Friday, January 20, 2017

Adventures in Repenting (Matthew 4:12-23)

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
These words of Jesus come at the end of a very long introduction to Jesus and his identity as the Son of God and Messiah.  Up until this passage, Matthew’s gospel has been largely about “setting the stage”:  a lengthy genealogy with all those names from the Bible, meant to show Jesus as the culmination of God’s long involvement and investment in human history, as told by Israel.  (Really, that list is one of those passages we all hope isn’t scheduled the Sunday when you have to read scripture.  As we used to say back home when lists of tongue-twisting names came up in the readings, we would say, “And there were people”.)

After the “begats and begots”, then it seems a bit like Christmas, telling the story of magi wandering over the territory and Herod conniving to keep assuage his insecurities about competition, if it weren’t for that dreamer named Joseph who navigated the difficult social and political challenges of a miraculously pregnant virgin wife in a stone-throwing society and a royal court not beneath slaughtering innocents to protect the king’s petty fears.

Then it’s the pyrotechnics of baptism, as John the Baptist chastens the masses with his call to conversion and then gets a shock when it’s time to baptize Jesus.  It’s not just every day when the heavens open, a dove comes down and James Earl Jones does the voice over.  Toss in forty days and forty nights of testing and temptation out in the desert (dude with pitchfork included), you’d think the prelude is most of the story, yet the gospel is just getting underway.

Jesus steps to the center of the stage and in one short sentence, summarizes what has come before and what is just about to unfold.  The agenda and the tone for the gospel are set in these ten words, inviting those who listen to consider a new way of looking at the world and themselves.  These ten words constitute a challenge to those ‘kingdoms’ of the earth that their power and interests are not the timetable that Jesus and his followers will be living out their lives.  It’s the beginning of a story that continues to this day, the story of Jesus and those who would follow him.

Despite what you might think, the first word, repent, is all about a journey getting underway.  When I hear the word, I usually think of how the word is used among those who I would call the “evangelically strident”, Christians who use the word with a bit of edge in their voice.  When living in Kansas City, I would see them occasionally at a prominent traffic stop, walking up and down the street with microphone cords trailing back to small amplifiers.  The word “repent” was oft-used in the 30 seconds one might spend waiting for the light to change, and your lane of traffic just starting to get underway.  Such fervor really did not make much of an impression on most people waiting in traffic.  They sat there, trapped by the red light, trying not to make eye contact with the street preachers, perhaps cranking up their car stereo to drown out the preaching.

The word “repent” gets a bad rap, thanks to the sometimes artless ways the word is communicated.  Shorn of interpretative baggage usually framed by images of “sorrow and remorse”, the New Testament word “repent” by itself is quite a powerful word, as the word Jesus uses in the gospels (Gk metanoia) means “to change the direction of one’s life” (“Matthew”, New Interpreter’s Bible).  Such a concept asks much of the believer, yet such a concept can be that lifeline we have been looking for, a word that gets in edgewise of the “stuck” feelings we have about our lives, or when we dare to engage possibilities previously unexplored in our lives.  To repent is less the image of the penitent coming forward at a revival’s altar call.  To repent in the metanoia sense means that you’ve decided to go a different path with your life.  Repenting means you ain’t going back to the way things used to be, and you couldn’t be more satisfied with this new direction.

Could we think of “repenting” as the best thing that ever happened to you?  I recall a guest preacher at our seminary chapel.  As he spoke of repentance as “change”, he would talk about things that kept us down and then through a positive change in one’s life, how one could feel renewed or unburdened when making good choices about how one lives life.  He flourished it with a little leap in the pulpit, left to right, speaking of ways one lived before and then after repentance took place.  Making that leap, that change is indeed an occasion for feeling like life has stopped getting too heavy for its own good.  In joy, we can change our attitudes and habits, our sense of feeling stuck or unmoored.  Repentance is the beginning of an adventure you would not have found yourself on otherwise.  To repent is literally a transformative act

For the Christian believer, to repent means turning one’s life to the way of Jesus.  Rather than wearing oneself down running the well-trodden path of the rat race, the Christian seeks to trace her way through the contours and questions of the gospel.  Reading one’s way through Matthew’s gospel, you encounter a variety of people who decided to follow Jesus rather than stay in the midst of what they knew, even those things in life they were most comfortable doing.  Matthew gives up tax collecting, a life of easy money by extortion and graft, taking up the way of Jesus, who said “you should love your neighbor as yourself” and that the poor are the most blessed in God’s eyes.  (Don’t we all wish the IRS repented in such a manner?)  Peter’s headstrong attitude is given a test when he realizes he cannot walk on water.

Repentance stretches a person, as you continue down a path that you could not have previously imagined.  To choose repentance, the decision to reshape one’s life, is necessary if one is to choose Jesus.  Over the next few Sundays, we’ll hear the Sermon on the Mount as our reading from the gospel.  As we shall see, teachings that seem “simple” will ask very hard questions of persons as they live in the tension of the world’s ways and the ways of Jesus.

This mindset is needed if you are to live in the kingdom of Heaven.  To live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is to live in tension with the kingdoms of the world, especially those to whom you would otherwise claim close allegiance.  Matthew’s gospel warns a follower of Jesus about maintaining a too-familiar relationship with the kingdoms of Herod and Rome.

