Sunday, 25 June 2017

Ishmael (Genesis 21:8-21)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 25, 2017, Proper 7)

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A Tale of Laughter

Last week we laughed with Sarah. “Who would ever have said” that a couple as old as Abraham and Sarah would have a child? When a messenger of God had visited Abraham and Sarah the year before and promised them a child, Sarah could not help but laugh. A bitter, cynical laugh. She did not believe it.

But no matter. Soon she conceived and bore a child. And Sarah laughed again. This time a joyful laugh, full of life. She could not believe it! She exclaimed, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). Even the child’s name is full of laughter. Isaac means, “He laughs.”

The joke is on Sarah! Quite literally, by the story’s end, when Sarah holds him in her loving hands. The joke is on Sarah, and she’s happy to laugh along and to spread the laughter among others. The good news according to Sarah is that life comes after us even after we have given up on it. The good news is that we are made fools—but fools for God, fools whose lives stage the grand comedy of life, where God fills what is empty and barren and raises to life the lifeless and the lacking.

The Bible Is No Fairy Tale

Last week would have been a great way to end the story. The barren woman bears a child. Bitter laughter turns sweet. Abraham finally has the son whom God promised.

But the Bible is no fairy tale.

Oh, that’s the way it looks outside the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Outside the tent, in the public eye, it’s a beautiful story of birth and blessing: Abraham and Sarah and their miracle child Isaac. I imagine it’s the kind of feel-good story that would make the local headlines today. There’d be interviews of the proud papa, who’d say things like, “We’re just so blessed. You know, it wasn’t a thing we did. God just blessed us.” There’d be snapshots of the merry mother, her face glowing, her mouth wide open in laughter.

But every story has a flipside, and this one is no exception.

Step inside the tent, and the picture-perfect family is broken almost beyond recognition.

Family Breakup

Years back, Sarah had concluded that she would never have a child, and so she made a decision that was not uncommon in her day: surrogate motherhood. What happens next reminds me of the dark histories of old southern plantations. Sarah and Abraham decide to have a child by the womb of their Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. But once Hagar has conceived, Sarah almost immediately regrets her decision. In her eyes, Hagar has become “uppity” (cf. Gen 16:4-5). In response, she treats Hagar so poorly that the pregnant maidservant runs away to the wilderness. Eventually, however, she returns and bears Abraham a son.

So by the time that Isaac is born, there are actually two sons in the household. And two mothers.

And that’s where the trouble brews. Isaac is three or four years old. He doesn’t understand the family dynamics. All he knows, we can imagine, is the joy of companionship. So when his half-brother, Hagar’s teenage son, introduces him to the fun of games like hide-and-seek or build-a-fort, Isaac doesn’t think a thing of it.

But Sarah does. She boils with jealousy. Her resentment is so great that she cannot even say the names of the maidservant or her son. “Cast out this slave woman,” she orders Abraham, “[along] with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (21:10). The demand distresses Abraham, of course, for the son of the slave woman is his son too. But after he receives a word of assurance from God, he consents to this family breakup. The next morning, Hagar and her son leave home and wander into the wilderness.

God in Laughter, God in Tears

How quickly the laughter of last week has faded. The Bible is no fairy tale. It knows that many stories of celebration have a dark underbelly. On the other side of last week’s birth and blessing is bitterness and brokenness.

Indeed, Hagar and are son are driven to their breaking point. As they run out of water in the wilderness, Hagar gives up. She places her son in the shade of some bushes and then sits down a ways on the opposite side so that she will not have to watch the death of her own child. Then she weeps.

If the gospel of Sarah last week was that God is in our laughter, then the gospel of Hagar this week is that God is in our tears. For no sooner have she and her son cried, than a messenger of God cries out to her: “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” Then her eyes are opened, and through her tears she sees a well of water! Where did that come from? Was it there before? Had she missed it in her despair? No matter…she fills her skin with water and gives her son a drink. There is no laughter this time around, but don’t be fooled. God is here in Hagar’s tears just as much as God was in Sarah’s laughter. In both blessing and brokenness, God fills empty bodies with life.

“God Hears the Outsider”

That is gospel enough for one Sunday. But there is something that niggles me still. Have you noticed anything missing in all this talk? I have followed the lead of the scripture and refrained from using one name. The name of Hagar’s son. Nowhere in today’s story is it mentioned. Sarah cannot bring herself to use it. God does not use it. The narrator does not use it. Why is it missing? Why can no one say the name of Hagar’s son? Is it because this story is painful enough as it is, and using the name of the boy would only give him a face, would only make the story more painful? It is symbolic of how Abraham and Sarah are coping with the experience? Is the story repressing this boy’s memory as his father and stepmother are?

What is his name, by the way?

Ishmael.

The name carries within it an entire history. Ishmael is the father of Islam. The name also carries within it a reminder that much of our world has forgotten or repressed: Ishmael means “God hears.”

Who does God hear? Not only Abraham and Sarah, not only the in-crowd. God hears Hagar. In one sense, the story of Ishmael and Hagar is a simple story of names. Ishmael means “God hears,” and Hagar means “the outsider.” What’s the story? Put the names together. God hears the outsider. God is in their tears as much as God is in the laughter of the blessed.

There Is No Way to Separate Islam from the Promise “God Hears”

Ishmael. It is a challenging name, because it contains both the history of Islam and the promise that “God hears.” In the name of Ishmael, there is no way to separate Islam from the promise, “God hears.” Who does God hear? Just us? Abraham Heschel, a compassionate and devout Jewish theologian, once wrote: “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.”[1] Which is to say, a God who is exclusive to certain interests—Christian, white, male, whatever—that God is nothing more than self-worship. It is an abuse: God remade in our own image.

