Sunday, February 11, 2018
“Transfiguration: Antidote for Tiny House Theology”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (NRSV)
Up on a mountain, standing before a transfigured Jesus, Peter is thrown into a kind of spiritual confusion. Overwhelmed by all that bright holiness, the disciple offers to do something selfish and short-sighted. Knowing Peter, it’s not a surprising suggestion. Knowing Jesus, though, it is absurd.
“Rabbi,” he says, I like being here. Let’s just stay. I’ll build each of us a tiny house.
The story of the Transfiguration illustrates one of the fundamental tensions in the Church – the tension between the call to be Jesus’ body in and for the world and the temptation to stuff him inside a Tiny House. To contain and control Jesus by building physical and philosophical walls around him.
When we read the stories of Jesus, we’re introduced to a man who goes out of his way to get into our way. He calls us to live as signs of life and love in a world rocked by death and fear. He does this consistently and without reserve. While Jesus does slip off to pray on a regular basis, moss does not grow under his feet. And everything he says and does challenges his disciples to follow him in faithful service.
Very early on, the Church forgot that. In the days of Constantine and Theodosius I, the Church began to teach that consenting to prescribed dogma, reciting formulas, and feeding the church coffers were more important to discipleship than loving God, loving neighbor, and feeding the poor. That led to the individualistic credo that a Christian’s only real concern, was to achieve a happy afterlife for himself or herself – more specifically, to avoid an unhappy one. The Church has earned the criticism of being “so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.”
Having said all this repeatedly, I imagine some of you thinking, “Here he goes again.” But I really do think that Christianity, especially in first-world cultures, inclines toward Peter’s Tiny House understanding of faith and discipleship as its default position.
Tiny House theology explains why congregations tend to face bigger arguments about paint and carpet than missions.
Churches use it to justify building up large investment portfolios and not even tithing from them.
Tiny House theology shapes a passive, sit-and-wait-to-be-served practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
It makes congregations nervous about opening their doors to people who need ministries of healing and support like AA, NA, and Al Anon.
From the collusion of the Jewish leadership with Rome in the ancient Middle East, to the violent and corrupt papacy of medieval Europe, to the religious right of the modern West, Tiny House religion has sought to secure status and future by bedding down with the ways and means of empire.
One of my own weekly struggles against Tiny House theology is choosing hymns. So much of the doctrine in our hymnody proclaims a god of retribution, a god who can be appeased only through blood-letting. Or it has us fluttering our eyes at a diaphanous Jesus waiting to welcome us into the “Sweet By and By.” And in my opinion, those images tempt us with a god who allows and even encourages us to get comfortable with violence and superficial piety. That god engulfs us in smallness.
Now, I am aware that we live in chaotic and frightening times. And this place is called a “sanctuary.” We come here seeking peace and assurance.
We come here to be reminded that we’re not alone in the universe.
We come here trusting that the timeless Spirit we call God loves us and gives meaning to our lives.
We gather to hear the music, the words, and the silence that both grounds us in God’s good Creation and releases us from the crushing gravity of life in a broken world.
We come here to meet Jesus, and to sit in his presence.
We come here to share each other’s awe, and wonder, and love of God, and to be sent forth renewed and empowered for grateful and joyful service.
Here, in this sanctuary, in the company of Jesus, God’s voice affirms our faith, saying, Yes! “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
That’s why we’re here: To listen to Jesus. And what does Jesus say? He says, Follow me. Not, Follow protocols.
He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Not: Sit here in sanctimonious compliance for an hour, then go joke about beating the Baptists to the Sunday buffet.
Jesus says, ‘When you show compassion to those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned, you are showing compassion to me.’ (Mt. 25:40) Not: When you look right, act right, and don’t rock the boat, you make me proud.
He says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2) Not: Build yourself a tiny house.
