The Gospel of Thomas

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

But one of the Twelve, Thomas, called Didymus, was not there when Jesus came to them. So then, the other disciples said to him, “We’ve seen the Master!”

But he said to them, “If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds, if I can’t put my finger in them, and if I can’t put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And after a week, again the disciples gathered together and Thomas was with them. The doors being shut, Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. He said, “Peace be with you!”

Then he said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see my hands. Place your hand in my side. Don’t disbelieve — believe!”

Thomas answered him, “Oh my Master and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

John 20:24-29

“I don’t believe in the resurrection. I know. I’ve been around here for a while, and it’s just kind of the expectation for people like me. I know, I know. It’s been a week. I know everyone was celebrating last week, there were songs, there may have been some dancing somewhere, I know everyone was happy. I know everyone was happy, but I didn’t see it. I don’t have that kind of hope, you know. I can’t just believe. I know you’ve got your arguments. I know they’re there, and I think they’re pretty convincing sometimes, but it’s just not enough. It’s just that after everything I’ve seen in my life, since I was born, all the war, all the hunger, all the suffering … It’s just — how can you look at all that suffering, all that pain, all that misery and say he got up? I just can’t believe it. What makes you think that we’re so special, that we know the Messiah, the Savior? What makes you think somebody from Nazareth of all places was so special? Didn’t Nathaniel say it right? ‘What good can come out of Nazareth?’ What makes you think some carpenter’s son who could pull off some neat tricks is the Savior of the world — that he got back up. They killed him, guys. They killed him. If he could save himself, surely he would have done it beforehand. I just can’t believe this story, it’s too much.  Peter, I know what you say you saw. Mary, I know what you think you saw. John, I know there wasn’t anything there — but there are so many kinds of explanations! I don’t have that kind of hope. Don’t get me wrong, I think what he said was right, I think what he asked us to do was right, I think building this Kingdom is still our job … at least I still think that most days. But some days I don’t have that kind of faith. Not today, not now. Not after what we saw last week — they killed him. I just don’t have that kind of faith. If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds … if I can’t put my finger in them … and if I can’t put my hand in his side … I will not believe.” Read the rest of this entry

Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision (Luke 9:28-36)

Transfiguration Sunday, 2013

Heflin Baptist Church; Heflin, Alabama

 

The Scripture

About eight days later, after Jesus said these things, he went up the mountain to pray with Peter, John, and James. In the midst of his prayers, his face changed and his clothing flashed brightly as with lightning. Look! Two men spoke to him. It was Moses and Elijah; they were seen in glorious splendor. They spoke of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Now, Peter and the others with him had been weighed down with sleep, but they awoke abruptly to his glory and the two men with him. While these two were leaving him, Peter spoke up to Jesus: “Master, it’s good that we’re here! Let us make three shrines — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” He did not understand what he said.

While he said these things, a mass of clouds overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered into it. A voice came out of the fog saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” After the voice, they found Jesus alone. They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.

Luke 9.28-36, author’s translation

An Introduction

When we come to passages like this one, especially when we preachers come to passages like this one, we speak too quickly. I have heard many well-intentioned preachers describe every nook and cranny of these few paragraphs. I have read scholars who quickly assign every word with special meaning and significance. There are historical references, literary archetypes, narrative functions; none of these is untrue. Does Moses symbolically speak for the Law and Elijah the Prophets?  Yes, I am sure they do. Does this event signify Jesus’ fulfillment of both? Well, yes, I suppose it does. Does this type of appearance foreshadow the Resurrection? Well, yes, but hold on a moment. Does the cloud represent the presence of God as it does in numerous Old Testament narratives?  Are the shrines indicative of a certain method of venerating holy sites? Is it significant that it was Peter, James, and John who went with him? Does this passage connect with the previous one in any way — “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27, NRSV)?

Stop.

Listen.

