Monday, September 25, 2017

Why God Humbles the Entitled

            I have a CD (that’s a compact disc that plays music) in my car of Camp McDowell songs.  Mary Katherine requests that I play the CD anytime she is in the car. She also requests that I not sing along because she can’t hear how the song is supposed to go. Regardless, it warms my heart to know that Mary Katherine will grow up listening to the same camp songs that Jamie and I grew up listening to.

            However, there is one song that I purposely skip. The song is an all-time camp favorite called “Unconditional Love.” And yes, I can already hear you thinking, this poor little girl is going to be censored by her priest-father knows best her entire life. I’m sure the joke will be on me soon enough.
              The reason I skip the song is because it contains a line that borderlines on heresy. I know, right? – she’s too young to hear heresy! Jokes aside, the line in question says, “Give me your unconditional love. The kind of love I deserve.”
Call me old fashioned but this song seems to cater to our sense of entitlement. While ours is a God who gives us unconditional love even if we have entitlement theology, ours is also a God who is in the business of humbling the entitled or prideful.
As we see in two of our lessons for today, God humbles those who think deservedness has something to do with God’s favor and goodness toward us.  In Jonah and Matthew, we encounter characters who are disappointed in God exactly because their relationship with God depends on who is deserving and who is not.
            The story of Jonah presents the dilemma of deservedness in a satirical kind of way. The book of Jonah uses humor and outrageous images to bring out the part of our human nature that wants to classify people as either deserving and undeserving. This book also shows us a God who is funny and who humbles the prideful again and again and again.
Jonah is a reluctant prophet who God has chosen to call the people of Nineveh to repentance. In order to put this into context, this might be like asking a Jewish person to go to Nazi Germany and call the people there to repentance. So of course, Jonah tries to run away from the job. Who wouldn’t?
As he tries to flee from God, Jonah flags down some local sailors who allow him on the ship but things get worse – a storm arises. When the sailors find out that Jonah’s disobedience from God caused the storm, they resolve to throw him overboard. And like a scene from the popular Disney movie Moana, God serves up a big fish to swallow Jonah – talk about humiliating.
For three days, Jonah prays to God and asks for deliverance. Finally, the fish spits Jonah back onto dry ground.  Apparently, fish don’t like it when their food pray so remember that the next time you find yourself inside the belly of a whale!
Again, God tells Jonah to preach to Nineveh. So, he goes to Nineveh and preaches the worst sermon on record, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But for whatever reason, the people of Nineveh are inspired. They repent and return to the Lord and have a big celebration.
Now, one might think Jonah would at least be proud of himself for giving a sermon that turn the hearts of this people. I know I feel good about myself when someone compliments me on a terrible sermon (but remember to humble me from time to time). But Jonah has a different response.
When Jonah learns that God will not destroy the city after all, he says, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah is mad at God because God doesn’t give the evil people Nineveh what they deserve – that is the wrath of God. Jonah is mad because he wants to see the people who killed and oppressed his people suffer. So, Jonah goes off and pouts by himself – in his little booth - because God isn’t being fair. Jonah even says he is angry enough to die.
The story concludes with a funny story about a bush and a worm and a sultry wind. The story leaves us with the thought, if we are still bent on fairness and deservedness, then we will end up like Jonah – a sour man who spends the rest of his life in a scorching heat, pouting in a timeout chair of his own devising.  Sounds like hell to me.
 Ultimately, the lesson tells us that God isn’t ruled by the law of fairness. Rather, God is ruled by the law of mercy – a law that isn’t interested in deservedness, a law will go to any measure to rescue the lost and wayward, a law that will make the righteous swallow their pride or else.
God’s governing principle of mercy and generosity is highlighted even further in today’s lesson from Matthew. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard emphasizes even more that ours is a God who is done wasting his time on the law of fairness or deservedness. As the long arc of our salvation history tells us, everyone will eventually fall on the wrong side of deservedness.   
If the law of Moses could have saved us from sin and death, then why Jesus? If the warnings of the prophets could have saved us, then why Jesus? if self-help books on how to live a long and prosperous life could save us, then why Jesus? But as Christians, we believe Jesus is the only one who can save us from sin and death. Jesus, the only one who is righteous under the law of Moses, makes us righteous because he is merciful.
And Jesus makes us righteous not by demanding we fulfill a law that cannot be fulfilled, but by giving us work in the harvest that he himself sows through God’s goodness and mercy. Like we hear in the Gospel of John, we reap what we do not sow.
In Jesus, our reward is to be laborers in a field bought by the goodness and mercy of God in Christ. Our reward is to be laborers in God’s kingdom – not because we have earned it or deserve it – but because it is God’s good pleasure that we enjoy the fruits of God’s labor.   
As far as I can tell, work in God’s harvest, work in the kingdom of God is without end. So, whether you come at the first hour or the eleventh hour, you are stepping into a realm where the only concept of time is eternity, you are stepping into a realm where all of time and space is redeemed, you are stepping into a realm where the laws of fairness and deservedness are dead and the reward is that God’s goodness and mercy endures.
Episcopal priest and writer, Robert Capon talks about this realm of God and says something like, heaven is when all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up on winning simply waltz up to the bar of judgement [with their ticket paid for by Jesus] and get down to the serious [partying] that makes the new creation go round…a party [so divine] that it drowns out all the party poopers of the world.
In other words, this party doesn’t have room for the Jonah’s of this world – for the proud who refuse to be humbled. This party doesn’t have room for the laborers who are ruled by the law of deservedness. This party doesn’t have room for the Elder Sons of this world. Rather, the work party of God’s kingdom is reserved for those who were never first in this world and for those who have given up trying to be first – those who are willing to be humbled. The only requirement to join the party is to drop the pose and find the fullness of your identity in the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last – Jesus Christ our Lord.
May you know the power of God’s unconditional love, a love that humbles the prideful, a love that makes space for anyone and everyone who is willing to be considered last. May you know the power of a love that cannot be earned or deserved – for yours is a heavenly Father who doesn’t believe deservedness has anything to do with the measure of God’s love, for you – God’s beloved sons and daughters. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Admonishment: An Inconvenient Truth

