Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Too Deep For Words

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
July 27, 2014
Ordinary 17A

Too Deep For Words

What do you do when you hear music without words?
Maybe you’re the particularly blessed type, who can simply listen and let the music take its course through your soul.
Probably, though (if you’re like most people), you try, consciously or not, to “fill in the blank.”
Your mind starts to create a story to go with the music.  Or perhaps it begins to invent a poem, in which the words fit to the tune you hear.  Or possibly, if you’re a more visual type, your mind begins to imagine a picture or scene that plays out as the music moves along, with scene as illustration of music or maybe vice versa.
Either way, we modern-day humans have a sharply defined inability (or most of us do, anyway) to let the music simply be music.  We somehow develop the idea, perhaps unspoken but no less powerful, that the music has to mean something, something that we can somehow encapsulate in words or maybe in pictures.
Felix Mendelssohn begs to differ with you.

Some very specific ideas on music and words

Mendelssohn was of course one of the outstanding composers of the nineteenth century.  What you’re hearing is by him, an example of a “Song without words,” a piano work that was something of a specialty of his.  As you can hear, in many ways it sounds like a song you might expect to hear someone sing; it only lacks words, and a singer to sing them. 
Mendelssohn wrote at least four dozen such “songs without words” in his brief lifetime.  A few of them have descriptive labels attached to them; for example, some are labeled as “Venetian gondola songs” because they so strongly resemble the songs sung by the gondola drivers in the canals of Venice.  Most of them have no title, as Mendelssohn so presented them.  A few were given labels after their publication, in some cases even after Mendelssohn’s death, by editors or critics or others who felt that the music had to mean something, something that could be captured in words. (In fact, some editor decided that the piece you've just heard needed the title "Belief.")
In a letter to a former student Mendelssohn very specifically denied this.  As he put it, he believed that words were insufficient to the task of capturing what music meant: to him, words many or few were “so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music, which fills the soul with a thousand better things than words.”  He continued, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite…this, however, is not your fault, but the fault of words, which cannot do better… .”
I can’t help but suspect that the Apostle Paul (who was, coincidentally, the subject of one of Mendelssohn’s oratorios) might have at least nodded knowingly at this idea that Mendelssohn expresses here.  At the very least he might have acknowledged that Mendelssohn’s idea that the music he loved was “too definite” for words sounded a lot like what Paul himself writes here in verse 26 of this eighth chapter of Romans:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (NRSV)

I admit that phrase – “sighs too deep for words” has haunted me most of my life, probably since some sermon I heard as a child.  Back then I wondered what that could possibly mean; being a wordy little kid I couldn’t really imagine how something could be “too deep for words.”  If you couldn’t say it, how could it be real?
I’ve grown up since then and I have at least some small idea of just how silly that childish thought was, even before I ever read Mendelssohn’s own description of his view of music.  Oftentimes this sense, this deep-rooted wordless sighing has been a part of my life in times of trouble; the death of my mother, later the death of one of my sisters, or my own diagnosis of cancer just a couple of years ago.  Occasionally it has been experienced in more joyful times; our wedding day, for example, or a particularly profound musical experience.  Sometimes it has come in moments of struggle or uncertainty; the period of time when I was considering giving up the teaching career I loved to jump off the cliff into seminary stands out there.
Only this week the experience was visited upon me again.  Word came that a former seminary classmate, a woman a few years older than I who had started at Union the year after I did, had been moved into hospice care.  After her first year of school she had gone for an exam for persistent headaches, an exam which revealed tumors on her brain.  She returned home for treatment, but nothing was able to turn back the destructiveness of the cancer. 
Indeed, sighs too deep for words.  Even when my soul tried to fit words into my feelings, their insufficiency and inferiority became painfully clear.  Why does this happen?  Why did I get cancer that I could survive, and she didn’t?  The words collapse on their own uselessness.  Sighs too deep for words.
I suspect you can search your own lives for times when you’ve known that experience of sorrow, or joy, or struggle, or uncertainty, or relief for which words could not be found or did not even exist.  It’s one thing to know the experience of that kind of experience, one “beyond words.”
But it’s a whole other thought to know that the Holy Spirit does that for us. 
For indeed that is what Paul tells us right here in verse 26: “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  When we cannot find the words to pray rightly, whether in our joy or sorrow or need, it isn’t that the Spirit gives us words to say.  No, it is that the Spirit steps in for us with its own wordless, unspeakable sighing. 
Just a few verses earlier, starting in verse 22, Paul writes of all of creation “groaning in labor pains” and not only creation, but we ourselves, “groan inwardly” while we wait for the adoption God has promised to each of us, of which Paul spoke in verse 15.  Paul has also already spoken of the Spirit bearing witness with us, in our times of crying out to God, even as simple a cry as “Abba! Father!  In our unfinished spiritual state, when we cry out for we know not what or even when we cannot cry out, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate Jesus promised us to send after he was gone, is at work in us and with us and for us, bringing our petitions before God even when we cannot rightly articulate them or even know what they are. 
And it is from this knowledge, this promise of a Spirit that intercedes for us beyond our capacity to know or understand, that Paul can exult throughout the rest of this chapter in the unspeakable love of God.  The God whose Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words is the God who pulls all that happens to us into working together for our good, not eliminating suffering or pain from our lives but blessing and sustaining us through the suffering and pain; this is the God who created us and made us to be part of the family of God, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, brothers and sisters in a great unbounded worldwide family; this is the God who, even though we could be charged with all of the corruption and weakness sin can muster, instead intercedes for us, not even withholding God’s own Son, that we would be reconciled and restored; this is the God who justifies, who saves, who redeems and restores; this is the God who loved us and loves us and will love us so profoundly and so unspeakably that Paul can practically sing out in joy that nothing – not death or life or angels or rulers or dark powers, nothing can separate us from that love.  God meets our sighs too deep for words with love too deep for words.
For that, dear brothers and sisters, even though the words themselves are painfully insufficient, let us never fail to say, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 Hymns (all PH ’90): #485 To God Be the Glory, #160 As Morning Dawns, #366 Jesus, Thy Boundless Love To Me

