Sunday, June 11, 2017

Ridiculous Comparison: The mainline and Broadway

So if the mainline church is lacking in celebrity (whatever that means in churchworld), what of it? Where's the fit? Despite the most virulent naysaying of the vultures, the mainline is not dead yet, and as long as that's the case it maintains some toehold in American religious culture (whether that's a good thing to be part of is a question for another time). So, what is that toehold?

I'm going to put forth a Ridiculous Comparison. I'm liking this so much I'm putting that in caps, as a potential recurring feature of this blog. Or a threat to do so. Who knows? But here goes:

The role of the mainline in American religious culture is somewhat, a little bit, kinda sorta like the role of Broadway in American entertainment. (Yes, I'm currently watching the Tony Awards. Why do you ask?)

No, I'm not trying to make a full-fledged equation betwen the two, although somebody will probably try to claim I'm doing so. But there are similiarities, I think, at least enough to justify a Ridiculous Comparison.

So, for your consideration, a few rough comparisons of Broadway and the mainline:

1. They're both quite overshadowed by far more pervasive and flashier options in their respective fields of endeavor. Speaking of the Tony Awards, the occasion of that broadcast is for an awful lot of people the only awareness of Broadway they ever get. In many ways I do count myself among such people. I don't get to New York very often at all, and while I'll try to get to a show if one comes near me, I'm not living in a place where that's the easiest thing to do.

On the other hand, Hollywood churns along with ridiculous sums of money going into movies that can potentially tank incredibly badly, and yet the cycle happens again and again. If that happened to a producer one time on Broadway you'd probably never hear from that producer for quite a while; Hollywood somehow doesn't work that way.

Throw in television in its various permutations, streaming services, and other entertainment options that frankly encourage people never to leave their homes (or to not look up even if they do), and Broadway becomes a lot of work and a good deal of expense by comparison, at least in the perception of a lot of potential audience members.

A mainline church can seem like a lot of work. If they're doing worship right you can't just show up; you actually are asked to participate. You might even end up speaking as much as the preacher (or is that just my church?). They can be rather hard to find depending on where you live -- the mainline is getting a bit more scarce in some rural areas, for example. Mainline churches don't tend to carry quite the prestige that they once did, and certainly not the sense of social compulsion that once filled pews if nothing else would. Megachurches tend to consume a lot of oxygen in the communities they inhabit, and mainline churches can struggle to breathe. The mainline and its churches don't get to fail; when you go down, you're gone for good. Church celebrity, as noted elsewhere, tends to be an evangelical thing. In multiple ways, the mainline just gets overshadowed.

2. For both, the most vital signs of life are found when those long excluded, and their stories, are , included. Suffice to say Broadway benefits tremendously from the presence of artists male and female (and even in-between), artists of color, LGBTQ+ people, and more that I'm sure I'm not thinking of in every role possible -- on the stage, directing, providing technical prowess, composing, and all the other jobs that make a show happen. Further, an awful lot of the best of Broadway happens not just when the excluded are in the cast or behind the scenes, but also when their stories are the ones being told.

This last point might be more aspirational than current in the mainline, but as far as the life of the church, the places where church is actually showing life tend to be the places where the once-excluded are included. You want examples of the moribund and fading mainline to justify your vulturing? Find the churches where the old white guys still hold sway. When the folks who have spent generations being shoved aside or thrown out or worse are now part of the church, not just on the margins but being heard and welcomed and having more than a token voice, the church is living and even feisty.

3. They are both at their best when they tell the story differently, finding an unconventional perspective to illuminate what we (think we) know. Hollywood can give you movies, for example, based on the events of September 11, 2001. They can give you a movie about what happened on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, one about the emergency personnel responding to the attack, a forthcoming movie (originally a play, admittedly) about people trapped in one of the towers that day, and so forth. Broadway can do those, but it's at its best when it tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, the place where all those transatlantic flights on 9/11 landed when they could no longer get into the US. (I really, really want to see that show now.)

Similarly, this may be more aspirational than real, but the mainline church is at its best when it "tells the story slant" (to crib from Emily Dickinson). The more the church opens up the whole of scripture, finding the stories the rest of the church doen't hear or doesn't want to hear or wants to stop anybody else from hearing, the more the mainline is telling the whole story of faith, of salvation, of the relentless God who would never accept human lostness. Are you willing to learn from the midwives Shiprah and Puah, or the slave Onesimus, or the Syrophoenician woman who, when first rebuffed by Jesus, nevertheless persisted? They're not tidy stories, but they still tell us of God's moving among God's people. And those stories certainly haven't been told enough.

Maybe this is silly, but it's not as if we don't have some things to learn as a community of churches trying to be faithful, even if a faithful remnant. If we can learn something from Broadway, let's learn.

A number from Come From Away at the Tony Awards. 
Yeah, I want to see that show.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


So is there such a thing as a "mainline celebrity"?

An article in a journal called Faith and Leadership posits as its title the question "Why are there so few mainline celebrities?" You can read the article for yourself, but for me it was a bit of a befuddling slog to contemplate if only because of a tremendous lack of definition, particularly of the key word "celebrity." Nonetheless, if the question itself is not necessarily a helpful one, it is nonetheless useful for raising other questions that might be more helpful or more illuminating in considering where the church stands more generally, and the condition of the mainline in particular. So this is an old favorite kind of blog entry for me: one in which I address a question by asking a bunch more questions. So, here goes:

1. In this context, what exactly do you mean by "celebrity"? Who defines it? As best as I can tell, the author's main criteria for "celebrity" seem to involve book sales and televised "ministries" (I feel that to be a very loose use of that word, but don't have a better one at hand), with a particular interest on the latter. If you go by that as your primary definition, I have an easy answer for the author's question: because being that kind of "church celebrity" is frankly gross. Who in the world wants that? (To be fair, one anonymous pastor does seem to be quoted in the article as expressing that sentiment.)

Of course, this requires another qualification, namely that we are talking about a very limited and specifically defined kind of "celebrity" here, celebrity within the limited but sometimes white-hot cauldron of "church culture." And again, this also begs a pretty quick answer to the author's original question: because that cauldron of church culture caters primarily to that portion of the church carrying the name "evangelical," the "celebrities" formed in that culture are going to be folks who tell that culture what it wants to hear, i.e. other evangelicals. That culture writ large isn't particularly interested in hearing from Walter Brueggeman or Carol Howard Merritt, and such "mainliners" as do appear among the big-ish names (thinking of Rachel Held Evans here) tend to do so as objects of hatred.

