Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sermon: Palm Sunday ( 28 March 2010)

Palm Sunday: 1 April 2007
(Luke 19:28-48)
Symbols and Triumph

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Symbols are powerful and evocative. Burn an American flag as a protected expression of free speech if you will. Burn an American flag in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post and you might pay dearly for your freedom, as indeed many of them have.

Like many Hebrew prophets Jesus was a master of symbols, using them in deed and in word to enlighten, to challenge, and, especially in today’s gospel text, to provoke. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone present – either Jesus’ disciples, the ordinary crowds, the Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, or the various Roman officials – could have missed the symbolic intent of Jesus’ actions. Misunderstand them, yes. Miss them, no.

The Triumphal Entry all starts about a thousand years earlier with David – now king of all Israel – with his desire and plan to build a temple for God, an everlasting house for the glory of the LORD.

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Sam 7:1-7, 11b-16, NRSV).

God rejects David’s offer of a house and promises instead to establish a house for David – a dynasty of kings in which one of David’s sons, though burdened with iniquity and sorely punished, will nevertheless possess an everlasting kingdom and be called the son of God.

Some two or three decades later David lies dying. His son Adonijah takes advantage of this moment of weakness and uncertainty to stage a coup. With the support of some of his younger brothers; Joab, the commander of David’s army; and Abiathar the priest; he declares himself king of Israel. But David, alerted by the prophet Nathan and his wife Bathsheba, has a different plan.

King David said, ‘Summon to me the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada.’ When they came before the king, the king said to them, ‘Take with you the servants of your lord, and have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. There let the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, “Long live King Solomon!” You shall go up following him. Let him enter and sit on my throne; he shall be king in my place; for I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah’ (1 Ki 1:32-35, NRSV).

All was done as David commanded. Solomon rode into Jerusalem on a mule – a royal beast of burden – where he was anointed king and acclaimed by all the people. It was Solomon, and not Adonijah, who would fulfill God’s promise to David of a royal dynasty. And what of Adonijah? That pretender to the throne was immediately deposed, though later he once again tried to wrest the kingdom from Solomon.

It is now Sunday morning some thousand years later. Jesus, poised to enter Jerusalem, awaits the return of his disciples whom he sent on a mission.

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!Hosanna in the highest heaven’ (Mt 21:6-9, NRSV).

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!” the crowds cried, for they saw the symbols and understood. Jesus, descendant of David, on a royal beast of burden, riding into Jerusalem to depose the pretenders to the everlasting throne, a new Solomon: this is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. David’s son has come, the one who will reign for ever, the one to be called the son of God.

Yes, the people saw the symbols and understood. So, too, did the Pharisees. Hearing the peoples’ chant, “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop’” (Luke 19:39, NRSV). The Pharisees understood the symbols, understood these actions and these words as a royal proclamation, understood the march of the crowd as a coronation parade. And they were having none of it, none of a troublesome Galilean peasant turned would-be king.

And Rome? Yes, Rome understood also, understood the symbols so clearly that within the week they would crucify this Jesus under the placard “King of the Jews.” Rome knew just how to handle Jewish kings.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by the crowds as the son of David, like Solomon, he declared every other ruler to be Adonijah, a usurper, a fraud, no king at all. Herod, Pilate, Caesar – all deposed by the son of David, the son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the one true Lord. Well did the psalmist speak of them, of this moment.

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us” (Ps 2:1-3, NRSV).

Symbols are powerful and evocative. Ride a donkey in the fields if you will. Ride a donkey into Jerusalem at the head of a coronation parade and you might pay with your life. The kings of the earth and the rulers do not abdicate their thrones willingly.

David was not allowed to build God’s temple; that task fell to his son, Solomon. With all the people assembled before the new altar Solomon ended his dedicatory prayer with an invocation of God’s presence.

Now rise up, O Lord God, and go to your resting-place, you and the ark of your might.Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your faithful rejoice in your goodness. O Lord God, do not reject your anointed one. Remember your steadfast love for your servant David’ (2 Ch 6:41-42, NRSV).

And God appeared; his glory filled the temple.

When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt-offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house (2 Ch 7:1-2, NRSV).