I know that this can be a touchy matter in our world today. Rather than speak in generalities, which often become little more than battle lines for one position over another, I’d prefer to share from my personal experience. A friend from Libya, to whom I helped teach English several years ago, recently sent me a short message: “Hi John, how do you do? I hope you are good. I ask Allah to protect you.” If we’re talking about protection, she needs much more than I do, living as she does in a much more turbulent world. But she prayed for me. Did God hear her prayer? Ishmael.

I wonder if Hagar or Ishmael prayed for Abraham and Sarah. They’d have every reason not to. But I have my suspicions to the contrary. Because when Abraham dies, guess who shows up? Isaac, yes—but also Ishmael (25:8-9).

Perhaps God Hears Others and Is on Their Side

I have a tendency in my reflections to twist scripture to fit me. In other words, today’s scripture would mean that whenever I am crying, or whenever I experience rejection, God hears me and comes to me. But I wonder if for once I shouldn’t stay put, and let the other characters be other characters. Perhaps the tears of Hagar and Ishmael are really the tears of others, of folks who are different than me, of Muslims and black folks and women. And perhaps I have hurt them. And perhaps God hears their hurt and is on their side. That’s what the name Ishmael would suggest.

And perhaps—perhaps they are praying for me, and one day by the grace of the God who hears and cares for us all, our broken histories will be water under a bridge of love, and we will gather together like Isaac and Ishmael after a long, tearful history and put it to rest. And perhaps there life will come from death, and blessing from brokenness, and the reconciliation of Christ will become flesh and blood among us.

Prayer

God of laughter,
God of tears,
Thank you for opening
The door to life
Whatever our circumstance;

God who is all ears
To the cries
Of the outsider—
Give us your ears
That we too might
Hear the cries of others
And share life with them.
In the name of this broken world’s reconciliation, Jesus Christ.
Amen.


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[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), 86.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Tale of Two Laughs (Gen 18:1-15; 21:1-7)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 18, 2017, Proper 6)

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A Story That Reawakens Our Faith

This morning’s scripture is a wonderful story. Like any good story, it captures our imagination. It sweeps us into its own world. It invites us to feel what the characters feel. At the same time, it reminds us a little of our own lives. As we read the story, we recognize parts of it that are our own story. In this way, it reawakens our faith. We discover that our lives are much more amazing than we thought, that faith plays perhaps a greater role in our lives than we had realized.

So in place of reading the scripture today, I’m going to tell it in my own words and in my own imagination. I’m going to share how it becomes alive to me, how it awakens my faith. Perhaps you’ll revisit the scripture on your own and discover other aspects and angles that awaken your own faith in other ways.

“Her Laughter Was Bitter”

Her laughter was bitter. It leaked out from a place of pain and sorrow. It was the kind of laughter that could collapse into tears or a whimper at any moment.

A child? At her age? Impossible. How dare they speak about something they knew nothing about? How dare they make such a casual, flippant remark? She and her husband had tried for years. Now they were both far too old.

It had been a long day. Maybe that, too, was why her laughter was bitter.

It all began when three strangers appeared outside their tent. Naturally her husband had offered them hospitality. The burning sun, the lack of water, the fatigue of a long journey—she and her husband had lived in the wilderness long enough to know the hardships of travel. Whenever they saw strangers, they could not help but welcome them. Hospitality was a reflex.

Her husband led the men to the deepest shade in their little grove of oak trees and had them to rest there. Cool water was brought for them to quench their thirst and cleanse their feet. It’s remarkable how something as simple as water can become the most delicious thing in the world, the most precious gift.

Then her husband had rushed into the tent, frantic, “Sarah! Make some bread, as quick as you can. We have guests.” Without waiting for a response, he ran back outside. A few minutes later, he was back in the tent, catching his breath. The cry of a calf rang out. He must have asked their servant to prepare some meat.

So here they were: she slaving over bread, the servant preparing the calf, and her husband doing nothing. She did not resent Abraham. She knew he was only catching his breath. But it stung her nonetheless: hospitality always seemed to require more of her than of him. This, perhaps, was another reason that her laughter was bitter.

Hours later, when she had finished with the bread and the servant had prepared the meat, Abraham served the men out under the great oaks. They had plenty to eat and plenty to drink. Sarah rested by an open flap of the tent, enjoying the evening breeze. The conversation of the men wafted inside:

“No children?”

“No children,” Abraham responded.

There was an awkward pause.

Then one of the other men spoke up, his voice strange and bold: “When I come back this way next spring, mark my words: your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah knew how men talked late in the evening when they had a full belly and drink on their breath. Surely this was little more than a reckless, drunken claim.

Her laughter was bitter.

“Her Laughter Was Full of Life”

But the next day, and the day after that, the words echoed within her: “Your wife Sarah will have a son.” It was as though those strange, bold words had lodged themselves deeply in her womb.

Within a few months, those words took shape within her womb—literally. She had conceived. For days, her mind could not believe her body.

When spring arrived, she gave birth to a son.

For the first few days, she rested in a haze of exhaustion and disbelief.

But on the eighth day, she returned to the world. And holding her baby in her arms, looking into his eyes, she laughed—a full body laugh, the kind of laugh that begins deep in the womb and spreads to the furthest reaches. Her laughter was full of life.

And she exclaimed, “God has made me laugh! And everyone who hears this story will laugh with me! For who would ever have said that the two old grey-hairs, Abraham and Sarah, would have a child? Who? Yet here we are!”

And her laughter was full of life.

What did they name the child? Well, it should be obvious. They named him, “Isaac,” which means, “He laughs!” Who laughed? Everyone who heard!

And their laughter was full of life.