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sermon: Family Resemblance

July 20, 2014
Ordinary 16A
Romans 8:12-25

Family Resemblance

I’ve been married to my wife for a little more than twenty years now.  Occasionally during those years of marriage I’ve been present when she sees relatives, family friends, old teachers, or others whom she hasn’t seen in many years.  One thing that happens frequently in those reunion situations is that someone is very likely to make a remark about how much my wife looks like her mother. 
We’re accustomed to looking for family resemblance of some sort.  Whether it is in a child, newborn or adult, in whose face we see the features of mother or father; or the grandmother who sees in a grandchild’s tantrums or misbehaviors the very same tantrums or misbehaviors the child’s mother – her own daughter – threw when she was a child; or perhaps more unfortunately, the grown son who falls into the same destructive patters of behavior that brought his “old man” down.
In the case of my wife’s resemblance to her mother, though, it’s always a little bit difficult to stifle a chuckle when some aunt or uncle says to her that she looks just like her mother.  You see, my wife was adopted.  The arrangements were made well before she was born, and – after an extended stay in the hospital due to premature birth – she went home with her parents, parents who would adopt another daughter about three years later.
You would never know this, though, just by observing the family.  There is no sense in which the way my wife interacts with her parents gives away any lack of blood relationship.  They love her, and she loves them, in ways you would never be able to distinguish from those of a “natural” daughter and parents.  They are, simply put, a family, and blood relationship or lack thereof simply don’t matter.
To think about adoption, as we know it today, might be just the thing to help us get into Paul’s instruction here in the eighth chapter of Romans.  For one thing, adoption was not an uncommon practice in Paul’s time, particularly in the city of Rome, the location of the church Paul was addressing in this letter.  Now adoption didn’t work exactly the same way in Rome as it does here and now, but there is an important similarity; one who was adopted into a family gained the right of some part of the inheritance of that family.  To be adopted did not signify any kind of lesser status; all of the benefits of being a son in a Roman family were extended to adopted sons every bit as much as to natural sons. 
Thus, for Paul to write in verse fifteen that we have not received a “spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear,” but a “spirit of adoption,” is extremely important, and would have carried a world of meaning to Paul’s readers that we need to understand ourselves as well.  Paul of course is writing to a church in Rome that contains both male and female members.  Given this diversity in the church, it might seem odd that in verse fourteen, Paul uses rather different language that doesn’t really reflect the makeup of his addressees.  Unlike other verses, which use a Greek noun that refers to “children” both male and female, Paul here really writes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” What’s going on here?  Are the women being left out?  Did Paul revert to sexism?
As Paul might say, “by no means!” Here Paul is making use of his readers’ understanding of adoption and family ties.  Both natural and adopted sons received part of the inheritance of the family, but daughters typically were married off, and their lot was cast with the family into which they married.  So, by Paul referring to “sons” in verse fourteen, he is emphasizing the degree to which all of his readers, and all of us – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – participate in God’s inheritance.  We are all part of God’s family, which is deliverance from the sin that bound us before receiving “adoption” into God’s family.
Now all of this sounds just wonderful, happy, and blissful…until we get to verse seventeen.
Paul continues from where we left off back in verse fifteen, pointing out that our very crying out to God is the very same Spirit bearing witness to us that we are indeed children of God – and here Paul uses that noun for “children” that includes both sons and daughters – and goes on to say that if we are children of God, we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ … “if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Huh?  What’s the deal with suffering?  Nobody told me anything about suffering?  Nobody said you had to suffer to be adopted, did they?  Maybe we feel like we don’t understand what Paul’s talking about here.
Except…when we think about it, we really do understand what Paul’s talking about here.  To be adopted into a family means that the child shares in everything that family has.  The inheritance, yes.  The joys that the family experiences, of course.  But also the sorrows, the struggles, the failures, the setbacks and discouragements and sufferings.  When my wife’s grandmothers died, several years apart, it was no comfort to her to think that she was adopted, not really “born into” this family.  The grief and pain was every bit as real, as painful, as if she were their “natural” granddaughter.  She was spared no suffering for having been an adopted child. 
And so it is to be adopted into God’s family.  The difference, though, is that the scope of “family” here is an awful lot broader than we might be accustomed to thinking.  The “family of God” does not stop at the walls of this church.  It does not stop on this side of town, or at the borders of our state or even our country.  And when any part of God’s grand worldwide adoptive family suffers, we suffer.
When rockets fall from the sky and destroy homes and villages, we suffer, even if it’s not our country.  When children flee from murderous drug gangs, we suffer, even if they’re not our children.  When fifty murders happen in one weekend in one city, we suffer, even if it’s not our city.  If we have truly received that “spirit of adoption,” if we are truly and fully among the children of God, we suffer when any part of God’s family suffers.  We don’t smell the stink of the bombs, we don’t feel the heat and thirst of the desert or hear the whizzing of bullets, but we suffer because God’s children are suffering.  When any part of our family suffers, we all feel pain.  That’s how families are.  We feel pain when any of God’s children suffer, if we really are part of God’s family. 
As if that weren’t enough, Paul goes even further starting in verse nineteen.  After talking about children and heirs and joint-heirs, suddenly Paul shifts gears and begins to speak of creation.  Now it is creation that has suffered bondage, creation that was “subjected to futility” as Paul puts it.  All of God’s good creation lives in anticipation, “groaning in labor pains.”  Indeed our family-of-God-ness is bound up not just in other people, but all of creation as well; when any part of creation suffers, we suffer, if we really are part of the family of God.  Creation suffers disasters both “natural” and man-made.  When hurricanes slam into populated places, we suffer.  When earthquakes shatter whole towns or cities, we suffer.  But also, when earth is abused, when air is polluted, when rivers are poisoned, mountaintops demolished, seas become dumping grounds, we suffer with God’s creation.  God’s “family” is really a lot more expansive than we expect. 
Well, this took a turn for the worse, didn’t it?  All of that might just make us a little more cautious about singing that old song, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.”  Finally, though, Paul comes to the climax of his mini-argument here.  All of this talk of adoption and inheritance and family and suffering, for Paul, boils down to the indispensible fact of our hope in God. 
All that has come before points us to the very thing that allows us to find ourselves in the “spirit of adoption,” and to bear the suffering that God’s family suffers.  Because the good news, the gospel that is Jesus Christ, has already been proclaimed, already delivered to the world, we are able to live into our adoption, to live like a child of God, an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ.  Because of that gospel, we can live in a world of suffering, and feel suffering because others suffer, bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s sorrows, without losing hope.  We can know the pain of the world without despairing. 
Hope is, of course, a very tricky thing to experience.  As Paul points out, hope is all about what we can’t see.  It would sound very silly if a child woke up on a Christmas morning and ran to the living room to see a shiny new bicycle parked beside the Christmas tree, only to continue moping around the house saying, “gee, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas.”  Hope is about what we don’t see yet.  Hope is about the anticipation of what is to come, the joy not yet fulfilled but still to be fulfilled.  We with all creation “groan inwardly” while we wait for the redemption that is, right now, our hope. 
Paul lives throughout this letter in the tension between what is now and what is not yet, between what we know and what we wait for.  No one has to tell us that our physical lives are not yet redeemed.  We still get fat, still get old, still get cancer.  The world still spins out hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes.  Children still get killed, rockets and bombs still fall. 
And yet… .
We know the salvation of God.  We know ourselves to be adopted into God’s family.  It is not easy to wait with patience, as Paul prescribes.  And yet it is the very hope we have that allows us to wait with patience.  We don’t know when or for how long, nor can we really know what “redemption” looks like, if we’re at all honest with ourselves.  And yet, the hope is part of that inheritance, a share of which is ours by adoption into the family of God.

