Photo: "Deal Beach - Mar 2011 - Do We Think Julie Was Impressed?" by Gareth Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) - Isaiah 40

“Speak tenderly” and … : Prophets on the cusp of hope in Isaiah 40

Second Sunday of Advent:

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

**

Here’s what you need to know about Isaiah to understand the peculiar mixed emotions of the passage we heard this morning:

Almost all of what comes before this passage was written in the time of a historical prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah served in Judah, that is, the Southern Kingdom of the Hebrews.

The Isaiah of history wrote as the Northern Kingdom, aka Israel, was being conquered by Assyria. His advice to the Southern King was basically “Let’s stay out of this: Those northerners have it coming to them. Unfortunately, dear King, so do we here in the south.” The proclamation of Isaiah is mostly pretty grim stuff.

Now fast forward. The second part of Isaiah, was written by that prophet’s followers like 150 years later, during a time of relative celebration. Yes, Jerusalem had been destroyed. Yes, the Judeans of the Southern Kingdom had been taken into Exile by new conquerors: Babylon.

But at the time of this writing, the captivity is ending. King Cyrus of Persia, who is in the process of defeating Babylon, will probably allow the captives to return to their lands.

**

OK, why does any of this matter?

Partly because the words we heard today make up the opening passage of this second part of the book. After all the doom and gloom of Chapters 1–39, Isaiah 40 begins with a word of comfort.

It’s not a bad first lyric from an Isaiah tribute band, right? It sounded pretty good when we sang it on this way in this morning, and the Bible’s version is worth hearing again:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

This is the sober celebration of a people who have been through the ringer and know they may not have seen the end of it. For the moment things are looking up, though, and that’s not nothing.

The rest of the passage is full of similarly mixed emotions:

Notice that although the forces “making way” in the wilderness are surely righteous, the preparations also bring upheaval. Making way for the Lord is literally remaking the geography.

Notice that the voice crying out also has a word of warning, tinged with memory and regret: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” It’s as if these distant descendants of Isaiah cannot help but wring their hands: “What’s to prevent us from squandering our good fortune once again?”

And then notice that the closing words of the passage turn on a dime. The metaphors move beyond “mixed” into “almost contradictory”:

[booming voice]
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.

[soft voice]
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Notice finally that all this is the source material for yet another poetic tribute. This one came along later still and was compiled as a remix by the artist we know as Mark the Evangelist.

Mark draws on the collective memory of those exiles on the cusp of return to tell the story of John the Baptist preparing the way in the wilderness. This time, deliverance takes the form not of a benign foreign conqueror but a Savior who is from God and of God.

Even the proclamation of John the Baptist, in my reading, brings together those dueling impulses from Isaiah: dread justice and tender compassion.

If you don’t believe me, ask a person who’s had the tremendous privilege of baptizing someone, or hearing a private confession of sins. I don’t care how scraggly his beard was or how many self-righteous leaders he threatened; you can’t be The Baptizer and not have a softer side. You can’t be a prophet and long for justice only and not also the end of hostilities.

**

I believe we cannot help but talk about God’s mighty deliverance and God’s tender mercy in the very same breath. These authors certainly understood the deeply mixed emotions that come when we dare to hope during or even after a great struggle.

Such mixed emotions carry an important piece of spiritual wisdom for our times, and for the many challenges ahead of us.

The values of hospitality to the stranger, protection for the vulnerable, stewardship of creation, and a just peace on all the earth—these seem to be fast disappearing from our leaders’ list of national priorities.

You probably know someone who is burning hot and bright right now in response, a John the Baptist in his most hellfire-y mode.

Perhaps you’ve “raged out” yourself recently. I know I have.

This is as it should be. Righteous anger is an unparalleled tool for change, especially as it becomes discerning and directed and self-aware.

We need voices crying out in the wilderness. We need reminders of God’s high expectations for us. We need to each take our turn being those voices, on Twitter or the Congressional hotlines or in the classroom or around the dinner table.

We also need to speak tenderly, and be spoken to in kind. We need spaces where we let our guard down and entrust our souls to the people around us. We need intimate human connection, a moment of laughter with a friend, a quiet sigh of appreciation or awe.

We need … not escape or even refuge per se but the perspective and restoration that comes in the midst of sacred moments: of joy, of love, of trust. Those are the sustaining gifts we long to be shared among more of our neighbors more of the time, and to be a greater part of our own lives as well.

If we must find ourselves in the midst of chaos and injustice, Advent is an appropriate time for it. This season of waiting and preparation right on the cusp of hope puts that hope in perspective. And gives it a name.

For Isaiah’s followers, that hope was Zion, the long-awaited return to Jerusalem, to rebuild and worship freely. For us, it is a baby in a manger. Advent will help remind us of all we live and long for, if we let it.

So speak prophetically or tenderly, as the occasion demands. Strike the elusive but life-giving balance shown to us by the prophets, and given as one of many gifts from our saving Prince of Peace.

Photo: “Deal Beach – Mar 2011 – Do We Think Julie Was Impressed?” by Gareth Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sheep, goats, & shepherd

Matthew & Ezekiel on power & predation

Last Sunday after Pentecost:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Listen to this sermon.

**

I have a confession to make: there is much rejoicing in the Saylor-Oliver household on this, the final Sunday of Lectionary Year A. We’ve been talking for weeks about being ready for a break from the Gospel According to Matthew.

Matthew does not bring out the best in me. He’s concerned with details in ways that sometimes distract me from the big picture. He’s concerned with rules in ways that sometimes tempt me toward excluding those who fail to follow them.

And as we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks in these stark and demanding apocalyptic parables, Matthew isn’t afraid to sort of shove us into action, even using the threat of punishment as a prod.

