Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tommy Wilson - PK

I'm just getting into Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, Jr. I had not known previously that Wilson was a "p.k." (preacher's kid!) - but Cooper makes much of the fact that Wilson grew up in a Presbyterian manse.
This paragraph really interests me: "Even after Tommy (Wilson's full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the middle name coming from his mother's maiden name - and he was called Tommy as a child) started school, he spent Mondays, which was a minister's day off, with his father, who took him to see sights he thought 'might interest or educate a boy.' Afterward, his father would have Tommy write an essay about what he'd seen. After his son had read the essay aloud, Dr. Wilson would say, 'Now put down your paper and tell me in your own words what you saw.' Tommy would then give a shorter, more direct account and his father would respond, 'Now write it down that way.'" (page 20)
I wonder what would happen if preaching was taught that way? And not just preaching by the ordained but the practice of "testifying" in less formal ways to God's work in the world that all Christians are called to. See it, write it, say it, write it again in a shorter, simpler, direct way. I am reminded of those great scenes in "A River Runs Through It" where another Presbyterian minister is teaching his sons to write, and insists that they learn to edit down to the heart of the matter.
In his great work, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute and Advocacy, Walter Brueggemann explores the process of doing theology in the Old Testament as a move from the particular to the general- from verbs to adjectives to nouns. So one first has a saving experience and says, "YHWH saves." After some number of those experiences, the verb becomes an adjective: YHWH is saving." Eventually the claim becomes a noun: YHWH is Savior. The effect is that over time, it becomes more of who YHWH is and not only what YHWH does. But it also represents a move away from particularity to generalities and that is always a risk. Brueggemann notes that in order to maintain "generalizing nouns" Israel must be regularly prepared to return to the more particular adjectival claims and behind those to verbal sentences of testimony.
What I think that means is that it is not enough to say that God is Savior or Friend or Comforter, but to learn to see (and then speak of) the God who saves, befriends, comforts. We must be prepared to return to particulars by learning to see God in the midst of our ordinary activities. Because if we aren't careful we just keep repeating the nouns without opening our eyes to the experience. I wonder what it would be like to teach young people, confirmation students, and adults to go out into the world on a Monday morning or a Saturday afternoon with their eyes and ears open to seeing God, and then to write it, tell it, and re-write it focused on first-person verbs rather than generalized nouns. I wonder what it might be like for me to work on that a bit!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is your eye evil because I am good?

The gospel appointed for today in the Daily Office Lectionary is one of my favorite parables (Matthew 20:1-16) - which is not for one minute to suggest that I have yet begun to understand it. I love teaching it to undergraduates who are always predictable in their initial responses: "it's not fair!"
The parable is usually referred to as "the laborers in the vineyard," but like so many parables that may be a misnomer. I think it would more accurately be called the parable of the generous employer. The employer goes out and hires some people to work in his field and they settle on the usual daily wage. When he goes out again (repeatedly throughout the day) he hires more laborers and agrees with the latecomers to "pay them what is right."
Most of us assume that what is right -what is "fair" as my undergrads would say - would be to pay the latecomers some fraction of what those working longest are being paid. If the "usual daily wage" is $20, then those working half a day deserve $10, right?
The laborers are paid in reverse order. So when the early birds see the latecomers being paid the wage they agreed to, they naturally assume that they will get more; it only seems "fair." In fact, however, everyone who works gets the same daily wage. That is when the hardest workers lodge their complaint and that is when the generous employer makes his defense. Most of the translations say something like this: "Are you envious because I am generous?" But the literal Greek reads like this: "is your eye evil because I am good?"
What on earth does that mean? And what does it have to do with the Kingdom of God?
I wonder first of all if a "daily wage" isn't something like "daily bread?" That is, one of the lasting lessons of the Exodus was to try to discern the difference between "want" and "need." Pharaoh's economy was built on want, which always leads to an economy of "haves" and "have nots" - of slave and free, of rich and poor. But in the wilderness for forty years, God's people are given enough manna for each day (twice as much on the Sabbath.) The "daily bread" cannot be hoarded or saved - there is enough for everyone, but it is, after all manna (lit: whatchamacallit) and not fresh baguettes for the wealthy and crumbs under the table for the poor. It seems to me that at least one aspect of the miracle of the manna is to learn to be satisfied by our needs being met, and learning to manage our wants. This of course is done with moderate success and the Bible is brutally honest about that. ("Oh, remember the cucumbers back in Egypt...")
What if part of the point of the story is that everyone deserves a daily wage, a minimum standard of living, whether or not the economy is at "full employment?" What if it is a crime against humanity and God for the CEOs to be receiving bonuses when the janitor can't afford to take his kid in to see a doctor?
What if grace isn't a commodity that can be divided up and parceled out in the first place? We get enough grace; we get enough love from a generous God. Why on earth would we begrudge someone else of that generous gift? Why would we see evil where there is only good?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Celebrating Life

In yesterday's Worcester newspaper, The Telegram and Gazette, a local columnist wrote an article entitled "Celebration of life replaces usual service." There, Dianne Williamson told the story of a woman who died at fifty and eschewed "the traditional wake and funeral service" for a less traditional event intended "to focus on life rather than death."