On the flip side, you get yourself among the right mainliners and mention Walter Brueggeman's name and the room gets all glassy-eyed and dreamy and starts rhapsodizing about any one of his several dozen books and how it changed their life. In the mainline, Brueggeman is about as much a "celebrity" as there is. Held Evans (who is, of course, a recently signed free agent for the mainline roster, as a fairly new Episcopalian) is popular, to be sure, at least as much as an object lesson ("see what they do to you?") as for her writing (and note that she is not a pastor, which means of course that the televised megachurch route to fame isn't really open to her anyway). Other mainliners might point out the likes of Diana Butler Bass or Carol Howard Merritt as having a pretty strong following in the mainline. (This also begs the acknowledgment that of those four potential mainline celebrities named, three of them would be very specifically disqualified from speaking in the pulpits of a lot of evangelical churches or colleges. Just making an observation there.)

But again, this definition also leaves out the possibility of other "famous" mainliners (or evangelicals for that matter), who actually do exist. Even if he's been dead many years now, we Presbyterians will always have the record for The Most Bestest Ever Ever Ever Famous Person in the United States of America, namely Fred (Mister) Rogers, and no denomination will ever top that. (Insert smile emoji here.)

Now, let's try a living person: if you're a fan of Pixar movies you may well recognize the name Pete Docter. Even if not you probably recognize the titles Inside Out, Up, Monsters, Inc., and the various Toy Story movies. He wrote and directed Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc., and created the original story for the Toy Story movies. Dude's a Presbyterian, too. In the larger world that would count for a level of fame well beyond any "church celebrity," but Docter is known for movies, not for being Presbyterian (and certainly not for arguing about it). We are talking about a tempest in a teapot here, for sure, by comparison to most sane definitions of "celebrity."

2. Is such celebrity necessarily a good thing? You know who else was a "mainline celebrity"? Norman Vincent Peale. I'm not sure how the Reformed Church in America feels about Rev. Peale today, but back in the day he was one of them, and a big freaking deal to boot. He's the guy who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, one of the more controversial books to be issued by a clergyperson of any type in the twentieth century, denounced as both a psychological and theological disaster. Nonetheless, it caught on with a lot of folks, and persisted as a general frame of mind even in the face of widespread denunciation. (Backintheday he was a favorite pastor of both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, if that gives you any idea.)

It would be hard to imagine Peale as a mainline pastor today, but when you start surveying the history of "mainline celebrities" from past decades and Peale is the type you wind up with, you're going to be naturally turned off from the idea of celebrity.

3. Would "celebrity" necessarily be all that helpful to the mainline? For that matter, has it been all that useful to evangelicalism? Do book sales and TV ratings points necessarily translate into spiritual integrity and maturity? (From here the evidence suggests not.) Are the products of evangelical celebrity necessarily beneficial to the "consumers" of the products of that celebrity? (Again, straining to see here... .) If your goal is anything beyond "butts in seats," what good does celebrity do?

Of course, the drawbacks of celebrity are pretty obvious when celebrity becomes notoriety. While "church world" gets all a-flutter when scandal erupts around the likes of Mark Driscoll or Steven Furtick, there are plenty of us whose first reaction to those scandal stories was something along the lies of "I'm sorry, who now?" The old saw "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" most definitely applies here. Ugly ethical horrors are bad enough; having them happen under the magnifying glass of celebrity, even small-scale celebrity, only amplifies the ugliness and rancor.

And even if we expand our gaze to the realm of "real" celebrity, what exactly about that world recommends itself to the mainline?

3a. Is it even possible to be a "celebrity pastor"? Yes, it's clearly possible to be a celebrity preacher -- we've got a bunch of those walking around for better or worse. But a celebrity pastor, in anything more than title? Performing the functions and roles and ministries that happen outside the pulpit?

Seriously, how would that work? TV cameras following the celebrity pastor on hospital visits? So paint me dubious on this one.

Now, to be clear to the point of transparency, I'm no candidate for "mainline celebrity" status even if I were ever to want it, which I don't. I pastor a small church, and am pretty unlikely to pastor anything like a large church. I'm already fifty-two, so I'd be getting a late start on celebrity of any kind. I look like a deformed toadstool, and whether or not that should matter, it does. (This is of course another point against the desirability of church celebrity, which you can place in whatever category you see fit.) And I'm waaaay too cranky to put up with the demands of celebrity of any kind. So, to be clear, no sour grapes here -- if anything, great heaving sighs of relief.

I simply don't see how having a greater "celebrity" presence in the mainline is actually helpful to the churches of this tradition in doing the things these churches need to do to be the churches God calls us out to be. Maybe I'm wrong (that happens a lot). Show me otherwise, if it matters that much to you.

But frankly, I don't find the lack of mainline celebrity anything to be mourned all that much.

Uh, I'm gonna pass on this one...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

When (or to whom) not to listen

So the previous entry on this fool's errand suggested that the staggering but "not dead yet" mainline needs to do a heap of listening as it seeks to find the way forward in the Spirit to be (finally, at last?) what God has ever been wanting the church to be. There are limits to that, however.

Folks involved with computer science and programming (and probably lots of other folks) will be familiar with the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" (sometimes shortened to "GIGO"?), an expression that reflects a computer's inability to do anything about the quality of the data entered into it; given flawed data, the computer will duly process that data according to its programming, producing output that is as flawed as the input from which it is generated.

(A further extension of that acronym points to human gullibility about anything that comes out of a computer: "garbage in, gospel out." Now this really begs to be considered in the life of the church, but in its own blog entry, or maybe several.)

So in short, bad input generates bad output. And that certainly has application to the mainline. Given this maxim, we'd better be very cautious about who or what is allowed into the church's head space. Whether it is those who are up to no good, those who are sincerly but desperately misguided, or those who can only envision a rival to be conquered, there are plenty out there who should not be allowed to deposit garbage into the soul of the mainline.

