Thursday, July 31, 2014

Limping Through Life

When I accepted Bishop Doug Fisher's offer to join his staff in June 2013, I told friends and family it would mean, among other things, that I'd have more Sundays "off" than I had as a parish priest. As it turned out, however, my first year was booked pretty solid, with very few weeks off. No complaints - it's been quite fun and as readers of this blog who have followed me in my journeys know, I've gotten to see a lot of different congregations in Worcester County. But it meant that with just one exception (I'll be at All Saints in Worcester on August 17) I made a decision not to accept invitations to preach and do supply this July and August. I'll be back at it again in September, but the break has been a nice change of pace and given me a chance to "step back" from that normal preaching rhythm. 

So I'm off this week, too. But I went back to see what I've done before with the texts for this weekend - this eighth Sunday after Pentecost. Sermons have a context - and this sermon was preached nine years ago at St. Francis Church, in Holden! I've left it mostly as I've found it, however, with only some slight edits - and I guess if I was preaching this weekend on this text I'd still say something like this today. 

I should also add that I chose to extend the Old Testament reading that day to include Genesis 33:1-33 because I wanted to suggest that this very human encounter needs to be considered alongside Jacob's divine encounter at the Jabbok. The problem is that the lectionary will skip right over it and move on to chapter 37 next week, which is very unfortunate. So the "text" here is Genesis 32:22 - 33:11. 

*     *     *

While I’ve been on vacation, the Genesis narrative has continued to unfold. For those of you who, like me, may not have been here for a couple of weeks, this in a nutshell is what we have been told about Jacob:
  • The narrator has told us that Jacob was ambitious from the day of his birth—that he was a “heel-grabber” who finally tricks his dying father into blessing him. That, of course, comes at the expense of his brother Esau;
  • Immediately upon so doing, he runs for his life to his mother’s brother’s house, that is, to Uncle Laban's;
  • There Jacob meets his match; the “trickster” is tricked into fourteen years of labor to marry Laban’s two daughters - the younger one whom he wanted to marry and the elder one, Leah, whom he didn’t really bargain for.
We picked up the narrative today as Jacob is heading back home after these many years away. He is accompanied by his two wives, two mistresses, and a ton of kids—eleven to be precise. And yet, as he crosses the Jabbok River, he is all alone.

Think about that a moment. It suggests (to me at least) that no matter how big a family we come from, when we face our past and when we try to work out family-of-origin issues we can be supported by others but ultimately it is “our” work. A therapist or pastor or twelve-step program or a spouse can help us identify the issues—can support us in the struggle—but in the end they cannot do that work for us. There is some aspect of all of us that belongs to God alone.

While on vacation I read an extraordinary novel, The Kite Runner. It’s a sad and at times disturbing read that may not be for everyone. But I really loved it. The narrator, an Afghani living in San Francisco, reminds me in some ways of how I imagine Jacob. The crux of the story is a return home to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where he must confront his past—a past that cannot be changed, but that can be redeemed. That is all we can ever do with our past: we can’t change it. We can only confront it, and with God’s help pray for it to be redeemed and healed until new life is possible. That requires courage and risk and trust. This is the work of faith lived one day at a time. 

Yet it may be that it is in precisely such moments, when we feel that we are most alone, that God meets us where we are. Or more accurately, it is in such moments that we become more deeply aware of God’s presence in our lives.

What happens on the banks of the Jabbok River is that Jacob has a divine encounter, which is immediately followed by a very human encounter with his estranged brother, Esau. (See Genesis 33:1-11.) This divine encounter leaves Jacob with a limp; the human one is characterized by an embrace. I want to suggest the two are connected: that divine encounters change us and demand of us that we chose to live otherwise, as people who are open to the possibility of healing and reconciliation.

Notice first, that this divine encounter is characterized by wrestling; that it leaves Jacob with a new name and walking with a limp. Most of us I suspect prefer our divine encounters to be tame and calming—to leave us with a sense of peace. I think of that “still small voice” that comes to the prophet Elijah, for example. The Spirit can and does work that way, to be sure and Episcopalians love it when that happens. But far more numerous in the Bible are divine encounters that can leave us stunned, and even wounded.
  • I think of Moses stuttering at the burning bush; 
  • I think of Isaiah of Jerusalem with a hot coal burning his unclean lips;
  • I think of Jeremiah, accusing God of having “ravished” him;
  • I think of St. Paul knocked off his feet and blinded on the  Damascus Road;
  • I think of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane;
  • I think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost like a mighty wind, and like tongues of fire—disrupting old patterns and breaking down walls.
My experience of the living God—the God of the Bible—is that more often that God challenges us, or if you prefer to say it this way, “pushes us out of our comfort zones.” Wrestling with God becomes a vital metaphor for the way that Jews, and later Christians, are called to relate to God. It’s not an easy relationship! But it means, I think, that to experience the living God, the God of Israel and Father of our Lord, is to experience something like wrestling that may well leave us walking with a limp rather than feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Encounters with God change us, and then they call upon us to live differently. Tracy Chapman has a new song out I heard for the first time this week - the words are printed on your bulletin today. It begins and ends the same way:
                        If you knew that you would die today,
                        If you saw the face of God and Love,
                        Would you change? Would you change?

Now that said, let’s be honest - in the human encounter that follows this divine one, it is Esau who really initiates the act of reconciliation here. And we know nothing about what his faith life has been like over the past fourteen years or so. Jacob gets up the next day and continues to journey home and it is Esau who runs toward him. It is the wronged brother who makes the first move. Nevertheless, Jacob is open to that possibility, knowing that with God all things are possible—including new life. Without that openness, change is not possible.

I’ve talked in the past about an amazing book called Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation written by Miraslov Volf, a native Croatian who teaches at Yale Divinity School. He says that an embrace, which is a symbolic act of reconciliation, is a four-part drama. All of the “steps” are required and each needs to be mirrored by a response.*

            1. The opening of arms
2. Waiting.
            3. The closing of arms.
            4. Release.

It may appear to happen faster and more seamlessly than that, but anyone who has ever tried to hug a person who doesn’t want to be hugged (or who is being hugged by someone you would prefer not to hug back) understands this drama of embrace and the fact that these steps are always present and must be mirrored. Always an authentic embrace is an invitation that cannot be coerced, and at any point the “drama” can break down. When it works, and only then, does it function as a kind of sacrament for healing and reconciliation—an “outward and visible sign” of something that has happened within. It can only happen when both parties are ready, because reconciliation and intimacy can’t be forced.

Anyway, that is what happens between these two brothers. It brings to mind the New Testament story told by Jesus, of that father who is soft on sin, running out to embrace his “prodigal” son even before the kid can get through his well-rehearsed apology.