We have, in this parable, the sheep on one side, and the goats on the other. The former come into God’s blessed inheritance, the latter, into eternal punishment. Note that neither group seems to understand the significance of how they’ve been sorted:

“Lord, when was it that we did you these kindnesses?” the sheep inquire. The Son of Man replies,“Just as you did for the least of these, you did for me.” It’s the same with the goats but the other way around.

It seems to matter greatly to this Son of Man how we treat the vulnerable.

Helping people meet their basic human needs—for food and shelter, for love and inclusion, for care and companionship—in the end, this is Matthew’s gospel vision for justice in the human family.

Of course, this vision is well in line with the streams of prophetic proclamation that sometimes trickle and sometimes surge through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s fitting that Matthew’s final parable is paired today with the passage we heard from Ezekiel 34.

To really hear the similarity, it’s best if we back up to the beginning of the chapter:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Again, in this passage, the challenge is for all who can, especially people in positions of power, to care for the vulnerable.

These readings couldn’t be clearer that the essence of just leadership is caring service. The appropriate use of power is to direct it toward the betterment of others, most especially those with the greatest need.

What’s more, Ezekiel, Matthew, and Jesus all agree that it is a violation of the first order not only to gratify oneself through the use of power but to do so at the expense of the vulnerable.

I found it impossible to hear these readings and not think immediately of our current cultural moment. It’s been dubbed by New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister as The Reckoning. In newspaper investigations, on hashtags like #MeToo and also #ChurchToo, and in trusting private conversations, we are hearing the stories. Stories from women, children, and men who have been sexually harassed or assaulted by more powerful men, including in houses of worship.

Obviously, comparing these scripture passages to our contemporary situation can be problematic. The victims of these crimes are not passive objects or part of some nameless herd of animals. But that’s precisely why this abuse is so humiliating and so unjust: predators misuse their power and behave as if the people they abuse have no agency of their own.

**

Two pieces of Traister’s analysis seem to me to have particular theological importance. The first stems from her observation that the mere act of hearing these stories is not actually new.

She writes, “[W]hat we keep missing, as we talk and reveal and expose, is that this conversation cannot be just about personal revelation … or even just about the banal ubiquity of abuse; it must also address the reasons why we replay this scene, over and over again … [T]his is not a story simply of individual misconduct but of systemic inequity, a story of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of gender injustice.”

The church has a word for this kind of injustice: structural sin. It’s embedded in our social systems, and we all contribute to it. To foster justice, structural sin must be met with structural repentance and transformation. A local example might be Safeguarding God’s People, the framework of policies and procedures the Episcopal Church has instituted to protect potential victims from misconduct and abuse.

Of course, our structural response must go deeper than that. It must become a part of each of our daily practices and concerns. We can’t wait until we see sexual harassment to teach and remind each other of behavior norms, and of the dignity and agency of all God’s people.

Men have a particular part to play in such a structural response, both in calling out other men and in examining the ways that each of us contributes through unawareness of our privilege. The resulting entitlement cannot help but shape the spaces we’re a part of.

Traister’s second point is particularly sobering. She writes, “You can feel the backlash brewing. All it will take is one particularly lame allegation … to turn the tide from deep umbrage on behalf of women to pity for the poor, bullied men. Or one false allegation could it.”

The history of social change suggests that she is right about inevitable backlash. And so does our Christian analysis of the human condition. It’s no coincidence that Paul and others write so often about needing to die unto sin. It feels a little bit like dying for any meaningful transformation to be accomplished in us.

Many conversations we will have in the coming months will be uncomfortable. A favorite artist or politician or journalist may be next to meet the consequences of their actions. A personal habit we thought was harmless or even complimentary may need to be abandoned and repented of.

This all may tempt some to wonder if the groundswell isn’t perhaps getting out of hand.

That’s when it’s helpful to have Matthew’s moral clarity. I don’t think he enjoyed dangling the threat of hell over the heads of the readers of his gospel of love and redemption. But the fact of the matter is that justice for all is the only foundation for human flourishing, the only worthy pursuit of we who are being redeemed in Christ.

That’s why Matthew wants to goad us into action. That’s why Ezekiel longs for a leader who will champion the vulnerable and hold the abusive accountable. That’s why Jesus came among us as one who serves, a King who emptied himself of glory and acclaim and used his power to empower others.

**

Sex and sexuality, the differences and similarities that draw us to each other, even desire itself: these are, at their core, the good gifts of a God who loves, and yes, desires us.

But without mature self-knowledge, the accountability of community, clear and well taught ethical norms, and the grace to live by our better angels, we will all be tempted to misuse and even abuse these gifts.

Thanks be to God, then, for the proclamation of scripture and the testament of the life of Christ: that we each have the power to die to sin, even structural sin, and live redeemed in the Spirit. We each have the power to empower the vulnerable, and to pursue true justice wherever it leads.

When that path gets scary or its destination unclear, remember this: ultimately, it leads to life.

Book tower

For the first day of school

God of Solomon the wise and just,
God of Luke the learned,
God of the School Sisters and even the Scholastics,
God of each one teaching one:

You inspire your people with visions of the deserts rejoicing in bloom. You water us for growth, nothing less than the full stature of Christ.

You draw us into mystery. We can always say more. We could never say enough.

Bless those who give and receive your wisdom, and bless our variety of gifts:
Bless the voracious readers.
Bless those who work in clay.
Bless tinkerers and doodlers and thinkers-out-loud.
Bless flashcards in the backseat.
Bless labs and gyms and study groups and storycircles.

Bless those who know that sitting still is heresy,
and those who know that stillness is divine.

Bless induction and deduction and expansion and distillation
and even devil’s advocacy in its proper time,
always as a tool and never as a weapon.

Bless us as we sift and winnow and rejoice and play around and butt heads and make music. Bless our filling of napkins and composition notebooks as font and offering.

Let the final word always be this:
you are One-and-All.

Amen.

