Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Christian Identities #6: Trusting Servants

So much to say here thanks to the way in which Jesus of Nazareth instructs his followers and then takes on the duty of dying.  Just go to the upper room as John's gospel relates those moments before and at the table.  Especially poignant is the answer Jesus gives to Peter who can't stand it that his teacher is on his knees preparing to wash the feet of the disciples.  "Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”(John 13:7)

We risk much in thinking that the wisdom to respond in such a way is based on Jesus' being the Son of God having some kind of foreknowledge. It likely is as much that Jesus is indicating a kind of "servant's obedience" that acts without the benefit of power or authority.  He is modeling for Peter and for us.

Servants are supposed to do what their lords command without the benefit of knowing all the reasons or intentions of the commander.  So what Jesus says to Peter he says from his heart not just his head because everything that he is doing is from an even more profound obedience.

By demonstration Jesus extends the opportunity to Peter and by default to all disciples to take on their own obedience.  If he had explained everything he would have not allowed Peter's -- or our -- obedience to be an act of trust in the person of God. 

We know from our own experience and should remember the distinction between strict adherence to law or flawlessly following orders when it is compared to the trust that is forged in our obedience to a person. 

Sadly our experiences are just as full of moments when a person has said "trust me" and then . . .

That's not the case here.  Jesus, especially as John portrays him is resolved and stays on the course we can also follow. The words he last speaks are not the anguished cries we hear from the synoptics but the words only a trusting servant would speak, ". . . ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30b)

He has not stopped trusting the person of his "Father in heaven."  My sense is that he understands the value of God's foreknowledge or omniscience.  He just as much understands the value of God's omnipresence.  That is to say that God is always God -- in space and time -- and always trustworthy. 

We have a chance to rehearse our own version of trusting servant every Sunday when we obediently make our way to the altar and extend our hands and hearts in communion.  We don't need to have the "magic" of transubstantiation figured out nor do we need to totally comfortable with mystery of the word made flesh.  But we are allowed to trust that God's presence is with us. 

It's as if Jesus is saying to each one of us, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Christian Identities #5: Untimely Saints

The apostle Paul calls himself "one untimely born" in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:8).  He is referring to his having not been one of the twelve or of those surrounding the disciples, like the cohort out of whom Matthias was chosen. (Acts 1:21-23) 

He was a young man when Stephen was stoned so we can safely understand him meaning at least that. (Acts 7:58)  It matters because he is trying to be faithful to his own experience of surprisingly being called on the road to Damascus to cease his role in the persecution of Jews who believed Jesus was the Christ and to begin instead to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles.  Read Acts chapter 9 for the whole story.

Proclaim he did and he traveled throughout the Mediterranean world helping communities of Jews and Gentiles to live together in faith.  Often he wrote them letters.  Just in terms of a simple word count in english, Paul is responsible for more than a quarter of the collection of writings we call the New Testament. 

Five times he clearly identifies the recipients of his epistles as "saints."  He means the entire assembly, not just the heroes or elders who have died or the famous ones of each community but the regular living members of the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. 

So here it is "All Saints'-tide" and we are remembering and honoring those who have "gone before us in the faith:" famous ones, elders, relatives but alive on earth no longer. Traditionally that is who we have named as our saints.  Why, especially when the witness of Paul so clearly indicates another standard?  Perhaps humility has us deferring to these deceased saints as such because we know that sin is still a problem for us who are living. 

Regardless, we need to ask the next question, "why not."  Also, "is that why don't we embrace our various callings as comparably saintlike to those of the first Christian communities?"  Especially when we read about their intramural fights and troubles.  Stay with Paul and you'll see that they had their "parties."  Those for circumcision and those not.  Those for eating meat, those not.  Those for women in leadership, those not. 

Paul called them saints . . . even in their disagreements. And he must have understood that trouble was not simply an internal reality.  His having been a persecutor himself gave him all the evidence he needed to understand the societal pressures that challenged these fledgling churches.  So when Paul calls the Philippians "saints" he is probably giving them credit for enduring not only "in-house" squabbles but a persecution similar to ones he meant to perpetrate in Damascus.

Maybe we could understand our roles as untimely in the sense that as 21st century dwellers we are left to rely on the witness of scripture, especially Paul's letters to have any connection with those first "to go before us in the faith."  We too are born late.  Untimely, yes but we are potentially just as saintly.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Christian Identities #4: More of "Enough is Enough"

As in last week's role of "Giver" this week's option of "Custodian" develops from our understanding that the priority of God's provision for us is enough.  This may need some further clarification because we are so inclined to describe God's provision as abundant, not just enough.  But the language of abundance may not be doing for us -- or for God -- what we need.

Sometimes, maybe too often, we misportray the way that God meets our needs just so we can enjoy the imbalance and store away or hoard out of a supposed overabundance of resources.  We live as if some are meant to have more than they need and others are without by their own fault.  The language of abundance is too easily used by those who have more than they need.

