Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is there no balm in Gilead?

A couple weeks ago, those of us who use the “semi-continuous track” of the Revised Common Lectionary heard Jeremiah’s plaintive question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (8:22) That is my question today for the Church, particularly for the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and the leadership of the Anglican Communion. Is there no balm in Gilead?

Intellectually I understand the gist of the statement of the House of Bishops issued yesterday (here). I understand that, as Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori said in her “Word to the Church (here),” it affirms the status quo. I can even understand the political necessity of saying certain things in certain ways so that certain people in the larger Communion can hear them and giving the Anglican Consultative Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury something to work with. I even get the very real concern of keeping the Communion together for the sake of mission throughout the world. I, too, in spite of everything, want to be a member of the Anglican Communion.

And, yet, is there no balm in Gilead?

Let me go so far as to say that I am willing to make sacrifices—I would have walked out of this Church a very long time ago if that were not true. I am willing to accept that there is a cross in all of this mess that I must stand at the foot of, and even a back (mine) on which some compromise must be built for a time.

And, yet, is there no balm in Gilead?

The sacrifice is hard and the back is sore, really very, very sore.

And, yet, is there no balm in Gilead?

Here’s why I keep asking the question:

It is of fundamental importance that, as we continue to seek consensus in matters of human sexuality, we also be clear and outspoken in our shared commitment to establish and protect the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons, and to name and oppose at every turn any action or policy that does violence to them, encourages violence toward them, or violates their dignity as children of God.

Having just stated the ways in which they feel the Church must continue to violate our dignity (how, in our tradition, could withholding the public celebration of our relationships and prohibiting our share in all aspects of the church’s ministry be thought of as anything other than a violation of our dignity?), the bishops then promise to oppose violating our dignity. That violates our dignity.

And then,

We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God's children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church.

But we are not full participants in the life of the church. You yourselves have just said so.

This gap between word and deed, reality and wishful thinking, is untenable. It is monstrous in how easily it seems to have been perpetrated. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! Wishful thinking is reality because we say so!

Two sentences would have been a balm in the form of some sense of honesty and compassion. To the first sentence quoted above could have been added, “We believe this journey we are on as a Communion is itself a journey toward making that dignity a reality in our own midst.” And to the second, “We offer our profound apology to our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers that we continue to fall short of this Gospel.”

That’s it.

You see, the gift lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons have been giving the church for the past thirty five years is honesty. It is something that the church has always struggled to keep at the heart of its message and mission. This has never been a surprise because honesty is hard for religious people who want to believe they can make themselves right, convincing God to love them. Jesus taught us that. The church has had a tough time admitting it is a flawed, human institution and therefore solely dependent on Gods’ grace for its very existence, much less its salvation.

We have been trying to teach you that honesty is the most painful thing in the world, and the only thing that can save us, because dishonesty is fundamentally the spiritual denial of grace itself.

Honesty is the balm in Gilead.

Please stop telling us things you think you want us to hear and start telling us, yourselves, and the world the truth. It really will set us all free.

But hear this clearly, a dishonest church is a dying church. Where there is no balm, the people perish. A word of truth and a word of compassion will not only be our comfort. It will be our resurrection.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd Stewardship

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
September 23, 2007--The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 16:1-13

It’s not a word we hear very much anymore: shrewd.

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Let me begin with my main point this morning: God wants us to be spiritually shrewd. And he wants us to be especially shrewd in how we deal with the thing that most gets in our way of God: our possessions. He wants us to practice stewardship with spiritual shrewdness.

The connection is right there, literally, in the text, although this [NRSV] translation covers it up. The word for “manager” could easily be, and often is, translated “steward.”[1] “Dishonest manager” in the old King James Version was “unjust steward.”

Personally I delight in the three or four parables Jesus tells like this one that are very hard for us to figure out because the main character is an anti-hero,[2] the opposite of the kind of person whom God would seem to want us to imitate. When he tells these parables he seems to be toying with us. I don’t think it “seems” that he is; I think he is toying with us!

