The Usual Daily Wage

Exodus 16:2-15 / Jonah 3:10-4:11; Phil 1:21-30; Mat 20:1-16
(for Sep. 24)

We modern Christians get hung up on the whole salvation by works vs grace thing. On the one hand while Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8f). On the other hand there are over two dozen passages that say that in the end, God will judge us by our works, including that rather amazing passage in James 2:14-24 that appears to be an explicit corrective to how Paul’s teaching on grace and works was understood by the church.

The process of salvation is a far more rich and nuanced issue in scripture than our binary of grace and works allows for. This week’s Gospel lesson is a wonderful example of this richness. A landowner needs workers, so he goes to the workers’ market early in the morning to hire a van load of workers. He returns to the workers’ market a few more times, the last trip being around 4:00 pm to pick up his final load of workers for the day. At 5:00 pm, when he pays everyone for their day’s work, everyone gets paid the same, no matter if they worked 8 hours or one hour.

“How’s that fair?” complains the group who worked all day. And indeed! How is this fair at all?

And of course, isn’t this rather the point about the Gospel that Jesus is making. The Gospel isn’t fair nor is it just, it is instead excessively good for everyone involved.

Back to our original question of grace and works, we must start with grace because that is where the New Testament starts. But once we have been given new life in Christ, totally by divine grace, then we have responsibilities to use the gift wisely. What do you suppose would have happened if one of those workers who was hired at 8:00 am just sat around all day instead of doing the work assigned to him? Getting the job implies the responsibility of doing the job. Similarly, receiving the gift of new life means we have several responsibilities: being “a workman who is not ashamed” (2 Tim. 2:15), “enslaving” our bodies (1 Cor. 9:27), “growing up in every way … into Christ” (Eph 4:15), etc. Paul goes as far as to say that if he failed to do these things he feared that he would be “disqualified” (NRSV) or “a castaway” (KJV) (1 Cor. 9:27).

At this point – the point of being good stewards of the new life that has been graciously given to us – the grace/works binary breaks down and ends up being more harmful than helpful. Work is not what you do or don’t do, it’s a frame of reference. Instead of a binary of opposites (grace/work) which James clearly rejects in ch. 2 of his letter, we need to think in terms of complimentary responses. Divine grace draws out human gratitude. God’s mighty work draws out my own labor.

Furthermore, work (in the positive context) has less to do with actions and more to do with expectations. True love expects nothing in return. Like grace drawing out gratitude, so our work in God’s vineyard should be the result of God’s love for us. As soon as we begin to think that we’re becoming a special Christian, or even, God forbid, someone that God simply can’t do without, then our expectations have misled us and we end up being like the laborers who worked all day. We think that God needs us and fail to understand (as the landowner says in the parable that God is simply generous. (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Mt. 20:15)

The parable ends with a common theme in the parables: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We must always remember that there is nothing fair about the kingdom. Everything is upside down. If you go about your life seeking justice, then you are not seeking God. God’s generosity (the word from the parable that is a synonym for divine grace) is not fairness; it is not payment for what is owed. Thinking about life in terms of fairness, justice, and becoming a powerful Christian because of how my life has been transformed will get you nowhere in the Kingdom of heaven.

Can we delight in God as God delights in us or will we fall back into the trap of expecting even more for all the “good” things we have done?

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Both Discipline and Forgiveness

Sep 10 Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20; Sep 17 Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35

I was the Associate Pastor at a congregation that had previously had a pastor who was both a crook (literally – he dared not go to Florida because of pending fraud charges connected with skimming church funds) and a sexual predator. Not surprisingly he was smooth and very convincing. He still had a strong following in the congregation. Part of the difficulty in removing him was the denominational disciplinary system was not set up to deal well with a person who was that deceitful and convincing and unrepentant. Despite the wickedness, he was a good fund raiser, so tragically, another denomination gave him credentials and allowed him to serve a large and very prosperous congregation after he had been fired and defrocked by the PC(USA).

