Friday, November 18, 2011

TheoLOLogy: Greed & Charity

LoL by: gragio09 Picture by: charlesng

Greed is an excessive desire and pursuit of goods like wealth, power, and status.

Wanting things is normal. It is normal to see something, like it, and wish to have it for yourself - like a new smartphone. Wanting things becomes a vice when it becomes too consuming, when the pursuit of the next tech gadget or sports car (or whatever) is more important than most other things (when it shouldn't be). Greed can lead to other vices like envy, the manipulation of others, theft, and violence.

The Christian virtue that I'd like to contrast greed with is charity. When we hear the word charity today we think of non-profit organizations and donations (of money and goods) to those in need. Charity as a Christian virtue is much more than benevolent giving. Charity means love - it is living out the love of God and neighbor that Jesus commanded us to do. This charity may be in the form of donations of time and money, but even donations could be considered greedy if they are done for building up one's own status or power instead of out of love for others. Intentions and results matter in determining whether an act is greedy or charitable. Charity can take the form of doing a good job at your work, contributing in some way to the care of others (whether at church, a non-profit, family, or neighbors), financial assistance or any of the very numerous ways of showing love for God and neighbor.

The English word charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which is a translation of the NT Greek word agape (ἀγάπη). Some theologians differentiate between agape and caritas, while others use them interchangeably. Some versions of the Bible translate all the different forms of love as simply love, while others also use charity. One example of the latter is the King James Version. 1 Cor 13:13 "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

I think this time of year is a good time to talk about the vice of greed and the virtue of charity. Christmas is fast approaching, which is a time in our society that is particularly focused on possessions. How we obtain our possessions and how we use them are important. If what we have is motivated out of greed, then we will not be living to our full potential of Christian love. Let's turn away from the greed this season and focus on the love of God and neighbor that is charity.

I'll close with a heartwarming story of charity between a dog and a cat...

Text in photo: "Cashew, my 14-year-old yellow Lab, is blind and deaf. Her best friend is Libby, 7, her seeing-eye cat. Libby steers Cashew away from obstacles and leads her to her food. Every night she sleeps next to her. The only time they're apart is when we take Cashew out for a walk. Without this cat, we know Cashew would be lost and very, very lonely indeed. It's amazing but true: This is one animal who knows what needs to be done and does it day in and day out for her friend." by Terry Burns from Middleburg, Pennsylvania.

Friday, September 30, 2011

TheoLOLogy: The 7 Deadly Sins & Virtue

Source: Pleated Jeans on

I'm sure you have heard of the "seven deadly sins." Do you know what they are and where they came from? They are often referred to as "capital vices" or "cardinal sins" because they are viewed as sources of other sins. These sins are not "deadly" or "capital" because they are the very worst sins but because they are the origin of other sins (a person commits additional sins trying to achieve the goal of the deadly sin). There is no list of seven deadly or capital sins in the Bible, even though there are many lists of sins. Pope Gregory I modified an earlier list of sins into a list of seven that is similar to today's list. The identification and description of the seven sins has evolved over time into their common form today.

The seven deadly sins are:
  1. lust 
  2. gluttony 
  3. greed  
  4. sloth 
  5. wrath
  6. envy 
  7. pride 
These sins are often called vices. A vice is a "moral corruption, fault, or failing" (Websters). A vice is a disposition or inclination to do what is wrong. The opposite of a vice is a virtue.

"Virtue" comes from the Greek word arete which means excellence. A virtue is a "particular moral excellence" (Websters). Virtue is a disposition or inclination to do what is right. There are many lists of virtues in Christianity, including the cardinal virtues, theological virtues, and heavenly virtues.

The four cardinal virtues are:
  1. prudence
  2. justice
  3. temperance (or restraint)
  4. fortitude (or courage)

The three theological virtues are:
  1. faith
  2. hope
  3. love (or charity)
There is another list of virtues that was devised in opposition to the seven deadly sins. These are the seven heavenly virtues:

  1. chastity 
  2. temperance 
  3. charity 
  4. diligence 
  5. patience 
  6. kindness
  7. humility
I don't have the room or time to make a complete list of virtues or vices (even supposing such a thing were possible). These traditional lists can be helpful as a starting place for a exploration of virtue and vice, but they shouldn't be seen as the only relevant virtues and vices. Cruelty and fear are not on the list of seven deadly sins, but modern ethicists have much to say about those and other vices.  

Why should we discuss virtue and vice? I believe it is important because it allows us to explore how we are to live in this world. What we do and say matters because it impacts our relationship with God, with other people, and with our own self. An understanding of virtue and vice doesn't give us a black-and-white rule-book for how to live a moral life but equips us with tools to make better decisions.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

That's Not Fair!

A Sermon based on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16

That’s not fair! Having grown up with a younger brother – I both said and heard that phrase said a lot. Things were often a competition between the two of us. Fairness was, in my mind, the two of us having equal and the same (if he got 2 cookies then I got 2 cookies) – although, I could have more because I was older, (I could have a 3rd cookie) that was somehow also fair in my mind. If my brother had more of something for any reason then that was obviously unfair, unless it was more chores. He could have extra chores and that would be fair in my mind too. We shared a lot, but the difficulty of dividing things up between us depended upon how generous we were feeling at the moment.