This kingdom of heaven shall be a different sort of reign, where local demagogues (i.e. Herod who just hauled John the Baptist off to certain misery and death) and even the ones ruling from Rome are going to be declared second fiddle to this movement called “the kingdom of Heaven”.  Jesus selecting fishermen as some of his first followers demonstrates the “otherness” of the Kingdom of Heaven raising up those that the Empire and Herod’s court exploited and disregarded.

In turn, those following Jesus’ way are called to be just like him, living out his teachings and calling others to do likewise.  The disciple will be not only evangelizing the good news, the disciple will be the example for why Jesus’ teachings matter. In other words, a repenting and faithfully following Christian has many difficult choices to make about how to live faithfully in the world.

Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have a choice: are we admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus?  Admirers might like Jesus from afar, yet followers are the ones who take up the Cross and follow the way of Jesus.  To illustrate, Hauerwas recounts a story from Clarence Jordan, a Baptist who worked for desegregation in 1950s era Georgia.

Jordan led a group of people committed to racial integration, living as an intentional community in Americus, Georgia. When his religious community experienced some legal problems, Jordan approached his brother who was a lawyer.  Jordan’s brother refused as it might harm his law practice and his political aspirations.  In their argument over the matter, Clarence pointed out that the two of them joined the Baptist church on the same Sunday when they were boys.  Clarence wondered if his brother had missed something along the way about Jesus being his Lord and Savior. Jordan wanted his brother to answer this question:  Do you just admire Jesus or do you follow Jesus?  (Cf. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 57).

A man walks down the shoreline and summons fishermen to follow him.  They leave their lives behind and follow.  Were these fishermen in their right minds?   What sort of religion asks for such commitment without it veering off from “faith” to some type of fundamentalism or cult-like behavior? 

How do ordinary folks like you and me claim to follow rather than admire Jesus? The gospel narrative offers puzzling questions and leaves unsettling questions within us.  Is it bravery or bravado that one makes when choosing to follow Christ?

How does one repent and live to tell about it?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Remembering the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

This Monday, the legacy and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated as a civic holiday around the United States this Monday.  And it's more than "one day" alone.  For many churches and other religious and civic groups, the "MLK Weekend" is a time for advocacy, prayer, marching and initiatives promoting volunteerism and community building.
From my earlier days as a bookstore clerk, I know early January is the target date for many publishers to release their latest "King" related book.  Such releases are timed to educate and help readers enter into the tumult of the Civil Rights Era through the lens of scholarly retrospect and the efforts of a multitude of biographers and writers inspired by King to engage his thought while offering contemporary critique of what parts of the "Dream" have yet to be realized or are in danger of retrogression.

Personally, I gravitate toward reading again the modern epistle to America written by Dr. King while sitting in a jail cell.  The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" speaks like the rest of the King corpus of sermons, interviews, writings and speeches:  searing words meant to evoke the prophets of old while not letting today's generation off the hook (that of King's day and those we live these days).  Here is one of the many links to the full letter online so you can read it as well:

In particular, I recall a section where King engages in a matter of rightly remembering the past. Too often, we tend to yearn for nostalgia and forget how things really played out, especially for those marginalized by the victor's narrative.  King preaches to the choir here, calling his fellow Christians to remember rightly:

"There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century...."

Powerful words from the 1960s continue to summon the Church and society alike.  Ponder with me what it means to be part of the faithful these days.  And do not keep Martin's legacy "past tense" (or worse yet, only remembered once per year with a service of worship or honored by just a single day of service). 

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Difference of Being Baptized (Acts 10)

Stained glass panel,
First Presbyterian, Nebraska City, NE
            The baptism of the Lord is a day set aside to recall the story of Jesus’ own baptism.  I find it remarkable that Baptists, of all the different Christian traditions, have not kept this day as a day to celebrate in worship life until fairly recently. 

           After all, the day celebrates the importance of baptism to the New Testament church, and our very name as a tradition comes from our historic commitment to baptism as “believer’s baptism”.  That is, we affirm the baptism of persons by immersion and at an age where the person makes his or her own decision to believe in and follow Jesus.  Observing the day in the Church year given to remembering this ritual so closely tied to our history and heritage is a most appropriate and fitting thing for Baptists to do.

          That being said, while we are a people who have been seeking an understanding of “church” patterned after the ways of the New Testament church, we have made some adjustments over the years. 

        Today, it is more customary for a person being baptized by a Baptist church to be baptized inside.  (An Episcopal friend from college claimed the Baptists have “holy hot tubs”.)   Previously, many churches I have known had a history of outdoor baptisms down the way, even during the Northeast's cold, "cut a hole in inches-thick ice" winter.  (Of course, if one wanted to go "old school" and be baptized in the river this month, it would be a test of discipleship….)

                 Baptist churches differ when it comes to membership, some who welcome Christians baptized in other traditions and even by the “other” way of baptism (i.e. “sprinkling”), and other congregations steadfast in their practices that you must be baptized by immersion only to be a member.  Ironically, while the Baptist tradition can be described as a people in search of the New Testament church, we might forget that the churches of the New Testament era were constantly being surprised by the Spirit, whom sends the faithful often in varying directions.  What seems "settled" can be "unsettled by the Spirit of God.