Let me be clear: I have no quarrel with the myriad ways people have before them in a post-Constantinian context to choose practices that are meaningful to them, and no desire to force Christian burial on anyone. But the suggestion that Christian Burial is focused on death, rather than life, just ain't so!

In a few hours I will preside at the Burial Office and celebration of Holy Eucharist for a man whose life was just two years shy of a century. I guarantee we will be there not to focus on his death, but to celebrate his life. Moreover, we will be gathered to set his life in a larger context. I often tell families planning for the funeral of a loved one - especially if their loved one was an active member of my congregation and they are not - that while a funeral is indeed about the deceased it is not all about them. The Burial Office is an Easter liturgy, which is to say that we celebrate Christ's victory over death. Even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! If we leave a Christian funeral and do not feel that we have celebrated life then it's not been done right, or we weren't paying attention.

But here is the thing: sometimes "celebration of life" is code-language for denial of death. It means we don't want a corpse present, or even ashes, because that would be "such a downer." We want to gather to celebrate the life of the deceased, but we are scared out of our wits about their death because it suggests that one day we, too, will die.

But to truly celebrate life, we must be willing to face death. Easter morning doesn't begin at the empty tomb: it begins with the Lenten reminder that we are all dust and it passes through the hard realities of Good Friday. Celebrating life actually means something more than denial when you acknowledge the pain and grief of death.

Now my point here is not to pick a fight with a local columnist. My larger point is that there is good news here that Christians have to share with the world. There is something in the tradition worth claiming and affirming and offering to a culture that denies death: the good news that life is stronger than death and that hope trumps despair. The good news that nothing in all of creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. My hope and prayer today, as people who are not regular members of my parish leave, is that they will know that they were indeed there to celebrate life and that it may even mean that they ponder anew how they will choose to live their days.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eric Baldaras

US may deport Harvard student - The Boston Globe

Yearning to Be Free

Immigration has been in the news a lot recently. I don't live in Arizona, and while everything I know about the recent law enacted there makes me nervous, I also am aware that my context is very different and therefore I am hesitant to judge my neighbors that live in border states. It seems to me that liberals and conservatives can agree on principle that a nation has a right to protect it's borders, even as we remember that we declare to the world that we want them to give us "their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to be free." We want to be a land of opportunity for all because that defines who we are, and what is best about this nation. It seems to me naive to respond that people need to just get in line and do it "legally;" this takes no account of the politics that shape our immigration policy in the first place, and who is welcomed in and who is not.

I am proud of that American heritage to welcome the stranger, to make room for the one who is different and to recognize the gifts that each wave of immigrants brings to this country. But deeper still than that pride of country, I am a Christian. The story of my faith is rooted in the story of people who were strangers in a foreign land, a people called to remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. As they entered the Promised Land they were reminded that this experience must define them in each new generation as they related to the stranger in their midst: "You, too, must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:19) That word is variously translated as sojourner or alien but the meaning is clear: to move beyond xenophobia (fear of the stranger) and toward love of the stranger. That doesn't require theory, but practice. And practice involves real people, and real life is messy.

Eric Baldaras is a rising sophomore at Harvard College. He came to this country - illegally - as a four-year old. I don't imagine he had a lot of say in that decision. Even so, after arriving here he did what immigrants have done in this country for over two hundred years, he did what we told him we wanted him to do. He worked hard and succeeded in high school, was admitted to Harvard, and seems to be thriving there. Now his immigration status has been discovered and he may be deported back to, well, where exactly? Could anyone seriously argue that Mexico is his "home?" What could he possibly remember about the town of his birth. This is his home, this is where his community is.

I don't for a moment pretend that the legal issues are easy to sort out here, or that immigration policy should be based on emotion. But in the end, immigration policy is about who WE are, not just about those we choose to let in or turn away. If we are to err, may it be on the side of hospitality and love of neighbor.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Naboth’s Vineyard (I Kings 21:1-21a)

The reflections below are an edited portion of a sermon preached this past weekend at St. Francis Church. The full manuscript can be found on the church's webpage.