In some ways we never really grow out of childhood. Adults still complain about what is fair or not fair all the time – and some of that complaint is warranted but much of it is not. Human beings are so egocentric that we end up measuring fairness with scales that are biased in our own favor and against others.

A sense of basic fairness, of justice is very important. Without it, no one would have challenged Jim Crow laws and apartheid and every other “separate is supposedly equal but in reality definitely is not” policy. The idea of the equality of every person, although implemented imperfectly, has led to a society where a greater number of people have more opportunities than ever before. And yet, human beings have a tendency to cling to a kind of supposed fairness that is anything but fair and just but is instead self-centered.

Jonah was an adult, but he was stuck in that childish place of “that’s not fair”. Can you believe the nerve of Jonah, to be upset about God’s mercy for Nineveh? After experiencing God’s mercy for himself and after going through so much to deliver God’s message to Nineveh, Jonah is upset because the Ninevites repented and God spared them. Jonah is upset that God is merciful.

Jonah said, “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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Apart from being over-dramatic, Jonah is also very selfish, wanting to keep God’s mercy for himself and for Israelites. What Jonah needed to realize and accept was that God’s mercy is God’s alone to distribute as God pleases.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What You Wear

A Sermon based on Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20
September 04, 2011

Does it matter what you wear? Yes and no. On the one hand it does – because some clothing is more practical than others. I’d rather wear ski gear in the snow than t shirt and shorts, and I’d rather wear tennis shoes (or better yet hiking boots) when hiking up a mountain than high heels. The functionality of clothing is important. Clothes can aid or hinder you in certain activities. What you wear can also affect how others see you. There is an abundance of makeover shows and a huge fashion industry that prove that appearance matters a lot to some people. What you wear can affect how people see you, particularly on an interview or on the job. I can preach the exact same sermon wearing my alb and stole, or a t-shirt and jeans, or wearing a clown suit. You would take me more seriously when wearing the alb and stole, but you might stay more awake it I wore a clown suit. On the other hand, what you wear doesn't matter because we all know that you can’t judge a book by its cover. A person’s worth is far more than mere appearance.

I think a helpful way to think of clothing and appearance is that of the image you want to portray to the world. If you go on a job interview you usually wear different clothes than you would to play sports, or hang out with friends at home. Clothes don’t change the person, but they change the way that the world sees them and more importantly can be more practical in certain circumstances than in others.

Paul’s letter to the Romans talks about “putting on Christ.” The Greek verb for “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ is describing putting on clothes –  in other words clothed with Christ, wearing Christ. Being clothed with Christ is just as public an action as being clothed with anything else – it changes the way other’s see you and even the way you act. Putting on Christ is a way of bearing witness to our Christian hope.  It is a way of representing Christ to the world. And it encourages us to be like Christ in our love for God and our love for neighbor.

When you look at a still picture of someone you can tell the clothing that they are wearing instantly – it is not so obvious with those who wear Christ. Wearing a cross or a Christian t-shirt or even a priest’s collar are not guarantees of Christ-like behavior. It is by someone’s words and deeds that you can tell that they are in fact wearing Christ.  Putting on Christ, being Christ-like – this is not a private thing but influences every part of your life and so becomes public. I think of the saying, by their fruit you will know them. The fruit of a Christ-like person is love.

Rock of Faith

A Sermon based on Matthew 16:13-20
August 21, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated with rocks. As a kid I was interested in geology and in learning how different rocks formed. Some rocks were formed by volcanic forces, while others from layers of sediment.

As a kid I was also interested in ruins. I was curious how ancient peoples could build temples and houses and roads out of relatively basic materials like rock. And I found it amazing that people could build things thousands of years ago that are still standing to one degree or another today. Someday I’d like to see the Greco-Roman ruins in Europe, but I have seen many different Maya ruins. The Maya built temples out of huge limestone blocks, which they cut and carved to fit together perfectly.

Rock is everywhere. It’s natural, abundant, strong and makes a good building material. It is fitting that such a basic and strong word became Simon Peter’s new name in today’s gospel reading.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

 It seems that many people were thinking that Jesus was a kind of prophet – either a second John the Baptist or a second coming of a famous prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah. It’s not unusual that people would have thought that about Jesus. Jesus did kind of fit the mold for a prophet – he spoke with authority about people’s relationship with God and each other, the way people should live, and also Jesus had some kind of close connection to God that regular people did not seem to have. Jesus demonstrated power during his miracles, and prophets of old had signs and wonders attributed to them as well. If all that was important about Jesus was his teachings and his miracles then he would have been only a prophet – but Jesus was more than that.

Jesus asked Peter what Peter thought – “who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

This is one of the first times that Jesus praises Peter instead of criticizing him as one of little faith. Jesus blesses Peter for his answer and acknowledges that such an answer could not have come from Peter alone but must have been revealed to him by God. Jesus then gives Simon the name Peter, which means rock.

