Monday, August 27, 2012

Gut Theologies-Right or Wrong?

In the Gospel lesson for Sunday Jesus quotes Isaiah, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions."  This quotation reminds me of another quotation from a book on conflict management that says something like, "our gut theologies are usually never wrong but they are never right."  I take this to mean that our instincts about life point to some kind of truth about how we are feeling.  However, the general truths about how we are feeling are limited.  Why?  Because we can't see the whole picture (on a personal and global level).  In the same way, human traditions are never totally wrong but they are never completely right.  Human traditions are limited in the same way that gut theologies are limited. 

Take for example the complaint of the Pharisees in the lesson for Sunday (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23).  They had very specific human traditions in regards to the washing of hands, among other things.  This human tradition was the way in which they were freed from being defiled by the unclean.  Originally, this human tradition separated the Jews from the Pagans.  This tradition developed during a time when the Jews needed to be distinguished from the Pagans.  In other words, this gut theology helped the Jews survive during dark times.  In that regard, this theology is not wrong.  However, this theology is limited to a very specific people during a very specific time.

Our gut theologies help us get from point A to point B.  Inherently, there is nothing wrong with that.  In many ways, our gut theologies help us survive very difficult times.  They give us what we need at a very specific time but they will never last.  At some point, we will be confronted with a greater truth about life that destroys our gut theologies.  In time, our gut theologies can become destructive to us and to others.  Sooner or later, our gut theologies will become idols (i.e. fill the place where God means to be).

While my gut theologies might be right for a specific time and place, they can't possibly be right in the context of all time and place.  While I might do something that is right for me and my family, I could quite possibly do something to negatively affects my community and the world.  In addition, who am I to impose my gut theologies onto how others should live?  I don't know their whole situation.  I don't know what it is really like to be them--whoever them is.  I am not God!    

Our heavenly Father has given us a way through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit to reframe our gut theologies in the context of the entire picture, of a completed creation.  More specifically, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, can put to death our gut theologies and give life to a theology that completes all time, a theology that is everlasting in nature.  Like the Pharisees, I still may fall into the trap of hypocrisy.  However, there is a way through Christ that is leading me into the knowledge of all truth and love. 

I pray that I may daily walk in the way of Christ and be freed from my gut theologies--not because they are wrong but because there is a better way.       



Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Eat Me

I heard about a t-shirt with an Eucharistic Icon of Jesus with a caption that says, "Eat Me."  If I am not mistaken the shirt was worn by Episcopal college students at the University of Georgia.  As you might have guessed, many took offense at the shirt.  Why?  I'm not sure.  Maybe it was too graphic.  Maybe it was too 'in your face.'  Maybe it was too disrespectful.  Disrespectful to whom I wonder?  Certainly this wasn't disrespectful to Jesus?  Like or not, Jesus said to his followers, Eat Me (NRSV translation: eat my flesh).  These are red letter words in scripture.

Sunday is the last of six lessons from John's Gospel that talk about bread (for a while).  By now the bread sermons are getting a little stale, but the Bread of Life will never go stale (take a moment to shake off that silly pun, remind yourself that puns are the second lowest form of humor, okay it is safe to move on).

These red letter words from Jesus are hard to accept.  Jesus knows this because he asks, "Does this offend you?"  What bothers us the most about this passage?  I imagine a lot of things, but I want to talk a minute to reflect how these words of Jesus expose our biggest fear-not having enough.

It is has been said that we live in a consumer culture.  I would argue that we have always been consumers but it is easier to consume today (at least in middle-upper class USA).  Even so, whether we have a little or a lot, more never seems to be enough.  More wasn't enough for our ancestors in the wilderness.  More isn't enough for me most of the time.

As Walter Brueggamann said at a lecture I attended, we live by the narrative of scarcity, under the assumption that we will never have enough.  He said this in a room full of people whose parishes had millions of dollars in an endowment.  I'll just say the whole scene was kind of interesting.

We are scared to death that we might not have enough.  This fear drives our economy.  Scarcity is the key word in the definition of economy.  In this world, scarcity drives everything we do.  Sometimes scarcity drives us to do things we might not otherwise do (steal, cheat, kill, etc.).