And the more we live into that hope, the more we live into that adoption, the more we know our family to be vast and unbounded, the more we know that we are all together bound up with one another and with all of creation, the more we pull ourselves away from the things that bring suffering to others…the more we start to look a little, just a very little, like our adoptive Brother in God.  The more we manage to be not merely “Christian” but more “Christ-like,” the more we live into our inheritance of hope,…then the more we finally, even as adoptive children of God, start to take on just a little of that family resemblance.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sermon: Living Right But Getting It Wrong

I went back and forth a bit about posting this sermon.  It is a bit "wonky" theologically in spots, and I feel like part of it goes out on a limb a bit as well.  But it seemed to connect with the congregation, and then today has felt as if I've seen or heard about fifteen news stories or anecdotes in which people or groups do the very thing identified in the latter half of the sermon as a rather poor tendency for Christians to fall into.  So, here it is, for what it's worth.

Meherren Presbyterian Church
July 6, 2014 Ordinary 14A
Charles S. Freeman

Living Right But Getting It Wrong

For many years scholars, pastors, and all manner of Christians have agreed that one of the most difficult books of the New Testament (aside from Revelation, perhaps) is Paul’s extensive, complicated, and downright thorny letter to the church at Rome.  The last letter Paul wrote, Romans is set apart from its fellow Pauline letters by its lateness and by the fact that unlike the other letters that can be attributed to Paul with certainty, Romans is not written to a church that Paul had founded; in fact, aside from a few individuals mostly mentioned in the book’s last chapter, Paul did not even know most of those who belonged to the community of Christ-followers in Rome.
As a result, while Paul’s other letters speak to a specific condition or event in the churches to which Paul wrote, Romans has no such focus; rather, it is a theological résumé in letter form.  Because of Paul’s ambitious plans to travel even further west, and because of his desire to stop in Rome on the way to Spain (a journey he was never able to make) and to be supported by the Romans on that journey, Paul needed to introduce himself to the community there.  Just because Paul had never been to Rome, however, did not mean that his reputation did not precede him; therefore, it was also necessary to provide a context and a summary for the ministry and teaching he had carried out thus far.  For once, Paul needed to put forth at least a somewhat coherent explanation of his theology, instead of responding to particular problems in Corinth or explaining points to the church in Philippi.  Romans is, in the end, the closest thing we have to a complete or even mostly complete summation of Paul’s theology, his understanding of such things as the nature of Christ or of sin or other things we would call “doctrine.”
The letter to the Romans is quite wide-ranging, walking his readers through no less than the nature of sin, the goodness and yet insufficiency of the law in the face of sin, the necessity of salvation from God through grace, and the role of the Hebrew or Jewish people in this everlasting and ongoing process.  It is as if John Calvin had written something like his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion as a means of introducing himself to a church in a city he had not visited yet.
A pastor does not ordinarily want to start a sermon with such a long background passage, but in this case it is vitally important to understand where this letter is coming from before delving into the passage before us today.  In dropping into the seventh chapter of Romans we are entering into the book at the very heart of Paul’s argument, the core of his theological understanding.  And it is extremely important to remember this as we begin to unfold this understanding, as Paul seeks to explain no less than the nature and relationship of sin, law, and grace.