The temple became the most powerful symbol of God’s presence with his people for nearly four centuries. Until the people forgot the LORD their God. Until they filled the temple with vain worship and, even more detestably, with the worship of false gods. Unable to bring the people to repentance and unwilling to endure their blasphemy any longer, the glory of the LORD departed the temple (cf Eze 10). Shortly afterwards, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried Judah into exile.

Some seventy years later the returning exiles rebuilt the temple, though a much more modest version. But never does scripture record a return of God’s glory to that temple. It was a place of worship, yes, but not a place where God dwelt as before. So the Old Testament closes with Malachi’s prophetic longing and hope for the return of the LORD to his temple.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:1, NRSV).

But the hope is tinged with warning. Yes, the LORD will come, but as a righteous judge who will convict and purify.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:2-5, NRSV).

It is now Sunday morning, some four hundred years since Malachi penned these words. Jesus of Nazareth, at the head of the coronation procession, enters Jerusalem.

Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,“My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard (Luke 19:45-48, NRSV).

The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people understood Jesus’ powerful and provocative use of the temple as symbol: this is Malachi’s prophecy. This rabble-rousing peasant rabbi from Galilee is acting as God returning to the temple in judgment. “My temple,” he dares to say. “You have made it a den of robbers,” he pronounces in judgment. They understood his symbolic claim, though they rejected it and plotted to kill him. Symbols are powerful and evocative. Worship in the temple if you will. Enter it as God in judgment, purify it with a whip of cords, smash tables, drive out the money changers, fulfill Malachi’s prophecy, and you might pay with your life. The false prophets of God do not acknowledge the true God readily.

So, in the account of the Triumphal Entry we find Jesus using the powerful symbols of his culture in provocative ways to proclaim himself king and Lord. And that presents us with a question and a challenge: How are we to use the powerful symbols of our culture – perhaps even in provocative ways – to proclaim Jesus as king and Lord?

We must begin, of course, by identifying the most potent symbols of our culture. I suggest we need look no further than the tragic and evil events of 9/11. The terrorists got it right in one regard. They correctly identified and attacked several of the most powerful and evocative symbols of American culture – the Trade Towers, the Pentagon and Washington D.C. (in the failed attack by Pan Am 93): conspicuous wealth, violent power, and domineering control. Our challenge as disciples of Jesus, is to subvert these cultural symbols, to use them to proclaim Jesus as king and Lord.

Jesus had much to say about wealth, and none of it good. How we approach wealth, how we value and use money, will either proclaim Jesus as Lord or Mammon – the demonic personification of wealth – as Lord. Jesus was clear: you cannot serve both God and money. So, how can we use the symbol of money to reject the demonic hold it has over our culture and to proclaim Jesus as Lord?

St. Francis in the 12th century and Shane Claiborne in the 20th century subverted the symbol of money by rejecting it, by renouncing the hold and importance of money and by embracing gospel poverty. Bono, lead singer of U2 took another route altogether. In partnership with famous brands such as Apple’s iPod, Armani, and American Express, Bono launched a line of RED products. A portion of each sale goes to combat poverty and disease in Africa. He is using consumerism to combat poverty – an ironic subversion of the symbol of money.

What about us – you and me? This you must work out in your own life story, but some obvious general ideas come to mind.

Pray and work for the contentment that comes only from God and not from possessions, the contentment that Paul found in Jesus alone.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Phil 4:11b-13, NIV).

Be generous. Share. Give. There is perhaps no better way to loosen money’s hold over you than to loosen your hold over money.

Practice trust – trust that God will provide your needs so that you need no longer worry about what you will eat or drink or about what you will wear – and the list could go on. Revel in the Father’s love for you and his desire to provide all you need, most especially himself.

In these ways, and many others that you will think of, we can powerfully and provocatively use our cultural symbol of wealth to proclaim Jesus as king and Lord.

Violence and abuse of power pervade our society and our world and have no place in the lives of those who proclaim Jesus as king and Lord. Our rejection of all coercion, threat, anger, violence, and force is a powerful testimony and a powerful symbol of our commitment to him. In little ways and large we must wage peace. How?

Start with those who should be easiest to love – your family and friends. Determine to treat them kindly, always – as you would like to be treated – and, when you fail, ask their forgiveness. And when they fail and ask your forgiveness, forgive. Even before they ask, forgive. Once you’ve mastered this with family and friends then you can move on to strangers and even enemies.