In general, my style of preaching is that I tend to tell the story and leave it for people to make their own connections. I don’t usually finish with “and this is what it means for our lives.” That is because I think that our lives are so rich, and our lives so complicated. Where are each of us this week in our journeys: are we Esau or Jacob or maybe Rachel or Leah? What you need to take away from the story this week might be quite different from what someone else needs to hear. So I trust the Spirit to guide us, as we come to the story, to draw our own conclusions. I figure if the story is told in such a way that it can be heard in new ways, then you will in a sense each write your own sermon. At least that’s my goal…

But that said, it seems obvious to me that this story is our story in some larger sense, and that at least is worth highlighting. It is, in some sense, paradigmatic. Jacob gets a new name out of this: Israel. That is, he becomes a representative of the faith of Israel. As Christians we claim to be part of an extension of that same covenant, and so the metaphor fits for us, too. We have experienced God in and through the Cross—through the Passion of Jesus. That leaves us, too, “limping through life.” Everyone who has struggled at all with their faith knows what it is to wrestle with God. Anyone who has experienced loss knows what it means to grieve broken relationships. And anyone who, by the grace of God, has experienced the healing of an embrace that represents new life knows what it means to celebrate the resurrection.

This is, I believe, a gospel story. There is good news here for us. I hear in it a call for us to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ: Henri Nouwen would say “as wounded healers;” the Old Testament might say as people limping through life. Either way, our limps and our wounds may well be signs of our divine encounters. As we keep limping on, the challenge is to do so with open arms rather than as bitter people with clenched fists. It is to keep limping along with arms that keep the possibility of embrace always before us - whether we are at the giving or receiving end of such embraces. Our highest calling as Christians is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and to allow for the possibility of healing that shows the world why faith really does matter.

© The Rev. Rich Simpson, Holden, MA, July 31, 2005

 * The pertinent section here is on pages 140-147, entitled “The Drama of Embrace.” Volf writes: “for embrace to happen all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening of the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace; and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression, and paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement.” (pg. 141)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Forgiving Debts

"And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:7-17)

My last post was on a book far beyond my area of expertise - a reflection on Poor Economics. One memorable portion of that book is devoted to the topic of debt and what it does in the lives of the poor.If you are barely making it - and if what comes in each week is what goes out each week, you can survive even if you are cutting it extremely close. But if you have no safety-net for the surprises that life brings such as illness, or a period of unemployment, or a "natural" disaster, then sooner rather than later the bottom is likely to fall out from underneath you. The cycle that arises when one faces such catastrophes and then gets indebted is truly a vicious one. While the precariousness of the poor is the focus of Poor Economics, this challenge is nearly as stressful for people who find themselves burdened with college debt or an under-water mortgage or credit card debt as well.  As a person who has served in suburban middle-class contexts in my ministry, I have seen first-hand what financial debt does to families. As Dickens put it succinctly in David Copperfield: 
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.
Jesus talked a lot about money - way more than we ever do in church. He talked about real life, not just "spiritual" concerns. And money is a big part of our lives. He talked about abundance and generosity and he talked about how money can become an idol that seeks to take the place of God. But he also spoke a lot about debt. As a Jew, he surely had a deep awareness of Leviticus 25 - which is clearly referenced at the start of his ministry (along with the prophet Isaiah) in Luke 4:19.

In college I only took intro courses in macroeconomics and microeconomics. I was an English major who was blessed to have one teacher in particular who pushed us hard to read the text - and before coming up with wild metaphorical readings (as undergrads are wont to do!) to stay close to the text itself. That has stayed with me as a student of the Bible and as a preacher for these many years now. There are lots of metaphorical ways to talk about debt forgiveness, of Christ paying the "debt" for our sins and all the rest. But before it is a metaphor, it behooves us to linger on real, literal debt for a while. Otherwise the metaphor floats in mid-air.

What does crippling debt - real debt, financial debt, money problems - what does this do to people's lives day in and day out? If you are living on $1.00 a day and then your child gets sick, what happens to your hopes and dreams and aspirations over the course of a year as you struggle to find a way to pay for even the most basic medicines? And since the third-world feels far away to many of us - what happens when you graduate from college with $100,000 in debt and can't find a job, so you end up asking the grocery store that hired you in high school if you can bag groceries for a while? How long can that be sustained? What happens when your mortgage goes underwater, or your credit card debt is beyond the point of no return?

I confess that I don't live with any of these worries. My immediate family has been blessed - so far - to be able to live within our means and even save a little for our future and share a little in the present. Debt is not a consuming worry in my life. But I know people, not only halfway around the world but in my neighborhood and workplace for whom it is.

What would it look like for us to be a more debt-forgiving people? And then, after practicing a while with money, to move on to other kinds of forgiveness as well?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summer Reading: Poor Economics

Over the past year in my diocesan ministry, with more time in a car than I ever had before, my "reading" has often become listening. That is, I've gotten into audio books. So I'm "reading" more than ever, but it's a different experience. Most recently I finished a nine-disk book -  Chaim Potok's The Chosen and before that it was Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe. 

Summertime, however, means turning paper pages again. The book I have just finished reading is Poor Economics, by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  Barerjee and Duflo are the co-founders of J-PAL, I was encouraged to read it by my son (who works for J-PAL) and I worried that it would be over my head - but in truth I found it very compelling. At the heart of J-PAL's mission is to use "randomized evaluations to answer critical policy questions in the fight against poverty."

The way a pastoral theologian like me would say this is that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." This aphorism (not found in the Bible, by the way) has two meanings. Perhaps the more normative meaning is that we intend to do something good but fail to act - because we procrastinate, or don't have the will because it's too hard. So we intend to get to the gym more but then other things fill our life and we don't...and it shows.

But there is a second, more nuanced meaning that I find compelling as I get older - and that is that the actions we do take, with all the best intentions, very often have unintended (and negative) consequences. We see this at every level of society. Parents, for example, who grew up with next to nothing want their children to have the opportunities they never had. Such an intention is holy and good - and yet sometimes the actions taken toward that goal end up producing self-centered, materialistic children who feel entitled.

The same can happen with churches and NGOs that want to "help" the poor - but very often with less than rigorous knowledge of (or even exploration of) the root causes of poverty and of any hope of measuring the real impact of our actions.

In 2000, my denomination adopted the Millennium Development Goals to "reduce, by the year 2015, the number of people who live in extreme poverty."  The goals are noble ones that include things like eradicating extreme hunger and empowering women and combating preventable diseases. A lot of the underlying assumptions are based on the work of Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote a book focused on ending poverty in our time.  One program that Episcopal Relief and Development got behind in trying to live into the MDGs was to buy mosquito netting for African children.