It is this passage that the Roman Catholic Church uses to stress the importance of Peter. They claim that Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his church. Peter was the first bishop of Rome and an important leader in the early church, but there were other bishops and other important leaders as well.

Scholars disagree on whether the rock on which the church is built that Jesus refers to in this passage is a reference to Peter or Peter’s confession of faith. We don’t have a recording of the Aramaic or Hebrew words that Jesus spoke on this occasion. What we have is a Greek account written years after the fact. Greek words have masculine, feminine and neuter forms. The Greek word for Rock changes gender forms in this passage, which suggests to many (mostly Protestant scholars) that it is not Peter but rather Peter’s confession that is the rock on which the church is built.

“And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

I’m sympathetic to that interpretation, that there is a play on words with Peter’s new name but it is Peter’s confession of faith that is the rock on which the church is built. I believe that Peter is one of the first rocks of the church, but not the foundation of our faith. The understanding of Jesus as Messiah and the Son of God is the foundation of the Christian faith.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From Earthquakes to Aquinas

It's hard to believe that we had an earthquake and a hurricane in one week here on the East Coast! Life throws many unexpected things our way, so it is important to be prepared for what we can and to remain calm when things happen. 

During the recent earthquake, my cat disappeared under a bed. It took a lot of coaxing and time to get him to come back out.

 According to FEMA guidelines, Gandalf did exactly the right thing: 

"Take cover under a sturdy desk, table, or bench or against an inside wall, and hold on. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building."

While I and many other people were trying to figure out what was going on, my cat knew exactly what to do instinctually. 

I've been reading Aquinas for Armchair Theologians by Timothy M. Renick with a young adults group. One of the interesting things that we've discussed is Aquinas' idea that all created things (whether humans, cats, trees, or rocks) have the same basic end or goal - to serve God and God's plan for the world. Animals, plants, and inanimate objects serve God naturally by doing the things that they were created to do. Human beings have a choice in whether or not we fulfill our created end to seek and serve God. (This is an very basic explanation of Aquinas' idea, but it will do.)

It's nice to think of my cat as serving God naturally just by being a cat, a part of creation. Aquinas' concept includes all of creation as being important in fulfilling God's plan for the world, even rocks and trees (which we don't often think of as serving God). Human beings have a unique role due to our capacity for rational thought and our free will. In my opinion, this is both a blessing and a difficulty. It is a blessing because we have the capacity to serve God and one another in creative ways that are beyond the capability of any other being on this planet. It is a difficulty because what we say and do has consequences for other people and even the world - and these are often negative and contrary to God's will for us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Virtue Ethics and Jonathan Myrick Daniels

The feast day for Jonathan Myrick Daniels in the Episcopal Church is August 14. My GOE (General Ordination Exam) Ethics question was about him and the concept of virtue ethics and I've decided to share it on this blog. What follows is the question and my response (from January of 2009).

QuestionHow does a virtue ethics approach in moral theology provide a way to interpret and understand an example like that of Jonathan Daniels?

     Jonathan Daniels was a Episcopalian seminarian and a worker for civil rights.  He died saving the life of a fellow picketer during the struggle in the 1960s for the right to vote for African-Americans.  He is remembered with a feast day in Lesser Fasts and Feasts.  By exploring the concept of virtue ethics, we can come to a greater understanding of the exemplary life and death of Jonathan Daniels.

     Virtue ethics is one of three major systems of moral theology or ethics.  The other two are deontology and utilitarianism (also known as consequentalism).  Deontological ethics emphasize duties and rules, whereas utilitarian ethics focus on the ends or consequences.  Both deontology and utilitarianism focus on right action and ask the question “What should I do?”, while virtue ethics differs from both by emphasizing right character and virtue and asks the question “What person shall I be?”

     A practical example might serve to help to differentiate the three systems of moral theology more clearly.  A person tells the truth about a matter and does not lie.  A utilitarian would tell the truth because the consequences of lying would be harmful, or the consequences of telling the truth would be beneficial.  The greater good is the goal here.  A deontological person would tell the truth because it is their duty, they would be obeying a moral rule that says that telling a lie is wrong and telling the truth is essentially good.  A virtues ethical person would tell the truth because they have an honest character.  It is not so much the action of truth-telling that is important (either acting in duty or for the greater good) as the virtue of being truthful in nature (they are fundamentally an honest person at heart). 

     The founders of virtue ethics are Plato and Aristotle.  The key concepts of virtue ethics are from ancient Greek philosophy, and include arete (virtue or excellence), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and eudaimonia (flourishing, happiness, or well-being) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Aristotle describes virtues as being twofold, “partly intellectual and partly moral” (Aristotle 395).  Intellectual virtue is “originated and fostered mainly by teaching; it demands therefore experience and time” whereas moral virtue “is the outcome of habit” (Aristotle 395).  Ethical behavior is not innate, it must be taught and more importantly it must be lived.  Aristotle wrote that “it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, by doing brace acts that we become brave” (Aristotle 395).  A virtuous character is not in-born, it has to be developed over a period of time and maintained. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hope and Challenge for Mission

A sermon based on 1 Kings 19:9-18
August 7, 2011

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the book of 1st Kings. 1st and 2nd Kings together tell a narrative story covering about 400 years, from the death of King David to the Babylonian exile. After King David died and there was some fighting between David’s sons, his son Solomon rose to power. King Solomon was known for his wisdom, his riches, building the temple, and his many wives. King Solomon was also responsible for building temples to other gods for his foreign wives, this led many people astray, angered God, and after Solomon’s death the kingdom split into two – Israel and Judah.