Detail image by (bright stained glass) by Richard Due

Transformed for hope: A sermon about Paul on culture

Image credit: “Detail” by Richard Due via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

**

Some of you know that my first job out of seminary was as a digital media resource expert serving Christian educators across the Episcopal Church. The Center for the Ministry of Teaching had never had a “Digital Missioner” before, so for me one of the joys of this position was getting to figure out what the job was actually supposed to be.

My early priority was collecting free resources from around the Internet. We know that what happens at home is more important to people’s faith than what happens at church. So my goal was to help teachers and pastors to encourage the people they serve to connect their faith to their everyday lives.

I found great stuff on accessible prayer practices, on caring for the environment, on thinking critically about faith and politics, on bringing a Christian vocational attitude to all kinds of paid and unpaid work.

One thing I really struggled with was faith and culture, especially faith and pop culture.

We were well into the era of “prestige television,” and the theologically rich Hollywood obsessions with vampires, zombies, and superheroes. Web series and podcasting were just coming into their own, diversifying the range of available cultural creations.

In other words, there was lots of great stuff to read, watch, listen to. Plenty of it had really interesting connections to the big questions of God, faith, life, the universe, and everything else a nerdy and just ordained priest wanted to get Episcopalians talking about.

There was just one problem. Very few Christians were saying interesting things about them. Some, I thought, were saying some pretty loathsome things. I remember putting out a call to colleagues that went something like this: “Does anyone know of online faith-based culture writing that doesn’t reek of mean-spiritedness?”

I was looking for conversation partners who were serious people of faith AND weren’t afraid to love a piece of quote-unquote secular music, or film, or television on its own merits. Bonus if the author wasn’t afraid to believe that these cultural products might also have something to teach us about the love of God in Christ.

What I found was mostly preachy, even scoldy.

I realize now that this was not a new dilemma. The early church struggled with how to reconcile (or not) Christian identity with other cultural loyalties and priorities. All the theologians I’d studied in seminary struggled with these questions. Every period of history has asked and answered them in different ways.

Today we hear the Apostle Paul’s formulation, incredibly concise and yet rich enough to occupy us for a lifetime. He writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Near as I can tell from some rudimentary study of Paul’s original Greek, it’s not misleading to break into their constituent parts the two important verbs in this passage as we express them in English, “conform” and “transform”. We just have to be a little careful.

We might take “con-form” as literally “with” (con) the form of. For example, a cast sculpture takes the form of its mold, or a gingerbread person takes the form of the cookie cutter.

Paul seems to be saying we’re not supposed to just fit a generic template or set of expectations that the world provides to us. Fair enough.

What we want to avoid here, I think, is the idea of a prohibition against being con-formed as in “formed with” the world or “formed alongside.” That’s not what the underlying words mean. Paul doesn’t seem to be advocating a distanced separation from the world.

And that makes sense. After all, this is the man who “bec[a]me all things to all people, so that [he] might by any means save some.” He’s a savvy and cosmopolitan man of the world, whether or not he’s always willing to admit it.

OK, so how about being trans-formed? Here again there’s a helpful and a misleading way to think through breaking up the word.

The Latin prefix trans- in English often gives us the sense of connecting or crossing, as in a trans-Atlantic flight. But I don’t think Paul is advocating that we put one foot in the Christian community and one in the wider world. That’s not a bad image, but it implies a separation that, again, I don’t think Paul believes is really there.

Here we need the sense of the prefix “trans” not just as connecting but as changing. Though we are still the same person, yet somehow we come to be entirely new. In fact, the Greek word that “transform” is standing in for here is a different word we also know in English, mostly as a noun: metamorphosis.

Paul says that the “renewing of our minds” should transform, metamorphose, utterly change who we are. When we receive, come into, become this new form, we can “discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So here’s Paul’s doctrine of Christ and culture, at least as I read it here, today:

By the grace of God, by the transforming work of Christ within us, we will neither conform to the culture around us nor simply connect our faith to that culture.

No, we will have new eyes, new hearts, new minds, new wisdom. We will see things as they are and some of what we see in the world will be good. For Paul, that’s the only distinction that matters, because there can be only one source of that goodness.

Please do not hear me saying everything is fine. It isn’t. As many have pointed out, things certainly aren’t “normal” right now, and anyway “normal” in our city, nation, and world has never been very just. f

Normal has never been particularly “good” or even “acceptable,” certainly not to the marginalized people who Jesus always makes his priority, because the powerful have made them a priority so seldom.

What I’m saying, and what I certainly hear smart and experienced activists and educators saying—is that we need to be able to see and hold fast to whatever gives us hope.

By God’s grace we will find it in the world around us. With transformed hearts and minds and bodies we will know it down in our souls.

Unguarded joy, heartfelt laughter, mutual vulnerability, unconditional love: these most precious of God’s gifts have not been banished from the Earth, or from our nation.

They endure despite the fact that they are the exception and not the rule. They endure despite unjust pardons and storms both literal and metaphorical.

They endure despite the fact that dwelling on them has never sold an ad on a cable news show or inspired nearly enough celebration on Christian culture blogs.

All those gifts Paul mentions at the end of this passage—prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, leadership, compassion—they don’t just depend on the grace of the Giver of All Good Gifts. They depend on our willingness to accept and use them. For many of us, that willingness is being tested, and for most of us that willingness requires a centering in hope.

I invite you in the days ahead to join my friend and Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson in a practice he calls “naming it holy.”

When you see the good and acceptable and the perfect in the world around you—anywhere in the world around you—name it holy. Do it for yourself, and for the sake of those around you.

My most recent moment like this happened last night standing in line for a Mister Softee truck. If you’d seen this little girl eating a gigantic ice cream cone, you’d be feeling more hopeful to.

As we name these moments holy, moments big and small, we will come to know the meaning and the experience of transformation. We will know it in our bodies and souls. And we will experience it, eventually, in the world that God has given us and is longing to redeem.

