Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sermon from Sunday

Water, Water, Everywhere

It is a great joy for me to teach the children and youth of St. Alban’s. Whether it’s over a cup of coffee, on a beach in southern Mississippi, or just briefly after church, I am constantly amazed at how smart all our children are. Now I have to brag especially about Stephanie Stringer. A few weeks ago, she impressed me by saying that she was reading her way through the Old Testament. As a priest, that’s about the best thing anybody can ever say to me.

Just recently though, Stephanie sent me a message. She said, “Jimmy, I’ve been reading the Bible, but I’m a little confused about Noah and the great flood. How did Noah keep the woodpeckers on the ark?” “Aha!” I thought to myself. We have a young theologian in our midst! So I typed out a lengthy response, diving into the subtleties of Noah’s character, describing the cosmic elements of the story, emphasizing how God saves us when the waters rise up. When I pressed “Send” on that grand email, I was so proud of myself for all of my theological and biblical knowledge.

But just the other day, Stephanie’s mother approached me. She said, “Jimmy, thanks so much for responding to Stephanie’s email. But I don’t think you got it. Her question about woodpeckers was a joke. The right answer is ‘bird cages.’ Because, you know, the ark was made of wood.” Ohhhhhhh. I totally missed the humor. As it turns out, I’m not a theological genius, I’m just a doofus. Sorry Stephanie.

Now, I can safely say, that I’m not the only one in this church who has ever missed the joke. At some point in our lives, or maybe even on a daily basis, somebody’s humor just flies right past us, and we are left with a confused look on our faces saying, “huh?”And, if we’re not careful, sometimes we even miss the Bible’s own humor. For instance, did you know that there is a talking donkey in the book of Numbers? That story was around way  before the movie “Shrek” come out.

But sometimes, if we read it too fast, we miss the Bible’s humor. Especially some of the more subtle ironies. Our passage from Exodus describes the Israelites’ thirst in the wilderness. They are wandering through the desert, complaining and crying out to Moses, “Give us water to drink!” They quarrel with Moses, and test God because there is no water. What’s ironic, is that just three chapters earlier, the Israelites are quarreling with Moses and testing God because there is too much water! They have just escaped from Pharoah and have made their way out of Egypt. They are standing on the shores of the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army chasing them down. And the Israelites quarrel with Moses and complain against God because the water is in their way, and the Egyptians are going to kill them. Either way, if is too little water or too much water, the Israelites complain. They quarrel. They test God.

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? God can part the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through on dry land. God sends bread and birds from heaven for them to eat. And still, still, the Israelites complain, they live in fear. Whether there was too much or too little, they were afraid, even though God provided for their every need.

And here’s the really funny thing. After forty long years in the wilderness, the Israelites finally make it into the promised land, and everything, quite literally, goes to hell. You see, when the Israelites enter the land that was promised to them, they find it full of enemies. They find that they have to work and toil and sweat for their food. They have to dig wells for water. And what’s worst of all, they forget God. They forget the very God who had given them that land in the first place. The instant the Israelites have what they want, they forget who gave it to them. They run after other gods, they worship false idols, they become complacent.

The most dangerous place for the Israelites was not the wilderness. The most dangerous place for the Israelites is the promised land.

And yes, we are the Israelites.

The real danger for the Israelites and for us is not fear. The real danger is complacency. There is a great temptation to take what God gives us, and then forget why it was even entrusted to us in the first place. Living in complacency ruins our spiritual lives, it destroys our knowledge of God, because, at least when we are afraid, we cry out to God. But when we are content, when we are so happy with ourselves, then God ceases to matter for us. The promised land, though it flows with milk and honey, is a dangerous land. Because we are tempted to live without crying out to God.

Now look around. God has given us so much. He has given us wealth. God has given us a beautiful Church. God has given us grace and love that only comes from Jesus Christ. God has given us the lovely people of St. Alban’s.

So we, as Israelites, need to ask ourselves: are we in the wilderness or are we in the land of promise? I know it sounds upside down, but in the land of promise we are surrounded by enemies – greed, envy, isolation. We act as if there is not enough for tomorrow, so we clutch tightly to what we have. In the land of promise, we don’t listen for God’s voice, we don’t carry out God’s mission. We don’t take any risks because we’re complacent, we’re idle. We are completely satisfied with who we are, what we have, and what we give. So, at the end of the day, we worship the idol of complacency.