Audio Recording Not Available

I have the dubious honor of serving on the Disciplinary Board in the Diocese of Alabama. The board exists to address charges brought against clergy who have allegedly violated canon law. In the two years since my election, where I ran unopposed, the board has met exactly zero times! Thanks be to God.
While I present my service on this board in a light-hearted way, I also recognize that groups like this are necessary even in the church. Of course, the board hopes that they never have to meet but the reality of human sin tells us that we will have to at some point. It would be naïve to think that just because one is a Christian or a clergy person they are exempt from causing sin that harms the body of Christ on earth.
In fact, it would be irresponsible for the church not to have committees who address misconduct in the church especially among the clergy. I know I don’t have to tell you about all the times the Church’s witness has been damaged because leaders in the Church have covered up scandal after scandal. Our visible witness to the living Christ depends on our commitment to seek reconciliation, unity, healing, and amendment of life at all times – no matter the cost. The alternative is a death to our living witness to Jesus Christ.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives the disciples a process to follow when they notice someone who is harming the body of Christ. Jesus says if someone is actively harming the body of Christ, you should first talk to that person face to face (not through a text or a tweet!), if that doesn’t work, bring a friend with you to talk to that person, and if that doesn’t work, bring the charge before the whole church, and if that doesn’t work, then that person must be considered a Gentile or tax-collector (aka - not a member of the church).

