Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Careful Speech

I recently came across an article published by The Babylon Bee which writes Christian satire. It’s like The Onion for church people. The article was entitled “Man Unsure If He’s Persecuted Because He’sa Christian or Because He’s a Massive Jerk.” After a brief chuckle, I was immediately reminded of the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 which essentially says, if our Christian witness is done without love, we are a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.
Unfortunately, there are many Christians who forget that God in Christ calls us first, not to right belief, but to right relationship with each other. Right belief always follows right relationship – a relationship perfected through Christ.
This does not mean, however, that right belief is not important. Right belief is critical to the Christian identity. But we must never forget where right belief comes from – a loving relationship with God and our neighbor made available through Jesus Christ.
Theologian and scholar, Stanley Hauerwas comments on orthodoxy (right belief) saying, “When orthodoxy becomes defensive rather than a form of love and proclamation it denies its own reality…Rather, orthodoxy is displayed as an act of love that takes the form of careful speech.” In other words, don’t be a jerk about your Christian faith.
As I reflect on my own struggles to believe the tenants of our faith, I have learned that careful speech comes from listening and asking a lot of questions. I heard it said that faith and doubt are like dance partners. If handled with prayer, our doubts can lead us to a deeper faith.
 I don’t believe God expects a thinking and inquisitive people to blindly accept truth claims that are handed down from on high. If he did, then why send his only Son to die so that we might know ultimate truth?  
Instead, I believe in a God who wants us to grapple with these lofty truths as a way of drawing closer to God and each other. God sent Jesus into the world so that humanity might grow in relationship with the One who holds the truth.
 Think about a student and teacher relationship. What does a student learn if their teacher gives them all the right answers to a test? They might gain knowledge of the answers, but they gain little opportunity to develop a relationship with the subject matter.
 Conversely, what does a student learn if their teacher gives them the resources to search for the answers? Hopefully, the student will learn how to ask good questions. The student will learn how to think analytically. Most of all, the student will develop a relationship with the subject matter.
In the Episcopal Church, we believe God has given us three primary tools by which to grow in relationship with God’s self. These tools form what are commonly called the three-legged stool – scripture, tradition (church teachings), and reason (intellect). Basically, these three resources are what help Christians grow in relationship with our subject – God Almighty, and hopefully “careful speech” will follow.
 In the end, I hope our search for the truth of God revealed most clearly through Jesus Christ will lead us to a place where we speak truth with both conviction and compassion, with both passion and gentleness, with both firmness and kindness. As the book of Revelation alludes, God’s truth is a likened to the power of a lion and made known through the gentleness of the lamb who was slain.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Way Home