Digital Literacy Toolkit cover image

Digital literacy as religious leadership

The basic argument of my professional life is that lay and ordained ministers need digital literacy skills to do their work effectively.

Proclamation, education, pastoral care—nearly every task of religious leadership is a social practice. And nearly every social practice is becoming mediated in some way by technology.

Case in point: Recently I served on the faculty of Beyond Walls, the spiritual writing program at Kenyon College. Part of that experience was participating in an OpEd Project workshop designed to get the priests, ministers, and rabbis in attendance to claim their expertise and share it in public forums.

“The public needs to hear from thoughtful religious leaders,” the facilitators told us. And that requires some skills navigating today’s marketplace of ideas.

I know few religious leaders who navigate it better than fellow Beyond Walls social media instructor Sarah Lefton. I had a blast chatting with Sarah for the YouTube channel she created and for the podcast I help create. (Sneak peak: you can listen to the lightly edited interview audio here. A 10-15 tightly edited story is in the works.)

The lesson I relearned and relearned spending a week with Sarah? You’ve got to know your medium.

I want faith leaders in training to have the chance to learn the various media they will need to navigate when they land in congregations, schools, and other contexts. And I want them to have that experience regardless of the digital literacy level of their seminary professors and other mentors.

So I’m working with colleagues to create a Digital Literacy Toolkit for Theological Educators.

The site is a work in progress. Among other things, it is still incredibly slow.

But I hope you’ll have a look (maybe at our research-based list of literacies?) and consider either contributing or sharing with a theological educator who could themselves contribute—or could benefit from the resources we’re creating and collecting.

I can’t wait to tell you more about how all this is going.

Running through weeds & wheat

The parable of the landowner’s wise restraint

Image credit: “Running” by Mackenzie Black via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

I’ve been traveling for work the last the couple weeks, first in the Midwest and then in Germany. But at the beginning of the trip I got to spend a day with my sister in Wisconsin.

Rachel teaches baking at a community college and so has some flexibility to work other jobs in the summer. Currently she’s helping to manage the harvest at a small organic farm about halfway between Milwaukee and Madison.

My trip to the farm with her has given me a new appreciation for this passage from Matthew’s gospel.

When you can’t spray herbicides, you have to use every other trick in the agricultural book to give your crops a fighting chance. Even then, I’m told, you’ll probably end up like our farm owner from scripture—whether or not you have enemies sowing bad seed in the night.

That was certainly the case where I visited. In some fields it was hard to even tell the good crops from the weeds. I definitely believe that in some cases pulling the weeds would have been a problem for the produce.

I appreciated this lesson that sometimes no amount of care or agricultural cleverness can guarantee that a farm will avoid the weeds-and-wheat situation.

There is an alternative. Almost anyone who leaves the city for awhile this summer will at some point see farms that display a different reality: Row after row of perfect crops—wheat, yes but corn even more strikingly. There’s often not a weed in sight beneath those tall, straight stalks.

Of course, many of these seeds have been genetically engineered with immunity to herbicides and pesticides. Many of these farms also squeeze the last bit of nourishment out of depleted soils using industrial fertilizers.

But it’s worth noting that even big agribusiness cannot guarantee success in this struggle. Pests and weeds and blights can and do evolve. Exhausted earth cannot yield an increase indefinitely.

**

Of course, this is not a sermon about agriculture, any more than Jesus’s was. But the farmers’ situation in the parable and in today’s world is an apt illustration of … let’s just say the lengths to which we are willing to go.

The people who trained me to interpret scripture told me to be skeptical of the simplistic explanations that follow some of the gospel parables, the ones where Jesus lays out a narrow one-to-one correspondence between each literal element and its spiritual interpretation. These were likely added later by hand-wringing scribes and editors.

What happens if we lay aside the narrow reading of this parable? What if it isn’t a simple encouragement to perseverance for the faithful and a warning to all others that the clock is ticking?

What happens if we focus instead on the landowner’s wise restraint in the face of a quite natural longing—a longing to root out the ineffective to encourage the productive, to eliminate evil to protect the good.

Then this parable becomes a warning about the belief that we can fully identify, separate, and control the forces of good and evil. God knows we need the warning.

We want to rip out the weeds right now, stay on top of things, remove the threat. Even if we’re the kind of people who hope for the best, we usually fear the worst—and more often than not when we act out of fear we exacerbate the situation.

Whether we’re surveying history or today’s headlines, it’s hard not to start seeing this parable everywhere: I’ve noticed it recently in airport security lines and in the laments of educator colleagues about the folly of standardized testing run amok.

I saw it on grim display last week when I visited an East German state police jail—now a museum—that held political prisoners until they could be psychologically tortured into signing false confessions.

And I felt a last version of the parable leap back into my life after a momentary absence when I reconnected to our U.S. news cycle, filled with story after story of police violence, the communities it affects, and the accountability that is almost always missing.

When we believe we can understand and control the forces of good and evil, we sometimes cause ourselves or others unnecessary inconvenience or stress. Other times people will suffer or even die at our hands.

Against that backdrop, I believe this parable can be for us a warning against the constant temptation to let vigilance override restraint.

**

I was still at the conference that brought me to Germany last week when I got the email reminding me to choose a text to place on the today’s bulletin cover. I knew I wouldn’t be starting my sermon until the flight home, so I picked my favorite verse from among the scheduled readings and hoped for the best.

Obviously, you’re not hearing a sermon on the story of Jacob’s dream in the wilderness. Still, it seems to me there’s an important connection between his story and one last reading of the parable of the landowner’s wise restraint.

Jacob is, at this point in his life, a scoundrel. He’s out in the wilderness to have this fantastical dream because he’s on the run from his brother Esau—the brother whose birthright and blessing he has stolen.

