Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Striving After Wind

Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, who currently teaches at Vanderbilt, formerly taught at Princeton Seminary. He has an extraordinary commentary on Ecclesiastes in The Anchor Bible Series that I highly recommend.

Years ago, I was privileged to take a class with Dr Seow at Princeton Seminary on the Wisdom Tradition. And then, as I was reminded recently by a colleague, we brought Dr. Seow to the parish I was serving at the time, St. Francis, Holden, to preach and then lead a continuing education event for Episcopal and ecumenical clergy on Ecclesiastes. I've been thinking about that lately, and thinking about what insights that literature has to offer in these crazy times we are living through.

There are two Hebrew words one needs to learn before opening up the Book of Ecclesiastes to move beyond that text about there being a time and a season for everything made popular by The Byrds. The first is the name of the preacher/teacher: Qohelet. Leong suggested that we call this preacher/teacher "the Gatherer."

The second term is hebel - which means something more like "vapor" or "mist" rather than what we usually read in English, vanity. (One popular translation (NIV) uses the word "meaningless!" which is perhaps reason enough to never use that translation!) The word appears 38 times in Ecclesiastes, so trying to get it right matters. If you have to pick a word, I think "All is vapor" works pretty well. As Seow puts it:
It refers to anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory. Something that is hebel cannot be grasped or controlled. (Ecclesiastes, page 47)
So there is perhaps intended irony that the gatherer cannot gather hebel any more than one can grasp the vapor coming out of a humidifier. Vanity of vanities to think we can!

If you are still with me then perhaps you will stay with me longer. Recently a lot of us laughed as Tina Fey ate a sheet cake on SNL while trying to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville. The segment was funny because Tina Fey is funny and it was well-written and it struck a chord. But what also made it work, I think, is the underlying theology that I think Qohelet would appreciate. All is hebel and a striving after wind! May as well eat sheet cake: Or, as Qohelet puts it:
I commend enjoyment for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
We need to keep reading the prophets. And we need to keep on speaking truth to power. We need courage for the living of these days. But we also need to find ways to cope. Eating a sheet cake a day is one way but maybe not the healthiest! But understanding that the work toward racial justice and healing has never been a linear enterprise and "grasping" that the world is just sometimes crazy, and even insane, is also part of the work to which we are called. We need routines and prayer and exercise and fun because otherwise we'll burn out. We need to support one another. We need to sometimes sit down at a bar with Qohelet and order a good IPA and pour out our hearts about everything we've seen under the sun. That includes some crazy, uncontrollable shit.

In that class I took with Seow all those years ago, he suggested that the Book of Proverbs was about learning how to cope with life when all is well. It's what we teach our kids. Pay attention to the ant. Work hard. Look both ways before you cross the street. The Book of Job, he suggested, is about what happens when that tragedy strikes, when life is not fair, when we look both ways but a drunk driver comes out of no where...

Qohelet, he said, is about what happens when the world seems to have gone off the rails. When up is down and down is up. "I've seen," says Qohelet...
...that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
I commend this old text to you, whether or not you consider yourself a "religious" person. Some read it as pessimistic. Not me. I'm an optimist by nature, but always tempered with realism. And I think Qohelet is reasonable. Nothing wrong with a sheet cake every now again. But we might also read, mark, and learn this ancient wisdom as well - even as we remember there is a time and season for everything under the sun. Or to put it another way, "this too shall pass."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Speaking truth to power

Last week my Facebook page was filled with posts from fellow clergy, across denominational lines, trying to find ways to preach in the aftermath of the events that we all watched unfold in Charlottesville. I was one of those clergy who was re-writing my sermon as late as Sunday morning, trying to speak a word of "good news" in a world that seems to be coming unglued. I saw some fine sermons posted and it made me grateful for this vocation to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words.

