Repent, or Be Repented

December 4, 2016 Leave a comment

Advent 2, Year A
Texts: Isa 11.1-10; Rom 15.4-13; Matt 3.1-12

During Advent, we look ahead to the coming of Christ. This means we not only look ahead to Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth in the stable at Bethlehem, but we also look ahead to his return to earth to fully establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This is the kingdom of which the gospels speak: The kingdom of God is like a pearl of such surpassing value that when the merchant finds it, he sells all that he has to buy it. The kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast that a woman might mix into a giant batch of dough so that it will leaven the whole loaf. The kingdom of God is like a sower that scatters seed—much is lost among the rocks and weeds, but what does grow yields a hundred-fold harvest.

The kingdom of God. The very phrase stirs the imagination. It is this kingdom that we long for in the midst of suffering and evil. Isaiah imagines God’s kingdom as an existence in which justice and peace reign, so that even predators lie down beside their prey, everyone eating straw* together. He sees children playing over the dens of poisonous snakes with no fear of being bitten because nothing will kill or destroy.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edwards Hicks (1834)

He imagines this kingdom being ruled over by a perfectly righteous king, one who does not govern or judge by why he sees or hears, but by the wisdom and guidance of God. “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,” Isaiah writes. We see the fulfillment of this hope in Jesus, which is why we await his return and spend this season of Advent intentionally focused on that waiting. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love, God’s own self made flesh and living among us. We celebrate Christmas not because we love to give gifts and light up trees, but because we recognize that Christ is the incarnate love of God come down to earth to establish the peaceable kingdom for which we yearn, the kingdom in which the wolf and lamb lie down beside one another.

But is this really what we want? Read more…

What Happens Next?

November 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Feast of The Reign of Christ (Christ the King Sunday), Year C
Texts: Jer 23.1-6; Col 1.11-20; Lk 23.33-43

It has now been almost two weeks since Election Day. Undoubtedly, some of us in this room are pleased with the outcome, while others of us are disappointed. What I think we can all agree on is that Jesus was not on the ballot this year. Each time we gather to elect a president, his name is conspicuously absent from our list of choices, except perhaps for a few write-ins. It’s good for us to remember that neither candidate—neither the new president-elect nor his opponent—is Jesus; neither has the power to save or to destroy us. The outcome of this election took many by surprise on both sides of the political spectrum; for many, the shock has yet to wear off.

Unfortunately, something else that has not worn off—that has in fact become worse—is the wave of hateful incidents following the election. Across the country, there are stories of people being harassed, children chanting of “Build The Wall,” women having hijabs ripped from their heads, hateful graffiti and slurs, even some violence. Right here in Gig Harbor, in a grocery store parking lot, a boy was called by a hateful name because his skin is black. Regardless of which way we cast our votes—or didn’t cast our votes—we can all agree that these acts of malice and hatred are sickening and sad. It would appear that there are some sheep in the flock who are already taking after their new shepherd. Read more…

You Have Wings, Ducks

October 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Reformation Day
Texts: Jer 31.31-34; Rom 3.19-28; Jn 8.31-36

Every Sunday at the duck pond, the ducks all gather together at duck church. And every Sunday, the duck preacher ascends the pulpit and cries out, “Ducks! You have wings! You can fly, ducks! You can soar through the heavens and break the bonds of gravity. You have the ability to take wing and float through the air! Fly, ducks! Fly, for you have wings!” After the service, the ducks file past the duck preacher and tell him how inspired and uplifted they are by his words, and they all waddle home.