So back to the book I just read. It's important to say that Banerjee and Duflo are committed to the same end results: the subtitle of Poor Economics is "rethinking poverty and the ways to end it." They are development economists, not laisse-faire capitalists! Their goal, like that of Sachs et al, is to end poverty. But the key word there is re-thinking. They are committed to the evidence. So building schools for girls sounds noble, but what if you build the school and then find that girls don't attend it? Or what if you build the schools but don't have any teachers, or the ones you have aren't qualified? Or you haven't figured out what the curriculum should be: do you teach to the top 10% or find a curriculum that gives everyone basic skills for life? Or if fathers will not allow their daughters to attend the schools you build? How do you get at these underlying issues? Sometimes it's easier just to keep building schools...

Giving out mosquito nets to prevent malaria or condoms to prevent the spread of AIDs  is a great idea , but if people don't use them, then they don't help. It is not our intentions that matter!  The road to hell is sometimes paved with those! It is what actually happens that matters.

This book is not everyone's cup of tea. But in a world where ideology (on both the right and on the left) often trumps (or skews) the evidence, it seems to me that the work that these folks are involved in has implications much larger than in the field of economics! Their commitment is to finding what works and trying to figure out why.  They tend to avoid large, grand theories and instead focus on context: why did this work here, but not there? This requires patience and a willingness to sometimes be wrong...

I find myself wondering what would happen if congregations were willing to operate in these ways -  not of looking for some magic bullet but of trying new things and then asking, what happened? What did we learn? What worked and what didn't work? How can we test this again? What does the evidence suggest and where does it lead us next? This, it seems to me, is not only a strategy for re-thinking poverty but of living life.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - What Next?

The resource I used for the past fifty days to guide my reading of Matthew was published by the group called The Bible Challenge. If you click on that link - it will take you to a website that offers resources for reading the entire Bible in one year, with daily meditations along the way in that journey.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 50

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." (T.S. Eliot) 

And so our journey with Matthew comes to an end. But it really is a never-ending story, isn't it? In the end is our beginning - "Go! Go and make disciples and teach them everything that I have commanded you. And remember I am with you, always." Ah yes, still Emmanuel.

Teach them everything. Not that "they better accept me as their personal Lord and Savior or else they'll end up in hell." Baptize. Teach. Remember. 

One can be a theist without a community of faith, but one cannot be a follower of Jesus without being part of a community - even a very small one of two or three that gather together. The Church is a fragile and imperfect institution to be sure - trust me I have a close-up view! But disciples of Jesus Christ are not forced to choose between being spiritual OR religious. With God's help, we are working on both.

Baptism is not a private matter. Thanks be to God that the liturgical folks who put together the 1979 Book of Common Prayer insisted that we stop baptizing on Saturday afternoons for the convenience of the family and return the Sacrament to the gathered assembly, where promises are made and with God's help even kept. Thanks be to God for those who live those promises by agreeing to teach Sunday School, so that those who have been given inquiring and discerning hearts may grow into the full stature of Christ. Thanks be to God for our sacramental life together where the bread is broken and shared. Jesus is in the bread business. So are we.

Baptize. Teach. Remember. 

Most of this journey has been pretty one-sided - I have felt that there are companions with me but you've mostly been pretty quiet. If you have traveled with me, however, I'd appreciate hearing what you have seen and heard - and most importantly how you've been changed. I am told it's hard for those who don't have a degree in computer science to leave comments on this blog. Feel free to send me an email then or a private Facebook message - or an old-fashioned letter. I'd love to hear what this has been like for you and maybe sometime before the summer is out I can share some of that feedback (anonymously) in a blog post. 

I was asked recently what this has been like for me. I told the person that reading, marking, and inwardly digesting Scripture is a natural part of my lived-faith and a joy. I am more used to the Daily Office and at times I've lived with a particular text -maybe just a few verses - for weeks and even longer in my prayers. I'm listening to Chaim Potok's The Chosen during my commute these days and there is a line in there about the study of Talmud that talks about breadth and depth. We need both. Our journey has been, from my perspective, at a pretty good pace - we've covered the breadth of Matthew's Gospel, from beginning to end. But it has made it harder at this pace to linger for a while over a verse, or image - to go deeper. I've been reminded that when we travel together we keep moving but as this time comes to an end it might be worth taking some time on a particular issue or question raised for you along the way, and to linger a while longer on a much smaller piece of Scripture. 

What has been more challenging to me than the reading, of course, has been the discipline and commitment to write something every day. That, I think, is where my own growth has come. It's been like making a commitment to get to the gym every day: the payoff is there but it's easier said than done. Some days I've felt like I had nothing yet to say - that it had not yet ripened. But I "had to" say something. So that's been interesting; my normal rhythm of reading Scripture and writing on it is with a weekly sermon - not a daily meditation. 

Like a lot of journeys, I'm sad to see it come to an end. The journey itself, however, has been the thing - more than the destination. As was often the case, Eliot was right about this too: we shall not cease from exploration. In this end, is our new beginning: Go! Baptize. Teach. Remember. 

Blessings on the Way. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 49

Last week, I read the following post on the Facebook page of a pastor whom I consider to be a friend, not just a "Facebook friend:"
So excited that there is a stirring at ___ Church for the Bible right now. Not for some systematic, denominational way of thinking, but for a fresh outpouring of the truths of God into the lives of those reading it, then being expressed into their lives...the Bible is alive! (emph. mine
These words really stung me - even if (and maybe especially since) they were not exactly directed at me, a fellow traveler and colleague committed to ecumenism but nevertheless pretty enmeshed in a particular denomination. I have a good relationship with the writer and I think he respects me personally. I also don't think he'd ever say anything like this to me personally. But he was clearly addressing people in that post who share his bias against "denominational" Christianity. I just happened to "overhear it."

Or something like that.

We don't build up the body of Christ by tearing others down, but by raising each other up into the full status of Christ. The late, great Krister Stendahl once spoke about a way to deepen ecumenical relationships - with what he called "holy envy." It is the opposite of finding what it is you don't like about someone else's faith, and instead naming what it is you admire and honor in their way of claiming and living their faith. What strength/gift do they possess that you wish you had? It's not always easy, but it is something I aspire to.

I share these thoughts here (on this our second-to-last day of our journey) not to defend denominationalism nor to criticize my friend's post, but because we have come once more to the cross. And whether or not we want to admit it to ourselves, whether our own theology of the cross is denominational or otherwise, there is no escaping the notion that none of us come to the cross without some preconceived notions. Did Jesus die for my sins? For the sins of the whole world? Did he die as a non-violent response to the corrupt and unjust powers of this world? Did he "trick" the devil? Or is the whole theology of the cross the end result of a hopelessly sadistic patriarchy in which "the father" demands the innocent blood of  the son to atone for the sins of others?

