Monday, July 31, 2017

Limping Through Life

One of my recent posts was entitled Finding Ourselves in Genesis. If you preach (as I do) in a liturgical church that uses the The Revised Common Lectionary, this year has an option to be reading through some great texts that come from that first scroll of the Bible. But the ninth Sunday after Pentecost (which would normally fall this coming Sunday) gets benched on August 6 in order to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. On August 13 we will return to our regularly scheduled program for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, having skipped over this wonderful story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok River in Genesis 32:22 - 33:11. 

Don't tell the "liturgical police" but if I were in a parish this coming weekend I'd suggest that we since we remember the Transfiguration every year on the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we get Genesis 32 only once every three years that it's too great a text to miss and the preacher's prerogative might be exercised in order to be sure this reading is heard in the assembly. Twelve years ago, on July 31, 2005, I preached a sermon on this text. I've very slightly edited that sermon below for any who may be interested in what we'll be missing this week. I've kept the cultural references in tact, however, to a novel I'd just finished at the time (The Kite Runner) and to a "new" song I'd recently heard by Tracy Chapman, as well as to the work of Miraslov Volf, whose book I returned to once again during my recent Sabbatical and still commend to all. (RMS)

As the Genesis narrative has unfolded this summer, here in a nutshell is what we know about Jacob:

·        The narrator has suggested that Jacob was ambitious from the day of his birth—that he was a “heel-grabber” who finally tricks his father into blessing him in his old age; 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;
·        There he meets his match as the “trickster” is tricked into fourteen years of labor to marry Laban’s two daughters: the younger one whom Isaac 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, his 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 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 and 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.

Have you read the 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: in this case to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where he must confront his past, a past that cannot be changed but might be redeemed. That is all that any of us can ever do with our past: we can’t change it, we can only confront it and with God’s help redeem it and pray for the healing that makes new life possible. That, however, takes courage, and risk, and trust. It is the work of faith.

Yet it may be that it is in precisely such moments, when we feel 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. The 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 and 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. But far more numerous in the Bible are divine encounters that 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 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! Episcopalians for the most part embrace that notion. We refuse to limit faith to a creed or to a Church Council, or to a formula or even to the Bible itself. We are always trying to remember that all these things point us to God, but are not in themselves God. To experience the living God, the God of Israel and Abba 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 the living 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. 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: 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. Including reconciliation. Without that openness, change is not possible.

I’ve talked in the past about an amazing book called Exclusion and Embrace, written by native Croatian theologian named Miraslov Volf who now teaches at Yale Divinity School. He says that an embrace—which is the symbolic act of reconciliation—is a four-part drama. All of the “steps” are required as each needs to be met with a response. (1.) The opening of arms (2.) Waiting. (3.) Closing of arms. (4.) Release.[i]

It may happen faster 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 wish would rather not) understands this drama of embrace. Always an authentic embrace is an invitation that cannot be coerced. And at any point the “drama” can break down. When it works, it is because each step is mirrored. Only then does it function as a kind of sacrament for healing and reconciliation—literally 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 in Genesis. It brings to mind the New Testament story told by Jesus, of that father who is "soft on sin" and runs 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 you this week in your own journey? Are you Esau or Jacob, 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 and 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 a much larger sense, and that at least is worth highlighting. 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, in and 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 we do that “as wounded healers.” The narrator of Genesis might say as people who are limping through life. Either way, our limps—our wounds—may well be signs not only of divine encounters but invitations to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is always gospel work.  As we keep limping on, the challenge is to do so with open arms: arms that keep the possibility of embrace always before us. Regardless of whether we initiate such embraces or respond, these moments represent our highest calling as Christians, as people who are always ready to allow for the possibility of reconciliation that shows the world why faith really does matter.

[i] For anyone interested in more detail on this, see Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It is truly an extraordinary book. 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)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Kingdom Scribes

Today I am preaching at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Worcester. This Sunday, July 30, is the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture readings for today, as appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary, can be found here. 

"Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks.