This is not a hard case. Someone like this needs to be both disciplined by the church and prosecuted by the state. But the starkness of the case highlights the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching in the two lectionary readings from Mt. 18. This week’s lesson about forgiveness is the second half of last week’s lesson about church discipline. This is Matthew writing toward the end of the first century looking back on Jesus’ teaching and recognizing that Jesus knew where this whole “church” thing was going. It was going to get organized, there would be bad apples, and eventually there would be problems.

Jesus’ solution is best describes as progressive discipline. There is need to work with the sinner in stages. Restoration is at first personal (“point out the fault when the two of you are alone” v. 15) and then discreet (“take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” v. 16). If this informal approach does not work, the process of restoration becomes formal and ultimately public (“tell it to the church …” vv. 17f).

But in order to avoid this process becoming a series of witch hunts, this is immediately followed by the teaching on forgiveness. Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive” (v. 21)? Jesus’ answer, told in parable form, assumes that we are to forgive as we are forgiven. The specific teaching is that if I refuse to forgive as I have been forgiven then I am “a wicked servant.” When the forgiven servant refused to forgive others, the master sent him to jail until all his debts were paid. The last verse is chilling. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 25).

This is typical of the normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Rules and regulations are not dismissed as unimportant but are placed in the context of our heart, that is, our affections, attitudes, and desires. Trying to find that narrow path between being rule-bound and ignoring problems is delicate and difficult. Returning to the opening story, the pastor was fired and defrocked without a lot of information given to the church. His predatory sexual exploitations were not revealed because of the privacy of the victims. The possibility of fraud was not explained in detail because a thorough audit had not yet been completed and the Presbytery didn’t want to damage any possible case the state might have against him.

Because all the details were, for what seemed good reasons at the time, not made public (in contrast to “tell it to the church” v. 17), the gossip exploded and a significant portion of the congregation took his side (he was a smooth talker after all!) and opposed the presbytery. They accused the Presbytery and those who sided with the Presbytery of not being willing to forgive. In the rough and tumble context of real life, the proper application of Jesus’ teaching is not so obvious.

Successful application of both sides of this process (forgiveness and discipline), whether in an individual context or the formal context of church structure, requires the ability to discern the heart of both parties. While this passage is about the structures of our corporate church life, Jesus is saying less about that and more about the state of each of our hearts. (Again, this is the typical and normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching.) The implication of this text is that any criticism I have of another Christian, or another person in general, is a mirror revealing and then reflecting my hidden heart back to me. As individual Christians or more formally as congregations, any actions we take to “encourage,” “correct,” or “improve” others is as much about us as it is about them. Our salvation is not so much a thing that resides within me, it rather rides on interactions and relationships I have with others.

Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

The Embrace of Peter and Paul

This is a lectionary reflection on this week’s Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:13-20, the story of Jesus giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, but once again I want to get at it through an icon. One of the popular icons in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is the icon of the Embrace of Saints Peter and Paul. Putting these two apostles together goes back in church history as far as we can go. They are unique among the apostles in that they are commemorated together rather than individually. Their Feast is June 29, which is the culmination of the Apostles Fast, beginning immediately after Pentecost. That fast and feast is ancient, but this icon featuring an embrace is a recent development, first showing up in Crete in the 15th century.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has always seen Peter and Paul as inseparable. Peter was the Apostle to the Jews while Paul was the Apostle to the Greeks. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, the congregation that first accepted Paul as a Christian and then sent him out as a missionary. Many years later the Paul travelled to Rome and essentially gave that congregation apostolic approval. Shortly after, Peter became Rome’s bishop.