The Gospel according to Sarah

Today’s scripture is good news. It is the gospel according to Sarah. It is a tale of faith. But it’s important to recognize whose faith. It is not Sarah’s. Sarah had lost faith. That is why at the beginning she laughs so bitterly. In the Romans passage today, Paul talks about faith—not our faith but the faith of Christ. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us,” Paul says, as if to say, “Even when we are unfaithful to God, God is faithful to us” (Rom 5:8). That, in a word, is the gospel. And today’s scripture illustrates it beautifully as a tale of two laughs.

The first is a bitter and empty laugh—as empty as Sarah’s womb and as bitter as her years of disappointment. The second is full of life—for there is much more life now, the life of the newborn baby, to be sure, but also the life of Sarah herself. She has come back to life, you might say, not because she was faithful but because God was faithful. And not only has she come back to life. She declares that anyone who hears about her will laugh too! The laughter—and the life—will spread.

That, in another word, is the gospel. In the Matthew passage today, Jesus tells the disciples to spread the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near. In Sarah’s story, the good news is a matter of laughter. It’s contagious. God has made her laugh, and her laughter—she is convinced—will make others laugh too. The good news is not some point-by-point doctrine that we memorize, or some secret formula that certifies us as Christians. The good news is whatever has turned our tears into laughter, a laughter so great that it is contagious and spreads among others.

Who Would Ever Have Said?

“Who would ever have said!” Sarah exclaims, laughing in spite of herself. Who would ever have guessed it?

That is how Sarah expresses her story of faith, which at its heart is a story of God’s faithfulness to her. And my hunch is that this expression—“who would ever have said!”—might clue us in to our own stories of faith, which like Sarah’s are unbelievable. “Who would ever have said?” We ourselves could not believe it except that it has happened. God is faithful to us even when we have little faith ourselves.

From my own story, I might ask: Who would ever have said that a young man would find himself far from home and among strangers? From some of your stories that I know, I might ask: Who would ever have said that a man unloved by his father would grow into a loving and forgiving father himself? Who would ever have said that disability could make life better? Who would ever have said that the experience of discrimination would foster compassion instead of resentment? Who would ever have said that the kids would teach the grown-ups?

From the incredible stories that we find in scripture, we might ask: Who would ever have said that a disobedient son would come home to find a feast in his honor? Who would ever have said that those who mourn would laugh? That those who hunger would be filled? That those without anything carry within them the greatest blessing? That death would be followed by new life?

Who would ever have said these things? Probably no one. They’re unbelievable. And yet they happen. Like Sarah, we cannot help but laugh in wonder. And our laughter is full of life. And our laughter brings life. And that is the story of our faith. Or rather, the story of God’s faithfulness to us.

Prayer

God,
Sometimes your promise of life
Is unbelievable,
And like Sarah
We laugh bitterly;
May we trust in you
And learn to laugh fully,
Contagiously,
At your incredible faithfulness.
In the name of him whose love brings life from death, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Call and Response (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday)

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Talking to Plants…

Have you ever known someone who talks to plants? Not in a silly or make-believe way, but in earnest—in the same sincere way that some people talk to their pets. One of my friends in Sheffield, Katka, talks to plants. She asks them each morning how they rested. She speculates idly on the weather with them, and she commiserates as best she can when they are dry and thirsty or wilting and needful of sunlight. She shares with them her joys and her sorrows, telling them, for instance, about a wonderful book she has just finished or a cooking misfortune that she is still grieving.

When I first witnessed Katka speaking seriously to her plants, I must admit that I questioned her mind. Her conversation seemed rather silly and one-sided to me. But as I became more accustomed to it, my feeling changed. I began to hear in her odd dialogue the echo of something ancient and sacred. To talk to the plants as though they could listen, as though they could respond, as though they grew by love—was this not how everything began?

…Is Sort of How It All Began

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In other words, God does not create something out of nothing. God begins with some material: the nameless, anonymous elements of the dark deep and the windswept waters.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’” That’s curious. It’s not a snap of the fingers or a wave of the magic wand. It’s not even a blunt command. It’s a call, an invitation, a request. “Let there be light.” And then, if you can believe it, there is a response. “And there was light.”

That was the first day. The third day is my favorite. If I thought that my friend Katka was crazy, the third day made me reconsider. If she’s crazy, she’s just as crazy as God; she’s no more foolish than the Creator:

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation…’…. And the earth brought forth vegetation…. And God saw that it was good” (1:11-12).

Cause versus Call

In the past, I used to think of God as an architect or a master chef, a solitary expert who invented things and imperiously put them in their place. God was the Cause. Creation was a construction project.

But that’s not how the book of Genesis tells the story. According to Genesis, God looks less like a builder and more like my friend Katka, whispering lovingly to her plants. God is not so much a Cause as a Call. God does not impose, but rather invites. If God were simply an architect or a chef, someone who worked from scratch, then there would be little need to say anything. It’s almost too easy to miss, but the very fact that God speaks signals that creation is not simply a divine construction project. Creation is a dialogue, a call and a response.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, a German nun of the thirteenth century, once prayed: “I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.” It is a beautiful and accurate image for the mystery of creation. Life is a dance with God. God makes the first move—an invitation—and creation responds. God takes the first step, and creation follows with a step of its own.

Mechanics versus Meaning

Our modern world obsesses over creation as a matter of mechanics. How did it happen? What was its cause? It reads Genesis the same way it would a science textbook, looking for facts and figures and proofs.

The Bible, on the other hand, holds creation reverently in its fingertips, like a mystery, like a gift. It cares little for the mechanics but much for the meaning. What is the truth of creation? Where is its beauty? Is it good or bad?

If we read the creation story as the Bible tells it, as a tale immemorial steeped in mystery and meaning, its message becomes pretty obvious. Any English teacher worth her salt will tell you to pay attention to the words and images that are repeated in a story. These often point to its theme, its subject, its message. The repetition in the creation story is unmistakable.

There is a call. There is a response. It is good.

There is a call. There is a response. It is good.