Jonesborough Presbyterian has about two hundred people on its roll. Anywhere from ninety to a hundred and twenty people are here on a normal Sunday. While we are not, thank God, a megachurch, we don’t do God or ourselves any favors by dismissing Jonesborough Presbyterian as some quaint, “little church.” Listen, there’s nothing tiny about Jesus. We’re a mission outpost in the worldwide Body of Christ! And Body of Christ doesn’t exist for its own sake. Any congregation, regardless of membership, who sees itself as a “little church,” as a tiny house for Jesus, is just trying to avoid the call to be, to do, and to experience all the things disciples are called to be, to do, and to experience “through Christ who strengthens [us].”
As Presbyterians, we’re not a Tiny House church. We are part of a connectional, relational denomination. What any one church does is done on behalf of the wider church. That’s why, officially anyway, we don’t send out “missionaries” anymore. The PC(USA) sends out “mission co-workers.” We send out men, women, and families whose work around the globe is our work. God hasn’t called you and me to labor in the fields of Haiti, Puerto Rico, Sudan, Malawi, the Philippines, Bangladesh or any other nation in which God’s beautiful and beloved people cry out for help. But we are co-workers with those whom God has called and sent. They need our prayers and financial support. We may be stationed here, but we’re part of a vibrant, global body.
It follows that those of us who don’t personally participate in Family Promise, or the food pantry, or Loaves and Fishes, are still there when members of this congregation do take part. We’re in this together.
Jesus’ Transfiguration calls us to “Listen to him.” And he is calling us to our own ministries.
Listen, and your life will reveal your ministry to you.
Listen, and your heart will speak to you when you recognize suffering to which you can bring relief or meaning.
Listen, and your heart will call you to joy that you can enter and increase.
Even now, the voice of God saying to you, “Listen to him!”
And Jesus is saying to you, “Follow me.”
Monday, February 5, 2018
For the first time in decades, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day. That gives us a unique opportunity to celebrate two kinds of love simultaneously.
On Valentine’s Day we hail the gift of Eros, the love between two people that includes the kind of companionship and intimacy that makes being human such a pleasure and such a struggle. Along with Philos (the companionable love of friends), Eros is gifted to us when, in the second version of creation, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18)
Created for relationship, human beings need helpers and partners. Virtually all of us need to be held in an embrace which proclaims affection and vulnerability as well as commitment and accountability. As the “one flesh” embrace of committed love, Eros is that kind of love. It can be, and faith traditions argue that it is intended to be, a love of profound depth, substance, and holiness. Apart from mutuality, however, Eros leads us, at best, into the heartbreak of unrequited love. At worst, it mires us pits of obsession and lust.
On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate Eros with physical expressions like chocolates, flowers, nice dinners, flirtation, and romance.
Ash Wednesday begins the liturgical season of Lent. And Lent is the journey of Agape love. Lent culminates with Passion Week. Worship during Passion Week tends to be very physical, as well. It includes things like Seder Meals, services of darkness and light, walking the stations of the cross, and celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Passion Week gives way to the great observance of Easter (Resurrection), which, along with Christmas (Incarnation), proclaims God’s material presence in and undying love for the Creation.
Agape love is the passionate and unconditional love of divine initiative. Unlike Eros, it neither requires nor expects requital. Agape is love that can’t be helped. And while it is given in utter selflessness, purely for the benefit of the other, true acceptance and embrace of Agape is almost always marked by some sort loving response.
Perhaps this is the way Agape love redeems. It generates within those who embrace it responses of unfettered gratitude and generosity.
All genuine love is an expression of Agape love in the same way that all of Creation itself is an expression of the Creator. We are not God any more than Eros is Agape, but we are made by God, and even of God (Julian of Norwich), just as Eros and Philos are, at their purest, reiterations of Agape.
The word love is thrown about with careless abandon in our culture. And it seems to me that to use that word without intention is, in many cases, not much different than taking God’s name in vain. Implicit in the acknowledgment that we are created by God is the affirmation that we are connected by Love. Surely that is why we read in 1 John: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Christmas. Lent. Passion Week. Easter. Pentecost. Valentine’s Day. All of it is, at its deepest heart, all about God, because God is all about Love.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (NRSV)
We are currently in the liturgical season known as Ordinary Time. Each year has two intervals of Ordinary Time, a short interval occupying the several weeks between Christmas and Lent, and a longer one spanning the months between Pentecost and Advent.