The Western church was initially (and has always remained) very Greek in its sensibilities, and this was Paul’s gift to the church – reframing a Jewish sect so that it made sense to the world of Greek culture. (This is the meaning of the phrase, “They were first called Christians in Antioch.” Prior to this the church was simply considered the Way of Jesus. It was essentially a sect of Judaism. That Greek word “Christian” marks the beginning of this reframing of Jesus’ teachings into another culture.)

It is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church is often called the church of St. Peter because Peter never did manage to embrace this reframing of Christianity that Paul oversaw and Rome represented. That was a Pauline thing. Peter was and is far more representative of the church along the Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem, Antioch to the north, Crete to the west and Alexandria to the south). These were and are churches that maintained a strongly Semitic outlook, and that was Peter’s thing.

But Peter is first among the apostles, it was to Peter that Jesus gave authority (Mt., 16:13-20). As the power of the Roman bishop grew and as Rome grew increasingly alienated from the rest of the church, it was politically necessary that Rome cement its connection with Peter even though their soul was far more Pauline.

It had been coming for centuries but the official break of the Roman bishop from the larger church occurred in 1054. Historically there was an inevitability to the break, especially after the imperial capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople. But no one was happy that the Roman Bishop had fallen out of fellowship with the Bishops (by this time called Patriarchs) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

In the 1438 the fall of the imperial city of Constantinople was still in the future (that happened in 1453), but the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire was already obvious. There was an opportunity for rapprochement between east and west and this was addressed at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The reconciliation failed, but out of that effort grew an idealized memory of the past.

Much of the Byzantine court (particularly, worship specialists, as well as the art, music, and documents) had been moved from Constantinople to Crete in order to save it from the inevitable sack of the city. It was in Crete (Constantinople in exile) during the period of the council that an iconographer named Angelos first painted the Embrace of Peter and Paul. It is almost certainly historically inaccurate, but it expressed the hopes of the future as well as the rosy memories of the past for much of the church in the 15th century.

In one sense this story has nothing to do with us because that moment, the possibility of reunion envisioned by Ferrara-Florence is no longer feasible without unimaginable changes. But this icon from this period has much to do with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, if we but choose to see it. Matthew 16:13-20 is a touchstone of deep division, given that this text has been co-opted (in the Protestant and Orthodox view) by the Catholics to bolster their vison of a universal pope to rule them all.

The icon has an odd feature that makes it quite precisely our story. Peter and Paul may be embracing, but they’re not looking at each other, they are looking past each other. (I personally have a hard time seeing this, but both art experts and icon experts have commented on this, so I’m taking their word for it.) One wonders if Angelos, while expressing his hope for union in the embrace, didn’t also express his expectation of failure in his depiction of the eyes. While the embrace almost certainly never happened, the not seeing eye to eye certainly did. Peter and Paul never did fully reconcile and James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, finally separated them, sending Paul to evangelize out west and (from the silence of scripture, I assume) allowing Peter to stay put in the Jerusalem to Antioch corridor on the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Looking back over history, I would argue that one of the strengths of the church is that east and west has never seen eye to eye. Those terrible Judaizers that ran around Asia Minor and Greece were almost certainly the everyday Christians of the eastern Mediterranean coast. That Judaizing debate was the disagreement between Peter and Paul writ large. Paul thought the central issue was works (and this is the side of the story that is recorded in Paul’s letters). The Eastern Christians thought the issue was how we go about incorporating the Gospel into our everyday lives (more reflective of James and the Petrine letters). When Peter and Paul (East and West) were in the same room they fought and misconstrued each other, but when given a degree of separation they tended to bring a balance to each other in the first millennium before the great split in 1054. That was the wisdom of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem and the effect of that first Jerusalem council.

Now there are three siblings (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) who can’t get along. Like Peter and Paul, even in their embrace, we’ll probably never see eye to eye, but we should at least be embracing each other. Behind our embrace is the profound wisdom of James who understood that the Gospel is simply too big for any one of us to grasp the whole thing.