                  That’s where we find Peter in today’s reading.  The confident leader is tossed into the deep end of the unexpected. In the gospels, Peter is lifted up among the disciples, told by Jesus he is “the rock” upon which the Church will be built, a central figure in the gospel stories.  Yet, here is the “rock” himself, an original follower of Jesus, finding himself less the sure church leader and more like his earlier days, when thinking himself able to walk out onto the waters.  Indeed, he’s in the middle of a situation that has thrown him into the deep end.

                  Our reading today is just one part of a longer story about Peter of the inner circle and the one that should have been the odd man out: a Roman centurion.  Cornelius has become a God-fearer, that is, someone who has taken great stock in the religious beliefs of Israel.  Hearing the gospel, Cornelius wishes to follow Jesus and be baptized.  Indeed, he wants his entire household to become baptized.
                  The problem? He is a Gentile, aka “an outsider” or in more modern terms, “the other”.

                  Now, Peter, the great confident orator at the Day of Pentecost, finds himself fumbling for words.    What he has taken for granted (the faith is only for Jews and not non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles) was not the final word.  Even a gospel is spreading to the ends of the earth, the Church’s boundaries are being tested.
                  Reading Acts 10, we hear first of Cornelius when the centurion sends word that he would like to have Peter come to his house.  Peter is a bit puzzled, though he is told that Cornelius is a friendly person to the faith.  Up on the rooftop, Peter experiences a strange vision.  In this vision, a sheet descends from the sky, and Peter sees a variety of animals.  A voice tells Peter “to kill and eat” what he sees.  Peter is hesitant, as among the animals are those that he does not eat to keep religious purity, or kosher laws.   Three times, this vision comes to him.  Each time, Peter hesitates.  How could this be?
                  Now at Cornelius’ home, the puzzle pieces are starting to fall together. God has brought together this Gentile from Rome and this one-time fisherman from backwater Galilee.  Cornelius is not to be left out of the gospel’s good news.  What had been a “given” about the faith was not “the last word”.   Again and again, as the Church finds its identity in the book of Acts, the Spirit keeps shifting the direction of the early Christians, unsettling what might have been thought settled once and for all.
                  So it is now with Peter, beginning to do what is familiar (preaching the gospel) while learning on the fly what is changing about the faith.  In fact, Peter admits as much.  In the Greek text of Acts 10:34,   one scholar renders Paul’s words: “In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, p. 188).  Here, the book of Acts emphasizes how Peter “is just now grasping or coming to understand” (p. 191) the implications of what is coming to pass.  It is one thing to realize what God is doing.  It is quite another to realize that it changes what you have taken for granted.

               Peter, whose mind had been stretched by the parables and teachings of Jesus, is now experiencing another challenge, brought to bear on his own sense of the boundaries of faith.  Gentiles could express faith in the God of Israel, the same God whose prophets claimed would be drawn to the light of Jerusalem’s glory, yet deep down, Peter shared a degree of religious skepticism that Gentiles had much worth beyond these lofty ideals.  Now, the visions coming to Peter and Cornelius alike were the beginnings of a greater dream:  the gospel that goes well beyond the understandings of the faithful.  Writing in the mid-20th century, Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg observed, “There are those who continue to say that Peter opened the door to the Gentiles.  It would be closer to the truth to say that the Gentiles opened a door to the larger world for Peter.”  (Quoted in Barr, et al, The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009, p. 486).

               Over the centuries, the story of Cornelius and Peter has been a wonderful tale of evangelism and a cautionary tale for the faithful.  The gospel goes forth, even if the “Church” lags behind out of disregard or disdain.  Baptist history is likewise a testament to the contrary word of the gospel to the sometimes reticent body of believers to open the doors too far, lest “those people” get in.

              On one hand, Baptist history reminds us of how severely early Baptists were considered outsiders and made to feel unwelcome by other Christians for holding less popular beliefs and practices.   An early Free Will Baptist traveling evangelist John Colby, a native to Vermont and New Hampshire, traveled across New England and subsequently “out west” (back then, the “frontier” was Indiana) on preaching tours in the early 19th century.  In his memoirs, Colby recalled a particularly one preaching engagement where most of us would have left discouraged.  Persons showed up to make his visit to a certain neighborhood very difficult, including locking one place he was to speak to a crowd and then hiding the key.  Colby’s opponents did not wish to let this preacher come into their town, as Baptist evangelists were not considered legitimate enough clergy bringing a message deemed worth hearing.

              In the midst of such difficulty, Colby persevered, recalling earlier that same week when he had the pleasure of baptizing four young men who heard his word gladly.  On that occasion, he referred to Acts 10:34-35.  While his memoirs do not record his sermon that day, Colby recalls that he felt empowered to speak “with more than common freedom of mind”, a remarkable witness to the Spirit who kept his spirit moving forward, in times of great success and times of great adversity.  Colby’s memoirs witness to Acts 10 as a text about Christians learning to welcome the gospel, even as some within the Church find themselves struggling to grasp that God is more inclusive than sometimes “the faithful” can envision.  (This excerpt from Colby’s story is referenced in Barr, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 475-6.)