Ordinary Time is just that – ordinary. The color is this lukewarm green. During Ordinary Time we plod along with Jesus as he travels about the countrysides of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. It follows his interactions with his disciples, with Jewish leaders, and with the impoverished and forsaken people to whom Jesus pays the most attention. Sometimes the stories are interesting and compelling. Other times they’re, well, ordinary. Maybe today’s text contains your favorite scripture passage. And that’s wonderful. To me, though, it’s one of those all-too-ordinary texts. Tell me if this summary is basically accurate:
Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and she gets up and gets to work.
By evening, the street outside Peter’s house is lined with sick folks. Jesus helps as many as he can.
Early the next morning, Jesus slips away to pray. His disciples hunt him down and tell him that folks are looking for him. And Jesus says, We have to keep moving. So they do.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
How numbingly ordinary…
A true story: Sam was eagerly involved in the life of his congregation. He came to small group studies. He served as a deacon. He got excited about learning and growing as a Christian. Then came a moment of foreshadowing.
Sam’s pastor became aware of a nearby family who was experiencing an acute need for warmth. He asked a study group if they’d like to help this family by getting a space heater. Sam jumped at that. He contributed money and volunteered to help purchase and deliver the heater.
During the delivery, Sam and his pastor talked with the woman who had a young son. They lived in a small house that was sealed about as tight as a screened porch. While describing other issues her family faced, the woman was clearly asking for more help. The pastor told her about other resources, then he and Sam wished her well.
Driving away, Sam was bewildered by the experience. “She barely said Thank you!” he said.
“No,” the pastor said, “but they’ll be warmer.”
That didn’t mollify Sam. He seemed to need recognition more than that family needed heat. Or, maybe when expecting an extraordinary experience, he found it ordinary and unsatisfying.
Over the next couple of years, Sam’s church attendance and participation grew sporadic. He said it was getting monotonous. He climbed on the contemporary worship bandwagon, and while he found the music livelier, he said it was still “just the same old same old.”
In his early forties, Sam had more discretionary money and time than most people his age. Discipleship became no match for the allure of shiny things and opportunities to use them. He spent more money and time satisfying his desires. He got divorced, again. Within three years, Sam had completely abandoned his communal faith practice.
I can understand Sam’s struggle. When something that’s supposed to be transforming and life-giving feels numbingly routine and imprisoned by the way we’ve always done it, it feels dead.
It seems to me, though, that the real problem was Sam’s sense of entitlement to being entertained, to being constantly excited and stimulated. He lost interest in a church that spends most of the year following Jesus on the plodding journey of Ordinary Time, tending to commonplace needs piling up at the door. Jesus may take a few minutes here and there to pray, but for the most part, he just keeps moving. Lumbering ahead. Day-to-day. Town-to-town. Person-to-person.
It doesn’t take a linguistic savant to recognize that the words disciple and discipline are related. Discipleship is the discipline of following a leader in the midst of tedium and stasis as well as excitement and change. Aware of how ordinary life will be even after Easter, Jesus says, “You will always have the poor with you.” (Mt. 26:11) Following Jesus means tending to those whose needs often seem tiresome and interminable.
When Christian practice, which is voluntary, begins to feel tiresome and interminable, why bother?
We all have to wrestle with that question. And one reason I continue to bother is because I continue to find blessing and purpose in the midst of the ordinary. I continue to recognize God in those reaching out for acceptance, assurance, and healing in places like Family Promise, the JAMA food pantry, Loaves and Fishes, and ASP. I experience the same-old clamoring for holiness and hope right here in worship, Sunday school, committee meetings, and on CL&M outings.