The seventh chapter of Romans comes off as a curious piece of writing to biblical scholars and preachers.  Had Paul submitted it as a writing assignment in a composition class, I fear that it would have been returned with numerous red marks, questions, and corrections about carelessly changing the tense and person of his account.  Nonetheless, as twisty a piece of writing as the chapter offers, it marks a key moment in revealing how Paul understood the whole business of sin and redemption, while also both upholding the Torah, or Jewish law (we know it as the first five books of the Old Testament) and insisting on its inability to bring salvation to humanity.
Our beginning point today is the thirteenth verse, which serves both as the end of one part of Paul’s argument and the beginning of the next part.  In fact verse 13 refers back to a point made first in verse seven; that the law is not sin (emphasized by a favorite exclamation of Paul’s, translated here “by no means!” which today might be expressed as “no way!” or possibly something stronger), but the law is the means by which sin is made known to us.  In verse 13 Paul strengthens the argument by observing that the power of sin actually made use of the law – and the law is a good thing, remember – in order to bind the individual to sin.
Now we need to talk about sin for a moment here, which is not a popular thing to do, I realize.  But what we modern Christians tend to think of when we speak of “sin” is often quite a different thing from what Paul is talking about.  We might speak of “sins,” or perhaps of “a sin” as being the problem.  Paul is not particularly speaking of an individual lie we might tell, or an infidelity we might commit.  These may well be symptoms or even consequences of what Paul describes, but the apostle has in mind something much larger.  Paul wants his Roman readers to understand sin, in the words of Ted A. Smith of Vanderbilt Divinity School, as “an active, aggressive power that seizes hold of God’s good gifts – like the law – and bends them towards death.”  John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” – the utter inability of the human to transcend sin on his or her own – comes close to expressing this idea.  Sin certainly causes us to commit sins, but it is a far more powerful and oppressive thing than any individual act.  We are born into it, we are mired in it, and absent the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ, we die in it.
With this understanding of sin in mind, the extended and convoluted passage from verses 14-20 unfolds differently, or perhaps more expansively, than we are perhaps accustomed to understanding.  Paul’s slip into first-person – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – tends to nudge us into reading the passage as a lament on Paul’s inability to live up to the law, always falling short and doing in the end what he hates. 
This is a strange reading, though when one remembers the other letters Paul has written before.  In both the letters to the Galatians and the Philippians, Paul is quite insistent on his success in keeping the law.  Galatians 1:14 finds him claiming that “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  Philippians 3:4-6 finds even more striking claims Paul makes on his own behalf: “If anyone else has reason to be confident … I have more …. As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  This doesn’t sound a lot like the stammering of Romans 7.
But also buried in that Philippians passage is the key: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”  Remember how we are first introduced to Paul in the New Testament?  Back in the book of Acts we meet him, still called by his birth name Saul, at the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats of those doing the stoning and approving of the deed.  We catch up with him again “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” and zealously persecuting those who had taken up with the new sect.  Saul didn’t do these things because he was a wild man bent on violence and destruction; he persecuted Christians because of his zeal to follow the Law.  Paul, writing to the Romans, no doubt remembered Saul the zealous and blameless follower of the law and what came of his rigorous adherence to the law.  Paul knew that even the one who followed the law ended up in the power of sin. 
That is our condition, absent the action of God. 
Even as much as Paul describes his “delight” in the law, he knows sin is close at hand ready to twist and distort that love of the law into something evil.  If even the law can be twisted and misused so powerfully, we indeed can understand Paul’s lament in verse 24 – who can rescue us, indeed?  And yet the very next words from Paul’s pen point to the answer – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 
We cannot deliver ourselves from sin.  This is done for us.  We are delivered from that bondage to sin in the dramatic cosmic intervention that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  As Ted Smith of Vanderbilt puts it, “God does not just give us individual humans the willpower to live our best lives now, or say that it does not matter if we do not.  In Jesus Christ, God sets the cosmos free from bondage, redeeming the law and opening the way to life, and life abundant.” 
And yet, we humans – particularly we Christians – are prone, and even eager, to bind ourselves and others to some kind of  law again.  Perhaps it is biblical law.  Maybe we are prone to pull out the Torah – or particular, individual verses from the Torah – to use as weapons against those we want to keep out, while conveniently ignoring those individual verses from the Torah that might indict or inconvenience us more directly.  Or perhaps it is more a law of our own making that appeals to us.  Maybe we want to judge our own righteousness by how often we’re at church, or how much scripture we have memorized.  As we come to the end of a full weekend’s worth of Independence Day celebration, maybe we might recognize that we sometimes let the law of the land, or the rules of “patriotism,” or some other kind of secular guidelines infiltrate our thought and become a law that we use to promote our own righteousness and diminish others who are not like us.
All of those “laws,” wherever they may originate or however they may infiltrate our minds, are as powerless against sin, and every bit as twistable by sin, as the good Torah that Paul describes.  Anything less than whole-hearted, abject surrender to the grace of God is so powerless and twistable.
We are powerless to resist sin on our own.  We don’t like to hear this; we who have been raised in a culture of independence and “rugged individualism” aren’t keen to hear that we can’t do … well, anything.  We are confident in our own power to “get out of” whatever condition might bind us.  We are not unlike the mathematician John Nash, as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, who claims he can use his own analytical skills to set himself free from his mental illness, even though his doctor warns him that the mind on which he relies for analysis is the very source of his illness.  We are so often incapable of accepting what some preacher (or worse yet, some guy who’s still trying to become a preacher) says when we know we can “do better” on our own.
And yet Paul is laying before us here the utter futility of any such claim.  Our own efforts to live up to any standard – be it the Torah or anything of our own devising – will not deliver us from the sinful state in which we are all mired except for God’s divine rescue. 
We have trouble understanding this because, well, when we look around the world doesn’t really look redeemed.  Maybe we don’t really feel redeemed.  And certainly we are not yet at that point where we will fully know what it is to be redeemed by the action of Jesus Christ.  But that is our place; that is the door that has been opened to us.  Even so, even though we don’t really feel it, the promise that follows directly after this passage – “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is our hope, not just for the future but even for the present.  The way to life is open. 
It is a radical thing to trust, especially in that which we cannot see.  It’s a lot easier to rely on “law” or “rules” than to live relying only on the redemptive love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  And yet this is our only “escape”; only in this redemption done for us by God through Jesus Christ does our life here on earth have any chance to be anything other than the same old quagmire of sin and despair that we were born into. 
Wretched people that we are, who will rescue us from this mire of sin?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.  No matter how much it pains us, let our prayer always be; Thanks be to God.

