Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Reflections on a Question

            I am working – twice a week – with a personal trainer at the local YMCA.  It is a fringe benefit of being a geezerand being on a Church Pension health insurance plan – it’s called Silver Sneakers.

            But this post has nothing to do with either being retired or working out.  It has to do with a theological/scriptural question which my trainer posed to me.  He knows that I am a retired priest, so he took the time to ask me a question. It had arisen in the local Session of Elders of his Presbyterian congregation.

            He asked me what I thought about 1 Timothy, Chapter 3, and its prohibition on women teaching in church (It is actually 1 Timothy, Chapter 2 that deals with that messy issue; I did not quibble).  It seems that his pastor had professed support for the ordination of women when the congregation was interviewing him, but since he arrived, he is showing other inclinations.  My trainer supports the ordination of women (his wife is a Presbyterian elder) and he was truly vexed by his pastor’s change-of-heart.

            It’s not often that I am posed such questions.  Outside of Sundays, I keep a low profile.  But I was happy to address this issue, especially in light of a recent personal ahamoment.

            I told him that much of the instructions written in the epistles was contextual in nature, and that the society of that era was radically different from our culture.  I also voiced the perspective Rachel Held Evans articulated in her excellent book Inspired:Paul’s primary concern was the message of salvation and new life he had found in Jesus Christ.  Every other cultural stricture was secondary.

            But I went beyond that argument, to a much more practical, existential point. This was my personal aha moment that had cemented my previous commitment. I told him that I had recently worked with a fellow priest – a woman – in conducting a funeral for a very good friend.  That experience, I said, had been a moment of renewed awareness of how many women are remarkably gifted for the ordained ministry.

            I have since written a note to that priest, telling her how deeply moved I was by how she conducted very difficult and sensitive conversations with the grieving family.  I had stood and watched as she did that, and asked myself, “How would you have done in such a situation?”  The answer in my heart was “Not nearly as well.”

            I am grateful that the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church came even before my own ordination.  In fact, the very first ordination service I ever attended was for two women in 1984. But, my thoughts go well beyond that gratitude.

            I told my trainer that women are more-than-qualified for the ordained ministry – they actually bring gifts that frequently are woefully absent in men who serve in the same roles.  Women, in many cases, bring perspectives, relational skills, and sensitivities that are much-needed in the ministry.

            As I assisted in the funeral with a female colleague, I was struck:  Perhaps many of the men have not been good stewards of the gifts of ordination.  Look at the trajectory of the church.  It has shown a deficit of some sort – and leadership, in many nuanced forms, may have been what was lacking.  Not allmen, but many – maybe myself included.

            I review my own history in the ordained ministry.  I know there are many times when I failed to provide the creative, finely-tuned leadership that was needed. I wonder if I was the right person (or right gender) for those situations. Perhaps a woman possessing different perspectives and gifts would have been much more suitable in those circumstances.

            I look back and see other facets of the situation. On many occasions, I was required (because of my roles) to intervene in cases of clergy misconduct. In all but a few cases, those clergy who had acted outside of appropriate boundaries were male. The damage by the clergy misconduct was frequently significant. Those experiences left gaping wounds in people’s souls.

            I also reflect on deployment, and the difficulties I faced in helping women receive calls.  There is one situation which stands out in my memory: A congregation chose to call a much-less-qualified male when they also had a very gifted woman as a candidate. The chosen relationship did not work out well, and the congregation suffered from their ill-informed choice. An opportunity was lost.

            As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  My viewpoint is somewhat analogous.  I think we might be seeing a divine correctionin the arc of the church.  God, in seeing the ruins that have been left by centuries of male-dominated leadership, is giving the ministry over to those who are able to speak the Good News with fresh perspectives and new voices.

            The fact of my trainer asking me the prompting question is a quaint artifact of a settled question in the Episcopal Church.  But his question brought to the surface renewed realizations.

            It is my hope that the centuries ahead will reflect the best, most-authentic, gifted people serving in important ordained roles.  I hope that it will result in the gospel being proclaimed with balanced perspectives, informed by the richness of gifts of both genders.

Mixed Signals of Advent

PROPERS:         ADVENT 1, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 LUKE 21:25-36            

ONE SENTENCE:        The seemingly-contradictory images of the season                                               remind us of God’s movement through the midst of all things.         

