Reciprocity has No Place in an Economy of Grace

<If you’d like to listen to this while drinking your coffee, click here.>

Are you ready?

coffee138 “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Reciprocity has No Place in an Economy of Grace

Pray with me:

You tell us to love our enemies,

Turn the other cheek,

Give up our need for revenge.

You must know how hard this is for us,

Holy One.

Help make us complete as you are complete

Otherwise we’re lost.

Amen.

This past Thursday our faithful admin assistant Lois, unbeknownst to me, lugged 12 dirty coffee mugs out of my office and washed them secretly.  Onlooker reports have not been quiet about their surprise at this feat, not the shock that she would do such a thing, but the shock that such a thing would be necessary.

Those onlookers, and perhaps you, too, are underestimating two things: the extent of my coffee addiction, and the roughness of that particular work-week.

When I saw my clean coffee mugs lined up by the staff sink, my heart was full of both joy and shame.  I never would have asked for such a thing, but was eternally grateful it had happened.  But the shame is something important to note here because, here’s the thing: I can never pay that back.  It’s a simple act, but I will never be able to offer a reciprocal action to offset it.

Rhonda lovingly called Lois an enabler, as only a spouse’s perspective can.  I called her a vessel of grace.

Here’s a tough truth for us today, and this is a short sermon, so we must pay close attention to the truth-points when they come up, yes?  So here’s a tough truth for us to chew on today: if you were coming into the faith from the outside, and heard that Jesus expected you to love your enemy, to turn the other cheek, and to give up your desire for revenge when wronged, would you sign up?

It’s a question all Christians should ask themselves today, on this Sunday when it comes so full-throated from the Gospel text.  And be honest with yourself, because it may have bearing on what you do next Sunday.

I’m serious.

The desire for revenge is strong, Beloved.  It is strong within us.  We say two wrongs don’t make a right, but then we go and kill killers on the extreme end, and on the mild end we ignore that friend who we feel has been ignoring us.

Because they deserve it.

The economy of the world is one of meritocracy, this is true.  We talk a big talk about getting what we deserve, and in pious circles about being humbled by getting what we don’t while secretly believing our piety does warrant some extra graces in a world where so many are so impious.

But Jesus’ economy is one of grace, Beloved.  Pure grace. No meritocracy or false piety.

Such grace reminds me of a favorite poem from a Muslim Sufi mystic, Hafiz, who wrote:

Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the Earth
“You owe me”
And look what happens
With that kind of love
It lights up the whole sky

It’s hard to wrap our heads around, but it is simply true.  Our own blessed Martin Luther once exclaimed that he “suffered the grace of God upon him.”  He suffered because he desperately wanted to do everything in his life to earn that grace, only realizing half-way through his life that he couldn’t and he must simply let the gift be a gift…he couldn’t pay it back or buy it in the first place.

This is good news for us, Beloved, because we’re very bad at turning the other cheek, an act of resistant love, by the way. I expounded upon that in my Faithprints article this last weekend.

But we’d much rather have revenge, love those who are good to us, and hold grudges against those we feel aren’t good to us.  That’s our base instinct, but when we do so we turn into a baser form of person, one who follows their instinct rather than Christ.

The Right Reverend Desmond Tutu once said, “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate.  When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves.  All of our humanity is dependent upon recognize the humanity in others.”

But if you knew that reciprocity had no place in God’s economy, that Christ would ask you to give up your desire for revenge, encourage you to loving resistance against those who hurt you rather than angry resistance; if you knew that God was calling you to suffer the grace upon you and extend to others than same suffering grace, would you have signed up for all of this?

It’s a good question.

But here’s something I’ll say about this economy of grace: it is certainly difficult to live under.  It is difficult not to take for granted, and just as difficult not to try to circumvent through efforts to earn grace on the sly, as futile as that is.

But it’s one that Jesus lived in as he looked down from the height of cross to spy the height and depth and breadth of humanity at war with one another and at war with God and, instead of uttering hurt and calling for crucifixions, called out “Father, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And, truly, if you watch the news or even just watch your own actions in anger and frustration, we do not.

Gratefully, we don’t have to get it right to receive grace.  The mugs just get washed, is another way to say it.  And, perhaps today we’ll realize that in such a way that we can live better into that grace tomorrow (I was certain to wash my mugs this week!).  And we do so not to earn anything, not as reciprocity, because reciprocity has no place in an economy of grace, but as a sacrifice of praise that calls us to better embrace our own humanity light of God’s gracious Divinity. Good religion makes us better humans, not more Divine.

Before I go, I want to pose it one more time: if you knew that giving up your need for revenge and your need to only love those who look, think, and act like you was one of the things Christ was going to ask of you at the beginning, would you still walk this road to Calvary and the empty tomb?

I pray for grace as I ponder the question for myself, that it may light up my life with the son.

Amen.

