Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon: The Shepherd King

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 23, 2014, Christ the King/Reign of Christ
Ezekiel 34:11-24, Matthew 25:31-46

The Shepherd King

You may have noticed by now that I’m not much of a hell-fire and brimstone preacher.  I hope it is clear that I will, when needed, call out those things that are wrong in the world or especially the church (things I recognize usually because I see them in myself), but I’m not especially prone to going on and on about the wrath of God and eternal damnation and that kind of thing.
You probably know people who do get into that kind of preaching, though.  I’m highly aware that there is a portion of the Christian church that seems to exult particularly strongly in such denunciations and prophecies of doom.  For those people, the book of Ezekiel might be a favorite.
Ezekiel is not shy about bringing the hell-fire.  Stretches of this book are so couched as to make his fellow prophets blush with horror.   Ezekiel is also the prophet of record for some of the more unusual bits to be found in scripture – not quite on the level of the apocalyptic writings found in Daniel, but pretty strange in a couple of places.  You might remember the “valley of the dry bones” to which God commanded Ezekiel to prophecy in chapter 37 of the book; the dry bones rise up and connect to each other, eventually coming to life as a valley full of people.  The very first chapter of the book launches into a dramatic and fantastic vision of a great chariot and fiery wheels within wheels, one that makes Ezekiel a favorite among UFO conspiracy theorists today. So strident and sometimes overwhelming is the tenor of Ezekiel’s prophecy that some modern observers speculate that the prophet suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, possibly related to the circumstances of the Babylonian Exile in which he lived and prophesied.[i]
Still, even the most fantastical of prophets needs to “bring it home” at some point, to deliver a message that something good is possible, that some kind of redemption is possible no matter how badly the people have fouled up their lives and failed to follow God.  Chapter 34 contains one of those moments for Ezekiel, one in which the prophet stresses that no matter how bad things look now, Yahweh will intercede on behalf of the exiled and desperate people of Israel.
The first part of the chapter, before the portion included in our reading, takes aim at the kings of Israel, those who are judged as “bad kings” for their failure to lead as God intended.  It might be a surprise to us to see kings portrayed as “shepherds,” but in fact the metaphor of king as shepherd was actually pretty common in ancient Middle Eastern thought.  Egyptian writings often stressed the role of kings or even deities as shepherds of the people.  The Babylonian god Marduk was interestingly described as the “shepherd of all the gods.”[ii]  In more mundane terms, the famous Law Code of Hammurabi stresses the role of the king (namely, himself) as being “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak” –exactly the kind of language describing a shepherd’s responsibility towards the sheep under his care. 
Given this context, Ezekiel’s discourse here comes as a relief and fits into a familiar political as well as theological framework.  The kings of Israel are indicted for their failure to be true shepherds to the people, as in verse 3 and following: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  You have not strengthened the week, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have scattered them.”  In turn God promises through Ezekiel to take such leaders away; beginning with our passage in verse 10, the “right” shepherd is revealed to be none other than God.
God promises to re-gather the sheep who have been scattered or driven away by the bad shepherds, to seek them out and to restore the flock.  God promises to feed them and to restore their health.  There are times the language here sounds an awful lot like the ever-familiar Psalm 23, with its promises of good pasture and good water.
Still, though, God has a bit more for Ezekiel to say about not just bad shepherds, but bad sheep.  The gentle pastoral nature of the passage is badly disrupted at verse 16, in which God promises that “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.”  What seems like a jarring interruption turns out to be a major interjection, in verse 17 and following:
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but must you tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture?  When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (17-22)

Between sheep and sheep (lean or fat)
It isn’t just bad leaders God condemns through Ezekiel; the grabbers, the greedy, the hoarders among the sheep themselves also come under condemnation.  Those who greedily consume the good grass and water, and even go so far as to foul the grass and water they aren’t consuming, are judged by God.  There are probably three different sermons to be preached just on this passage alone.  For today, let it be enough to note that the flock, the community of God’s people, are disrupted both by bad shepherds who scatter the flock and exploit their rule to enrich themselves, but also by members of the flock itself who crowd out fellow sheep from access to good grass and water, the good gifts of God given for all the people of God, not just a select, privileged few. 
Ezekiel promises that God will intervene for the sheep, both casting aside the bad shepherds and promising, where the fat sheep are concerned, to “feed them with justice” (v. 16).  It’s hard to resist the urge to read that phrase as suggest that God is going to shove justice down the throats of the fat, greedy sheep, but in any case their grasping, wasteful ways are under the judgment of God.
Ezekiel goes on to suggest that another shepherd, out of the house of “my servant David,” will be appointed to feed the flock and be their shepherd, and to “be prince among them” (v. 24).  It’s quite likely that Ezekiel had in mind a new king of Israel, who might serve as a truly just shepherd of the people under the guidance and leadership of God.  Still, it’s not hard to see why early Christians would read this passage as a presaging of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, reckoned as a descendent of the earthly line of David. 
Whether one sees this passage as prophetic of Jesus or not, one thing that it does make clear is that we humans are in need of this divine intercession.  As much as we might see ourselves us as among the innocent sheep scattered or starved by the bad shepherds or fat sheep, it’s never too far a trip from lean sheep to fat sheep.  Humans, particularly humans placed in power or even merely more advantaged than another, fail.  Don’t doubt that each one of us has at one time been the sheep treading down the grass or fouling the water with our feet.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr probably expressed this best in his Moral Man and Immoral Society:
…the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end. (xx)