Hymns (all from PH ’90): Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (356), Jesus, Lover of My Soul (303), Just As I Am, Without One Plea (370)

Monday, June 30, 2014

The (Clergy-Search) Dating Game

In case I haven't made this clear, I did actually graduate!  That particular part of the fool's errand that gives this blog its name is done.
Of course, that means that the challenging part -- the "becoming a Presbyterian pastor" part -- is where I am now.  And that means it's time for me to play The Presbyterian Dating Game.
Different denominations have different means of pastors being placed in churches.  On one end of the spectrum is the free-for-all involved in Baptist and other such denominations.  On the other, the strict placement practice of United Methodists, in which not only are you placed by a bishop, but you are subject to being re-placed four or five years later.
As is typical in just about everything polity-wise, the Presbyterian Church (USA) sits somewhere in the middle, with a system that leaves the choice up to church and potential pastor while centralizing the contact process in Presbyterian offices in Louisville (henceforth called the Mothership).  Without betraying confidence or otherwise giving away state secrets, here's a little of what it's like to be caught up in this process.
Once one has been certified by one's presbytery as ready for examination for a call, the potential pastor is called upon to summarize his/her life in a few pages via the Personal Information Form (PIF).  The PIF is, without too much exaggeration, your life essence, your core, your Patronus, your very being itself all digested and wrestled into electronic written form.  Beyond the practical details of your life history and education and experience the PIF also captures your response to a set of narrative questions that are intended to say something about you as a potential minister (or experienced minister if you're that).  It also includes references, like a more traditional resumé, and your contact information of course.  Completing this PIF becomes the Holy Grail of your existence once you're certified, even to the point of becoming a bigger deal than graduation (I got this wrong, therefore I'm a little behind many of my classmates who are already toddling off to their first calls).
Of course the seminary has an office to help with this kind of thing, but ultimately you've got to get it done and filled out on a PC(USA) website so it can be approved by your presbytery's appropriate committee, after which it is posted on the denomination's Christian Leadership Connection list of pastors and others seeking new calls.  Hundreds upon hundreds of PIFs are lodged there.
At the same time, the CLC is also gathering MIFs, or Ministry Information Forms, from churches seeking new pastors or associate pastors or whatever may be the case.  (In case you didn't guess it from the PC(USA) abbreviation, we Presbyterians love love love us some acronyms.)  Once your PIF is posted, it's time to start looking for matches, with the CLC functioning somewhat like the dating site eHarmony.  Your seminary's vocational office can help you out by finding those churches that match your criteria (i.e. are willing to take on someone with no pastoral experience or seeking a first call, in my case) and, possibly, going ahead and referring your PIF to the churches that match.  You can also refer yourself via good ol' email, though it doesn't hurt to have your seminary vouching for you, so to speak.
Then, you wait.  This is the part at which I am not good.
If things go well, churches start to contact you via the chair of their Pastor Nominating Committee (or PNC).  Often the first contact might simply be a query as to whether you're still interested in that church, or it might be a request to see a video of you preaching a sermon, particularly if you're seeking a solo or head pastor role.
I assume all the seminaries have some means of helping you get such a video done; Union does, and so I was off to preach a sermon to a video camera.  Such is the essence of strangeness.  In this case the video is hosted by UPSem's media services, so the PNC can simply go online and watch the sermon to see if you're a total incompetent or not.  If after this the church decides you're still a person of interest, the next step might be to set up an interview with you and the committee via Skype or old-fashioned conference call.  This is as far as I've gotten; I've now completed such interviews with two churches, the second just earlier this evening.
There is one other potential step, if you choose.  This year PC(USA) offered a face-to-face interview opportunity running concurrently with its General Assembly a couple of weeks ago in Detroit, on the premise that elders or nominating committee members or presbytery executives were likely to be on the premises and could sneak out of meetings on occasion to interview either newbies like me or, in some cases, currently employed pastors who were seeking new calls.  It is the latter that causes the face-to-face interview room to be placed in the most remote part of the meeting facility, I assume (seriously, the interview room was practically in Canada).

See? There's Windsor, Ontario, seen from just outside the interview room!

If the CLC website is eHarmony, this face-to-face is a speed-dating event.  I barely got into the interview room before I had two different potential interview groups coming after me.  The whole week wasn't quite that hectic, but I did stay busy, which I take as a good thing (one of the two interviews I've done resulted directly from this face-to-face program, so I am required to go on the record saying it's worth doing).  Still, it was odd being right there as all the difficult and controversial overtures before the GA were being discussed and debated and knowing less than the average person sitting at home following on Twitter.
Anyway, that's as much as I can say because that's as far as I've gone.  There may be more churches yet to contact me for sermons or interviews, or something more might happen with one of the interview churches, or the whole business could suddenly freeze up and leave me stranded.  I have some self-referrals I need to do, and I need to go back to the CLC to see if there are any new churches that match up with me.
And that, in a really long and winding nutshell, is my life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

We have only a witness

I spent part of my week in Detroit.  This was primarily part of the "next stage" of my fool's errand, the part where the seminary education and general seeking to discern gets (hopefully) translated into a vocational calling as a pastor somewhere in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  That denomination is holding its General Assembly, an every-other-year orgy of polity and overtures (not the operatic kind, regrettably) and amendments and amendments to amendments and such by which the church seeks to set a path forward as a (more or less) unified church in a world that (more or less) doesn't care what we do, except when it does (and GA is often the time when it does).  The GA made a bit of news this week; you may have heard.