Salvation, Liberation, and Leaving the Eye in the Socket and the Tooth in the Mouth

an-eye-for-an-eye-bill-cannonMarcus Borg, that bald and beautiful bard from the Skeptical Order of Christians, once wrote that, “Salvation is about liberation.” (_Convictions_, 75)

I agree.  And I think that’s exactly what Jesus is offering in this week’s Gospel lesson: salvation.

But before we go on, you have to read it from Matthew 5:38-48 (you can just click here if you want).

Finished?  Good. Onward.

The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is all about salvation.  Not how you “get saved,” as the street preacher would tell you, but how you “are saved.”

Saved from the cycles of revenge that plague our society.  Saved from the cycle of the sin-management system that bad religion has made you put in place.  Saved from the anger, hurt, and resentment that powerlessness can cause you.  That kind of thing builds on you like plaque in the artery, eventually choking the life out of your spirit.

Jesus is talking about salvation on the small scale here, but it will lead to salvation on the big scale in just a few short weeks, Beloved.

Let’s look at salvation on the small scale for a second, though, before we go on.

Gandhi, who was more Christ-like in action than most Christians in the public eye today, so rightly noted that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” This is an appeal to the spirit of the law, the same notion that Jesus is putting forth here.

Because, by law, this action of taking an eye and a tooth was technically legal.  If, in your interactions, you’re looking for a cycle of revenge, then by all means, you are allowed to take out a person’s eye if they take yours.  You cannot take more than an eye, though, just the eye, or just the tooth for a tooth.

But Jesus calls us to live in a different world where the cycle of revenge is broken, where we acknowledge that enough blood has been taken with one eye.  And so Jesus calls for an end to that cycle of violence. In this, Jesus points to liberation for a humanity who is blood thirsty.

But then Jesus moves a step further.  Because it is not as if we should have people just running around poking out eyes just because they can.  But that is exactly what the ancient world was like, especially in an oppressive society where Rome occupied the land.  A soldier could demand that you carry their sack for them if they were tired.  A citizen could sue the non-citizen for everything, even their underwear, over small offenses.  People rightly began to clan together, loving those who looked, believed, and acted like they did, and shunning those who were “other” in such a world of unchecked power.  Why do you think Jesus encouraged his followers to greet more than just their “brothers and sisters?”  He lived in a world that was set on pitting Jews against Gentiles, Samaritans against Gentiles, Gentiles against Jews, Herodians against Pharisees against Sadducees, against…need I go on?

By the way, when you read that, translate it into this: citizen against immigrant, black against white against brown, men against women, gay against straight, Democrat against Republican against Independent, rich against poor against middle class…need I go on?

The cycles of power-play continue today, my friends.  If we imagine Jesus is preaching to someone else, then we’re not taking seriously how little has actually changed in the human heart in 2000+ years.

So, what does Jesus say to the power-play games of the world?  What salvation is offered there?  If we can’t take an eye, what can we do?

“If someone demands your underwear in a lawsuit, give them your coat, too.  Then you’ll have to walk around naked and everyone will know the shame that the plaintiff has caused you in such ridiculousness, and the burden will then be on them,” Jesus says.

“If someone wants you to walk a mile with their sack because they can, volunteer the second mile and shame them in their ridiculous request,” Jesus says.  “Part of the domination is making you do something you do not want to do, but if you show them that you want to, they’ll realize their power is small in comparison to your will power.”

“If someone smacks you on the cheek, turn it, make them smack you again, but this time with the back of their hand, in a way that is degrading to the smacker.  Then they’ll realize their shame,” Jesus says.

Once the cycle of revenge is broken, then we can start to break the cycles of power-plays through naming degrading acts and shaming those who do them. Be saved from the systems of power plays. Remember: Jesus is speaking to an occupied people.  This was not a world where they could take an eye when their eye was taken, even if they wanted to!  So Jesus tells them to give up that desire, for it is only feeding a system of hate, and instead enter into a kingdom cycle of naming shame and shaming those who do harm through acts of resistant love.

And speaking of love, why should we forgive our enemies anyway?  How is that liberating?

That old adage, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” is just about as true as true can be, and Jesus leans into this understanding of our spirit in these last verses of The Sermon on the Mount.

In being liberated from having to hate our enemies, we are free to truly love, ourselves (and love ourselves, if you get my drift).

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” could better be translated “Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete.”

Complete, not full of revenge.  Complete, full of love, even resistant love.  Complete, not full of resentment.  Complete, offering love even to those who won’t offer it back.

And this, Beloved, is where we arrive at salvation on the large scale, and with Lent within sight, perhaps it’s good for us to start looking that way.  Because as the persecuted, complete, perfect One was led down that road to Calvary and hung in an ordinary human way, he certainly could have been uttering ordinary human curses about eyes for eyes, tooth for tooth, playing the games of power and revenge and grudges.