Or we can live in the wilderness. I know, it sounds backwards, but in the wilderness we cry out to God when we are in need. We listen for God’s voice, and we live for God’s mission of love to the world. We trust that God will provide us with what we need to carry out the work of Christ. Sure, the wilderness may be scary. At first, it may be scary to depend on God, it may be frightening to trust that God will show us the way. It may be scary to support the work of Jesus Christ by filling out a pledge card. It may be scary to minister to people who aren’t like us. It may be scary to live in the wilderness. And really, sometimes, it is absolutely terrifying to follow Jesus Christ, because Jesus demands our whole lives.

You know, it’s kind of funny, that complacency leads to death. Our churches die, our faith dies, we die when we are complacent. And it’s kind of funny, that when we step out into the wilderness, and we do the very thing that we are afraid to do, we find that God is faithful to us. Our faith is never constant, it constantly moves from complacency to fear to trust and back again. But God’s faith to us is as constant as the rising and the setting of the sun. As you work your back into the wilderness, strike the rock of your doubt, and let the waters of God’s faith drown your fear.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Brief History Lesson

So if you know me, you know that I love studying and teaching church history.  It's a constant process of reading, writing, and teaching, but it's one that I love very much.  

Nicene Creed
Yesterday during our Bible study on the Incarnation, we started discussing the Nicene Creed.  And when you start discussing the Nicene Creed, you're not far off from talking about ancient church politics.  Here's one of the most common phrases I hear from parishioners during these conversations:

"Back then everybody was Roman Catholic."

That simple sentence is fraught with problems.  Let's take a look!

First, the word catholic simply means universal.  Now it doesn't make a whole lot of linguistic sense to say that anything can both be Roman and universal, because, of course, Rome isn't everywhere.  Rather, I believe that we should refer to that particular piece of Christianity as "the Roman Church," just as I belong to "the Episcopal Church."  Because hey, I don't believe anybody has the corner market on universality.  Well, except for God.

Second, for roughly the first one thousand years, Christians didn't say that belonged to the "Roman Catholic Church."  They just belonged to "the Church."  The Roman Church didn't start identifying itself as such until there were other church bodies around (Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.).

The Venerable Bede
Finally, I think a lot of us have an inferiority complex when it comes to the Roman Church.  We talk about how "we broke away from the Roman Church."  Time out.  Let's take a look at the Anglican Church in particular.  First, there was a perfectly fine church in England before missionaries from Rome ever showed up.  You may read the Venerable Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" for some more background information on this.

On top of that, the Anglican Church preserved the ancient order of bishops, priests, and deacons.  We retained the liturgies of the Church and the scriptures.  We kept saying the creeds.  So what really changed when the Church of England became independent from the Church of Rome?  We said that the Pope is simply the Bishop of Rome, not the Bishop of the World.  That's it!  Does that have anything to do with splitting away from the Body of Christ?  Absolutely not!

My dear fellow Episcopalians, don't let your Roman friends put you down.  We are all Christians.  That's what matters.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

You're so sarksy...

Today I am teaching our Theology Tuesday lesson about the Incarnation.  Literally, incarnation means "enfleshment (I made that up)" or "made meat."  The Greek word for flesh is sarks.  ("Hey Jesus, your human body is so sarksy." wink wink)

St. Athanasius
We're pulling a lot of our material for this lesson from St. Athanasius.  I have to say this up front - Athanasius is my boy.  Not only does he weave together a magnificent treatise on the incarnation, but you can tell that he sincerely believes it too.  And not only that, he lives by it.  He lives as if he actually believes in the incarnation.  That means that he wasn't intimidated by emperors, heretics, or anyone else.  He believed in Jesus, and for him, that was enough.

Here's Athanasius in a nutshell.  First, Christ's incarnation was a sacrifice.  He stooped down to us in order to heal ("salvation" means "healing) us.  Second, Christ abolishes death.  His work in life and on the cross and at the empty tomb is the final defeat of death.  Lastly, just as God became man, our hope is that we become like God.  