What is the meaning of creation? It’s not that God created this before that, or that before this. It’s not that God created the earth five thousand years ago or five billion years ago. It’s not that humans evolved from apes or dinosaurs never existed. It’s that God—a little bit like my friend Katka who talks to plants—began talking to things. God called, cajoled, invited. “Let there be! Let there be!” And things responded. They grew, they bore fruit, they moved this way and that in a beautiful dance. Such was God’s delight at this dance of life, that at the end of every day, God ended the dialogue with a word of blessing: “It is good.”

The Trinity: Call, Response, and Conversation

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate the mystery of God in the three persons of God, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit. Many a theologian has lost his job—a few even their lives—trying to explain the trinity. I trust that you will not be so harsh an audience!

In today’s scripture, God is clearly the Call. God is an invitation, a summons, a request—“May I have this dance?” If God is the Call, then Jesus is the Response. Jesus takes God up on God’s invitation: “Thy will be done.” Or, “Yes, let’s dance!” Theologians call Jesus the “incarnation” of God, which is just a big fancy word to say that Jesus is the body of God, which is itself a creative way to say that Jesus is the existence to God’s insistence. God insists. Jesus exists. God calls. Jesus responds. And the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the conversation: it is a listening posture; it is the trust and vulnerability that empower conversation.

Joining the Dance

All of creation is a dance of the trinity, a dance into which we are always invited. We see this clearly in Genesis 1. Creation grows from a holy call and response, a “Let there be…and there was,” one step met by another step. Over the course of history, we have made a series of stumbles and missteps—the church calls this sin. The good news, though, is that God continues to call, and Jesus continues to respond, and the dance is being restored. The church calls this salvation.

And faith—faith is simply another word for responding with Jesus, for taking God’s hand and dancing. The blessing that God pronounces over creation—“It is good, very good”—is a call for our response. Faith is about countersigning God’s “It is good” with our own “Yes, it is good.” Faith is about taking God’s offered hand and dancing even as the world stumbles. We see this most clearly in Jesus, who proclaims life in the face of death, blessing in the face of brokenness.

We see the dance also in Katka, who takes God’s hand and affirms “It is good” as she blesses her plants. We see the dance among teachers who bless children, doctors and nurses who bless the sick, volunteers who bless the imprisoned, communities who bless strangers. We see the dance of faith wherever the Call of God is met with the Response of Christ. We see it wherever God’s blessing, “It is good,” echoes in us as it echoed in Christ: not only in word but in body and blood.

Prayer

Holy Dance,
In whom all creation finds life:
Sweep us off our feet
Into your rhythm of goodness;
Inspire us to trust
That your blessing
Is deeper than pain and brokenness,
So that we may respond like Christ
And accept your invitation to dance.
Amen.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Beyond Disorder and Order (1 Corinthians 12:3b-13)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 4, 2017, Pentecost Sunday)

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The Spirit of a Game

Imagine with me a crowd of children. It’s summer break. They’re outside. They have nothing to do. And they’re getting more restless by the minute. There are shoves and pushes, as some of the children try to assert their dominance. There are a few children running around aimlessly, screaming for no observable reason. More than anything else, there’s a growing tide of chatter. It gets louder and louder as everyone tries to speak over her neighbor.

The book of Judges has a great expression for this kind of scene: “Everyone is doing what is right in his own eyes.” Or in our own idiom, it’s every person for himself.

Now imagine that you are responsible for keeping this surge of youthful energy in check. You need to ensure that this exuberance does not erupt into total chaos. What do you do?

No two situations are the same. And I have relatively little experience to draw from. But I know what I would do.

I would throw a ball into their midst.

A ball is like magic. It transforms the crowd. You can almost see with your bare eyes a spirit swooping over them. Individuals become teams. Shouts and screams become purposeful communication—“Pass! Shoot!” Wild movements—running, jumping, sliding—become meaningful. Loose energy is focused into the joyful spirit of a game.

An Aside: 
Are Adults Immune to the Spirit?

As an aside: I share this scenario as though the wild energy of youth is a problem that must be solved. But I wonder, in fact, if scenes like this do not show how much closer children are to the kingdom of God than adults. Because if the world that we live in has shown us anything, it’s that a crowd of adults can become restless and chaotic too, each one speaking past the other, shouting over the other, every person for himself. And sadly, a ball will not do the trick anymore. It has lost its magic. We adults seem almost immune to whatever spirit it is that sweeps over children.

Chaos in Corinth

In today’s scripture, Paul faces a church that looks much like our imaginary scenario. Confusion and chaos reign at the church in Corinth. There is pushing and shoving as some people try to assert their authority. There is meaningless noise as some people babble on and on in tongues with no one to interpret. There is an every-person-for-himself attitude at the Lord’s Table; the rich eat well and the poor eat nothing.[1]

Paul’s response to this chaos? It’s the last response I’d expect.

A Mad response: 
The Spirit instead of Order

The kneejerk reaction, I would think, would be to enforce some order. Pick a leader, set up some rules and committees, and get to voting. Establish a game plan. When in the late 19th century the mechanical engineer and businessman Frederick Taylor confronted a world of industry that lacked uniform structure and standards, he issued a call for order: “In the past man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”[2] Over a century later, and his words have become reality. McDonaldization—where everything is prescribed, from the radius of your burger to the smile on your cashier’s face—has become the rule for much of our world, businesses as well as churches.

The natural response to disorder is order. But Paul does not respond this way. Instead he talks about the Spirit. Instead of giving the Corinthians a game plan, he invites them to rediscover the game. He doesn’t throw a literal ball among them, but he does his best to remind them of the spirit that sweeps over the faithful just as surely as the spirit of play sweeps over children with a ball.