Now, if fewer and fewer people look to the church for experiences of holiness and hope, that’s partly our fault. The more the Church considers itself extraordinary, the more Christians separate themselves from ordinary reality. The more the Church turns inward, the less we go out to seek and help those who suffer. We even blame them for their suffering. Spiritually, we reduce Jesus to personal savior. He’s no longer our Lord who leads us into the world’s ordinary brokenness and hurt with words of kindness and deeds of love.
“Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary,” said Mother Teresa. “What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that [our] strength lies.”1
When reflecting on his own life, Frederick Buechner began to experience God’s presence in ordinary places he never thought to look. And he summed up his understanding of Christian practice this way: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”2
On the table before us is grape juice from a grocery store, and bread baked in someone’s home this morning. Now, those gifts sit in shiny silver trays that date back to the mid-1800’s. Such heirlooms are more expensive and needy than they ought to be when offering what Jesus offers in his ordinary, human hands. That means we have to distinguish between the gift and the giftwrap we put around it. The gift feeds us, and it sends us out to recognize the presence of holiness and grace in the ordinariness of life, and to share the redeeming love of the risen Jesus.
So, come to the table. And come what may, let’s keep moving.
Sunday, January 28, 2018
“Jonah: Prophecy 101”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
When convinced of the idea of God, one usually credits God with a certain degree of competence, like knowing whom to call to particular work. And while scripture illustrates God’s competence repeatedly, the story of Jonah seems to muddy the water.
Today’s reading is Chapter 4, the ending of Jonah’s story. Because the whole story is important, let’s review Chapters 1 through 3 first.
The story opens with “the word of the Lord” coming to Jonah and calling him to Nineveh. God chooses Jonah to enter “that great city” and let them know that they’re missing the mark. Jonah’s first response is to head for Joppa where he boards a boat for Tarshish. Tarshish is for Jonah what Emmaus is for the disciples after Jesus’ death. It’s Jonah’s destination of escape and evasion.
Running away from God, Jonah runs headlong into a terrible storm, which he interprets as judgment against his him. As the boat is about to sink, Jonah tells the crew, Um, fellas. I think this mess is my fault. Throw me overboard, and you might survive. (One notices that Jonah volunteers to be thrown overboard, not to jump.)
In a subtle but profoundly revealing moment, the crew shows tremendous restraint and compassion. They’re terrified, but they keep rowing. They try to get to shore where everyone will be safe. Only when the storm proves stronger than their efforts do they throw Jonah overboard. Remember that. We’re coming back to it.
Next comes the archetypal metaphor: The Big Fish. Jonah’s three-day sojourn inside the beast becomes a tomb from which he will be resurrected, like Jesus’ from his tomb. It becomes a prayer-closet, like Paul’s blindness, or his prison cell. Inside the fish, under the water, Jonah reflects on God’s call to him. Chapter 2 is Jonah’s fish-belly prayer. While of the prayer is lament, it ends this way: “But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you, what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9) With that, the fish regurgitates Jonah onto dry land.
If you want an evocative image of repentance, look no further than Jonah standing in a big puddle of whale vomit – and liking it!
Chapter 3 begins almost identically to Chapter 1: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” This time Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims God’s message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Hearing in Jonah’s words God’s call to repentance, the Ninevites declare a fast. Nothing shall eat, neither human nor animal. There isn’t even a time limit, only this prayerful hope: “Who knows? God may relent.”
God does not destroy Nineveh. This is where Chapter 4 begins.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.
He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.
“11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Jonah’s prophecy is to be an eye-opener, a call to repentance. What the Ninevites do with that summons is their business – more specifically, it’s not Jonah’s business. But when God spares Nineveh, Jonah is displeased. Bless his heart.
What do you know? God really is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” And that is Jonah’s grievance. God asks him to pronounce judgment, and God doesn’t follow through with wrath. It seems that Jonah understands taking personal responsibility, but he cannot comprehend divine grace.