Canaanites, Dogs, and St. Christopher

NOTE: Because of an unexpectedly busy week (ah, the tyranny of the urgent but pointless!) I didn’t get this essay edited to post in a timely manner. Sunday’s Gospel lesson is at the center of one of my current fascinations, so I’m posting it anyway; better late than never.

I want to approach this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel lesson by way of a bizarre Eastern Orthodox icon that I just recently discovered when listening to this video by iconographer and medievalist Jonathan Pageau. He explains the icon in far more depth in this article in the Orthodox Arts Journal.

This is how St. Christopher was traditionally represented in Eastern Orthodox iconography. In the West, St. Christopher typically appears as a giant carrying a traveler on his shoulder. And not just any giant! He was said to be a “Cainite” (offspring of Cain) and Nephilim, the half angel, half human creature that was the primary cause of the flood, according the standard medieval interpretation of Genesis.

The reason he is shown with a dog’s head is that the Eastern tradition says he was a Canaanite. Canaanites were a particularly despised people group in the near east at the time of Jesus and the early church. And this brings us to this week’s Gospel lesson (Mt. 15:21-28), where a Canaanite woman pled with Jesus to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. Jesus initially ignored her and called the Canaanites dogs (as everyone did). Eventually he did heal her, but the Gospel story leaves a sour taste in our modern mouths.

By today’s standards Jesus’ words would probably be considered hate speech. For the followers of Jesus, the scandal was not that Jesus referred to the Canaanites as dogs, but rather that he relented and delivered the woman’s daughter.

The Canaanite woman and Christopher, the Canaanite saint, are examples of how the Gospel reaches beyond the borderlands of culture into chaos. They are uncomfortable edge cases which punctuate our prejudices that often dehumanize the person who is completely other, whether it is a person of another culture or skin color  or are different in other ways, such as deformities, deficiencies, or simply lack of good taste or proper politics.

But this is why Christopher has endured as an honored saint. Of course pure people (that is, us in our self-perception) can be Christ-bearers. We also affirm that foreigners can be Christ-bearers, because Jesus sent the apostles to spread the Gospel to the whole world. But the world is also populated by things that are simply “unnatural” and otherwise beyond. It’s too easy for us to see certain people and think that they are beyond redemption, like dogs.

Jesus could have done the correct thing and welcomed the Canaanite woman with open arms, but if he would have done that, an important lesson would have been missed. In order to emphasize the surprising inclusivity of the Gospel he began by emphasizing the exclusivity of polite society. He started with that which people required, and from there he moved to including the unnatural and unredeemable under the umbrella of the Gospel.

In the Western tradition, according to Pageau, Christopher never entered the nave of the church only coming in as far as the narthex. This is a very interesting bit of the story. The church has rules. In all except the most liberal of churches (which are most of the Protestant churches of today especially in America, but both worldwide and historically, this is an outlier) the Table is “fenced.” Not just anyone can receive communion because, to speak metaphorically, the Cup is like a raging flame, and if one is not prepared by God, the Cup might be experienced as judgment rather than an internal enlightenment.

The one who is recognized as a saint that isn’t fully a part of the Body of Christ (entering the church only as far as the narthex), embodies the self-imposed quandary we find ourselves in. Historically, with a handful of exceptions (modernity being one of them), the church has felt strongly that rules are required in order to be faithful to Christ. But as soon as we make rules we discover that the Gospel can extend beyond the rules. Rules always look backward while the Gospel looks forward and outward. Rules, while required, always end up being complicated.

The other problem, and this isn’t a quandary, this is just plain old wickedness hiding in the form of high sounding rules, is that we often want to exclude certain people, and even worse, certain classes of people just because they are our “Canaanites.” In Sioux City it tends to be Native Americans, in South Sioux City it might be Hispanics or refugee immigrants. Elsewhere it more likely to be blacks, while in a small town thirty miles from where I taught high school, it was whites. When I was in college it was Democrats; in seminary it was Republicans (and that was over thirty years ago … it is far worse now).