If this sounds silly to you, you’re not alone. I think it’s madness. To respond to chaos with talk of the Spirit is like playing with fire. Spirit is the last thing you’d want to talk about. Spirit is indefinable, unruly, uncontrollable. Like the wind, it comes and goes where it pleases. Any reasonable business—McDonalds or otherwise—does not trust the spirit. They do their best to keep it on a leash, to channel it into their own interests.

The Risky Spirit and the Common Good

In a world that prefers order to disorder, the Spirit is a risk. When you throw a ball among the crowd of children, you do not know the result. You don’t know what game will follow. The spirit makes its own rules. My brother and I invented all sorts of games growing up, depending on what we had around us—trees, trashcans, sticks, steps.

Why does Paul take the risk? Why does he effectively throw a ball among the chaotic Corinthians rather than raise his voice and impose order top-down? I suspect that he does this because he ultimately trusts God more than he trusts anything we humans can organize on our own. I suspect that when Paul talks about everyone having a “gift,” he’s not just talking the talk. He actually means it. If he or the Corinthians write the rules themselves rather than play the game, then there is a danger that they will cancel out someone’s gift.

When Paul throws a ball among the Corinthians—and the ball, to be clear, is Christ—he trusts that the game will bring out everyone’s special gift. He has this confidence because the Spirit of Christ is a spirit of love that looks not to its own interest but to the interests of others; such a spirit would bring our gifts not into conflict but into concert. Just as a ball joins together a diversity of desires and abilities into a common joy, so too Paul believes that the Spirit of Christ joins together our special gifts into a common good (cf. 12:7). As Paul will say in the next chapter, our individual desires and abilities are but a “noisy gong or a clanging symbol” by themselves (cf. 13:1). But joined together in the Spirit of Christ, they become a symphony to God’s love.

Moving from the Game Plan to the Game

If Paul had less faith, he may have responded to the chaos in Corinth with programs and rules and a McDonalds-like blueprint for the church. Thank God he doesn’t. Perhaps such standardization would have resulted in a successful business or club. But it wouldn’t have resulted in a church.

A church, Paul knows, lives by the Spirit of Christ. That’s why he responds to the chaos in Corinth by inviting the Corinthians to get caught up in the one Spirit of Christ, that Spirit of selfless love that gives itself for the life of others.

As our church prepares for conversation about our plans for the next year, we would do well to take a page from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Rather than fret over the game plan, let’s get caught up in the game. Which is to say: let’s not worry about satisfying our own anxieties for order, but rather get caught up in the one Spirit of Christ’s love, a Spirit that meets around tables, a Spirit that shares the concerns of others and celebrates the gifts of everyone. When we get caught up in the Spirit, we may find ourselves playing by different rules than we ever did before, but if we’re playing in the Spirit of Christ’s love, then we can trust that the Spirit will lead us to a common good. The good news according to Paul is that when we share the Spirit of Christ with one another, we leave behind the old order—and disorder—for an adventure that is richer and more abundant, an adventure where every one of us becomes a gift to the other, and our many differences are transformed from clash and clamor into a beautiful symphony.

Prayer

Spirit of Christ,
Who lives beyond
Our disorder and our order;
Whose unruly rule of love
Joins us in a symphony
Far greater than our own;
Inspire our trust
In your way
Of sharing and selflessness,
That our special gifts
Might bear together
The common fruit of your goodness. Amen.


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[1] For reference to these problems, see 1 Cor 11:17-22; 14.

[2] C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 131.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Little Way (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:11-16)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 28, 2017, Easter VII)

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Odd Advice

“Humble yourselves.” So suggests 1 Peter to a persecuted community of Christ-followers. It strikes me as rather odd advice. When we stand face to face with a bully or an enemy, humility is probably the last option that presents itself. Our instinct, instead, is fight or flight. With our ego pricked and our heart racing, we must decide between standing up for ourselves or saving ourselves: either fight then and there, or live to fight another day.

If 1 Peter were alone in recommending humility in the face of the enemy, then we might write his words off as the suggestion of a lofty visionary, someone living in the impractical world of ideals rather than in the knitty-gritty world of flesh and blood. But 1 Peter is not alone. The letter of James also recommends humility in very similar terms. Humility, according to them both, is how you resist evil (cf. James 4:6-7, 10).

The Enemy Is Within

And they weren’t alone. For many early Christ-followers, resisting evil meant neither self-defense nor self-preservation. It meant self-denial. We see this odd idea lived out in the lives of the desert fathers, a rather odd bunch themselves, a gaggle of early Christ-followers who went into the desert to practice their faith in monastic communities. Reading about the desert fathers always puts me on the edge of my seat. I approach them as you might a crazy uncle—expecting something both irreverent and eye-opening. I imagine them sometimes as a group of grumpy old men, both crotchety and wise.

Take, for instance, this story about Father Macarius. One day, a young man asks him, “How do I become a holy man?” Father Macarius responds, “Go to the cemetery. I want you to abuse the dead for all you’re worth. Throw sticks and stones at them, curse at them, call them names—anything you can think of.” The young man can hardly believe his ears, but he does as he’s told. When he returns, Father Macarius asks, “What did the dead people say?” The young man responds that they said nothing. They were dead. “Isn’t that interesting?” Father Macarius muses. “I want you to go back tomorrow, and this time spend the day saying everything nice about these people. Call them righteous men and women, compliment them, say everything wonderful you can imagine.” The young man again does as he’s told. When he returns, Father Macarius asks how the dead responded this time. The young man responds that, again, they did not say a word. “Ah, they must be holy people indeed,” says Father Macarius. “You insulted them, and they did not reply. You praised them, and they did not speak. Go and do likewise, my friend, taking no account of either the scorn of men and women or their praises. And you too will be a holy man.”[1]

In tradition and folklore, it is said that the desert fathers fought great spiritual battles against the devil and his host of demons. But as this story hints at, the demonic forces are not some concrete, external reality. The enemy is not without: the enemy is within. The only battle the young man must wage is with the self, the ego, this thing that we call “I” or “me” formed by the constellation of our desires and achievements and what others think of us. As Father Macarius suggests, resisting evil means making ourselves little, or losing ourselves.