Not all that many verses earlier in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was saying that he taught in parables to keep people on their toes, because some would listen and not hear and some would look but not see. Parables take some effort to understand; a bit like interpreting a poem. They are not immediately accessible, and rarely is the meaning self-evident.

And so Jesus asks those first-century hearers and us, gathered around this text as twenty-first century hearers, “have you understood all this?”

And they dutifully nod their heads like lemmings. Yes, we understand, Jesus. (But I suspect they don’t really.) I think they are like men when someone is giving them directions and then the person says, “you got it?” and you respond, “yeah, I got it.” But in truth you aren’t sure if you are supposed to take that first right or that second left after the gas station…

And then these words - the last words I just read from today’s gospel - enigmatic words to be sure from the fifty-second verse of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the most Jewish of all the gospels:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

What is a scribe, anyway? In the New Testament they often get lumped in with the Pharisees and then caricatured as opponents of Jesus. But apparently, just like there are good priests and bad priests, good lawyers and bad lawyers, good presidents and bad presidents, so also there are good scribes and bad scribes. Jesus refers here to kingdom scribes, those who are in service to the Church or the Jesus’ movement or whatever we may call it.

Scribes like Baruch, who made the book of Jeremiah possible by writing it all down and passing along the wisdom of Jeremiah. Scribes like Ezra, who helped to (as Walter Brueggemann puts it) “reconstitute the community of Judaism” after the exiles came home and gathered at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. (Not to be confused with the hotel in Washington that became famous in the 1970s.) There, at the original Water Gate, the Levites helped the people to understand the Torah, so they read from the scroll with interpretation and gave the sense so that the people understood the reading. (See Nehemiah 8:7-8) [1]

This is what scribes do: they help the people to attend to the text and to listen for a Word of the Lord. That is never immediate. As one of our prayers in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, we “read, mark, learn... [so that we might] inwardly digest” and so that we might become what we eat: a word about the Word before we ever open our mouths.

So each week as we gather in congregations like St. Mark’s and across this diocese and across this nation and around the world we are fed with Bread and Wine - the body and blood of Christ. We pray that our eyes might be opened to perceive the living, risen Christ in our midst. But before we get to that part of the liturgy we hear these ancient texts that feed us in a different way. We read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them as “kingdom scribes” because we trust that there is a not just a history lesson here but a living Word of the Lord, addressed to us right now in this time and place.

Developing eyes that see and ears that hear, however, requires a deep dive, and no small amount of imagination. It means that we can’t keep coming and doing it the same old way or preaching the same old sermons because always we are trying to discern what is new and what is old. That is our tradition: not mere repetition of the past as if curators of a museum, but discernment of what needs to be kept alive as well as making space for the new thing God is doing. Kingdom scribes are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

So let’s back up and try to do this scribal work together. Jesus is on a roll with the parables and gives us four parables that seem straightforward. But with Jesus it’s never that simple. Parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and maybe with our mouths open. They are meant to startle us and even stun us a bit. They are meant to make us think. We’ve heard so much about mustard seeds and yeast - metaphors of smallness that are meant to inspire small congregations like this one to remember that the work of the kingdom is not always about becoming a megachurch. And that’s good, and that’s true.

But Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels and Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. He speaks in a context in which mustard is seen more as a weed than the source of Grey Poupon. Everyone knows the kingdom is supposed to be like a cedar tree; now there is something large and glamorous and beautiful. The prophet Ezekiel foretold that God would plant a great cedar on the mountain of Jerusalem and the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches. (See Ezekiel 17:23) So Jesus is making a kind of parody here, and a subversive parody at that. He’s taking something old and making it new. Perhaps he is suggesting that if you sit around waiting for that splendid cedar you might miss the signs of God’s kingdom right in your midst, even if it looks like a weed or at best a bush and only grows to about five feet or so. Birds of the air can still come and make their nests in its branches. Consider that. Consider those birds, those nests, those mustard seeds.