Those whom God recognizes as saints might appear to us to be dog-headed men, just as in the icon. In the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church disallowed icons including any dog-headed men. I suspect that decision had to do with the werewolf traditions throughout that region. Today such icons are nearly impossible to find simply because we fancy ourselves too polite, and such an icon seems utterly gauche. (It’s the same reason we shrink from today’s Gospel lesson.) This is a pity. Having holy objects that included dog-headed men, and especially beloved St. Christopher, presented as a dog-headed man, would be a constant reminder that for us the Gospel rarely includes everyone. Each and every one of us have someone that we would rather remain in the narthex. Each and every church communion has someone who doesn’t fit their standards of life-style or belief. And those dogs?

Far away from us, hanging around with St. Christopher at the very margins warming their hands on the divine glory.

Truth Arising from the Touch of Jesus’ outstretched hand

I have a long history of engagement with Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. The epistle, Romans 10:5-15, is one of those texts that is deeply problematic for Protestants while at the same time one of the most beloved. In a variety of classes in both college and seminary the instructor has posed the question, “What is Paul talking about?”

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, / on your lips and in your heart” – (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s the hard part of the text, the beloved part follows in v. 15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The associated Gospel, from Mt 14:22-33, is the story of Peter walking on the water. Fairly early on in my pastoral life I put the two texts together. I had been reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and it dawned on me what everyone (Polanyi, Paul, and Matthew) were getting on about.

There is a facile reading of Romans which interprets Paul as saying that the point is neither rote repetition nor salvation by works, it is rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is required. This is true as far as it goes but misses Paul’s larger argument that cuts to the heart of our assumptions about how the universe works.

A very long time ago an influential bishop by the name of Augustine, reading the Bible through the lens of Plato, came up with the hair-brained platonic idea that truth was a philosophical concept that was absolute, along the same lines as gravity. The Western church has been either vociferously defending Augustine or trying to overcome him ever since. Calvin and Luther, and thus Protestants in general, were quite enamored of Augustine, so this has been a particular problem for Protestants.

The older western theologians, such as Ireneaus, and pretty much all of the eastern church understood that truth is not so much a philosophical absolute as it is an outgrowth of a loving relationship. Saying truth is absolute is remarkably parallel to Isaac Newton saying that time and space are absolute. While these ideas work on an everyday level, they are simply wrong at a fundamental level. It was Einstein who figured out that it’s the speed of light that’s absolute and time and space coordinate to the speed of light. Thus, as we approach the speed of light, time and space are bent toward the more fundamental reality.

Similarly, the fundamental reality for Christians is the living Lord, Jesus Christ. The radix, or fundament of the faith is the incarnation, the joining together by God, of eternal God with creation itself. This change of focus from truth as a philosophical construct to the living and loving person of Jesus Christ is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts that Protestants and Catholics struggle with. Just as the Sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth, so the Son, the living Word, is the center of Christian faith, and not truth or written word.

Paul’s point in Rom. 10 is that objectifying truth ultimately blinds us and leads us away from the living and loving Truth of Jesus Christ. By objectifying the truth we bring Christ to us (either bring him down from heaven or up from the grave, in the words of Paul) and thus make Christ our servant. That is not the path of salvation. Instead of bringing Christ to us, we need to go to Christ. Christ is very near, but it requires us to enter into relationship.

And this, as we come to the end of the lectionary reading, is why the one who preaches good news is so blessed. It simply does not do to read the text. Truth isn’t there to be grasped and eaten like an apple, it arises in the midst of relationship. As the person sharing the Gospel and the hearer of the Gospel come together, truth arises and salvation is possible. Just as true Truth is found at the coming together of Creator and creation in Jesus Christ, so salvation is found in relationship and community, not in words on the page.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the point of the Sea of Galillee, the storm, Peter in the boat, and Jesus walking on the water. As long as Peter was in communion with Jesus, moving toward him, entering into that living and loving relationship, Peter too could walk on the water. But Peter “objectified” rather than “relationalized” the situation. He looked at the stormy water surrounding him; he looked back at the boat far away, he looked at Jesus, also far away, and he became isolated and alone in his predicament. Salvation is far away when we are isolated and alone.