And yet in this moment—when he’s basically a fugitive on the run—God chooses to bless him anyway, to renew in him the promise to his parents and grandparents to make of them a great nation.

Perhaps even more than these complicated relatives do, Jacob shows us that God doesn’t just work through moral superheroes in order to bring about good.

In fact, it’s God’s faithfulness to Jacob that drives his growth and transformation. He returns years later a better man. God didn’t give up on him. God forgave the bad and nurtured the good.

Just like Jacob, you and I are ambiguous characters. We have within us both good and evil.

So could it be that this God has the same plan for us?

Could it be that the weeds and wheat are not just or even primarily out there but are also in here growing together, composing us as flawed but nevertheless beloved children of the Most High?

Could it even be that our weeds are no threat to God bearing fruit in us if we can only learn to live with them by God’s grace?

I believe that so much of what tortures our relationship with the weeds and the wheat growing together in the world is that we do not want to think about the weeds and the wheat growing within ourselves.

God in Christ has promised not to make us free of evil and sin, but free from evil and sin. As in free from being determined by them. Not spotless, but redeemed.

God in Christ isn’t pulling weeds or spraying herbicides. God in Christ is patiently waiting for a harvest that is assured not by our vigilance but by grace.

Our destiny is to be gathered up—all made one by God’s reconciling love.

If we can trust that, then we can learn to see the tangled mess of life and growth as a field not of threats from our enemies but of fertile, patient possibility.

Binding of Isaac by Lawrence OP image (mosaic)

The binding of Isaac: A sermon about discernment

Image credit: “Binding of Isaac” by Lawrence OP via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

During my first year of seminary, my classmates and I went on retreat to a remarkable intentional community in the heart of Virginia’s capital.

The founder of Richmond Hill is a guy named Ben. He’s an institution in Richmond politics as well as its faith community. He’s a prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures’ sense of that term: bold, truthful in the face of others’ discomfort, a beacon of righteous moral clarity for better and perhaps occasionally for worse.

The whole weekend experience had a profound effect on many of us. In particular, Ben said something about discernment that weekend that has always stuck with me.

Along with all the important caveats that go along with a statement like this, he said, “Sometimes, sometimes, it’s very important to make a different decision from what your priest is telling you, or what your therapist is telling you, or what your friends are telling you.”

His point was that for our faith to do its most vital counter-cultural work, we sometimes have to go against prevailing wisdom, the formal and informal structures of power and authority, convention and convenience, recognition and prestige.

In other words, Ben said: “You’re going to have to make some difficult and unpopular decisions.”

I probably remember the whole thing so vividly because I have a streak of overly stark moral seriousness, a kind of black-and-white thinking that basically assumes the worst about the hard choices we all inevitably face in life. From deep within me, my angels and demons responded to Ben’s challenge with a grave “Amen.”

Don’t get me wrong: if I thought God were asking me to do something as terrible as in this story of Abraham and Isaac, I’m quite certain my first response would not be to say, in a serious tone, “Well, this must be my cross to bear.”

But I think the binding of Isaac terrifies me so much because if the command were less a matter of life and death, I know I’m capable of making myself pretty miserable if I’m convinced that God wants me to do something or if that something simply seems like the right thing to do. Maybe you know someone like that. Maybe you are someone like that.

I wonder, then, if you’ll humor me in a little thought experiment for we-the-sometimes-overserious: What might have happened if Abraham refused the call of God?

After all, for the later Hebrew writers that put this story down in scripture, child sacrifice was most certainly forbidden. And just on the human level, who could blame any hero for refusing this particular demand?

So let’s pretend Abraham says “no.”

Perhaps he tries to negotiate with God, like he later does standing outside Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe he tries begging, like Moses on Mt. Sinai interceding for his people.

Perhaps, like Jonah, he runs away. Perhaps, like Job, he digs in for a long theological siege.

Perhaps, like Peter, he remains faithful to almost the very end, but before the climax learns that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

Notice that all of these characters, in the end, have to reckon with the path God has put before them. Sodom and Gomorrah still fall. The Hebrews who were at Sinai never make it to the Promised Land. Jonah sulks his way through saving Nineveh, and Job sulks and sulks and sulks. Peter receives the resurrected Christ’s gentle chiding about his threefold denial on Good Friday—and then he spends his remaining days faithfully feedings Jesus’s sheep.

If we want to try to understand the binding of Isaac on its own terms, we should set aside for now the debates about the righteousness of God. The Bible assumes that God is righteous. And more often than not, it assumes that God’s will will be done, despite our frequent human frailty. So in this case: even if Abraham says no.

What’s interesting about this story is that it flips that script. Here God puts a difficult demand before a servant, and the servant listens. And the thing God supposedly wants the servant to do ends up not happening, because of course God never actually desired it in the first place.

God doesn’t want Isaac to die or Abraham to be anguished. He does want to know if Abraham is all in on this plan to become the father of a great nation. There are serious stakes here, but not the stakes Abraham believes are before him.

For his part, Abraham keeps saying yes: he rises early, collects his companions, makes the journey, carries the tools, answers the anxious question, ties up the son, raises the knife … and encounters God’s deliverance.

**

We will face difficult decisions in life. Sometimes they will seem utterly impossible—or downright wrong. And sometimes, sometimes, we should go on the difficult journey. We should keep saying yes, keep taking leaps of faith small and large, and do our best to be attentive to where God is leading us.

I think I’ve faced two decisions in my life whose stakes rose to something like what the tellers of this story are trying to evoke. Remembering Richmond Hill’s remarkable founder, let’s call them “Ben decisions.”

In both cases, I thought God was telling me to choose the harder, counter-cultural path, and so I did. This was no real virtue. It just was what is was.

In one case, I said yes to this “call” for quite a while. I even asked for God’s help resisting the easier path. And then something finally happened that gave me confidence to believe that I had been thinking about this decision all wrong, that what I thought was a call from God was actually my own inner voice calling from a place of pain that needed to be healed.