Such as...?

Don't listen to the vultures. You know, those people. Just don't. It's bad for your soul.

Don't listen to the fixers. They often overlap with the above, as in "you're dying but I can bring you back to life." Unless Jesus Christ in the flesh (or in the Spirit) is the one standing in front of you saying this, run. Run very hard in the opposite direction. One thing the mainline absolutely, positively cannot get caught up in is "personality churches." To the degree that any human figure usurps the role of Christ as head of the church, the church is no church and should be euthanized immediately. The mainline has usually managed to avoid such a thing, thankfully, but now is not the time to be anything other than extra-vigilant.

Don't listen to the clone-makers. That would, not surprisingly, be a related category to the fixers, though it might not involve a lone hero figure. Instead it might sound like "if your church would do (x) and (y) etc. like our church does it would be great." No, it wouldn't be great. It would be a pale imitation of something else transplanted into a situation where it (very likely) makes no sense.

Don't listen to the nostalgia-mongers. Now this is the hard one, but every church has them. You know them, the ones who remember when the church was full every Sunday (though what defines "full" can be hard to nail down...), when the choir was the best in town, when all the right people were know the drill. And you also know, dear mainline church leader, that the road that follows Christ never goes backward.

(Somewhat on this subject, I cannot recommend highly enough Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The title says it all. Even that spasm of everybody going to church and all that was part attack on FDR's New Deal, part "parasitic greedhead scam" in the ever-poetic words of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Just read it.)

Do you notice how these seem to have a lot in common? How to fix. "I alone can fix it." (Really, shouldn't we know better by now?) These are all things that distract one from the hard work of knowing where you are and how you and your church got there, and how you and your church might respond to that particular, distinctive context. (They also tend to involve human heroes, but I harped on that already.) In other words, they lead you away from the hard work of listening. And they certainly don't lead you to the leading of the Spirit.

There are more red flags to discuss and I have a feeling we'll get to them. But in the meantime, a kind of "shaking the dust off your feet" (Luke 9:5) is not out of line here. They don't listen to your testimony, because all they can do is tell you what to do? Shake that dust, baby, and walk away.

One thing that might make all this easier to remember is the hard but needful saying that it is not your  (pastor, educator, member) job to save the church. It is your job to be the church.

Confusing the two only leads to misery. So don't.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The mainline and the "fine art of listening"

I'm not wild about my local classical music station.

(Note: I spent part of grad school as a music host at such a station, so such things are nearer to my heart than to most folks' hearts, I suspect.)

I mean, I don't hate it by any means, and I'm highly aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't actually apply in many places in this country, and I'm exponentially more likely to listen to it than to any other radio station around here. On the other hand, I'm also aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't necessarily apply even to those places that technically do have one; the music is actually piped in from some syndicated national source, and in many places there is little to any local content. (For part of the year there is a three-hour afternoon block of music with a local host. That program apparently takes academic holidays off.)

There is one thing about this station that I not just like but love, however: its tagline.

I'm talking about the thing you hear at the end of a station identification or frequency ID blurb. The masculine announcer voice gives the call letters and frequencies of the main station, its various translator frequencies or HD locations in this case, and then finally ends with this gem of a line:

"Dedicated to the fine art of listening."

BAM. Now that is how to sell your classical-music station, particularly in an age when the classical music establishment doesn't have the caché that it used to. Now I might wish their musical progamming actually lived up to such a lofty standard, but at least the standard is there.

Needless to say, I have a sneaking suspicion the church, particularly the mainline, could learn from this tagline.

I mean, I have been arguing since the second entry ever posted on this blog, lo these many years ago, that the mainline had a period of high influence (sort of) that was largely squandered (with a few exceptions). We had (or at least fancied that we had) the numbers, we had the right people, we had the influence.

If anything is apparent these days, it is that those things are no longer true.

Right now we're the corner of the church on which, ahem, other branches of Christendom are laying odds on our death. Out of Christian love, you know, and all that.

So, now that we're pretty severely stripped of all those pretensions of human power and influence, what do we do? I'm going to suggest that we might take a cue from the Gospel reading for this Thursday, Ascension Day.

(You did know that Thursday is Ascension Day, right?)

Stay in the city and wait.

And, I might add, listen.

Listen to the scriptures from which we preach. Listen to it. Study it in great large gulps. Resist the urge to reduce it (or to stand by as others reduce it) to "greatest hits" verses and cherry-picked checklists.

Especially listen to the gospels. Don't just resist, absolutely fight the sanitized Jesus of schlock paintings and shlock songs. Problematize Jesus. When Jesus is difficult, say so. Plow into the really difficult passages. Absolutely call out and stomp on anything that turns Jesus into anybody's mascot.

Listen to our worship, in particular (from my point of view) our liturgy and the songs we sing. If they don't match up with what we hear when we listen to the gospels, ditch 'em. This is no time to be sentimental, folks; that's how we got in this hole.

Listen to the folks who don't look like us. (Talking to the white folks here.) The mainline has, with a few exceptions, been at best an uneven partner in seeking justice, especially when that justice has called into question the exalted position we just kinda naturally assumed was ours because we were just really nice people. Folks, we didn't hit a triple; we were born on third base. (Wow, did I just riff on a Barry Switzer quote?) In this particular case the listening we need to do to Christians all over the world, and to Christians in this country who have gotten ground up in injustice, is going to involve an element that is necessary for good listening in general, but will be desperately important here; shutting up. Not getting defensive, not playing wounded, just shutting up and listening.

Listen to the Holy Spirit. (Back to everybody now.) You remember that, right? That embarrassing thing that some groups get all excited about. Yeah, that. Part of that Ascension Day story is that, of course, when the disciples went back to the city and waited, eventually Pentecost happened. I'm not expecting the on-the-spot ability to speak Korean or Punjabi to appear out of nowhere one day, but who knows? And we have to know by now that relying on our own inspiration isn't cutting it.

It's not as if this really is a list of discrete items to be checked off a list. I've gone on record in a forum that got read a lot more than this blog ever does about the degree that listening to our congregational song and listening to the global church (or, you know, the church) will likely interact with one another if we do it right.