There is something about this passage, maybe a few things actually, that speak deeply about our faith and the nature of our human condition. There is something undeniably strange and inexpressible happening in this passage. Luke does his best to express it in words, but ultimately it must have been indescribable. After all, for quite a while, “they kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” (v. 36, author’s translation)

Sleeping In

It is tempting to look at this passage and talk about our so-called “mountain-top experiences” that more than rival our everyday experiences of God, but that is not what this passage is talking about. In our lives, we do not often experience moments like the Transfiguration. They are rare, very rare. I have experienced profound moments of mystery, infinitude, and communion with God in my life, but none of them quite compare to what Luke tells us happens on the Mount of Transfiguration. Do these things happen? Yes, I imagine they do. I know the stories of the church’s saints and sinners experiencing similar terrifying and awe-full moments. But the simple matter is, as I imagine you already know … the simple matter is, we do not have these experiences in our day-to-day lives. In all likelihood, you and I will never experience anything quite like the Transfiguration on this side of heaven.

So where does that leave us? Unlike Peter, James, and John, we are sitting at the base of the mountain, at the bottom of the hill. We sit looking heavenward with no Transfiguration to speak of. We do not have the confirmation that such a dramatic experience brings. Our God is not so plainly apparent to us. Our faith is a little bit harder, it seems, than it is for those on top of the mountain. Rather than matching the experience of these select disciples, my faith and yours seems more like another Gospel story. As Mark tells it, there is a father deeply grieved over the state of his child. His young boy suffers seizures, convulsions; he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth before collapsing. It has been like this since his childhood. He has tried to cast himself into fire and water, and all his father wants is his healing. He just wants it to stop, and now he has Jesus in front of him. Surely, he thinks, it gets better.

But Jesus lectures the crowd on their lack of faith and he seems to grow weary with the father when the boy’s parent pleads, but only conditionally. “If you are able,” he says, “have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22, NRSV) Jesus replies to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes,” and the father quickly replies in earnest faith, doubt, conviction, and despair, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (vv. 23-24) I believe; help my unbelief. “I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” (KJV) That seems more like our faith, doesn’t it? I believe; help my unbelief. Why? Faith is a tricky thing. It is not so easy to pin down. The man’s expression, paradoxical though it may seem, tells us a deep truth about faith, particularly faith down here at the foot of the mountain.

Faith is not just belief. Faith is not the supposition that a certain proposition is either true or false. Faith is the setting of your heart upon something above everything else. Faith is to care about one thing more than anything else, to not just believe, but believe and trust in that in which you have faith. And if that is the way faith is, I think we understand the father a bit more. I believe; help my unbelief. If faith is trust, if faith is setting our hearts upon God, faith is not absolutely confident. Faith cannot be 100% sure. Faith simply does not know, it cannot know, if it is correct in placing its trust in anything. Otherwise, it would not be faith. So, at the base of the mountain, we have faith, but we also doubt. We can never quite know God on this side of heaven. We do not know the mind of God, the purposes of God, the whole nature of God, the totality of God, but we have faith in God. But we do not know.

We do not know, because at the base of the mountain, we are distant from God. God is both here, present, and active and distant, estranged, and far-off. God is with us, but the fullness of God is at the top of the mountain. We can look, squint our eyes, and try and see God, but even our personal God who loves us more than life itself cannot be fully glimpsed down here in the valley. The nature of our relationship with each other includes such distance. When we trust each other, we assume a certain amount of risk. We do not know 100% that the other person is worthy of our trust. But in an act of love and faith, we trust what we do not fully know — their intentions, their future actions, and their love back for us. It is the same way with God. We cannot see all of God from the valley, we do not know God’s intentions and future actions, but we believe and trust, we set our hearts upon, God’s love for us.

That thought is unsettling. That doubt is unsettling. I believe; help my unbelief. That unbelief disturbs us, it keeps us up at night. Ancient Christians speak of these “dark nights of the soul,” where it seems as if the only thing is us and the stars, us and our bedroom ceiling, us and the clock ticking in the other room. We sit at the kitchen table while everyone else is asleep, wondering, hoping, praying, and sometimes the only thing we hear is the rhythmic tick, tock, tick, tock from across the hall. We are afraid to share these feelings because we think that we are the only ones who feel them. We think that they are bad, we think that they make us less than, and we think they make us bad Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we all, right now, are weighed down with sleep, just like the disciples.