However, Jesus is trying to show us another way.  Jesus is giving us the narrative of abundance, the assumption that in the flesh and blood of Jesus there will always be enough.  Therefore, he says eat me and there will always be enough.  Jesus wants to live under the assumption of abundance.  Jesus wants to show us that we have no reason to be afraid if we live in him.     

Having faith in these words is difficult because they go against reality as we know it.  Then again, Jesus is trying to show us a new reality, a new way of life.  A new way of life can be offensive and difficult.  Jesus' new way of life means giving up all of ourselves to God.  The narrative of scarcity assumes that we are in control.  The narrative of abundance can only mean that God is in control.  Under our own power we will never have enough.

Are we willing to offer to God all that we are and all that we have and say, "that is enough."  That is enough for God.  Why isn't it enough for us?

I thank God that through Jesus Christ we have a way to move from not enough to enough.   



Monday, August 20, 2012

Where is your Jesus button?

Proper 15, Year B, All Saints’, John 6:51-58
Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
A question that has been on my mind a lot lately asks, “Who is Jesus?”   
When I was a small boy, Jesus was the imaginary person I talked to before bed.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  As a ten year-old in Sunday school class, Jesus was whoever I made him out to be.  All I needed was a coloring book and a box of crayons.  Jesus had blonde hair, blue eyes and wore red tennis shoes. 
When I was fifteen, Jesus granted healing through Christian community during tough times.  He gave me what I didn’t have.  As a seventeen year old, distraught by profound grief over significant loss, Jesus was everywhere but with me.  He answered everyone else’s prayers but mine. 
During my time in college, I read books about Jesus.  He was a mysterious character in the greatest story ever told.  As a seminarian, Jesus was the bread and wine.  He was found most clearly at the Lord’s Table.  Today, Jesus is love perfected.  He is always challenging how I go about living.  Tomorrow, I hope I discover a new truth about my Savoir.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.     
Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright says that many Christians use Jesus in the same way we use a computer.  In essence he says that we use a computer in only the ways that we need to use a computer:  email, writing, surfing the web, shopping, etc.  He goes on to say that there is so much we don’t use on our computers.  I would also add that sometimes we even misuse computers.
As I reflect on my spiritual journey, I recognize that I typically only use Jesus when I need him.  In other words, I press the Jesus button when I need help.  While this might be a good place to start, I also recognize that this kind of treatment of Jesus severely limits how I see him breaking into my life.  I do not take full advantage of everything about Jesus.  In addition, I sometimes use Jesus for purposes that he never intended.  For example, I impose my will and my beliefs onto Jesus.  Like I did when I was ten, I sometimes make Jesus into who I want him to be.  You might call this idolatry.
Do I not trust that Jesus knows what I really need best?  What am I afraid that I might discover?  For this reason, I love the concluding collect at the end of the prayers of the people that says, “accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” 
This prayer prioritizes things for me.  Instead of using Jesus in the way I think I need him, I am reminded to open my eyes to the Jesus who knows what I need at all times.  I am reminded that when I live a life with Christ, I have no reason to be afraid.  I have no reason to be ashamed. 
So, how did the people who lived when Jesus lived use Jesus?  As you might have guessed not too much differently than we do.  For the crowds in John’s Gospel, Jesus is the guy they go to when they are hungry.  For others, Jesus is the guy they call on when they are sick with disease.  Others seek him out because he is a great prophet and teacher.  Some confront him just to call him names or to criticize him. 