            I was amused this week when an item appeared on my Facebook feed.  It was a posting from a website named, “Unvirtuous Abbey” and it said: “Instead of saying Merry Christmas during this season, why don’t we shout, ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

            That was the kinder and gentler version of that passage.  The words are John the Baptist’s, and he precedes them with a pastoral salutation: “You brood of vipers!”

            That passage, from Luke, Chapter 3, will come in a few weeks.  But, today, it emphasizes something quite relevant:  The paradox of Advent.

            Just listen to the words we have already prayed or proclaimed today.

            From the collect for the First Sunday of Advent:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

            Now, listen to the words from the Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

            From the promise of a savior coming in great humility (even as an infant) to the roaring of the seas and waves, and people fainting from fear.

            What is the true essence of the season?  How do we reconcile the paradoxical images?

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            Perhaps we don’t.

            It has been observed that true spiritual health is found in being able to accept paradox.  That means being able to acceptboth/andinstead of only either/or.

            Harry Truman is reputed to have said, “What I need is a one-armed economist who doesn’t say, ‘On the other hand.’”Sadly, theologically speaking, that is seldom possible.

            We live in a binary culture, in which something is either true or not true.  We have lost the appreciation for the complexities of creation and God’s movement through it.  Things must be either this wayor that way.

            We have lost the appreciation for the nuances and conflicts which were so much a part of the ancient Jewish faith – and the world in which Jesus lived.  How many times have you heard him say, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…?”  He is saying that boththings are true.

            We cannot go into depth of complex thought and the contradictions in scripture in these few moments, but let’s remind ourselves of the practical, human reality of faith history:

·     Noah was a drunk.

·     Jacob was a liar and manipulator.

·     David was an adulterer.

·     Elijah ran from God.

·     Peter denied his best friend.

·     Paul persecuted the church.

            But all of these people served God’s purposes in the arc of faith history. Their lives are described as both/andand not either/or.  Each lived a life that are recalled for both their rebelliousness and not just faithfulness. Yet each one’s life is cited by sacred scripture as a model of responding to God’s call.

            We can say the same about ourselves:imperfect but beloved; reluctant but called.

            F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great American writer, once said, The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

            So, in the midst of mixed messages we receive in this season – apocalypse versus salvation; vulnerable infant versus Mighty God of the Cosmos – we are to remain calm and embracethe ambiguity.  That would be an indication of spiritual maturity on our part. To trust in the many, sometimes conflicting aspects of this season.

            Despite the seemingly contradictory messages, the truth rings through the season.  Just as it has through the last two millennia. 

            But there is anotheraspect to these conflicting images which should comfort us.

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            Jesus’ words today are apocalypticin nature.  Apocalypticvisions have to do with hidden things being revealedand are associated with images of the end times.  Scriptural descriptions of the apocalypse unveil God’s hand in the world.

            In the Old Testament and the New Testament, the primary apocalyptic books are The Book of Danieland the last book of the Bible, The Revelation to John.  Each book – one for the Hebrew Scriptures and one from the Christian Scriptures – has bizarre stories and vivid images.  They unveil the coming of God.

            Jesus’ words today are in keeping with that apocalyptic tradition.

            The Apocalypseis a central image in Advent – along with the expectations of God coming as a gentle, tender infant, in a manger, in a stable.

            These are not contradictory images.  They are complementary.  One reinforces the other.  It is a case of both/andand not either/or.

            Apocalyptic tradition tells us that God is working through all things.  In the roaring of the seas and the waves… in the powers of nations being shaken… in people fainting from fear… in nation rising against nation… in wars and rumors of wars… God is moving through history.

            And we know also that God is moving through a lowly stable… through a mother lovingly nursing her newborn infant… through a family’s home and a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth… through a young itinerant preacher wandering through Galilee… through a cross standing on a hillside outside of Jerusalem… and through an empty tomb in that same city.

            We do not understand the progression of God’s movement through time. In this life, we do not have the perspective which allows us to see the flow of history.  But, we may be certain – and filled with faith and hope – that God moves through all thingsand all moments.

            Whether we say, “Merry Christmas” or we shout, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Embracing the Truth

TEXT:                 JOHN 18:33-37

ONE SENTENCE:        The truth to which Jesus bears witness changes life.        