Do you all know what a measure of flour is? If we don’t know we miss how funny Jesus is: a measure is about twenty pounds. So three measures is about sixty pounds. Again, Jesus is messing with us: imagine a woman goes into Stop and Shop and buys twelve 5 pound bags of flour. She has to ask the person at the checkout to not make the bags too heavy because they’ll break and she has to carry them from her driveway to the kitchen and she’s not quite as strong as she once was. Sixty - 6-0 - pounds of flour! And she gets a little yeast and mixes it in and it is all leavened. A little yeast goes a long way, Jesus says.

Now I don’t know how long it takes and I don’t know if Jesus was a good baker or not or if his mother would have said to him, “Jesus, you can’t just use a little yeast with all that flour. What I know, though, is this: if the metaphor for the church is to be like that yeast, just a little bit of faith can make a big difference. I see it in my work across this diocese: how faith makes room for congregations to keep what is old and embrace what is new. Faith is like a tiny mustard seed or a little yeast in sixty pounds of flour or faith or like a little congregation in Main South in the second largest city in New England, and faith can move mountains.

Do you believe that? I’ll be honest: some days I do, with every fiber of my being. Some days I consider the birds of the air and I see those mustard bushes and I experience the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and I know that with Christ all things are possible.

And other days I wonder if there really is a balm in Gilead, and if there really is a reason to be hopeful when the obstacles to faith loom so large and the Church seems to belong to a different era.

Jesus isn’t done: he says there is a treasure in a field: one pearl worth everything to a pearl merchant. And then there is that net thrown into the sea which catches every kind of fish, both kosher and non-kosher, so they have to be separated out to what can be eaten and what needs to be discarded. Again with the sorting and the discernment of what serves God’s reign and what needs to be discarded. None of these parables or any others prescribe what it means to be the Church in a particular time and place. Rather, they describe the work – they point us in a direction. They ask us to imagine what is possible.

And they subvert our preconceived notions. They make us think and wonder and ask questions. The scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven ask even now, in this time and place: what that is old needs to be carried forward? And what that is new needs to be born and then nurtured and tended to.

Sometimes people think that the bishop and his staff don’t know anything about what’s happening in congregations and other times people think we have all the answers and we just need to issue marching orders. Neither of those are true, however. At best we ask questions and walk with God’s people. We try to tell the truth and offer another perspective and we try to listen which is what I’ll try to do when I meet with your vestry today after worship. I am very clear that I’m not “the Shell Answer Man.”

In my role as a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff, I’m prepared to listen with you and work with you as the next chapter of your life together unfolds. Father Don Chamberlain served not only this congregation but this diocese faithfully for many years. There is reason to give thanks for those many years of service. And for this interim time of discernment and asking what comes next, Father Bob Walters is on hand to walk with you as well and to share his gifts and I give thanks for that as well. This season gives you all an opportunity not to become complacent but to ask some of those big questions about vision and mission and the future and then find mustard-sized ways of implementing that vision. I know that Don cared a great deal about being a witness and presence in this neighborhood and I know that many of you do, too.

Let me just say in conclusion: the goal isn’t for this or any congregation to “keep the doors open.” The goal is to move out of those doors in order to be light and yeast and salt and little mustard seeds that are signs of God’s kingdom. The goal is to figure out, with God’s help, what is old and what is new, which is to say what will serve God in this time and in this place and what needs to be left behind. How do we answer this kind of question? Keep reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting the Word of God and remain open to the ways that God keeps on showing up and surprising us with signs of the Kingdom in our very midst.

[1] I am indebted in this sermon to Walter Brueggemann and in particular to his essay in The Anglican Review 93//3 entitled, “Where is the Scribe?”

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Finding Ourselves in Genesis

For those Christians who use The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in worship (which is a plan for reading from the Bible over a three-year cycle) this summer offers an option for those using "Track 1" to be reading through some amazing stories from the scroll of Genesis. 