Of course, the really big challenge for us is that listening takes time. With the overeager vultures circling overhead, the temptation is to be urgent, to do something now. That would be foolish. Part of the need to listen is about learning, and clearly we've got a lot to learn before we rush off into anything. Trying to do things our way, on our own timetable, in our own particular idiom (watch through about 1:05 or so) gets churches in trouble.

Listen. Quit assuming we've got the answers. Quit assuming it's all about us. Quit assuming we call the shots.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

I fight authority, authority always wins...

Twitter is a pretty good place for following the latest public theological kerfuffles, if you follow the right people.

These things occasionally erupt on what sometimes gets called "Christian Twitter" (an aside: is that really a good idea? I mean, "Christian Twitter"? Isn't that just a gold-plated invitation to disaster?), usually provoked by some straying evangelical suddenly getting woke and questioning some of the darker tenets of that particular wing of current Christian faith. Frequently the straying evangelical is also female, which seems to bring out the sharpest of knives.

One of the latest Twitter kerfuffles apparently involved a woman named Jen Hatmaker. I confess, even after her name has come up in a couple of such kerfuffles (yes, I'm going to keep using that word), that I really don't know who she is. She's enough of a big deal to have a stub article on Wikipedia, though, so I can learn that she was a presenter on some HGTV show, she said something about how the church ought to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons, and for that she got dumped on by the evangelical community and her books got dropped from the stores of a large evangelical bookseller. That was kerfuffle enough.

The more recent kerfuffle perhaps sprang from the Hatmaker blowup, or maybe from some other flareup, but it was set in motion by an article in Christianity Today. I link to it only reluctantly, in that it's a pretty fatuous article, but you probably need to be able at least to glance at it to get what's up. The title kinda gives away the game, though.

The obvious answer to the question is "nobody." Look, like it or not, the "blogosphere," like the rest of the internet, is a bit Wild West-ish; you're only "in charge" of whatever patch of territory you stake out. I "control," basically, this blog, and maybe my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and that's about it. Given that the readership of this blog seldom cracks triple digits, it's not as is I even exert much influence with the little bit of cyberspace I tend; someone like Hatmaker or other, I guess, "celebrity" bloggers (does that even make sense in the church? About as much as "Christian Twitter, I guess) like Rachel Held Evans or Carol Howard Merritt get much more of a following and, presumably, more influence.

About all you can really do in the end is talk back. Frankly, trying to crack down on such figures is at least as likely to give them more credibility or interest in the blogosphere as it is to shut them down. About the best you can do is state your disagreement and move on.

One guesses this is what puts off people who ask questions like "who's in charge of the Christian blogosphere?" There's precious little control wielded over what people blog or Facebook or tweet (if there were we would not have the President we now have, would we?), and so folks like the above bloggers can pretty much write what they are moved to write. The right-wing evangelical establishment can throw mud at them, but they can't really silence them, and it drives that establishment nuts. Plenty of mud got slung at Hatmaker, and she somehow failed to recant. So far as I know she's still a supercalifragilistichyperevangelical, so they haven't even managed to satisfy their urge to control by running her off (unlike Held Evans, who has quite contentedly slipped into the Episcopal Church).

Of course, it seems likely that the other major sin committed by the likes of Hatmaker and Held Evans is the heinous, unforgivable crime of having girl parts.

We are, after all, talking about a movement that, if it really got its way, would have women be at home cooking, and routinely getting pregnant. Even tolerating female clergy, though it has been done of necessity (the author of the above article is Anglican clergy), goes against the grain of the hardest-right wing of evangelicalism, and is sometimes still an awkward fit in other parts of that branch of the church. (By contrast, most mainline traditions have been ordaining women for a while now, fifty years or so in some cases.) That non-ordained women like Hatmaker and Held Evans write stuff (even real books with paper and covers and everything!) and have lots of readers (even if a certain number of those readers are mostly there for trolling purposes) and don't participate in the mandatory bashing of LGBTQ+ folk or other disapproved types is just unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, the topics that provoke the most angst over "authority" tend to be those for which "authority" is at best sketchy and involves things like really poor exegesis of scripture (like the infamous "six verses" used to bash homosexuals (or seven, depending on who you ask). Most of the time you don't get big Twitter kerfuffles over things like the Trinity, about which it is almost impossible to speak without committing multiple accidental heresies. I almost suspect that someone could write a blog article suggesting that 2 Peter, a real dogpatch of an epistle, should get eliminated from the canon of scripture and get less grief that the "uppity female blogger" du jour who fails to toe the line on gay people.

Meanwhile, the mainline is pretty quiet. There aren't a huge number of "celebrity mainline bloggers" of either gender, and such churches as have real "authority figures" like bishops don't seem to expend a lot of energy on controlling bloggers. So far as I've heard, the head Episcopal bishop hasn't come down on Rachel Held Evans, for example. (My own denomination is governed by a General Assembly that meets once every two years, with the closest thing to a denominational "voice" in the interim being a Stated Clerk -- hardly an awe-inspiring title, even if the current holder of that title is pretty cool. So far as I know nobody in that office even knows this blog exists, much less cares. But then, I am ordained and have boy parts, so I guess my authority is not in question.)

While the mainline doesn't necessarily incline to suppress voices, I'm not always sure it's good at encouraging voices from within its ranks either. The Christian Century magazine makes a go at fostering a few blog voices in its online version, and a few other periodicals do likewise. Still, it's not so easy to find "Christian Twitter" or a "Christian blogosphere" (ugh) in non-conservative form.

In short, people need to speak up, partly because (as Carol Howard Merritt notes on one of those CC blogs) just because most of the hot-button issues are more or less settled in the mainline denominations doesn't mean they are settled in other regions of the church, and mainline voices still need to be heard, explaining and exegeting and affirming. Also, speaking up is simply a part of bearing witness, and even mainline folk are supposed to do that.

How each person chooses to speak up will vary, naturally, and nobody's promising instant celebrity just because you start a blog or open a Twitter account (and if you're lucky you'll be spared that). But speak up, because there's still good news to be told.

Yeah, that was his song quoted in the title...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Yep, we're dying again...

NOTE: with my sermons now being posted in a different, church-specific location, this blog can go back to being a blog.

In case you haven't been told lately, fellow mainline Christian, we're dying. Again.