But instead he says, “Father, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing,” offering an umbrella of liberating love even over those who persecute him.  Instead he looks down at the disciple who deserted him and entrusts his mother to him, and he to her.  Instead he turns to the criminal, certainly deserving of death by all human standards, and assures him of life.

And in doing all this, shows just how far God will go to save us all, completely.

 

 

You.

<You salty people can listen along to the sermon here>

Are you ready?

saltandlightYou are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

You.

Pray with me:

Speak to us, Lord.

We’re sitting at your feet with the disciples

We’ve made this our home for today

…or at least for the next few minutes…

Here we are, Lord. We are listening.

Amen.

In seminary I was involved with a group who was trying to speak out against some of the persecution of Christians that happens in India.  We had a good number Indian-Christian population at the seminary, most from the Marthoma church which, if we believe the tales about the disciples not recorded in the Bible, was founded by St. Thomas, the doubter, when he went off to India.

And so we hosted a forum, and invited Indian Christians, Indian Hindus, and some other panelists from different ethnicities and faith-backgrounds, to discuss the issue of persecution in India.

The Indian-Christian panelist and Indian-Hindu panelist must of known one another, because it was not long before they had begun throwing barbs at one another, and I quickly realized this was becoming something other than what was intended.  It came to a climax when the one gentleman stood up and got in the face of the other and said angrily, “I am Hindu!” and the other, equally as angry, said, “I am Christian!” and all I could think was, “I am uncomfortable!”

When Jesus talks about us being salt and light in the world, that kind of scene is not what he’s implying, I think…so what is he saying?

Well, one thing is clear: “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says.  “You are the light of the world.”

You.

And not “You will be the salt of the earth once you learn to believe the right things.”  And not, “You will be the light of the world once you are fully indoctrinated in the Christian faith and life and vote the right way and behave the right way.”

Jesus doesn’t say that because that’s not what Jesus means.  “You are,” Jesus says.  Right now.  You are. You.  And that should change some things about us, yes?  And I’m not even just talking about behavior.  I actually think God cares more about what we do with our hearts than what we do with our bodies, although our bodies are often good indications of the state of our hearts.  You can’t curse someone with your mouth without cursing them with your heart.  You can’t beat someone with your fist without first knocking them out of your heart.  Likewise, you can’t love someone with a hug without first loving them with your heart…unless you don’t mean it, of course, but then it’s not a hug, it’s just an empty embrace, and you might as well not bother…

It’s fun when Jesus moves from talking about someone, to talking about you, right?  And by “fun” I mean terrifying.  Because there is no escape.

I’m always surprised when Jesus’ words don’t terrify or scandalize us anymore.  Michel Quoist, a poet and prayer-writer who was popular back in the 60’s and who Pr. Royall and I are getting back into (Royall has his first book, written some 50 years ago now…not to age you, Pastor), has a poem where he says about Jesus’ words, that “it is easy to hear a sermon about them,” and then in the next line says, “but it is terrifying and terribly hard to live them.”

Yes.  It is.

Franklin Graham made the audacious claim that sometimes we shouldn’t hold the feet of professionals who claim to be Christian to close to the fire too much because the church’s purpose is different than, say, the business’s purpose.

I would dearly like to know what Graham thinks the church is, if not people.  And people make up organizations, at least until the robots take over.

And so, you do not, depending on your job, get a pass when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

You, Madame teacher.  You Mister banker.  You Madame Senator.  You Mister plumber. You. Me.

Jesus doesn’t mince words: you.  And that should terrify us just a bit.  Because it means us all.

Even those of us on sodium restricted diets, we don’t get a pass, we have to be what we cannot have.

And maybe that’s a good way to think about it.  You know, in the ancient world, salt was the grand preservative.  It was used in ritual sacrifices, too.  In fact, until just a few centuries ago, salt was given and tasted by everyone at the end of Confirmation as one of the rites the priest gave to them, reminding them that they were to be salt for the earth.  Perhaps we’ll re-include it in this year’s rite…

Salt is also where we get that term “salary,” that ominous number that we all check first before accepting a position, harkening back to the days when someone would be paid enough to buy their “salt” for the day, or even further back when soldiers were paid in salt.

But perhaps it’s good to imagine that sometimes we are asked to be what we do not feel we have because that’s how it feels some days.

Some days it feels as if God is calling to be quite a bit more compassionate than I’m willing to be.  Some days it feels as if God is calling me to be more loving than I’m willing to be.  Some days it feels as if God is calling me to question things the world would rather I just go along with, to speak out against things I’d rather just be quiet about to keep the peace, to resist bowing down to things that it’d just be easier to bow down to because, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, everyone else is doing it…

Sometimes I want to say to Jesus, “Well, if you want me to better salt in the world, then perhaps you should have given me salt. If you want me to be a light in the world, I’m going to need more than this little flame.”

But, Beloved, if we listen closely to this radical wandering Rabbi, we will find that Jesus is quite clear that the smallest measure of anything is enough: a seed, a flame atop the head at Pentecost, a grain of wheat fallen to the earth, a child full of more faith than a million people fully grown.