            There is a great scene in Apollo 13 where astronaut Jim Lovell, who is played by Tom Hanks, talks about an instrument malfunction on his airplane while flying over the Sea of Japan. To make matters worse, the aircraft carrier’s lights were off because of combat conditions.
            It was pitch black. He couldn’t see. His radar was jammed. He couldn’t use the radio. When he turned on the map light, everything in the cockpit shorted out – instruments, lights, he didn’t know what his altitude was. Because he was running out of fuel he thought about ditching into the ocean.
            He looked out over the ocean and saw what he described as a phosphorescent green carpet. It was algae that was churned up in the wake of a ship. It was leading him home. Lovell reflected, “if my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, then there is no way I would have been able to see that. You never know what events are to transpire to get you home.”
            The opening verses of today’s gospel lesson read, “After John was arrested.” In other words, the cockpit lights have shorted out on the people of Israel. John the Baptist, the instrument that is supposed to point the people of Israel home, is gone.
            If you remember, John created a lot of excitement for the people of Israel. He looked like one of the prophets of old crying out in the wilderness. After 400 years of silence, God’s promise is once again at hand. There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. There is a way out of the oppressive regime of Rome.
            John announces a new way home that begins with confession and repentance, a way found through the baptism of Jesus. But after the baptism, Jesus goes off into the wilderness to be tested by Satan.  And then John is arrested. The cockpit lights have shorted out and the dream of a redeemed Israel is once again dead.
            But there is something glowing in the darkness and it is much more impressive than a phosphorescent green carpet. The people remember that John said something about a highway for our God. John said, there is one more powerful than I coming after me, and I am not worthy to stoop down to untie the thong of his sandal. They remember there is a Jesus of Nazareth who is the Messiah.
            John was right.  Jesus arrives in Galilee and says, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Now that all eyes are off John the Baptist the people can see more clearly how God’s plan of salvation is taking shape.  And God’s plan will not rely on conventional wisdom to take them home.
            Instead, God’s plan is fulfilled through a king who was born without any pomp and circumstance. God’s plan is announced in remote fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. And as we see in today’s lesson, God’s plan relies on simple fishermen whom Jesus will make fish for people.  
God’s plan can only truly be seen when our man-made instruments of salvation are shorted out. There will be no great kings with extensive military experience to come and save the day. There will be no great army with the best training and equipment. Again and again, even the best and brightest crumble under the weight of power and control.
Instead, the One who will save the people leads with humility and mercy. The One who will save the people leads with a heart of justice - not a justice found in the court of law but a justice that starts by lifting up the lowly and most vulnerable in society. And the One who will save the people recruits a band of followers – not by going to the synagogues, not by picking from a group of lobbyists, but by gathering a few blue-collar workers whose only agenda is to run their business and take care of their family.
And that’s just who Jesus is looking for. He doesn’t need single-issue followers. He doesn’t need followers who are trying to climb the proverbial ladder. He doesn’t need people bringing their own agendas to the table. He needs followers who are completely open to his way and these fishermen fit just the bill.  
Even then, following Jesus is hard for these fishermen. They will develop their own hopes and dreams and agendas along the way. They will argue with one another about who should be greatest once Jesus takes the throne.
They, too, will fail to see the way of Jesus even when his way is at arm’s length. And for a moment, at the end on Calvary, the cockpit lights will short out for them and one by one they will at ditch into the ocean. But once and for all, on the third day, Jesus will show them and the whole world that God’s light will never be vanquished and one day God’s light will never be hidden from sight.
So, when Jesus says, “Repent and believe in the good news,” he is saying, drop your agendas, drop your desire for greatness, drop your proverbial nets, and live toward the true light, live toward the things that will get you through the darkest of days – live toward love and compassion, humility and kindness, justice and mercy - live through me.

Live as if the kingdom is at hand. Even when the cockpit lights short out, even when your dreams of a better family life, a better Selma, a better country, a better world die, live as if you trust that a light is glowing somewhere in the darkness, live with a faith that believes that God’s dream for humanity has been and is being and will be accomplished in the way of Jesus – for you never know what events are going to transpire to lead you and the whole world home. Amen

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Come See: Something Good Can Come From Nazareth