We are, particularly in large numbers, prone to wrongdoing and exploitation.  We need deliverance.  And the Shepherd King is promised to deliver us from the exploitation of bad shepherds and fat sheep, and even – maybe most of all – from ourselves.
It’s hard not to make the leap from this Old Testament prophecy to today’s Gospel lesson, the familiar “parable of the sheep and goats,” particularly as the parable as Jesus tells it uses the same kind of metaphor as Ezekiel attributes to God, sorting “sheep from sheep … rams from goats.”  Jesus’s point in the parable is also pretty similar; those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, cared for the sick, and visitied the imprisoned are the blessed ones, while those who did not do those things are not, because whether you did or did not do those for “the least of these,” you did or did not do them for Jesus himself. 
The sheep from the goats
Jesus’s teaching directs us to care for “the least of these,” but I suspect Ezekiel would be in the background reminding us not to forget about why those people need feeding and clothing and visiting and so on.  The good Shepherd King in Ezekiel’s narrative cares for the sheep by “feeding them with justice,” or maybe shoving justice down their throats in some cases.  Those who are given to the exploitation of the sheep, whether as bad shepherds or self-fattening sheep, are held to account in Ezekiel’s vision; the Shepherd King restores the flock by strengthening the weak, but by destroying the fat and strong sheep who keep butting the weaker sheep out of the way. 
That’s harsh language to us, but crazy old Ezekiel with his dancing dry bones and fiery wheels within wheels is not going to concern himself overmuch about our delicate sensibilities.
I know I’m relatively young compared to some of you, but I am hard-pressed to come up with many examples of the kind of kingship (or leadership, to ease into more modern models) described by Ezekiel here.  It’s hard to imagine a true shepherd leader getting out of the primary stage in a contest for any political office, but even the church is at times lacking for the pastoral touch, the restorative and rehabilitating justice practiced by Ezekiel’s model king. 
At the very least, it might suggest that our idea of Christ the King, that idea being celebrated on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, needs to be held in check constantly.  Even the hymns we sing – yes, even a couple of the hymns in today’s service – put all sorts of other images of kingship in our heads.  It’s easy to sing about a king’s power or might, or gloriousness, or any number of attributes that sound … well, kingly. 
It isn’t that we have no concept of God as shepherd – between Psalm 23 and the “I am the good shepherd” teaching from John 10, it’s a very pervasive image in our teaching.  We don’t often put the two together, though.  A king who reigns restoratively – without regard to taking gain from the subjects of the realm, but strictly for the welfare of the people; restoring the scattered back into the community, healing those who have been wounded, giving comfort to those in need … how many kings (or queens, for that matter) can we recall who have ruled that way? 
But that is the Reign of Christ.  That is what it is to be ruled by a king who is also a shepherd.  That is what it is to part of the flock shepherded by our Lord Jesus Christ.  And our task is to take up the work of that Shepherd King, feeding, caring, restoring. 
For the Shepherd King, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: "O Worship the King" (PH 476), "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" (387), "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" (441)

[ii] Among may other epithets:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Survivor's guilt

I'm less than a month away from the second anniversary of my surgery.  Woohoo.

I will always be able to remember the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shootings; the first reports of that mass murder were just coming in while I was in the prep room waiting, I thought, to get resected and spend the rest of my life with a bag attached to my side.  That such was not the case was my pleasant surprise in coming to.

Today (or late last night, depending on your point of view) saw another campus shooting, in the main library of my doctoral alma mater at that.  Those just happen now, and The Powers That Be insist this is somehow necessary for Freedom.

Today was also a memorial service on the seminary campus for a classmate who died last week after a struggle with cancer in the brain.  I knew she was a little older than me, but only found out this week that she was the same age as my youngest sister would have been had she lived.  That sister died about fourteen and a half years ago, from cancer in the brain.  Some of us get virulent, killer cancer.  Some of us get "lucky" with cancer, if the word "lucky" can ever be used with the word "cancer."

Maybe I get it again someday, and am not lucky.  I'm a good candidate to do so someday.  Anyway, I've realized that having been through a major illness like that was going to form a lot of my pastoral care in ways that would have been different if I hadn't gone through it; being on the receiving end of pastoral care was my clinical pastoral education.  I'm now realizing a different aspect of that experience and its less-helpful impact on my potential as a caregiver.

Why did I get the less-destructive, or slower-growing, or otherwise non-fatal cancer?  I get that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust," but some of us sure end up being more drenched than others.  My sister is dead, my classmate is dead, and I have to go to the bathroom inconveniently often.  There's no fairness, no justice even, in that.

This is a headspace that won't work.  At some point, presumably, I'll end up in a call, and I'll have to be pastor to a person dying of cancer, and that headspace won't work.

We are called to minister in a world that still doesn't really have a good grasp on cancer, in the long run, my own recovery notwithstanding.  We are called to minister in a world where too many people treat a sports team as their preferred object of worship.  We live and work and preach in a nation where a little mass murder in the library is The Price of Freedom, and being able to get health care for cancer or a gunshot would or anything else without going into monster debt is a pipe dream.  We live in a world, frankly, where I have to wonder if Jesus would actually last three years of itinerant preaching before getting crucified.

Whether it's my former classmates already serving in a call, or those of us not quite there yet, or those of us who never will quite get there, this is the world.  Frederick Buechner follows that phrase with "Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don't be afraid."  There are days or weeks when seeing the beautiful things is awfully hard in the face of the terrible things, and the last seven or eight days have been such a period, right after coming off a wonderful high point, which somehow seems more devastating.