Dare to believe, Beloved, that whatever little bit you have is enough.  Enough to change a life, perhaps yours.  Enough to change business as usual in a way that respects humanity and doesn’t demean it.  Enough to change the world, even.

After all, our example is a small wandering Rabbi who, in hanging on a cross in an ordinary way, changed everything once and for all.

And think of what salt is: it is a flavor empowerer.  Good salt enhances the other flavors in the dish. Bad salt overpowers it with chest thumping and yelling.  But good salt takes what is there and coaxes it to the next level.  Likewise, good light illuminates the room.  Bad light blinds everyone.

There is a reason that Jesus uses these examples, friends.  These things are powerful, but don’t overpower.  Their power is found in the way they encourage and enhance.

And another thing, our small saltiness, our little flicker of light, well, it’s not going to do much good if you imagine that it begins and ends with you.  Our Quaker brothers and sisters speak of God imparting an “inner light” in everyone, something born there from the beginning by the God who reached into the mud and decided to make you.  A seed in good soil.  A grain of wheat growing into bread for the world.  A light shining through the darkness of our muddiness to be a beacon for those searching for light.

Do you see?

The reason the smallness of your salt or the dimness of your light is inconsequential is because, it’s not yours, anyway!  It is God’s within you.  A gift that you are then encouraged to use and cultivate.

No excuses, though, you must use the gift.

You.

The bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin recalled a time once where he asked a group of Yale faculty if they thought the existence of God is a good and interest question or not.  A political scientist responded, “It’s not even a question Bill, let alone a lively one.” The good Reverend went on to write, “that he didn’t believe in God didn’t bother me that much.  After all, that was his problem and fortunately for God’s continued existence God doesn’t depend on our proving it. Moreover,” he continued, “the important question is not who believes in God but ‘in whom does God believe?”

And, Beloved, if you’ve been wondering about that answer, well, Jesus doesn’t mince words.

In whom does God believe?

You.  Believing, questioning, doubtful, faithful, enriching, light-giving you.

 

On Knowing Your Audience and Giving Up Your Agenda

Are you ready?

15571When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

On Knowing Your Audience and Giving Up Your Agenda

Pray with me:

Call us blessed today.

No, Lord, re-teach us what blessing is today.

Because we’ve forgotten.

Amen.

You know, it’s interesting, we’re reading he Gospel of Matthew this year, and so when we hear the Beatitudes today, we’re hearing Matthew’s version.  But in the Gospel of Luke Jesus offers a slightly different version.  See, Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” but Luke has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor…”  And the Greek here is different, too.  For Matthew, it’s a spiritual term and a spiritual matter.  For Luke, it’s an economic term and an economic matter.

And so I wonder what the difference is between the audiences that Matthew and Luke were writing to.  Was Matthew’s audience so sure of spirit that they needed to be pointed to the poor in spirit?  Or was Matthew’s audience so poor in spirit that they needed to be reminded that they are blessed?

And was Luke’s audience so wealthy that they needed to be pushed to be with the poor?  Or were they so poor that they needed to be reminded of their worth, even in their poverty?

Or both?  I don’t know.  But I know audience matters.

As I was working on this sermon, I was trying to imagine new, updated, alternative Beatitudes for us.  Something like:

Blessed are the Green Bay fans, for they will know long-suffering patience.

Blessed are those who do not order more than five variations of a drink at Starbucks, for they will not receive my eyeroll as they order their Vente, extra hot, double pump vanilla, with an almond cream topper.

Blessed are those who drive on Six Forks Road because, well, have you seen how narrow those lanes are?  Ya’ll just need blessing if you’re going to drive that stretch…

I’m only half-joking, of course, but this is the problem with blessings, and really with the Beatitudes: we labor with our definition of blessing in a world where we get mixed messages on what it means to be blessed.  Because we think our sports team winning is a blessing.  And we think standing in an unobstructed line is a blessing.  And a new car, and a new house: all signs that God is blessing you. Yeah right…

You know, I mentioned this in my Friday Faithprints article, there’s this whole movement going on where people will post pictures to Instagram or to Twitter or Facebook, pictures of them doing happy things like sailing or eating huge ice cream sundaes or walking on a beautiful day, kind of like this last Wednesday and Thursday, and they’ll write a little caption that celebrates the majesty of the moment and they’ll end it with #blessed.

And every time I see one of these I just kind of roll my eyes…and apologies if this is you, I’ve made the mistake, too…but I just kind of roll my eyes because, Beloved, that’s not blessedness, at least not according to how Jesus defines it.

That’s bliss, but that’s not blessedness.  And we often confuse the two.