             As we gather this day to recall the baptism of the Lord, Baptists celebrate what makes our tradition’s name so important:  the call to follow Jesus and to be baptized ourselves, to give continuing assent to the way of Christ.  Baptists celebrate baptism as a turning away from our sinfulness and living out our lives as faithful witnesses to the gospel.  So it is that we find ourselves in the midst of a local congregation, yearning to be with other believers and involved in the task of working together to serve the Lord.  Baptism signifies our desire for new life in Christ while it also levels the playing field that the world (and yes, even religion itself) prefer to keep more of an obstacle course that only the “right type” of people can traverse.  Bradley Chance, a contemporary Baptist biblical scholar, notes that in Acts 10 “the system of categorization” has changed.  Previously, it “would have discouraged Peter from associating with the ‘other’ peoples” (quoted Barr, et al., The Acts of the Apostles, p. 501).  What does it mean to follow God with such an expansiveness to divine welcome and inclusion?  Such a story from Acts 10 should be remembered, not forgotten, when we feel challenged by the stranger at our gate, the person who does not readily appear to fit in with "us" (and therefore is known as one of "them").

             The baptism of Jesus points to the new order being brought about in the Kingdom-Reign of God.  The gospel is given to the whole world in all its diversity, bringing together into one body the many.  In the search for “New Testament church”, we might find ourselves looking for some sort of “good ole days when things were better”, when in reality, the book of Acts shows us that even in our earliest days, the Christian faith was being schooled by the Spirit of God, who knows no partiality and presses us to keep our vision of “faith” and “church” ever flexible, ever humble, and ever expanding.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Navigating the World (Matthew 2:1-12)

Years back in The Christian Century, religious commentator Rodney Clapp whimsically recounts his experiences with a Tom-Tom GPS unit. Global positioning systems (GPS) can be a travel aide for long car trips and the directionally challenged. Like all technology, the GPS units can create complication while designed for ease of use. Clapp tells how the Tom-Tom GPS is capable of leading him right to his destination as surely as the GPS “got [him] lost in a tangle of new lanes and one-way streets in harborside Miami. And for a long, amusing stretch of rural Texas, it pictured [him] rocketing at 80 miles per hour through rivers and across wheat fields parallel to the highway on which [he] was actually traveling.”

For his amusement, Clapp reprogrammed his GPS to speak with the voice of British comedian John Cleese. When making a turn, Cleese instructs, “At the next exit, bear right, beaver left”. Upon arrival Cleese says, “You have now arrived at your destination and are on your own—I will not carry your bags”.

Rodney Clapp writes, “Even as we jet over oceans and view live TV transmissions from the other side of the world, we are more parochial than the ancients in one way. We have lost the sky.” Clapp notes how the US Navy no longer teaches celestial navigation, or sailing by the stars. We twenty-first century folks have precision technology to figure our bearings, though in the process, Clapp fears “we have lost our attention to the sky”. In his essay, Clapp recalls how the sky was so integral to generations past. He notes various stories about the constellations told by ancient Greeks, medieval Europeans, and Native Americans. The stars engaged the human imagination in ways Clapp feels is dissipating as GPS units keep our gaze on latitude and mileage, rather than searching out the Little Dipper for directions as well as wonder.

Clapp wonders, “Could the Magi have located the Christ child with modern navigational technology?” In one sense, yes, they could have programmed their GPS to guide them from somewhere in Persia, where it was presumed they traveled, to Bethlehem, provided they knew that was where they would wind up at journey’s end. The GPS could have told them which way to ride their camels, even where to find a decent inn while on layover in Jerusalem. The GPS could even insult them in the voice of John Cleese: “At the next exit, you will arrive at your destination—the Prince of Peace, the Messiah, God Incarnate, yea, verily, the only begotten son of Almighty God. And, please bear in mind—I will NOT carry your myrrh.”

In answering Clapp’s question, the gospel writer Matthew responds a polite “no”. The Magi made their travels as a sort of religious pilgrimage. They did not know where this star would take them, only that their readings of astrological signs and portents suggested royalty was about to be born. Such a worldview sounds a bit archaic to us, the stuff of legends, which speaks to Clapp’s observation. In today’s world, Matthew’s readers presume a world where precision navigation is the norm, and the Magi’s trip might strike a twenty-first century reader as a wild goose chase.

The story of the Magi asks us to think about the ways we see the world. One person can see a star and look away with indifference. Another person can write poetry. See Robert Frost’s poem “Take Something Like a Star”, wherein the poet beholds a star and starts trying to understand the star, eventually chastened to reverence by the star’s ability simply to be

“Say something!” the poet demands. The celestial response is terse and enigmatic. “And it says, ‘I burn.’” Thus, the poet rails,

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

The poet soon realizes there is something more to be learned from a star than he first thought possible. He writes of the star:

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
to carry praise or blame too far,
we may take something like a star
to stay our minds on and be staid.

Matthew’s gospel makes it clear this is a devotional journey. The Magi model the reverence due the Christ child, providing a subtle counterpoint to Herod’s paranoid jealousies. The wise men travel from a far distance, while Herod prowls his throne room. The Magi are outsiders to the religious worldview of first century Judaism, yet they, not the people, and certainly not their king, are the ones paying homage. The Magi arrive to pay their respect, whereas Herod uses the full might of his court to reign death down upon countless innocents, as he fears the Magi’s word that competition has been born somewhere in his territories. While Herod sees nothing good has come of this, the Magi fall on their knees and as the King James Version puts it, “pay him homage”.

The Magi see above the petty world of Herod the mysterious hand of God at work in the world. To travel so far and to carry such extravagant gifts is not an act of checking out the competition. The Magi did not subscribe to local religious customs themselves, but they knew an event of great significance was unfolding. As part of Matthew’s gospel, their presence in the narrative reminds that even the outsider or those persons society deems contrary can see something new is at hand.