I'm beyond the age of throwing youthful temper tantrums.  I have things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  I will be grateful for what it is to come.  But there are days when the only prayer I can pray is "Why?" and that's not going to change just because I have a "Rev." in front of my name, presuming we actually get to that point.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon: Learning to Wait

Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church
November 16, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

Learning to Wait

I don’t think I am unduly telling tales out of school to observe that some scripture passages are more challenging for preachers than others.  Not to say that any scripture is ever all that easy to preach, mind you; even a favorite like Psalm 23 presents a challenge to the preacher if only because it is so well-known and beloved that it can be hard to find something to say about it at all.
But there are passages that are challenging for different reasons.  Some passages are challenging because of what they have to say.  Sometimes it’s puzzling, sometimes it’s a hard word to hear, and sometimes (especially if you wander over to Revelation) its just flat difficult to make any sense of it.
And then there are passages like this parable from Matthew 25.  This presents a different kind of struggle; the struggle to create a sermon on a passage when you can’t shake the memory of preaching a sermon, very recently perhaps, maybe even out of this same gospel, that seems to point to some very different conclusions than the scripture at hand today.
There is much about this passage that “feels off.”  What Matthew records here just doesn’t seem to fit rightly with what Matthew or other biblical writers say elsewhere.
Episcopal priest and blogger David Henson made this point rather dramatically in a sermon in which most of the verses from this parable are paired with verses, frequently from Matthew’s gospel, which seem  to be at odds with the text for today.  For example, take the simple sentence describing the bridesmaids: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”  Calling five of them “wise” seems nice enough, until one remembers 1 Corinthians 3:18-19: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  Worldly wisdom, as it turns out, doesn’t always come off looking good in the New Testament. 
Or how about the “wise” bridesmaids’ response to the “foolish” ones’ request for oil: “No! there will not be enough for you and for us.” Yet earlier in this very same gospel Matthew records Jesus saying “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt. 5:42) Not only do the “wise” bridesmaids come off questionably for that attributed wisdom, they also end up looking like jerks at the best.
Those (bridesmaids) who were ready went with him in to the banquet” (25:10) calls forth “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mt. 19:30) To finish the verse with “the door was shut” recalls this fierce rebuke from Jesus just two chapters before: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt 23:13)[1]
It just feels…off.
The point here is not to dismiss this parable.  For one thing, the Revised Common Lectionary insists on bringing it around at least once every three years, and who knows how much Christian education curriculum will also include this story.  Besides, it’s not our place to toss out scripture that disturbs us.  There is something to be learned from this parable.  It might also be, though, that after decades or even centuries of reading and hearing it, there might also be some things the church needs to unlearn as well.

It’s perfectly appropriate to come away from this parable having learned that we don’t want to end up like the foolish bridesmaids, lacking oil for their lamps and hunting for a 24-hour Quik-E-Mart in first-century Israel.  On the other hand, the wise bridesmaids are not necessarily objects for our emulation save for the fact of having extra oil.  Nowadays that might qualify them more for an episode of Doomsday Preppers or some other “reality” show than as examples for our emulation.  It’s one thing to be “in,” but there is simply too much weight of scripture against them to celebrate figures that play a role in keeping others “out.”  The parable cannot become an excuse to turn into hoarders of the gifts of God, whether physically or spiritually.
We might also want to re-think what it means to wait for the Lord.  Somehow it seems to have snuck into the collective subconscious on this parable for many decades or even centuries that the foolish bridesmaids were somehow at fault for falling asleep, and therefore not being ready for the coming of the bridegroom.  Of course, the problem with this is that the parable explicitly tells us that “all of them became drowsy and slept.” (25:5).  The so-called “wise” bridesmaids were just as conked out as the foolish bridesmaids.  Yes, we need to “keep awake” as Jesus says at the end, but that can’t be what brought shame to the foolish bridesmaids if the wise bridesmaids did it too.
Also, our task in waiting is not to busy ourselves with twisting bits of scripture into codes or clues to nail down the day and hour of any “rapture” or other apocalyptic event.  Jesus says plainly in verse 13 that we “know neither the day nor the hour.”  Trying to prove Jesus wrong?  That’s about as unbiblical a thing as one can do with scripture. 
We should also steer clear of any interpretations of this parable that foster or encourage an “us against them” mentality.  There is no “insider” vs. “outsider” contrast here; no “Christian” or “un-Christian,” no “saved” vs. “lost” in the way we church folk tend to define things.  All of the bridesmaids are part of the same wedding party; they all are invited guests.  Only the lack of lamp oil causes the foolish bridesmaids to be left out.  Now this ought to chill us a little bit, but Matthew has already cited Jesus as saying this same thing much more clearly and explicitly in chapter 7; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21) There are many who talk the talk, to put it in modern terms, who will find themselves on the outside looking in, because they didn’t walk the walk.
So what do we learn from this?  No matter how difficult or challenging the story might be, is there something we should be taking from this parable as a positive instruction for our lives?
Here it is worth remembering that this parable doesn’t stand in isolation.  These thirteen verses are part of a longer passage of instruction Matthew records, comprised of chapters 24 and 25, in which Jesus is teaching on what we commonly call the End Times.  Theologians use the fancy word “eschatology” to talk about such passages in scripture.  This was in fact the last of five great blocks of teaching found in Matthew, and many of the ideas and images found in this teaching block echo ideas and images from those earlier teaching passages, now putting them into service of this idea of how it all turns out in the end, and why.
Chapter 25 actually consists of three parables, each one probably more familiar than the last.  Verse 14 picks up with the so-called “parable of the talents,” in which the one who fails to manage wisely what the master left behind is the one who is not only left out, but thrown out, while the ones who multiplied what the master left them were welcomed into the “joy of their master.”  Finally Matthew records the “parable of the sheep and goats,” in which what is somewhat cloudy in the first two parables is made clear; the “sheep” were the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited the imprisoned. 
The Australian theologian William Loader puts it this way:

It is about sustaining the life of faith. It is another version of Matthew's theme of elitism. Having had lamps in hand which burned well once is no guarantee they will burn in future. [emphasis mine] Having the status of being Christian, even being a light bearer, means nothing if it is not a continuing part of our being. Many who were first will be last (20:1-16). Matthew is interested in enabling people to live in a relationship with God which has continuing significance and continuing life.[2]

Light bulbs have to be replaced (even the fancy new energy-efficient kind, eventually).  Flashlights need new batteries.  The oil in our lamps needs to be replenished, and regularly. 
That oil, that fuel for a life lived in Christ, is not replenished by spiritualized words and lofty-sounding pronouncements.  It is not replenished by calling ourselves “Christians” over and over again (or denouncing those we disagree with as un-Christian).  It certainly is not replenished by checking off lists of do’s and don’ts, carefully drawing lines to make sure “we” are “in,” and “they” are “out.”  “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
And that will, as the sheep and goats learn to the surprise of both, is to feed, give drink, care for, welcome, clothe, take care of, visit.  We refuel our lamps by plunging into the work of God.
We refuel by entering into worship, not as an accommodation to our whims and tastes, but as a desperately needed encounter with the God who drives us out into the world to do God’s work.  We refuel by diving into the scriptures to understand God’s call upon us, to seek in Jesus’s life and work our own life and work.  We refuel by opening ourselves to the unpredictable and unsettling movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls us in ways we cannot expect or predict. 
In the end, this is how we wait.  We wait because we are called by a merciful and gracious God who wants no one left out.  We serve, because we know what is to be the foolish bridesmaids, fumbling in the dark with empty lamps, but also because we know what it is to be the “wise” bridesmaids, fearfully hoarding our treasure from those who need it so much more than we, the very Spirit we were meant to share.
We wait by feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting.  We wait by questioning why there are so many who need feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting.  We wait by being the body of Christ, by walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  Anything less is a robbery of the God who calls out of darkness into light, who calls us to love God with all we have and to love neighbor as self. 
With lamps trimmed and burning, with lives fueled by God’s love moving through us into the world in word and deed, we wait.
For faithful waiting, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] These examples and more from David Henson, “The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection),” (Accessed November 4, 2014).
[2] William Loader, “First Thoughts On Passages From Matthew In the Lectionary: Pentecost 22,”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sermon: Madmen and Other Saints

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 2, 2014; All Saints’
1 Samuel 21:10-15; Psalm 34:1-8, 22; Matthew 5:1-12

Madmen and Other Saints

On the occasion of All Saints’ Day, an event in which the church sets aside time for a recognition and remembrance of those who have passed before us in the life and history of the church, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up a couple of curious scripture passages for our reflection.  Now I could have preached from Revelation 7, an apocalyptic vision of the saints in glory, or from I John 3, similarly concerned with post-apocalyptic glories. 
On the other hand, the Beatitudes, as recorded in Matthew 5, points us towards our own behaviors in the here and now, and if we want to fit it into the theme of the day one could suggest that conforming to these behaviors is one way to live as a “saint,” whether of the more formal, Catholic type or the unofficial but no less meaningful Protestant usage.  We shall come to the Beatitudes later.  First, though, this psalm demands our attention.
On the surface, perhaps we could wonder why this psalm is appropriated for this particular day in the liturgical year.  Don’t get me wrong; it is a wonderful psalm of praise.  It puts before us the image of unceasing praise before God – a beautiful, if daunting, task.  It offers the witness of the psalmist to the constant care of God, testifying to the reader that God preserved the psalmist in “every kind of trouble.” It encourages the reader to trust in the Lord.  It closes with the beautiful reassurance that “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
It is beautiful and reassuring, and again, one could stretch the example given here as an exemplar of the attitude that might be characteristic of those we call “saints.”  However, the psalm, and the whole connection to this talk of saints itself, takes a different twist when we consider the heading attached to the psalm. 
Someone – we don’t know who, and there could be many people involved – gathered these psalms up from different sources and compiled them into the collection we have in our Bibles today.  Beyond arranging the texts, someone or ones attached descriptive sentences or phrases to the beginning of many of the psalms.  Sometimes that heading simply indicates the presumed author, such as David.  Other times another descriptive phrase is added, possibly indicating a particular type of song or even a particular tune to which the psalm should be sung.
The description of Psalm 34 is a little different.  It reads, “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.  Curious story, it seems, and that’s where the added reading from 1 Samuel comes in.  The psalm seems to come from that period of David’s life when he was on the run from an angry King Saul.  He flees to Gath, where the king – Achish, not Abimelech – and his court seem to be under the impression that David is in fact a king, which causes David to fear for his life, and to pretend to be insane rather than have the king attempt to detain him or kill him.  Why the psalm names a different king we don’t know, although earlier in 1 Samuel 21 David encounters a priest named Abimelech, so perhaps we should just allow for the possibility that some poor scribe got confused.
Now it’s probably not news to us that the course of David’s life did not run completely pure.  His notorious adultery with Bathsheba, and subsequent murder-by-military-maneuver of her husband, are hard to ignore even for the staunchest of saint-makers.  On the other hand stories like this one – David feigning madness to get out of a fix – is an altogether different characteristic to consider.  It’s not exactly a sin, or evil, but it is … well, kind of goofy.  Odd.  Quirky.  And yet David remains one of the great heroes of Hebrew Scripture, and revered as one of the earthly ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth.
On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.  If we look closely at the lives of some of the most revered saints in the history of the church, we find some oddities there as well.  Take, for example, Francis of Assissi, namesake of the current Roman Catholic pope and possibly one of the most famous or highly regard of saints in that particular canon.  Francis, like the famous theologian and fellow saint Augustine, had lived a fairly raucous and roisterous high life before entering the church and taking up his peculiar service to it.  One of the more famous stories about Francis is his practice, for which he claimed the compulsion of the Holy Spirit, of going out into the fields and preaching the gospel to the birds of the air and creatures of the field.  Now the story has become familiar with time and perhaps has lost its shock value, but let’s face it; were we to see a preacher take off from the pulpit and start preaching sermons in the open field to the passing pigeons or blackbirds, we most likely would not regard the act as one of extreme holiness.  We’d probably wonder what’s wrong with that person, and perhaps think about calling for help.  Francis’s contemporaries had roughly that kind of reaction to his pastoral sermons.

