Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Escaping Egypt

Some of you will be quick to question the title shown for the artwork above. What we’ve printed here is a cut from a watercolor painting given to Cindy and me when we left Clarkesville. It remains one of my favorite paintings and gifts from a parishioner. Most of how we relate to Jesus as a baby with Mary and Joseph AND Egypt is to tell the story by their going there, not their coming back. The most often used title for these depictions is “Flight to Egypt.”

Here’s the thing, in most of the visual pieces depicting this scene unless you know geography and astronomy well it is nearly impossible to tell which way they are going. Following that, it is also nearly impossible to understand all that is going on in Matthew’s gospel and Joseph’s dreaming without including that they didn't stay in Egypt.

 Very soon we will be hearing of the Magi and their travels and in that will be told of their return trip, too. They go “home by another way” so that they don’t have to encounter Herod again.   Jesus, Mary and Joseph go TO Egypt for pretty much the same reason. But the holy family can’t stay there. What the prophet Hosea said eight centuries before was understood as meaningful. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” And so they return and find a home in Nazareth.

There are lots of ways to go from this lesson. We could talk about “comfort zones” and risk-taking. We could talk about fear. We could talk about hope and expectation or about how marvelously God does what God does. Some might want to focus on the value of dreaming. Lots of ways to talk. Pick any one of these and you still have to talk about going somewhere next and doing something else.

Going or doing and not just waiting for an end to Herod’s despotism. The life and ministry and miracles and multiplications of food and healings and teaching and politics and sacrifice and resurrection of that baby carried in Mary’s arms on the back of that donkey all the way to Egypt and back are the going and doing next. No matter what, the return from Egypt and what happens afterwards is what made the flight to Egypt meaningful, even necessary.

The point of calling the return an escape is to note that we are prone to think and often in a false humility that God only wants us safe, only wants us happy, only wants us to be fulfilled. Sure God wants us safe, happy and fulfilled. God wants that for the whole world. In order for that to come true though, we have to leave. Based on our comforts and confidence our leaving may have to be more like an escape in order to do what God wants next.

 My own version of this has been at time to act like being a priest is the fulfillment of God’s call in my life. And then thinking that as long as I keep my nose clean and am engaging, polite and pastoral I am doing what I am supposed to do. But sometimes, maybe all the time my answering God’s call is meant to be more like Nazareth than Egypt, more like Bethany and Capernaum and Cana and Galilee and on and on. Lots of ways. Lots of ways. Sometimes we must escape Egypt.

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.