Matthew does not care much about our various theologies of the atonement or our personal pieties  - systematic, denominational, or otherwise. He tells us what happened, as it had been told to him.

And yet he, too, tells it "from a slant." Because there is no other way. None of us has an "objective" or innocent view of the cross. All of us witnesses see it from a particular angle: from a time and place shaped not just by what happened on that "hill far away" but on what has happened to us in our own journeys. What I mean is that you literally see it differently if you are the Roman centurion or one of those women watching from a distance - or if you see it from the perspective of Matthew, or Luke, or Mark, or John. Always we enter this Passion of Christ from a perspective. None of us is objective as we gather at the foot of the cross. Our particular stories intersect with this Story and it matters what it is we need to be saved from (or to) in terms of what we are able to see and not see. Eventually this journey (not just with Matthew, but in Christ) leads us all to the foot of the cross, where all of our righteousness is as filthy rags - and all of our biases and certitudes are challenged.

So may it lead us all - the systematic and the chaotic, those proud to be part of denominations and those who shun "middle names" - to a fresh outpouring of God's truth. Not only on our lips, but in our lives!

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 48

Even as a child, I have always been intrigued by Simon of Cyrene. Jesus has been telling his disciples to "take up your cross and follow him." Fair enough. That message is clear. But what happens when we are asked to take up someone else's cross and walk with them a while, as Simon is?

What happens to us when we stumble across the suffering of someone - and we cannot change the situation? All we can only step up to the plate and do what needs to be done.

Such moments change us forever. And I imagine this Friday changed Simon. What did he tell his family that night at dinner about his day? What did he tell his grandchildren forty years later?

Here is an interesting post in the most recent on-line version of The Christian Century by Craig Barnes, entitled, "I Don't Feel Your Pain." It raises questions about the differences between empathy, and sympathy, and compassion. It raises questions about how we can be present to the suffering of another - but in truth we cannot get inside of their pain. I wonder if this isn't relevant to Simon's experience. This is not his cross to bear, and he cannot know or feel what Jesus feels as they make their way to Golgatha. What he can do is walk part of the journey with Jesus. Maybe that is all we can ever really do for a fellow traveler who is suffering.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 47

Read Matthew 27:1-23.

All four gospels cut Pontius Pilate a lot of slack. The angry mob and the religious leadership get blamed while Pilate, in contrast, is presented as (at best) a political coward.

Most of the Biblical historians, however, would tell us that Pilate was in fact quite calculating and the master of manipulation. That he is more likely pulling the strings here to rev up that crowd and make Jesus the scapegoat. And the gospel writers know this - but they write at a time when it is difficult if not impossible for them to overtly criticize the Roman authorities.So they have to write "from a slant." They have to write with a wink and a nod...

The challenge, for us, is that we have no more access to the historical Pilate than we do to the historical Jesus - what we get is the Pilate whom Matthew presents in this particular gospel. It doesn't mean these other questions don't matter; they absolutely do. But they are, at best, a matter of conjecture and best guesses and we need more and more humility as we get further and further from the text itself. (We can use a good dose of humility with the text too, of course!)

The text as we receive it seems to raise, at the very least, the question of political courage - or more accurately the lack thereof. Unfortunately, most political systems - even democratic ones - are built around the human desire to gain and keep power and authority. Pilate likes being governor. What is in it for him if he grants clemency to this troublemaker from Galilee? Nothing! And so, as we'll see tomorrow when we turn read a few verses further along, Pilate famously "washes his hands of this whole mess."

I can be as cynical as the next person about politicians. Yet I still believe that politics - the art of governing - can be a noble vocation and ministry. Pilate is presented as the anti-hero of what political courage looks like. Whether he creates the mob, or gives in to it are in the end, is a matter of semantics. Whether he has sinned by commission or omission, he has the power to do the right thing, and chooses not to.

And so an innocent man dies, and a guilty one goes free. I invite you to check out this page on the ACLU website on the case against the death penalty and ask yourself, judged by this same standard, how we are doing as a nation? And whether it might be (past) time for Christians to make the case that the cost of even one mistake is too high a price to pay.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 46

Read Matthew 26:57-75.

In the Creed, the life that Jesus lived is not mentioned. Jesus is eternally begotten...and then "became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man." And then the next sentence - "For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried..." But not a word about who he was, what he taught, what he cared about and valued. The stories! The healings! Nada.

There is a poem familiar to some, perhaps, called Read the Dash. Our journey with Matthew so far has been about "reading the dash" of Jesus' life between his Birth-Death. But now we are transitioning into St. Matthew's Passion Narrative - which in many Episcopal congregations is read aloud each year on Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday in its entirety. These are characters familiar to us, characters we have perhaps even "played" at some point in our lives. Caiaphas the high priest.  Peter. The servant-girls who notice Peter's Galilean accent...and others who are soon to come in the days ahead.

It moves fast on Passion Sunday and covers a lot of ground. It almost feels like it happens in real time as things come to a head, like our twenty-four hour news cycle. In this journey I've sometimes felt like there is too much to absorb each day - that if I were writing this journey maybe I'd make it a ninety-day journey. But as we reach the Passion it feels like we are hearing it now in more manageable segments than we usually take on. Today we get the response of the religious leaders to Jesus - indignation. Everything has come to a head and they feel this man is a blasphemer. Across the centuries and religious lines there is nothing like the ire of religious people who are certain God is on their side.

And we get the reaction of Peter - who has been there for the whole "dash" - but who now, when the chips are down, allows fear to  trump his courage. At least for now. I do not know the man. I do not know the man. I do not know the man.

There is a line that comes from the prayer at the eighth station in liturgy for "The Way of the Cross" that begins, "Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them..." For me the text before us today gives us a framework for doing just that, for the Church is sometimes guilty of claiming to know too much - too much certitude, too much anger when the prophets in our midst challenge our certitudes. As that old Good Friday hymn asks, "who crucified thee?" And then responds, "I crucified thee..."  We are, sometimes, like those who spit upon Jesus, in the name of God.

And on the other end of that same religious spectrum (and maybe just as prevalent and perhaps more common among the religious folks I tend to hang with most often) a failure of nerve, like Peter. A failure to commend the faith that is in us, of denying the Christ when the the going gets tough.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 45

The Garden of Gethsemane, Photo by Rich Simpson, 2010

"My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Has there ever been a more poignant prayer than this one? In Luke's telling of the temptation by Satan in the wilderness, he concludes after Jesus successfully resists three temptations that the Tempter left Jesus "until an opportune time." Matthew does not have that phrase, but it seems that if he did, this is as opportune a time as it gets. The disciples are exhausted - too exhausted to keep their eyes open, even. Jesus is beginning to feel grieved and agitated.