When the Magi find themselves at their long-awaited destination, they celebrate the little child. Most folks would find it puzzling, such a journey to find greatness ends with a wee boy in a backwater town. The magi started out upon their journey searching for a king. They found the current demagogue in Jerusalem, a bully whose moodiness kept an entire city on edge. Others might wonder why the Magi opted to risk Herod’s wrath by failing to report back as requested and heading home. In the graceful words of the King James Version, a vision prompts them “to go home by another way”.

This story of the Magi’s long, strange journey offers a redemptive word. We are journeyers along the path of life. In our daily lives, we navigate all manner of terrain, some not even remotely geographical. We navigate our identity as persons of means (some, much, and not much), as persons who live in this country and may or may not see the global privilege U.S. citizens enjoy at the expense of other countries. We are people who live on varying footings with those around us, as no one enjoys a completely level playing field in society. Our gender, racial/ethnic or social identities cause us to find doors open or closed to us on a regular basis. Some people help us get where our dreams hope to go. Other people take pleasure in hindering us. We travel miles to achieve things in our lives that others simply find right at the taking at their first opportunity. Add to this mix our journey of faith, and it gets even more complex. Faith complicates things as our religious values often ask us to take detours or roads less traveled (a little homage to Frost there). Sometimes, our beliefs embolden us to go places off the map. Like the Magi, our faith can prompt us to go home by another way.

The gospel itself welcomes the earnest outsider like the Magi reeking of frankincense or another one with an aching back from lugging a chest of gold. The gospel welcomes an earnest mother who says “yes” to God, despite the public shaming sure to follow. The carpenter Joseph who dreams like his namesake in Genesis and likewise follows those dreams with due reverence. The gospel helps us see where the truth lies in the world: that riddle called Jesus. A baby who sleeps, eats, learns to crawl then toddle, who all the while is God incarnate.

For the first time, we see a pathway unfolding before us, one not on any map produced by Rand-McNally or calculated by GPS. Whether swaddled in the manger, spinning a parable before the multitudes, eating and drinking with his beloved at table, Jesus offers a new pathway through this world, a new map for how we are to live in this world and treat one another. In hearing these narratives, we learn to see with new eyes. We see the futility of those who have worldly power as well as the magnificent vulnerability of God found in Christ Jesus.

Some might call it a wild goose chase.

Others might say that we have found our bearings, heading for home.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent 4: The Guy Off in the Corner (Matthew 1:18-25)

Where does Joseph fit into the Nativity story?
          It should have been different.  By “different”, actually it should have been the predictable way.  This way, well….it was not the most commendable of stories to get around town.  A young virgin finds herself in a family way, and well, people start talking about all manner of things.   “Virgin birth” is most decidedly NOT among the suggestions.  Instead, it’s a bit of a scandal, a whisper campaign about to get underway.  It is improper, inappropriate, and most importantly, difficult to explain away.
            I wonder about Joseph.  He’s been around town for years, yet right now, he feels as if under friendly fire.  He’s the subject of curious stares, hostile looks, and the occasional salacious and conspiratorial wink.  He does not return any of these jibes or criticisms.  Instead, he holds his head high.
             So, is he a proud man or a fool trying desperately to save the remaining shred of dignity and decorum he has left?

             The Bible is rife with stories of rogues and scoundrels.  Jacob, the trickster, occupies much of Genesis, getting in and out of trouble with as much talent for getting out of it as he does getting into it.    Abraham, the great patriarch, is a complex figure.  Read the whole Abrahamic cycle of stories and you’ll find a guy that might look good in a Sunday school quarterly but really is not that out of place with the great flawed figures of other literary works.   The list could go on, but we need to keep our "G" rating for the Sunday morning worship service.

             Among this checkered history of the people of God and the reality God still used these people, despite their failings and flaws, Joseph really is a dull figure.  He does not have any great faults or failings.  In fact, he’s an astonishingly graceful character, not wanting any fuss and more important, any harm to come to this young woman now on the cusp of public shunning.
             Joseph wants to do the right thing.  He’ll likely take heat for it.  The conservatives in the community will be likely disparaging him around the clock as if a hapless politician in a modern cable news channel’s crosshairs.  He’s going to lose face, but he has decided quietly in his own way that it’s all right.

               Yet alas, we tend to forget Joseph in the manager scene.

               When I worked for Cokesbury (back in its long gone brick and mortar days), we would assemble several Nativity sets for display (and hopefully purchase) to show our customers. We tried our best to offer a variety of Nativity sets from around the world, each beautiful in their own way, the product of hard working artisans getting a better deal through a Fair Trade cooperative.
            I remember well the great debate the store staff had over one such Nativity set from overseas.  We unboxed the set and realized that each piece was hand carved stone,  and not one piece had a great deal of detailing.  Thus, was this lump of stone a shepherd or a king?   Poor Joseph, though, was the hardest to identify.  He had no staff in hand or crown on his head.   Instead, Joseph was deemed to be the only piece that did not seem to have any other purpose than to be “the odd man out” in the Nativity of roughly fashioned angels, sheep, shepherds, kings, and animals.

            It can be an odd situation in life:  being the honorable type that still goes without notice.   The little guy tends to be lost in the shuffle, the guy who just does the right thing year round because that’s the way he’s wired.  There’s no desire for attention or credit.  No, that type just quietly makes sure that the good is taken care, regardless of the time or season.