Forego violent entertainment. Why should we fill our minds and hearts with war and murder and torture? Why should we derive pleasure from what is opposed to the Lordship of Jesus?

In the name of Christ, support and work for an end to violence in all its forms – not just the obvious and overt forms like war and genocide and abortion and capital punishment, but also the more subtle forms like local poverty and third world debt and discrimination and neglect.

Throughout the world the United States is considered domineering and controlling, bent solely on its own self-interest. Our flag, the Capitol, the White House – all symbols of domination and control. I won’t debate the truth of these impressions; I’m interested in how we, as disciples of Christ, might be seen differently and thus witness to Jesus as king and Lord. How might we subvert the symbols of power and domination of our culture?

It is well passed time that we embrace Jesus’ teaching of greatness – that the one who would be great must be the servant of all. Domination and control are foreign to the culture of faith. That is why it is so destructive to our witness when, in Jesus’ name, Christian groups use the same coercive political tactics as everyone else to get a candidate elected or a bill passed, or when individual Christians use heavy-handed business or legal tactics to win regardless of the ethical cost. It is well passed time to serve someone other than ourselves, to relinquish control to Jesus, to stand with and bear the burdens of the weakest in our midst – to become weak with them if need be. In our very weakness, in our submission, in our servitude, we subvert all symbols of power and proclaim Jesus as king and Lord.

Jesus had his Triumphal Entry in which he provocatively used and challenged the symbols of his culture to proclaim himself as king and Lord. As his disciples we are called to do no less. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos

Troparion of the Annunciation
Today is the fountainhead of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery which was from eternity. The Son of God becometh the Virgin’s Son, and Gabriel proclaimeth the good tidings of grace; wherefore, we also cry to the Theotokos with him: Rejoice, thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sermon: 4 Lent (14 March 2010)

Regular readers of this blog -- if there be any such among you! -- may have noticed that throughout Lent I have been posting reprints of sermons from 2007. No, I am not getting lazy and falling back on "old" sermons. These are not, in fact, the sermons I am using in our gatherings at Trinity Church; those are entirely new. It is simply this: during Lent, I have determined to write no sermons, but instead -- as a wise saint and brother once directed me -- to prepare not a sermon, but rather to prepare myself for the sermon.

Lent 4: 18 March 2007
(Joshua 5:9-12/Psalm 32/2 Corinthians 5:16-21/Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Let the Ones With Ears Hear

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

To his contemporaries Jesus was the prophet from Galilee. “Who do men say that I am?” he once asked his disciples. The answer was unanimous: a prophet. The people couldn’t agree on which one – John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, or some other – but they recognized a prophet when they saw one, and Jesus fit the bill.

The Hebrew prophets were masters of symbolic action and apocalyptic speech, revealing God’s message by deed and word. Jeremiah used a linen belt to symbolize his people’s pride and ruin, and a broken pot to pronounce destruction upon Judah. Ezekiel drew the city of Jerusalem on a clay tablet and then laid siege to it, building ramps and battering rams – playing in the dirt with army men to show the impending fall of Jerusalem. John the Baptist symbolized repentance with water, and perhaps the end of exile and the coming of the Lord with his appearance out of the wilderness. And of course they talked, these prophets. They explained – sometimes in very cryptic and apocalyptic language – the meaning behind their bizarre behavior.

Now comes Jesus, cut from the same cloth. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he proclaims, and that becomes the primary theme of his prophetic ministry. Jesus is the prophet of God’s kingdom. What does this mean to his Jewish followers? Simply that God is now acting in history to fulfill the covenant he made with their fathers, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: a covenant to vindicate Israel, to declare them in the right as his people; a covenant to deal with sin – to establish purity, not least by executing judgment upon the pagan nations oppressing Israel, but also by renewal of the people and the land; a covenant to end the continuing exile of his people and to return them to sovereignty in the land.