Let’s return to the storm threatening Jonah’s boat. The prophet tells the crew that if they’ll make him walk the plank, things will settle down. But at first, they refuse to serve as Jonah’s executioners, even if his unfaithfulness is the cause of their peril. Only when there seems no other alternative, and only after praying that their actions are not selfish and murderous, and seeing Jonah’s willingness to be sacrificed, does the crew heave Jonah into the sea.
Interestingly, Jonah doesn’t get the comeuppance he expects. He gets another chance. In the midst of Jonah’s deliberate attempt to escape, God gives the prophet an opportunity to experience grace.
Why, then, does Jonah expect and even want to sit back and watch Nineveh go down in flames? Why does he associate righteousness and justice with deadly wrath? It seems that Jonah, like many people of faith throughout history, confuses the retributive justice of humankind and the restorative justice of God. And that means he fails to understand the heart of God.
The closing line of the story is a beautiful, God-heart-revealing question. “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh,” says God, “that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Shirley Guthrie was one of the most beloved professors ever to sit on the faculty of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA. Of all Dr. Guthrie’s memorable teachings, one that lingers in my heart is when he said that “God’s love is always just. And God’s justice is always loving.”
Jonah needed to have heard that. Jonah needed to know that the purpose of his ministry was not to condemn Nineveh, but that Nineveh might experience salvation through the grace of a prophetic call to return to justice and righteousness.
Does that sound familiar? “Indeed,” writes John, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Salvation means living lives of justice and righteousness, lives of gratitude and generosity, lives of compassion for and service to all Creation. And that means allowing our lives to be forever haunted by God’s question: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,” all those people, and all those animals?
The answer to that open-ended question is an emphatic Yes. God is always concerned for all cities, all countries, all peoples, all animals, and all things. And faithfulness to God means acting and speaking as signs of God’s redeeming love.
Jonah’s story is a kind of training manual for prophets. It illustrates how being entrusted with prophetic authority presents us with some temptations – specifically, the temptation to think that the authority is ours. True prophets of God declare the authority of God’s unconditional love. Prophets help communities to see that the fear that blinds them, the greed that drives them, the pride that weakens them, the anger that consumes them – all such things hinder the work of grace. That says to me that destruction is never the will of a God of restorative justice. We are the wrathful and destructive ones, not God.
The book of Jonah is Prophecy 101. Prophecy is not about condemning sinners. It’s not about predicting future events. And prophecy is perverted when used to manipulate people through fear.
Our prophetic work, as individuals and as the Church, is to bear witness to a new way of life, a kingdom of heaven life, a life of loving justice and just love. We proclaim that life by doing our best to live it. Here and now. In the name of Jesus. On behalf of all humankind, of all creatures, and of the very earth itself. We commit to this new life because God so loves the world.
All of it.
Sunday, January 21, 2018
“A Life Worthy of the Calling”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Paul loves God. He feels deep compassion for his fellow human beings. He’s invigorated by a relentless passion for the Gospel. Because faithfulness to Jesus is more important to Paul than loyalty to a great and powerful nation, the Apostle writes his letter to the Ephesians from a Roman prison.
Imprisoned but not encumbered, Paul, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, transforms his cell into a kind of hermitage. He uses his incarceration for creative ferment rather than for despair and lament. His letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for Christians who are struggling to be citizens of the kingdom of God in a world of empires and armies.
Listen for God’s Word in this portion of Paul’s letter:
14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 3:14-4:6)
“You are being rooted and grounded in love,” says Paul to people mired in violence and fear.
The Apostle situates the Ephesians within the unlimited “breadth and length and height and depth” of that love rather than the worldly boundaries of empire, because love, not power and wealth, opens the door to God’s fullness.
Domination is the principal attribute of empire, and it creates resentment and maintains temporary truce. Paul “begs” his readers to live humbly, gently, patiently, and peacefully, because these attributes create genuine unity and maintain lasting peace.
Paul is calling the Ephesians to embody the love of Jesus.