In this case, the gloatingly gleeful evangelical writing the propaganda piece has been so kind as to offer a specific death date. As you can see from the title, we've only got twenty-three Easter seasons left to celebrate, not counting the one we are in now, I guess (although it's not clear if the mainline may pass away in the midst of that twenty-third Easter cycle). Plan your sermons and Easter musical services accordingly.

As you can guess, I am no fan of such garbage. The author may feel entitled to excercise godlike proclamatory powers over a tradition he scorns, but I don't find it that wise to proclaim anything about the future of any corner of the church, my own or anyone else's.

See, I can read statistics and see trends just fine, even if I'm not quite willing to put such a specific countdown clock on the end of my church.

(Note: before anybody tries to defend the author, whom I have no intention of respecting by calling him by name, I saw him try to claim he takes no pleasure in the claim he is making. He is not telling the truth. A person who took no pleasure in such a claim would not make it.)

If you're looking at statistics, mainline churches are on the decline, but they're hardly alone. The author's sainted evangelical tradition has come over the hill and, now that their trajectory is downward, they're picking up speed. To my knowledge the only church type that is growing or at least not declining is the independent or non-denominational church, one beholden to no one but its all-powerful pastor. I'm not sure that there's anything to celebrate here.

If the author is looking for a branch of Christianity to fix, he might consider starting with his own.

He is, after all, an acknowledged leader (for reasons beyond my comprehension) in that branch of Christianity which has most wholeheartedly participated in the election of the current occupant of the office of President of the United States. All (white) branches of the church in the US were complicit in this to some degree, but it had better be acknowledged that, between the endorsements and enthusiastic support of some of its most prominent pastors and the overwhelming vote support of its members, our current president is their doing. That particular immorality should frankly disqualify evangelical leaders from being taken seriously about anything, much less any other church's problems. While the Washington Post may have not quite stooped to the New York Times's level of capitulation in hiring a climate denialist as columnist, printing propaganda pieces like this is not to the Post's credit.

Mainline churches have problems, not least of which is the continuing evangelical urge to keep on kicking the mainline while it's down. But the mainline has gotta do better at being church.

If, as other batches of statistics suggest, the church's fascination with so-called "contemporary" worship is waning, mainline churches have got to do a better job of making the case for worship that doesn't ignore the other 1,950 years or so of the church's history and practice, invites (or even demands) participation beyond sitting or standing and watching, and has that unnerving habit of making people think. Frankly, it's time for the mainline to call into question worship practice that fails at these basic tasks in its proclamation of the gospel. If we are really going down, I say we go down swinging.

So this blog is being repurposed again, to this end.

After its chronicling of my seminary journey, and its period as a sermon repository, it's time for this blog to take up yet another "fool's errand": making the case for the church that everybody likes to pick on.

Evangelicals should probably move on. I have no interest in being lectured to, and I have no problem blocking the hell out of you if you are here only to parrot propaganda. Just shove off if that's you.

My audience is my fellow mainline. My corner of that is the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I was caught when I was falling out of the evangelical branch, having jumped before anybody had a chance to push me. Other mainliners are welcome to chip in. In words I believe were first uttered by Benjamin Franklin, "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

And I'm not interested in hanging, in twenty-three Easters or otherwise.

Remember, he was a mainliner.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: The Sword

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2017, Lent 2A
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39

The Sword

Honestly, this just doesn’t fit.
We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. We sing a whole lot, particularly around Christmastime, about peace – “Sleep in heavenly peace,” or “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,” or there are songs like “I’ve got peace like a river” or any hymn based on St. Francis’s prayer, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” In fact, if you go to the back of the hymnal and look at the indexes, you’ll see that in the Subject Index “peace” actually gets two different sections – “Peace, Personal (Spiritual)” and “Peace, World.”
And it’s not as if Jesus doesn’t have plenty to say about peace: earlier in this gospel, one of the Beatitudes plainly stated “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (5:9). John 14:27 records Jesus’s words to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And in almost all of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the gospels, one of the first things Jesus says is some variant of “Peace be with you.”
And yet, there’s verse 34 in today’s reading, with Jesus saying plain as day, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A sword?
Not what we want to hear.
Even another gospel writer, Luke, seems to be in agreement with us. When Luke records this teaching, he replaces the word “sword” with “division.” Now that sits uncomfortably enough in our ears, but “a sword”? We can’t bear to hear that.
But Matthew pulls no punches. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace,” Jesus says. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And he doesn’t stop there, but goes on to suggest that families will be divided – man against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law – and flat-out upends what we would call “family values” altogether. The final sentence seems hardest of all: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The modern church has built up a veritable cottage industry around being peacemakers and generally promoting the idea that peace is the way to live. But Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience with that idea here. Before we despair too much, though, it’s a good idea to back up and hear what has brought Jesus to this point. What sounds like a total renunciation at first turns out to be a simple statement of fact.
This passage we have heard today is part of a larger unit of teaching with a specific purpose. Jesus is, from the beginning of chapter 10, preparing his twelve disciples to go out and do the teaching, preaching, and healing that he himself had been doing. This teaching and sending is not described here in the same degree of detail as it is in other gospels – Matthew never does record the disciples’ return from this commissioning, for example – but this commissioning does have parallels in the other gospels. On the other hand, Jesus’s teaching in those other gospels is not quite so stark and pointed as what Matthew records.
Already in verse 16 Jesus has warned the disciples that he is sending them out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” and that they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” which suggests that their experience will be a bit more challenging than your average Vacation Bible School. Verse 22 makes the warning more explicit: “you will be hated by all because of my name.” So when Jesus says in verse 24 that “a disciple is not above the teacher,” he is making clear to his disciples that they should, if they are truly following him, expect the same kind of attacks and slander that he has experienced.
What we often forget or overlook here, though, is that the attacks and slander Jesus has experienced and will experience, and that Jesus warns his disciples that they will experience, aren’t from random strangers. Jesus isn’t being challenged by “the world,” that generic boogeyman we in the church love to conjure up; Jesus is being challenged by the religious authorities of his time and place. Beginning in chapter 9 Matthew records the Pharisees, the great advocates of cultic and personal piety and purity in Jesus’s day, increasingly turning their questioning towards Jesus, culminating in the strange accusation in 9:34, after Jesus has cast out a demon, that “by the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” In short, they’re charging Jesus with being in league with the devil.  And Jesus rightly points out in 10:25 that if the religious authorities are willing to say that about Jesus, the disciples can’t expect to be treated any differently.
In the midst of this uncertainty, Jesus takes pains to remind his disciples that for all the likelihood of false accusation and defamation, betrayal and hatred, they are watched and cared for by God, the one who cares even for those two-for-a-penny sparrows. Even that comfort seems a bit late, when Jesus’s idea of reassurance is that the disciples be less concerned over “those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” and more over the one who can kill both. I’m guessing that by now the disciples are wondering what they’ve signed on for after all. Even after the Sermon on the Mount and the healing episodes Matthew describes in chapter 8, this commissioning speech must have felt a bit jarring to a bunch of fishermen. Being scorned as poor dumb fishermen was one thing, but family turning on you? Being attacked by the Pharisees? They couldn’t have expected this.
Then the hard sentence, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” which makes sense in the context in which Jesus has already spoken – if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword will find you. Even if you’re living into that beatitude about “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the sword will find you. But you are not abandoned, any more than those two-a-penny sparrows. And even the losing of one’s life – whether in a literal sense or in the sense of one’s life being truly absorbed into following Jesus in genuine and submitted discipleship – will end with life, true life, real life found, not lost. On the other hand, those whose life is caught up in the world, congruent with the world’s standards – or even the standards of the empire-accommodated church so prominent these days – will find their lives are truly lost.
In the end, then, that hard sentence is just practical advice – know what you’re getting into, know what’s coming, know that the sword will find you. And follow Me anyway.
For the One who cares for us even when the sword comes, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#829            My Faith Looks Up to Thee
#478            Save Me, O God, I Sink in Floods (Psalm 69)
#718            Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said
#661            Why Should I Feel Discouraged?