How silly, we might say, for those ducks who can fly to celebrate the great gift of their wings and to then waddle slowly home. However, I find myself wondering if the Church is not very much like those ducks. We come here today, and much as we do every week, we hear Christ speak these words to us: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free!” and we respond, “Yes Lord! I know the truth, and I am free. Thank you, Lord, for freeing me!” but do we then go home and continue living as if we were in captivity? Read more…

Evangelism, Persistence, and Justice

October 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 22/Proper 24, Year C
Texts: Gen 32.22-31; 2 Tim 3.14-4.5; Lk 18.1-8

Last week Stephanie and I were at Flathead Lake with my folks. One day, we went to Kalispell for lunch and at the restaurant I went to the bathroom. Inside, on top of the urinal, I found a small gospel tract card, proclaiming: “The Romans Road to Salvation is available to you!” I couldn’t help myself, so I read it. After it clearly justified the need for salvation, according to Paul’s letter to the Romans, it concluded with a prayer that the reader could pray to assure his salvation.

There is a significant part of Christ’s Church that hears the command to “proclaim the gospel… whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” and seeks to fulfill that command by doing things like leaving tracts on top of urinals. Personally, I would qualify that as an “unfavorable time,” but I admire how they are taking the words to heart. There is also a significant part of Christ’s Church that is uncertain how to fulfill this command in a way that is sensitive and respectful towards our neighbors of other faiths, or of no faith. For us—and I count myself among this part of the Church—too often our response is a helpless shrug and a “live and let live” mentality. Too often we remain silent out of worry over offending others or our own uncertainty whether our own particular set of beliefs is “right” or any more accurate than anyone else’s to the point that. Read more…

Waiting for Instructions

September 18, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 18/Proper 20, Year C
Texts: Amos 8.4-7; 1Tim 2.1-7; Lk 16.1-13

When Pr. Stephanie and I met, we were working as hospital chaplains. We worked with a woman named Lisa. Lisa loves the Bible and knows it well. She likes to call it her “operating manual.” I think of Lisa today because I would really like to ask her just what she thinks are the operating instructions we’re supposed to take from this parable.

This story is confusing! Is Jesus holding up the manager as a model of shrewdness and foresight to be imitated, or as a cautionary tale about what happens to those who are dishonest and untrustworthy? He squandered his master’s wealth and gets fired, but he seems to end up okay in the end having made some friends for himself by means of his master’s “dishonest wealth” who will take care of him. Jesus seems to indicate these friends may even welcome him into “the eternal homes,” but my question is: what’s the temperature in those homes? Read more…

A Case Study in Discipleship

September 4, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 16/Proper 18, Year C
Texts: Deut 30.15-20; Philem 1-25; Lk 14.25-35

This is one of those gospel texts it is tempting to avoid. Jesus talks about hating our families, carrying our crosses, and then compares us to salt that, if it happens to lose its saltiness, is in danger of being thrown out entirely. It’s hard to know where to begin… so let’s start with Philemon.

“Paul Writing His Epistles,” Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne – 17th century

I like the Paul’s letter to Philemon. Unlike Romans or Corinthians or Thessalonians, Philemon is a book that doesn’t delve into deep theological concepts or make us plow through the confusing run-on sentences Paul loves so well. And it’s short! How often can we say we read an entire book of the Bible in worship on Sunday? I especially like it today because rather than me trying to explain or defend Jesus’ words in Luke, I think this letter from Paul to Philemon actually shows us what Jesus is talking about. It’s a prime example of how Jesus’ teaching makes a world of difference in the life of actual people, not just theologians debating in books and ivory towers.

Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, which are written to communities, Philemon is written primarily to a person; and you can see the difference in how Paul writes it. Paul is famous for his ego and his bombastic tone; and yet in this letter to his friend Philemon Paul is humble, praising his friend and refusing to “command him to do his duty”—something which Paul is never too timid to do.

What little background we know about this letter has either been passed down to us through tradition or inferred from its contents. We know nothing of who Philemon was except that he was a man of some important standing and wealth. He must be the owner of some relatively successful business because he is the head of a household and owns slaves. Paul also addresses him as the leader of this church community.

We also know that Onesimus, about whom Paul writes, has been separated from Philemon, having been considered “useless” to him, (though not to Paul). According to tradition, Onesimus is believed to be a slave of Philemon, who has either run away or been sent away. Paul urges Philemon in this letter to receive him back not like a slave owner taking back a slave, but rather as one brother welcoming home another.