But it was not just the disciples — even the ones who saw this Transfiguration! — who experienced these dark nights. As Matthew tells it, so did Jesus. Earlier that night, Jesus broke bread, saying that it was his Body; he gave them a cup, saying that it was his Blood. He told Peter that he knew he would betray him. He knew that Judas had gone and turned him over to the authorities. As things began to come together, he again went up the mountain to pray. Again, he took Peter, James, and John with him. He tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38, NRSV) But again, his disciples are weighed down with sleep, and they cannot stay awake. So, Jesus is left alone, sitting at the kitchen table listening to the tick, tock, tick, tock of the clock in the other room. Jesus is left alone, staring at the bedroom ceiling, and the words escape his lips, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (v. 39)

Jesus stands up and a dear friend betrays him. He watches as the world starts to crumble. They draw swords, they drag him before a council; Peter says that he never knew him — not once, but three times. He endures the corruption of the courts, the man who betrayed him takes his own life, and Jesus endures mockery on his way to execution. And on that cross, he looks up at the dark skies, only him and the stars distant and unseen, shouting, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If there is anyone who is our model for our relationship with God, it is God in Jesus himself. And Jesus shouted out, I believe, I believe, help my unbelief. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.

Waking Up

If that were the end of the story, we might be in a spot of trouble. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story. For Jesus endures all of this doubt, all of this felt separation, all of this pain and distance, only to result in the Greatest Transfiguration. We would not have good news in this story if Jesus just died, but we have good news because Jesus got up. Jesus woke up from this dark night of the soul in the most magnificent way possible. It is the Transfiguration, Take 2.

Now, in those interminable days between the Cross and the Empty Tomb, there is no doubt in my mind that the disciples were again, as they were on the Mount of Transfiguration, weighed down with sleep. Not unlike us, their eyelids were heavy and their trials intense. But eventually, they awoke abruptly to his glory. And that is good news, friends. Right now, we are weighed down with sleep, but one day, too, we will awake abruptly to his glory. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part,” Paul tells us, “but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (1 Corinthians 13:9) He continues, “For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am fully known.” (v. 12, KJV) The day will come when faith shall be made sight, because someday, John of Patmos tells us, the home of God will be among us, he will dwell with us, we will be his people, and God will be with us. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And God says, “See, I am making all things new.” Someday.

This reality catches us between two worlds. On the one hand, we strive in our waiting, hoping, and persevering. We doubt and we struggle. But on the other hand, we have hope and we have assurance, but back again: the time has not yet come. What are we supposed to do, caught here in the middle? I think we start looking. We start looking for glimpses of heaven breaking into the world. We look for cracks in the barrier between heaven and earth, places where thin beams of light come shining through, bathing our darkness in small bits of heavenly light. Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls this the spiritual “Practice of Paying Attention.” She explains it this way,

“I must have been sixteen, earning summer spending money by keeping a neighbor’s cats while she was away. The first time I let myself into the house, the fleas leapt on my legs like airborne piranha. Brushing them off as I opened cat food and cleaned litter pans, I finally fled through the back door with the bag of trash my employer had left for me to carry to the cans out back. I could hear the fleas inside flinging themselves against the plastic, so that it sounded as if a light rain were falling inside the bag.

“I could not wait to be shed of it, which was why I was in a hurry. On my way to the cans, I passed a small garden off to the left that was not visible from the house. Glancing at it, I got the whole dose of loveliness at once — the high arch of trees above, the mossy flagstones beneath, the cement birdbath, the cushiony bushes, the white wrought-iron chair — all lit by stacked planes of sunlight that turned the whole scene golden. It was like a door to another world. I had to go through it. I knew that if I did, then I would become golden too.

