Saturday, August 20, 2011

More on Romans

Reflecting on Romans over the past few months has renewed my awareness that this letter is about more than "justification by grace through faith" - it's also about how to be faithful within the context of imperial power, something I feel is profoundly relevant to our own situation. The following is a portion of the sermon for The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, on Romans 12:1-8. The full manuscript will be posted on the website of St. Francis Church on Monday. 

According to The Dictionary of Human Geography, imperial power is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states...based on domination and subordination."  The key words, there, I think, are domination and subordination. To achieve their goals, empires demand unwavering conformity to their laws, norms, and values.  They suppress dissent and debate; so you tend to see a lot of bumper stickers that say things like: “my country, right or wrong!” 

So when St. Paul appeals to those Christians living in first-century Rome and says to them:  “do not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” he isn’t making an abstract theological statement. He is saying something very radical and counter-cultural as he makes his appeal to these brothers and sisters who are living in the “belly of the beast,” as it were. He reminds them that even though they live in Rome, they are still “in Christ” and therefore answer to a higher authority. As they seek to live their faith, they need to resist the dominating and subordinating power of conformity and open themselves up to the liberating and freeing transformational power of God’s Holy Spirit. 

Paul appeals to them to keep Christ, not Caesar, at the center of their lives and he implores them to remember when they say that “Jesus is Lord” that they are making a political statement. All of the dominant cultural messages of the imperial Roman world insisted that Caesar was lord. If you wanted to get ahead and to fit in, you needed to play by Caesar’s rules. You could do what you wanted on the weekends, say your prayers to whatever god you wanted to, if it turned out that you had a little bit left over at the end of the week—just be sure to keep it private and spiritual and compartmentalized.

What exactly is it that Paul hopes these Christians in Rome will be transformed into? 

Into people who can discern the will of God. Into people who know the truth, and that truth sets them free. Into people who can figure out to whom they really belong and for what purpose; and then to live into that reality, not just on Sunday mornings but 24:7, 365 days a year, one day at a time.  

In July, I read a novel called The Help, which has just been made into a film. I’ve not seen the film but I’ve seen the political criticism it’s been getting. Even so, I have to say I enjoyed the book. For those who don’t know, the story takes place in the south in the 1960s Mississippi, at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. In many ways the Jim Crow south functioned in the same way that imperial power does: domination and subordination of black people required white people to conform to the status quo. The whole system depended upon being “conformed to that world” and when that happens, you get locked into a closed-system. The only way to break out of such a closed-system is for some kind of internal transformation to happen, which then allows you to see what in fact would seem obvious to any sane person. Only then can one truly “discern the will of God.” 

How could any preacher ever have ever stood up, in the name of Christ, and preached a sermon purportedly based on the authority of Scripture, and concluded that segregation was a good thing and more than that, that it was “the will of God?” And yet, as you know, there were countless sermons preached with passion and vehemence and certitude that did just that, defending Jim Crow as divinely mandated. When we are conformed to this world, we begin to use the Gospel to affirm what already is, what everybody “knows” to be true. We make the gospel fit into the culture’s norms, rather than allowing the gospel to open our eyes and ears and hearts…so that Christ can make all things new. 

No Christian is ever immune from that danger. Each new generation of Christians must ask the very same hard questions that Paul is raising in Romans 12: Where does your allegiance really lie? Where do you put your trust—not when you are sitting in church, but as you live your life? In money? Family? Nation? The Democratic Party or the Republican Party? Tea Party or Teacher’s Union? Fox News or MSNBC?  Who shapes your values? Who wants you to conform and fit in? 

I appeal to you brothers and sisters…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Most Gracious, Most Merciful

The Revised Common Lectionary has us continuing to read from Paul's Letter to the Romans, and I continue to preach on those texts at St. Francis. The full manuscript of my sermon for August 14 can be found here. Below is an abridged version of that sermon, on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, that has been edited for this context:
Today we heard these words as Paul concludes the second major section of Romans, in which he explores the question of the relationship between Christians and Jews.God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that [God] may be merciful to all. 