And I’m not surprised we do, because we live in a world that celebrates the blessedness of a full bank account and a great job and influence over others and the leisure to walk around on a nice day unafraid that you’re going to be stopped and asked for your green card, unworried that you’ll lose your job because you can just take a break in the middle of the afternoon, unconcerned about your next meal, or your healthcare premiums, or…

That’s not blessedness.  That’s privilege and that’s bliss, but if we think that that is blessedness, well, we’re never going to get what Jesus is saying.

Because Jesus stands up on the mountain…you know this is called the Sermon on the Mount.  We’re going to be hearing this for the next four weeks, this really long, four-week sermon Jesus gives, but he stands up on this mountain because he’s seen these crowds following him, and notice the pattern, Jesus sees the crowds and then begins to speak.

And I wonder, I wonder what he saw in them.

I wonder what he saw when he looked at them that made him say these things.  I wonder what about the crowd made him say, “Blessed are the meek” and “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the persecuted” and “Blessed are the peacemakers”.

I wonder if he looked down at those people and saw the persecuted or the persecutors.  I wonder if he saw the faithful or the poor in spirit.  I wonder if he saw the proud or the meek. I wonder if he saw a quarreling people or a people of peace.

I wonder because, well, there was something that made him say these things to these particular people, reminding them, and us Beloved, that blessedness does not come from power, money, fame or fortune; blessedness does not come from beautiful days, walking around unafraid…many Jesus was talking to were certainly afraid, living in occupied lands…blessedness comes not from supposed safety or high fences or nice days or children laughing or any other way that this world is going to tell you that you can mark yourself as blessed.

You are not blessed if you make a lot of money. You are not blessed if you have nice days, have a job where you can leave to take a walk, have a camera in your phone to snap pictures.  You are lucky, you might be blissful, but you are not blessed.

Blessing is not just feeling good; a piece of blessedness, if we’re to hear Jesus correctly, has to do with giving up something of yourself for others, for God, and for the world.

And not in the masochistic way that some people imagine it has to happen.  You are not blessed if you stick it out through an abusive relationship; God doesn’t desire that for you.  And you are not blessed because you are the martyr of your family who always gives up what you want for what they want because you have to be put upon or else you wouldn’t have anything to complain about, and who would you be if you didn’t have something to complain about? Not every bad thing in your list is your cross to bear.

Blessedness, rather, is about giving up your agenda, not because you feel like you have to, but because you see that you need to for the sake of the other.  Blessedness is not making a lot of money, but giving of your money so that others in this world can know the joy of eating good food, having clean clothes, having a roof and health insurance.  Blessedness is not winning the fight and proving you’re right, but winning the peace and giving up the need to be right.

Do we see this, Beloved?

To put it plainly, if we’re going to understand Jesus’ idea of blessedness, the Divine idea of blessedness, we need to look at it less as an elevating experience, and more of a grounding experience.

The world says blessedness looks like a carefree life of safety, money, high fences, and possessions.

God says blessedness looks like a 180lb Jewish guy hanging from a tree, giving his life for his friends.  Be grounded in this gift.

Blessedness is, according to the prophet Micah, “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly,” all acts of giving up your agenda for God’s agenda in a world where we all pretend we’re god. In that same Faithprints article I mentioned before, I talked about a book by psychotherapist Thomas Moore where he, gingerly, talks about “the gifts of depression.” Some of you were taken aback by his claim. I was too. That seems nonsensical and almost cruel, right?

But…what if…Blessed are those who know depression, for they know the darkness others have felt, and can navigate it with them, by God.

These sayings should take us all aback some.  And if it’s true for us, imagine how the disciples felt when they heard Jesus’ words, marking things as blessings that the world marks as curses.  It probably didn’t make sense to them, either.  It probably caused them to pause, too.  But perhaps Jesus was preparing them for what it means to walk in his steps; when you walk in the way of Jesus, you find yourself in these situations. You’ll be poor in spirit by doubt because you must do some spiritual wrestling and this faith is more about questions than answers; you will be made meek by grace and mercy; you will be poor because you gave it all away for your neighbor; and you will be pure in heart because you will see your neighbor giving it all away for you.

You will hunger and thirst for righteousness because God calls us to be in those places where injustice reigns to speak truth to power…and when that happens, you need to know that you will be filled. You will be ridiculed because you stand with those despised by others; reviled because you say you did it all in the name of the One who first loved us.

One final thought here on blessing, and a final thought that will probably cause some discomfort…it does for me.  Maybe Jesus looked out at the crowd following him and just saw the 1%.  Maybe he just saw the Pharisees, Sadducees, and religious leaders intrigued by what this wandering Rabbi had to say…kind of like us gathered here, you know, the 1% of the world.  Because audience matters.

And so he looks at us and says to me, the proud: “blessed are the meek.”  And he says to you, the so-sure-of-your-faith-you-have-a-fish-decal-on-your-car: “blessed are the doubters, the poor in spirit.”  And he says to you who can’t really get into speaking about justice because you don’t like to offend and would rather just play it cool: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

In affect it would be Jesus saying, “Give up your agenda, because you’re missing a whole world of blessing by not being with people who know meekness, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are poor in spirit.  You must give up your agenda, seek them out, listen to them, and hear a bit about blessing in a world of mixed messages on the topic.”