But if Jesus was a prophet, he was a confusing one. He looked like a prophet and acted like a prophet and talked like a prophet, but the message…the message was just a bit off. And the way he used the symbols – not quite right. Take his healings, for example: a clear symbol of God’s renewal of Israel, of the reversal of the curse of breaking the law. Heal Jairus’ daughter? Fine. The woman with the issue of blood? Certainly. But the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter – a gentile? And the centurion’s son – a Roman? That is not the renewal of Israel. That is not what kingdom-come should look like. As for dealing with sin and establishing purity, take the cleansing of the temple. Almost right, but he drove out the wrong people, Jews – merchants – and pronounced judgment on the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests. It was Rome he should have cast out, Rome he should have judged. And Jesus did play a bit fast and loose with the other symbols of Israel, especially the Sabbath which he and his followers routinely violated with healings and other works, and the purity laws which he disregarded by ignoring ceremonial washings and by talking with outcasts. As for the established religious system, Jesus soundly trounced the priesthood – as well as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes – at every opportunity. He claimed the kingdom of God was near and in the same breath commanded his followers to forgive the Roman occupiers, to turn the other check when oppressed, to carry the soldiers’ packs and to pay taxes to Caesar.

And his words – well, baffling is an understatement. He spoke in parables, which seemed to conceal as often as to reveal.

He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you [the disciples], but to others I speak in parables, so that,

‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand’”
(Luke 8:10, NIV).

Parables are often misunderstood – not just the meaning of specific parables, but the nature and purpose of the literary form. Parables are not simple stories designed to illustrate complex spiritual truths – earthly stories with heavenly meanings as the Sunday School definition goes; if they are, they are abject failures. Nor are they primarily specific examples of timeless, universal principles that Jesus’ followers should embody. No. As Jesus used them, the parables were sharp social and religious critique meant to challenge and provoke his listeners to change. The parables were not intended to inform, but to transform. In story form they were the equivalent of Jesus’ signature proclamation, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The parable we call the Prodigal Son is a case in point. Most often it’s taught as an illustration of God’s unconditional and costly love for undeserving sinners. There’s no denying the prodigal nature of God’s love for us and, at some secondary level, that point may be present in the parable. But the parable was an answer to a specific charge against Jesus and a critique of the false piety of the Pharisees. It was also, of course, a call to repent.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable (Luke 15:1-3, NIV).

Actually, Jesus told them a series of parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (the Prodigal Son). This text shows how symbolic action and parables worked together in Jesus’ prophetic ministry. Jesus acted in a way that expressed the coming of God’s kingdom, but in a way that also challenged common understandings of that kingdom, in a way that provoked and scandalized. And he in turn was challenged by the religious establishment. Why do you violate the traditions of the fathers? What do these actions mean? By what authority do you act in this way? And, as often as not, Jesus responded with a parable.

The theme of the Prodigal Son is not just the undeserved love of God, but the coming of the kingdom of God. It is a return from exile story, a story of Israel: the younger son is given a great treasure by his father; he leaves for a foreign land where he squanders his treasure and ends up in servitude to a pagan master; he comes to his senses, remembers his father, repents, and heads for home; he is welcomed by his loving father but ostracized by his elder brother. Good Jews chaffing under the yoke of Rome could hardly miss the parallels. Israel was the beloved son of God who had the treasures of election, law, and land. But they squandered these treasures and ended up in servitude in pagan lands or oppressed by pagan masters in their own land: first Egypt, then Syria, Babylonia, and now Rome. “Come to your senses,” Jesus calls to them. “Return to your father who will run to meet you and welcome you with open arms and with feasting. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This is the way kingdom-come works in Jesus’ story. And some got his stories; some heeded the call to repent – generally the poor and dispossessed, the sinners and the tax collectors. “He welcomes sinners and tax collectors and even eats with them,” the Pharisees complain. “Yes,” replies Jesus in this parable, “because the kingdom of God is near and this is what it looks like.”

In this parable we typically cast the sinners and tax collectors as the younger brother, the scribes and Pharisees as the elder brother, and Jesus as the father, trying to hold the family – both brothers – together. I suspect everyone was happy with his role. The sinners and tax collectors were under no false illusions; they knew they were social outcasts – a scandal to society – and were ready to grasp at any hope of restoration. The scribes and Pharisees knew they were the faithful, long-suffering, and neglected people of God, rightfully incensed at the decadence of sinners. Could they fail to see how badly the elder brother fared in the parable – what a jerk he was, as disrespectful to the father as was the younger brother? Or did they see, but not see, and hear but not understand?