In my own experience, this is when I am most susceptible to ego needs - when I'm feeling "grieved and agitated." So if we agree with the claims of Chalcedon and the full humanity of Jesus, then the temptation expressed in this prayer must have been a real one for him. 

Years ago I went to see the film, The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese. There was a lot of hoopla around the film and a lot of protests coming from Roman Catholic and evangelical circles at the time. But I went to see the film and personally found it to be very orthodox - the controversial scenes are clearly presented as a temptation which Jesus clearly rejects. As per usual, the focus at the time was on the sex scenes - but the real temptation was not sex but a "normal" life with Mary Magdalene. (I should point out that I saw this film in the theater in 1988 and have not seen it since then; so I'm relying here on a 26 year old memory. I did read Nikos Kazantzakis' book upon which the screenplay was based, shortly after and it was even better, as I recall - and also I might be mixing up what was in the film and what was in the book!)

But the point is that behind this prayer, maybe first and foremost, is this final temptation which at some level had to have been something like "why can't I just go back to Nazareth and get married and raise a family and make a modest living as a carpenter?" Why this?

...not my will, but thine be done. A hard prayer to pray, but the one that never fails. Our temptations will not be the same as Jesus's. At best we are working toward full humanity, without the challenges of full divinity. We are working toward being, not Jesus, but the unique person God has created us to be.  And one modern paraphrase from John Wesley's Covenant Renewal Service put it, God has given us many tasks to do...
...some are more easy and honorable, others more difficult and menial. Some are suitable to our inclinations and interest, others are contrary to both.
While our calling may not be to die on a cross, we have heard Jesus say again and again on this journey that to follow him we need to take up our own cross. Some moments in our own journeys will bring us to our own gardens where the thing that lies ahead is difficult. It is such moments that truly test our commitment to the resurrection and our trust in God.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 44

While there is a lot going on here, at the heart of it is the conversion of a tradition to something new - a Passover Seder becomes a Last Supper, which eventually becomes The Great Thanksgiving that is at the heart of our life in Christ: "Take, eat, this is my Body...drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." 

There is room for confusion here, to be sure. The early Christians were accused of cannibalism because of this language - and I had a parishioner once who, late in her life, stopped receiving the sacrament for this very reason. She said, "we keep saying these words and I don't think we mean them symbolically and I don't believe them literally." So she continued to feast on the Word, but did not come to receive the body and blood anymore, and received a blessing instead. 

For my own part, the older I get the more I mean it- and need it. I love good preaching, but that is sometimes hard to find. The Sacrament, however, never disappoints.So I love this vignette from the great Catholic writer, Flannery O'Connor: 
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater.  (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life).  She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual.  We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say.  The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. 
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.’  That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
And this, from St. Augustine:  
You, however, are the Body of Christ and His members. If, therefore, you are the Body of Christ and and, His members, your mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you receive your mystery. To that which you are, you answer, "Amen," and by answering, you subscribe to it. For you hear: 'The Body of Christ!' and you answer: 'Amen!' Be a member of Christ's Body, so that your 'Amen' may be the truth.
Behold what you are. May we become what we receive. Taste and see...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 43

Read Matthew 26:1-16

Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem - located on what we call the West Bank. When I traveled in the land of the Holy One I learned to pay better attention to geography. So a reminder: on this journey with Matthew, we arrived in  Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, to Jerusalem, eleven days ago. (See Matthew 21.) Since then Jesus has been in Jerusalem, in conflict with the temple authorities day after day, teaching and being challenged by the powers-that-be.

So today's story takes us to Bethany. It is a story is told in all four gospels, but as we know they don't always agree on all the details. Matthew (and Mark) tell us that Jesus is at the home of Simon the leper.  Luke says it was the home of a Pharisee. John reminds us it's Lazarus' hometown and that his sisters are there for a dinner in Jesus' honor - but he isn't clear on where "there" is. In his story it's Mary who does this - in Luke's story the woman is identified as having lived a "sinful life." But in Matthew (as well as Mark and John) there is no such implication.

What is clear here, however, is that some of the men think this is a waste. And they challenge her - and by extension Jesus, who claims it for what it is: a beautiful, holy, intimate gesture of love.It is extravagant.

What do you make of extravagant gestures? Do they make you uncomfortable, or make your heart glad? The fatted calf killed for a lost son - veal piccata for everyone! Water turned into wine at Cana - and not just any wine but a vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild! Or a woman - saint or sinner - taking an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, who anoints Jesus and prepares his body for burial.

In my experience the Church , particularly in New England  is uncomfortable with extravagance. It's in our Puritan water! And yet this doesn't always extend to life outside of the Church. People will splurge on dream vacations and spas, fancy restaurants, expensive colleges. Now I'm not criticizing any of these things, except to observe that sometimes these very same folks will say, when the Church has an opportunity to improve its music program, or its worship space, or the rectory - that we don't want to get too carried away here. There is a great old story told by Garrison Keillor about Pastor Ingqvist's Trip to Orlando, FL - and how (as his Roman Catholic colleague puts it) he got "snookered out of it" by someone who suggested the money ought to go to the poor.

The Church needs to be about mission, and justice, and even about charity. And sometimes the Church needs to learn that an extravagant gesture of love is not in conflict with those commitments.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 42

Read Matthew 25:31-46.

The theologian and pastor, Karl Barth, is said to have counseled preachers to prepare for their work by having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other: preaching is what happens, he said, in making the connections where the Word of God meets the challenges and joys of a particular place and time.

Wondering if he ever really said this and having the internet at my disposal, I found this:
Der Pfarrer und die Gläubigen sollten sich nicht einbilden, dass sie eine religiöse Gesellschaft sind, die sich um bestimmte Themen herum dreht, sondern sie leben in der Welt. Wir brauchen doch - nach meiner alten Formulierung - die Bibel und die Zeitung. ["The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper."]
So, with that as preface, I want to point you to two links. First, from The New York Times, the last piece in a series called "The Great Divide" - "Inequality is Not Inevitable."  And then this from The New Republic, by Jonathan Cohn - "How the Poor Are Really Doing."

It is hard for me to read these verses about the judgment of the nations (and it is nations notice, not individuals) without daring to ask the question, "how are we doing?" And the answer is, not so well. The demagogues can wave their flags, but people of faith - both on the right and on the left - need to see with eyes that see what is really happening in our nation. The Church is called to more than charity. If a whole village is without water, we must dare to ask how we might provide a well and then to go further and ask what are the obstacles in our way? If we are incarcerating more people than anyone else in the world, we have to do more than visit those in prison; we need to ask questions about the system that put them there. If children are crossing over the border in Texas looking for new life, we need to demand that our politicians work on a solution that expresses our stated values of "welcoming the stranger."