  As it is for us, these early witnesses had a hard time understanding what Jesus meant when he said, “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  The Jews argued among themselves.  The crowds couldn’t see past surface level.  The disciples simply say, “Whoa! This is a difficult teaching.”  We do the same today.  Biblical scholars still argue about what Jesus meant.  It is hard to translate an earthly image into a heavenly reality.  This is a difficult teaching.  Whatever we take away, I believe he is trying to get us to see that true life comes from God—not from earthly things. 
It is often said that Jesus is mysterious.  Again as one scholar notes, Jesus is not mysterious because we know very little about him.  Instead, Jesus is mysterious because of what we do know about him.  Jesus is mysterious because of statements like the one in today’s passages that says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”  I don’t think Jesus is trying to be difficult here.  I believe he is trying to show us a new reality, a new way of life.  In order to do that, Jesus must shake the foundations of our earthly reality.  The next question then asks, “Are we willing to let the words of Jesus shake our world and challenge everything?” 
As far as I can tell, we have a couple of options.  We can chalk everything up to symbolism and metaphors and say that is a nice story now I can go back to living like I always do.  Or we can take Jesus seriously and let his truth transform our way of life.  We can let Jesus challenge the assumptions we have about the world and be changed into his likeness.  We can do as he says and eat his flesh and drink his blood.  As one commentator notes, “his truth wants to burrow deep within us to consume us as we consume him.” 
What is the truth about Jesus?  I am really tempted to tell you the truth about him but I don’t think that is what I am supposed to do.  As a preacher, I believe Jesus wants me to help you find the truth about him in your own flesh and bones.  I believe this because I believe this is the way in which he taught.  I can tell you the truth about Jesus until I am red in the face.  However, I don’t think it will make any sense until you experience his truth in your own life.
You might be asking, “So where do I start?”  I’ll give you hint, by being here today you’ve made a good first step.  Your presence here today exposes you to the ministry of Christ’s Word and Sacrament.  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about the importance of worship in regards to following the will of God.  In other words, Paul says that our worship orients us toward the truth about Christ.  But to really start to live and breathe by the flesh and blood of Jesus, I believe we have to take another step.  
When Jesus says, eat my flesh and drink my blood, I believe he is saying the only way to understand the truth about me is to experience everything about me by living in me.  In my experience, I do best to experience everything about Jesus when I worship God, when I study scripture and theology, when I work for God’s purposes, and when I have fun in a community that is serious about following Jesus.
 In short, my worship and study of Jesus informs and shapes how I actually live in community with others.  If I don’t worship and study, I am simply doing what I always do without a sense of gratitude toward God.  If I don’t put my faith to work, I simply have a bunch of ideas about how life should look and become grumpy and judgmental towards others.  Jesus makes most sense to me when I worship, study, work, and play in Christian community.  If you are new to All Saints’, join us next week for the annual Ministry Fair to find out more. 
In the meantime, I challenge you to ask the same questions that I have.  Who is Jesus for me?  Am I willing to let the words and the flesh of Jesus change me forever?  How might I go about eating his flesh and drinking his blood?  How can I experience all of Jesus and find ultimate truth for my life?
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.  I am the True Vine.  I am the Bread of Life.   I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I think Jesus is trying to tell us something about himself.  What if Jesus is who he says he is?  What if we accepted Jesus for who he reveals himself to be?  I believe Jesus accepts us for who we really are.  I believe Jesus wants to use every part of our being so that we me experience true joy and true life, so that we may abide in his truth.  What if we used all of Jesus?  How might our lives be changed forever? 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Bible, Jesus, and Golf

