Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sundays and Sabbaths . . . and Sin

Much of my theological musing is in a still on-going conversation with friends from an old cohort. Back when I was at Furman I was active in several campus ministry groups but attended a house church. For Sunday mornings to be what I had grown to believe they should I had to find some place to worship. None of the big churches near campus appealed to me and I wasn’t yet an Episcopalian so there were no nearby small churches that appealed either.
 That house church group was made of a great mix of students and hangers-on. We were serious about our spiritual lives and were in constant dialogue about predestination, free will, works righteousness, cheap grace, moral certainty, the incarnation, social justice, and on and on. Out of that group that started largely as cast off Southern Baptists came three Episcopal clergy, one Presbyterian, one PCA Presbyterian, three or four Southern Baptist ministers and some who are still in leadership in another non-denominational house church world.
 One of those who became an Episcopal priest – who could do the BEST Bob Dylan imitation ever! -- has since found his way to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. He and I are friends on FaceBook and will often share comments on different topics, mostly religious. Recently he posted an article about the impossibility of “moral progress.” In short saying that its not that humans can’t change their behavior for the good but that sin as a condition of the human experience is never abated by what humans do.
 “Sin as a condition”
 A world of ideas and questions opened up again for me when I saw that phrase. It just so happened that Paul’s letter to the Romans was in the lectionary for the lesser feast of Karl Barth that same day. Paul was lamenting the omnipresence of sin in his life such that he did what he didn’t want and didn’t do what he wanted. Finally crying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”(Rom. 7:24)
 We can talk more about sin as a condition later but I want to tie it to the ideas about Sabbaths and Sundays that I’ve been sharing for the last several weeks. If we accept that sin is a condition then what do we do? I think Sabbaths AND Sundays are part of an answer. Since both are meant to provide moments for focus and clarity in our relationship with God we could highlight the rest and refreshment that come from removing life’s busyness and obstructions and regularly setting aside a time and place to be in God’s presence.
 That is what Sundays and Sabbaths have in common: the intent of being more fully present with God. Going to church on Sunday doesn’t make someone LESS sinful, even if they are easily distracted. Making a Sabbath out of some “free” time will also not save you from your sin. The best anyone can hope for through Sabbath or Sunday is some sort of “focus and clarity” in one’s relationship with God. God’s mercy is what deals with our condition. Like Paul says later in Romans, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:39)
 We are not divided by our varied practices as much as we are joined. Whether in Sabbath or on Sunday we all yearn for that moment of clarity and focus, of hope, of trust, of thanksgiving, of praise, of refreshment and of rest because God’s presence is the best antidote for sin.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sabbath Disconnect, Part 3

I’ve read all that I wrote last week several times since then and this last section has just now struck me and sent a chill up my spine.
“It took an exodus of a whole nation to establish the Sabbath God commanded. All I’m asking is that we talk about how to connect to those of us whose lives have no Sabbaths other than the ones they find away from us on Sunday morning.”
Simply, could it be that by worshipping as we do, busying ourselves as we do, filling our spare time with fitness and leisure activities as we do, and – the kicker – valuing progress and growth as we do we are more like Pharaoh and the Egyptians than Moses and the Israelites? 

Pharaoh was the one who demanded 7 days of labor. Egypt was the place away from which Israel had to escape in order to find the Sabbath God expected. It was in a wilderness, through a period of paradigmatic change, with the commandments -- including the one calling Israel to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy -- that the people became possessors of the land God had promised. 

Maybe there is something we can learn from those of us who are away most Sunday mornings. If their experience is anything like the one had by Moses and the Israelites then they know the value of the wilderness, and change, and Sabbath. Maybe they know something about how the bread of anxiety gets replaced by the manna God provides. Maybe they understand that without real rest away from anything-that-needs-the-preposition-“up”-in-its-name, life is captive to a system of always measuring, always dressing, always showing, always catching

Maybe they just are ahead of us, not away from us. 

Sabbaths are moments to end our achieving for a rest in the confident trusting of God’s promises. Without our Sabbaths we are prone to confuse enthusiasm for holiness and quantity for quality. Sundays are moments to know that God’s promises – of a new land or a new life – are being fulfilled and without them we would miss the holy rehearsal of being raised “up.” 

I need to say that I am not upset. I am happy to make our Sunday mornings as much as possible little Easter sunrise services. I need to say that I am not disappointed in anyone. I am thrilled when the house is full or I see you at the store. I need to say that I am not worried. I am confident in our ability to leverage the opportunities God continues to present us. 