Elijah was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab in the kingdom of Israel, in about the 9th century BC. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who worshiped the god Baal. Jezebel was responsible for converting Ahab to worshiping Baal, and also for the deaths of many Jewish prophets. Elijah challenges 450 prophets of Baal to a competition to prove whose god is real by calling on their god to light the sacrifice on their altar. Elijah exposes Baal as a false god and then has the Baal prophets slaughtered.

At the beginning of 1st Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from Jezebel and Ahab. He was afraid, went into the wilderness, and asked God to let him die. An angel provided food and water and encouraged Elijah. This is where today’s reading begins.

Elijah goes to a mountain to encounter God. There Elijah experiences a great wind that breaks rocks, an earthquake, a fire, and then the sound of sheer silence. If you’re familiar with the story, then you know that God was present in the silence and not the three powerful forces of nature. But if you hadn't heard this story before, would you have been surprised about the way in which God manifested?

I was certainly surprised when I learned this story as a child. The Old Testament is filled with spectacular events and awesome demonstrations of God’s power.  There was the burning bush that wasn't consumed by the flames, all those terrible plagues, and the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. A great wind, an earthquake, or a fire would fit right in with those other images of God’s power. But this time God chose another way.

This time, the great wind, earthquake and fire were all distractions. God was present in the sound of sheer silence, or as some other translations say, a still small voice. When we are desperate we often cling to what is flashy and powerful, but Elijah did not make that mistake. Elijah recognized God’s presence in the silence.

A voice asked, “‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’”

Elijah may have recognized God’s presence, but that didn't stop him from being despairing and a bit self-righteous in his response. Nor can we blame him for his very human attitude – Elijah had accomplished wonders but was faced with so much opposition and probable death. Elijah was afraid, lonely, depressed, and tired. God answered with compassion – reassuring Elijah that he was not alone. There were many other followers left besides Elijah. God had a plan, and told Elijah who to appoint as the next King and also who to appoint as Elijah’s successor. This reminded Elijah that the mission wasn't dependent upon him but rather upon God. It is God’s work that Elijah was doing, and God would make sure that it continued after Elijah.

At one point or another in our lives, we experience similar emotions to what Elijah did – depression, fear, loneliness. The circumstances leading to those emotions are very different from person to person – I don’t know about you but I certainly haven’t been in a fight to the death with prophets of Baal. But I have felt overwhelmed by life at times, felt that I was alone or not up to doing what needed to be done. I’m sure many, if not all of you, have felt the same way at some point. This story of Elijah can serve as a message to us of hope and challenge. The hope is that God will prevail; and that things do not depend upon only us for we are not alone. The challenge is to resist distractions, as well as to resist the allure of corruption and despair that often permeates this world.


A sermon based on Matthew 14:13-21
July 31, 2011

The feeding of the five thousand – this may be one of Jesus’ most important miracles because it is in fact, the only one of his miracles during his ministry that is recorded in all four gospels (other than the miracle of the resurrection of course). All four gospel writers thought that this story was important enough to include in their gospel, and so this story is worth a second look to see what it has to teach us today.

This story takes place immediately after Jesus and his disciples are told about the death of John the Baptist. That’s the news that Jesus heard that caused him to take a boat to a deserted place to be by himself. Jesus must have felt grief at the loss of his cousin and fellow-worker for the Kingdom of God. But a great crowd followed Jesus and would not let him be alone.

Jesus could have been upset at being denied time alone, or he could have been overwhelmed at the size and need of the crowd. I know that I would have felt those things. The text tells us that there were 5,000 men, plus women and children – so there is no telling what the actual number of people was, just that it was an enormous crowd. The text also tells us is that when Jesus saw the crowd “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus had compassion. An important lesson that we can take away from this story is that God is love.

Jesus had compassion and didn't send away people who needed to be cured. And when the crowd became hungry and the disciples wanted to send the crowd away to find food on their own, Jesus had compassion on the hungry and ordered his disciples to feed the people. Jesus said to his disciples, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." The disciples replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

It is interesting that the disciples describe what they have as nothing. What they had was meager, but it was more than nothing. All the disciples saw was the fact that they did not have enough. I’m sure that we all have had similar situations – where all we see is what we lack and not what we have. It’s hard to see the potential in what we have when we are focused on what we lack. Jesus saw what the disciples had – five loaves and two fish – and he saw the potential. Jesus told his disciples to bring the bread and fish to him.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

God's Kingdom

A sermon based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 24, 2011

Today’s gospel reading is a collection of five parables that describe the Kingdom of heaven. Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” while the other gospels use the term “kingdom of God.” They both refer to God’s kingdom; the realm where God reigns and God’s will is done. Jesus often uses parables to teach his followers what God’s Kingdom is like.