We see this more clearly in a simple story about Father Antony, the founder of the desert fathers. Antony says, “I saw all the snares that the enemy spread over the world, and I said, groaning, ‘What can get me through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”[2]

Humility Is Resistance

Humility may be a virtue, but in our modern world it has become a rather distasteful idea—and with good reason. In our world, humility is often shorthand for passive submission. For many folks today, to be humble means to surrender yourself uncritically to the world around you. Humility is little more than a white flag. It’s equivalent to saying, “Do to me what you will, I won’t resist.” 

If the writer of 1 Peter were confronted with this idea of humility, though, I’m fairly certain that he would raise his eyebrows. A humility that just submits to the status quo? A humility that doesn’t resist? That’s entirely the opposite of what he and the early Christ-followers had in mind. For them, humility is the very root of resistance. In the same breath, the writer of 1 Peter tells his audience to “humble themselves” and to “resist” the devil. The two instructions are one and the same.

Humility is resistance because it addresses evil at its very birthplace: the heart. Whereas the world believes that evil is outside and change begins only when we fix what is outside us, faith proclaims that evil is within and real change only happens when we disarm our egos and welcome the spirit of God. According to our scripture today, humility is about a change of hands. Humility, 1 Peter says, places us in “the mighty hand of God,” who “will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish” us (1 Pet 5:6, 10). If we rely only on ourselves, we’ll only ever get what we’ve already got. We need something new, something from outside ourselves. Change comes not from us, but from God. The Protestant reformers called God’s righteousness an “alien righteousness” for good reason. It is not our own. It is alien: it comes from outside us.

Humility does not immobilize us, as the world fears. It does the opposite. It mobilizes us—in a fuller, richer, stronger way than we could ourselves. By making ourselves little, by losing ourselves, we open ourselves up. We become fertile soil for God. When we open our ears, we can listen to others—and perhaps we will hear God. When we open our hands, we can accept help from others—and perhaps from God. When we open our minds, we see beyond reality into possibilities—and perhaps possibilities from God. Humility, I think, is the truth of what Paul meant when he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

In this sense, humility means getting out of our own way so that Christ can get in. Being humble is like dancing: only when we let the music enter inside us—and overtake us—can we dance in rhythm. Being humble is like playing jazz: only once the bass line has us on its leash can we improvise gracefully.

Little Zeros

In the last quarter of the 19th century, there lived and died in Lisieux, France a girl named Thérèse. Even when she lay on her deathbed as a twenty-four year-old, people were already calling her a saint. She, however, responded: “I am no saint….I am quite a little soul upon whom the good God has heaped graces.”[3] It was perhaps her favorite word: “Little.” She once explained, “To remain little means recognizing one’s nothingness, expecting everything from the good God, as a little child expects everything from his father.”[4] Or as she puts it more colorfully: “I of course can do very little, absolutely nothing, in fact, alone….Zero by itself has no value, but, put alongside one, it becomes potent.”[5] Thérèse saw that she alone had no claim to anything good; goodness came from God. She could only be its helper.

I have a hunch that the desert fathers and Jesus and the writer of 1 Peter would all agree. The way to God is the little way. The self—this thing we call “I”—is full of itself. Full of concerns, plans, hurts, achievements, failures. Sometimes there is too much noise to hear the music of God, to hear that buoyant bass line. But if we cast these anxieties onto God, as 1 Peter advises (1 Pet 5:7); if we make ourselves humble and small as the desert fathers and Thérèse both recommend; if we lose ourselves, as Jesus invites us to do—then we open ourselves to the alien spirit of God, the divine tune that draws us into the dance of reconciliation and restoration (cf. 1 Pet 5:10). We make ourselves zeros, powerless by the world’s math, but potent in the math of God’s love.

The Little Way to Greatness

Our scripture today concludes by dreaming of glory in the great by and by, when we will be restored and exalted (cf. 4:12, 5:10). My guess is that when most folks read this, they dream of themselves, only bigger and better. But I wonder if the point of humility is that it’s never just our glory or greatness. Perhaps glory and greatness will come only when we make ourselves little, small and light enough to be caught and lifted up in the gusts and winds of the Spirit. The glory and greatness will not be ours alone, but God’s and all creation’s.

Prayer

Humble Christ,
Whose little way
Of losing self
Turns heavy anxieties
Into graceful blessings,
And suffering
Into hope:
Teach us 
How to listen 
For the music of God
In our lives, 
And remind us to dance, too.
Amen.


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[1] Adapted from the paraphrase found in Belden Lane, “Antony and the Desert Fathers: Christian History Interview—Discovering the Desert Paradox,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-64/antony-and-desert-fathers-christian-history-interview.html, accessed on May 24, 2107. 

[2] Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 42. 

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux & Elizabeth of the Trinity (trans. Donald Nichols, Anne Englund Nash, and Dennis Martin; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), 49. 

[4] Balthasar, 297. 

[5] Balthasar, 296-297.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Longsuffering Love (1 Peter 3:13-22)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 21, 2017, Easter VI)

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Love “Suffereth Long”

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or rude….” (1 Cor 13:4-5). And so on and so on. This passage has become routine. We recite it everywhere. Often at weddings. Occasionally at funerals. Frequently at church.

The words roll off our tongues so quickly and easily that we risk forgetting what they actually mean. Just as a meal can become so routine that we no longer pause to savor the flavors and enjoy the company, so too these words can become so familiar that we no longer appreciate their full meaning. 