Lots and lots of 'em...

The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner put it this way on the idea of saints:
Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, "I am foremost among sinners"… .
In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, "Give me chastity and continence, but not now," that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there's nobody God can't use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.

God chooses some highly imperfect, sometimes rather strange human vessels to accomplish divine things.  Maybe this is a comfort to us, a reminder that we, no matter how unfit or unholy we might consider ourselves to be, are still capable of being used by God to do God’s work in the world.  Or maybe it’s not such a comfort, reminding us that no matter how unfit or unholy we might consider ourselves to be, we’re still not off the hook.  Either way, the result is the same; a saint is a vessel for the action of God, and that still just might include us.
Turning to those Beatitudes from Matthew 5, we are again reminded that it is no frivolous business to take up Jesus’s challenge to follow.  As one reads through these blessings – “blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … peacemakers … persecuted for righteousness’s sake … when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account – Rejoice and be glad! That’s really what it says – “Rejoice and be glad!  First of all, it’s impossible not to wonder “how do I ever get to the point where I can do that?”  OK, being merciful we can manage sometimes, and mourning we can do sometimes, but let’s face it; this list is profoundly challenging and difficult to conceive in our lives. 
Beyond that, though, it’s hard to avoid a second question: “what happens to me if I live like that?”  It’s hard to conceive of the meek inheriting the earth when we mostly see meek souls getting trampled into dust.  Peacemakers tend to be reviled and passed over in favor of warmongers and practitioners of violence.  We need only to hear about another gruesome video out of Syria or Iraq to understand being persecuted, and to know we aren’t persecuted no matter how much some alleged Christians might whine. 
And yet there are those who try.  Clarence Jordan turned from theology to farming, opening up an interracial ecumenical community in south Georgia in the teeth of Jim Crow-era racism.  There were threats and attacks, but Koinonia Farms still carries out that legacy today, long after its founder’s passing, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, an offshoot of those efforts, still continues the fight for racial justice today. 
Doctors continue to give of their time and skills to fight horrible diseases in some of the poorest countries in the world, even when they get treated with disrespect and cruelty at home.  Volunteers continue to seek out disaster areas to help rebuild.  Teachers still teach in the midst of grinding poverty and hostility.  Missionaries reach out in the face of hopeless conditions.  Ordinary Christians reach out to help children in border zones when political and media talking heads scream outrage.  And sometimes these saints are even Presbyterians. 
None of these people are perfect.  They may have cheated on their spouses or cheated on their taxes.  Yet they are being used to do justice in the world.  They are being used to show love to all of God’s children.  They are being used to show mercy to those in the most need of it.  And when the simple act of receiving the stranger in your midst can get you branded as un-American or treasonous or worse, or demanding justice can get you tear-gassed, it’s no small thing to continue to be used that way.  It can become more than a quirk or oddity; it can cost you your reputation, your job, your family, maybe even your life.  In that respect, there is something a little saint-like about it.
You know who the saints have been in your own life, or in the history of this church.  Treasure those names.  Remember them.  But don’t turn them into plaster saints or airbrushed portraits, bereft of all human failings.  You know that’s not what they were.  They were human beings, full of both good and bad, whom God inhabited and used – despite their best efforts, sometimes – to bring justice and mercy and love and hope into places and lives that no longer remembered what those things looked like or felt like.  We have been preserved by their example.  We have learned from them.  Maybe if we’re lucky we’ve even been them, sometimes.  Or maybe we will be.

For madmen and madwomen and other saints, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

...who thee, by faith, before the world confessed...

Hymns (PH '90):
For All the Saints (526)
The Church's One Foundation (442)
Lord, I Want To Be a Christian (372)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Huey Lewis and the Nones

"Jacob's Ladder," from the album Fore! (1896)

I met a fan dancer down in southside Birmingham
She was running from a fat man selling salvation in his hand
Now he's trying to save me when I'm doing all right
The best that I can

Just another fallen angel trying to get through the night

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob's ladder

Coming over the airwaves the man says I'm overdue
Sing along, send some money, join the chosen few, hey
Mister, I'm not in a hurry, and I don't want to be like you

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob's ladder

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung (climbing and climbing)
Step by step, one by one
Step by step, rung by rung
Step by step and step by step
Step by step

OK, so I'm out of seminary, searching for a call, aging (I'm less than half a hear from the next round number birthday) and perhaps getting a bit angsty about it.  One of the things I have been doing, when the mood strikes me to do so, is using iTunes to collect some of the albums or individual songs that were popular or significant for me at some point in my younger days (mid-twenties or younger, we'll say).  Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Billy Joel's The Stranger (which got a little action on this blog at the time),  and Don Henley's The End of the Innocence would be among the albums so gathered.