One of the challenges I found in parish ministry, however, was in managing vacation schedules (people aren't in church every Sunday to hear the story unfold) and also the fact that the RCL, in an effort to keep the readings of a manageable length, has to make some editorial decisions and sometimes loses the flow of the narrative. So we jump from snippet to snippet. One can rectify this by going back and reading the actual narrative from a Bible (or an online version like this one from, say from Genesis 21 or so (the birth of Isaac) to the end. It won't take that long and it's rich, interesting stuff.  

The story of God’s people and particularly the story of God’s encounters with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families is a story not so different from our own lives. As it unfolds we get birth and marriage and death and all the stuff in between. Sometimes it reads like a soap opera because sometimes our lives are like that. It’s not just about the good stuff, but the very real challenges of being a family not in some idealistic way but in the midst of sibling rivalries and generational conflicts that all families navigate. 

The names may be familiar or unfamiliar to us and for most of us the places are unknown and hard to pronounce in the same way that people who live outside of Massachusetts seem unable to pronounce "Worcester" correctly. This summer at the Festival of Homiletics I went to a lecture by one of my former professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Anna Carter Florence. She encouraged preachers to "pay close attention to the verbs" because we can get stuck on the nouns, but the verbs draw us in. 

Take for example, the portion of Genesis assigned for this Sunday, from Genesis 25:19-34. If we aren't careful we readers and preachers might get bogged down on wondering about "Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean..." We think the story took place in Bible Land a long time ago and has nothing to do with us. But notice just some of the verbs here that advance the narrative: 
Prayed. Was barren. Conceived. Struggled. Gave birth. Grew up. Loved. Cooking. Ate. Was famished. Sold. Despised.
The story moves and as it does, most of us can identify in one way or another with those verbs. We are a people who pray, who sometimes struggle with getting pregnant, who do sometimes conceive, who struggle, love, eat, despise...

Along the way we may find ourselves identifying with one or more of these characters and perhaps one or more of the characters will remind us of others, including in our own families, who have hurt or healed us in our own journeys of formation and deformation. 

The Genesis story began with Abraham and Sarah, whom God called to leave behind their old country and set out for a new land, a promised land. The nouns may change but most of our families, especially in the United States, include stories about someone who left one place in search of a new life in America. Regardless of when that happened or where they came from, we can relate to the verbs. 

God promised Abraham a heritage, that he would be the father of many nations. And so the story unfolds from there as these strangers in a new land celebrate, finally, the miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham and Sarah’s old age. And then the testing of Abraham on Mt. Moriah and the casting away of Hagar and Ishmael (see the image shown above, and notice Sarah looking on.) And then Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and they have two boys of their own, Esau and Jacob.

In two weeks we hear one of my favorites in scripture - the very definition I think of karma, when Jacob the trickster is himself tricked by his Uncle Laban. (See Genesis 29:15-28.) If we hear this story in isolation, as if nothing had happened before and nothing will happen afterwards, then we might find ourselves saying, “poor Jacob.” He falls in love with a beautiful girl and agrees to work seven years for her hand in marriage. He shakes on it with the father-of-the-bride (who also happens to be his mother’s brother) but his uncle tricks him, making s a last minute switch on the wedding day and instead of Rachel, Jacob finds himself married to Leah. 

Now this moment could generate countless sermons including feminist critique sermons that employ a hermeneutic of suspicion about all of this. The narrator, however, is ridiculously direct: the marriage feast happens, there is apparently lots of drinking involved, the marriage is consummated and then this simple declarative statement: “when morning came, it was Leah!” 

Jacob has been tricked! Poor Jacob! Unless you’ve been paying attention to the narrative. Then you will recall how he came to be at his uncle’s house looking for love in the first place and the story from this week and then one the RCL unfortunately omits from Genesis 27, when Issac is on his deathbed. Esau is out hunting because his dying father has one last request—some of that delicious stew he is so fond of—the manly chili with lots of meat and hot peppers and very few veggies. Just the smell of it will make dying a little easier. But while Esau is out trying to meet the old man’s final request, Jacob and his mother collude to trick Isaac, cooking up some stew just the way Isaac likes it. And because Jacob is a soft-skinned mamma's boy they put some animal skins on him to make him seem hairy like his brother and unbelievably it works. The old man is deaf and blind and he blesses Jacob moments before Esau arrives home out of breath and hauling a dead animal with him. Seriously, it's all there - check it out!