I am blessed to be part of the Social Justice Commission in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Part of our work is to help Episcopalians (and others who want to listen in!) to find their voices in the public arena. Too many of us have been mistakenly taught a (false) piety that disconnects faith and action. We do charity pretty well in the Church, but we are called to do justice. So I commend this document to you, "Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives."

I've been sneaky today, and turned a blog post into three "homework assignments." But this stuff really matters. And I easily could have added a dozen more! We should not deceive ourselves. We are not "a religious society" as Barth puts it - he isn't saying we aren't a religious culture, he's saying the Church cannot segment itself off as it we were a gated community. We live in the world. And we are called to do so as "light" and as "yeast" and as "salt."

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 41

Read Matthew 25:14-30.

My New Testament professor in seminary used to urge us when we became preachers not to try to explain or resolve the parables which, as he put it, are meant to "tease and startle the imagination." Yet we take great stories and moralize them, or maybe worse theologize them - when they are meant to break open our thinking and transform our lives.

Yet even with this huge caveat, we sometimes need, from our socio-cultural-historical distance, some tools for unlocking the parables. Where modern people always get stuck on today's story of the talents is in feeling it's not fair: why didn't the owner divide the talents evenly? I have to say that every time I've taught the parable this comes up and I always feel like responding as parents do to their children: who ever said life was fair? Some people do have overflowing talents, high IQs, athletic ability, musical ability, trust funds - etc. Others start with a lot less. As in the parable it's not what you start with but what you do with it that counts.

Whatever else a talent may symbolize it was, first, money. And it helps to know that one talent is not a $100 bill. A talent is an extraordinary amount of money - a ridiculous amount of money. It's winning the lottery. The note in some Bibles says that one talent equals "fifteen years salary of a day laborer." Sometimes when I've taught this parable I give people a little math problem - to multiply their own annual salary by fifteen. That is one talent. For a person making $50,000 a year, that would be three-quarters of a million dollars. Two talents would be 1.5 million dollars, and five talents would be 3.75 million.

Now there are a couple of insights that grow out of doing this math problem. One is that it is still a human tendency to compare ourselves to others and wish we had more. Fifteen years wages as a free gift is nothing to sneeze at. But you know what we say, right? If we were handed "one talent" while our neighbor got two and the person across the street got five, we'd start to talk about how after the government takes it's share and you know, the cost of living being what it is, it's hardly anything at all, really. A mere pittance. In fear and anxiety (rather than enormous gratitude) we bury it, trying desperately to hold onto what we can for a rainy day.

Freud was right about at least one thing: we do project our illusions onto God. Now my seminary professor also warned us about the dangers of allegorizing parables, i.e. of turning the "master" in this or any parable into a stand-in for God. Fair enough. But is it not true, nevertheless, that where we see scarcity, we tend to see God as the third person in the story does - as a "harsh taskmaster." In contrast, when we know that God is the giver of all good gifts and we perceive generosity and count our many blessings, that unleashes gratitude in us and we are freed to live with courage and hope.We want to please the master, as it were.

Whether we are given much or little - how do we use it for the glory of God?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 40

Read Matthew 24:42 - 25:13.

At the beginning and end of today's portion of Matthew we hear the same admonition: keep awake! (24:42, 25:13.) This, on the heels of the comment I shared yesterday from Cynthia Briggs Kittredge about how eschatological literature invites us to "acute attention and renewed faithfulness." Our task as followers of Jesus is not to "crack the code" to try to figure out when the world as we know it will come to an end. Our work is to keep awake.

And yet, we have that extraordinary image of the disciples in Gethsemane - where Jesus needs them most - and they keep falling asleep. They could not keep watch for even an hour.

What do we do when we can't keep our eyes open - when we are feeling sleep deprived? Double down at Starbucks on a double espresso? A couple of Red Bulls? In my experience, this solution does not lead to "acute attention and renewed faithfulness." Paradoxically, it is good deep REM sleep that allows for wakefulness.

We are built to need rhythms of work and rest. Time and again, on spiritual retreat or on vacation I find myself needing to catch up on sleep - not even realizing how overtired I had become. Every now and again I come across an article that reports on how sleep deprived we are as a nation. I believe it. We keep going and going like energizer bunnies, until we collapse. Until we cannot keep our eyes open - and if our eyes are not open, we cannot see.

There is a prayer from "Compline," the last office of the day, which includes this petition: "...give rest to the weary..." (BCP 134)

I think we need to hold that prayer in tension with this admonition to "keep awake." That, paradoxically, it is in keeping the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy that we are able to be awake. Alertness comes as a gift to those who know how to rest, not from constant multitasking.

The key is to be awake when we are awake, and to let go and rest when we rest. Easier said than done, I know - especially for those who struggle with sleep issues. But finding that rhythm does seem to me to be the goal at least.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 39

It's debatable whether or not Alanis Morissette really understands the meaning of the word ironic. But it is surely ironic when preachers intent on "the end of the world" ignore the warnings of Jesus himself in the twenty-forth chapter of Matthew (especially in verses 23-24 and 36) and then go on to make predictions about the day and hour that the world will come to an end. One of those preachers was Hal Lindsay, who wrote The Late Great Planet Earth and who was certain that the end of the world was unfolding in the 1980s.

Well, it turns out that the rumors of the end of the world as we know it were greatly exaggerated. We are still here and for that matter, so too is Hal Lindsay, whom I saw on a cable program a year or so ago.

The thing is that every era faces socio-cultural shifts. Some things come to an end. Others are born. This is the nature of human history. There will always be wars and rumors of wars, at least until there is peace on earth and good will to all. This creates easy fodder for those who choose to focus on this part of Jesus' teaching.

In her comments on today's reading, from A Journey With Matthew, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge sums up a wise approach to texts like these for every generation: "Jesus' words undercut claims to interpretive certainty and direct us to acute attention and renewed faithfulness."

Acute attention to our lives and to the world around us. Renewed faithfulness to seek first God's kingdom and God's righteousness. That's good advice in every season of life on this fragile earth, our island home.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 38

Read Matthew 24:1-22.

For me the key to this eschatological teaching is in being able to see trials and tribulations as birth pangs. (24:8) I realize that as a man I'm on thin ice saying too much about the process of giving birth. But I've seen first-hand that it's painful. And that it leads to new and amazing life.

There is a difference between the suffering that leads to loss and the suffering that leads to new beginnings. Except that we believe that even death is about life changing, not ending. So even the end of a terminal illness and all the suffering that accompanies it is sometimes experienced as a release, as a letting go, as the death that leads to new life.

Endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings. You can't have one without the other. In big and small ways this bears out in our experience. Yet most of us resist endings and in turn miss out on new beginnings. We get stuck instead.