But such times are also fraught with danger. In the opening essay of Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Dr. Brueggemann writes about "The Preacher as Scribe." (For those who don't own a copy of this great book, I encourage you to buy it! But in the meantime he says some of the same things in an essay entitled "Where is the Scribe?" that was published in the Anglican Theological Review and can be found on-line here.)

Brueggemann is not exactly easy reading, but he has such amazing clarity. In "The Preacher as Scribe" he explores four scriptural confrontations that he says might be construed as truth speaking to power: Moses addressing Pharaoh, Nathan addressing David, Elijah addressing Ahab, and Daniel addressing Nebuchadnezzar. He then notes how problematic these examples are for preachers and that the model can be overly simplistic. Brueggemann writes about what every preacher struggles with at one point or another when confronting this question:
When we preside over institutions with programs, budgets, and anxiety-filled members, we are not likely to practice, with any simplicity at all, the notion of truth-speaking-to-power - not if we want to keep our jobs. Certainly there are occasional dramatic moments when truth can and must be spoken directly to power. But on the whole, the model of truth-speaking-to-power is not possible in our society, particularly in local congregations where one is cast as preacher and administrator. It is utterly impossible to be charged with both truth-telling and maintenance. (page 10)
Moreover, in a post-modern era we know the words "power" and "truth" are, as he puts it, "endlessly subtle and elusive."

What then to do? Cower in silence? No. Brueggemann reminds us that the goal isn't to get behind the texts to the historical Moses, Nathan, Elijah or Daniel but to remember that we are a people who have inherited the texts and who claim to hear a Word of the Lord here. Hence the preacher as scribe, the one who stands with her or his congregation to enter more deeply into these ancient texts. Not to preach the "headlines" of the day but to hold these texts up imaginatively and creatively so that God's people might hear an alternative narrative that has the potential to transform our lives and the world; to become people who together do justice and love mercy.

"The text is a voice of truth, albeit an elusive one." As humble scribe, the preacher is not asked to be Moses or Nathan or Elijah or Daniel on any given week but, to use Brueggemann's image, to function more like a pastoral therapist who "seeks to let power of illusion and repression be addressed by old, deep texts that swirl around us." And then this:
Like a therapist, the Preacher-Scribe does not own the text; the text lives in, with, and under the memory of the community. So the Preacher-Scribe gets out of the center and out of the way. The Preacher-Scribe trusts the text to have a say through the power of the Spirit rather than the power of the preacher; trusts the listening congregation to make the connections it is able to make; and trusts the deep places of truthful power and powerful truth that draw us in and send us forth in repentance, a turn that makes all things new. 
This work is not easy, to be sure. But as a preacher trying to be a more faithful Preacher-Scribe, I find the reminder helpful for the living of these days.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Take II

I tend not to be a Saturday night sermon writer. In fact my sermons are usually written by Thursday afternoon so I can enjoy my day off on Friday. Such was the case this week and at 5 a.m this morning a post went out from this blog of the sermon I had planned to preach this morning at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts. But the events unfolding this weekend in Charlottesville, VA led me to radically re-write that sermon early this morning. Below is my re-worked manuscript and the sermon I plan to preach in a couple of hours at Grace Church.

We are told that the setting for today’s gospel reading is that there is some weather: the waves are bashing the boat and the wind is kicking up. And when people are in a boat during a storm they get scared – even salty old fishermen.

I remember being in a plane just about a month after 9/11 and smoke was coming out of the bathroom. It turned out to be an electrical problem and not an act of terrorism, but at the time that wasn’t clear to anyone, including the flight crew. As the plane that had just taken off from Worcester airport bound for Atlanta made a quick up and down emergency landing in Hartford their faces said it all.  