            The gospel lesson today is from John – the poignant, final exchange between Jesus and the man who will order him crucified, Pontius Pilate.

            Except, it is not quite complete.  One short verse is left out.  A question from the Roman Governor.

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            Today is known as Christ the King Sunday – the Last Sunday after Pentecost… the Sunday before the start of Advent and the new church year.

            And the gospel lesson packs quite a punch.  One would be justified in seeing the bitter irony of Christ the King being subject to the whims of a man who rules ruthlessly over some far away Roman province.

            Listen to the words again:

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

            This is just moments before Pilate presents Jesus one last time to the raucous crowd, arrayed in a mocking purple robe – imitating royalty.  And it is just before Pilate washes his hands – in an attempt to cleanse himself of the deed.

            All that is to come.  But six words are left off the end of the lesson: “Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’”

            Jesus gives no response.  The author of the gospel lets the question hang in the air.

            What is truth?

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            I hope that we can agree there is objective truthin this world.

            We each have had a mother and a father.

            At this moment, we are here in this place, St. Paul’s Chapel, Magnolia Springs.

            This day is defined as Sunday.

            Looking up from the ground, the sky is blue.

            We are living, breathing human beings.

            These, and other statements, are objective truths.  They are not matters of opinion.  They are not subject to debate.

            In the world today, many other things are up for debate. 

            You may feel that your political opinion is a matter of truth.  You have reasons for that belief and, to you, those reasons are quite clear and beyond debate.

            If I can go from preaching to meddling, you may believe that your allegiance to a school or a football team is a matter of truth.  You have your reasons and, to you, those reasons are beyond debate.

            There are many other examples of such personal truth.

            So, we have objective truth and personal truth.  There are those facts which are apparent on the face of it, and there are those matters that issues of preference, strong though they may be.

            What was the truth which Jesus exemplified – and which he did not define to Pilate?

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            I would call it confessional truth. It is truth which we claim as our own – something of which we could not be convinced unless it becomes part of us.  It is something which grabs hold of us.

            An example:  No one can convince an alcoholic that he or she needs help until they admit it to themselves.  It is the key, the foundation, the first of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 

            Deep, inner healing cannot begin until that confessional truth becomes part of the self-description of the person in the wrestling match with alcohol.  The person may pay lip service to the idea.  He or she may attend meetings.  That person may acknowledge the personal truthfor some people.  But it lacks power until it is knit into the fabric of the soul. Named and claimed.

            The first word of The Apostles’ Creed – the baptismal creed of the Church – is Credo– I believe.  In that statement, we are laying claim to the confessional truth of God’s transcendent, personal, related being to us. In the Nicene Creed, we say something quite similar – We believe. It is the community’s statement of faith.  But I want to focus on the personal.  That is where the rubber meets the road; where lives are changed.

            Even though we repeat the creeds, they don’t take root until there is that moment when we say, like Thomas, “Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.”

            In a significant sense, confessing our faith in Godis similar to an alcoholic hitting bottom – we knowthat we are utterly dependent on something beyond ourselves for wholeness. We may not understand, but we are grabbed by something beyond us.

            The great 20thCentury theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote of being grasped by the ultimate concern.  In an actual moment of confessional truth,we find ourselves embraced in something beyond ourselves that allows us to release the brokenness of our past.  Life pivots. It is like being struck by healing lightning.

            In fact, Paul Tillich spoke to this being grasped in one of his most famous sermons, published in the book, Shaking the Foundations.  He speaks of the painful, exhaustive striving that many of us attempt, in an effort to find personal worth or, more difficult, to prove ourselves to God.

            You may have experienced that striving, and the ultimate frustration it presents.  It is like perpetually reaching for the brass ring, but coming up short. Tillich acknowledges that pain and frustration.  But he says that we reach the point where we place ourselves in God’s hands and depend on his grace to make us worthwhile people. 

            Hear his powerful words:

It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

          It is to that encounter with faith… that encounter with the transformative truth… that Jesus came to bear witness.  

          It is that truth which stands out above all others.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Crisis Today

PROPERS:         PROPER 28, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 MARK 13:1-8

ONE SENTENCE:        The chaos of life encourages us to always “walk in                                              faith” – already transformed.

            Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson were truly prophetic when they were first spoken.  They were prophetic in the sense of speaking God’s truth, and also in the sense of predicting the future.