I hope you can see the progression here.  It really is quite beautiful.  The incarnation is not about shepherds, angels, wise men, and silly children's Christmas pageants.  Christmas is about our salvation.  Christmas is about the incarnation.  Christmas is about God's sacrifice for us, so that we can live with God.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Turn

Every so often, I get riled up over some political issue.  I read an article or hear something on the radio, then I get so upset that I send a snarky letter to my state or federal representatives.  It's usually about guns (I saw a lot of shot up kids at Children's Hospital in Dallas), environmental issues (there's a new coal plant outside of Waco), or the death penalty.

There was quite a bit of buzz around the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia.  But hey, while we're at it, let's call a spade a spade - the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis.  I am not saying this because there were large clouds of doubt over his guilt.  I only say that capital punishment is murder carried out by state governments because that's exactly what it is, even if the person being killed is guilty or not.

Two things always strike me about conversations concerning the death penalty.  One is about justice.  That word, "justice," gets tossed around as freely as an offering plate at a church revival.  But what is justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?  How does the one murder make up for another?  It doesn't.  It only contributes to the endless cycles of violence that we so blithely support.  That's not justice, that's vengeance.  If it's vengeance you want, just say so.  At least that way we know that it's you who is actually out for blood.  Remember well our Lord's words to us, "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matthew 5:39).  

A couple of years ago, after I sent one of these snarky letters about the death penalty, I actually received a call back from somebody in my representative's office.  Whoa!  I suppose that letter somehow made it past the deep-six gauntlet.  I had done a little research about my representative and discovered, ironically, that he received a Pro-Life award some years back.  Yet all the while he supported state sponsored murder.  So I asked this poor intern who called me how it was that my representative could say that he was pro-life when in fact he supported the state of Texas in the murder of its citizens.  After an awkward pause and the shuffling of some papers on the other end, this intern gave me a great politicians' line: "Well, Representative So-and-So and you don't see eye to eye on this issue."

Exactly.  He doesn't see eye to eye, because he wants an eye for an eye.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's elementary, my dear Watson!

I don't know what's gotten into me, but recently I've been hooked on Sherlock Holmes stories.  No, I haven't seen the Robert Downey, Jr. movie, I've been reading the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories.  They're short, entertaining, and well written.

Without having ever read one of Holmes' adventures (almost always written from his companion's, Dr. Watson's, point of view) I always figured that they were just great detective stories.  A murder case or some other sinister plot is presented to Holmes, and then with some investigating he cracks the case, always exclaiming, "It's elementary, my dear Watson!"  I'm glad to say that the stories are much better than that.

Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes
Holmes has honed two very specific faculties.  First, he is a great observer.  Throughout the stories, he notices irregularities in handwriting, the slightest facial expressions, or the smallest shreds of evidence.  Then, from his observations he makes great deductions that often surprise his companions and cracks the case.  (At one point, Holmes is able to tell Watson exactly what Watson had done that entire day just by looking at the dirt on his shoes!)

Although I find these stories fascinating and delightful, I do have one critique: Sherlock Holmes is the height of Enlightenment thought.  Holmes is always in search of data; he wants facts, dates, times, faces, descriptions.  He pieces all of these disparate clues together into one cohesive narrative that solves the mystery.  This reeks of Enlightenment thought: if we could simply gather all of the observable facts, then we could solve anything that comes our way!

There is something decidedly unchristian in this mindset.  It reduces all of the universe, and indeed humanity itself, into a mere objects of observation.  If we take this mindset to its conclusion, we never love one another, we simply observe and make judgments about one another.  Holmes falls prey to this tragic end; he never marries because he is too cold, too observant, too filled with logic and reason that he never allows room for emotion or passion.  (At one point, Watson marries a fine young woman, only for Holmes to retort that he, Holmes, allows no room for such nonsense in his life.)

The universe - trees, stars, animals, rocks, people - are not just here to be observed.  Everything that God has created is to be enjoyed, to be loved; we are to emotionally participate in all of this beauty, not stare at it and make crude judgments.  Our cry is not, "It's elementary!"  Our cry is, "How beautiful is God's handiwork!"  

Monday, September 19, 2011


The story of Naaman's healing in II Kings 5 is one of my favorites.  Naaman is a commander of the Aramite army, Israel's seasonal foes.  As it happens, Naaman, "thought a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy" (5:1).  He's a strong, implacable foe with the sword and chariot, but he falls just as easily as any other man to disease.