I still remember the utterly overwhelming moment when I started believing that the good thing I wanted might be something God wanted for me. Like Abraham standing over Isaac, I got to experience the relief of the angel’s message: “don’t do this crazy thing—God has something so much better in store for you.”

In the other case, I think I probably made the right choice by staying the course I believed God had put before me. It was painful and difficult. I believe I learned lessons that I needed.

I would not, maybe could not, choose to do the same thing in the future. But I wouldn’t go back and change my original decision either.

As it did for Abraham, my willingness to stick with a costly choice has given me some small measure of confidence that I will have the trust and courage to follow God into difficult and unknown territory again someday.

**

What remains utterly unclear to me is how to tell the difference between the two kinds of “Ben decisions” we see reflected in different ways in the binding of Isaac. One is the kind where we assume the worst about what God wants from us but it’s really our own brokenness that brought us there. The other is the kind for which there is no way out but through to the other side, where God is genuinely waiting and drawing us onward.

In the first, the “flipped script,” we share in Abraham’s joy when we realize God’s will is more wonderful than we had feared. In the second, we share by grace in Abraham’s faithfulness. We partake in the sobering but also intimate experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil.

There’s no “answer” to the many thorny questions this text forces upon us, and maybe that’s the point. Because whether we make it through the valley, attempt the journey but falter along the way, or end up realizing God never sent us there in the first place, we can trust that there in the valley God will be with us.

Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Job, Peter and all the rest—the Lord was with them all the way.

Yes, God does sometimes ask very difficult things of us—though the journey may not be as it first appears.

What changes everything, for them and for us, is that we don’t have to walk alone. Indeed, we never are.

Abundance by Barbara Gilhooly photo

The abundant life of the followers of Christ

Image credit: “abundance” by Barbara Gilhooly via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fourth Sunday in Easter:

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Before we begin, one programming note: Today we will further reinforce the spiritual impossibility of avoiding mixed metaphors. You’ve been warned.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is informally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, but this reading from John’s gospel has Jesus describing his own role not as shepherd but as gate: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”

In the parable, the sheep go out each day to seek pasture—a place to safely graze under the protection of the light of day and the wise guidance of the shepherd. They come back each evening seeking protection from the night’s dangers and rest to prepare for the following day’s journey.

If Jesus is the gate, we sheep encounter him at least twice each day, reminding us in the morning that he sends us out with work to do and reminding us in the evening that we have labored enough for today. We go out, we come in. Exit and return.

This notion of a daily, almost rhythmic encounter with God makes me think of breathing, of the opportunity to breathe in God’s Spirit and empowerment in the morning and breathe out all my frustration and regret as I walk in the door each night.

I think these visions would be familiar to the disciples we hear about in our first reading, from Acts:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There it is again: Day by day. If we connect with God and with community day by day, by grace we grow in our awareness of the presence of Christ all around us. If we connect with God and with community day by day, by grace we slowly learn to be a little more patient with ourselves and others, and little more generous and grateful and full of joy.

Of course, commentators on this passage from Acts are right, I think, to be a little skeptical of whether it quite so straightforward for disciples to be disciples, and for the church to be the church. Even if they knew something about forming holy habits.

For example, it’s true that the economic system of the day was quite different, and there’s no doubt that the experience of tight-knit community and the apostles’ “signs and wonders” must have been very powerful.

Nevertheless, the thought that any group of people would pool their wealth and possessions quite so unselfishly and with such apparent unity of purpose—let’s just say I suspect the reality was occasionally more contentious. Certainly much of what comes later in Acts and in the Epistles suggests that frequent disagreements would soon follow. And of course there’s nothing wrong with disagreements.

But even if this account of the daily life of the earliest Christians is a bit nostalgia-tinged, I still find the overall picture believable. Indeed, we find stories like these throughout the history of our faith: ordinary people accomplishing remarkable things, and as this morning’s reading from 1 Peter reminds us, often enduring great hardship along the way.

What all the stories have in common is that these communities knew that God was helping them to accomplish this work, together, day by day. One shepherd. One flock. Also one gate, I guess.

A few months back I saw Martin Scorsese’s striking film Silence, based on a novelization of the experience of the Kakure Kirishitans. These were the “secret Christians” who practiced their Catholic faith underground during the Tokugawa shogunate in seventeenth through nineteenth century Japan.

The film focuses primarily on Jesuit missionaries who sneak into the country to support these communities and to search for their mentor who is rumored to have renounced his faith. But for me the most compelling moments are the early scenes of worship and fellowship in Kirishitan homes. When the priests arrive, they ask the villagers how they manage to practice their faith.

Their answer could be right out of the Book of Acts: Everyone here is a member of our secret church. We have a group of elders who lead us in prayer and teaching. We baptize our children. “We hide the Kirishitan images but God still sees us, yes?”

They had their Lord, and they had each other, and despite horrendous persecution they lived lives of quiet and courageous faith, day by day. They found pasture not in daylight but in shadows. They found it nonetheless.

And though their faces had become masks that could not show it, Andrew Garfield’s Fr. Rodrigues verbalizes what is evident in all the scenes of devotion and fellowship: “I was overwhelmed right away by the love I felt from them.”

I mention all this—an example of the the breadth and depth of experience among Christ’s followers—because we skipped the most important part of the parable. It might be the most important part of the entire gospel.

We got a preview in Psalm 23 in that famous line about our cups overflowing, but Jesus puts an even finer point on it at the end of today’s gospel: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life … that is the purpose of our daily encounters at the gate, of the rhythmic breathing in and out of God’s rejuvenating Spirit, of the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, of the breaking of the bread and the prayers, of pooling our resources to care for each other and those in need, of the God-given strength to endure suffering and to work for justice, of icons and rosaries hung on the wall or the rearview or hidden from authorities who do not approve.