“But first, I had to ditch the bag. The fleas popped against the plastic as I hurried to the big aluminum garbage cans near the garage. Stuffing the bag into one of them, I turned back toward the garden, fervent to explore what I had only glimpsed in passing. When I got there, the light had changed. All that was left was a little overgrown sitting spot that no one had sat in for years. The smell of cat litter drifted from the direction of the garbage cans. The garden was no longer on fire.”

We doubt, but the world is not always dark and God is not always so silent. Sometimes we just have to stop and pay attention. Sometimes we just get to busy walking by the golden gardens in our lives that we miss little moments of transfiguration in our day. Life is not filled with moments like the Transfiguration, but that does not mean life is not replete with transfigurations. We are still at the base of the mountain, but a few times each day, bright rays of sunshine break the shade of the hill. Living with doubt requires the courage of faith, and sometimes the courage of faith is just to look at the world a different way. When we look around corners for little traces of heaven, we start to see things in a different way. It is not a cure for doubt, because there is no need for one, but it brings us closer to God and helps us bring these little bits of heaven to earth.

Keeping Silent

The oddest thing about the passage we read to me might not be the terrifying appearance of God, but the subsequent silence of God’s witnesses. A mass of clouds, perhaps the very presence of God, wraps up the disciples and speaks to them. And then, they are silent. It says, “They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” This course of action is an affront to our evangelistic tendencies, but I think there is something to be learned from it. There is a lot to learn from silence. When we sit at the kitchen table listening to that tick, tock, tick, tock, reality confronts us with all sorts of things we never knew before, about the world, about others, about ourselves, about God. We do not often hear God speak from burning bushes, clouds, or whirlwinds — have you ever wondered why?

Perhaps God does not speak simply because we are not silent. Perhaps God does not speak because we talk too much. Maybe God is speaking, but we are too busy talking about God to listen to God. Perhaps we would hear God if we simply paid a little more attention. If we paid attention, maybe, we would see little transfigurations in our lives, little bits of heaven on earth, little rays of heavenly light illuminating our night. So, this week, stop and listen — listen to each other, to creation, all of it. See if your hear God, for, “if you seek, you shall find.” Someday.

To avoid the risk of irony, to speak too much about silence, to say too many things about God, let me conclude with prayer. Let our words be those of our old, cherished hymn, “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” Amen.

Today

[[Here's the video of my sermon from the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers! You can find the manuscript here. I'm running a bit behind on stuff right now, but more on our more controversial topic next week. Sorry for the delay!]]

Homosexuality and the New Testament

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The Bible

OK, so yesterday I said I wanted you all to come with me on a journey so that you could understand how I can to hold the opinion that I do about Christianity and homosexuality. To begin that journey, let me tell you a bit about where I came from. (You can read this story in more detail beginning here.)  I grew up in an evangelical Southern Baptist Church in Tennessee. I was raised in Bible Buddies, Royal Ambassadors, and Vacation Bible School. I learned about the importance of the Scriptures from a very early and read them vociferously. I first finished reading the Pentateuch (the Torah, those first five books of the Old Testament) while in Middle School out of my own curiosity. I would assume that by now through devotions, personal exploration, academic study, lectionary reading, and preaching that I have encountered the vast majority of biblical texts several times. They shape my narrative consciousness and greatly inform the way that I process and understand the world.

I tell you all that to say that I think the Bible is important. I am not saying that because the book is thousands of years old depending on its constituent parts that it is irrelevant to modern life. I am not saying that the Bible has nothing to do with homosexuality. I am not saying that I can ignore the parts of Scripture that I don’t like. I am not saying that we can just do away with the parts of our Scriptures with which we are uncomfortable. Far from any of that, I think the Bible is an important source of God’s revelation to us, a record of God’s revelation to God’s people throughout time. The Bible contains the record of supreme revelation of the Divine — The Gospels of Jesus Christ. This is an important book, one that I grew up with and to this day cherish. I still have my first children’s Bible (an illustrated NIV, 1984) sitting on my bookshelf next to my Greek New Testaments.