After Jesus himself, Paul is a great example of one who “carries the cross” with enthusiasm. Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner for Christ,” or perhaps even a “prisoner of Christ.” Imagine introducing yourself to someone as a convict; it’s not generally something to brag about! And yet, Paul claims his shameful status with pride, because he knows that he has been imprisoned for his work of spreading the gospel—for being a disciple. Therefore, even his imprisonment is an honor to him, because it is the result of his working towards God’s reign.

This is what it looks like to “hate” one’s family, friends and even life itself: Paul is willing to part with everything that he’s ever held dear on account of following Christ, because he considers God’s reign to be worth so much more than anything else he has. He is willing to endure whatever it takes—isolation, imprisonment, even death—to tell others about what God is doing in the world.

Not only that, he is urging in this letter that Philemon do the same. Philemon, as a slave owner, has every right to claim ownership of Onesimus, to beat him if he has run away, or to sell him to recoup his financial loss for such a “useless” slave. Paul, however, encourages him to waive these rights, which he models by giving up his own.

As a well-known and well-respected apostle, Paul could command Philemon to comply, citing scriptural texts and speaking with the authority of Christ himself, even threatening eternal damnation if he does not comply (all tactics he has used in his other letters!); but Paul does none of these things. Instead, Paul chooses to appeal to Philemon out of the love and affection that they have for each other as friends and as “co-workers” in Christ.

He does this by reminding Philemon of the love he has always shown all the saints and the joy and encouragement he has given to so many including Paul himself. He tells Philemon of the love that has grown between himself and Onesimus, and that he hopes Philemon will share this love with him as well. He even indicates that perhaps this was the reason that Onesimus was separated from him: so that upon his return, Onesimus and Philemon might enjoy a deeper, fuller relationship with one another; not as slave and master, but as brothers in Christ.

The system of slavery was a major institution that supported both Rome’s economy and, no doubt, Philemon’s own wealth; and yet Paul is here urging Philemon to “hate” it, to love Onesimus more than he loves his success or his honor or whatever debt Onesimus might owe him. Paul writes that he expects Philemon to “do even more” than what Paul is asking, perhaps hinting that Philemon ought to free Onesimus from slavery altogether out of Christian love.

Medallion worn by a Roman slave, photographed by Mary Harrsch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/

Medallion worn by a Roman slave, photographed by Mary Harrsch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/

This is the kind of discipleship Jesus is talking about, and why he is so harsh with his warnings in our gospel text. Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean living our lives as normal with an added hour on Sunday morning for worship. True discipleship—true dedication to Jesus and the good news he brings—changes us; it causes us to ignore, turn down, or perhaps even hate all the things in the world that give us comfort, wealth, popularity and leisure for the sake of God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s mercy.

If Paul, already burdened with imprisonment and persecution, had decided to leave well enough alone and not get involved in this personal dispute between Philemon and Onesimus, he would be as useless to them as salt that’s lost its flavor. If Philemon’s faith did not compel him to welcome Onesimus home, to forgive him his debts, and perhaps even release him from slavery, his faith would be like bland salt; no matter how much he had, it would add no flavor to his life. What good is the bland salt of a silent Paul or a hard-hearted Philemon to the reign of God? They might as well be buried in the depths of history.

There is one more thing we can take from Paul, Philemon and Onesimus this week. Even though this letter is primarily between Paul and Philemon, we notice how many others are involved. Paul is writing on behalf of others and so that others will hear. This personal matter is being shared with a whole community, both as it is written and as it is read. We are a part of that community as we share these words today. It is a reminder both that the decisions we make affect the whole community, but also that we are not in this alone.

Philemon had to decide how to receive Onesimus, but Apphia and Archippus and the whole congregation were hearing Paul’s words as well, offering their support and advice, perhaps even pressuring him to do the right thing. Though it was Paul who sent the letter, he had the backing of Timothy and Epaphras; Mark and Aristarchus; Demas, Luke and others. The cost of discipleship is steep, but what makes the price worth it is the community we receive in return, and that the cost is sometimes split evenly among that community.

