, like the prison in Philippi and literally, like "be nice." He shakes these foundations and looses our chains so that we might be set free to do his work, which sometimes (maybe even more often than not) means acting as the pea in the mattress.

Is God shaking your foundations? Is he calling you to a new way of living? A new way of interacting? A new way of disturbing?

Quit being nice. Quit trying NOT to cause trouble. Be respectful. Be caring. But always be a voice for God.

May 11, 2010

disturbing

When Paul and Silas are brought before the magistrates in Philippi, they are accused of something so simple, yet so very dangerous. "These men are disturbing our city..."

When was the last time you or your church were accused of disturbing anything? Maybe you aren't casting demons out of annoying little girls, and that's fine, but what are you doing that is disturbing people for Jesus? Are you challenging the education system to be available to all? Are you disturbing the status quo in regards to regressive local tax laws? Are you standing up for the outcast and forgotten in your fair town?

In all reality, your disturbance doesn't have to be on such a grand scale. Do you stand up for what's right at work? Do you care for your neighbor who is in need? Do you take the time to listen when another needs to share?

Being a Christian is not about being saved once and for all eternity. It is about a life changed, an attention shifted, and a disturbance created. May we all take after Paul and Silas and become disciples who disturb.

May 5, 2010

Wednesday Homily for Easter 5c

The Gospel of John contains twenty-one chapters, five of which we know as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Beginning with him washing his disciples feet, Jesus takes this last opportunity before his arrest and crucifixion to prepare his disciples for the road ahead. He shows them how they should live by washing their feet. He lays out for them about the things that are about to happen. He comforts their distress, promises the Holy Spirit, and finishes by praying for himself, for his disciples and for everyone who would come to believe through their message. Jesus utters a lot of words; those Bible with red letters where Jesus is speaking must be close to running out of red ink by the end of chapter 17, but he sums up his message early on by saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” With fifty-five characters, plenty short to fit in a text message or tweet, Jesus tells his disciples everything they need to know.
Notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “keep each other accountable.” He doesn’t say, “make sure you all believe the right things.” He doesn’t say, “give more money to the church.” He doesn’t say, “make me proud.” He doesn’t say any of a thousand things we think he might have or maybe even should have said. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ singular commandment is to “love one another.” It is the descriptive by which the whole world will know Jesus’ disciples, if they just love one another.
Oh, if Jesus could have said anything else. It is so very simple to say, but so very hard to do. Most of the time we know in our heart of hearts the right thing we should do out of love for another person, but also in our heart of hearts lives a laundry list of excuses as to why we don’t do it; I’m too tired, too stressed, too busy, or they’re too lazy, too needy, too wreckless. And so we know what Jesus commands us to do, and so very often we just don’t do it.
But we can. We can live into Jesus’ commandment to love. Enabled by the Holy Spirit we can change our initial reactions from excuse making to action. Our unclean responses can be made clean by the working of the Holy Spirit because, to paraphrase Peter’s response to the leaders in Jerusalem, “who are we to hinder God?”
And despite my rather negative view of us, which reflects mostly my own issues, my own initial reactions, by and large we are already living into this commandment. Hundreds, if not thousands of times a week we decide to act out of love for another instead of love for ourselves. We take an hour or two and go to Foley Elementary School to teach young children a) how to read and b) that someone cares about them. We pick up an extra jar of peanut butter at the grocery store for Ecumenical Ministries so that the least in our community can a) eat and b) know that Foley is a place that takes care of its own. We send cards of care to those who are shut-in and alone to a) warm their hearts and b) remind them that they are beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We do all sorts of things that show us to be disciples of Jesus; we love one another.
One of my favorite parts of Vacation Bible School is the time we spend sharing “God Sightings.” The kids share with their small groups and the large group where they saw God during the day before. The stories are sometimes hilarious, but often beautiful. One little girl told us that she saw God in helping her mom feed her baby brother. Last year we all saw God in one girl who brought her entire life savings, $100 to donate to the VBS mission fund. This week, I hope that you’ll be on the look out for God Sightings. Keep your eyes open for those times that you or someone else chooses to love another person. Remember those sightings. Cherish them, and know that Jesus’ commandment to love one another can be and is being accomplished each and every day. Amen.

May 4, 2010

a season of suffering

This may be a St. Paul's anomaly, but our pastoral care needs seem to flow in cycles. Currently, we find ourselves in a season of suffering; lots of surgeries, cancer treatments, long-term illnesses, and even death. It'll last for a month or two or more, and then we will find ourselves in a season of refreshment when the needs won't be as critical nor as numerous.

This ebb and flow of need often leaves me wondering the big questions of theodicy. Why do good people suffer? Why does it all seem to happen at once? Why do some find the healing they long for while others do not?

This struggle is heightened, for me, in the story of Jesus healing the man at the Sheep Gate. What is it about him that the heart of Jesus is stirred to help him and none of the other "many" invalids who lie about in the porticoes? If it is a sign, which all of Jesus miracles are, then what is the meaning? What is it pointing to? And why couldn't it point there just the same if everyone was healed?

As a priest there are days that I think I should have the answers to these questions, but mostly I am content to leave it up to God. When a season of suffering comes upon us, I pray for healing, I pray for strength, I pray for peace, and I know that all of those things will come to be, either in this life or the next. In the meantime I rest in the promise of the resurrection and work toward fulfilling my part of the Lord's Prayer, "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven."

May 3, 2010

the love theme continues

"Those who love me will keep my word."

As Keith said in his sermon yesterday, "God loves you. There is nothing you can do in the next five seconds to make God love you any more. There is nothing you can do in the next five seconds to make God love you any less. God loves you too much to allow you to stay where you are."

The order is not we act and then God loves. God loves us first and our response to God's love is to to love him back. Which, Jesus tells us, means that we will keep his word. This translates to, "get off your butt and do something."

Tend the sick. Feed the hungry. Comfort the sorrowful. Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to the Father through him. (Col 3.17).