The most recent such acquisition was the album Fore! released by Huey Lewis and the News in 1986.  Their previous album Sports had been one of my earlier pickups, and Fore! had the added benefit of having the single "Hip To Be Square," which played a major role in my college experience (you'll just have to wonder).  But when I started up the set I was reminded of the first track, a minor radio release called "Jacob's Ladder" (you can see the lyrics above, and see a video here.)

Not quite on the level of Sports, but a good album nonetheless.

Let us not ascribe undue profundity to Huey Lewis (as Bret Easton Ellis apparently did).  For one thing, I'm pretty sure Lewis himself would reject it.  While there is the occasional song with some lyrical heft to it in the catalog ("Walking On a Thin Line," from Sports, comes to mind with its PTSD-suffering persona), most of the band's songs are designed simply for having a good time playing/listening to vaguely old-fashioned rock and roll.  This, despite the stupidity of some critics, is a good thing.

"Jacob's Ladder" didn't make a whole lot of impression on me back then, when my highest ambition was to be a minister of music in some Baptist church somewhere.  Hearing it again for the first time in ages, now seeking a call as a Presbyterian pastor in an age where the church is in a panic over its advancing numerical decline, the song found a nerve that it never did before.

Despite my clickbait title, this is not the Anthem of the Nones or any kind of spiritual-but-not-religious motto.  The characters are thoroughly cliche (a fan dancer? really?), the type easily skewered by anyone with half a brain (the female counterpart to the TV preacher in the second stanza was the type that the late Jan Hooks recreated so wonderfully, no doubt with the benefit of experience growing up in Georgia and Florida), the reaction sentiment so easy as to be cheap.

And yet...and yet and yet and yet.

If Mr. Lewis and his cohort has reminded us of anything, it is that the condition in which we find ourselves is not a new thing.

No, Huey Lewis is not champion of the Nones, and I have no idea if he is spiritual or not or religious or not.  What he does do, though, is remind us of (1) the way the church got to be so easily dismissed by the nones or SBNRs, and (2) that this process has been underway for quite a while.  Remember that Fore! came out in 1986; that's twenty-eight years ago.  And before that you could see things like the Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah, or the movie Elmer Gantry, or any number of reminders of the corruption that too easily and too often is foisted upon the world by the church in the name of Jeeeeezus.

The miracle is that there aren't more nones or SBNRs.  The church has been doing its damnedest to run them off for decades if not centuries.

At the same type it is a cheap stereotype as well.  Even as the fat men sold salvation in their hands and the TV hucksters huckstered (if that's a word), as the church sold indulgences and ran inquisitions and defended slavery and did all manner of evil, the church was also doing good.  That doesn't get attention, of course.  But the church, even as it has never been as good as it claimed to be, has also never been as bad as others portray it to be.

But I digress.  The indifference to the church that fosters none-ness and SBNR proliferation well predates "Jacob's Ladder," and it isn't going to be solved in twenty-eight years either.  For the church to undo the damage it has done to its own reputation is going to be a long haul, longer even than my own ministerial career (if that ever happens).  And we can't have screwups like the Mark Driscoll fiasco or the Hillsong abuse case continuing to spring up in the church's more fame-oriented precincts either.  I'm not advocating that we go all willy-nilly on throwing doctrine and instruction to the wind, but we are not going to fix our reputation with orthodoxy.

We have to do right, and get it right.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Help (not pity, or encouragement, or comfort) wanted

I'm not doing well at being "present" lately.

I'd say it's a symptom of my situation.  A large part of my attention is naturally on the ongoing search for a sustained call of some sort.  The problem is, I'm letting that ongoing process consume all of me at times.

Aside from a few days of vacation last week (nice, but maybe a little over-busy or over-scheduled?) I tend to get a lot of my attention sucked up by that search.  With a slice of attention left for sermon-writing and other current requirements, and a small bit for following the Kansas City Royals' improbable postseason run, there goes my life.

To put it bluntly, there's only so much I can do.  I can keep my pastor information form (famously called the "PIF" in Presby circles) up to date, I can have it sent to churches with a vacancy I might fit into or pastors who can forward it around, and I can do some research or reference-checking on the churches that have indicated an interest in following up with me.  With occasional exceptions, that's about it.  An actual scheduled interview warrants more time, obviously, but there is not a lot else I can do as far as the search process itself.

I could do other things, like write potential articles or studies or reviews for publication, or write hymns or responses or benedictions or prayers or all manner of other liturgical things.  I could even blog on occasion.  I could go have lunch with people.  I could write letters (!!! -- o.k., maybe emails) to people I don't get to see in person that often.  I could read that growing stack of books on my nightstand.

But I don't do any of those things, because even when there isn't necessarily any specific constructive thing I can do search-wise, my mind is all sucked into worrying about it.  And I don't do those things that could be beneficial to my future or at least to my current state of mind.  And I get cranky, because I'm not being productive or creative or at least self-nurturing, and because I don't get any closer to a call by having all my attention sucked up by worry.

You tell 'em, kid.