The Bible is more like poetry than prose and more like our real lives than a documentary. I can’t tell you that it happened exactly this way in today’s gospel but I know how stories work. We tell stories to make sense of our lives. We tell stories like this one to remind ourselves not to be afraid. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (as I have) of people telling the same story and remembering different details and even learning different lessons from it. Here is what Matthew wants to make sure we understand from today’s Gospel reading: whatever we face, and however fierce the wind is, and however much we are battered by waves, Jesus still says to us:  “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

In fact, maybe the whole gospel could be summarized with just those nine words: Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you all, but I am prone to lose heart. When things don’t go my way or when my job feels impossible or when it feels like the nation is on the wrong path, I lose heart. I get discouraged. I am generally very much an optimist by nature, but when I feel like something is broken I have some old tapes that tend to make me think it’s my job to fix it. So when I hear those words, “take heart” I am encouraged. I pay attention.

It is I. Jesus is with us. On the land and on the sea and in the air. On mountaintops when we totally know that to be true and in the valley of the shadow of death when we may be prone to doubt it. In just three words, this is the mystery of the Incarnation – of Immanuel – of God-with-us through thick and through thin. Wherever we are in our journeys, we can count on Jesus being there calling us to move forward and not to be paralyzed, because we do not walk alone.

Do not be afraid. Those words may be the most frequently uttered words in the Bible. Bishop Fisher tells me they appear 365 times, once for every single day of the year. I haven’t counted but that makes good theological sense to me even if the math might be off by a couple. The angels sing it all the time; they are like one-hit wonders. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to live your life, the one to which you are uniquely called. Do not be afraid to show kindness and friendship to the stranger. Do not be afraid to open your heart to your neighbor. Do not be afraid to speak the truth you know and live the life that God calls you to live.

Thich Nat Han, a wise Buddhist monk, has taken today’s gospel to heart and come up with his own midrash when he writes, “the real miracle is not to walk on water but to walk on this green earth dwelling deeply in the present moment and being fully alive.” I don’t think that’s counter to what Matthew conveys to us today, I think it goes right to the heart of it. Good for Peter in trying to walk on the water toward Jesus. And poor Peter, who always screws it up, reminding us that Christian discipleship relies more on God’s mercy than our perfection.

But I’m neither Jesus nor Peter. I’m trying not to walk on water so much as to walk on this good earth, with God’s help. Trying to keep on living fully into this moment in time which will not come our way again. Nostalgia and anxiety work against us being fully present to this unique moment in time and it happens to individuals, to families, to congregations. Even sometimes to nations. We can get stuck.

As a nation, there are places where we’ve gotten stuck. Race relations is one of those places. Slavery is this nation’s Original Sin and it is not going to go away. We make some gains and we celebrate and then racism rears its ugly head again and tries to pull us back. This week we see it all playing out on television in Charlottesville and it pushes all those old buttons.

One of the clergy standing against the bigotry and racism of those waving Nazi flags is David Stoddart, who used to the rector of St. Luke’s in Worcester. He welcomed me to this diocese twenty years ago when I arrived at St. Francis, Holden and took me out to O’Connors for my birthday just six weeks after that. 

When David left Worcester to accept a call to serve as rector of Church of our Savior in Charlottesville I lost track of him. But this past Wednesday on Facebook I came across a blog post of his that I want to share with you all. I share it not because it “says it all” but because David is a trustworthy witness and a faithful pastor writing to an Episcopal congregation in the midst of all this madness. 

What does it mean for us to claim Jesus in this time and place? What does it mean to be people who have promised in Holy Baptism, and who reaffirm every time we gather to share the bread and the cup, we will “strive to work for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” What does it mean that we have promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love neighbor as self? As David puts it, we don’t simply stand against any truncation of that vision but for this witness of the love of God that embraces all people, and the reign of God in which every single person can experience the abundant life God created everyone to enjoy – no exceptions.

When we stand for something like that we can be sure to meet with resistance. People died yesterday for standing up for this inclusive vision. I think Jesus says to us, to the Church, to the gathered community that we are still in the same boat and the waves may be strong and our fears may threaten to undo us, to keep on listening for the voice of the One who still says:  Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ("For the Human Family," The Book of Common Prayer, page 815)