This is not the world that God created!  It is closer to the world our fallen-ness has brought us but it is not the way things are supposed to be.  Last week's "giver" was not at his or her best when the giving was out of some calculation of one's possessions enjoying a surplus.  Giving was to first show the value of trusting God to provide.  Even to provide cloaks more than a mile away!

We need to expand our appreciation for God's provision by recalling Psalm 78:24-25, "He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven. So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough."

We don't need a surplus to acknowledge the priority of God's providing for us.  Indeed, the instructions that directed the collection of manna prohibited creating a surplus except the collection that allowed for a full sabbath's rest.

That's why I want to add the role of custodian.  Custodians keep custody.  They guard and protect things of value: witnesses, children, properties and processes.  As Christian custodians we have a responsibility to manage our distribution of what God has provided so that enough is enough.

Let's add "custodian" to our picture of stewardship.  Let's celebrate each day of God's providing manna enough.  In so doing we can move to a way of being faithful together that looks more like the early church than some economy based on artificial surpluses or even worse the selfishness of raw, unregulated capitalism or a hoarding born of fear.

Let's add custodian and join the first Christians.

"All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Acts 2:44-45 (NRSV)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Christian Identities #3: Enough is Enough

There's lots more to last week's coaching metaphor but in our highly clerical-ized denominational history we are prone to focus too much on leadership and not enough on those models or identities that come from the pews, so to speak.  So let's look at another role: giver.

It's important this time of year in most Christian denominations in America to talk about giving.  Pledge campaigns, drafts of operating budgets, contribution statements all take a turn this time of year.  But the kind of giving I'm thinking of has only a little to do with these fiscal concerns.

Think of Jesus' instructions from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  Down in verse 38 and following he says,
"38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
This kind of giver has a different appreciation for things and a different appreciation for his or her self. Their giving is not because that they possess great wealth or have been particularly blessed with possessions.  Their "giving" comes from an obedience to God that does not value self or one's possessions as much it values witnessing to the obedience itself.

Perhaps "obedience" needs some attention.  It means so much more than rule bound adherence to instructions or authority.  Here it means something more like loyalty to or faith in God, or more like reliance on the capacity of God to be God in the way that God has promised to be God.

Our appreciations for things like obedience, giving or forgiving are often too small and by way of that diminution incapable of expressing the greater truths we are called to proclaim.  If obedience is limited to rule keeping then we reduce God to something less than the source of all love.  If giving means distributing symbolically out of our possessions then we interfere with God's already having provided enough for us all.  If forgiving is limited to a transactional balancing of accounts then we reduce the benefit of God's omnipresence and mercy for all sinners.

The kind of giver I'm talking about does indeed contribute significantly to a parish budget, makes pledges and keeps them, and gives so that things like outreach never lag but there's more.

Giving as an expression of loyalty and trust in God as described in Matthew 5:38f sees the needs of others first,  even the needs of those with power to sue or demand our services.  But let's be smart and understand what really is needed.  It's not the cloak being carried or one being taken by some legal demand.

The need is loyalty to God, trust in God, faith.  Otherwise there'd be no demand for the cloak to be carried the first mile.  In a world where we all trust God another cloak would be waiting for them at the end of that mile, carried or not!  In a world of obedience there's no shame when one's face is slapped, instead compassion for the one who is deluded into thinking that their power to slap wins anything of value for them.

In a world of faithful obedience to the God who is always with us, giving has a value higher than any possession or position.  We should all be that kind of giver.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Christian Identities #2: Hey Coach!

I wrote last week about the role that is each of ours because we are "good news people."  As believers our appreciation for the gospel compels us to be its messengers.  It is our relationship with the goodness of the news itself -- the reign of God is at hand! Christ is risen! Jesus loves me! -- that puts a spring in our step and drives us to run so obviously motivated that any onlooker would be impressed.  

There are roles for each of us to attempt and practice is our lives of faith.  As a priest in a parish or campus setting I've often been instructed by my experiences as a coach.  

I remember how often I'd hear "hey Coach!" and I would almost always answer "hey, Athlete!"  There'd be a little awkward chuckle and then the matter at hand would be attended.  I wasn't being obtuse in my answer but I was in most cases being complimentary.  The coach/athlete relationship is precious and it calls on both to strive for excellence on the other's behalf.  You've heard the saying "to win one for the Gipper."  It clearly indicates that calling to a mutual interest toward a supreme effort.  

Likewise most coaches will honestly and humbly credit the team for its success and as much as possible take the hit for a loss.  Those actions also come out of that relationship and its mutual striving and respect.  

The same applies to my work as rector here at Advent.  I'm the not wisest or the most knowledgable but I have been entrusted with a kind of attentiveness and imagination that yearns to understand the "sport" of faith, to know more about how one can improve one's efforts and how that aspiration calls for keen observation and sharing.  

A good friend from my Fluor Daniel days tells the story of his first coaching job at Charlotte Country Day back in the 80's.  He earned a Master's in Exercise Physiology and found a job teaching P.E. The girl's varsity tennis team needed a coach.  His own athletic past only included casual or recreational experience at tennis but he thought he could at least organize the practices, schedule the buses and keep score, so he said "yes." His girlfriend played college tennis on scholarship and he wisely asked her to "hit the ball" with him and help him learn more about team training and skill work.  