I hope I haven’t scared anyone, or offended anyone, or made anyone to feel unfairly scrutinized. I hope I have named an important distinction that need not separate Sunday from Sabbath but may be a new way to see them connected to each other. And I hope I have recognized the huge potential bound up in and expressed through the spiritual lives of all our members on Sunday and in Sabbath.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sabbath Disconnect, Part 2

My last blurb got a good reaction from several members and so I want to follow what I said about our Sundays not being “sabbathy” enough.

First, I’m not digging too deep into the theology of Sabbaths vs. Christian Sundays. I have no problem with saying “we are Easter people.” Even our Advent, Christmas and Epiphany observances and celebrations need the Resurrection to be properly explained. Simply, we are resurrection people and that is the argument FOR “getting up to celebrate on Sunday mornings.” Think Easter sunrise service. I don’t believe we need to move away from that recognition and practice.

Second, I am hoping to find a way for those of us who struggle to worship on Sunday mornings to be connected and supported in our spiritual self-care. I want there to be a clearer and measurable link for us to understand that inclusion in this community.

Third, I do think we need to see the “value of sabbathing” as a cultural necessity not just a personal spiritual undertaking. Forgive the butchered terminology but by “value of sabbathing” I mean the increased appreciation and benefits we receive when we all purposefully step away and rest from our work or labor.

It is one of the Ten Commandments and it has implications for all humanity. My favorite Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann has argued the “Sabbath commandment is drawn into the exodus narrative, for the God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and consequently from the work system of Egypt.” (Sabbath as Resistance, Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 2014. Kindle file)

It is the whole world’s problem but this relates directly to our lives of busy-ness and “works righteousness.” We are the ones who will be satisfied only when our work sets us free. We are the ones who blame the poor for their poverty. We are the ones who dream of risk free investment ventures. We are the ones who cry to the other God of “certainty” for our markets. We are the ones whose financial computers are never turned off.

Maybe that is why it is hard for so many of us to make the Sabbaths we should; to take the rest we need, to be silent before the God who loves us beyond our (y)earning. It took an exodus of a whole nation to establish the Sabbath God commanded. All I’m asking is that we talk about how to connect to those of us whose lives have no Sabbaths other than the ones they find on their own away from us on Sunday morning.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Saving Goats: Sermon on Matthew 25:31f

When Pastor Grady asked for a title to tonight’s address I told him “Saving Goats.” 

Obviously sensitive to the double entendre he was smart to ask  ‘is ‘saving’ a verb or an adjective.”  Think about it.  As Christians when we have read this last third of Matthew 25 and been given the chance to think about it have at least worked through if not finished with, “its better not to be a goat.”  Especially if one wants to avoid eternal punishment.  

But most of us don’t get to that warning by itself.  In everyday living being a goat usually gets thrown into the list of all those other “things to be avoided:” sickness, poverty, nakedness, being a stranger, imprisonment, . . . and now goatness

So "saving goats" is not what we usually learn in this last lesson from Jesus.  That’s right.  His last lesson.  Following in Matthew’s narration of the Good News, Jesus will go to Bethany to be anointed with very expensive ointment and then immediately to Jerusalem to his last meal with his friends and onto his trial and execution. 

His last lesson.  That ought to get our attention.  He’s about to die for us.  For us. It doesn't make sense to read this and the previous sections of this chapter as simple lessons on getting along.  For too long Christians have heard Matthew 25's three pieces like boy scouts or parents sending their kids off to school.  


Too often we have reduced what we learned from the bridesmaids to "be prepared."  From the parable of the talents we learned to "use it before you lose it." And from Chapter 25's last third we learned don't be a goat or in its historically trivialized form, "be nice."   

But this is his last lesson so we need to listen closely when he starts with, “And when the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. And before him will be gathered all the nations.”

Son of Man.  Interesting phrase.  Used by Jesus more than any other when referring to himself.  Son of Man.  In a contemporary rendering, “the human one.”  The human one will gather all the nations.  All the nations.  Nations is from the Greek ethnos. We say ethnic groups now.  We should just say us.

That idea comes from a lecture/sermon I heard years ago from Carlyle Marney, former pastor to the governor of Texas and then senior pastor of Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist Church before founding the Interpreter’s House at Lake Junaluska as a place for Christians and in particular Christian clergy to rest, re-examine, and re-focus their personal callings.

Marney, who would only admit to being a “Baptist, south of God” in talking about our “ethnos” said it this way

For him it was the dream of the American experiment -- We are the ones who get to choose our religion -- and for him it was also the failure of that experiment in what we now call denominationalism. 