          Garrison Keillor celebrates that type of person in his ongoing stories of life in small town Minnesota.  The typical Minnesotan in Keillor’s stories tends toward a near allergic reaction to pride, attention, or notice.   The “look at me” tendency of our human nature appears to be replaced by the raspy voice of an old Lutheran waving off the cheers with a word of “Ah, shucks, guys, it was nuthin’, don’t ya know” and then he passes you the plate of lutefisk.

            The story of the birth of Jesus could have ended before it started, primarily in the shunning of Mary, or worse, the type of punishment common in the day’s culture, which again, once described, goes beyond the “G” rating we tend to classify “Bible stories” under.

            Yet it is Joseph and Mary alike who say “yes” to the call of God to bring into the world the Christ child.   Despite the rigors of pregnancy and childrearing, despite the tenuous navigation of a culture’s purity understandings, this couple works through a difficult situation.  The old spiritual sings, “Mary had a baby”, and the gospel writer responds, “And Joseph and Mary raised him right!”
            At this point in the Advent season, you know Christmas is just around the corner.  Perhaps you just got around to putting up your tree.  Others may be so busy that they do not realize that Christmas is just next week.  (And retail stores are standing by in hopes you will come by and buy them out of everything!)
            For pastors, the Fourth Sunday of Advent can seem the less important item on the "To Do" list with all of the other Christmas festivities to help plan and lead.  I remember spending more time figuring out how to wrangle unruly kids for a Christmas pageant than I did for a sermon one year.  Bringing peace to the Middle East may be easier than dealing with a six year old shepherd ready to use his staff over the head of a wise man.
             I remember sitting in my pastor's office, trying to figure things out, and there sitting in a chair was the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  She looked rather calm, just sitting there and grinned at me real big.  
           I could not understand why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene and pleased with itself.  “Why are you so happy?  Don’t you see that I’m in the middle of a great big week?  I have a sermon to preach, and yet there's countless other things taking up my attention right now. Can’t you tell I need help?”
            Advent 4 just laughed.  “Did you look at the Matthew reading yet?”
            “No, I’m too busy.  Got to get things done.”
            “Well, make sure you read that passage,” this Sunday said. "You'll thank me." Then, it went back to reading its magazine.

            Later, I sat down during a quiet moment in the office and pulled out a Bible.  I found the passage for Matthew, and I could see why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene.
            There, in the midst of a story about life seeming to go haywire, off the map, or getting dreadfully difficult, the angel of the Lord appears.  In the midst of the seeming chaos and turmoil, the angel tells what this baby ought to be called.
            “Call him Emmanuel, or that is, God with us.”

            God with us….In the midst of life, in the midst of trying times and challenge, in the midst of mourning a loss that we likely bear for what is best described as a season, the faith we try our best to keep revolves around this radical assumption that God humbly(!) dwells with us.

           God with us….Nothing, not a thing about human life is exempt or beneath the Christ.  Indeed, Jesus knows the fullness of being human just as surely as he was divine.  Jesus does not check out early or take the easy path around pain and suffering.  Jesus even dies.   Talk about God with us!
            The story we tell of Jesus is shaped by the pattern of life, death, and resurrection.  We might forget that story’s full “arc” (i.e. to understand Jesus is to understand that he does not ever check out of life experience).  Preacher Fred Craddock has quipped, most of us, when we think of life and death, we hope that when our time comes, we can call in sick (Sorry, we’re not coming in today!) or take an incomplete on the test.

            I suspicion if there’s any good connection between the gospel reading and the harried pace of this week, with its mourning and its scrambling to get everything “just right” in time, it is this assurance that God is with us, no matter what might befall or bedevil.  After all, Jesus did not exempt himself from the fullness of life.  He lived, he cried, he got angry, he hungered, he mourned, he dreamed, he spoke out, he loved his family and friends.

            I know that we tend to look at a child and say (sometimes with delight, and sometimes with disdain), “Yep, he’s just like his mother”, or “Yep, she reminds me of her daddy”.  I know poor Joseph does not get much credit (after all, he only appears around Christmas, then just disappears from the gospels after the first chapters).  I think, though, that there’s something of Joseph in Jesus, not that it would be DNA.  Instead, we see a bit of that dreamer, who always sought out how to do the right thing, how to open his heart and mind to God’s good intent, with trust, obedience, and a whole lot of concern that he managed to do the right thing.

            In the midst of the Advent season, nearing the Christmas Eve celebrations, in the midst of family gatherings, in the midst of times of mourning, loneliness, or hardship (cause the holidays do not exempt us from such experiences), we are a people in search of what it means to live life well, or at least how to get through today or this week.

            And the fourth Sunday of Advent, perhaps overshadowed by the holiday rush and the rush to get things done, just politely reminds us:  “Don’t forget:  What you are feeling now is not lost on God.  In fact, God decided to get down in the trenches with us.

           When the angel says, ‘call him Emmanuel’, the angel meant just that.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

Advent 3: Singing the (Advent) Blues (Matthew 11:2-11)

A recent Broadway play begins with its first scene depicting a conversation between an old man and a young woman.  The young woman is applying to be the caretaker for the man's aging and very difficult wife.  Interestingly, the old man appears only in the opening scene.  For the rest of the three hour drama told in three acts, the old man does not appear again. Why that happens would be giving away much of the plot that is about to unfold.  Suffice it to say, despite the brevity of his appearance on the stage, the old man sets the tone for the play about to unfold.