The introduction to Title IV, the part of the canon which the Disciplinary Board is bound to, helps highlight what Jesus’ teaching on discipline is all about. It states, “The Church and each Diocese shall support their members in their life in Christ and seek to resolve conflicts by promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life and reconciliation among all involved or affected.”
Like with the teaching of Jesus, the canon isn’t simply about finding someone guilty or not-guilty. Rather, this teaching on discipline is all about keeping the faithful together as one body. The process calls the church to do everything she can to call the wayward to repentance and amendment of life so that the body can be whole.
We know this to be the point of the passage because just before this teaching on holding others accountable Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep. Today's passage is the instruction manual on how to call the lost sheep back to the herd. We call the sinner to repentance not only for their sake but also for the sake of the other ninety-nine….for the sake of the whole
It is no secret that we live in a society that avoids confronting one another at all costs. We tell our friends and family about it. We harbor resentment. We resort to passive aggression as a form of retribution. We are prone to do everything but admonish the other with humility and wisdom.  
And according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not confronting another with their sin is an act of cruelty.  Bonhoeffer writes, “Nothing could be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin.” (aka: let someone continue to be destructive) He goes on to say, “nothing could be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a sister/brother from the path of sin.” (aka: tough love)
I know that admonishment doesn’t always seem like an act of compassion. When I try to explain to Mary Katherine why her actions were destructive, she often replies, “But Daddy you are being mean to me right now too.” And just because I am twenty-nine years older, doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes have a hard time hearing admonishment as a form of compassion.  
Why is it so hard to hear a word of judgment? Why is it so hard to admit that we have messed up? What are we so afraid of? Why do we get so defensive when someone calls us to recognize the error of our ways?
I feel that the short answer to these questions says, “because if we admit that we messed up, we are admitting that we are imperfect and if we are imperfect, then we might not be loved as much as we were loved before.”
We live in this fear because we live in a society where our image is shaped by what we have done and by what we have left undone. And if we admit to our shortcomings, then our image suffers. If we admit our sin, then we might not be seen as a good, upstanding member of the community. We might be reduced to the thief or con man or adulterer and the list goes on.  
But there is something that is more destructive than the sin itself. Our faith in Jesus believes that even the worst sin is redeemable for our image is hid with Christ in God. However, we cannot claim that sin as redeemable if we do not name it and seek forgiveness and amendment of life. Our pursuit to cover up or run from our sin is more destructive than the sin itself.
In case you haven’t noticed, humanity has this complex where we think we can outrun sin. We are reminded of this part of our human nature in the Creation Story when Adam and Eve try to hide from God. Like Adam and Eve, we try to veil our sin.  Sooner or later our sin will catch up with us all.  Sooner or later our vain attempts to cover up sin will be exposed before God and everyone else.
But the good news is that we have a God who is always willing to cover us with his grace and mercy (God gave Adam and Eve new clothes in the garden). We have a God who is always reminding us that we are beloved children no matter how serious the sin. We have a God who will go to any measure to restore the dignity of human nature and make us a people who live together in unity with God and neighbor.
Ultimately, God accomplishes this unity and reconciliation in Jesus. On the cross of Jesus Christ, humanity is stopped in her tracks and confronted with the truth that human sin – no matter how innocent – destroys the body of Christ. On the cross, humanity is also confronted with the truth that ours is a God whose property is always to have mercy.  Jesus says, Lord forgive them. And on the third day, when Jesus rises from the dead, we are given reason to hope that we can live beyond our wounds.
The faith of Jesus Christ gives us permission to confess our sins. We can stop running. We can turn around and fall into the arms of a God who makes all things new. We can put our full faith in trust in a God who sent his only Son into this world to save sinners.  
At the foot of the cross, we can look a brother or sister in the eye and say, “Thank you for telling me how I have hurt you and the Church. I am sorry. I want to make this better. Tell me how I can do better.” Of course, this confession will hurt because actions have consequences. But the way of the cross reminds us that growth and newness of life happens through the pain – not around it. The promise of Jesus is the promise of life beyond your wounds, beyond your sin, and beyond your death.
            In Christ, we become a new creation. In Christ, the world around us becomes a new creation. In Christ, we are free to see ourselves and each other not as miserable sinners who are desperately climbing on top of each other to get out of the hole humanity has made for itself but rather as people who rejoice in a God who pulls us out of that hole with a love that breaks the power of sin and death.

            May we have the grace and courage to admonish one another with the compassion of Christ. May we have the grace and courage to hear a word of judgment not as a word of condemnation, but as an invitation to experience mercy and newness of life. May we know that our image is completely and totally wrapped up in the image of God in Christ. Amen.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Take Up Your Cross