Let’s start with the first two parables – that of the mustard seed and the yeast. On first glance, the meaning of these parables seems to be that out of something tiny something large grows – and that is definitely true about the Kingdom of God. We can see the way this has played out in Christian history – the Jesus movement started with a few followers of Christ, then spread to hundreds, then thousands – and today there are Christians all over the world.

On second glance, these parables have a few other things to teach us as well. The mustard plant grows into a bush, not a tree. If you wanted an image of a grand tree that provides shelter for many birds you would think of a cedar, not a mustard bush. To say that mustard is the greatest of shrubs and grows into a great tree is hyperbole. In fact, mustard was often viewed as more of a weed. Instead of using a noble tree like the cedar to symbolize the Kingdom of God – Jesus uses a pesky weed. What could this mean? This parable teaches us that God’s Kingdom grows where it wants to, that God’s Kingdom might not be what we would have planned for but it becomes great and mighty beyond all expectations.

In Jesus’ day, yeast didn't come in little packets at the supermarket like they do today. Yeast was actually leaven, which is a moldy piece of bread or dough. This leaven was mixed into the next batch of bread to make it rise, and a piece of the new batch would be saved to become the leaven for a later batch. Leaven was often viewed negatively as a sign of corruption, something that mysteriously changes from within. In this parable, Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God is something that changes us from within, and it has the power to change us completely.

Both the mustard and leaven parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven becomes present in ways that are unexpected and even scandalous by worldly standards  - we see this also shown by Jesus in his death on the cross. It was unexpected for the Messiah to die such a scandalous and painful death, but it was the means by which God choose to achieve redemption.

The next two parables are related – that of the hidden treasure and that of the fine pearl. In both parables, someone sells everything that they have in order to obtain the desired good. At first glance, these parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven is more valuable than anything else in our lives.

Treasure is an important metaphor in Matthew’s gospel, it refers to one’s ultimate allegiance. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (6.19-21; also 12:35; 19:21) The kingdom of heaven should be like treasure, the place where your heart is fixated.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

At Rest

I'm on a much needed vacation this week.

We ate at a Pan-Asian restaurant tonight, and this was one of the most applicable fortune cookie fortunes that I've ever seen:

You don't have to tell me twice.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

God Bless the World

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A.
The day before Independence Day.

Zechariah 9:9-12
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sometimes you just can’t win.

John the Baptist lived and preached on the edge of society – he wore clothes made of camel hair; he ate wild locusts and honey. And many people thought that he was crazy, or had a demon.

Jesus lived and preached in society – he did travel from place to place but he went to people’s houses, to the synagogue, to a wedding, to a grave and other public places. Jesus ate and drank what normal people ate and drank – and for this some people thought, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You really can’t win with some people, whatever you do will be seen as wrong by someone.

You just can’t win, particularly if you are preaching on the day before a national holiday like Independence Day. Some people will want a patriotic sermon. Some people want to hear about all the things that our country does wrong. And still others prefer I ignore the holiday all together. (I guess it’s already too late to please them.) To be fair I must strive to be an equal opportunity offender, but it’s almost as difficult to please no one and it is to please everyone. So what I will do is explore how today’s readings relate to tomorrow’s holiday.

Our reading from Zechariah is an interesting choice for the day before Independence Day. In this reading we hear a description of a victorious yet humble king:
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” 
This is an interesting image to consider - a King and world domination contrasts with our celebrations of overthrowing the King of England’s rule over the United States. The imagery of a king riding a donkey would sound odd to those who first heard it, but it sounds familiar to us Christians who remember and celebrate the story of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There is a traditional Christian belief that someday Jesus will rule over the world and bring peace.

On a weekend in which Americans celebrate independence from one king, Christians long for the rule of another. The word “king” has a lot of negative connotations for us – it brings to mind oppressive rule, where a few lord it over the many, where a few take whatever they want. Jesus isn’t that kind of king. It might be helpful to use another word other than king but every other word for ruler/leader has its own problems. The term “president” would not work. We don’t get to elect Jesus our ruler, we don’t get a choice between Jesus and others. And yet there is more freedom in being Jesus’ disciple than there is in choosing a leader.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Mission of Hospitality

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year A

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In our gospel lesson today, Jesus talks about hospitality.

When I hear the word “hospitality” I think of front doors with welcome mats, a glass of cold ice-tea (with sugar in it of course), and people welcoming neighbors who are new to the neighborhood. These are the images that come to my mind when I think of “hospitality”.

Hospitality refers to the relationship between a guest and a host, with the host offering generous and cordial reception towards the guest. Hospitality in the ancient middle-east was more than mere politeness, it was crucial and expected. The desert and arid land of the Middle East was a very harsh environment. The ability to receive water, food, and shelter could be the difference between life and death for travelers. Numerous passages in the Old Testament tell the Israelites to treat strangers and resident aliens well, as they themselves were once foreigners in Egypt.