Likewise, John the Baptist appears at the beginning of the text, the wild eyed and boisterous herald of the Messiah.  It is great fun to read these texts, as John electrifies the Gospel early on.  When he roars about “broods of vipers” or growls about the unrepentant being tossed aside, he leaves the audience wide awake.  He sets the tone, and then Jesus begins to take center stage.

            Today’s gospel is somewhere in the middle of the gospel.  Jesus is spinning parables, performing healings, and his ministry gaining notoriety.  Then the gospel writer brings the lights up on a side stage, a little set with a chair and a small wash basin.  Slumped in the chair, the figure is the image of defeat.  As the lights come up, you realize it is John the Baptist, though not as you remembered him from earlier.

The firebrand John the Baptist sits now in jail, the prophetic spark seems near extinguished.  He spoke a powerful word; he baptized the multitudes, even baptized Jesus himself.  Yet, here he is, the forerunner, nearing the end of the race.

            Look closely at this once charismatic figure.  Is there a tin cup in his hand, that type you can clink on the bars and yell for the guard to remember to feed you?  No, John seems to be the model prisoner, a model one if you are the warden, who wants to keep his charges in line.  John makes very little conversation.  He sits there in his cell and just seems to be waiting.  Not much to look forward about.  The ink has dried on what shall come to pass.  The king has ordered his death.  What more is there to say?

From time to time, his disciples appear, trying to bring a bit of food, some fresh water.  They try their best to bring something even more nourishing:  words of encouragement.  They offer these words of support, yet John sits there impassively, that distant look on his face.

There’s grimness to that look, yet it is with us, more often than we care to admit.  It settles into our minds, which is worse than some illness that lingers in the body.  The mind works on just a few points, not willing to see beyond the dull future that seems unstoppable in playing out.  Impassive is the best description of the look as well as its effect:  nothing good shall come my way.
I find this passage an odd choice for the “third” Sunday of Advent.  This is the day we light the “pink” candle.  Two purples and then the pink candle means we’re almost in the home stretch. 

The reason the Advent candles are three purple and one pink goes back to the tradition when Latin was the predominate language of the Church.  On this particular Sunday, the service would begin with the words:  "Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice."  In the midst of Advent’s call to a penitential frame of mind and devotion, the Church would give itself time to celebrate anticipatory joy.  The “rose” candle, as it is more formally known, is a beacon in the midst of Advent’s more downbeat practices, calling the people to ready themselves for the coming season of joy.

So why does John appear today, off in jail and away from the giddy crowds watching Jesus in the midst of his ministry with his parables and healings and sly ways of infuriating his religious opponents?  Why should we hear something so dreadful: a prophet broken, feeling discredited, off in the lonely place, awaiting a certain fate?  This is not a joyful image.  The only words John seems able to muster are ones formed by his discouragement:  “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”   I imagine we’ve all had that moment where God seems so distant, or that moment when God seems so detached, or that moment when God seems so absent.  John’s question comes out of a place of searing honesty.  Is there really a point to this?  Belief is easy when life is lively, but when pain, suffering, marginalization or death loom, the believer is tested in ways that crumble the quick and easy answers and the questions pile up.

The response Jesus sends back is not the most expected.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
In this response, Jesus offers a glimpse of the gospel being brought to bear on the world.  It is not the conventional answer hoped for in certain understandings of the Messiah’s coming prevalent in the day.  People thought the Messiah would bring about a political and military upheaval which would restore Israel.  Even after his resurrection, Jesus contends with his disciples’ hope for something great to happen.  Instead of dominance and power, Jesus gives them the call to go out in his name and share his word.

Now here in Matthew 11, we get a foretaste of what this gospel story is about.  We learn that God has indeed come, and the Messiah is about the work of God.  The ways that the story plays out might not have perfect endings as we would want for ourselves, yet in the end, the gospel story points to an ending that shall surpass the old story of “life and death”.   The gospel plays out in a world well acquainted with the jailhouse blues, yet the Resurrection beckons with a different song, soaring above our longings and our loathing, and our angst in life and our cries in the night.

Two stories of belief in the midst of remarkably difficult circumstances give witness to this faith:

Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, recalls the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr.  In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out.  A gunman aimed for King, yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.

As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor recalls the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before.  The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life.  That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home.  He recalls:

Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I
sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening.  He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “  He stopped awhile.  Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [or, that is called to ministry].”  Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”  (Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).

            Even though one chapter seems to come to a close, the Christian faith affirms there is more to the story.   Belief can be shaken, souls can be troubled, yet in the midst of life when it comes crashing down, the gospel claims life’s heartache is not the last word.  Our lives will have an unfinished quality to them (i.e. we will still know failure and loss, pain and suffering), yet our trust in the greater framework of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection offers a hope far more resilient than we might lead ourselves to believe.

            Another story of hope and joy in the midst of tragedy comes in the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German theologian.  Branded an enemy of the state for his writings and his efforts in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonheoffer spent the last years of his life as a political prisoner of the Nazis, executed just days before Allied forces liberated the camp.
            In the midst of his imprisonment, Bonheoffer wrote prodigiously, keeping up with his theological writings and his correspondence with friends and family.  A collection of his letters and papers from this period of his life continues to attract new generations of readers.   These writings are particularly powerful, given Bonheoffer wrote in the midst of a prison sentence with full knowledge that his time was not long for the world.