This month all of our Old Testament readings come from First and Second Kings, vignettes from the ministries of two prophets: Elijah the Tishbite and his successor, Elisha. Last weekend, we heard about Elijah and the widow of Sidon, where the prophet shows up at this poor woman’s house in the midst of a severe famine. The situation is pretty desperate and she has nothing left in the cupboard except a little flour and oil. In fact, the narrator tells us that the situation is so desperate that she is preparing to die. And yet when Elijah knocks on her door and asks her to share the little bit that she has, she sets another place at her meager table and basically says, “my house is your house.” Miraculously (as so often happens when we choose generosity over fear) it turns out that there really is enough.

Today we have an opportunity to explore a much darker side of the human psyche: in the story of Naboth’s vineyard we encounter the antithesis of neighborly love: envy and greed. These emotions are sadly just as real a part of our experience and perhaps more familiar. If it is true that the poor who have next to nothing often have the most to teach us about generosity, then it is also true that sometimes those who seem to have everything still feel like it is not enough. In the twenty-first chapter of First Kings, Ahab and Jezebel take what doesn’t belong to them, without regard for human life. It’s an all too familiar story of how easily the powerless are abused by the powerful. When you combine the human propensity to want what does not belong to us with the power to do whatever you want and get away with it, innocent people will always suffer. Most of us are not thieves. But many more of us have some experience with the corrosive sin of envy. Like Ahab, we may even have pouted or stewed once or twice over wanting something that we can not have. But usually we are able to stop short of just taking it, if for no other reason than that we don’t want to risk jail time.

So that’s where the story of Naboth’s vineyard begins: with the corrosive power of envy. Noboth has a vineyard that Ahab wants. He has plenty of wine, but he hopes to convert Naboth’s vineyard into a vegetable garden and grow heirloom tomatoes and organic cucumbers. The problem is that Naboth is not at all interested in selling: it’s the land he grew up on, the land his parents and grandparents sweated on. It’s not about the money for him. It’s about being connected to that hallowed ground that his parents and grandparents farmed. Unfortunately, however, his refusal of the king’s offer (which we are told was a reasonable one) will cost him his life. Our narrator suggests that Jezebel practically taunts her husband: “so who’s the king here anyway?” She takes care of things, and before you can snap your fingers Naboth has been set up, convicted, and murdered. It isn’t clear whether Ahab knows of this plan and goes along with it or if he has chosen to have plausible deniability or if in fact he knows Jezebel all too well and she is doing his dirty work. It doesn’t matter really; because in the end dead is dead and Naboth is dead. The issue here is about power—it’s about the king and queen’s belief that they are above the law. Ahab has his heirloom tomatoes.

It is into this breach that the prophets speak on behalf of God and those who have been silenced or disappeared. Some of us have been taught to think of the prophets as fortune tellers, as people who made predictions about a future messiah. But the core vocation of a prophet is to speak the truth to power. And that is exactly what Elijah does here. He tells Ahab and Jezebel that there are consequences for their actions; that what goes around will one day come around, and that what they have done is reprehensible. Elijah has the chutzpah to say these things, even at great risk to his own life. But it should come as no surprise that the powerful don’t tend to enjoy having truth spoken to them, especially when it doesn’t jive with the narrative they have been feeding the media and perhaps even themselves. And so this will get Elijah in some trouble, as it always gets prophets in trouble, right down to our own day.

Monday, June 7, 2010

One More for the Summer!

Barbara Brown Taylor is not only a keen observer of the world and brilliant writer but one of the kindest and gentlest persons I've ever met. She helps me to "see" things, quite literally, in a new way and while I failed to mention An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith in my most recent post, I am most definitely looking forward to reading this one!
It's organized into twelve chapters that are written as practices; these include the following:
1. The Practice of Waking Up to God: Vision
2. The Practice of Paying Attention: Reverence
3. The Practice of Wearing Skin: Incarnation
And how about these?
5. The Practice of Getting Lost: Wilderness
8. The Practice of Saying No - Sabbath

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Summer Reading

Well, it's that time of the year when I begin to think about what I must read before Labor Day comes. Some of these I've already begun and others I probably won't get to until late August. But here it is - my summer reading list:

Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible was given to me in January 1998 by a very dear parishioner at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut as a going away present just before we moved to Holden, Massachusetts. I pulled it off of my shelf recently to re-read an essay in it by Phyllis Trible in preparation for some summer preaching from I and II Kings. The article is entitled: "The Odd Couple: Elijah and Jezebel." I love Trible and the article is classic. But in so doing I felt inspired to read the rest of the book which includes writings by Jewish and Christian women writers - really very fine stuff.

Actually, I'm almost finished with this one, by two of my favorite New Testament scholars: Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Last fall semester, I taught a course on Paul at Assumption College and I used N.T. Wright's book, which was really very good. But I am far enough into this that if I'm asked to do it again, I think I will use this book. I like how they make it clear from the outset that there is a pretty good consensus among mainline scholars that all that claims to be Paul is not Paul. Like all of us, Paul was a man of contradictions. Nevertheless, when you recognize that the writer of Titus and Timothy probably wasn't Paul at all, but a later Christian writer using his name, it makes it easier to focus in on what are clearly the authentic Pauline letters and "the first Paul" - a person these two writers are convinced was a radical visionary. They make a pretty compelling case--at least so far. And their writing is quite accessible.