Last Saturday, I sat with my dad who was at his computer reflecting on a question I asked him. Drawing on Aristotle and Jesus, Dad referred to the politics of fear and vengeance. He mentioned the reality of what he calls “imperial selves and states that exist for their own [sake].” They’re dangerous, he says, because they will do anything in their own interest. When he talked about taking and managing existential risk for the sake of others, he referred to “Quakers, black churches in the south, and Christians in the middle east,” people who choose to live according to the demands of radical faithfulness to Jesus, even when faithfulness could mean being harmed, or killed, or simply demeaned by those who hold power. That kind of living requires a commitment to that actively engaged love called Agape.
The last thing Dad typed was, “So, Aristotle and Jesus agree – love that isn’t practical isn’t love.”1
“Love that isn’t practical isn’t love.”
In the wake of Martin Luther King Day, I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote it after he had been arrested for parading without a license. He and others had simply exercised their constitutional right to peaceful assembly. In an act of practical love, they protested segregation in one of America’s most racist cities. Taking exception to demonstrators, especially black demonstrators, Bull Connor, Birmingham’s infamous Commissioner for Public Safety, unleased his troops, who unleased their billy clubs and their dogs. Afterward, for eleven days in April of 1963, Dr. King sat in prison, in the state of Alabama, in the great and powerful nation of the United States of America. And he transformed his cell into a kind of hermitage. He used his incarceration for creative ferment rather than for despair and lament.
During Dr. King’s imprisonment, a group of white pastors criticized him. They said he should have waited for that demonstration. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a response to those pastors. It’s an epistle worthy of Paul. Writing with his characteristic eloquence, passion, and unflagging hope, Dr. King challenges those pastors, and all who call themselves Christians, to grow living tissue on our often-dead theological bones.
King’s words speak very personally to me. “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’”2
King suggests that churches led by such ministers tend to espouse a “completely other worldly religion” something rooted and grounded in the thin and rocky soil of pious platitudes and loveless inertia.
After reading Dr. King’s letter, this white pastor realizes once again, that when my life doesn’t reflect what my words say in this comfortable space, then I am using this sanctuary to seek sanctuary from God. I’m using my pastoral office to hide from God, even to deny God. Martin Luther King helps me to hear Paul’s words with new urgency: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
The life Paul talks about, is a life of practical, active, incarnate love. And because following Jesus includes social and political engagement on behalf of those without power or voice, it can be an uncomfortable life. Many within the church condemn Christians who live that life. They label them as radicals, as extremists.
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” says Dr. King. “‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them…’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’…And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [people] are created equal…’ So,” says Dr. King, “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?...Perhaps,” says King, “the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”3
It seems to me that if “extremists” are men and women who dare to recognize and uphold the holiness and the inherent value of all people, regardless of skin color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, social class, or any other category that alienates us one from another, then those extremists are what Jesus and Paul call disciples.4
In his epistle to new Christians, James declares that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) When reading the whole letter, it becomes clear that James is not advocating some kind of self-aggrandizing works righteousness. James refers to what he calls the “royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (2:8)
Like Jesus, Paul, and Martin Luther King, Jr., James challenges his readers to embody their faith. He calls them to live lives of practical, incarnate love, because “if love isn’t practical, it isn’t love.”
Agape love is “the power at work within us.” And only through that love does God “accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.”
1After I preached this sermon, someone made the comment that practicality is a very subjective category. He said that there could, indeed, be expressions of love that many would deem impractical. For example, he said, some who wanted to see racial equality addressed with greater decisiveness might argue that Dr. King’s non-violent protests were impractical. No single protest “achieved” the end of desegregation. And certainly, racial prejudice and injustice continue in 2018. So, I suggest that by “practical,” my father and I both are making the distinction between lip service to an ideal and some form of participation in a broader effort to engage positively in the world on behalf of other human beings – particularly those who suffer from injustice. I consider this consistent with what Dr. King meant when he distinguishes between “negative peace” and “positive peace.” In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King also makes a clear distinction between the movement in which he was a central figure and Elijah Muhammed’s black nationalist movement, which tended toward more violent action. One might argue that the black nationalist movement was more “practical” in that it confronted racial injustice with more immediate and militant force. And one could certainly argue that love for the black community motivated such actions. But King clearly wanted to use Jesus as his standard by which loving action was measured. And that precluded violence.