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All that said, I think the Bible is the place to begin this journey. You had a little bit of narrative there at the beginning but — fair warning — the following discussion is going to get highly technical. I don’t believe in handling the Bible without rigor, without care, without the full breadth of our intellectual capacities. It deserves that kind of close attention. Therefore, I am going to use a lot of Greek in this discussion of the New Testament and a lot of classical context. These are things that you can look up and independently verify if you so choose. I don’t just pull them out of a hat because I am finishing a degree with concentrations in religion and classics.  Read the rest of this entry

Building our Idols

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This week, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition published an article on their website entitled “When did idolatry become compatible with Christianity?” In his article he wonders when it became acceptable for Christians to “embrace and endorse homosexual behavior.” His answer is that there is no specific date, but it is part of a wider idolatrous movement in the church. He characterizes the issue like this:

At its root, the issue has more to do with idolatry than marriage, since same-sex marriage could not have advanced in America if believers had not exchanged the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for the God of faux-love, cultural acceptance, and open theism.

This idolatry, he says, takes two  forms. The first is essentially libertarian. Some Christians believe that because we live in a pluralistic society, and we do not have anything but a religious objection to marriage equality, we can’t really say it should be illegal. Carter says to do so is to replace

Jesus’ commandment—”You shall love your neighbor as yourself”—with the guiding motto of the neopagan religion of Wicca, “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.”

The second form of idolatry is  essentially just liberal theology he doesn’t care for. He says that they have “completely rejected the authority of Scripture and embraced the idol of open theism, a god who changes his mind over time.” He proceeds to use Rob Bell as a punching bag, which is becoming a pastime for Reformed theologians, I think.

He concludes that Christians who agree with him (as opposed to the idolatrous Christians who don’t) need to speak up. He concludes:

We fear that if we point out too clearly or forcefully that you can’t both serve God and endorse sin that they may leave our congregations. We seem more concerned with losing the volunteer for the Sunday morning nursery or the regular check in the offering plate than we do with the souls of those in open and unrepentant rebellion against God. We seem more worried about the judgment of the kids in the youth ministry than we do with the judgment of a wrathful and holy God. We are so troubled by the thought that same-sex advocates will fall away from the faith that we fail to see that they’ve already rejected the faith of historic, orthodox Christianity and replaced it with an idolatrous heresy—one that is as destructive and hateful as any that has come before.

I don’t need to tell you that I have problems with this article, but let me outline them.

Read the rest of this entry

The Will of God

[[This past January, I gave a version of this parable at the Academy of Preachers in Atlanta, GA.]]

Palm Sunday

[[So, being the good Christian I am, I woke up at 11:20 am this morning (how did that happen? I'd spent a long week in Chicago. I'll tell you about it later.) and was unable to go to my church here in Birmingham for service. In lieu of being able to attend, I prayer the liturgy from Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, and Okoro's Common Prayer for Palm Sunday and read Pope Francis' homily (it wasn't my most Baptist Sunday, sorry). I wanted to share a bit from that sermon with you, though. The pope picked out three words that he wanted to talk about to the crowd. The firs two: Joy and Cross are excerpted here from the Vatican news services.]]

Jesus enters Jerusalem. The crowd of disciples accompanies him in festive mood, their garments are stretched out before him, there is talk of the miracles he has accomplished, and loud praises are heard: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:38). 

Crowds, celebrating, praise, blessing, peace: joy fills the air. Jesus has awakened great hopes, especially in the hearts of the simple, the humble, the poor, the forgotten, those who do not matter in the eyes of the world. He understands human sufferings, he has shown the face of God’s mercy, he has bent down to heal body and soul. Now he enters the Holy City! This is Jesus.This is the heart that looks on all of us, watching our illnesses, our sins. The love of Jesus is great. He enters Jerusalem with this love and watches all of us. 