In the midst of all of his rhetoric, Paul finds a metaphor; although the lectionary committee in their infinite wisdom cut that out from the middle of today's reading! Personally, if I were put in charge of the lectionary and it was up to me to decide what to keep of Paul and what to lose, I have to tell you I’d keep more of his metaphors and lose some of the rhetoric. In any event, here in part is what we didn’t hear read today: 

If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy. And if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root* of the olive tree, do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.

Paul is telling those Gentile Christians in Rome not to be too proud, but rather to stand in awe because they have become “honorary Jews” through Christ. “You have been grafted into the life of Israel,” he says, “but you are still supported and sustained and fed by those Jewish roots. And you need to draw on those roots in order to bear good fruit.” Jesus talked a lot in his ministry (as did the prophets before him) about how the goal of faith is to bear good fruit. But disconnected branches, without roots, cannot do that. 

And then he concludes: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All of us rely on the mercy of God. That is the “kicker” to this whole long second section of Romans. That is where this theological reflection has led Paul. Try making that your own prayer for a day or two, or maybe a week or a month. Like a mantra. All of us rely on the mercy of God. That one sentence takes us to the very heart of Paul’s theology. It’s important to notice how he gets there but because he is, well, Paul…he is easy to lose along the way. But this is the point: Jew and Gentile—everybody gets imprisoned in disobedience. 

And all rely on the mercy of God. It isn’t our own righteousness that saves us, but God’s mercy! If we start to think that we are saved, or loved, because of what we have done—because of how great we are; if we start to compare ourselves to other Christians or to non-Christians and find ourselves somehow “the winners”—the real Christians, the truly faithful, then we are in big trouble. Do not become too proud.  Stand  in awe of God’s mercy, because all of us rely on the mercy of God. That wise counsel tells us who we are, but it also tells us who God is.  
Recognizing our own failings and shortcomings is not about beating ourselves up. There is a way of confessing our sins that can leave us feeling like we are bad to the bone. As I understand the gospel, that doesn’t do God, or us, any good.  It leads to guilt, rather than to repentance, and it’s hard to dig out from underneath guilt. The story of our faith is that we are created in the image of God. We are a holy people, claimed and marked and sealed as God’s beloved in Holy Baptism. But we are human. We are made of dust, and all of us fall short of the glory that God intends for us. Paul understood that at a very deep level. He knows that when he was so sure he was right, when he was so proud as a Pharisee and so eager to please God by squelching heretic followers of Jesus, that he was acting against the mercy of God; even if he didn’t know it at the time. He thought he was being faithful, but he was being unfaithful. I suspect if we are honest with ourselves we might acknowledge that we have some experience with that. It’s not the same kind of sin as being willfully disobedient. It’s not the same as knowing that speaking ill of our neighbor is wrong and then going ahead and speaking ill of that neighbor. I’m talking about when we do what we are certain is right, with the best of motivations, with certitude and piety—and then later on discover that we had it all wrong and have made a mess of things. 

God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That is not a New Testament idea—something Jesus said in order to start a new religion. That notion is rooted in the theology of Moses and the prophets and scattered throughout the psalms. God is merciful and steadfast and kind: not because we deserve it, but simply because it is who God is. In fact, it’s not an idea limited to the Bible. These are the opening words of the Holy Qur’an, the first and most important words of the very first Surah that are prayed every single day by faithful Muslims:  

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful 
Praise be to God the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful…

In Arabic, as in Hebrew, the root word for mercy is closely related to the word for womb. The God who has birthed us, loves us: how could that God reject the offspring of Her own womb? 