I was there not for GA proper, but for the oh-so-secret face-to-face (I'm apparently into hyphens today, big-time) interviews that take place between churches and those seeking a call.  Since I'm just about the only person in my graduating class (almost three weeks ago now) who hasn't already secured a call at BigCity Presbyterian somewhere out there, it seemed worth a shot.  I guess it went well; I stayed busy enough that I really didn't know much at all of what was happening in GA proper.  I'd know more today except I can't follow the live feed of the floor proceedings; my connection doesn't seem to be up to the challenge.

After a bit of hunting and pecking I did finally find out what happened on one issue with which I was particularly concerned.  On an overture to move forward on divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, the GA did something at which it excels.  The headline of the linked article, "Creation Care PC(USA) looks to long-term efforts, not immediate divestment with fossil-fuel companies," is what I shall call generous; it might as well and more honestly read "GA punts on fossil-fuel divestment just like it does on every mildly contentious issue that comes before it, at least two or three times."  (I suppose I'm required to be fair and note that the GA has plenty of other contentious issues before it on which it can no longer punt, so I'm probably being unfair in my snark.  I don't really care at this point.)  In theory the divestment issue can be revisited in two years, but more likely we will get around to divesting only when a major US city is leveled by the explosion of a Bakken-crude oil train or pipeline along the lines of the unfortunate city of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, or a major river/water source is befouled by such an accident.  (I'm exaggerating.  I hope I am, at least.)

Is this what it will take?

While I could easily go on on this particular subject, as anyone who follows my Facebook or Twitter feeds could tell you if they haven't tuned out already, that's not where my current ranting is directed.  No, it is instead a perennial argument found in all manner of previous punts on divestment issues in this and other denominations.  It is the concern, voiced in the PC(USA) GA article linked above in so many words, that we will somehow lose our influence with fossil-fuel companies if we divest from them.

I am sure that those who voice such concerns are sincere, and believe that they are somehow making progress with Exxon or BP or Shell or whatever companies my future retirement is sunk into.  However, when I continue to see a steady stream of stories like this one, in which states go so far to protect the fossil-fuel industry as to forbid residents sickened by the activities of the fossil-fuel industry from saying so, I am hard-pressed to see where that progress is.  When I continually see stories about the poisonous water that the fracking process pumps into the ground -- that will eventually make its way into our groundwater -- and how said industry won't fess up to what they are (with the aid of the state governments again protecting them), I'm a bit unsure about what influence we're having.  When I see the Gulf coast still struggling with the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this many years later, I don't quite see how my future retirement money is changing much of anything.

Here is the thing; the church does not have influence.  The church has only a witness.  Here it is again, pardon my shouting: THE CHURCH DOES NOT HAVE INFLUENCE.  THE CHURCH HAS ONLY A WITNESS.

And here's a corollary to the above: when the church tries to wield influence, it usually ends up failing to be the church.

Look to history.  Is there any historical case where the church, in any of its manifestations, has been particularly Christlike or godly when it has thrown its weight around in world affairs?  Do all those crusading armies particularly recommend the faith all that well?  Is England particularly nostalgic for Oliver Cromwell's Puritan types?  Oh, it might look good for a while.  I dare say Southern Baptists got a little bump from their culture-war turn, but that denomination is now well into its fourth decade as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, and look what's happening to their membership and baptism numbers; it's still a slow decline so far, but the bloom may just be off that rose at the last.  (Let's be clear, it wouldn't have mattered which party they sold out to; it would still have constituted a selling-out of witness in favor of influence.)

Corporations are give-me-your-money-and-shut-up outfits; unless you're at the Big Boys Table (and that's usually a pretty accurate description, but I digress) you opinion does not matter.  Political parties, or their upper-level types, are that way rather often as well.  I'm trying to come up with a time when a church's money actually moved a corporation off the time and towards more just business practices, but I'm getting nothing.  Anyone?  Seriously, if you've got an answer I want to know.

In short, I do not see where our money invested in such corporations (be they fossil-fuel corporations now or Big Tobacco backintheday) has ever had a whole lot of influence on those corporations and their concern for justice and basic human decency.

Now let me make this clear too: there is absolutely no guarantee that divesting from fossil-fuel companies will move them at all, either.  PC(USA) just isn't that big, for one thing.  For another, fossil-fuel companies are increasingly shielded by the states in which they do their damage, as noted above; until that changes, there is very little that can influence them at all.  Do you see any signs that BP is suffering in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill?  I don't mean embarrassed, I mean suffering even the tiniest ill effect on their revenues or sales?

We do not have influence.  We have only a witness.  And more and more I'm convinced that my future retirement money, such as it is, being tied up in the fossil-fuel industry of the 21st century actually harms my witness, no matter how fine my preaching is or how compassionate my pastoral care may be.  Is the sickening of the people of Fort Chip or the water deprivation of Texas o.k. for me to live off of in my dotage?

We have only a witness.  It requires us to speak up.  Speaking up requires us to live in a way that backs up our speaking up, which can get awfully inconvenient.  Speaking up might even require us to march, to (shudder) protest, to (*swoon*) do advocacy.  It might cause our neighbors to dislike us.  It might cause them to try to shut down our soup kitchens or homeless shelters.  It might cause them to decide we're too impure or sinful to be associated with.  But it is all we have.

Our money is pointless.

We have only a witness.