And what happens next? Brave Sir Jacob runs away. His mother slips a few bucks in his pocket and sends him off to live with her brother, Laban, so that Esau won’t kill him. In any case, there is so much here worth paying attention to. Don't get stuck on the nouns. Pay attention to the verbs and how the narrative moves forward. This is how families work: what is not transformed gets transmitted from generation to generation.

Yet there is, to my mind, also a certain kind of grace in all of this because in spite of it all these are God’s people, just as we are God’s people. The stuff of their lives and ours—the good, the bad, and the ugly—that is where God continues to find us. And that is where we find God. Not in some distant heaven far away but taking on flesh—incarnate among, and in and through us.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Some Summer Reading Recommendations

Composing lists is always a dangerous thing. This is not so much a Top Ten reading list as it is, perhaps, something like Rich Simpson's "Greatest Hits." These are books from which thoughtful Christian leaders, both ordained and lay, have something to learn, and writers with whom we ought to be familiar. It's clearly not exhaustive, but it's a place to start. All of these are books that I'd enjoy discussing over a beer, or a cup of coffee. All of them have left a mark on me over time and have been read from cover to cover more than once. I think I've read Life Together a dozen or more times by now; I used to sit down and read it as a parish priest whenever I felt that my "wish dream" for the Church was overwhelming my gratitude for the complex fleshy reality of the congregation that I'd been called to serve.

My criteria is not only that they have all "stood the test of time" but that they seem particularly relevant today to our current context and therefore deserve another look. They all have gravitas. While I am fully aware that as soon as I publish this list I'll easily think of three or more books I should have added to this list, I think it's safe to say that as long as my list might get I can't imagine excluding any of these writers even if one might quibble over which of their books to begin with. 

So it's a list of some of the recommendations that come to my mind in this moment in July 2017 for summer reading. Admittedly, most of these books were published a while ago, but in a sense this is the point. They are "classics" that people interested in Christian community should be familiar with, and for me, at least, they have stood the test of time. They deserve a first, or another, look in this time and place. They are for people who are interested, as I am, in the mission of the Church and some of the issues raised in fulfilling that mission; I think regardless of denomination or even of whether one situates oneself to the right, center, or left of the theological spectrum. None of them will be found in the self-help section or even in the "spirituality" section of a bookstore (if those even still exist!)

There are two Jews on this list for Christian leaders: Edwin Friedman and Amy-Jill Levine. If this list was fifteen recommendations I am certain that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would make the list and maybe he should be on this list (I'm just not sure who to drop!) Heschel's book on The Prophets and his work on Sabbath have left big marks on me. Friedman, Levine, and Heschel should be familiar to Christians who have too often forgotten our own heritage and our enormous debt to Judaism. 

There are three African-Americans on this list. As mentioned below, James Cone could also be on this list as well and if I added him at #11 it'd probably be God of the Oppressed. Each of them have helped introduce this white boy to the spiritual depth and prophetic power of the Black Church. In these difficult times I need to return to them and others since I have been shaped by and live and work in a predominantly white context. 

There are four women on this list and many more who have reminded me how "male" the tradition we have inherited has been and the enormous debt I owe to feminist theology. I was truly blessed by teachers like Jouette Bassler at Georgetown (before she left for Perkins School of Theology) and Catherine Keller at Drew who didn't ever make the men in their classes feel less than human even as they challenged the systems of male domination and privilege that continue to make women feel that way. There is a book written by Brian Wren entitled What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology that expresses well the sense of gratitude I share with Wren for the women who have both challenged and encouraged me in my journey so far. 