What would happen to us if we started to truly live out of that reality? How would it change us? Perhaps when we see someone else who is carrying a heavy burden, we might show them mercy rather than judgment. Perhaps we’d worry less about how other people are acting and more about how we can become more merciful, as God is merciful. The word “Christian” has a bad rap these days and I don’t think it has a bad rap primarily because of a secular media or because people hate Christians. I think it has a bad rap because too many people, in the name of Christ, speak judgmental and bigoted words. And people think that because some very vocal people are out there saying things that are judgmental and bigoted that that is what it means to be a Christian. What would it take for the world, when hearing the word “Christian” to think: God is merciful to everybody? What would it take for the world, when hearing the word Christian, to think: “see how those Christians love one another?”  What would it take for us to realize that we are all utterly dependent on God’s mercy, every one of us, one day at a time—and then to live on that grace moment-by-moment, trusting that God’s mercy makes full and abundant life possible. I submit to you that we’d be on our way to living our mission to participate in transforming a world that often feels cynical and caustic and unbearable into a new creation that is more meaningful, more hopeful, and more loving?  

God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that [God] may be merciful to all. At the end of the second section of Romans, Paul concludes that to be human is to be imprisoned in disobedience. We are a stiff-necked people: we Christians, Jews, Muslims, secular-atheists. All of us.
And still, God is merciful to all: most gracious, most merciful.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Telling What We See, From Where We Are

I have been re-reading some essays written by Flannery O'Connor in a collection entitled Mystery and Manners, and paying especially close attention to "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," "The Church and the Fiction Writer," "Novelist and Believer," "Catholic Novelists and Their Readers," and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South."

She was really something else! Here are a few of the gems I am continuing to chew on:
I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery. 
Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. it's not a grand enough job for you.
The Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. 
If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be more of a Manichean than the Church permits. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms: the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former , while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him.
If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly, and his sense of mystery, and acceptance of it, will be increased...if the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. 
All of these essays are, I think, good advice to preachers.O'Connor had no tolerance for pious platitudes in fiction; I suspect she would have said the same about preaching. Too much preaching in our day is Manichean as well. Preaching is not identical to storytelling, but they are close cousins. And at least as much as storytellers, preachers need a healthy respect for mystery. At its best, preaching also is about a willingness to "get dusty" as we learn to tell what we see, from where we are. That is what I think that old word "testimony" means: to reveal God's mysteries by describing as truthfully as we can what we see, from where we are.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Good piece by M. Volf in The Christian Century

All due respect | The Christian Century

This past Sunday, I preached a  sermon on Romans 10 in which I quoted the late Krister Stendahl, who talked about cultivating "holy envy" in interfaith conversations. I said that we aren't all the same, but we have something to learn even from those with whom we disagree. In the piece I just read in The Christian Century, Volf says we are called to "honor everyone" and reminds us that honor isn't merely not demeaning, or tolerating...but something more than that. I agree. As we prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, these thoughts are occupying my head and my heart.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Power of Prayer

Recently, my job as a parish priest required that I preside at the funeral of a twelve-year old boy who died very unexpectedly. I have been ordained for twenty-three years, but no amount of experience makes such a task any easier.

On the heels of that tragedy, my job as a parent required that I walk through the process of a difficult surgery with my younger son. Of course he did the difficult surgery, not me. But waiting and letting go, trusting God (and a surgeon) is it's own difficult work. We waited and we prayed. (He has done exceptionally well.)

In both cases, I felt upheld by a tremendous amount of prayer. It was palpable. I got emails and calls before the funeral from other parishioners and other clerics who said they would be praying for me as we walked through those days leading up to and including the funeral that stunned our community. The same was true as friends, parishioners, family, colleagues and monks all prayed for James and his family through his recent ordeal.

I grew up in the Church. Prayer has been as natural to me as breathing for my whole life; as a young child I was taught to just talk with Jesus like you were talking with a friend. My prayer has evolved, and hopefully deepened, as I have matured in faith but at some level it still remains true for me that when I feel "weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care..." that I can take that "to the Lord in prayer."