I think that it is fitting that this week’s gospel follows the one from last week. Last Sunday, our gospel reading (Matthew 28:16-20) was the great commission. Jesus told his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Jesus sent his disciples out as representatives of himself – to preach the gospel that Jesus preached, to teach the lessons Jesus taught, and to baptize in the name of the Triune God knowing that Jesus is with them. The disciples were individuals, but they represented something greater than themselves – Jesus Christ.

Our culture is very individualistic. I think that there are definitely some good things to say about recognizing that people are individuals – people have different aspirations, desires, motivations, likes and dislikes. But as with all good things – you can take it too far. Individualism taken too far becomes selfishness and it isolates us from one another, it fails to recognize that we are part of a greater whole – we belong to groups of people in families, friendships, communities. And rightly or wrongly, what a few people do can reflect poorly on the larger group.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Five: Faith and Culture edition

 This week's Friday Five posted by Terri is in honor of a week of interfaith study and celebration:

1. An experience of a religion other than my own - As part of my Hebrew language class in seminary, we attended a service at a local synagogue. There was a cantor singing in Hebrew, and it was very beautiful. I enjoyed this experience.

2. Classes I've taken on another culture or faith - In college I took several classes that are applicable to this category, including: Religions and Philosophies of China, Religions and Philosophies of India, Hellenistic Religions, and Hebrew Scriptures. In seminary I took a class on the Dalits (commonly called "untouchables") of India.

3. A book that I've found helpful on other religions God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World by Stephen Prothero. Prothero's premise is that all religions do not teach the same thing but that they agree on only one thing - that there is something wrong with the world. Each religion defines the ultimate problem differently and therefore has a different answer to the problem than other religions. For example, Christians believe that the ultimate problem with the world is sin and the answer to that problem is salvation from sin brought by Jesus Christ.  Other religions do not see sin as the ultimate problem, and so do not understand/seek salvation from sin as the answer.

4. Cultures I've experienced while traveling - I've traveled to various places in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. These countries did have different cultures than my American culture, but their majority religion was still Christianity. 

5. Cultures/faiths that I would like to experience - It would be interesting to someday travel to a country that has a majority religion other than Christianity. Two places that I'd like to travel to someday would be Israel and India.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What is Your Creation Story?

A sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5
June 19, 2011

I find creation stories fascinating. The way that the story is told tells you a lot about the people who wrote it and their view of the world and god (or gods as the case may be). What a person or group of people believe matters, because it effects the way they live their lives, the way they view the world and their place in it.

 There are two creation stories in Genesis, part of the 1st story is our Old Testament reading today. The story introduces God without any description of God’s origin or past history. As monotheists who believe that one God created everything, the beginning of Genesis does not seem shocking the way it would have to the Hebrew’s neighbors. Most near Eastern deities had parents and complicated biographies. The God of the Old Testament just is.

The creation story in the 1st chapter of Genesis tells us about a God who is cosmic and makes order from chaos. We learn that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” For the Hebrews, water was often a sign of chaos. The deep was something to fear, no human being could predict or control the ocean waters. We have all learned from the book of Genesis that God created by speaking “Let there be…” but God also created by separating and making boundaries. Light and darkness were separated, the sky was created to separate the waters above and the waters below, dry land was separated from water.

 We learn from this creation story many truths but it should not be confused with a step-by-step instruction on creation that could be replicated the way cookbook recipes can be or science experiments can be. Genesis is not a history book like a modern day book about the civil war is a history book - we can understand more or less what went on the civil war, we cannot begin to understand creation but must use words and images to share what truths we can know. What we learn from this creation story is that there is one God who is and this God is responsible in an orderly way for the creation of all that we can see, and that God considered what God created to be good.

 One imperfect but helpful way to describe part of God’s creative process is to say that God creates by imposing order onto chaos, by separating thing from thing and making boundaries.

 As human beings, we are always trying to make sense out of things – I suppose it is our own way of trying to impose order onto chaos. In a small way we imitate God’s creative power – yes, we do create more of ourselves, but we also create new ideas and technologies that impose order onto the chaos of our lives. Perhaps this is a part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God – to seek to make order from chaos by creating.

 The deep waters would have been terrifying to the early Hebrews, and so are a great image for chaos. Today, we have largely overcome that fear. We have created huge ships that can circumnavigate the globe, and we have sent vessels and cameras to the ocean depths to examine what bizarre and amazing creatures live there. We are capable of making helpful predictions about the paths of hurricanes – but we cannot make a prediction very far in advance and we cannot control hurricanes and tsunamis. Water is still chaotic and yet life-giving.

 In Genesis, God’s spirit hovered over the waters and God spoke life and order into existence. Water is still the most basic building block of our bodies, and it is the most pressing need that we have. It is highly appropriate that something as chaotic and fundamental as water became the symbol for baptism.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Invitation to Dance - Sermon for Trinity Sunday

I'm not preaching this Sunday, so I'd thought that I'd post the sermon I preached last year. 