But Jesus, ever loving and ever drawing us toward himself, reached out and lifted Peter from the stormy depths. Relationship was restored and the truth of salvation was once again established in the interaction of God and human.

In short, we can’t make it on our own. Truth and salvation come only at the crossroads where we enter into community: community with God and community with others. The truth, as an objectified philosophical thing, will never save us, but moving toward relation with God, the Living One, the Truth – the living Truth – reveals itself in the relationship itself, and salvation is the result. Thanks be to God.

An Inconvenient Truth

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.

As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”

This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.

John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.

I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.

But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.

Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).

The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.

My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.

But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.

Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?

Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).

If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.

A Lectionary Reflection: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Judgement

I haven’t pondered the lectionary readings for a spell. The texts for July 9 are striking because (1) they are about judgment very broadly understood, and (2) the topic of judgment has been stripped out of the readings. Judgment is a subject we are very uncomfortable with.

I propose we are uncomfortable with it because people judge in a facile and thoughtless manner; we have trivialized judgment and thus made it obscene. Matthew 11:16-19 illustrates: John the Baptist, an ascetic, came along and people said, he’s too strict, “he has a demon.” Jesus followed. While not a libertine, he was far more lax about dietary rules than the religious leaders, and people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The bottom line is that the average person rejected both their messages, because both involved a fundamental change of life. But rather than simply rejecting or ignoring the message, they used a form of judgment that condemned John and Jesus. In this manner they were able, not only to ignore the message of repentance, but justify their doing so.

This should sound familiar, because this is the most common form of moral outrage we hear today. Rather than engage the other person’s ideas, we tend to respond with an emotional burst that we manage to justify by adding a moral component.

The result is that we cover our failures and wounds of corruption with a salve of moral outrage, expressed as judgment, and rarely get around to doing the hard work of changing the things that need to be changed in our own lives (in contrast to demanding change in others’ lives). The former is true repentance; the latter is obscene judgment.

The lectionary leaves out Mat. 11:20-24 and jumps to v. 25. It is the condemnation of the cities that didn’t accept Jesus’ message, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The actual point of this text (a point which has been completely gutted by the lectionary) is that authentic judgment will happen one way or the other. We can judge ourselves (that is, repent of our own corruption instead of judging others), or we can put that off (as the people did to John and Jesus) and be judged by a far more terrible judgment when that corruption that exists within us finally eats us up completely and destroys us.

Jesus ends the text with the familiar, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat 11:28-30).

The action here is not only getting rid of our burden, but replacing it with Christ’s yoke, the burden that was originally designed for us. This latter burden, Christ’s yoke, is “light” because it is designed as something that, while heavy and hard, is life-giving. The other burden of our own making is life-destroying. Using different language, a different metaphor of burdens and harnesses, Jesus is saying the same thing as when he spoke about judgment.

That process of judgment which does not examine the self but demands change in others is actually a terrible burden. We know deep down that we are truly wretched creatures (see the Epistle reading, Rom. 7:15-25, Paul’s mournful cry of powerlessness to change). Psychologically speaking, this secret knowledge of self that we try to deny by pointing at others will destroy us by manifesting itself as anger, despair, addictions, psychosis, heart problems, and ultimately, death. Jesus simply calls it a burden.

So the choice is ours. We can keep busy judging others for their failures, or we can enter into the very difficult work of judging ourselves (of removing of our burden) and changing our way of life and thinking pattern (putting on Christ’s yoke, or harness). One way will inevitably lead to the fruition of all the corruption that is within us – unbearable judgment, or if we do the hard task of judging ourselves, the other way will lead to life and fruitfulness.