I wonder if Jesus wanted them to try on a new role, if that might have been one purpose of the parable. You see yourself as the elder brother, but can you also see yourself as the younger? Can you see that there is really little difference in the two, that in one way or another, at one time or another, both are estranged from the father, both guilty of dishonoring and opposing the father? Can you see that you, too, are in exile, and need to repent and return? This recognition lies at the heart of Jesus’ prophetic message: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. And the kingdom is open for all who will come. The fatted calf has been prepared, the table is spread, the banquet is under way. Will you, too, repent and return, will you stay outside and sulk, or will you join the feast? This is the challenge the parable presents the scribes and Pharisees.

Only Luke records this parable, and it is an important one for him. It lies just barely under the surface of his account of the early church in Acts, an account of the church as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The Samaritans hear the gospel and believe. The gentiles embrace the gospel and repent. The younger brother returns from exile. But the Jewish Christians…well, still they are the elder brother, sulking at the presence of these new converts, refusing to eat at table with them – literally refusing to eat with them, insisting they become circumcised and keep Torah first. So Luke records the parable: let the ones with ears hear.

What are we to do with this parable? First we must understand it rightly in its context – what we’ve tried to do – because it never was intended for us, unless we foolishly insist upon casting ourselves as one of the brothers. I suppose we could fall back on the parable as an illustration of the love God or the need for repentance. Some, quite wrongly, see it as an exhortation to a radical inclusion that rejects the need for transformation, lest we become the elder brother. But that won’t do. Let’s take a different approach all together – one based on the nature and role of parables. Let’s ask, How are we so radically to live the kingdom of God that we are forced to resort to parables to explain ourselves? What parables would we tell? We are called to live prophetically in our culture as Jesus lived in his, to act in such countercultural kingdom ways that people are compelled to ask: Why do you act this way? By what authority do you act and speak as you do?

What could we do that might call forth these questions? What if, as the disciples of Christ, we took his words to heart and rejected coercion and violence and force and retribution? What if we actually turned the other cheek, loved our enemies as ourselves, and prayed for those who persecuted us? What if we refused to fight the world’s wars? Might this not compel them to ask: Why do you act this way? By what authority do you act and speak as you do? And what could we say?

A master guitarist had two young protégés – both exceptional musicians, both intensely competitive, each jealous of the other. As much as each loved the master, so did they hate each other. Throughout their musical careers they vied for prominence. Disparaging remarks were made by each and countered by the other as the young men grew older and farther apart. The master continued to write each and plead with them to reconcile, but to no avail. Eventually he died and was greatly mourned by the musical community. On the first anniversary of his death a televised tribute concert was planned. Each of his two protégés received a telegram inviting him to perform and each telegram contained the same strange stipulation. Immediately before his death the master had composed a piece for each of them that had been held secret by his estate. Each piece was to be opened and played by sight on the night of the concert, with both men on stage at the same time. In this way the world would finally see which of the two protégés was superior and which would become the master’s true heir. Each man agreed, looking forward to the chance to vanquish his enemy in this musical duel.

The night of the concert arrived and, for the finale, each of the guitarists gathered on stage sitting opposite one another. Each was given a large envelope containing the master’s last composition. A signal was given and the envelopes were opened. Each guitarist paused stunned as he read the title: Pax et Bonum – Peace and Good, a Duet for Two Guitars. Let the one with ears hear.

What if, as the disciples of Christ, we took his words to heart and refused to lay up treasure on earth? What if we gave freely to those who asked us and did not worry about what we would eat or drink or wear? What if we truly put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and trusted him to give us all that we need for life and health? Might this not compel the world to ask: Why do you act this way? By what authority do you act and speak as you do? And what could we say?

There was a certain businessman, or Three partners conceived of a plan. Or how about this? A young Maryville High School student moved to Philadelphia to go to school; there he met the Jesus who ruined his life. Now he’s poor – with little more than the handmade clothes on his back and the food for one more meal in his pantry and more blessings than he could ever have imagined. There’s a parable for you. Let the one with ears hear.