What's not here? There isn't any Queer Theology and I need to rectify that so my list a decade from now reflects that learning. In seminary (1985-1988) and in my subsequent ordained life since then, I've been an advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church,especially around ordination and marriage equality because I've learned so much from the gifts that LGBTQ persons have so graciously shared with me and the Church along the way, in spite of the abuses they have suffered at the hands of other "Christians." And yet, my theological education has not caught up with that commitment and experience. So I'm open to suggestions on where to begin, since I know there is lots out there. I need others to add to my own reading list for this summer and beyond.

OK, then. Let me just say these are ten really great books you won't be disappointed in if you read them. They may not be light beach reading, but they are all worth the time.
1. Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would recommend anything by Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison are also both excellent. But for my money, Life Together hits all the main points of why Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis and his commitment to shaping a church that understood the costs of discipleship is crucial. This is a little, but dense, book about learning to be an underground church and a prophetic witness to the light.

2. A Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Again, Levine has lots of good stuff but this is my personal favorite. What is so important (especially but not exclusively for preachers) is that Amy-Jill knows Judaism (as a practicing Jew) and the New Testament (as a Biblical scholar.) She situates Jesus in his Jewish context and offers a counter to the heresy of Marcionism, which for my money remains the most dangerous heresy the Church still faces.
3. An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, by William Stringfellow. Readers of this blog know of my recent interest in Stringfellow who wrote this book in 1973. He was an Episcopal layperson; and as a priest myself, I think it's important that he was a lay theologian. His reading of the Book of Revelation and how the powers of this world seek to destroy the creatures of God is extraordinary.
4. The Dream of God: A Call to Return, by Verna Dozier. (Amazon has a preview of Chapter 1 of this classic here to whet your appetite.) Speaking of Episcopal laypersons, I am amazed at how many people a decade or more younger than I are not familiar with Dozier. Twenty years ago, I had the amazing privilege to sit next to Ms. Dozier at the College of Preachers at an event being led by Phyllis Trible on Texts of Terror that included about a dozen of us. What an extraordinary person of faith; I felt all week that I was listening to an amazing scholar and sitting next to a living saint while doing so. The Dream of God is a clarion call for a less clergy-centered Church focused on the mission of God and the work of all the baptized. We take this language for granted these days (even if we have not yet lived into this dream) but Dozier wrote this book over twenty-five years ago.
5. An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Here is a link to an Amazon preview.) There is a movement out from church buildings and into the streets: ashes to go, public liturgies, and the like. I support all of that. But Taylor give us a theology to undergird why. As an old hymn puts it, "This is my Father's world..." BBT looks for the holy in those places where we live and move and have our being, and helps us to do the same. (Leaving Church is also a "must read.")
6 Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, by Cornel West. When I was studying for my Masters in Divinity from 1985-1988, there were two black theologians who left a huge mark on me: James Cone and Cornel West. Both are worth reading. In differing ways each of them challenged the white left-of-center United Methodist theology I had grown up with. In spite of them both, I have continued to be surprised at how segregated Sunday morning remains in America and how far we have to go. When I hear people say that "they don't see color" or respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with the smug "all lives matter" I want to refer them to West (or Cone) before engaging in any further conversation.
7 Trouble With Jesus: Women, Christology, and Preaching, by L. Susan Bond. This summer I was at the Festival of Homiletics and I was talking with a young PhD who studied at Vanderbilt. I asked her if Susan Bond was still there and she said she was not, that she thought she'd left academia. I was sad to hear that, because when I was studying for my D.Min. degree and had a long reading list on preaching from Barth to the current day, this was one of the most important books I read. Specifically I love it because she offers a thoughtful atonement theology that is grounded in the tradition and not focused on "the blood of Jesus shed for me." More generally, she offers a feminist theology of preaching that recognizes the limitations of a focus on Biblical texts, insisting that preachers need to be doing theology as well as Biblical interpretation in their preaching.
8 Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ by William T. Cavanaugh. (Amazon has a preview here.)This is a hard but important read focused on being the Church under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1990. Cavanaugh sees torture as a social-political strategy for control, and Eucharist as what the Church has to offer the world as a response: the broken tortured body of Jesus that offers an alternative vision of life and hope for the world. This is not an abstract book on Christian worship; it's about why the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup matter in a world where people are tortured and disappeared. 
9 Friedman's Fables by Edwin L. Friedman. There are lots of ways one can go with Ed Friedman. Probably both Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve could vie for this spot and on another day of the week I might suggest just that. All three should be read and marked and learned and inwardly digested. Friedman wrote as a rabbi and a therapist, but what he understood is that systems operate like families. Understanding those dynamics is enormously helpful. For my money, the fables are a lot like the parables of Jesus in that they are wonderful for group learning and conversation and they tease out meanings that are less "academic" than the other two books but still hit you right between the eyes. There is even a study guide available. (Here is a link to a previous post of mine on Friedman that includes within it a link to one of the parables, "The Friendly Forest.")
10.Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, by Walter Brueggemann. Anyone who knows me knows that this list would not be a "Rich Simpson list" without the amazing Walter B on it! And he's written so many books - it's hard to know which one to point people toward to begin. I have used his Message of the Psalms for numerous adult formation classes and it's one of my favorites but I think this book undergirds, in some ways, almost everything else WB has written: the prophets are understood best not as fortune-tellers or even social critics but as poets, who are able to imagine the world otherwise. The Church is called to participate in articulating that vision, for the sake of the world. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Give Grace to your servants, O Lord