2 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html(This is just one of many sites that post Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”)
4I realize the danger of using the term extremism in today’s highly-polarized culture. The rhetoric of political and social extremes has gained traction in our current climate of fear and resentment. And it only serves to divide and alienate us all the more. I intend that term as descriptive of the specificity and the urgency of the Christian’s call to model his/her life on the life of Jesus as opposed to the prevailing and selfish forces of first-world politics and economics. (Again, I call attention to Dr. King’s distinction between his “direct action campaigns” and the more radical black nationalist movement.)
Sunday, January 7, 2018
“Let There Be Light”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
The lectionary pairs these two short passages, and together, they make me think of watching a sunrise from the Atlantic coast. Have you ever watched a sunrise? As the sun peaks over the horizon, light scatters across “the face of the deep” like the release of a great flock of golden birds. They fly in every direction – westward toward the shoreline, and into the misty reaches to the north and to the south. All things feel the creeping warmth of that new light. All things are stirred by the beating of those wings.
At sunrise, it makes sense to imagine God actually speaking in some human language saying, “Let there be light.”
According to John Scotus Eriugena, the 9th-century Celtic teacher, “To say that light is created on the first day is to say that light is at the heart of life. [Light] is the beginning of creation in the sense that it is the essence…from which life proceeds.”1
It feels redundant to emphasize the imagery – Jesus, the Light of the World, rises from the waters of baptism. The dove descends. And the Spirit breaks forth over the creation, making it new and whole. Restored through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, humankind, God’s chosen stewards, are released into every corner of the creation to live as signs of God’s presence in and boundless love for all things.
That’s the point of baptism. Baptism affirms the goodness, the holiness, the Belovedness of the material world. Baptism proclaims God’s blessing on all creation by proclaiming blessing and belonging upon one, specific creature. And God’s love for that particular person not only redeems him or her, it testifies to God’s redeeming love for all that God has created.
While baptism embraces and proclaims the Incarnation, our response to the good news of God’s incarnate love in Jesus will be homicidal fury. Beholden as we are to power, wealth, and certainty, we will find God’s revelation of pure love intolerable. We will dismiss God’s justice, kindness, and mercy as it is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth because it makes us feel too vulnerable in a dangerous world. The ways of violence, the ways of fear, resentment, and vengeance feel more trustworthy and effective. We will, time and again, say, “We have no king but [Caesar!]”
That only makes Jesus all the more unforgettable. On Friday, we reveal the lengths to which we will go to avoid holiness, but God always goes one step further to bring us back. Always.
“You,” says the Father, “are my Son, the Beloved.”
You are my Beloved because in your baptism you choose and commit to go that extra step to bring light into darkness. You, my Beloved, are sunrise on the brand new first day of a brand new creation. You, Jesus, will release the golden flock of the Holy Spirit upon the earth. You, my Beloved, are the Light.
In Christian baptism, we participate in Jesus’ baptism. We identify with his light, his essence. Claiming our own Belovedness, we become reflections of Jesus’ light in and for the creation.
The story of the “first day” of creation and the story of Jesus’ baptism are beautifully paired metaphors. Water. Spirit. Light. Sky. And the deep-time relationship not only between God and the creation, but the relationship within God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Alana Levandoski is a contemporary singer/songwriter. She did the whole Nashville thing some years ago, but after discovering Celtic Christian spirituality, she began to write and sing very differently. On the first album recorded by the new Alana Levandoski, the first song is entitled “Behold, I Make All Things New (Alpha).” (The “Omega” version is on the back of the bulletin. We’re going to sing it in a few minutes.) The “Alpha” version poetically reiterates the first day of creation. The first and last verses are the same: “Behold, I make all things new.” She sings that three times, and follows it with, “Let there be light. Let there be light.” In the two middle verses she sings, “God unseen is taking form…Let there be life,” and then, “The first and last are surging forth…Becoming life.”2
Those simple words – “God unseen is taking form,” “The first and last are surging forth,” – are like light breaking across the face of the deep. They affirm that the created order is an essential part of the Incarnation. For us, the Incarnation has a particular human face, Jesus of Nazareth. And calling him God Incarnate does not exclude us from our own incarnate holiness. Indeed, Jesus calls us into the demands of discipleship, the demands of living as ones who are Beloved by God. All that holiness and all that purpose claim us in our baptisms. So, in spite of our limited, fallible, and all-too-human bodies and minds, human beings are active participants in God.