Marney talked about our buckets and how it just didn’t matter how many we made or how big those buckets were. 

In a deep fried Bone tired voice flattened by preaching in Texas too much he said this,
“The name for who were are in relationship to God isn’t Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness.  There is no bucket of our making big enough. The name for who we are in relationship to God is HUMAN.  And the pronoun is US!”

All the ethnos, all the buckets, one day gathered with the Son of Man.  All of US! and still, still there will be goats. 

Now hear me. When Jesus tells us about the sheep and goats I don’t think he’s making simple predictions about the future. There is no “Just wait and see.”  If that were the case he’d be done. 

But there is a Bethany, a Jerusalem, a Calvary, an empty tomb.

He is about to die for us.  I think he is using the story to get a response, not just from the disciples or the jews who would have heard “the nations” as everybody but us.  I think he wants a response from us, too

Excuse me if this sounds trivial but I think we need to hear Jesus as sounding more like Marley’s Ghost to Ebenezer Scrooge that night in those dreams.  Especially the third dream the one that showed Tiny Tim dead.  Not just crippled, not just hungry, not just cold, but dead.  Because nothing had changed. 

Jesus’ picture of the goats is just like the picture Dickens paints for us with Scrooge.  

Dickens doesn't want Scrooge to be "scrooge." Jesus doesn't want anyone gathered from all the nations to be a goat.  Jesus doesn’t want the goats to be cast out.  Jesus wants the goats to do what Scrooge did. Scrooge repented! Scrooge woke up to Christmas day a changed man!

Remember . . .  goats are better than no goats.  Milk, cheese, mutton, goatskins!  Why let the goats go to waste?  Save the goats! Why let them be lost in an eternal punishment? Save the goats, yes!  But not for their own sake.

Save them because my family needs them! Just like Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family needed Scrooge.

Whenever you did it to the least of these my kindred you did it to me. I’m having a hard time reading it any other way.

The sick, strange, poor, hungry, naked, imprisoned ones are my family. My family. And who are the goats? 

Whenever you didn’t help one of us, my family says the human one you were a goat.

In failing to feed, clothe, welcome and visit the goats look a lot like Scrooge on Christmas Eve or a lot like some other good Christians that I know. 

Especially like those Christians who say things like:  “You make your luck,”  or  “Are there no prisons? or “I got mine,” or “Bah, Humbug” or “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” or “Are there no workhouses?” or “Poverty is the fault of the poor.” 

Thanks be to God none of those utterances are in Matthew 25 much less the Bible.

Does God expect us to do our part.  Yes.  “The laborer deserves his food.”  Now that is in the Bible.  Matthew 10:10.

But there is in this last lesson from Jesus NO condemnation of those who are hungry, poor, naked, strangers, sick or imprisoned. 

NO condemnation.  But an embrace.  They are my family. The only condemnation is self inflicted.  It is a condemnation chosen by the ones who will become goats when they act as if what they have to clothe, to feed, to cure, to visit, to share, came from some source other than God.

By forgetting that it all comes from God in the first place the goats in us condemn themselves.  So . . . wake up Scrooge!  Wake up Mr. and Mrs. Christian.  It all comes from God and is meant for the whole family.  So wake up and give thanks.  Care for the poor and give thanks.  Feed the hungry and give thanks.  Clothe the naked and give thanks.  Welcome the stranger and give thinks.  Visit the sick and give thanks.  Meet those in prison and give thanks.

Do all these things and give thanks

Because the goat you save may be your own.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sabbath Disconnect

One could argue that the Christian weekly observance of the resurrection of our Lord primarily occurring on Sunday mornings between the hours of 8am and noon is an inadequate Sabbath practice. Yes I said it. Going to church every week on Sunday morning may not be “sabbathy” enough.

I’m thinking this way for a set of reasons not just one. First, remember the circumstances that led to the creation of Advent-ures. Sunday morning was not a good time for many of our young families to muster for a 9:30 start AND to do so in “love and charity” with each other. Even worse was how damaging to the intent of a Sabbath for the parents all that effort often was. One of the benefits of our current Advent-ures setup is the “parents night out” it provides.

Second, I know I’m taking a risk with this next insight but I’m interested how the women of our church are more consistent in their attendance on Sunday morning. The trend is not extreme but it is noticeable.