It is a beautiful scene, the light of the love of Jesus, that light of his heart, joy, celebration.
At the beginning of Mass, we repeated all this. We waved our palms, our olive branches, we sang “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Antiphon); we too welcomed Jesus; we too expressed our joy at accompanying him, at knowing him to be close, present in us and among us as a friend, a brother, and also as a King: that is, a shining beacon for our lives. Jesus is God, but he humbled himself to walk with us. He is our friend, our brother. Here, he enlightens us on the journey. And so today we welcome Him And here the first word that comes to mind is “joy!” Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! It is at this time that the enemy comes, the devil comes, often disguised as an angel who insidiously tells us his word. Do not listen to him! We follow Jesus! 

We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that he accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders. This is our joy, this is the hope that we must bring to this world of ours. Let us bring the joy of the faith to everyone! Let us not be robbed of hope! Let us not be robbed of hope! The hope that Jesus gives us!

A second word: why does Jesus enter Jerusalem? Or better: how does Jesus enter Jerusalem? The crowds acclaim him as King. And he does not deny it, he does not tell them to be silent (cf. Lk 19:39-40). But what kind of a King is Jesus? Let us take a look at him: he is riding on a donkey, he is not accompanied by a court, he is not surrounded by an army as a symbol of power. He is received by humble people, simple folk, who sense that there is more to Jesus, who have the sense of faith that says, “This is the Savior.” Jesus does not enter the Holy City to receive the honours reserved to earthly kings, to the powerful, to rulers; he enters to be scourged, insulted and abused, as Isaiah foretold in the First Reading (cf. Is 50:6). He enters to receive a crown of thorns, a staff, a purple robe: his kingship becomes an object of derision. He enters to climb Calvary, carrying his burden of wood. And this brings us to the second word: Cross. Jesus enters Jerusalem in order to die on the Cross. And it is here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross! … Jesus takes it upon himself..why? Why the Cross? Jesus takes upon himself the evil, the filth, the sin of the world, including our own sin, and he cleanses it, he cleanses it with his blood, with the mercy and the love of God. Let us look around: how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil! Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money, which no-one can bring with him. My grandmother would say to us children, no shroud has pockets! Greed for money, power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation! And – each of us knows well – our personal sins: our failures in love and respect towards God, towards our neighbour and towards the whole of creation. Jesus on the Cross feels the whole weight of the evil, and with the force of God’s love he conquers it, he defeats it with his resurrection. This is the good that Christ brings to all of us from the Cross, his throne. Christ’s Cross embraced with love does not lead to sadness, but to joy! The joy of being saved and doing a little bit what he did that day of his death.

A Prayer for Pope Francis

From the Guardian (click for source).

From the Guardian (click for source).

[[A brief prayer for both Pope Francis and our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church.]]

Our God, make Pope Francis an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let him so love;

Where there is  injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

Grant that our churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant all,

May not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

That every Christian might not so much seek

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Hammocks

[[A few weeks ago, I gave this brief sermon on a retreat in which we were focusing on practicing Sabbath.]]

Do you remember the first time you got in a hammock? How old were you? How tall were you? Was it easy or was it hard? The first few times you got into a hammock seem to be a profound experience to me. There is a lot involved in your first hammock experience. Someone else has to set up the hammock for you or maybe they help you set it up. At least, perhaps, you had to adhere to some sort of instruction manual. Even if not, that hammock concept came about long before you got there and you had to figure it out. Hammocks look odd when you’re not using them. Even when you set it up right and take a look at it before you use it, it looks odd — it’s this stretched piece of cloth suspended between two poles, two trees, two somethings. It doesn’t look like it’s meant to hold much of  anything. The label says 400 lbs, but you’re just not 400 lbs sure — Do you believe it, you know, just looking at the thing? Will it hold you up? Do you believe it? Do you trust it? It’s a risk thing, getting into a hammock for the first time —  or even the first few times. Sometimes the thing just seems set up too high; it’s too lofty for what you want. People assure you that it’s supposed to look like that but you don’t quite buy it just yet.