Naaman hears of a godly man in Israel who has the power to cure, Elisha.  But when Naaman comes to Elisha, all Elisha says to Naaman is to go and wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be made clean.

This infuriates Naaman.  "I thought that for me Elisha would surely come, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!" (5:11).  Hmmm, so Naaman didn't actually desire healing, he wanted a magic trick.  Puffed up by his pride, he thought that since he was such a mighty warrior, he would deserve something special. 

His servants are the perceptive ones.  They approach Naaman saying, "If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? "  This turns Naaman's heart.  He swallows his pride and immerses himself in the measly Jordan River, not the greater rivers of his homeland, and submits himself to Elisha's orders.

And he is healed.  The leprosy leaves him.  Yes, that is a great miracle from God.  

But the change in Naaman's heart is the greater miracle.  Pride is the one thing that gets us every time.  The Greeks called it hubris, Paul writes of being "puffed up," we diagnose it as narcissism.  It doesn't matter what we call it, what matters is how it gets in the way of letting God work in our lives.

Naaman's pride almost hindered him from being healed.  But he eventually submitted, and not only was his body healed, but his pride was drowned.  This allows him to make the most important acclamation of his life:

"Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel" (5:15).

Pride may not kill us.  But chances are it is the one obstacle between us and a fuller life with God.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holy Cross Day

Today in the life of the Church we celebrate Holy Cross Day.  On this day we remember that our Lord was executed as a political criminal.  The cross, which was once a shameful method of death, is no longer despicable, but rather exalted.  For it is by that cross, by our Lord's death, that we are brought near to God.

The cross is our cross as well.  Since we are called to be like Jesus, then we too must pick up our crosses and follow him.  Does this mean that a Christian life should be uncomfortable and sacrificial?  Absolutely.  Does that mean it's not worth living?  Of course not; the only way to the empty tomb is through the cross.

"Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that me might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen."

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Mantle of Authority

Here's the problem with being a disciple of Jesus - sometimes God calls us out from where we are.  God yanks us out from our comfort zones and throws us into a new setting in order to do his work.  

Take the story of Elijah and Elisha for example.  Elijah is God's prophet, he speaks God's truth to leaders of Israel.  These are hard truths for which he is often persecuted.  Sure, Elijah was blessed, but that doesn't that Elijah's life was easy.  Going through a field, Elijah sees another man, Elisha, plowing.  God speaks to Elijah, and tells him to appoint Elisha as a prophet, to continue the work that Elijah is already doing.  Elijah throws his mantle about Elisha's shoulders, and from then on is appointed to speak the hard truths and to be persecuted for God's sake.

Of course, this is where we get the phrase, "mantle of authority."  But there's much more to this story.  When we talk about being called by God, many of us describe a moment of personal clarity, of divine inspiration.  

But this story offers another perspective.  Elijah is the one who calls Elisha to do God's work.  Sure, the Spirit was speaking through Elijah, but Elisha heard it from the lips of another man.  For us, this means that we have to be attentive to the Spirit in our interior lives, but also in our corporate lives.  We need to pay attention to what the Church is calling us to do.  God's call may come from the lips of another person.

The Spirit is speaking to you - the question is, where are you listening for it?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Peace creates anger

On Tuesday night at Barnett's Pub, our Bible study focused on two passages: Matthew 5:43-48 and Micah 4:1-5.  Let's just clear the air - what God is calling us to in these passages is not supposed to be easy.  Being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, loving our enemies, praying for our persecutors, beating our swords into plowshares are not easy tasks.

But they are holy tasks.

What shocked me most about Tuesday night was the incredible resistance to these ideas.  There were questions about our rights and a desire to protect those.  There were arguments that we should protect our lives and the lives of our loved ones.  There were questions about resisting evil.  And still, in all of these, Jesus still says to his followers, "Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you."

So Jesus is still making people mad.  Thanks be to God.

As Christians, we must address a few fallacies.  First, who ever came up with this language about our rights?  Was it Jesus?  No, of course it wasn't.  Jesus doesn't care about our rights, Jesus just cares that we live a holy life.  Jesus didn't write the First Amendment, Jesus said to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Resisting evil with force only creates more violence and continual cycles of evil.  When good confronts evil, it must stretch out its arms upon the hard wood of the cross, and allow evil to do its work.  Because in the end, evil has no power over life or death.  God has power over life and death.  Good Friday doesn't end with death, but with an empty tomb.