I get distracted at work or when writing sermons, so I feel less successful or productive even in the work I have to do right now.  And I get cranky again.

Because so much of my intellectual and emotional energy is thus derailed, there's not much room for creativity.  This blog has mostly turned into a sermon-posting place.  It's not bad for this, but that is not all it is meant to be.

Devotional or meditational life is obviously not helped by any of this.  It might escape me (when I have plenty of time to do it, bluntly put) or be flat and lifeless and pointless when I do get to do it.  That doesn't help.

This will be a short entry (frankly, the point was to get a blog post done, period, even if I only typed in dictionary entries), but I will flat-out say there are things I don't want to see in response to this (normally I'm begging for comments, but this time I'm nearly forbidding them).

If you are one of my recent classmates who is already in a call, you don't get to say anything.  Period.  I am not even remotely joking.

If you attempt to "comfort" or "encourage" me, I promise you I will absolutely cut you completely out of whatever social-media life you accessed this article from.  Unfollow you on Twitter, unfriend you on Facebook, whatever.  I am not despairing of a call.  There are enough balls in the air, to use a juggling analogy, to keep me from that.  I know what I'm good at doing, and don't need to be told that.

If you even think of quoting lyrics from this to me you are dead to me.

What I'd be happy to receive; some strategies for dealing with the ennui or energy-suck of the waiting process.  Do I just need to make like the professor I used to be and assign myself a blog entry or hymn text a week or something?  What is a good plan of attack for getting myself off that mental block?

If you're also in this spot, feel free to commiserate.

What I do not want is to let myself be defined by the current state of the search.  I need to be a creative, spiritually growing, contributing person, not a sack of worry.  That's bad for me, bad for my wife, bad for everybody.  So help me get off the pity train and get to being something other than that. (Private messages are fine for that.)  Assign me something to write or do, if you have an idea.

I need something, some thing (or things) to bring me back into focus.  That's what I'm in search of, nothing else, really.

Sermon: Always In Need Of Reforming

First attempt at a Reformation Sunday sermon.  

Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014, Reformation Sunday
Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28

Always In Need Of Reforming

This is, according to the calendars of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other demoninations in the Reformed tradition, Reformation Sunday.  Reformation Day itself, October 31, marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg, an event historically regarded as the initiation of the process that eventually came to be known as the Reformation, or at least the Lutheran Reformation.  Typically, most churches will observe that occasion on the Sunday before October 31, which is of course today.
As we are highly aware, Lutheranism is not the only tradition to find its roots in that century of protest and reconsideration; the work of John Calvin gave rise to a distinct and different tradition, one in which we as Presbyterians find our roots, albeit filtered through the work of another man, the Scottish reformer and firebrand John Knox.
Knox is a rather shadowy figure, at least in his early years.  We don’t even know his birth date or place for certain, although a decent amount of evidence suggests he was born five hundred years ago, and it was certainly somewhere in Scotland.  Knox had already embraced the principles of the Reformation before fleeing from England to Geneva in 1553, when the Catholic Queen Mary ascended to the English throne.  Knox studied and worked with Calvin for about six years there before returning at last to Scotland, where he became the principal figure of the Reform-oriented party in the Scottish kirk. 
Knox would be the principal author of three notable documents that played a major role in the shaping and growth of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition.  One of these is the Scots Confession, which remains in the modern Book of Confessions of the PC(USA).  Another was the Book of Common Order dating from between 1556 and 1564 (commonly known as “John Knox’s Liturgy”, an adaptation of Genevan prayer forms and texts for use in Scottish worship.  You might note that today’s Prayer of Confession is drawn from that liturgy.  Knox also wrote a history of the Reformation as it transpired in Scotland, though that was suppressed for many years and did not appear in a complete version until 1644, well after Knox’s death.

It's possible Knox didn't have a very healthy attitude about women, in power or otherwise.

It is good and right to take note of the events of the sixteenth century that set in motion our Protestant tradition.  Our faith and doctrine continues to be permeated and influenced by such figures as Luther, Calvin, or Knox in ways we may not even realize.  Luther’s fervent embrace of the scriptural teaching of salvation as a work of grace, outside of humanity’s efforts, remains a core principle of most Protestant traditions.  Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s fallenness and inability to save itself drives a reformed understanding of the need for God’s grace as well.
This understanding is incredibly important in Paul’s letter to the Romans, pervading the apostle’s writing throughout the epistle.  Our reading today from the third chapter of the book makes the case about as straightforwardly as possible, as Paul notes that the power of sin over us is so pronounced and so strong that no amount of works can save us.  Adherence to the law, as understood in the Jewish context Paul addresses in this passage, won’t do it.  We are not, and will never be, self-savers. 
I was not raised a Presbyterian.  My formative years – actually, all of my years through my mid-twenties – were spent in another denomination.  In that particular tradition a great deal of emphasis was placed on learning scripture, up to and including by memory.  As a result, I have a number of free-floating Bible verses in my head, and one of them sits at the heart of this Romans passage.  I can still produce verse 23 almost without thinking, as if by reflex – “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” – even though it’s still in the King James Version in my mental memory banks. 

Yep, this was me.  Second place in the state of Georgia in 1980, by one stinkin' point.