The editor of new critical edition of this body of “prison” writings observes that Bonheoffer wrote during his time of imprisonment with “concern [for] a future of a humanity beset by oppressions, violence, and war; his desire was that the next generation would inherit not only a more faithful and relevant church but also a more humane and just world” (John W. de Gruchy, “Theology for Dark Times: Rereading Letters and Papers”, Christian Century, October 19, 2010, p. 33).

During his incarceration, Bonheoffer was asked to write prayers for his fellow prisoners to use during the holiday season.  One of these prayers is particularly powerful:

Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.  You know all human need, you remain wth me when no human being stands by me, you do not forget and you seek me, you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.  Lord, I hear your call and I follow.  Help me!

(Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer Works, Vo. VIII.  (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, 195).

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Take and Read: Book review of Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri JM Nouwen

Looking for a Christmas present for your favorite clergy person or other readers of devotional writings?   May I suggest this new book collecting letters from Henri JM Nouwen, among the 20th century's most endearing Roman Catholic writers whose ministry and witness reached across ecumenical and religious/not so religious lines.  

This book review will appear in print in early 2017 for "Sharing the Practice", the quarterly journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy ( 

Take and read!

Nouwen, Henri J.M., Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.  Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor.  (New York, NY: Convergent, 2016).  ISBN #978-1-101-90635-4.  $24.00. 

Henri JM Nouwen occupies an appreciable part of my devotional reading in college and seminary.  I count his book “In the Name of Jesus” among the most helpful in my early days of discerning a call to ministry. His journals and writings welcomed many Christians (and a number of not so religious persons) into his journey as a person seeking God’s love, embracing his own vulnerability and finding where he might find his deep calling and the world’s need connecting. 

After his death in 1996, his writings remain in print with a few “new” works culled from his writings and talks.  His literary legacy is being furthered by this new series of books featuring his correspondence with various persons, some well-known and others just drawn by his writings to send a note and ask his thoughts and counsel.  His generous spirit and gregarious approach to life resulted in a high volume of letters returned from friends and strangers, offering his thoughts personally with no thought to using a form letter or citing his schedule for not being able to respond personally.

Nouwen retained every piece of correspondence, resulting in over 16,000 letters, postcards, faxes and greeting cards gaining his response and later the challenge for archive preparation and this new series of publications.  When Gabrielle Earnshaw began her work with the Nouwen papers, she dealt with this incredible volume of mail.  Fifteen years later, sixty-five linear feet of material is now archived at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in Canada.  Future readers of Nouwen’s correspondence are indebted to Earnshaw’s careful and labor intensive work and St Michael’s College’s willingness to be the custodian for this correspondence to be available to scholars and others interested in reading the material first-hand.

This first volume is arranged chronologically into three eras:  1973-1985, 1986-1989, and 1990-96.  The letters chosen for this collection revolve around Nouwen’s correspondence around spiritual life matters.  Whether it is a parent grieving a child, a friend dealing with a health ailment or a colleague pondering some form of spiritual quandary, Nouwen’s letters are engaging, as if sitting across the table from his correspondent face to face.  (NOTE:  Appropriately, the letters published within the collection have been cleared for publication and public dissemination.)

Nouwen shares his own wrestling with matters, temporary and ongoing, practicing his vulnerability as much as he spoke about it.  During the 1970s, he wrestled with vocation, spending time back in his native Holland (only to opt to return to the US permanently), receiving a tenure track position at Yale Divinity School (yet wrestling with whether or not he should enter into monastic life as a Trappist) and wearying himself with a heavy speaking schedule (while pondering if he should spend more time withdrawn in order to pray and to write). 

The collection of letters trace Nouwen’s journey already in his previously published works:  seeking a place to call his home that also summons him to be the “Henri”, the “self” most desired by God.  As most readers know, a tenured Yale professor, temporary monk and missionary later in Latin America, would land in the midst of the L’Arche Community in Toronto, living as a priest to a community of disabled adults and their caregivers, living in community with one another.  The letters collected herein speak to that struggle as well as the contentment he eventually finds.

For most clergy, such internal arguments go on for years, shaping vocation or perhaps stunting it.  Nouwen keeps his tensions in perspective, wanting to be erring on the side of what God might be calling him to do.  In a side note in a 1979 letter, Nouwen shares, “I think I am going to buy myself Butler’s four volumes of the Lives of the Saints; the best way for me to get over my endless distractions is to look at God through the mirror of his saints.  Maybe later I will receive the grace to speak to Him and be with Him more directly” (p. 37).

Reading through Nouwen’s letters will be a matter of perspective of what value the reader has for this collection.  What letters of Nouwen speak to me will be different for other readers.  Some may come to this volume finding the letters marginally of interest.  Others will find a great treasure trove of spiritual wisdom with tic marks and marginalia as an insight resonates from a letter written decades ago.  Yet the beauty of Nouwen’s writings is that he has a good word for any reader, religious and otherwise.

I look forward to future volumes of this remarkable series of Nouwen’s correspondence.  Even twenty years after his passing, Nouwen continues to tend souls and offer insights into our lives even as he was wrestling with what mattered most in his own.