I believe it is possible to find Jesus in all the ordinary places of life and that includes on the golf course.  I realize that this might sound insane to many of you, but I hope that you have a chance to meet Jesus in the things you love to do outside of worship.  While it is important the we worship God and get to know God in the context of worship and study, I think everything starts to make sense when we apply our experience in church to everyday life.

In particular, I have found a lot of energy in seeing the stories of Jesus come to life on the golf course.  For example, when I yell Fore! on the golf course, I can't help but see the startling image of John the Baptist yelling Repent! in the wilderness.  As I have grown older, I have had to say Fore! in a lot more ways than one.  With my golf game going southward, I have found that applying Bible stories to golf stories gives me an added incentive to get out on the course again and experience something new.
As Eugene Peterson notes, “Reading the Bible isn’t a religious act.  It is a human act.”  I take this to mean a couple of things.  First of all, the story of the Bible isn't just an ancient story about ancient people.  The story of the Bible tells the story of the relationship between humanity and God.  We are a part of that story too.  How are we much different than David and Paul and Job and Peter?  Secondly, I take Peterson to mean that we aren’t supposed to figure the whole story on the first—we aren’t God.  

As it goes in golf, it is ridiculous to think you can master anything on the first try.  Reading the Bible takes practice and sometimes reading scripture can be frustrating.  Maybe you have reached this point of frustration before and thus quit.  That is totally fine and normal.  If that is the case, it may be time to change your swing and approach the Bible in a different way.  Maybe you don’t need a swing change, just some time away to gain some perspective.

Realizing that scripture is relevant in your life today isn’t always the easiest thing to do.  In the same way, getting all the parts of your golf game to work at once isn't easier either.  When it does happen like that, it is a wonderful feeling.  I have found no greater joy in life than when I experience the Word of God alive in my flesh.  It feels like I’ve just made an eagle.  


                                          (Hole 15 at Augusta National.  In 1935 Gene Sarazen 
                                           made Double-Eagle.  I guess that felt like heaven.)

I can do everything right and still only make par.  However, it takes luck added to skill to be able to make eagle.  Maybe you got a lucky bounce.  Maybe you miraculously holed out from the middle of the fairway.  Whatever the case, when I make eagle I always feel like I came away with something that I can't articulate.
Finding joy in reading scripture happens in a similar way.  There is a certain level of skill that is required in understanding the text but there is also the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that makes reading the Bible special.  In my experience of reading scripture, I have to believe that the ultimate truth is given by the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that is impossible to articulate with words.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Jesus: Inclusive or Exclusive?

Ever since I can remember, the word exclusive, used in association with the Church, Jesus, and Christianity, has been seen in a negative way.  The result of this negative connotation is obvious, at least in the Episcopal Church.  Our signs say, "the Episcopal Church Welcomes You."  Church mission statements use inclusive language in almost direct response to any type of exclusive approach to Christianity.  The word exclusive in the church seems to be reserved for the short-sighted, Bible-thumping fundamentalist.  

For those of us who preach radical hospitality, wasn't Jesus inclusive even exclusively inclusive?  We know Jesus to be the one who reaches out to everyone--both the victim and the oppressor.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors and had a conversation with a Samaritan woman.  Jesus is anything but exclusive, right?

I took a class in seminary that investigated three ways in which people approached the nature in which we are saved.  On the first day of class we took a poll, are you an exclusivist (salvation by Christ alone), inclusivist (salvation through Christ but...), or pluralist (multiple paths to God's salvation)?  It was clear that nobody wanted to be labeled exclusivist.  While I enjoyed the class, I think it is dangerous to camp out in any of these definitions.  In other words, we risk adding another layer of separation to an already complicated issue which makes issues even more complicated.      

I think that the polarizing way in which the word exclusive has been used limits how we read texts like the one we have this week from John 6:41-51.  When I say limited, there is the danger of boxing ourselves into one meaning and that is especially unhelpful when there is really another meaning to the text.

The Gospel writer continues his discourse on bread and continues to recall the words of Jesus that say, "I am the bread of life."  In addition statements like, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me" are found often in this discourse.  Other such statements from Jesus say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

In the context of our atmosphere today, it is not difficult to slap the label elusive on such texts.  So, is Jesus exclusive?  I believe this is the wrong question to be asking.  As Gordon Fee would say, what is the plain reading of this text?  What is actually being communicated here without the added layer of suspicion?

In the previous section of John you will remember that the crowds wanted to know what they could do to perform the work of God.  So at this point in scripture there was an idea that you had to work in order to gain God's favor.  However, Jesus tells the crowd that this is not the case.  I believe that Jesus is telling people that it is a gift to know God through Jesus.  Like the hymn Amazing Grace says, "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and to believe."

We don't come to believe because an apologist convinced us or because of our intellectual power.  We don't come to believe because we figured out all the intricate details regarding how we are saved by God.  We come to believe through the grace of God that opens our eyes to follow Jesus who is the way, the truth, the life.

Again, what is our job as Christians?  We are called to follow Jesus and trust that he is leading us into all truth, a truth that reveals a new creation and a new way of life on earth as it is in heaven.  We are called to witness to the truth we have found in following Jesus in hopes that all may believe because of the Father who sent Jesus.