You know, on second thought, maybe I do have an updated Beatitude:

Blessed are those who give up their own agenda, for they will then see God’s agenda for the world.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Who Do You Want to Be in the Christmas Pageant?

Luke 2:1-20

December 24th, 2016

Are you ready?

child-cow-costumeIn those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son, and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

And on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what he been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Who Do You Want to Be in the Christmas Pageant?

Join me in prayer

God and Parent of Jesus,

On this holy night

You give us your Son,

The Lord of the universe

And the savior of all peoples,

As an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes

And lying in a manger.

In the first moments of his life

You showed us the paradox of your love.

Open us up to the mystery of his powerlessness

And enable us to recognize him

In this plain-spoken word

And simple meal.

This we ask in his name,

He who lives and reigns with you

And the Holy Spirit,

One God forever and ever. Amen.

Who did you want to be in the Christmas pageant growing up?

I was the preacher’s kid, which inevitably meant that I ended up being Joseph more times than not.

Which was lame.

Joseph had no lines.  He just walked to Bethlehem. He didn’t even get to ride the donkey.  He just walked and carried a staff, until you hit someone with it, and then they took it way…

At least Herod had lines!  Sure he was evil, but at least he got to say something and wear a crown and yell at people…

The one year I broke out from the Joseph role I ended up being a cow in the stable, which was kind of fun, until I realized the full-body cow costume our choir director had included udders, which, for a 9-year-old boy, was not awesome.  I wanted to be a Texas Longhorn, you know “hooke ‘em horns!”, I wanted the horns, but instead I got the udders…sometimes that’s how life is, I guess.

Who did you want to be in the Christmas pageant?

Here’s the thing about all of these characters in the Christmas story: we imagine them as perfect and serene, but they all had two sides.  Kind of like us.  There is the public face, the life we like to imagine ourselves as having, the face that Facebook presents to the world.  And then there is what Christian mystics would call “our shadow-side”…that side we hide from the world, and even hide from ourselves, but which is no less real.

Mary, meek and mild, was also the one the towns people whispered about because of her “condition,” and she was no doubt worried about her ability to provide well for this new life, what with him being born in a manger and all…no doubt like so many mothers throughout history and even tonight, worried about how they will provide for another hungry mouth to feed even on peaceful nights.

And perhaps Joseph was worried about it, too, but we don’t know.  Often portrayed as the strong, silent type, we don’t hear much of anything about Joseph in the rest of the scriptures.  His shadow side is that of an absentee father, I guess…like many of us parents who are servants of the work calendar and the family suffers for it.

The shepherds are portrayed as eager and obedient, but they’re hill people who couldn’t even testify in the ancient courts because they were considered as untrustworthy.  Which, it is important to note, makes their telling everyone they meet this incredible story even more dubious.  Eagerness and obedience has other shadow-sides, too.  Let’s be honest, every eager and obedient child has their shadow side of the resentful one.  And every wild and misunderstood child has their shadow side of just desiring to really be understood.

And the magi: are they regal royalty or weird voodoo practitioners?  They don’t really fit in with the rest of the Jewish scene, just like some here tonight might not feel like they really fit in with this whole church scene. Like that bit from the movie Love Actually where the little girl learns she’ll be playing a lobster in the Nativity play…it seems out of place. If that’s you tonight, the weird Magi or the awkward lobster, don’t worry, you’re not alone.  Even those of us in fancy collars sometimes don’t feel like we fit in with the whole church scene, especially as it’s portrayed in popular culture.

And then there is the livestock in the manger scene…need I say more?  In a bit while all get in line, queued up in the communion line like sheep and cattle at dinner time.

I don’t mean to make too much of it, but I really wonder who you hope to be in the Christmas pageant, because I tell you, no character is perfect. We all come to Christmas with our shadow side, we all come to houses of faith, to life, to everything with our shadow sides.

And despite our best attempts to present our perfection at the manger where all is calm and all is bright, we find ourselves just as scandalized and scandalous as those first ones to sit in the shadow of the manger.

You: perfect and resentful child.  You: worried or absentee parent.  You: the one everyone thinks is weird.  You: the one who just does as they’re told, pulled along by fate like a work animal.

Funny, the only one in the Christmas pageant without a shadow side is Jesus, and more often than not he’s played by a doll because, well, a live baby is just too unpredictable and fragile to use for the story, right?

But that, Beloved, is the whole point.  Because the ineffable, unimaginable, God for whom the cosmos sing tonight stole away into this unpredictable and fragile form because you, and certainly me, are unpredictable and fragile and, well, there is a fine line between Mary meek and mild and Mary with a bad reputation.  There is a fine line between Joseph, strong and silent and Joseph who just doesn’t care anymore because…well…it seems no one really cares about him.