The historical events of 70 CE - the destruction of the Temple - must have been a very painful ending. Lots of trials and tribulations. Yet it gave way not only to the early Christian communities, but to new forms of rabbinic Judaism. The Wailing Wall remains as an icon of this transition. In our lives, in our congregations, nothing ever stays the same. To be static is to die. So how can we develop eyes to see that death and loss never gets the last word. That in every ending there is a new beginning.

One of my very favorite Advent hymns is  Signs of Endings All Around Us. I like it that it raises questions - rather than loudly proclaiming self-evident truths. It asks us to wonder, if in the midst of all the signs of endings that surround us, that they might be signs also of new beginnings. The first verse goes like this:
Signs of endings all around us / Darkness, death, and winter days / Shroud our lives in fear and sadness / Numbing mouths that long to praise. / Come, O Christ, and dwell among us! / Hear our cries, come set us free. / Give us hope and faith and gladness. / Show us what there yet can be.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 37

Read Matthew 23:23-39.

Throughout this journey I've pointed out times when Matthew's polemics can hinder our hearing of "good news" in these texts - and in particular when Christians read the text through the lens of Christian anti-Semitism. It's hard to lay this burden on Matthew himself; he is polemical at a time when Jews who believe Messiah has come and Jews still waiting for Messiah to come are in the midst of a family fight. Tracy Lind's comments in A Journey With Matthew express well this point I have been trying to make. As she points out, these harsh words (that the lectionary chooses to neglect) reveal something of the tensions that existed between Jesus' followers and other Jewish communities of the late first century.

Part of what I've tried to suggest (hardly original to me) is that we not see ourselves as the "good Christians" over and against the "bad scribes and Pharisees," but rather that we see this tendency to resist God's new thing as part of what those who see themselves upholding the tradition need to guard against. In other words, it isn't just first-century scribes and Pharisees who have a tendency to get the small things right but miss the larger, weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith. Lind makes this same interpretative move, seeing these words as "good warning to the church, the body of the Risen Christ. She writes:
If we are willing and able to follow Jesus' advice and take the log out of our own eye, then Matthew's condemnation of the scribes and the Pharisees can be a mirror for us. 
This move is always challenging, because it turns out that it's much easier to spot hypocrisy and judgmentalism in others than it is to look in the mirror and then confess our own sins. But when we dare to do just that, the possibility for real transformation is set before us, and the kingdom of heaven is very near.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 36

Whenever this text is read in public worship (as it will be in November) Episcopalians always hone in on the part about not calling anyone "father" on earth since you have only one heavenly Father.

Personally I'm not crazy about being called father although some Episcopalians (mostly former Roman Catholics) insist on it. Most people just call me "Rich," which is what I prefer. I'm snobbishly Anglican enough to insist that "the Reverend" is a modifier, not a title, even thought many fellow Protestants (mis)-use it: it's The Reverend Mr. or Ms. so and so, not Reverend John. But that's a losing battle...

Half of the clergy in my diocese are women. Some of them are called Mother, but many of them would rather not be given all the Freudian stuff it kicks up. My feeling is that we should avoid "Father" unless we are equally comfortable with "Mother." I think here the Protestants do get it right and I wish we could use the more gender-neutral "Pastor" for everyone. But in my experience women priests are more successful than male priests in the Episcopal Church at making this change. And the truth is that it doesn't really get one around the point here that Jesus is making other than in the most literal of ways: the ring of "Pastor says this..." and "Pastor says that..." is just as problematic as Father or Mother, in my view. So I'm just Rich - Canon Rich now for those who insist I need a title, which gets me right back into the same mess.

By any title, the issue raised here is the same. How do we balance - or maybe the better word is integrate - the work that the ordained are called to do with the primary calling that comes to us by name through Baptism? I find that as challenging as that was as a parish priest, over a long-term ministry it became easier for me. People got to know me for who I am. I've kind of hit "re-set" in my new role - and whether I like it or not when I walk into a room I'm not just "Rich" but "the Bishop's person."

Here is what I know. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I know clergy don't often feel very powerful, but every time we put a collar or our vestments on we represent something bigger than ourselves - and that can be dangerous on all sides. It's tempting to fall into the trap of feeling "above contradiction" - of pulling out the "I went to seminary did you?" card. It's tempting to feel entitled to the places of honor, such as they are, in the Church.

So there is a reason, on Maundy Thursday, that the introduction in The Book of Occasional Services,to the foot-washing says:
Fellow servants of our Lord Jesus Christ: On the night
before his death, Jesus set an example for his disciples by
washing their feet, an act of humble service. He taught that
strength and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God come
not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly
service. We all need to remember his example, but none
stand more in need of this reminder than those whom the
Lord has called to the ordained ministry.
(emphasis mine)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 35

Read Matthew 22:23-46.

And then read these verses from the Old Testament:  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18.

Jesus is still under cross-examination. It's been a long day already, and we are told that it's still the same day (22:23) and now the Sadducees are trying to trip him up on resurrection. After the Pharisees hear that he has silenced the Sadducees they come back at him to ask, "what is the greatest commandment?"

He responds by quoting from The Shema, and then from Leviticus. This is the correct old (Jewish) answer - not some new (Christian) teaching. Jesus may wish to extend the definition of neighbor, but even that is not new; the Old Testament is filled with commandments about how to treat the stranger.

In the midst of all the polemics, Jesus quotes from the only Bible he had - what we Christians call "the Old Testament." He does not say, "the God of my Bible is a God of wrath but I've come to tell you about a God of mercy." Too many Christians continue to exhibit Marcionistic tendencies. Too many clergy do! It drives me nuts!

What would happen if Christians remembered that the whole of the law and prophets really are about love of God and love of neighbor; that this is the "lens" though which we are called to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest it. It's not just true because Jesus said it; Jesus said it because it's true.

Part of what I think has happened to mainline Protestant Christianity (I am in no position to speak for others) is that we've lost the prophetic voice. We've lost why it is that the disciples, when asked who Jesus was, began with a litany of the prophets. Some say Jeremiah. Others Elijah. Some think John the Baptist is back...

The Jewishness of Jesus matters, and the so-called "Old" Testament matters for those who seek to follow him today. Otherwise when we read in The Book of Common Prayer that "Jesus said..." these things about the two great commandments (see BCP 351) we may forget that he was just quoting from the Bible.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 34

Read Matthew 22:1-22.

If you are using the resource from The Fifty Day Bible Challenge with me, then I hope you will note the commentary from Bishop James about what Matthew does to Jesus' parables. Luke's guests offer plausible excuses. And Luke doesn't have some poor guy without a wedding garment (who had time to dress?) get dragged out into the outer darkness! Clearly something else is going on here, as Bishop James points out. The point is about the urgency of the Kingdom of God and our need to be prepared. OK. Enough on that, then.