So you try and get in. It’s perplexing. There’s this point where your butt is just not high  enough to plop yourself in even when you’re standing on your toes — you have to make a little jump and now it’s got to hold you and all the momentum you’ve got. Or maybe you’ll try that upside down flip thing — now that’s a risk there. You know in that jump you might fall, it’s a risky commitment. You might get hurt in some unanticipated and unpleasant way — you could get hurt … but that’s OK. Otherwise, you’d never get in the hammock. So you’re in, but it’s weird. It’s not quite what you expect. It’s not sturdy — it’s rocking back and forth, to and fro, wavering in the breeze. You’re up with nothing but air between you and the hard unforgiving ground. Then, one of two things happens. Either you get to the point where you can settle in and you  feel the rest and lean into gentle slumber or you’re restless in the motion, the unexpected instability that is only now apparent … but in either case, it will be over soon. It will be over soon and you’re not ready to get out yet — ’cause getting out is just as harrowing as getting in!

Getting back out requires effort and overcoming just a little bit of fear. It’s a risk too! It’s re-entry into normal life in an abrupt and often uncomfortable way. You’re just as likely to get hurt getting out as getting into a hammock. But whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not, your time in the hammock is going to end. But once it’s over, you can do it again. And every time it gets a little easier, a little more enjoyable, and a little more appealing. Bits of the fear, doubt, anxiety, and clumsy frustration never go away — the risk of messing up and getting hurt is always there, after all — but that’s OK. That’s part of using a hammock.

Now, I was at a conference over Jan-Term and I heard an author I like give a six minute speech on hunting with his dog. He’s a spiritual guy, and I’m certain there was some level of depth to his little parable, I’m sure he wasn’t wasting our time — but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what he was talking about. So, in case you were wondering, I wasn’t talking about hammocks. I was talking about Sabbath.

Sabbath is like using a hammock, especially at first. You’re using something that’s been set up for you, a day built into the order of the kosmos, rest that is a necessary part of the nature of things. You don’t choose whether or not your body needs rest — it is only your choice how much rest and what kind of rest you give yourself. Sabbath may even seem too lofty a goal, a bar set a little too high for us unsaintly people here — and it looks odd, it looks weird. Sabbath is an affront to our modern sensibilities, our rhythms, our priorities.Sabbath requires risk — practicing Sabbath requires us to reorient our lives, it requires us to choose things at the expense of other things; it requires not just intellectual belief, but trust. It, like any serious practice or relationship requires a leap — it’s not something you just enter into. But it will hold you up, the label that says “holds up to 400 lbs” is a reliable one.

That doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt or trip up. An early attempt at Sabbath of mine resulted in a week knocked off kilter that was actually more stressful than restful. Barbara Brown Taylor says that even if done right, Sabbath can leave us sick in withdrawals from our productivity, business, and hurry — but in the end there is something more rewarding in it. While you’re in Sabbath, it’s not what you expect. It’s sometimes unstable, sometimes worrisome, but it’s worth it. But at some point you come out of it, and that transition can be abrupt and painful, but it’s good. And whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not, Sabbath ends … but the good news is that it’s coming around again.

Now, if you’re a really astute observer and listener, you’ll know that I’m not really talking about Sabbath either. Sabbath is a small representation of faith. Our faith did not begin and nor does it end with us. Our faith is risky, and we can get hurt. Our faith seems too lofty sometimes and when we’re in the swaying hammock of faith, it’s not always what we expect. There’s doubt, pain, and frustration — and that’s OK, it’s all part of faith. There are ups and downs and it all requires overcoming a little bit — or a lot — of fear. But the good news is that faith doesn’t depend on us. Faith exists apart from what we have faith in, and the God in whom we have faith, who created the Sabbath, and sustains all things in that hammock experience, that God is there, that God is here, God is good, and God will be with you. Amen.

Faithologist

[[In my class where we're studying faith development, we were tasked either to bring an object, create a representation, or perform an action that represented "faith and the ultimate environment. This parable is about how faith works.]]

There once was a man striving to find the kingdom of heaven. He looked everywhere, considering everything, and asking every creature. He was more than a renaissance man — he approached every task along his quest with the aptitude of an expert.