Credit: (consider it a word of caution...)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon: Don't Eat First

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2017, Lent 1A
Matthew 4:1-11

Don’t Eat First

“When going to hide, know how to get there.”
“And how to get back.”
“And eat first.”
That exchange comes from the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s highly popular Broadway musical Into the Woods. In that show, a mashup of numerous fairy tales, “the woods” are clearly a place of trouble, danger, and even (in the case of one character) death. In the course of the show the characters – the likes of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel (and her mother the witch) – have gone into the woods twice, each time facing the challenge of giants making their way down the aforementioned beanstalk. Whether simply for comic effect or as a demonstration that these characters really didn’t learn much, those lines slip in amidst the patter of a number of similar bon mots of supposed wisdom gained from going into and coming out of the woods.
Taken on their own, those lines suggest that success in the woods is all about preparation: make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back when it’s all over, and make sure your physical needs are well supplied beforehand – “eat first.” By such fairytale standards of wisdom, Jesus’s journey into the wilderness in today’s reading from Matthew was doomed to be a spectacular failure.
Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and we do mean “immediately.” If there were such a phrase as “very immediately,” it would apply here. He certainly didn’t “eat first,” and by the standards of that fairytale wisdom he paid for it, not eating for forty days and forty nights.
And waiting at the other end of that forty days and nights is none other than the Devil, the Accuser, the Tempter as Matthew calls him here. And of course the Tempter goes straight for the hunger: “If you are the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Our fairytale folk might just be tut-tutting by about now: “See, there you go, you didn’t prepare and you’re right into the trap. Shame about that Jesus boy, he had potential.”
Except, of course, Jesus was prepared after all.
However hungry Jesus might have been he could still remember Deuteronomy 8:3, and thus shut the devil down. The Tempter tried again, with the temptation of putting on a great show amplified by his own biblical allusion (thus giving us the quote “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”), only for Jesus to refute Psalm 91:11-12 with more Deuteronomy, this time 6:16’s injunction against putting God to the test. Finally the test of ultimate power is all that the Tempter has left, which of course isn’t really all that tempting to one who, well, already has ultimate power. With one more Deuteronomy verse (6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”) the Tempter is brushed aside and angels appear to minister to Jesus, who, after all, still hasn’t eaten in forty days and forty nights.
We get confused about wilderness experiences. We tend to use that phrase “wilderness experience” when we are facing the consequences of our own actions, of our own falling into temptation, rather than for the act of facing that temptation. We have relied on our own preparations (“know how to get there…and how to get back”) instead of letting our preparation be in our reliance upon God, our immersion in God’s teaching to us, our trust in the Holy Spirit. It does make a difference.
These trials Jesus faces in the wilderness speak not just to immediate temptation to fill immediate need, but they reflect temptations or challenges that were repeated throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry: how to meet the needs of those to whom he ministered (he wouldn’t make bread out of stones for himself, but he’d feed thousands off a few loaves), how to save himself (ultimately, not; Jesus did not flee even the cross), how to draw all people to himself (by being lifted up on that cross, not by bowing down to that Tempter). The wilderness experience was less a moment of temptation, as we often tend to experience it, than a preparation for a lifetime. God’s preparation for us is not our way of preparing for the worst. Yet Jesus comes through, and in just a few verses is healing multitudes in Galilee, even if he didn’t eat first.
Yes, it’s a little ironic that this sermon comes as we will be coming to the table in just a few moments. Here, though, the bread broken and the cup shared point us to that Jesus who faced the wilderness armed with the teaching of scripture and trust in God. The bread here comes as gift and sacrament, not as temptation, that indeed we together might be fed on the stuff of eternal life rather than relying on empty processed foods for our spiritual fortification. For indeed, real wilderness experiences will come, whether we have “eaten” or not.
For the wilderness, and a God who would prepare us for it, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#392            Jesus, We Are Here
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
#525            Let Us Break Bread Together
#167            Forty Days and Forty Nights

Credit:, and yeah, I feel this one...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Message: Be Reconciled

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday  A
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Be Reconciled