I will finish with a popular internet meme featuring psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson. He rails against those who are busy trying to fix the world. Even though he approaches it from a clinical psychological perspective rather than a biblical perspective, his reasoning should now sound familiar. Such people are avoiding the hard work of fixing themselves by changing the subject and fixing others. “But how do we then improve the world?” ask the world-improvers accusingly. Peterson’s now famous answer is, “Clean your room!” (Remember, he’s a professor and his primary audience is college kids.)

Changing the world must necessarily start with changing yourself.  Any other way will ultimately lead to judgment, or chaos, or societal breakdown, or however you want to describe it. So here’s the challenge. We can follow the august example of the people who brought us the Revised Common Lectionary, and pretend that this ultimate judgment (that will ultimately come back and bite us if we don’t judge and fix ourselves) does not exist, or at least is so unimportant that we can skip over it and ignore it, or we can “clean our rooms” and our lives. As daunting as the latter option sounds, it’s actually a light burden compared to the former option. Jesus promised us this was so. Amen.

Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

I became fascinated with the Babylonian creation stories many years ago. The two original deities, Tiamat, the feminine god of chaos (or salt water, or the ocean, which is the embodiment of chaos), and her consort, Apsu, the masculine god who is very mysterious and unknowable, but was probably the god of fresh water, and particularly, the god of the springs from where the holy water of the religious rites came.

They had a number of children, but the key child – in terms of the creation story – is Anu, who killed Tiamat, chopped her up, and scattered her. Those scattered remains became the created order as we know it. Thus the created order came about from the defeat of chaos.

But chaos remained. Babylonian society was a small enclave of order surrounded by chaos.

This Babylonian creation myth came to mind because of the texts for Trinity Sunday, which was celebrated June 12 in the Western churches. The Christian creation story also starts with chaos: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was [chaotic] and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1f).

The difference in the two stories is striking. In the Babylonian story the outer chaos is something to be feared and avoided. I purposely quoted the RSV because it views Gen 1:2 from a Christian perspective translating the Hebrew “Wind” (blowing over the chaos) as “the Holy Spirit.” In this Christian version of the story, the chaos is there, but the Holy Spirit is present out there, above the chaos.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus sends the disciples out into the world. In the Babylonian view of the world, only a Hero would dare venture out into the chaos. In the Christian view, we ordinary people can venture out into the chaos outside our community because the Spirit is already present “blowing over the waters.”

As humans we naturally fear chaos (it’s actually biological) and in the last several years our world has become quite chaotic. For Americans that chaos reach a fever pitch with the recent presidential election. My liberal friends who are horrified by President Trump and live in abject fear of what they perceive as the chaos in the political order (and similarly, my conservative friends who were equally frozen in fear by the prospect of Hillary Clinton), desperately need to hear these glorious words of Trinitarian truth: The Spirit’s abode is above the chaos (in the same way the wind blows above the prairie). The chaos is therefore not so much a problem as it is an opportunity. As frightening as it is, the chaos is relatively safe. In chaos there be dragons! But in chaos there be God blowing upon the deep. It is the Trinitarian message of hope.

A Second Look at Glory

Transfiguration Sunday – as a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26 in 2017). It is about Jesus being transfigured, his hidden divine glory being revealed. It serves as the culmination of the Christmas cycle, where “revealing,” “light,” and “glory” are major themes. In terms of the lectionary Easter Cycle (which will start three days later), it gives context to the suffering that Jesus is about endure as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. By juxtaposing the Transfiguration with Ash Wednesday/Lent/Crucifixion, it emphasizes that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is a path of choice. Suffering and death were not inevitable as Jesus came up against the political powers. He submits himself to humiliation, not out of inevitability, but out of obedience to the Father.