We don’t know how Philemon responded to Paul’s letter, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter to us. The fact that all those people had a hand in either writing or reading that letter and the fact that it was circulated around the Church for decades until it finally became a part of our sacred scripture speaks to the reality that for centuries, people have found in this letter a meaningful example of discipleship.

Though it may not matter to us, Philemon’s response certainly would have been a big deal to Onesimus. His future would be determined by whether he met an indignant slave owner demanding restitution or a forgiving brother offering hospitality. Which he would find waiting for him would be influenced by the faith of Paul, of Philemon, of Apphia and Archippus, and many others. For him, coming home and finding a welcoming community would have been a model of how one man’s “hatred” of his own household and the rules that governed it could give both of them new family in Christ.

That’s how God’s kingdom works. For everything we give up, for everything we hate and turn away from, we are apt to find those things tenfold: “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields” (Matt 19.29). We catch a glimpse of this reality at the font, when, at our baptism, we are received into a broad new family in Christ; we get a foretaste of this reality at the table where we join with not only those gathered here, but with all the saints across space and time around one table to share one heavenly meal.

Yes, Jesus asks much of those of us who would follow him, but Onesimus can testify to how much disciples also receive from Christ.

Titian,

Titian, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” ca 1565

Practice Makes Perfect

August 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 14/Proper 16, Year C
Texts: Isa 58.[1-8], 9-14; Heb 12.18-29; Lk 13.10-17

I don’t dance well. Unlike Stephanie, who has an innate sense of rhythm and was in the marching band, I have a hard time keeping tempo, which is pretty important for dancing. However, I do enjoy it. Steph and I took a ballroom dancing class together in Iowa before we got married, which was a lot of fun. It was also kind of frustrating, since we weren’t dancing to the same beat, but it was fun.

It was while we were taking this class that we decided that at the wedding reception, since everybody was going to be watching us dance anyway, we might as well do something that would be fun to watch. So, we decided to foxtrot to “The Best is Yet to Come,” but with my timing problem, we had to really rehearse to get it to work out. Over several weeks of dance lessons and even some private sessions with our instructors, we slowly got better and better at the foxtrot, and we got more and more accustomed to the song, knowing when the music would swell and fade, and how to time our steps.

Rehearsal is important for lots of things. We practice sports, musical instruments, dance steps. We rehearse for presentations and performances because, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Even doctors, lawyers and accountants—highly trained professionals—refer to their regular work as “practice.”

In a sense, this is what Jewish and Christian worship is: rehearsal. When we worship, we gather together as a community, we listen to God’s word and seek to understand it, we pray for the needs of the world around us, and we pool our gifts together to do God’s work: all things that help us prepare for life in the coming reign of God. For this reason, what we do in worship is important; and yet how we do it is open to a great deal of interpretation. These two aspects of our worship—its importance and its flexibility—mean that for a long time, we have been debating how best to worship.

Our gospel text today is one example of this debate. The synagogue leader represents one side. He may appear cruel or overly strict or even ignorant, but he is simply trying to be obedient to God’s own law as best he can. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” scripture says, “Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the LORD throughout your settlements.” (Lev. 23.3) He sees what Jesus doing work on a day commanded by God to be a day of rest.

Jesus, however, sees things differently. Scripture also says, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (Ex. 23.12) He sees his healing of the woman as a way of letting her, too, experience the rest the LORD commands for the sabbath. His words to the synagogue leader might seem harsh, but his rebuke helps us to see both how obvious Jesus’ interpretation seems to be as well as its importance.

This story helps underscore for us just what it is our worship is helping us rehearse. To the synagogue leader, worship is about rehearsing total obedience to God. This is important, but Jesus intentionally pushes the boundaries here to help us see a deeper truth: worship is about rehearsing total obedience to God by practicing justice.