Why? He does so for many reasons, no doubt, but among them to keep us from falling into the trap of trusting in our own goodness to save us. Avoiding that trap is a major piece of work for us religious types, so major—the trap so enormous—that we have to learn to be very shrewd to avoid it.

These difficult parables underscore two very important principals for interpreting the parables in general. First of all, Jesus told them as stories primarily about God. We, in typical human fashion, want to make them primarily about us, but they are only about us after they are about God.

Second of all, the parables are almost always meant to unsettle our easy notions about God and how God acts. If Jesus had one singular driving internal force it was his conviction that people, even religious people, especially religious people, did not “get” God.

This is why, when asked why he kept speaking in parables, Jesus basically responded, “In order to confuse people.”[3] He wanted to confuse people’s religious sensibilities, to turn their easy notions about God on their heads.

So how is this a parable about God? Well, there are really two main characters in this story: the master and the unjust steward. In this case I think the master is a stand in for how we think God should act and the unjust steward is actually how God does act. We think that God acts like the master: carefully keeping track of the books and demanding an accounting from us when we are being dishonest or unjust or unrighteous (all fair translations of the adjective describing “steward”). We all assume that someday God is going to say to us in a heavy parental or boss-like tone, “Give me an accounting of your stewardship (management)!”

But God is actually like the unjust steward, who finds ways to cook the books, get the debts forgiven, and get on with life. If you think about it, Jesus himself acts just like “the unjust steward” in how he saves the world. It isn’t fair by the world’s standards. It isn’t even just by the world’s standards. St. Paul says, at one point in Romans, that God acted “unnaturally” in extending salvation to us Gentiles.[4]

You have heard me say (as Mary Ann reminded you last week) that God’s love for us is “pathetic.” Let me add to the “insult.” God’s love for us is also “unjust,” “dishonest,” even “unrighteous,” by our easy religious standards.

Or, to put it another way, as the parable does, it is “shrewd.” It is spiritually shrewd, smart. How so? For this reason: the capacity to be shrewd about something usually involves being able to think below the surface, to set aside our initial reaction to something or someone, and to come at a problem from a different direction. So God, rather than go with his gut and condemn us for our unrighteousness, our inability ever to do enough to please him, says, “OK, they will never be perfect on their own, so I think I will offer them my own perfection as a kind of cloak, and I think that if they will wear the cloak, they will actually become more perfect themselves, as they experience my love for them.

And that is, of course, one way of talking about the story of Jesus. Jesus was God’s spiritual shrewdness incarnate.

So how does this apply to us, now that we have some sense of how it might apply to God? Particularly, how does this apply to our life as stewards of God’s creation? How does this apply to how we relate to our possessions, those things that so compete for our attention, often at the expense of our relationship with God?

Basically I think it means that we have to be spiritually shrewd whenever we deal with the topic of money or possessions in the church or anywhere else. And that means we have to discipline ourselves not to be reactive, not to let our guts lead us, and to be willing to look at it from a different angle and ask the question, “What is God up to here that may not be what I think so at first?”

So, money gets mentioned in church. This time of year it always does, and this year more so than usual here because of the contemplated Capital Campaign, and, of course, that just raises all of our fears that more is being asked of us than we can possibly give. Each one of us sees that $300,000 goal and immediately begins thinking, “I can’t do that,” which quickly translates into “we can’t do that.”

Now if you go with that initial reaction then you’ll head one of three places: you’ll give out of loyalty, probably tinged with a heavy dose of guilt, or you’ll try to figure out how we can do this more cheaply, or you’ll pull a Nancy Reagan and “just say no.”

But if you are spiritually shrewd you will notice that initial reaction and say. “OK, that’s how I feel, but what is a different way of looking at this?” Set the reaction aside and say your prayers and exercise your mind.

Is this really a matter of whether or not God loves me? No. Is this really a matter of whether I am a full member of the church or not? No. Is my decision about this going to have anything to do with my standing with God or with the church? No. If I give, does the amount I give actually have anything to do with how much God loves me or how good a member of the church I am? No.