During confirmation, young people who were baptized as infants declare their own Belovedness of God. They acknowledge that as physical beings, they are created out of that which God calls “good.” And they make their own commitments to following Jesus. Richard Rohr says it this way, “The divine image is…held by all people, but we each have to choose to grow in our likeness to God.”3
Baptism also affirms that we are not God. For fear of all that is holy, good, and true, we will still nail God Incarnate to the cross on Friday. So, we confess our separation from God and our need to return to God. Yet, beneath all that is broken and corrupt, down at our deepest center, even we are manifestations of God’s essence. We are bearers of and participants in God’s Light.
We’re going to sing “Behold, I Make All Things New (Omega)” by Alana Levandoski. The words and melody are simple. That gives you the opportunity to mediate on them and to make this more than a song. Make this a prayer in which you hear God claiming you, identifying you as Beloved, and calling you to follow in the way of Jesus, God Incarnate, the Light who is breaking forth upon all Creation, and who does, in truth, make all things new.
Behold, I Make All Things New (Omega)4
w/m by Alana Levandoski
Behold, I make all things new. (3x)
I am the light. I am the light.
Anything made manifest, (3x)
Becomes the light. Becomes the light.
Behold, I make all things new. (3x)
I am the light. I am the light.
Turn your face toward my face. (3x)
Become the light. Become the light.
Behold, I make all things new. (3x)
I am the light. I am the light.
Become the light. Become the light.
1J. Philip Newell, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, Paulist Press, New York-Mahwah, NJ, 1999. p. 3.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
I never get tired of The Farm. The Farm, which has been in Marianne’s family for over a half century, is 260 acres of sandy fields, fragrant pines, and a chaotic mix of sweetgums, cedars, oaks, and dense, toothy briars. The old house where Marianne’s great-grandparents lived is still standing – more out of habit than structural integrity. The tin-topped gable and the crumbling brick chimney have parted ways. The heart-pine clapboards are warped and sagging. They line up like a mouthful of neglected teeth. The house is uninhabitable by anything other than spiders, mice, wasps, and snakes. A few memories cling to the rotting front porch like dusty cobwebs.
A local farmer rents the open land to raise cattle. There are also a fair number of acres of long leaf pines neatly planted in brilliant green rows. But the majority of The Farm is surrendering to the slow creep of scrub oaks, fruitless vines, and the invasive and utterly useless privet hedge. If I were to drive you down Captola Road and point out The Farm, you would be underwhelmed. But like I said, I can’t get enough of the place. Every time I drive down the rutted farm road, thirty-five years of memories welcome me and ground me in familiarity, while the woods and their wildness keep the place lively and new.
Each new year is kind of like returning to The Farm. There is much that will be the same as last year. But in the midst of the humdrum of it all, every minute, hour, day, week, and month hold the potential to surprise us with something delightful or disturbing. Like 2017, 2018 will do the same. This year, some aspect of our aging selves will wane a little more. Regardless of age, all of us will grow, become, and deepen in some way. Even the painful moments will invite us to recognize something holy about ourselves and about life itself. And inevitably, the creep of death, the ultimate wilderness, will touch each of our families with its terrible, life-altering beauty.
In his book Now and Then, writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner writes: “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
May God be with all of you in this splendid New Year.
Grace and Peace,