Trinity Sunday, Year C
May 30, 2010

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day of the year in which the church celebrates the Triune God, a central doctrine of Christianity. 1 God in 3 Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I’ve heard it said that you can’t talk about the Trinity for more than a minute or two before you inadvertently wander into heresy. Unfortunately, I have to preach for more than two minutes, so I apologize in advance for any heretical ponderings – please don’t call the Bishop.

We usually use analogies to try to explain the mystery of the Trinity – but every analogy falls short in some way. A popular analogy is water. The Trinity is like H2O – it can be water, ice, and steam – liquid, solid, and gas. One substance, and 3 ways of being. I really like that analogy, but unfortunately if taken too literally it leads to a heresy – that of Modalism. A Modalist only allows God to be in one mode at a time. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all coexist together in the same time and place. Ice, water, and steam do not.

I think a more helpful analogy is that of my cat. I have a black cat named Gandalf. He is an indoor cat, and hates closed doors. If a door is closed, he wants it be opened. Gandalf will sit in front of the door, stare at it, and give a pitiful meow that can only mean “Why is door closed, why, why, why?”

Cats are pretty smart creatures, but their intelligence varies greatly from cat to cat. Some cats learn to open doors on their own, other cats will never learn on their own but they could be taught how to open a door, and still other cats will never learn how to open a door. The handles on our doors are levers, and Gandalf could theoretically open them. All he needs to do is to hit down on the handle with his paws – it could work.

Gandalf has not figured this out. He has come close. He will stand on his back legs, put his front paws up on the door and then stare intently at the door handle. It looks like he is on the verge of figuring it out – but he never does. He is just not quite smart enough.

This analogy doesn’t explain the Trinity, but I think it explains us humans trying to explain the Trinity. People trying to explain the mystery of God are like my cat staring at the doorknob – so close and yet so far away from ever understanding. A cat might accidentally open the door, or someone may show a cat how to open the door – but a cat will never fully understand how doors and doorknobs work. And so humans might stumble upon some truths and have other truths revealed to us, but we will never fully comprehend the full nature of God.

All language is so inadequate when it comes to describing God - so why bother? Why do we bother with a Trinity at all? Christians have 3 choices when it comes to describing God:
  1. We can give up on describing God entirely. In which case, how do we know what God we worship? Is it the same as Zeus, Athena, Baal, Allah, Quetzalcoatl? Or a different God? Obviously this first choice is no good, we need to know what God we worship. Our second choice is:
  2. We can come up with a very simple concept of God, one that is easy to understand but fails to do justice to the multitude of witnesses to God that we find in the Bible, Church tradition, Christian worship and experience. Or...
  3. We can do our best to remain faithful to Biblical witness and Christian experience of God – even though the end result is difficult to understand. Orthodox Christian theology has always adopted the last of these choices.

A long time ago Christians realized that taking the easy way out when it came to describing God was not good enough. I think that it shouldn’t be good enough for us today either. St. Augustine of Hippo once said – “If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God.” 

“If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God.”

What little we do know of God we know through the testimony of those who wrote and edited the Bible, the handing down of Church teaching and tradition, our communal and personal experiences during worship, prayer, and daily life, and our reason. All these testify to a God that is complex beyond our understanding, but there are some concrete things that we can know about God.

We know that God is creative – God is responsible for the existence of the world and all that is in it.
We know that God is loving and merciful – God came down to us as Jesus, who lived and died as one of us in order to reconcile us to God.
And we know that God is relational – That is the truth that the doctrine of the Trinity tries to express. God is relational, both within God’s own self and also with what God has created.

God is relational. We learn this from the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: "When the Spirit of truth comes …. he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine." In another place in John's Gospel, Jesus declares, "Do you not know that the Father is in me and I in the Father?" Still elsewhere Jesus prays that his disciples may be one "even as the Father and I are one."

This is the language of relationship and mutuality. Richard of St. Vincent, a 12th century scholar, contemplated this and “spoke of God in terms of shared love, a community in which that love is expansive and generous. It is love that cannot be self contained” and overflows.

The Eastern Church describes the Trinity as perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around.” Perichoresis refers to the mutual inter-penetration and indwelling within the threefold nature of the Trinity, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance, a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement…. what we see in the Trinity is a dance of Persons who are mutually affirming, mutually caring. For the very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.”(The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson)

I’ve heard people say that God created the world and humanity because God was lonely. I don’t believe that at all. The Triune God is never alone in the same way that we are alone. God didn’t need us to be God’s dance partners. And yet, God did choose to create us, and redeem us, and invite us to join in the divine Dance. We are called by name to participate in this divine dance of love.

So many people feel alone, unloved, and separate from others. What would the world be like if everyone knew that God loved them and invites them to dance? The world would be a very different place indeed. The Kingdom of God is a place where everyone will know that they are valued and loved and welcomed into relationship.

This is the gospel we are meant to proclaim to the world, a gospel that speaks of God as relational and God’s love for us. “There is one God, who is relationship, who is Divine Dance, who is Love.” (The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson) And all people are God's Beloved, invited to dance. Will you answer God’s invitation to dance?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Wild Goose - Sermon for Pentecost

A Sermon for Pentecost, Year A

When you think of the Holy Spirit, what images come to mind? I would bet that the two images that you first think of are a dove and tongues of fire. The dove comes from Jesus’ baptism, where the Spirit descended upon him in a form like a dove. The tongues of fire come from our reading from Acts which tells us of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to be with the disciples.