            If you have been tuned into the news this week, then you have seen a lot of heartbreaking stories coming out of Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  I am particularly saddened by the images of small children who have been affected by these floods. The look of terror and confusion on their faces makes my heart hurt for my own children. And worst of all, my heart breaks for the children who have lost their parents in these floods.
I just can’t imagine. Words fail to comprehend this kind of pain and suffering. This kind of stuff isn’t supposed to happen. Our children are supposed to grow up in a world full of hope and possibilities. But what are you supposed to say to a child who just lost their mom or dad in a flood? How can you tell them we have a God who is good? Where is the hope?
In the last weeks and months, I have become acutely aware of the outrageous pain and suffering of this world – as well as the pain and suffering some of you are going through in your own personal lives. The temptation is to shut ourselves off to the pain and suffering. It is too much to bear. The temptation is to find escape, to turn the radio or TV to a different channel, to read a magazine instead of opening the newspaper. While it isn’t healthy to be exposed to this kind of news all the time, we can’t completely shut ourselves off to the pain and suffering of the world.
In today’s lesson, Jesus informs his disciples that the Messiah must undergo pain and suffering and even death before rising again on the third day. Peter just can’t imagine that suffering and pain is an integral part of God’s plan of salvation. Like us, Peter wants to change the channel. Surely, there is a way to avoid it all. Peter says to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
After Jesus scolds Peter for his response, he tells the disciples that there is no other way. Jesus tells the disciples that the way of pain and suffering, the way of the cross is the only possible way forward. Jesus tells his disciples that the way to life isn’t around the pain but through the pain.
The reality of pain and suffering in this world is so great that it cannot be ignored so great that it cannot be minimized. If we close ourselves off to the brokenness of this world, we then close ourselves off to the gift of salvation. We close ourselves off to the possibility of hope.
Over the last few weeks, I have explored with you how the cross of Jesus Christ is constructed out of humanity’s love of power and control. I explored how the cross reveals just how totally destructive human sin is. This week I want to explore how the cross of Jesus Christ exposes humanity’s on-going need for humility and compassion.
For those of us who have most of what we need – food, shelter, transportation, etc. – it is sometimes easy to believe we can get through this life without any help. I know I like to be self-sufficient. I don’t like to ask others for help. I take pride in the fact that I can care of my family.
But there are times when I come to that place where I feel completely helpless. There are times when I know there is no way that I can dig myself out of a hole on my own. And God forbid, there are times when I must cry for help. There is no other way out.
The images and stories that we are getting out of Houston show us this side of the cross. The images and stories that we are getting out of Houston take us to the cross of Jesus Christ where we are reminded just how needy we are as human beings, where we are reminded of just how helpless we really are.
Houston reminds us that food, shelter, transportation can be taken away from us at any minute. Houston reminds that even the most self-sufficient people can be left completely helpless and vulnerable. Houston reminds us that the only way we can be pulled out of the ditch are from people who are attentive and responsive to the pain and suffering of the world.
As I am sure you have also seen on the news, there are heartwarming stories coming out of Houston. People are doing whatever they can to rescue those in danger. People are doing whatever they can to provide relief. I saw a video of a woman who was rescued on a wave runner.
Agencies like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, FEMA, and Episcopal Relief and Development are already on the ground providing services. Every sector of our society is doing what they can to reach out in compassion for those who have been rendered helpless by Harvey. And nobody is asking, do they deserve to be saved?  Their need for help is the only requirement.
Likewise, our need for help is the only requirement for our salvation. God did not send his only Son to die for a people who can help themselves. And God never stopped to ask who is deserving. Rather, God sent his only Son to undergo suffering and death to lift the helpless (aka the whole world) back to life. God sent his only Son to meet us in our suffering and carry us back to life with a compassion and love that lives beyond the cross, beyond the grave.
The cross of Jesus Christ reminds us that God is both attentive and responsive to the outrageous pain and suffering of this world. Even more, the cross reminds us that there are no words that can comprehend the pain and suffering of the world – only a God who responds to outrageous pain with an outrageous love on the cross of Jesus Christ can help us begin to comprehend hope during even the darkest of hours. The cross of Jesus Christ reminds the world that hope shines in the darkness.

Now it is our turn to respond with that outrageous love and remind the world of God’s story of hope in Christ. We who live beneath the cross of Jesus Christ know that humility and compassion and mercy are the only way forward in a world that is terribly broken. We who live beneath the cross know that Houston is not the only place where the cross of Jesus Christ is emerging today.
The cross of Jesus Christ emerges anywhere there is suffering and pain and hopelessness. The cross of Jesus Christ emerges anywhere there is violence and hatred and injustice. The cross of Jesus Christ emerges anywhere people are crying for help.
May we have the grace and courage to not only open ourselves up to the pain of the crosses emerging in this world but also the grace and courage to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into the storms of this life where incomprehensible suffering is transformed into an undeniable hope. Amen.