This is a great shirt, isn’t it? (Note: see below) Upon receiving it from Mabel Tuma on Sunday I knew it was the coolest piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. Direct from Cameroon.
I am forced to confess that before coming to this congregation and meeting the Tuma family, I didn’t really know a lot about Cameroon, and didn’t really think much about it. When I did notice it, it was mostly around the quadrennial World Cup in soccer, if their national team (the Indomitable Lions – that is an awesome team name, people) made a run in the competition.
As a result, I was never particularly aware of the country’s nearness to the ongoing struggle against the violent group Boko Haram, kidnappers of young girls. I certainly knew nothing of the increasingly strained relations between the country’s French-speaking and English-speaking populations. No clue.
Cameroon would hardly be the only country of which this was, and still is, true for me. I know there is internal conflict in Myanmar, but next to nothing about it. There is also ongoing conflict, with acts of terrorism, in Peru, and Colombia is trying to work out a fragile peace with paramilitary rebel groups in its own borders. Ukraine is dealing with pro-Russian rebels, ongoing civil war in South Sudan, drug war in Mexico...if it isn’t in the Middle East, we can pretty easily ignore it. And we certainly don’t want to look at acts of violence in this country, including that shooting too near my old hometown back in Kansas a few days ago, that we would call terrorism if they happened anywhere else in the world.
We could talk about “white privilege” here – we good Americans don’t have to be concerned with these things, because, well, we’re good Americans. We could talk about a lot of things, but I wonder if we need to be listening to Paul here, and concerning ourselves with being reconciled to God.
This is how this reading from Paul begins – “be reconciled to God.” That’s pretty straightforward, or so it seems. But the context for this instruction is anything but. Paul, a founder of this church in Corinth, had found himself tossed aside as that body fell under the sway of fancier, more uppercrust self-proclaimed evangelists who filled the ears of the Corinthians with something like a first-century equivalent of prosperity doctrine, who presented themselves as classier, more sophisticated, more erudite, more elite leaders than Paul. That had to hurt.
Having earlier in the letter vented his frustrations at the Corinthians, Paul now turns to the crux of the matter, and he has enough wit to know that before charging off to try to patch things up with the Corinthians, it was necessary to remind them of the indispensible and irreplaceable thing; to be reconciled to God, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Of course, Paul then goes right to making his case before the Corinthians as to how he and his colleagues had conducted themselves in their work in Corinth.
But being reconciled to God, really being the righteousness of God because of Christ’s work on the cross, changes us – not just in individual personal ways, but us as a body of believers, us as the body of Christ. When we are seeing the world through the righteousness of God we see all the world, no longer obliterated by our more immediate concerns. We are reconciled to all God’s children, not just the ones in this place or the downtown church or the church out in the county.
We feel with God the grief or the sorrow for warfare, conflict, injustice, and oppression in all places where they happen, not just the ones that show up on our nightly news. Our compassions don’t stop at the city limits or county limits or state line or national borders. We see the world as God’s, and we realize the world’s mortality is our mortality, the world’s suffering is our suffering, the world’s cry for justice becomes our cry for justice.
No, this isn’t your usual Lent theme about ashes or giving something up, except in the sense of perhaps giving up our insular mindset or tunnel vision. Being reconciled to God means everyone matters, and that’s not an easy thing to learn. But perhaps that might be the kind of Lenten fast that would make a difference in our world fraught with conflict and strife. To be so reconciled to God that we see the world as God sees it, we see each other as God sees us all: now that is a challenge for Lent. To live as though Cameroon and Peru and Ukraine and Olathe, Kansas matter; there is a worthy fast.
For real, genuine, eye-opening reconciliation with God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#165 The Glory of These Forty Days
#421 Have Mercy, God, Upon My Life
#166 Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

The shirt in question. Best garment I have now.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017, Transfiguration A
Exodus 24:12-18: Matthew 17:1-9

Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains

Back on Wednesday I had to do a bit of driving around. It was not too much, but it was made better by the fact that Wednesday was a mostly cloudy day, on which the sometimes-oppressive Florida sun was not able to make the car time quite as miserable as it might be otherwise. No squinting, no fumbling for sunglasses. Easy.
I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing.
In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God.
It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night.
There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. I am a musician of sorts, after all.)
So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.
Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness made that drive the other day so bearable is that it obscured the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida).
And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.
(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)
In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!
Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. As it happens, as Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say.
And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud appears.
The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before.
You might notice that at the beginning of each service lately I have referred to that day as the second or fourth or fifth or seventh Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany, of course, marks the occasion of the visit of the Magi to welcome and bring gifts to the child Jesus, an event that theologically can be taken to refer to a revealing of Jesus not just to the people of Israel but to all the world. Not everyone is big on the idea of a “season” of Epiphany, but reviewing the scriptures we’ve heard does seem to suggest a theme of Jesus being revealed:
--Jesus is revealed at his baptism by John, who reluctantly baptizes him so “that all might be fulfilled”;
--Jesus is revealed as he begins his public ministry with acts of healing, so that so many came to him from all across the region to be healed;
--Jesus is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, in the teaching about being salt and light, in his declaration that he comes “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and yet overturns everything we thought we knew about keeping the law, challenging us instead to fulfill the law.
And now in the Transfiguration Jesus is revealed again, in a glory his disciples had not comprehend and we do not comprehend. We see Jesus transfigured; we see Jesus glorified; we see Jesus in his eternal-ness.
As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:
Eternal does not mean "that which has no end" but "that which belongs to the world to come". Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.

That which belongs to the world to come."
At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a nearly impossible time for us, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope.
This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
Listen to him!
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#634            To God Be the Glory
#11              Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
#189            O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
#156            Sing of God Made Manifest

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: ...and Gone to Meddling

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 19, 1965, Epiphany 7A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-34;
Matthew 5:38-48