Third, I’ve noticed how every time I run by Ingle’s Sunday after church or in the afternoon I meet a parishioner who has to start the conversation apologizing or excusing their absence earlier that day. It is not hard for me to understand and I do everything I can to put them at ease. We are both in the store because it is when we have time to go. Plus, I’d rather have a good visit than instill guilt.

Fourth, it occurs to me that our Jewish kin have a better Sabbath practice, especially those who live close enough to their synagogues and temples to walk to worship along with those who dim the lights and turn off the TVs.

There are other reasons but these few make it pretty clear that there is a disconnect between what we do and what we say about what we do. Our Christian observance is meant to be a celebration and maybe that is the best reason there is little encouragement for the time we take to be “off” and thus the disconnect. Maybe we try too hard on Sunday morning for some people. They need the breathing space and not more to do or “get up for.”

Another way the disconnect shows up for me is in how hard it is to be quiet or sit in Sabbath-like silence during Rite I or Rite II eucharistic worship. I have no solution to this puzzle. I do know that Sabbaths are made not just taken and I do know that what we do on Sunday mornings is a break from the world’s lament, anxiety and busy-ness.

Celebration should be a refreshment. But I’m worried for those in our community and the society beyond who can’t connect with our current Sunday morning practices for whatever reason. Even more I’m worried that we are losing our sacred Sabbaths.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

More to Stewardship Than We Can Imagine

We’ve done just about all we can in preparation for our voyage, the journey into the future God is calling us to explore.  Many of you who pledged in previous years have said your prayers and made your commitment to supporting God’s mission in and from the Church of the Advent.  Just as prayerfully several commitments have come from families who have not pledged in the past.  
All of this is good news to which we respond “Thanks be to God!”  Yet, one of the risks we take in putting so much focus on this part of the process is that we forget to support each other in continuing in the larger part of stewardship.
Here’s what I’m thinking: Imagine what it would take for you to go without your cell phone for 24 hours. Call it a “cell phone Sabbath.” 
Take a breath. I’m not saying anything bad about those of us who seem to be on our phones all the time.  I am saying that in order for us to consider “continuing in the larger part of stewardship” it may require as much planning and advance work as a pledge campaign. 
The difference is that the intent of this effort is not just a relatively brief, once-a-year campaign closed by our signatures but the establishment of a habit or pattern of behavior shared by a community.
  • First you would have to find the time -- 24 hours -- to be away from your electronic “friend(s).”  
  • Then you’d have to choose between those friends and family who could join you and those you’d warn, in some cases multiple times beginning several weeks in advance.  
  • Then you’d have to get someone to protect you from intrusion or interruption during your Sabbath.  
  • It would probably help to have some ceremony to begin your retreat 
  • and certainly you’d want some ritual during your time as a way to sustain yourself and get through the hours.  
  • All of this would be done so that you can be open to a set of possibilities larger than those bound up in the web of emails, calls, and messages.  All this for one day. 

Now, breathe again. Imagine what it would take for that one cell phone Sabbath to become a pattern or habit. See what I mean about all the work required in “continuing the larger part of stewardship?”
So thanks be to God that we have come this far and done this much. Let’s pray that we continue with God into a future that will likely require even more work to sustain for the sake of our imagination.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Collaborating in God’s Neighborhood

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.  (BCP, p. 832)
This prayer has been on my heart and my mind a bunch lately.  Not only is it the one we’ve used to help in our reimagining Advent’s voyage with God in the year to come, it was also used as the postcommunion (yes, that’s how you spell it) prayer at the Service of Repentance and Reconciliation hosted by Bishop Wright on October 22 at the Cathedral of St. Philip. 
I’ll admit to the collect’s comprehensiveness and thus it’s capacity for use in multiple applications.  I’m also OK with saying that what Bishop Wright was about that night was different from our use, although not entirely.  Suffice it to say the prayer works for both of us.
In the case of Bishop Wright’s use, the prayer encouraged those gathered that night to move into a time and place we are still learning to describe.  His sermon -- as I’ve already said, “one of his best” – was a very good beginning toward reinterpreting racism as it has evolved through these last 50+ years.  
In our case we’ve articulated an understanding of Advent’s movement into doing what God is asking of us that includes more collaboration with our neighbors.  But instead of jumping into “collaboration” maybe we should first talk with our neighbors about neighborhoods and neighborliness. It might be exactly what we can do best at this point: host a gathering for sharing, for telling stories, and most of all for listening. 

A time may come for us to extend our Bishop’s call for repentance and reconciliation specifically through Advent’s collaborations but for now let’s ask God to so draw our hearts, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills and see what kind of neighbors we can become.