What if, as the disciples of Christ, we took his words to heart, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”? What if we lived so radically, so counterculturally that only parables had any chance of explaining us? And what if the parables we told weren’t just stories, but songs and art and professions and relationships and lives lived out in the image of Christ before the watching and wondering world? What if we became the living and loving parables of our living and loving God? Let the one with ears hear.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reflection: Siddhartha and Ministry

There is a new name on the church sign each week: this week two, in fact – one for the morning service and one for the evening. It seems this local mega-church is searching for a pastor and advertises each new candidate on its sign for members and community residents to preview. The names vary from week to week – obviously – but the prefix remains constant: Dr. Never just the first and last names, never Mr., always Dr. At least one of the church’s selection criterion is clear.

For some reason as I passed the sign this evening a selection from Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, came unbidden to mind.

Siddhartha went to Kamaswami the merchant, he was directed into a rich house, servants led him between precious carpets into a chamber, where he awaited the master of the house. Kamaswami entered, a swiftly, smoothly moving man with very gray hair,with very intelligent, cautious eyes, with a greedy mouth. Politely, the host and the guest greeted one another.

"I have been told," the merchant began, "that you were a Brahman, a learned man, but that you seek to be in the service of a merchant. Might you have become destitute, Brahman, so that you seek to serve?"

"No," said Siddhartha, "I have not become destitute and have never been destitute. You should know that I'm coming from the Samanas, with whom I have lived for a long time."

"If you're coming from the Samanas, how could you be anything but destitute? Aren't the Samanas entirely without possessions?"

"I am without possessions," said Siddhartha, "if this is what you mean. Surely, I am without possessions. But I am so voluntarily, and therefore I am not destitute."

"But what are you planning to live of, being without possessions?"

"I haven't thought of this yet, sir. For more than three years, I have been without possessions, and have never thought about of what I should live."

"So you've lived of the possessions of others."

"Presumable this is how it is. After all, a merchant also lives of what other people own."

"Well said. But he wouldn't take anything from another person for nothing; he would give his merchandise in return."

"So it seems to be indeed. Everyone takes, everyone gives, such is life."
"But if you don't mind me asking: being without possessions, what would you like to give?"

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish."

"Yes indeed. And what is it now what you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what you're able to do?"

"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."

"That's everything?"

"I believe, that's everything!"

I wonder how the pastoral interview would go at this mega-church if the candidate were like Siddhartha?

“So, Dr. [name], what is it you can give to our church? What is it that you’ve learned, what you’re able to do?”

“I can pray. I can repent. I can fast. I can love.”

“That’s everything?”

“Yes, I believe that’s everything.”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lenten Reflection: Do Not Spare Yourself

Saint Theophan the Recluse writes in The Spiritual Life, Chapter 51:

Of course, you need labor and effort, both mental and from the heart. Do not spare yourself. If you do, you will ruin yourself. Do not spare yourself, and you will have salvation. Abandon a certain wrongful activity that often strikes and afflicts almost everyone: That is, the fact that we spare no labor on any matter except when it comes to that of salvation. We want to think that we have only to contemplate salvation and desire it, and everything is all set. That is not how it happens in reality. The matter of salvation is the most important thing. Consequently it is the most difficult. This is by virtue of its importance and by the labor required. Labor then, for the Lord's sake! Very soon you will see the fruit. If you do not set to work however, you will be left without anything and be unworthy. Deliver us, Lord, from this!

I was raised in the Restoration Movement (to which I owe much indeed), with a pentecostal model of salvation – the pattern established by St. Peter in Acts 2.

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:37-39, NRSV).

This model presents salvation – like Pentecost itself – as an event, or a series of events, all one-off occurrences: repentance, baptism, forgiveness, chrismation (the gift of the Spirit) – salvation. And, some of these are singular events. We believe in one baptism, for instance, not to be repeated. But, surely, not all are. Repentance, for instance, is the ongoing life of discipleship. Repentance – metanoia – is not merely a one time changing of the mind – a realization of one’s lost estate and a turning to Christ – but rather a continual transformation (meta) of the heart/mind (nous), until one is conformed to the image of Christ. I need repentance no less this day than on that day some forty-five years ago when I repented and was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. And such repentance is most serious and most difficult business, worthy of the best effort of an entire lifetime. Our salvation – not just the forensic eradication of guilt, but the healing of the soul – depends upon it. As St. Theophan reminds us all:

The matter of salvation is the most important thing. Consequently it is the most difficult. This is by virtue of its importance and by the labor required. Labor then, for the Lord’s sake. Very soon you will see the fruit.