            Jesus is standing with his followers in the area of Herod’s Temple.  The disciples are awed by the structure. Some 50 years in the building (and still it was not completed), it is said to have been one of the most breathtaking sights in the ancient world.

            It was, of course, the focus of the Jewish faith.  There was Holy of Holies, a chamber in which only the High Priest could enter – and he only once a year.  This was the central place of all the ritual sacrifices prescribed in the Torah.

            Every other place of worship – every synagogue – paled in comparison.

            So, the people who heard Jesus’ words must have been startled:

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

            His words were truly proleptic.  They anticipated things to come.  How Jesus knew, I do not know.  Perhaps he was truly aware of the deal with the devilwhich many powerful people had made with the Roman oppressors. Maybe he was aware of the conflict simmering beneath the surface. Perhaps he knew there would be payday someday.

            The illustration he chose – the destruction of the Temple – was seen and interpreted as truly apocalyptic. Hidden things would be revealed.  The Day of the Lordwould come.  The Temple could not be destroyed without cataclysmic events taking place.  His warning would be heard through the millennia. 

            Whatever his source of foreknowledge, he was spot-on.

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            Some 35-years later, long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the seeds of rebellion would take root in the seaside city of Caesarea-Philippi, when Greeks sacrificed birds outside a synagogue – an abomination to the Jews. The fires of rebellion spread across the land.

            Thousands – Romans and Jews – died in the early skirmishes.  The Roman General Vespasian, soon to be Emperor, conquered Galilee and the areas north of Jerusalem first.  Then siege was laid to fortress city of Jerusalem.  More than a million people took refuge within the walls.

            People starved. Conflict arose among the Jewish leaders. Zealots burned the stored food in hopes of provoking the people to fight against the Romans.

            But it was not to be.  

            Late in July, A.D. 70, the Roman army breached the walls and entered the city. The city and Temple were burned. A million people died.  The Temple was destroyed, with each stone being taken down from the other.  Those stones weighed as much as 160,000 pounds each.

            Only the Wailing Wall – the western retaining wall – remains to this day.

            But that was not the end.  The Roman troops moved on to towns and fortifications south and east of the city. The overran Qumran – causing the small sect of apocalyptic Essene believers to hide their sacred scrolls in nearby caves. Those scrolls were discovered 1,870 years later.  We call them the Dead Sea Scrolls.

            The Roman army moved further south, along the coast of the Dead Sea.  They laid siege to the last rebel hold-out – the Herod-built mountain fortress, Masada. Elevated 1,000 feet above the desert floor, the Romans waited and waited.  Finally, they built an engineering marvel – a siege ramp which allowed them to enter the fortress.

            Their effort was for naught.  The 900 rebels in the fortress had taken their own lives, rather than live in Roman slavery.

            Jesus saw all that coming.  Thirty-five years earlier.

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            The disciples were stunned by Jesus’ words.  How could this be?  This magnificent building?

            The Gospel according to Mark tells us:

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

            Many religious leaders have sought to identify the Day of Judgement.  There have been multiple movements throughout history in which one group or another was certainof the time.  Books have been written.  Movies have been made.  It was 40-years ago today when charismatic evangelist Jim Jones led 900 residents of Jonestown to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.

            But listen to Jesus’ words: “There will be wars and rumors of wars… Nation will rise against nation… earthquakes… famines.”

            My question to you:  When has there NOT been a time of these things?  When has there NOT been war – somewhere in the world?  When has nation NOT risen against nation?  When has there NOT been earthquakes or famines?

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            The answer is never.  These conditions have always existed.

            The point is to be prepared.

            The time for transformation is now.  We do not know… we cannot know when our individual apocalypse will come.  But, be assured, it will come.

            But there is more to be gained in the here and now.  Being transformed, having our lives radically changed by the grace of God, is about more than getting to the Kingdom of God. It is also about finding the Kingdom of God in our midst.

            That can be done in myriad ways – more ways than there are numbers of us.  We will not complete the ushering-in of that Kingdom in our lifetime.  But we can be open to the transformation – the new life – which allow us to see glimpses of God’s reign on earth.

            We don’t need to wait for wars and rumors of wars… nation rising against nation… earthquakes and famines.  The time is now.  Life can begin anew today.  Commit to enrich your life. Move toward a deeper faith.  Walk in faith, each and every step.