Sundays In America was recommended to me (and my parish) by the Librarian at the Gale Free Library in Holden. I picked it up this winter or early spring because there was to be a discussion on it at the library but didn't get passed the "peaking ahead' part at the Episcopal congregations visited and ended up with a conflict on the night of the discussion. Basically, the writer describes herself as a lapsed Roman Catholic who, after the death of John Paul II, realized that there was something missing in her life. And so she set off on a pilgrimage to visit a different church every Sunday for one year. It's a little slice of Church in America, across denominational lines--light stuff but I think helpful for someone like me who spends so much time in one place that it becomes a real challenge to see it like an outsider sees it.

I first read Susan Howatch's amazing fictional series that is part theology, part history, and part mystery at least a dozen years ago now--maybe longer. I devoured the entire series at the time. A while back I decided I'd go back and re-read the entire series but got distracted along the way. This summer, however, I'm determined to go back and start again--at the beginning--with Glittering Images. (A friend of mine just had some pretty major surgery and shared that during his recovery he was reading this series for the first time.) This first in the series is about a Church of England priest named Charles Ashworth; I'm hoping I'll get through at least the second one as well, which is called Glamorous Powers and is about another priest named Jon Darrow.

I've become obsessed recently with Malcolm Gladwell, having read Blink first, and then The Tipping Point. He really blows me away, so I'm on to Outliers next and then What the Dog Saw. (To be honest the only reason it's in that order is that the Gale Free Library had a copy of Outliers on the shelf and What the Dog Saw was out!)
The jacket cover on this one says that "success" is not primarily about intelligence and ambition as we usually think, but that "if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them - at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. The story of success is more complex - and a lot more interesting - than it initially appears."

I haven't heard much about Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, but I usually try to read at least one biography each summer and I've been kind of stuck on the "founding brothers" for a while now so it's time for a twentieth-century president, and I really don't know much about Wilson beyond what I retained in eleventh-grade Social Studies. (In fact, as I think about it, I'm not sure I did any American history in college at all so it really was back that far! I took European Civilization I and II, I think, and then in Scotland I took Scottish History.) So what I remember about Wilson could fit on a napkin, and this book is 702 pages!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Seed of the Church

"O God, by whose providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church..." (from the collect for the Martyrs of Uganda)

Red is the liturgical color for celebrating the feasts of martyrs, and this week has a lot of red days. Yesterday, June 1, marked the feast of Justin, who was martyred in 165. Today we remember Blandina and her companions, martyred in Lyons in 177. Blandina's murder was particularly grisly: shown above she was "half-roasted" and then thrown half-alive to the bulls for refusing the renounce her faith.

Tomorrow, on June 3, Charles Lwanga and 31 other Roman Catholic and Anglican martyrs of Uganda are remembered. The collect for the day begins by noting that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." One cannot pray for these nineteenth-century martyrs without being mindful of the terrible persecutions that would face the twentieth-century Church under Idi Amin. I know two people whom I count as friends who lived through that time; they are among the most faithful people I have ever known in my life.

I would never suggest that faith in the suburbs is easy; it is not. We are all shaped by context, however, and the whining I sometimes hear from the House of Bishops to the pews and across ecumenical lines about the challenges of being a post-Christendom Church sometimes sound rather hollow and embarrassing when compared with the witness of Justin, Blandina, and Charles. In fact, that is what the word martyr means in Greek: to be a witness.

Walter Brueggemann's introduction to the Old Testament offers the metaphor of a courtroom where testimony and counter-testimony are presented. Witnesses are called to the stand. Each of us is called to bear witness to the truth within us.

In our context, bearing witness to that truth is very unlikely to get us killed. On the other hand, given that post-Constantinian context of North American Christianity--where it is very easy for the Church to mirror the dominant culture by offering an anemic spirituality of self-help, self-fulfillment, self-realization--speaking the truth about historic Christianity can be a risky business. It may lead us to stand with martyrs even closer to home, in places like El Salvador--places where speaking the truth may lead our religious beliefs and practices into the messy and dangerous world of international politics.

The martyrs inspire us, if we dare, to be witnesses to the communion of saints, to speak in the presence of the white-robed martyrs who have sacrificed their lives for Christ and the Church that bears His name. Their blood calls us to be accountable to the faith that is in us and to a more bold, courageous, and prophetic vision.

I don't think we need to go looking for trouble, and I don't think that Justin or Blandina or Charles did. But when trouble finds us, there is no doubt risk involved in being faithful.