Than what is it about? It is not about the quantity of my giving (we are so afraid that the church—and God—works just like the rest of the world, that size matters). It is about that good, old fashioned Anglican quality: participation. At the very beginning of our tradition, as we were trying to define this “middle way” of ours, Richard Hooker gave us a metaphor. He said our life in the church is not about how good or righteous we are, it is about our participation. It is, literally about “showing up.”

I think that translates to stewardship in this way: it is not how much you give, it is about how much you share.

This great truth dawned on me in Vancouver while John and I were on vacation in August. I came across a quote from a “First Nations” person, as they call Native Americans there.

It has never been about what you don’t have. It’s about what you do have and what you can share.[5]

We are so afraid that it is about what we don’t have. We are so afraid it is about the amount. We are so afraid that we will not measure up in the eyes of God or of the church or of one another. And we desperately need to have the spiritual shrewdness to say, “No, that’s not what this is about.” It is not about how much I can give, it is about how much I can share. It is not about how much we can give, it is about how much we can share.

Sharing is the value here, not giving. And that means that the poorest among us and the wealthiest among us has the same standing. It is not about the size of the gift, it is about its quality, the attitude with which it is given.

Let us learn from God and be spiritually shrewd about everything in life, including our stewardship. It matters how we think about things. It matters how we think about God—that’s why Jesus told us these parables that get us all confused. It matters how we think about our life and our life together as a Christian community.

We have to deal with money in our life and in the church—even Jesus knew that and it hasn’t changed over the past 2,000 years. But we should not let ourselves think about it like the world around us wants us to think about it. It is not about the size of the gift; it is about the quality of the sharing. It is not about showing off, it is about showing up.

[1] The Greek word is oikonomos. A variation of the word occurs seven times in the parable.
[2] Usually counted among these are “the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) and, at least in the Jewish eyes of Jesus’ day, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). I would also add the Friend at Midnight (11:5-8). Interestingly enough, these are all found only in Luke’s Gospel.
[3] Matthew 13:10-13, Luke 8:10.
[4] Romans 11:24.
[5] The quote is from a member of the Musqueam people, Vivian Campbell, and was on display with other quotes in the Museum of Anthropology.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Seeing Unseen Things

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
September 2, 2007 )Proper 17)
Primary Text: Hebrews 13

For the last four weeks we have been reading through the last four chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews. It is one of my favorite sections of the New Testament and, I believe, one of the most important sections for the church in our day.

This morning’s passage is a series of ethical instructions, a short list of important Christian practices that the writer believes are the eternal core of what it means to be followers of Jesus. They are, in the author’s words, “the fruit of lips that confess [Jesus’] name,” summarized by the last statement of the passage:

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

I could certainly expound on these practices all by themselves, but I want to go back over the ground that has been covered these past four weeks, because that ground transforms this list from a “do this, this and this” to a full and rich way of life.

We began four weeks ago with the relatively familiar definition of faith at the beginning of chapter eleven,

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This “definition” of faith is full of irony and paradox, especially for the modern-day Christian. How can you be convinced about things you cannot see? How can you feel assurance about things for which you can only hope?

The most important word in the definition for the writer is the word “seen.” It will be sight that is the predominant metaphor that will take us through the rest of the letter. Indeed it has been important from the beginning. In the first couple chapters of the letter, the writer introduces his or her[1] understanding of who Jesus is, emphasizing that he is more than a mediator or messenger of God like the angels. He writes that it is true that we do not yet see everything that God intends for us to see. But, he says,

… we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (2:9).

Jesus was seen and he was, therefore, real, as was his suffering and death, and it is that verifiable reality—his sacrifice on behalf of others (including you and me)—that enables him to be the source of faith for us.

Every time the writer uses the word see, or even implies it, we should hear those definitive words ringing in our ears: “But we do see Jesus.”

Faith itself, the writer says, is “the assurance of things not seen,” but then he goes on to remind us of how our ancestors developed the ability to “see the unseen.” That’s what he really means by “the assurance of things not seen.” Faith, for him, is the ability to see the unseen.