            Last Sunday, during the Adult Formation hour, we discussed the heresy of Arianism. Arianism was named after Arius, born in 270 A.D. and claimed that Jesus, while of divine origin, was not fully God but a creation of God that set the world into being. The debate was settled by Athanasius who made the claim that Jesus was fully human and fully God and therefore co-eternal with God.
            This heresy was formally combated during the construction of the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D. So, when you say, “true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” take pride in the fact you are combating heresy (or something like that!).
            Anyway, as the class was wrapping up, I asked if there were any final thoughts or questions. This comment opened a can of worms. Someone said something like, “I know my vocabulary is limited but how can someone be fully human and fully divine? How can there be an explanation for this?”
Because we were running out of time, I gave the short answer, “You can’t. It’s a mystery.” But now that I have the pulpit and at least 10 minutes to kill, I’ll give the longer answer! And it just so happens that today’s gospel lesson gives context to that answer. Another win for the Holy Spirit!
In the first verses of John’s gospel, we read the proclamation that the Word was made flesh. In other words, Jesus, God’s Son, is the manifestation of God’s own self in the flesh of humanity through the person of Jesus. These first verses start to build the argument that Jesus is fully God.
In today’s lesson, the fully human argument begins to take shape. A very human Jesus decides to travel, by foot presumably, to Galilee. He initiates a conversation, presumably in Aramaic, with Philip and says, “Follow me.” Philip is agreeable and tells his friend Nathaniel about the encounter.
Philip is specific with his description of Jesus, “We have found him whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Jesus is a real person with human origin and a human family. Nathaniel can’t believe anything good can come from Nazareth and to that Philip simply says, “Come and see.”
Jesus’ divine nature peeks through when he speaks rightly of Nathaniel, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” The question for us and for Nathaniel asks, “How do you know this about me? You’ve never met me.”
Jesus gives what seems to be an esoteric response, “because I saw you under the fig tree.” While the image of the fig tree might seem foreign to us today, this might be like Jesus saying in a modern context, because I saw you reading in the chapel. A Jew would often be found reading the Torah under a fig tree.
Apparently, this answer is good enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is indeed to the Son of God, the King of Israel. But Jesus tells Nathaniel, you only know the half of it. “I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
This curious statement calls the reader to recall the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis. Jacob dreams about a ladder that connects heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending acting as intermediaries between the two worlds. But now, Jesus is saying that the Son of Man will replace that ladder.
The Son of Man will be the intersection between heaven and earth. Previously, the intersection between heaven and earth was found in a tent or tabernacle. The tent or tabernacle turned into a more permanent dwelling place with the construction of the Temple. And now that intersection will be found in the Word made flesh, in the Son of Man, in this Jesus who comes from Nazareth, presumably a place where nothing good can come.
But if Nathaniel or any of us are paying attention to the salvation story of scripture, ours is a God who is constantly using unlikely people, from unlikely places, from the proverbial Nazareth’s of this world, to build his nation, to build his heavenly kingdom on earth.
The intersection between heaven and earth is not found where God recruits the best and the brightest to do his work. God’s best and brightest was Solomon. Solomon did great things to begin his reign, like build the Temple, but idol worship and mistresses sent the nation of Israel into a terrible civil war. Eventually, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were overtaken by outside countries – a house divided cannot stand.   
No, the intersection between heaven and earth is found when the weak and most vulnerable are remembered and taken care of and invited to sit at the king’s table, for ours is a God who orders his kingdom by lifting up the lowly and by casting down the mighty from their thrones. The fullness of heaven and earth, the meeting place of the human and divine is found in Jesus who is from Nazareth of all places.
As many have said before me, this is a truth that human vocabulary cannot adequately define. This is a truth that words will fail to convey. The fully human and fully divine Jesus is a mystery that we can only come to know through faith.
If you look closely, the mystery of our faith isn’t explained in our creed as a scholarly argument. Instead, the mystery of our faith is proclaimed in our creed as truth. This mystery will not be boxed in or limited by human thought. Rather, we, as followers of Jesus, depend on this truth to be made known through divine revelation, by following Jesus.
Even more, the mystery of faith can only be perceived by us when we are willing to put our books down, to put our studies of God in the scriptures aside in order to meet God in the flesh of Jesus, the man and the God who was born out of a place called Nazareth, a place where all things come into being.
If you still don’t understand, then hear the invitation of Philip again, “Come and see.” Come and see the one who turns water into wine. Come and see the one who can heal from a distance. Come and see the one who makes the lame to walk. Come and see the one who can turn a meal for a family of 5 into a feast for 5,000. Come and see the one who can walk on water. Come and see the one who can make the blind to see. Come and see the one who can make the dead come alive.
Come and see how Jesus transforms a regular meal into a heavenly banquet by serving on the altar or flower guild, by singing in the choir, by serving in worship in some way. Come and see how Jesus uses a Bible study or class to open your eyes how you are being called to divine work in this world.
Come and see how Jesus is always preparing enough food by joining a breakfast team. Come and see how Jesus is turning thankless work into extraordinary service by serving at the food pantry, by picking up trash with Keep It Clean, Selma.
Volunteers are needed at the Christian Outreach Alliance's
Food Pantry. Contact Nancy Bennett if interested.
Come and see how Jesus is calling us to walk on the stormy seas by inviting us into difficult conversations about race and healing in our community and country. Come and see how Jesus is lifting the dead to life by serving Kairos Prison Ministry in some way. Come and see how something good, something divine even, can possibly come from a place like Nazareth.
How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine? I can’t explain it logically but my experience of following Jesus tells me that he is. Our journey with Christ tells me that Jesus is doing far greater things than my human intellect can fathom or dream. Our journey with Christ tells me that I don’t have to understand how God makes it happen but that God does make it happen through Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.

May God grant us the grace and courage to let go of the things we think we need to know to be people of faith so that we may live toward the mystery of faith by following the One who comes from Nazareth, the Son of God – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.