I have been trying to find the words to pray for this nation at a time when it seems to me that we are in crisis; the most serious in my lifetime and I would argue the most serious since the Civil War. I have hardly hidden my personal and theological and political objections to the forty-fifth President of the United States, but it may be less obvious that I do pray for him on a daily basis and for this nation. I understand the sentiments of those who say things like "not my president" and "I don't want his name uttered in Church" but I strongly disagree with those friends just as I did when others said the same about the forty-fourth President. I believe that with God all things are possible, perhaps even a change in heart. I believe that whatever prophetic words I might ever have to share must be rooted in prayer. 

Having said that, and praying with sincerity for the President's heart to be softened, I am not holding my breath either. It feels to me as I watch tweet after tweet coming from the White House in the early morning hours something like Pharaoh hardening his heart against the ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt. I joked recently when we had swarms of gypsy moths and then hailstones the size of golf balls in Worcester that the plagues have begun. (I was joking, mostly.) But I do believe that we reap what we sow as individuals and as nations and what is being sown right now is fear and division that will yield more violence and degradation. If the Christian witness is about love of neighbor toward the "healing of the nations" then we are headed in the wrong direction.

In any case, it seems to me that one can pray for the President and tell the truth about the real harm he is causing to our nation. During my Sabbatical I re-read some Dietrich Bonhoeffer and both read and blogged here about the community at Le Chambon that practiced resistance against Nazi Germany. I remain convinced that silence is complicity and I will not be complicit as our country turns our backs on those tired and huddled masses that Lady Liberty has been inviting in for more than two hundred years. Doing so is not what makes this nation great. We have our work cut out for us, as citizens and as the Church. But the Fourth of July is as good a time as any to ponder such things and to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country in this hour of need. Whatever else we may be called to do, I will continue to pray.

The Book of Common Prayer truly is an amazing collection of prayers that direct our attention to love of God and neighbor. One of those prayers can be found on page 821, "For Sound Government." I invite others to join me in praying it for this great nation, even those who may disagree with my politics but who also seek to respect the dignity of every human being, with God's help. Pay close attention to the words and what it is this prayer asks God to do - for both leaders and citizens. May we be blessed with wisdom, courage, understanding, integrity, and hope for the living of these days.
O Lord, our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth. Lord, keep this nation under your care. 
To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties. Give grace to your servants, O Lord. 
To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations. Give grace to your servants, O Lord. 
To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served. Give grace to your servants, O Lord. 
And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength, and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society, that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name. For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.