One way to guard against this overfamiliarity, is to read the words in a different translation. When we encounter something strange and different, we must take more time to look at it, to understand it. In the King James, love is not simply “patient.” Love “suffereth long” (1 Cor 13:4). This is actually closer to the Greek, which says that love is “long of mind or soul.” Patience here does not mean simply waiting for a pot to boil or someone to return your call. Patience means that the spirit is longer than any suffering or misfortune that comes its way. It will stay true to what matters, no matter how long it takes.

A Love Longer than Suffering or Shame

This reminds me of an ancient story. A man wandering in the wilderness stumbles upon a kind family. He falls in love with one of the daughters. Now in that time and place, the man was expected pay a dowry in order to marry. But the wanderer has no money to pay. So he sits down with the father of the family, and the two of them agree: he will give the father seven years of labor in order to marry his daughter.

Patience. Longsuffering. A spirit that is longer than any suffering that comes its way. A spirit that stays true to what matters, no matter how long it takes.

Well, seven years pass, and finally there is a wedding. Loads of folks, loads of food, loads of fun. Until the morning, that is. In the morning, the man wakes up. And there beside him…is the wrong daughter!

He confronts the father and demands an explanation. The father explains that in his culture the older daughter must get married first. But the father has a proposal: if the man agrees to work for another seven years, he can marry the younger daughter whom he loves.

Now on the one hand, it could be argued that the poor man has been unfairly treated. It would not be right for him to work another seven years.

But patience, or longsuffering, means a spirit that is longer than any suffering that comes its way, a spirit that stays true to what matters, no matter how long it takes. In the story of Jacob—this is the story of Jacob, after all—Jacob’s love for Rachel is longer than fourteen years of labor, longer even than the shame and injustice of trickery. If Jacob’s love were shorter, if he were ultimately more concerned with his own dignity than with Rachel, he would have fought back against Rachel’s father. But to fight for his honor would be to risk his love. In the end, Jacob stays true to his love no matter how many years of labor or how much shame he must suffer.

The Longsuffering God

Fast-forward a couple thousand years from the story of Jacob, and we get to the letter of 1 Peter. Our scripture today has a lot to say about suffering and patience. Five times the word “suffer” appears, and Christ in particular is held up as a model: as Christ suffered, our writer says, so you should be prepared to suffer (cf. 3:15-18). A little bit later, the writer talks about God demonstrating “patience” or “longsuffering” back in the day of Noah. Here 1 Peter is alluding to a Jewish tradition in the Mishnah that says, “There were ten generations from Adam to Noah to show how great was [God’s] longsuffering, for all the generations provoked him continually until God brought upon them the waters of the flood” (m. Avot 5:2). But I would argue that God’s longsuffering spans far beyond the first ten generations of creation. Is not the whole of human history a story of God’s longsuffering? If God were anything like us, creation would surely have been either jury-rigged or destroyed by now. 

We see God’s longsuffering most clearly in Christ. At the beginning of his ministry when he resists the quick-fix temptations in the wilderness and at the end of his ministry when he takes up the cross, Jesus would rather endure pain, suffering, and even death than to deviate from the way of love. He would rather turn his cheek and forgive his wrongdoers and pray for his persecutors, than compromise the way of love. Like Jacob, his love for the world is more important than power. Like Jacob, he stays true to this long love no matter how much suffering he must endure.

Love Is the Means

But what does this mean for us today, us who share very few of the sufferings that Jesus and the early Christ-followers endured? 

I think it means everything, because it means that love is not only the end but also the means. Whether we suffer or not, love is the way. Look, for instance, to what our scripture says about how we should respond to the world around us. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet”—and here’s what interests me the most—“do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:15-16). In other words, how we respond to the world matters just as much as what we respond with. Love is not an argument we win, but how we talk with others. Love is not a triumph that we gain, but how we live amid difficult circumstances, even suffering. Love is not only what the kingdom looks like when it gets here. It is how the kingdom gets here. It is the means as well as the end. 

The Slow, Long Love of God

Earlier in 1 Peter, the writer warns us against the ways of the world that we have inherited (cf. 1:18). One of the ways that western Christianity has inherited, I think, is impatience. The church has too readily adopted the ways that predominate in the political and business worlds, where efficiency matters most, where practicality and convenience rule the day, where the ends really do justify the means. 

Although today’s scripture focuses a lot on something we experience relatively little—suffering—I believe its underlying message of patience speaks to us as much as ever. We are called to live out the love of Christ, a love that is long, a love that has all the time in the world for lengthy conversations and long-standing conflict and even loss. We are called to live in the kingdom of God, where love is not what a conversation achieves, but how a conversation happens; where love is not the resolution to a conflict, but how a conflict is gracefully outlasted; where love is not the absence of loss, but how loss is accepted—and transformed.

In the world of “quick and easy” that seeks first its own convenience, it is tempting to turn love into something that we achieve through a means, something that we buy with our money or accomplish with bigger buildings or better programs. But trying to fund God’s love through our pocket or to plot its triumph through programs is to renounce the way of love, the means of love.

The good news of 1 Peter is that God’s love is not a result that must be bought or a problem that must be solved. It is much simpler—and much more costly—than that. God’s love is itself the way. It is a long way, a slow way, and a sometimes-messy way. I catch glimpses of it here at Gayton Road, not in the big things but in the little things that are lived out lovingly. Like when Paul and Carol and others set aside an extra half-hour to give folks rides. Like when Emily dedicates her time and resources to our kids. Like when E.J. devotes the time to take our and the A.A.’s trash to the dump, when Cinda gives the time to change the paraments, when Judy consecrates her time to caring for a family of refugees. The list goes on and on…and would surely test your patience! 

To be sure, it’s a slow kingdom coming. But it’s coming. In all the little things that are lived out in the way of love—slowly, messily, longsufferingly—it’s coming.