The purpose of all these gifts is to experience abundant life. God wants to give us this life right now, each and every day.

I am shocked and frankly embarrassed by how often I forget this reality, how often I see the world through self-imposed blinders that allow me to fixate on the day’s usually inconsequential worries instead of its joys or even its worthy sorrows.

I hope you will spend a few moments with me thinking about the ways God desires your flourishing, you life abundant.

What does that look like for you? How do you experience it?

It can be as profound and overwhelming as the warm embrace of a loved one after a time spent apart or as simple as one slow, restorative breath.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. We are not quite halfway through the great 50 days. We cannot control what gifts we may be given in our continuing celebration of the season of new life. But we can control how we notice and receive them.

Enter through the gate. Live by the example of the saints who came before us. And trust that goodness and mercy will follow you all your days—because Jesus longs for you to experience life in abundance.

Imagination photo

Praying with scripture—and our imaginations

Fourth Sunday in Lent:

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

I wasn’t at the morning liturgies last week, but I have it on the sound authority that is the parish website that Mother Kate had a challenge for us: “You NEED to be praying and reading the Bible,” she said. “It is what sustains you through the dark times and the stressful times and the confusing times.”

I heartily agree, and I second another point she made: many of the rough patches in my own spiritual and emotional life have also come during periods when I’ve convinced myself that this need didn’t apply to me, not right now.

As years have gone by, I’ve noticed the change that happens when I return to my morning Bible reading after I’ve been lax for a while: the sense of relief, of familiarity, of the sure presence of Christ there within me. Having some daily or near-daily practice, however brief and however simple, is the way we invite God into our lives, and learn to see God already there.

The good news is, there are as many ways to pray as there are people who do it. Part of my job at Virginia Seminary was training others to think about a certain kind of social media use as prayer, or a certain kind of sitting with art or music. In fact, one of my favorites ways is with a podcast called Pray As You Go, which is produced by the British Jesuits and meant to be used while commuting. You can read a bit about it in today’s issue of The Messenger.

The genius of this particular prayer resource is that it makes digitally accessible a very old and very intimate form of prayer. Here’s how Jesuit Kevin O’Brien explains it in his book The Ignatian Adventure:

Ignatius was convinced that God can speak to us as surely through our imagination as through our thoughts and memories. In the Ignatian tradition, praying with the imagination is called contemplation … a very active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions.

Ignatian contemplation is suited especially for the Gospels, [O’Brien continues. W]e accompany Jesus through his life by imagining scenes from the Gospel stories … Visualize the event as if you were making a movie. Pay attention to the details: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the event. Lose yourself in the story; don’t worry if your imagination is running too wild. At some point, place yourself in the scene.

Now, I’m no skilled facilitator or even practitioner of Ignatian Contemplation. But in response to Mother Kate’s challenge, this week I tried “contemplating” today’s marathon gospel passage from John.

I’ll be honest, I have a lot of feelings about John’s gospel, some of which participants in our weekday morning Eucharists are probably getting tired of hearing about. But I think Fr. O’Brien would tell me, tell all of us, that our feelings—positive and negative—are a rich point of entry for the Holy Spirit to teach us something when we contemplate a biblical story.

Another entry point when it comes to this prayer practice is characters, and there’s no shortage of them in this passage. So I wonder if, as a sort of Ignatian thought experiment, we might try putting ourselves in the shoes of some of these characters. I wonder what we might learn. (You may find that  closing your eyes helps.) 

Picture yourself as one of Jesus’s disciples, walking along a busy stone-paved street near the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps one of your sandals has worn thin and you’re favoring that foot. Perhaps you’re the one who asks Jesus if it was the blind man or his parents who sinned. Do you feel rebuked when he tells you “neither”? How do you feel when he mentions that night is coming, that his light might soon depart from the world? Do you get excited or inspired when you realize Jesus is winding up for another healing? How do make sense of the bizarre ritual that follows—saliva turned to mud, a healing touch, a dispatch to the spring fed pool outside the city walls?

Picture yourself in the crowd as word starts to spread of what’s happened. Perhaps you yourself are arriving for a more commonplace ritual cleansing, and the commotion catches your eye. Do you believe the man’s claims that he is the beggar who was born blind? If so, are you perhaps envious of his good fortune? Do you run to tell others, or jostle for a better view as the tense conversations begin, or leave to find a quiet place to ponder what you’ve seen?

Perhaps placing yourself in the narrative helps you see something about the passage that you’ve never noticed before. I’ve always sympathized with the man’s parents, assuming they simply hid their elation for their son out of fear of the authorities’ angry suspicion. I realized this time they might also feel some resentment … for bringing this unwanted attention upon their family, perhaps even for disrupting their family dynamic and forever changing their long-time roles.

Perhaps placing yourself in the narrative lets God teach you something about you. In my case, I found it a little disconcerting how I resonated with what I imagined were the Pharisees feelings of frustration, of their sense of “losing control of the narrative” in this incident. So where in my life today is that kind of desire for control at work? How can I learn from the open-mindedness of the man born blind? How can I learn from Jesus’ patience, from his apparent comfort with offending when necessary, from his utter lack of fear of being misunderstood.

Perhaps placing yourself in the narrative help you have an intimate encounter with Christ. Our imaginations are a powerful place to meet Jesus—to feel his healing touch, to study his non-judgmental gaze, to be caught up in his loving embrace. It can be a little overwhelming. And some days it will be underwhelming.

I find this advice from Father O’Brien helpful, regarding Ignatian Contemplation or any kind of prayer: “[P]ray as you are able; don’t try to force it. Rest assured that God will speak to you, whether through your memory, understanding, intellect, emotions, or imagination.”