When he considered the light, he did so as a genius physicist.

When he examined the waters, he did so as a hydrologist.

When he analyzed the land around him,

          turning over every stone, he did so as a practiced geologist.

When he scrutinized the plants, he was a brilliant botanist.

When he asked the sea animals, he was a marine biologist;

          when he interrogated the birds, an orithologist;

                    the wild animals, a zoologist;

                    the creeping things, an entomologist.

When it came to his fellow humans, he asked them as

          a political scientist,

          a sociologist,

          a psychologist,

          a economist,

          an anthropologist,

                    as everything, even as an ethnomusicologist.

He even studied literature, music, art, and feeling, but could not find the kingdom in any branch of

          abstract painting,

                    opera singing,

                              careful etching,

                                        rhythmic chanting,

                                                  disciplined drawing,

                                                            or revealing writing.

He sought the kingdom all over the world until he had collected a vast array of different disciplines, variant art forms, and singular emotions, each unique, contained, and separate banks of knowledge and feeling, all stored in specialized compartments of his head and heart.

Baffled that with all his disparate skill sets, areas of specialty, and endless talents, he could still not find the kingdom of heaven, he consigned to ask his friend the saint. She smiled as he recounted his story and paused for a moment in silence.

After a while, she said simply, “For all the knowledge and feeling of the earth, you lack the knowledge and feeling of heaven.”

“Where can I find the things of heaven?” he asked desperately.

She replied, “In everything at once.”

New pope, same old problems (via Samford Crimson)

[[This is a column I wrote for the Samford Crimson that came out this past Monday. No online link yet, so I thought I'd post it.]]

In a surprise announcement last week, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be resigning his office. The Bishop of Rome has not resigned since Gregory XII, but that was only because there were multiple popes at the time (don’t you hate it when that happens?). Speculation has been whirling around news agencies and the Vatican itself about whoever the new pope will be, but the College of Cardinals will not convene to elect this successor until March.

While there are numerous debates about who would make (or not make) a good pope, everyone seems to agree that there are several problems this new pope will face. There is, primarily, the matter of scandals in the Church. Both the issues with the Vatican Bank and the myriads of sex/abuse scandals among the clergy will continue to plague the Holy See. Christian presence is dwindling in multiple global regions, including the Middle East and Western Europe. Christian presence is booming in new areas of the world like Africa and Latin America, but with that shift comes a very different way of doing theology and looking at ministry. All of that says nothing of continuing questions about priest shortages, doubts about clerical celibacy, and calls for women’s ordination.

Roman Catholics are not alone in welcoming a new leader in 2013, however. Archbishop Justin Welby assumed the highest office of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Church of England just a week before Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Numerous American denominations are facing shifts in leadership with regard to age, gender, and even theological or political persuasions. Christians of all stripes are at a point of significant change.

Furthermore, the issues that face the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church are issues that face all of these Christians, as well. Catholics are not alone in their crisis of clerical and institutional integrity. Protestants alike are often confronted with insidious financial or sex scandals. The shift of Christianity toward the global south affects all Christians, not just Catholics. It is going to create new theological and practical challenges for everyone. Questions of sexuality and gender regarding everything from women’s ordination to homosexuality will continue to be questions at the front and center for the Church’s new leadership and their congregations.

The Church (Catholic and otherwise) needs to recognize this new era and its old questions as ripe with possibility. For too long now, the Church has been dividing itself along pseudo-political lines, claiming that we have “liberal” and “conservative” Christians. Such a binary is unhelpful and prevents dialog. It is also frequently inaccurate or at least insufficient. With our new leaders and our changing congregations, Christians must seek to foster new understanding that we might work together to devise sustainable answers to the problems that face us all.

So, as some of us church history nerds are watching different colors of smoke coming out of the Vatican next month, take a moment and consider what you can do to bring up these issues in your local communities of faith. See what questions you can ask and what answers you can seek so that we can all start to build a better Church for a better world.

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