The part of today's reading that captures my imagination, however, and is quite realistic - is the ratcheting up of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees who are now "plotting to entrap him." Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. This context is important for what follows, which is not an Op-Ed piece on the separation of church and state. Jesus again must be shrewd/cunning/street smart when asked about whether or not it's lawful to pay taxes because it is, of course, a set up. They are trying to entrap him.

So what he does is brilliant. He asks them for a coin - some have noted that this in itself exposes their hypocrisy since they aren't supposed to have such coins in the temple. But the teaching itself, even beyond this difficult context, raises huge questions for us: give the emperor what belongs to the emperor. Give to God what belongs to God.  

This text is so often misunderstood and misconstrued. But their reaction, I think, reveals how brilliant this response is. They were amazed. And they went away. They have failed in their stated mission.

What of ours belongs to the powers of this world? What of ours belongs to God? We may have the heads of former presidents on our coins and bills - yet we proclaim when we place our gifts on the altar that "all things come of thee, O Lord - and of thine own have we given thee." The gifts we use to earn our bread - where do they come from?

If we believe that all we are, and all we have, comes from God - then how does the true disciple answer this question? What belongs to the empire - and what belongs to God?

I am writing this post on the Fourth of July - Independence Day. How do we honor and celebrate the day, and our pride of nation - without allowing that to lapse into idolatrous nationalism?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 33

Read Matthew 21:23-46.

Lots of polemics here; see the post from Day 29 for some reflections about this.

I want to backtrack a bit to Matthew 10:16 - where Jesus says to his disciples, "look, I'm sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves. So be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves."  And I want to focus on that word - φρόνιμοι- translated in the NRSV as "wise." The NIV chooses "shrewd." The words "crafty" and "cunning" come up in other translations and, although I didn't find it in any of the translations I looked at, the word "savvy" is as good a choice as any. In other words, this is wisdom not in the Greek philosophical sense of knowing Plato and Aristotle, but in knowing how the world works. Jesus says, in Matthew 10, that to be his disciple you need some street smarts.

So in today's reading, the "authorities" (whose authority Jesus has questioned - or maybe more accurately who feel their authority is threatened by Jesus) want to push Jesus into a corner. They want him to say something he'll regret. They are trying to set him up. But Jesus refuses to play their game.

In a very real sense, I think he models the very advice he gave back in chapter ten. He is shrewd and agile, brilliantly asking a question that is politically loaded. It's a question the chief priests and elders have no intention of answering. 

"Well if you won't play my game," Jesus says, "then I won't play yours."

Don't you just love that? This is not meek and mild Jesus. This is savvy, cunning, crafty, shrewd, street-smart Jesus - modeling for his disciples - modeling for us - how to navigate treacherous waters. Very carefully. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 32

I started writing this blog on January 3, 2010, as I prepared to for a trip to the Holy Land at St. George's College in Jerusalem. The course was called, "The Palestine of Jesus." We began at St. George's with some study on "the historical Jesus" and then we embarked on a pilgrimage, re-tracing Jesus' ministry and the last week of his life: to Bethlehem and then on to the Sea of Galilee and then to the Jordan and the Judean Desert and then the Mount of the Transfiguration and then on to Bethphage - where we have also arrived today, in our journey with Matthew. 

This journey has recalled to me aspects of that journey four and a half years ago and given me a chance to re-share some photos along the way. The one shown above was taken is in the Church of Bethphage, run by the Franciscans. (I also learned to pronounce it differently: beth- fagee, "the house of the little fig" - which I like, but it's still hard to say it that way back home!)

If you don't already know John Dominick Crossan and Marcus Borg's book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem then I commend it to you. The book was published in 2006, and I think I'd heard or read an excerpt before January 2010, but being in that Franciscan Church and hearing the story of two parades into Jerusalem really resonated with me. Borg and Crossan see the Palm Sunday procession as a kind of protest. They write:
Two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession...
Jesus and his band of followers have been on the move, and enter from the east, as Pontius Pilate enters from the west - a display of military force, with all the "trappings" of Roman imperialism. On the other side of the tracks, as it were, Jesus is not trying to outdo Pilate in pageantry but mock him, and reveal an alternative way to be in the world - an alternative understanding of power. 

If this is right - and I find the argument compelling - then I wonder what it might mean liturgically when we celebrate Palm Sunday. I am tired of the old argument that I heard every year from a few old-timers about how Palm Sunday ought to be a pageant and save the Passion Narrative for Good Friday. Maybe the larger problem is that we misunderstand the shouts of "hosanna" in the first place. Maybe the crowd that shouts "hosanna" and then "crucify him" isn't one fickle crowd at all, but two very different visions. Jerusalem, Jerusalem - that kills the prophets. Protesters usually are met with violence - think Bull Conner's fire hoses or the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels.

What if Jesus and his group of followers from the north know exactly what they are doing as they move in a carefully scripted act of protest from the "house of the little fig" to the Temple - where the religious authorities have been colluding with the political authorities in ways that keep the empire intact but at a cost for the have-nots? And what if the clash that is coming is all of a piece? What if there is a ready-made "mob" at the other end of town that doesn't like being mocked, and a conflict between these two "parades" is imminent?

And if this is all even remotely on track, then how might it change the way we enter Holy Week next time around? 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 31

Read Matthew 20:17-34.

It is difficult for me to read these words without hearing the hymn, "Are Ye Able" echoing in my ears. It was in the United Methodist Hymnal when I was growing up and we sang it often - or at least it seems like we did. I don't know if the Methodists still use it; I do know it is not in The Hymnal 1982 (The Episcopal Hymnal) and I've probably not sung it in thirty years. But music is funny, it gets in there and stays there.
"Are ye able," said the Master, "to be crucified with me?"
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered, "to the death we follow thee."
"Lord we are able," our spirits are thine.
Remold us, make us like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.
When I was working on my doctoral degree I took a course at Harvard Divinity School with Francis Schussler Fiorenza. The course was simply titled, "Theology and Power." While it was more philosophically oriented than Biblical, the whole course could be considered a sort of midrash on Matthew 20:17-28. The power that Jesus offers to the Zebedee boys and "sturdy dreamers" from every generation are not positions in the cabinet of a new administration. It is not, as William Sloan Coffin, Jr. used to put it, about "the love of power, but rather the power of love."

For that kind of power we do indeed need to be remolded and formed again and again in God's own image. It is the work of the Spirit to keep calling us back to this theology of the cross, a radically different way of being in the world than that of the Gentiles who 'lord it over each other." There is power here to be sure, but it's easy to get confused. This is not power over anyone, but the power of persuasion, the power of healing, the power that inspires hope.