Let’s consider those two symbols for a minute. Doves are considered signs of peace, they are docile and pretty. They do a good job at representing the comforting aspect of the Holy Spirit. Fire is not a sign of peace or docile, but the tongues of fire above the disciples’ heads were safely contained. No one got burned. Fire is bright, strong, and powerful, which could help to represent the powerful and inspiring nature of the Holy Spirit.

Fire and doves might the most common symbols for the Holy Spirit, but they are not the only ones. The Celtic peoples of Scotland and Ireland depict the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. The wild goose is better than a dove at portraying the untamable and unpredictable nature of the Holy Spirit. While doves emit a soft coo, wild geese are noisy and loud, often at inconvenient times. Wild geese are mean and are frequently considered pests by people. Wild geese are disturbing, disruptive, wild, untamable, unpredictable, and free.

The Holy Spirit as wild goose helps to get at the more uncomfortable aspects of the Holy Spirit. Yes, I did say uncomfortable and Holy Spirit together. This might sound odd, because we often call the Holy Spirit by the title “Comforter” but the Holy Spirit does much more than comforting the afflicted – the Holy Spirit also afflicts the comfortable when we are in places and situations in which we shouldn’t be comfortable.

We like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, Helper, Guide – and the Holy Spirit is definitely those things. But the Holy Spirit cannot be tamed and put into a box of our choice – the Spirit is wild and free and goes where God wills.

David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, says that “the crucified and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should look for no less in God's Holy Spirit.” He describes two paradoxes of Pentecost that I would like for us to contemplate today.

Paradox #1 – “The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.”

What do you mean, God the Spirit is not here to solve our problems but to create them? I would say that yes, God the Spirit does comfort us through our tough times but does not necessarily solve things for us. And in fact, the Spirit often times wants to shake things up. This is where the image of the wild goose can be helpful. The Holy Spirit makes noise, often at the most inconvenient times, and we are supposed to not chase the Holy Spirit away but to try to figure out why the Spirit wants to disturb us. The Holy Spirit comforts the afflicted – and afflicts the comfortable who need to change.

Human beings become comfortable and complacent, while the world changes around us. We need to grow and change and the Holy Spirit challenges us to do that.

After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples could have gone back to their former careers as fishermen, tax collectors, and so on. But they didn’t. The Holy Spirit came to them and would not let them go back to their old lives, but took them to new and challenging situations and places as they preached the gospel.

Paradox #2: “The Holy Spirit doesn't prevent failure but invites it. Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

This is also hard for us to hear. I prefer the second way Dr. Lose put it – “the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

God doesn’t solve all our problems for us. If God did, then Christians would have easy lives. But looking back through the history of Christianity and through our own personal histories, we can see numerous problems and numerous failures and setbacks. Christians have not always done the right things and have not always succeeded at what they have tried. I know that I have not always done the right thing, and that I’ve not always succeeded at everything I’ve tried - and it’s a safe bet that that’s true of everyone here in this congregation today. In the movie Apollo 13, Mission Control says that “failure is not an option.” Well, failure is not only an option but it is inevitable.  Life is full of mistakes, accidents, failures, setbacks, things we would not have chosen for ourselves. The Holy Spirit strengthens us in these hard times, not just to get us through it but also to learn and grown from them.

It can also be helpful to think again of the image of a wild goose, particularly a young goose learning how to fly. Geese are awkward walking around on the ground. It is awkward for a goose learning how to takeoff, fly, and land at first. But the goose perseveres and become graceful and strong in the air – able to undertake extremely long journeys with its companions.

An interesting thing about wild geese is that they live and journey in companionship. Likewise the Holy Spirit is never alone but is in communion with the other aspects of the Holy Trinity – God the Father and God the Son. Likewise Christians are never alone, because we know that God is with us, the Holy Spirit is in us. And Christians have one another to journey with – we do not have to fly alone, and in fact, we do much better together.

I invite all of us this Pentecost today, to consider carefully (both for ourselves but especially as a church) - what problems the Spirit might be leading us to face, what risks we might have to take that might end in failure, and how we learn and grow from setbacks.

I’d like to end my sermon today with a prayer:

May the Holy Spirit bring us peace and comfort when needed, as well as very noisy reminders when we need to be less than comfortable.
May the church not try to tame the Holy Spirit and place God in a box of our choosing, but instead recognize the untamable, unpredictable, wild and free nature of God.
May the Spirit create appropriate challenges for us to undertake, that the world may become more and more the Kingdom of God that God wants.
May the Holy Spirit strengthen us through times of setback and failure, and help us to learn the lessons that God wants us to learn and find fulfillment in the journey.
Like a wind blowing where it will, and a wild goose flying where it will, may the Spirit move us personally and the church universally in whatever ways God wills us to be moved. Amen.