This was not necessarily a great thing.  This verse is actually an example of fairly inefficient verse division.  To read that verse as a stand-alone sentence – or, as in my case, to have it floating about my brain as a stand-alone sentence – is to fail to grasp its meaning, which is thoroughly embedded in the material surrounding it.  The full sentence, beginning in verse 22 and continuing verse 25, is this:

For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

This is a whole different kettle of fish, all of a sudden.  First we have to go back and look at previous passages to see just what Paul is talking about when he says “there is no distinction”; it turns out to mean that both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. Paul’s audience for this letter) come equally under condemnation.  Then, the old memorized part turns out to connect to the “no distinction” part as a description of why there is no distinction.  The real kicker is to find the next clause – “they are now justified by his grace as a gift…” following as the logical conclusion of that statement.  From there the sentence unfolds Paul’s understanding of atonement as enacted by God through Jesus, drawing on a fascinating image from Hebrew Scripture as described by scholar Frank Matera in which Jesus, on the cross, becomes no less than the “mercy seat” of God’s redemption of all of us.
My na├»ve youthful understanding of the verse was not necessarily incorrect.  As a factual theological statement, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” holds up well enough.  It is, however, woefully incomplete to the point of being misleading.  Paul isn’t handing us a club with which to beat up on ourselves and others as hopeless sinners; he’s pointing to the very reason we have hope at all, and ruling out that hope being found in our own doing.  As I became an adult and a more thorough reader of scripture, my understanding of this verse (and many, many others in the Bible) had to be reformed – not just modified or tweaked, but broken down and re-shaped, re-built, re-formed from the very base of the scripture – the whole scripture. 
I hope this offers some tiny illustration of the potential destabilizing power of speaking the church with the aphorism Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda – “the church reformed and always reforming.”  We as a church, even at our most well-intentioned, fall into bad patterns of behavior.  We close off.  We become more concerned with preserving ourselves as an institution than with living as the body of Christ.  We grow more obsessed with preserving our presumed influence in the world at the cost of being authentic witnesses to the world.  We hold on to what we should give away. 
The author Phyllis Tickle writes that the Christian church has faced, every five hundred years or so, some form of great upheaval producing profound and tumultuous change in the church.  If one takes the first century as the birth of the church, then the sixth century saw dramatic change forced upon the church by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; the eleventh century (or thereabouts) the Great Schism in which Eastern and Western churches were separated; and the sixteenth century the Reformations resulting in the numerous Protestant traditions.  And of course, we are several years now into the twenty-first century, about time for another upheaval according to that theory.  More of that change that nobody is particularly thrilled about.  Just wonderful.
What we as a church – even those eagerly prophesying upheaval and reformation and emergence and other such buzzwords – what we need to remember is that so long as we presume ourselves to be the author and agent of change, we are destined to fail. 
The various Reformations of the sixteenth century proceeded more or less from the same premise; that the (Catholic) Church that held sway in the West had become impossibly corrupt in a way that could no longer be tolerated.  Though Luther may have advanced many theological arguments, his most vitriolic attacks were directed in most cases against the selling of indulgences, a practice widely perceived as buying one’s way out of one’s sins and into a guarantee of heaven.  Luther found it impossible to square that practice with what he read in Romans – salvation as a gift of grace to all, because all have sinned – and finally could no longer remain silent. 
What are the challenges or corruptions in which the church might be complicit today?  Where is the church when it comes to speaking against the injustices of poverty, or racism, or sexism, or labor exploitation today?  Are we there, refusing to be silent?  Or are we too comfortable flexing our muscles on behalf of the rich and powerful?
Are we proclaiming good news?  Are we preaching an authentic gospel that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable?  Or have we become purveyors of a fake gospel that proclaims good news for me, but not for thee?
Where are the fault lines that keep us from a genuine, even troubling obedience to the witness of Jesus Christ?  What is the Holy Spirit saying to us in this time?  Where does scripture challenge us in our comfort and ease as a western Christian? 
To be sure, the purveyors of modern reformations often have an agenda to peddle.  That doesn’t mean, though, that the warning isn’t appropriate.  To hear the world tell it, our witness isn’t making much of an impression.  Between scandal-indulgent mega-preachers and somnolent churches indistinguishable from a particular political party, a great deal of the world around us has responded to the church with apathy.  Such designations as “nones” or “spiritual but not religious,” however nonsensical they may sound to our ears, don’t happen because of some super-secret spiritual warfare that only the elites know about, the kind that get made into thriller moves.  If anything, they happen because we’ve quit the battle for justice and retreated into our mighty fortresses of security and stability. 
Security is not our calling.  Stability is not our message.  Our message is the love of God, love that refuses to remain confined within the boundaries we draw for it.  Our message is the grace of God, grace that is applied to all, not restricted to any “chosen people” however that may be defined.  Our message is the justice of God, justice that stands on behalf of the very people our world deems least valuable and most exploitable.  And if the world seeks to squelch that, if the world tells us to be quiet and quit disturbing the peace – to go along and get along – then a little upheaval is long overdue. 
We do not know what the church will see happen in this century or any other.  We know that some individual churches probably won’t survive, some will thrive that don’t necessarily deserve to do so, and others will end up surviving, perhaps in a form it may not expect.  But what we do know is that the church’s call doesn’t really change as much as people might claim.  Love and serve the Lord; care for those in need; worship in spirit and truth; seek the word of God in the words of scripture; welcome the stranger; love one another; seek the Spirit.
To seek the Spirit, to be ready for whatever wind of change may blow through these walls, whatever reformation may erupt in our midst, is perhaps the most unnerving way for the church to live in uncertain times.  And yet that is our calling, nothing less than to be the body of Christ in a broken and fearful world, whatever upheavals may come.
For reformations past and future, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: (numbers from The Hymnbook – the infamous “red book”) Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (31), A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (91), Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me (271)