Friday, June 6, 2014

There are people

I did not get to go on the seminary's travel-seminar trip to the Middle East in May.  I wanted to, badly.  But about the time in the fall I needed to make a commitment and start trying to scare up some funding, my surgeon sounded an alarm about something suspicious-looking that couldn't be explained and might require surgery.  Of course, as it has turned out so far, that thing has not grown or changed or gone anywhere, and any apparent threat to block something or damage something has not materialized, and I'm in more-or-less normal health for now (as normal as ever after the kind of surgery and treatment I had).
So, I missed the trip.  The group traveled through Turkey and its significant sites, both Christian and otherwise, and then to Israel, with stops in (if I remember correctly) Tel Aviv, Jericho, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem.
I freely admit the site I would have been most eager to see was the site at Gallipoli, a World War I battle, more than most of the religious sites (although I was thoroughly excited about the various New Testament-related sites in Turkey).  In all honesty, I was a bit ambivalent about the Israel-Palestine part of the trip.  That wasn't because of any particular concern about the itinerary.  It was because people tend to get stupid about the "Holy Land."
Hear me out.  You might even get to witness an unbegun pastoral career going up in self-inflicted flames.
Leaving aside Jerusalem syndrome, it's just about impossible to get into a discussion of anything about the modern-day state of Israel without an awful lot of Christians starting to act, frankly, goofy.  (I would guess that Jews and Muslims also exhibit awfully strong feelings on the region, but I will stick with what I know most from experience.)  It might be a simple as a total change of vocal tone upon the thought of the "Holy Land", or perhaps some dreamy look in the eyes, or an uncontrollable urge to break out singing the old sacred-song chestnut "I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked."
To me, something of this kind of distractedness is evidenced by a blog on the Christian Century website with the title "An Open Letter to the PCUSA" concerning upcoming General Assembly debate over the question of Israel-Palestine conflict.  Maybe others read it differently.  Maybe the author is seeking something else and I'm missing it.  But as far as I can see, the author's sole purpose is to undermine any serious discussion of the conflict in the region and to treat the whole region as something like the song linked above.
Of course, there is the use of "politics" as an implied dirty word.  There is only a minimal amount of concern for any person involved in the conflict; indeed to read the article one might forget that there actually are people -- Palestinian residents, Israeli settlers, soldiers, etc. -- involved in the conflict, or indeed living in the region at all.  The "Holy Land," or the "Fifth Gospel" as the author names it, is an abstraction, virtually a theme park (and no, I'm not referring to the one in Florida, but at times in the blog entry I wondered if I might be) to which we are invited to wander and wonder and meditate for our own peace and contentment.
This I find appalling.  This is not about "our faith" as a historical artifact bound to a particular geographical region; this is about our faith as we are called to live it, discerning the will of the Holy Spirit in finding some way to a just peace in the region, or at the very minimum not being caught supporting the perpetuation of injustice.  This is a conflict between people.  Our sentimental attachment to the pictures we used to see in Sunday School class is not a basis for discerning justice.
There is virtually nothing I can add to the debate that will culminate at General Assembly.  I find it sad and pathetic that there are some who would treat the debate as an excuse for a low-grade case of Jerusalem syndrome.

It doesn't look quite like this anymore.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sermon: This Way

I am discovering that as I do this more, I go "off script" a lot more.  But this was the script for what it's worth.