At the end of their having played and talked he asked her for her advice, "Do you think I'll be able to do this?"  She said, "Sure, just don't ever let them see you play!"  Long story short, they won a championship . . . because of the athlete's and by way of my friend's attention, encouragement and mutuality.  

So for me to adopt the role of coach has little to do with being faster than the team's runners or in our case "the best Christian" (whatever that is!).  It has more to do with playing my part in attentiveness and imagination.  There are plenty of other roles that are better framed by the sub-title "team member" than even "athlete."  Just think for a minute how much we can learn by way of our captains, our quarterbacks, our trainers, or our managers.  Lots of roles, all on the team, each a part of the whole.  

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:7

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Christian Identities #1: Bringing in the good news

Last week I wrote about that sense of living "in the world but not of it."  The nickname I gave this identity was "outsider."  That's a little misleading.  Staying on the outside is not my intent.  It was not Jesus' intent when he recognized that the disciples were "not of this world" in his prayers to God.  (John 17:14).

His intentions are caught up in the language of his sending them as he says in verse 18, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  So 'outsider" speaks less about where I am to stay and more of how I started.  Yes there are still those parts of me that "in but not of" no matter what I do or to where I move.  I know this, and I'm not stopping.

My work with this faithful people was begun with an perspective that was and still is mine from years of experience in other places, other ministry settings.  But I have been sent from "there" to "here" and I have brought and will continue to bring my learning along.  Nice thing about this spiritual journeying is that everything gets to be paid forward.  Thanks be to God!

The nickname for one who is sent is "apostle."  It comes from the Old English apostol, via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek apostolos ‘messenger,’ from apostellein ‘send forth.’

It implies there is something of value, a message that is being conveyed.  Remember the verse from Isaiah 52:7, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’"

The messenger's feet are beautiful because of how they are carrying the good news of peace and salvation.  Just like we would detect a "bounce" in someone's step the day after they fell in love.

Not all messengers are welcomed.  True sometimes for the message, as well.  Remember Jesus' instructions about dusting off one's sandals.  We need not be afraid. The heart of the messenger is more closely tied to their commission and message than to their reception.

There are other nicknames that help me in seeing, knowing, learning, and leading.  I'm more likely to answer to them than I am "outsider" or "apostle" or "messenger."

Call me "coach" and you'll see, . . . next week.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Recent Unpleasantness

There's lots of stirring in the world, our nation, and our parish.  I'll admit to my own part in it.  Some of my part in the stirring seems almost habitual.  As I read and listen to the news and opinions of minds greater than mine I sometimes just automatically pass them along with my own added likes, emojis, comments and replies.  Sometimes I let the "things settle" and then add my part.

This is not news to most Advent-ers.  Seven plus years of service with this community has exposed the content and manner of my thinking to just about everyone.

Some may not be aware that I've always seen myself an outsider of sorts.  I don't blame but I trace this perception back to my childhood as a PK.  Our family lived and moved among people who were less constrained by their roles in the church.  Think of those times when you've said something like "but he's a minister!"

For instance, the ONLY time you would have seen one of Tom and Dodie Brown's kids at the movie theatre on a Sunday afternoon was if they had been invited by a friend to go home with them from church, making sure to be returned for 6:00pm "Training Union" class and 7:00pm Evening Worship.

We NEVER went as a family to the theatre, except on the two or three occasions we were invited for an opening.  I remember when "Ben Hur" came to the Osteen.  It was slick marketing to get a bunch of Anderson's ministers in on the buzz.

But the world for the Browns was always "once removed" from us by way of social constraint, economics or our parents' tastes and sensibilities.  "In the world but not of the world" was how it was.  We knew nothing else.

That "once removed" perception is still with me, even as I move into my rental on Sandy Creek Rd.  An event in our lives that signifies to many of you that I'm "finally, here."

Do not worry or weep.  I'm thinking that it suits me and always has, to have a distinct place from which to watch and learn, from which to pray and love.  It reads as presumptuous but I'm also thinking that is much of why Jesus kept going off to be alone.

Back to the stirring or maybe we could call it serving, or leading, or pastoring, or teaching.  Whatever we call it, I've never just stirred up a tempest for stirring's sake.  I'm not denying my role but I try to see what I see, try to think what I think, try to feel what I feel, try to pray what I pray from a place that is by experience and calling "once removed" and not enmeshed, as much autonomous as partnered, as much grounded as idealized. "In the world but not of the world."

It helps me to remember that I am just the rector and by that just the one who presides in our vestry's work.  I'm not the only stirrer, not the only one praying. The dust of our "recent unpleasantness" will settle, the stirring will fade, likely to be displaced by another.  None of us need to be "in on it" so much so that we are helplessly or inextricably "of it."

Much of what was true for me as an "outsider" is still true, but I believe I have grown throughout my life from PK to Priest.  I'm looking forward to how we will grow and learn to live with each other in this world that has been so stirred.