The 58th chapter of Isaiah digs into this truth. The people of Israel are keeping the sabbath, but they are missing the point. While they piously fast, they also mistreat their workers and ignore the oppressed. They wonder why God does not seem to respond to their right religious conduct, and God responds by saying, “is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isa 58.6)

We hear in our reading that when God’s people refrain from trampling the sabbath by “pursuing their own interests on my holy day,” that is by keeping the religious traditions while still acting unjustly to benefit themselves, then—and only then—will they finally “take delight in the LORD.” The nuance here is subtle: fearing and loving God is not about keeping the letter of the law, but the spirit of it.

This is what the synagogue leader is missing—what we sometimes miss—and what Jesus is so eager to explain to both him and us. God gives us laws and establishes traditions for us to follow, but the end purpose of these things is not to test our blind obedience, but to prepare us in body, mind and soul for the reign of God.

Immediately after this story of healing, Jesus begins teaching the crowd in the synagogue about “What is the kingdom of God like?” comparing it to a mustard seed, a woman baking bread, a narrow door. One thing we know about what God’s reign is like, it is that it will be just; there will be no more oppression of the weak by the strong, no more exploitation of the poor by the rich, no longer will the many be silenced by the few.

Jesus shows us this today by healing this woman. She is bent over—a posture of submission and humiliation—when Jesus releases her from her bondage (which he calls satanic), he allows her to stand up straight, to regain her honor and dignity as a daughter of Abraham. No longer will people pity her or (literally) look down on her, but will look her squarely in the eye when they speak to her and treat her as they would any other Jewish woman. This is not just a story of Jesus healing a woman; it is a story of Jesus bringing justice to someone who has been oppressed, whether by spiritual forces or cultural ones.

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, by James Tissot, 1886-1896

The fact that all this takes place in a synagogue on the sabbath day means that it is related to how we worship. The synagogue is a place of teaching: Jesus is teaching us how to worship God. Both Luke and Isaiah are reminding us with their words that worship of the LORD is meant to prepare us for the just and righteous reign of God, a reign under which the yoke of oppression will be removed from all people.

In order to truly be worship, our sabbath observance must point us to this reality. People worship in many different ways: we may sing old hymns or modern songs, we may worship with charismatic energy and waving hands or with reverent solemnity or even silence. Some even worship by not worshiping: there are many who find God’s presence in nature, in the joy of family, in the beauty of art, or in many other places. Any of these things can be worship—as long as they help prepare us for the impending reality of God’s coming reign of justice and peace.

This is why we worship the way we do here, because we, like centuries of Christians before us, have found that the liturgy we follow does just that. We worship by gathering in community: we cannot come together without building relationship with and empathy for the people with whom we gather, even when we are embroiled in personal conflicts. We worship by hearing the word of God and plumbing that word for wisdom and understanding to guide our daily life. We worship by praying for one another and the world, which at once makes us mindful of the needs around us and also moves us to try to meet those needs. We worship by bringing our gifts of time and resources and of bread and wine together, so that God might use those gifts to serve both us and the community around us.

One of the most dramatic ways we rehearse for God’s kingdom is through the Eucharist. In the meal, we see Christ’s body broken for us, knowing that this gathered community is also the Body of Christ. As we see Christ’s body shared among us to nourish us, we are seeing how we ourselves are to be broken and shared to nourish the world in Christ’s name when we are sent from worship with the words “Go in peace, share the good news.”

This may seem like a daunting task, to go out and bring the good news of God’s justice to the oppressed; but this is why we worship. We have been preparing for this every week as we gather here. Each time we worship, we are rehearsing the justice of God’s kingdom: removing the pointing of the finger, giving food to the hungry, satisfying the needs of the afflicted. God is rehearsing us for the kingdom to come during this worship.

Even though I’m not a great dancer, rehearsing with Stephanie prepared me for our first dance at our wedding reception. It wasn’t perfect; we made some mistakes and my timing was a little off at parts, but we made it through and, what’s more, we had fun doing it. That’s why we put this work in now, why we rehearse for God’s reign in anticipation of its arrival: so that when it is here, even if we aren’t perfect, we will continue to practice God’s justice and have fun doing it.