If we trust that God will speak to us as we spend time with scripture day by day, we begin to develop what one of my mentors calls a biblical imagination, “encourag[ing] honest religious conversation rather than stopping it cold.”

Instead of thinking of Bible stories in isolation, we juxtapose them against the backdrop of our lives. We see ourselves and our situations reflected in part within the great canvas that is the mythos of our faith. Or it goes the other way, and modern-day Biblical characters or situations start to jump to our attention as we survey the world around us. A biblical imagination doesn’t try to force analogies or equivalencies, but it does take note of resonances, parallels, and departures.

I prepared most of this sermon on Thursday, against the backdrop of the impending healthcare vote that never happened. In that context, this passage about Jesus’s conflict with the authorities and a man who got stuck in the middle has increased my appreciation for the messiness of social change, of consensus building, of perhaps following or perhaps changing the rules, of doing our best to care for each other with the tools and resources we have.

Living together, to say nothing of leadership, is hard—whatever side we find ourself on in the conflicts of our day. It takes creativity and inner stillness to begin to dream a new reality into being. I think Jesus navigated his conflicts so powerfully, and started such an important movement, precisely because he had a powerful imagination.

No coincidence, then, that we can meet him in ours.

Photo: “Imagination” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Screenshot: Monty Python's God

Ash Wednesday: Don’t grovel!

As on so many of our most significant holy days, on Ash Wednesday we are challenged to try to integrate a couple of at least seemingly unrelated ideas and rituals.

The first is the “Invitation to a Holy Lent,” which offers the context that this season began as a time of preparation for baptism, and a time when those who had been “separated from the body of the faithful” by “notorious sins” were “reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”

But rather than sitting in some kind of “I told you so” judgment, the early church saw this as an opportunity for the entire community to reconnect with Christ’s “message of pardon and absolution,” and “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

There are a lot of ands in those words Mother Kate will read in a few minutes. Baptism and reconciliation, penitence and forgiveness, pardon and absolution, repentance and faith. Why this insistence on pairing ideas, on balancing out our liturgy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could think about one thing at a time?

I’m not so sure. Let’s consider another unusual element of this service. After we’ve received our ashes, we will work our way through Psalm 51 and pray together the Litany of Repentance. It can be an overwhelming experience, as some quick excerpts might help illustrate.

There’s verse 6 of the psalm: “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth / a sinner from my mother’s womb.” Whoa, lot to unpack there, even if we don’t take the psalmist literally. Or how about this item from the litany: “We have been deaf to your call to serve.” One glance at my calendar certainly makes that point to me. And here’s a confession that’s bound to have a banner year all across the political spectrum: “[F]or uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”

I don’t know about you, but the longer I sit with all that is wrapped up in the middle section of this liturgy, the more tempted I am to despair. To wallow, even.

The reason we need the balance of all those ands is clear from all our readings: no wallowing. That is not the point of this season. Not even a little bit.

Just take it from St. Paul: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So that we might become the righteousness of God. I don’t know exactly what that means, but clearly God has more important work for us in this season of examination and preparation than to wallow in what holds us back. If we find ourselves amid some uncomfortable truth, our task is to remember that this knowledge will be a key to our growth in love.

Seen through this lens, even Jesus’s admonition about practicing our piety before others becomes a call to skip the moroseness and move on to the thanksgiving and amendment of life: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” Yes, wallowing can feel like an end in itself, but it binds us rather than freeing us.

Penitence and forgiveness, baptism and reconciliation, pardon and absolution, repentance and faith. Let’s go ahead and add crucifixion and resurrection, death and life. The ands are what keep the difficult aspects of this season in perspective and give it its proper meaning. The ands keep pulling us toward God, helping us resist the urge to stay in orbit around ourselves. The ands say to us clearly and persistently: the point isn’t your sins, it’s that God wants you to be free from the weight of them.

Maybe you’ll need a reminder of that balance, and of that pull of hope, throughout these forty days. Maybe you’ll just need a chuckle. Either way, in those moments I suggest a YouTube search for “Monty Python – God,” wherein you will hear the following:

 GOD: Arthur!  Arthur, King of the Britons! [God calls down. The king’s company drops to their knees.] Oh, don’t grovel!  If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.

ARTHUR:  Sorry—

GOD:  And don’t apologize.  Every time I try to talk to someone it’s

“sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I’m not worthy.”  What are you

doing now!?

ARTHUR:  I’m averting my eyes, oh Lord.

GOD:  Well, don’t.  It’s like those miserable Psalms—they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!

ARTHUR:  Yes, Lord.

Yes, the Pythons are a bit hard on the psalms, and yes, this and sounds more like an or.  Still, I’m not really kidding about this strategy, if you think you’re someone who needs it. For some of us the temptation to grovel is almost overwhelming when we are confronted by a full and honest view of the challenges in our lives: the ways we need to grow, the ways we cling to old habits, the ways we shut out God and others, and yes the incontrovertible fact that we are dust and shall return to same.

So “to make a right beginning of repentance,” I invite you, when you receive your ashes, to look for the and in the midst of that experience.

Perhaps you need the reminder that your creator who made you from dust is in every moment sustaining you as well. Perhaps you’re ready for the liberating experience of lowering your defenses for a time, of letting go of the control we all crave and cling to.

Perhaps those ashes are meant to teach you that the dirty mess of our lives is holy precisely because it is messy. It’s so easy to forget we’re all struggling to do our best amid circumstances that pull us in many directions.

If you have trouble remembering the and these forty days, and even if the Monty Python trick helps, think about this happy coincidence: The mark on our foreheads today will be a cross, of course, but maybe it’s also a plus sign. In this equation, that doesn’t have to mean adding one more thing to our busy lives. It does mean adding an awareness of the hope and peace and joy and wholeness that are Christ’s great gift to us.

So remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return AND and to dust you shall return. AND Remember that you are precious in God’s sight.  Remember that you are precious in God’s sight.