While you might have a strong argument to say Jesus was being exclusive or inclusive, I hope you don't get stuck here because there is a bigger truth to be considered.  And the truth is this, isn't it a wonderful gift to know God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ.

Whether you say exclusive or inclusive (maybe even both!), Jesus is clear about who he is when he says, "I am the Bread of Life.  I am the True Vine.  I am the Good Shepherd.  I am the way to the Father.  I am the way, the truth, and the life."  It is truly a gift to follow Jesus.  I can only hope that all people find this same joy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Where was God?

Where was God?

This question seems to surface on a national level whenever something tragic happens.  For those in my generation, we first asked this question on 9.11.01.  Most recently, many have asked this question in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.  I also realize that this question is asked everyday on a personal level. 

The assumption of this question suggests that God wasn’t there when the tragedy happened.  On one extreme, I can hear people crying, “Why didn’t the all-powerful, all-knowing God knock the airplanes out of the sky?”  On the other extreme, “Tragedies like this prove once again that God doesn’t exist.” 

The short answer to this question from a Christian perspective says that God is with all who suffer because of Christ crucified.  God gave his only begotten son to live among us, suffer with us, and die for us to show us that He is with us always.  On the third day he rose again to show us that death and suffering is not the end of the story.  However, this answer does not seem to satisfy the response of the two extremes listed above (God let it happen or God doesn’t exist).   

In his book Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright helps me see the bigger picture.  In a nutshell, he would say that these two responses don’t understand God for who He really is.  In addition, he would say that the two responses ask God to prove himself.  However, Jesus didn’t come into the world to prove himself.  Jesus came to heal.  The following argument is based on what I have taken away from Wright’s book (I know I will make a lot of dangerous assumptions in efforts to keep this short and hopefully give you something to chew on.  For a better reading--read Wright's book).

First, I want to consider the first response, ‘why didn’t God stop the tragedy?”  The general assumption here is that we have a God who will come in and smash the enemy.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites are waiting on a God to free the people from oppression with a great king or prophet.  Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the story of Moses with the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.  In short, the Israelites are looking for an earthly king who will defeat the oppressor. 

The second response, “God doesn’t exist.”  The general assumption here is that the pride of humanity is all that sustains this world.  In scripture, this picture is painted with the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans.  In short, the tyrant plays god and is out to prove their dominance by force. 

Therefore, it is not hard to understand why the answer of Jesus Christ crucified leaves so many unsatisfied because on both accounts Jesus challenges the assumptions about who God is.  On one hand, Jesus isn’t the mighty king that kills off the enemy (isn’t the one who knocks planes out of the sky).  And on the other hand, Jesus doesn't seem to be the God that would threaten Roman rule (he doesn't prove himself at the trial).

Jesus came into the world to show us a new creation, a place of healing for all.  In order for Jesus to offering healing to all, he can’t take sides.  Again, this truth is seen clearly in his trial when both the Jews and Romans (and for that matter, all of humanity) put him to death because they were unsatisfied with the answers to the questions.  If you look at Jesus’ trial closely, you will see that they want him to prove himself, but Jesus didn’t come to prove himself.  Jesus came to offer healing to a broken world.

Jesus didn’t come to smash the enemy through force.  If he did, how would his response be any different than the oppressor?  How could healing for all take place?  Jesus came to show that true kingship and true leadership come in the form of a servant, not through dominance over the weak. 

The victory of Jesus is a defeat over the spiritual forces that cripple all of humanity (Romans and Jews, religious skeptics/atheists and Christians, liberal Christians and conservative Christians).  In order to do that, Jesus resisted the temptation to play God (even though He was God) and he laid down his life for the weak (even though He was King).  The victory of Jesus gives the world a new reality to live by, a reality filled with hope and life.  This reality is available to all who simply follow the One who loves perfectly. 

God is made available to us all of us through the work and person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to be with the sinners and tax collectors as well as with the weak and vulnerable.  He preached servant leadership and forgiveness.  Jesus’ love does not try to transform the world by proving himself.  Rather, the love of God in Jesus wants to heal all people from anger, sadness, envy, and pride.  I believe that the type of healing that Jesus offers to humanity is the only way in which the world will be freed from violence and oppression.