Browns Presbyterian Church, Farmville, VA
May 18, 2014 Easter 5A
John 14:1-14

This Way

There are certain passages of scripture that are instantly recognizable.  All I would have to do is to say the first few words of the verse, and I’d guess you could immediately, almost as if my reflex, complete the verse.  For example:
“God so loved the world…”
Or, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
Or maybe, “In the beginning…”
Or maybe this one: “I am the way…”
The sixth verse of this chapter does indeed have a particular niche in the church, and therefore has a certain safe place in the memory banks of a lot of Christians.  Perhaps it isn’t quite as memorable as the others, but it does stand out.
Much of this is because it is part of a passage, indeed even the climactic verse of a passage that is often used for funerals.  Coming after several verses of Jesus’s teaching, describing how Jesus is going to “prepare a place” for us, and after his describing “many mansions” in that place, in the context of a funeral, or perhaps a time of counseling in the face of impending death, this verse becomes a tremendous source of reassurance for the dying soul or for his or her family members and loved ones.  This is perfectly appropriate; the verse does offer a word of comfort or even hope in a time of tremendous, even overwhelming grief. 
There is, however, a potential problem with verses like this, verses that often get memorized and remembered separate from the context that informs and defines them.  It’s easy to remember what comes after “God so loved the world,” but how much do you remember of what comes before that verse?  It’s not hard to come up with the rest of Genesis 1:1, but not as easy to remember Genesis 1:2, or 1:3 or any of the other verses that refine and complete that account of creation.
In the case of John 14:6, it’s very easy to forget about the context in which this verse is heard, and in fact very easy to forget that the part we remember is not even an accurate rendering of the whole verse.  And of course, it’s not all that easy to remember what comes before it or after it.  We might remember a little bit about many mansions and Jesus going to prepare a place, and someone really bright might remember Thomas asking what sounds to us like a dumb question, but chances are we mostly remember those nine words – “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – and not much of the passage around it.
And in this case, that can lead to real problems.  Without that context this verse can, and often is, misinterpreted in two very different yet equally troublesome or even destructive ways. 
First of all, the English language causes us a problem.  Throughout this passage we see Jesus speaking to “you”.  I go to prepare a place for you.  I will come again and take you unto myself.  And you know the way.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  Over and over again the pronoun “you” is connected to all manner of verbs.  Now we know, intellectually, that in English “you” can be singular or plural.  Still, when we hear it in scripture like this, we have a bad habit of assuming, unconsciously, that “you” equals “me,” instead of “you” equaling “us.”  As a result, we might too easily hear all these verbs being directed at me, and letting our minds get caught up in an extremely individualistic interpretation of the scripture before us.
We might hear Jesus saying “I go to prepare a place for you.  You personally.  Your own personal mansion.  And I’m gonna come back just for you, complete with your own personal flaming chariot ride.  The trouble is, all of these verbs are second person plural, not singular.  (This is why we have to take Greek in seminary.)  Though it might drive certain grammar devotees nutty, we’d all be better off if we could plug in that very practical Southern pronoun, y’all.  I go to prepare a place for y’all.  I will come again and take y’all to myself.  Y’all know the way to where I’m going.  If y’all know me, y’all will know my Father.  All throughout this passage the verbs are plural, not singular, when Jesus is speaking in second-person verbs. 
So why is this grammar diversion important?  Because this word of comfort is not an individual Hallmark card from Jesus.  No, this is a promise to all of us.  The whole company of the disciples.  The whole fellowship of believers.  The whole body of Christ. 
Indeed, throughout the last half of this gospel John records Jesus’s words in a whole series of teaching episodes, always focused on instruction and encouragement to the whole fellowship.  Jesus has spent his time on earth, which at this point he knows is drawing to an end, teaching and performing signs in the presence of his disciples, so that they might be encouraged, edified, and empowered to be a witness to Christ once he was returned to his Father.  It wasn’t to make a superstar disciple out of Peter, or to glorify John or Andrew or Nathaniel or any individual disciple.  It was so that the whole fellowship could continue, even when Jesus was gone, to do the works that Jesus did and to teach as Jesus taught, and even more as verse 12 says.  But to do that, they needed to be a fellowship, a body, a community in the strongest way possible, and we need to hear this in these verses today and take it to heart.
My point is not to stop you from using those first six verses at funerals.  But remember that the promise in those verses is not limited to the one being laid to rest; it is directed towards all of us, together, as the fellowship of believers, the body of Christ.
Another way to take verse 6 out of context is potentially much more harmful, both to the world around us and to our own fellowship with Christ.  There is a school of thought that takes this verse, this beautiful testament to Christ’s care and provision for us, and turns it into a weapon.
Let’s say you are hearing an … well, I was going to say “argument,” but let’s be gentler about this and call it a “discussion.”  It’s probably about heaven, and who gets to go.  It might be about believers of other faiths – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or so forth.  Or it might be about Mormons or other groups with an unusual status on the religious spectrum.  I suppose in some cases it might be about Catholics or Seventh-Day Adventists or other Christian groups. 
Whatever directions the discussion may take, whether about  a theology of salvation or comparison of different scriptures, inevitably it seems that someone in the discussion will pull out John 14:6 and wield it like a club or a baseball bat.  Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” This person might even add, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or something equally catchy before strutting off like a triumphant Roman general to enjoy the spoils of war.
Maybe you noticed that our hypothetical conqueror didn’t quite quote the verse completely?  Remember, it says “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way’” and so on.  When we remember those two words “to him,” as minor as they may seem, we are charged to remember that this wasn’t a free-floating statement out of nowhere; it was an answer to a question.  Specifically, it was an answer to a question by Thomas, one of the disciples, who completely failed to follow what Jesus had been saying so far.  After Jesus’s talk about going to prepare a place – remember, a place for y’all, for all of these disciples – when Jesus finishes by telling the disciples “y’all know the way,” Thomas pipes up that no, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we possibly know the way?  This is the question that prompts Jesus to say “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” 
Thomas, in this case, cares about only one thing; this teacher whom he and his fellow disciples have been following for the last few years is suddenly making noises about going away, going to his Father’s “house” to prepare a place.  In the time John is writing his gospel, to speak of his Father’s “house” would not necessarily suggest to a listener like Thomas any kind of physical structure.  Rather, Thomas might first imagine the Father’s “house” in the way Old Testament writers spoke of the “house of Abraham” or perhaps the “house of David,” a figure of speech less concerned with a physical dwelling (something Abraham certainly did not have most of his life) than the particular intimate and unbreakable bonds of family, the ties that bind brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers together.  To hear Jesus speak like this, and then say he has to go and y’all know how to get there, left Thomas more confused than enlightened. 
But nowhere in any of this is there any idea that Thomas is asking about anybody but this group of disciples.  Thomas isn’t asking about anybody else, and Jesus address exactly what Thomas does ask about and nothing else.  When Philip asks his question in verse 8, Jesus’s response is even more explicit; “Y’all have been with me all this time, and y’all still don’t know me?”  Neither Thomas nor Philip give a whit about Muslims or Buddhists or Mormons, at least in part because none of those groups exist yet.  Jesus is begging his disciples to understand that because they have been with him, they know “the way, the truth, and the life.”  They know the way Jesus has followed; they know the truth Jesus has taught; they know the life Jesus has lived.  And this way, this truth, and this life are what Jesus leaves behind to his disciples, and to we disciples who come all these years after.  There’s nothing here about beating up followers of other faiths; there is everything here about living our faith right.
Everything here is about the initiative Jesus has taken to bring us to his Father’s house.  Not one iota of this is anything we could achieve by our own efforts.  We cannot do anything about the way, the truth, or the life except that Jesus has already done it for us.  When we are so utterly powerless and helpless to effect our own salvation, how can we possibly be so arrogant to judge anyone else?  Seriously, how dare we?
Maybe this is why Paul would write to the Philippians to work out their own salvation with “fear and trembling.”  What Jesus has laid before his disciples is nothing less than their utter and complete dependence on him, for how to live, and even for why to live.  This way, this truth, and this life are the very foundation we, the fellowship of believers, the body of Christ, live upon.  To be a Christian is not about winning some kind of eternal palace or beating others; it is about walking this way, hearing this truth, and living this life.  It is a task at which we will fail, repeatedly and embarrassingly.  And yet we will get there not because of our efforts but because Jesus has done it already for us. 
For this, let all God’s people say “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation, More Love to Thee, O Christ