The Feast of Transfiguration (in contrast to the Lectionary Day) is on Aug. 6 so this is a displaced Sunday that serves the purposes of the lectionary rather than celebrating the historical feast. This dislocation is something to which I will circle back momentarily.

I grew up on divine glory. Long before I was a Presbyterian I learned the first question of the Westminster catechism, which seems to belong to the whole Protestant Church and not just Presbyterians. A contemporary renderings of it reads, Q: What is a person’s chief end? A: A person’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Once I became Presbyterian, I realized the answer’s order (glory first, enjoyment second) and the placement of the question (first in the catechism) is no accident. Presbyterian theology is sorted around the idea of God’s glory. It’s God’s primary activity in the sense that God glorifies himself whenever God does anything. Why did God create? To glorify himself. Why did God allow the flood? To glorify himself. Why did God call forth Israel? To glorify himself. Why did God redeem? Well, you get the idea.

This year a simple question popped into my mind as the Lectionary Sunday of Transfiguration looms: Is all that actually true? I don’t think so because it stands counter to Jesus’ life and it’s revelation of the true character of God. While it is obviously true and very important that God is glorious and his glory shines forth all over the place, when we start with glory as the organizing principle, it manages to get our relationship with God out of sorts.

The chief end of God is [and here there are a variety of words we might use which I can’t decide between] fellowship, communion, union, all relational words that are rooted firmly in the divine attribute of love rather than glory. God is glorious because the glory arises out of God’s love and not vice versa. If glory were the starting point, the relationship would be profoundly different. It would be about God and not about God-with-us, it would be about God’s advantage over us. “For God so sought to glorify Himself that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in order that God could further glorify himself.” (Well, it isn’t an exact quote.)

August 6 is not exactly a high point on the liturgical calendar (aside from the fact that it is a Great Feast of the Church).  It is connected with first fruits (and grapes are a big part of the Orthodox feast). But there is no grand cycle surrounding it (like Lent or Advent). It’s just sort of there all on its own. And this is also, properly, the point of divine glory. It’s always there, it’s always fabulous when we se see it. We know we will bask in it in eternity. But the story of creation, redemption and the consummation of all things focuses on a different story arc altogether. Not much actually revolves around the divine glory itself.

And while there is little to no historical precedent (except in the last 500 years) for making divine glory central, there is a down side to such a practice. Glory is a “power” concept while love and fellowship are “servant” concepts. While the Old Testament is full of glory and awe and the “awe-ful” God, Jesus, true God come to earth in order to reveal God’s most fundamental true character, hid his glory and revealed the more foundational attribute of servanthood instead.

Starting with glory will give us a human kingdom, with all its abuses and horrors. Starting with servanthood and fellowship will give us the upside down kingdom (in John Howard Yoder’s words) that is no kingdom at all, but rather the pervasive Reign of God that is so hidden, smart people think they’re being really smart when they say that God can’t exist. Can you imagine the Twitter storm we would be subjected to if the Society of Really Smart People That Really Matter to the World decided the President of the United States didn’t exist?

But God’s not like that. God won’t tweet in protest when God doesn’t get the proper divine recognition and thus made really great. God is most glorified when God’s not the object of the world’s adoration, and instead the secret servant of that world. God is most glorified when God brings order to the chaos in the form of a wind over the chaotic sea, or a dewy breeze in a Garden. It is glorious precisely because it’s hidden, and thus accessible to everyone God wants to be with, even the least of us.

So, what’s the point of Mat. 17:1-9. the Gospel Lesson about the Transfiguration? In this context, it is that the true glory of Jesus Christ is that he veils his splendor so that the splendor itself will not lord over us. That true splendor of servanthood is revealed when Jesus is momentarily transfigured and then willingly returns to his veiled human self, telling the disciples to keep it all a secret. Divine splendor is always there, but the glory is that the splendor, the greatness, the power, the perfection is hidden so that Jesus, the Word and true revealer of God, can be a servant and call us friend.