… and Gone to Meddling

You’ve heard that saying before, right? The one from which this week’s sermon title comes? Take last week’s title, combine it with this one, speak it in a good drawly Southern accent, and you get it to best effect: “Well, now, preacher, you done quit preaching and gone to meddling.” Maybe you’ve heard it before?
I’m not sure if that saying existed in Jesus’s time, but a few of his hearers might have been tempted to invent it at this point in the Sermon on the Mount.
After all, that set of blessings we call the Beatitudes was challenging enough. That talk about being salt and light, and your righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, and Jesus not abolishing but fulfilling the law, was challenging enough. (Note that we just heard a small portion of those laws in the reading from Leviticus. Despite the unfortunate "thou shalt not phrasing, those are good laws, meant towards making us good people -- love your neighbor, welcome the stranger -- but they're not enough?) Those reversal statements from last week’s reading were more than challenging enough. But now, with today’s reading, Jesus really has done quit preaching and gone to meddling.
After all, in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a caution against excessive violence or vengeance in retribution for wrongdoing – any measure of justice or punishment extracted against a wrongdoer was not to be in excess of the wrong committed. In other words, you didn’t decapitate a thief for stealing a loaf of bread. It is, in a way, the ancestor of the “proportional response” ideal that has governed geopolitical relations for many decades (you might have heard that term if you watched The West Wing, for example). But Jesus flat-out rejects such a response.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care that nowadays, if you turn that other cheek, you will get hit again. If you get sued and your coat is taken, and you offer up your cloak also, you won’t have anything to wear. And if you offer that second mile, you’ll be another mile more worn down. Maybe those things wouldn’t have been the case in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, but those cultural strictures really don’t seem to apply anymore. I mean, just in one month I already feel like I’m fresh out of cheeks to turn. Jesus does not seem to care about this.
And if that weren’t bad enough…”But I say to you, Love your enemies and play for those who persecute you…
I really do want to throw up my hands at this point and cry out the way John McEnroe used to do on the tennis court, when a call went against him: “You canNOT be SERious!
These days I have enough trouble even keeping up with who my enemies are – or more accurately whose enemy I am, since sometimes I don’t even know I’m the enemy until someone is in my face about it. Just over the last couple of years I’ve been labeled an “enemy”:
…because I belong to this particular denomination;
…because of a school I’ve attended or at which I’ve taught (and there are several to choose from);
…because of how I vote – or more precisely who I don’t vote for;
…because I don’t choose to watch football anymore;
…because of where I have lived in the past;
And you get the idea. You don’t even get to choose your enemies anymore, and Jesus says we’re supposed to love them. “You canNOT be SERious!
What follows from there seems a bit milder, as Jesus points out that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Well, yeah, we know that, if we ever think about it for long. Admittedly sometimes it feels like, to borrow from an old pop song, “only the good die young,” but when our minds are working properly we know that isn’t true. It’s just that the bad things that happen to good people matter to us, because those are our friends; those are the people that matter to us; those are, if we’re honest, the people we know. We don’t know our enemies. Maybe we even don’t really think we have enemies.
The author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner had an interesting idea about enemies and how we relate, or don’t relate, to the passage we have before us. He offers a few examples from scripture – Cain’s enmity towards Abel, King Saul’s enmity towards David, Saul of Tarsus’s enmity against Christians – and notes that most of us really don’t “do” enmity like that before. He continues:

It would be pleasant to think it's because we're more civilized nowadays, but maybe it's only because we're less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we're less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.

You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they're tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they're vulnerable. You see where they're scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You're still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It's possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can't, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
 In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye and hate, the enemies, than the ones whom—because we're as afraid of ourselves as we are of them—we choose not to look at, at all.[i]

I’ve never met Frederick Buechner, but he seems to know me pretty well.
As much as a struggle as this statement causes, as much as “love your enemies” feels like an impossible burden to bear, we haven’t even gotten to the worst part. That’s in verse 48.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s the NRSV, for real. “Be perfect.”
I know I’m not supposed to go the Greek in sermons, but sometimes you just have to, and in this case the NRSV translators have done us no favors. But what is given in the Greek frankly isn’t quite so simple as the NRSV makes it seem. I’m not sure it’s any better, though.
I could pick on the adjective τελειοι, a derivative of the word τελος which does indeed mean “perfect,” in the sense of “whole” or “complete” or “having achieved the target” more so than in the sense of “without error” that we tend to ascribe to the word. But I think the verb gets us in more trouble.
The verb simply rendered as “be” at the first of v. 48 is the Greek word εσεσθε. It is a form of the word ειμι, which is the most basic Greek world for “be” or “exist.” That’s the word we see in all those “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John – “εγο ειμι,” or “I am.”
Even if you have never looked at or listened to biblical Greek before, you could guess that εσεσθε is a rather different-sounding word than ειμι, and you would be right. It is in fact the future indicative form of that verb. It’s not present tense, and it’s not the imperative mood of the verb we would expect in a command (the way the word “love” in “love your enemies” is a command, in the imperative mood). It’s not Jesus thundering at the crowd “BE PERFECT!!!” (with three exclamation points); it’s Jesus simply making a statement of fact: “You will be perfect (whole) (complete), the way your Heavenly Father is perfect (whole) (complete).
Oh, and one more important grammar point: εσεσθε is plural – second person plural, to be precise. “Y’all will be… .
While I find some solace that I’m not on my own in this, I’m not sure all of these Greek things – the stuff I went to seminary to learn – actually makes this a whole lot better.
Remember that grudge-holding Frederick Buechner was talking about, what we’re likely to do rather than have real rip-snorting enemies? My suspicion is that we prefer it that way. We like nursing those grudges, even if the object of those grudges never knows the anger we’re holding against them. Actually seeing the “enemy” the way Buechner describes – seeing them in all their frailty and woundedness and brokenness – well, we don’t really like that, maybe because it takes our fun away or maybe because we find those things in ourselves too, when we ever allow ourselves to look.
And Jesus is saying – in this forward-looking, matter-of-fact statement – is that we won’t do this anymore, because that’s not how our Heavenly Father is. And I’m really not sure we’re comfortable with that. Even as we know in the deepest darkest recesses of our hearts that it what we need, what we desperately long for is to be whole, to be complete, to be freed of all these burdens of resentment and hatred and woundedness…we don’t want to give it up.
But this is what will be, if this “following Jesus” thing we claim is anything more than lip service. Because we are God’s, we will be like God. Because the Spirit moves us, we will move with the Spirit. Because Christ lives in us, we will live like Christ. And that’s not even a command. Just a statement of fact.
So, are we following Jesus? Do we dare?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, except where noted):
#385    All People That on Earth Do Dwell
#203    Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#771    What Is the World Like
#---       Receive the Stranger (insert)

[i] Frederick Buechner, “Enemy” (published both in Whistling in the Dark and Beyond Words)

Once again, nails it.