Prayer

Longsuffering Christ,
Who does not deviate 
From the way of love
Even in the face of death:
As you embodied 
The long, slow love of God, 
So might we embody you
In our world.
Amen.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

In the Hands of Another (1 Peter 2:2-10)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 14, 2017, Easter V)

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Jesus for President?

During the last election season, I often wondered: what would happen if Jesus ran for president? Of course, it is entirely the wrong question. Jesus, I believe, would never run for president. The power to make laws and move armies and modify the world by force, is not the way of Christ. Jesus does not seek the power of the world. He lives by the power of love, which is the only power that can really transform the heart.

Even so, I still wondered what would happen if Jesus ran for president. Imagine a platform built on turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. What would that mean for the defense budget? Imagine an agenda that privileged the nobodies and the nothings instead of big business. What would that mean for our economy? Imagine a policy that welcomed the strangers, wherever they came from. What would that mean for home security? Imagine “a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home,…of welcoming the stranger and loving one’s enemies abroad.”[1] Oh, we love Jesus in the privacy of our devotions and maybe at church on Sunday, but let him loose into the real world and we see just how crazy he is! No matter if he sought the support of Republicans, Democrats, or independents, you can be sure this presidential Jesus would get nowhere near the ballot. He’d be a joke.

It’s worth noting, I think, why Jesus would really be rejected. It has nothing to do with what some of the world calls “Christian values.” His rejection would have little to do with his stance on sexuality or abortion or gun rights—though his stance on these things might frustrate people too. His rejection would have a lot more to do with the sheer madness of never-ending forgiveness and unconditional hospitality and a most inefficient generosity. We have domesticated acts like forgiveness and hospitality into tame, reciprocal gestures that we extend only to friends or people like us. But when such deeds are let loose into all the world, onto the risky playing field of strangers and enemies, they become as Paul once called them: foolishness and weakness. Who would possibly want to see their nation run by such policies?

Why Jesus Is Rejected

The funny thing about our history, of course, is that America has often proclaimed itself a Christian nation. The Puritans aspired to become the biblical “city on a hill,” a light to all the world. Not too long after the Revolution and the War of 1812, people were talking about “manifest destiny”—saying that God had chosen America to bring salvation to the world. Folks back then may have read today’s scripture with a triumphal, “Aha!” They may have found approval in verse 9, for instance: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

Fast-forward to today, and there remain echoes of this self-identification between nation and religion. In the recent “culture wars,” some Christians have postured themselves as the last stronghold of this nation’s Christian heritage. Only now, the tune has shifted from conquest to besiegement. The Christians that once trumpeted their triumph as a city on the hill, now broadcast their rejection as a sign of their righteousness. They might turn to today’s scripture with a proud, “Aha!” In verses 4 and 5, for example, Jesus is “a living stone…rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight,” and we are invited to be living stones like Jesus. In other words—some folks today might say, “Look, we are rejected just like Jesus was. We truly are ‘God’s own people,’ as 1 Peter says” (2:5, 9).

But unlike the Christians who claim rejection in today’s culture wars, Jesus and his early followers were not rejected on the battlefield of power, where competing parties fight to have their way. Jesus and his followers were rejected for refusing to play the game of power. Christ’s way of love—the weak and foolish way of forgiveness and hospitality and giving without return—was a threat to the game. Religious leaders and Roman leaders alike rejected him not because of his stance on the latest topics of debate, but because he overturned the world order, giving pride of place to the poor and the prostitutes, the blind and the lame, while not indulging the presumed authority and prestige of the men who wore long robes and liked to be greeted with respect (Mark 12:38). The powers that put Jesus on a cross were not misguided. If people actually lived the way that Jesus proclaimed, the way of selfless love, there would be no place left for the powers-that-be.

In the Hands of Our Mother

This vulnerable way of living—the way of welcome without question and forgiveness without end and giving without return—is what we celebrate today. At the heart of Mother’s Day is not biological motherhood, but selfless love. Some of us are blessed to have or to have had mothers who exhibited this spirit; others of us may have been blessed to find this spirit in another. In either case, today is a celebration of the precious individuals whose hands hold us as helpless infants, gently guide us as children, and build us up with love into the fullness of who we are.

And this celebration—this is the good news that our scripture proclaims today. Our writer addresses a persecuted community of Christ-followers, a community rejected by the world around it. But rather than saying, “God’s on your side—now gird up your loins, take matters into your own hands, and fight the heathen,” our writer says, “Be like newborn babies who thirst for milk,” and “Be like building blocks waiting to be built” (cf. 2:2, 5).

In other words, the writer is saying, “Let go.” Life is no longer in your hands. You are in the hands of another. You are the blocks in the hands of a builder, a baby in the hands of a loving mother. You are not called to triumph by the power of your own hand. You are called to grow by love in the hands of another. Thirst not for victory but for nourishment. Crave not control but to be built up. Rather than retaliate against the world’s rejection, remember that God, your Mother in heaven, loves you. Live according to that love, like your brother Jesus did. Remember that you grow not by victory or triumph over others, but by the love of God.

Growing by Love

When I was growing up, I nearly always had a soccer game on Saturday. Sometimes we won. Sometimes we lost. All the time, my mom was there. I remember her especially on the times when we lost. Those are the times when I grew the most. I grew then because my mom loved me just the same. I learned that winning and losing did not matter, that being faster or stronger or simply more skilled did not matter, that even the game itself did not matter. Only one thing mattered. Me.

I grew into salvation not by what I did. I grew into salvation by the love of another.

Prayer

Our Mother who art in heaven,
Our world thirsts for your love.
We have tasted its goodness,
And so we commit our spirits
Into your hands,
Becoming like children.
May we grow humbly and dependently
Into the salvation of Christ,
Who is the way and the truth and the life. Amen.


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[1] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture Series; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), ebook loc. 1386-1387.