Will living nonviolently cost us our lives?  Probably so.  But Jesus says those who lose their lives for his sake will find it.  Thanks be to God there is a resurrection of the dead.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hollywood's Idea of Peace

Over the weekend I made the mistake of watching "Iron Man 2."  Why I sat all the way through this campy, overindulgent action flick remains a mystery.  Seriously, don't waste your life on watching it.

And actually, don't watch for theological reasons as well.  Especially at the beginning of the movie, Tony Stark, a.k.a. "Iron Man," boasts that because of his armored and weaponized suit, the world is at peace like has never been before.  In other words, because Tony Stark has the most potent weapon ever known to man, no one is willing to rise up against the United States.  This, the movie implies, is world peace.

For a Christian, this is an absurdity.  We know that having the biggest gun doesn't create peace, it creates fear.  Essentially what Tony Stark did in "Iron Man 2" is threaten everybody so violently that a seeming sense of peace reigned.  But we know this was no peace - it is only a quiet moment in long cycles of violence.

I suppose that many Americans buy into Tony Stark's philosophy.  If the United States could only have the most powerful weapons, the best killers on earth, then there would be world peace.  This was what happened in the Cold War, we managed to outspend the Soviet Union so that their economy and political system eventually imploded.

But as Stanley Hauerwas says, "The United States just managed to waste more money on guns than they did."  Amen to that brother.  Has our military, or any military or weapon ever managed to create peace?  Absolutely not.  Has the threat of violence ever created a culture of peace?  Never.

So let's try a different approach - it was only tried once, but with incredible success.  This approach is called laying down our weapons, beating our swords into plowshares, and allowing ourselves, as difficult as it may sound, to die because we want peace.  This is the path of Jesus, the very one Lord who allowed himself to die so that we may know the Kingdom of Peace.  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 11 - A Reflection

It all happened in a flash.  Four planes.  Three thousand deaths.  Symbols of American might erased by explosions and dust.  It all happened so quickly, so furiously.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, we heard politicians and news commentators speak dreadul words: “We have to look at things differently now,”  “September 11 changed our world forever,” or as President Bush said, “None of us will ever forget this day.” 

In the face of both wanton murder and a sinister thirst for vengeance, Christians had very little to say.  We were speechless, and we succumbed to believing that the sentimentalities offered by pundits and politicians were true.  But they were not.

For followers of Jesus, the world was not changed on September 11, 2001.  As horrendous and as tragic as that day was, it must not be allowed to define who we are as Christians.  For those of us who have the privilege and the responsibility of calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, every event in the history of the world pales in comparison to what took place in 33 A.D. on a hill outside of Jerusalem.

That murder, that execution on a wooden cross is what must define who we are.  It was because of that day that “We have to look at things differently.”  It was Good Friday that changed our world forever.  Easter, not September 11, 2011, is the only day that none of us can ever afford to forget.

As we reflect on the last ten years, we can see that the politicians and commentators were wrong.  Things have actually not changed that much since September 11, 2001.  We are still at war in various places around the globe.  Osama bin Laden is now dead, but others still plot harm against us.  You and I still carry about our everyday mundane activities; we go to HEB, we go to church, we poke fun at Longhorns, Bears, and Aggies.  The whole world was not changed by four planes and a handful of murderers.

But the whole world was changed because of those events outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.  A new thing, something never before seen, came into being.  Followers of an executed political criminal came together to worship the Lord of death rather than live in fear of death.  This new thing, an assembly of believers called the Church, gathered in joy because they had something to die for – a new life with Christ.

As we approach the ten year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we will hear many words about that day.  We will be dragged back to wherever we were when we first heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.  There will be words of fear and anxiety.  There will be words calling for revenge and vindication.

But I offer to you different words: words of healing, love, and nonviolence.  Words that speak of a love so grand that it is not destroyed by a handful of madmen and four planes, words that speak of a love so magnificent that it is actually made perfect on a wooden cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  We, the Church, need not fear death.  For it is in death that we take our hope, it is in dying that we are reborn with Christ.