And God knew this.  God knows this.  And God came to bring redemption in the form of the ones needing to be redeemed.

So, Beloved, que yourself up in just a few moments: obedient and resentful, weird and wonderful, worried and peaceful you.  Because tonight the babe in the manger is the bread of salvation, and your open hands will become that manger for just a moment, and you will see that the only role you need to play in the Christmas pageant this year, and any year, is that of Mary Brown, and Joseph Abernathy, and Shepherd Jones, and Royall Magi Yount.

The only role you need to play is you.  And, because of Christ, it is the best role, shadow-side and all.

Snow Day Church

15941325_10100419657989229_6708787191655617183_n“Do you want to build a snowman?”

This refrain has been echoing through our house for the past two days.  Frozen’s  second-best known refrain is lodged in the brains of our children, right along with the first: “Let it go! Let it go!”

But it seems like they sing that mostly in response to one having a toy the other wants…

“Frozen” is a good descriptor for our reality right now.  The ground is ice and each breath burns the lungs like air-born frostbite.  Perhaps we should, like the harmonizing Harry Nilsson suggests in Everybody’s Talkin’, “Go to where the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain/go to where the weather suits (our) clothes.”

Because our Eastern Carolina clothes are not meant for this. Escape seems like a fun fantasy right now.

But we have an opportunity now, in this time when winter forces us to womb up.  The mystics used to actively seek such times to sit and be and pray and gain insight into the Presence of God. Most of them had to shun the world to go and find some time.

But we have, at the present moment, a world shunning us and shutting us in (except for the occasional venture outside to build a snowman).

Here’s a way to use this time; here’s a way to do “Snow Day Church.”

Now, I thought about doing a Facebook Live event for church this morning, or even a Google Hangout.  Neither of those are bad ideas.  It’s just that, well, I find Facebook Live to be a really annoying feature, and while Google Hangout is great for meetings, it lacks connection for me.  As would a Youtube video or anything of that nature (and my head talking to a blank box is as visually appealing as a mud fence).

So, here we are, with this medium, and it will suffice, I hope.

For Snow Day Church I suggest you find a scripture, preferably the one assigned for the day (for an easy way to find the readings for the day, click: here), and read it through once, just to hear it.  I suggest you read it out loud. There’s something good about reading a scripture out loud.  Our faith is a proclaimed faith, and sometimes that means using words, so read it out loud, even to just yourself.

So for today, take the Hebrew scripture text, Isaiah 42:1-9, and read it out loud.

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
  my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
 I have put my spirit upon him;
  he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
  or make it heard in the street;
3a bruised reed he will not break,
  and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
  he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
  until he has established justice in the earth;
  and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord,
  who created the heavens and stretched them out,
  who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
 who gives breath to the people upon it
  and spirit to those who walk in it:
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
  I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
 I have given you as a covenant to the people,
  a light to the nations,
  7to open the eyes that are blind,
 to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
  from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
  my glory I give to no other,
  nor my praise to idols.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
  and new things I now declare;
 before they spring forth,
  I tell you of them.

Now, for the second reading through, take each “chunk” of scripture…however that feels right to you…and practice mindfulness with it.  Mindfulness when reading scripture can be likened to reaching into a box set before you while wearing a blindfold.  You can’t see the contents, but you can feel them, and you can name the things that come to mind as you feel around.

And I do this holding gratefulness in my right hand, and sorrow in my left.  Both poles of my heart are engaged in this work so that I don’t delude myself in “feel-goods,” but also don’t mire myself in despair.

For Isaiah 42, for me, it looks like this:

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

My soul delights these days in some time to spend with my family, uninterrupted by the siren call of work that simply cannot be done in this weather. 
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

I pray for justice this morning: for those killed and left crying by the violence in Fort Lauderdale.  I pray for justice this morning: for those killed, injured, and impacted by the bombing in Azaz on the Turkey border (and I am saddened we don’t often hear this news because Azaz doesn’t look like the U.S., and we don’t pay much attention to places that don’t look like the U.S. in the daily news). I pray justice this morning: for those slaughtered in the Charleston massacre, as Dylan Roof is now on trial.

2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;

I pray this morning for the voices crying on the streets that no one hears: the cold homeless in my backyard between 540 and Falls. I pray this morning for the voices crying on the streets that I do hear: children sledding and playing and laughing. I give thanks this morning for a God who works not through the screaming and crying of an angry madman making his desires known, but through the screaming and crying of a baby calling us to attend to the needs of the Body of Christ throughout the world.
3a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

I’m grateful for the ways that I was brought to the brink in 2016, but didn’t perish.  I renew my trust that God does look after the bruised in the world, and asks me to as well.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thank you, Lord, for our Carolina coast.  Teach us how to treat the earth justly, knowing that we are made of the same stuff of that ground, and that you were buried in that same ground.

5Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,

I’m grateful for our sun, for the clear nights in my memory where I was brought to realize my smallness in relation to the bigness of everything else due to the stars.
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

I’m grateful for the vastness of our planet, for those who grow and catch food, those who harvest it, and those who bring it to my table. May 2017 bring a deeper connection to those people so that I don’t forget where my food comes from.
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

I’m grateful for my lungs, and my body.  I’m mindful today of my friend Sage, who died of Cystic Fibrosis in 2016.  Your breath was certainly in her, even as she struggled to breathe. 
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

God desires me to be in “righteousness” (which really means “right relationship”) with everything: God, others, the planet, myself.  I pray that God helps to show me what “right relationship” looks like, and leads me to see ways to make it a reality.
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

I pray for the ways that I am blind to the people around me.  I pray in repentance for the ways I have ignored those in prison, whether their sentence is just or unjust.  I pray for the ways I lock myself in the prisons of ignorance and bliss, refusing to hear the realities of those around me.  I pray for the ways I am racist and prejudice, and the ways I am blind to it. I’m grateful for your guiding light in a world, God, where the bright lights of the stock market distract us from taking stock of our true wealth.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.

What are the idols whose altars I frequent the most?  The idols of “productivity”? Of “self-worth”? Of the “bottom-line”? Of busy-ness? Of fear and resentment?  Truly, in the Christmas story I am more Herod than Magi, afraid of having my power and comfort stolen from me by the unknown. Save me from this, Lord.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

As I look at the former things, Lord, I pray that you give me a generous heart.  May I be gracious with my past self, and may you lead me to new ways of living into a grateful heart in this unwritten future ahead of me.  Help me to pay attention to the ways you are making yourself known, even before the next thing happens, so that I might be mindful of you, myself, and all things.

Amen.

____________________________________________

Often times I’ll read it a third time as well, more as a prayer now than anything.

So, there we are: Snow Day Church.  Don’t escape this moment. Use it.

And this method is not just for snow days…this could be for any and every day.  It’s not a new way of reading the scriptures, but it’s a way that we often forget is easily at our disposal.  We often read the scriptures thinking they must teach us something, or that we must bring some knowledge to them…which, of course, isn’t wrong.  It’s just not the only way, and perhaps not the best way.

Richard Rohr, the bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic, writes in his book The Naked Now, 

Knowledge is the gathering of information. It consists of knowing about “the ten thousand things,” as the Buddhists poetically call it.  It involves “having the facts straight.” This is beneficial to have. But all the information in the world does not of itself accumulate into wisdom. In fact, as the Franciscan St. Bonaventure noted, “Wisdom is confusing to the proud and often evident tot he lowly.”

Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is precisely a different way of seeing and knowing those ten thousand things. I suggest that wisdom is precisely the freedom to be present.

This way of reading scripture, I think, is entering into wisdom.  It is readily available, easily accessible, and provides a gateway into being present in a way that brings us into the Presence.

In that way, it is sacramental.

I commend it to you today, and I look forward to seeing you all soon.  Now…I’m off to build a snowman.

Peace and presence,

pt…

 

 

Don’t Worry, You Have a Big God

15590572_10100411385143079_6527549212564323469_nAt the Brown home we try not to turn on the TV before 7am.  That may seem pretty early to you, but usually that means at least an hour, usually two hours, of playtime and other activities before cartoons.

This past Thursday started out early, like they usually do, opening our Advent calendar, turning on the Christmas tree and the garland lights, and getting some breakfast underway.

Markers and colored paper made their way to the breakfast table to occupy small hands as I made some scrambled eggs.  Between laughs and shouts of frustration (we’re all learning to share these days), I heard a small thud and a little voice started crying.  Alistair, our two year old, had dropped the marker he was using on the floor which, to him, seemed very far away I’m sure.

Findley, our 3 year old, turned to him and said, “Don’t worry Alistair, you have a big brother.” And he got down off of his chair and stopped the crying by finding what was lost and returning it.

Yes, it’s sentimental, but let’s be honest: it’s Christmas.  And really this season in the church year is for reminding one another about the story of a humanity crying out…continuing to cry…and God saying, in big and small ways (small like a baby in a manger), “Don’t worry, my child, you have a big God.”

And then God comes to retrieve what is lost and gives it back to humanity: hope, lost love, salvation from the destructive and sinful ways we operate, a peace that seems fragile and very far away (if it exists at all these days).

Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx puts it this way, “Christ gives us back to ourselves.”

That’s the story of Christmas.

Christmas is the time when we all tell one another of the miraculously big God who shows up in the smallness of the night and the smallness of a baby to stoop low and retrieve all the things that we have lost and continue to lose in this world, including our very selves.

So don’t worry, Beloved, you have a big God.

See you in church.

Christmas Eve is at 5, 7, and 9pm.  Christmas Day is at 10am. Let’s celebrate the season together.