I cannot imagine going through either of these things without it. From the outside, the cynic might expect that prayer is magic - or a kind of spell; that real prayer would prevent the death of a child or make surgery unnecessary. If there's not a "cure" then we might say that prayer didn't work. In fact, people of faith are not immune from this same kind of thinking. To greater and lesser extents we sometimes assume that if things go wrong, the prayer must not have been answered.

I can't "prove" much about the past few weeks. All I can do is offer testimony to what I have seen and heard and experienced. I don't believe I am a strong enough person to have walked through these two experiences without the prayers of so many. It's not theoretical: over these past few weeks it has been the power of prayer that has sustained, healed, and strengthened not only me but my family and the family of that young boy, too. It "renews our strength" - even if it doesn't always feel like we can "mount up with wings like eagles." (See Isaiah 40:31)

Some will ask why God doesn't just prevent bad things from happening in this world, especially to good people. I will continue to ask that question myself, because our faith demands it, as we confront the mystery of innocent suffering in this world. Like Job, I don't really expect an answer: just an assurance that God will be God through it all, and that prayer will get us through. I know that it does.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


So I recently came across this little video, posted on a Facebook friend's page.

Several other friends, in contrast, posted a graph on their pages: (Sorry, I can't seem to figure out how to embed the chart here, so you must click here to see it.)

Now I was an English major in college and my work as pastor means that I interpret texts on a regular basis. I'm fully aware of the fact that two people can read a poem, or the U.S. Constitution, or a text from Holy Scripture and that we literally bring ourselves to the text, and therefore the text will generate different readings, sometimes even readings that seem at odds with one another. But in such work at least both parties are trying to read the same text.

But here we have competing texts, or perhaps we should say competing ideologies that use one set of facts to make their "obvious" point. I fully realize that both of these FB posts may be factually accurate. But each "forces" such clear conclusions that it seems to me that if we could suspend our ideology, and we trusted that the "facts" from the Jack Daniels video were accurate, most reasonable people would conclude that a little "trimming" of the excess can't be so bad. Even "liberals" are led by the information to believe that what we are talking about here is "small potatoes."  In contrast, one would think that even the most staunch fiscal conservative would have to admit, if they accept the "facts" of the graph, that Democratic presidents have been more fiscally responsible than Republican ones over the past thirty years or so.

But how does the average person know which facts to trust? I consider myself to be a reasonably well-educated and informed person, but I don't know the answer to that question. But what happens, I think, is that we self-generate alternative narratives within alternative "bubbles." Maybe these two pictures aren't even the best examples of what I'm trying to say here, but they both came across on my Facebook page--literally bumping up against each other. And while some people love a good Facebook fight what I noticed is that the comments on each post were very positive, from like-minded folks who said, "see, of course...why can't other people be so reasonable as to see this? Thank you for clearing things up!"

I suspect, however, that depending on where we begin that most people reading this will have to find fault with one or the other of the images. Our preferences dictate which set of "facts" we choose to listen to, which set of "facts" form our beliefs.

I believe that taxes are necessary and in an economy that is generating tremendous wealth, the wealthiest OUGHT to be paying more. I am against government waste. I think the system is broken and corrupted by special interests but I'm aware that I only label it a "special interest" when it's on the other side from what I hope to see accomplished. If it's pro-union, pro-education, pro-healthcare...I tend to see that as "making our voices heard in Washington." I still really like President Obama. All of these predispositions make me assume, in my gut, that the graph is more "true" than the Jack Daniels video. But if I'm really honest about it, I have to confess that I don't know whether either source is trustworthy. That they may both be true, or neither may be true (or so small a part of the truth as to be insignificant) or that one may be true and the other false.

It's been said that we are all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. The problem as I see it, though, when talking about complex issues like the American economy (not to mention the interconnected global economy) is that we cannot agree on the facts. So it all becomes spin. It all becomes ideology. And we lose the capacity when that happens to have informed, reasonable conversations where our minds might be changed, or our views might be stretched. The problem with "simple" charts to define complex issues seems obvious. The way forward, however, is not nearly as clear to me.