He talks about the Creation, about Cain and Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Then he spends quite a bit of time on Abraham and Sarah, saying of them the most important part of his argument.

All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (11:13-14, 16b).

“Seeing the unseen” is something all of us have to do. Even the exemplar of faith, Abraham, had to do it. He “died without having received the promise.” He had indeed finally received a child with Sarah, but he did not see that child become the promise of “ancestors as numerous as the stars.”

“Seeing the unseen” is the ability to see “from a distance,” and not just with longing, but greeting. You only greet something that you can see, of which you are assured.

The writer than goes on to give more examples of this “seeing the unseen,” “greeting the promises from a distance:” Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (on whom he also spends a little more time than the rest), and then out of nowhere, reminding us that this vision is for everyone, Rahab the prostitute. He then says, “I could keep going but there’s not enough time” to tell all the stories of people who saw more than they could see, right up to your own day and you yourselves.

Yet all of these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

In this faith business, this seeing the unseen, we are all equal, even with the greatest of our ancestors. We will all “be made perfect,” we will all see, we will all receive the promises, together.

Then his argument comes full circle. We all, he says have to

…run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (12:1b-2a).

He then talks a little about the reality of this need to persevere, to endure the inevitable trials of having faith, building up discipline in ourselves for this journey. He does not in any way sugarcoat the journey of faith or hide the temptation we all face to turn away from it. He himself doesn’t use the words, but he says basically over and over again, keep your eyes on the prize.

And what is the prize? What is the promise that we are looking for, that we are trying to train our eyes to see from a distance? That was the vision in last week’s marvelous passage.

He helps us see the enormity of it by contrasting it to Moses’ and the Hebrews’ experience at Mount Sinai. They were afraid then; even the great Moses trembled with fear. No, our vision is different. Our vision is not fear and trembling, but

... Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and innumerable angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all whose judgment has caused not fear but justice, and Jesus who offers a new covenant with God because his blood proclaims Good News (unlike the blood of Abel crying for vengeance) (12:22-24, my own paraphrase).

That is the vision that we see, that is unshaken, that consumes all our inability to see in the fire of God.

And so we come to this morning’s passage, almost out of breath with this vision of unseen things. It wouldn’t have been a bad thing to end the letter with this great vision. But the writer knows that he can’t let us stay there, because the vision is only the promise. Sooner or later we will experience life falling far, far short of that dream, so far short that we will be tempted to just forget it.

So in the meantime, he says, these are the things you do to keep the dream alive, to keep your eyes on the prize, to keep seeing unseen things, to keep the faith. What follows is my paraphrase of what he says.

Keep treating one another like family, even strangers, especially strangers, because sometimes those strangers are angels even though you can’t tell it. Remember those in prison, or being oppressed, even tortured, as if you yourself were in their place. Be faithful to the commitments you make, especially marriage commitments because they are as close to your relationship with God that you’re going to get in this life. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of loving money and possessions more than anything else; find ways to be content with your life. You don’t have to be afraid; no one can take you away from God.

Find good leaders to imitate based on the fruit of their lives not necessarily their popularity or what they say. Jesus is the one thing that never changes, so keep focused on him. Don’t let anybody try to convince you to do anything but follow him and his sacrifice, even if that means other people, even religious people, think you’re crazy and an outsider. Jesus was an outsider.

Keep looking for the city that is to come. Don’t ever be satisfied with the one that is. Live right now as if you lived in that city that is to come. It’s really very simple: do good to others and share what you have.

And then the writer ends his letter with a blessing, as I will end this sermon.

Be the people who see the things that nobody can see, but are the truest things in the world: the God of peace, who raised Jesus from the dead, and made him the good shepherd of the sheep because of his sacrifice, will make us all whole and perfect so that one day we will see ourselves as God sees us, with the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of glory forever and ever. Amen.

Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. See unseen things.

[1] There are almost as many potential authors of Hebrews as there are commentators, but among them (at least since Adolf von Harnack proposed it in the early 20th century) is Priscilla, a colleague of Paul’s.