Epiphany 4, Year A, 2017

You know how when you’re waiting to board the plane, you start to hear, “Platinum Diamond passengers are welcome to board. Gold Passengers are welcome to board. Frequent fliers are welcome to board. First class passengers are welcome to board.” By the time they get to you, in section five, with your seat right next to the rest room, you have a pretty clear understanding of what your status is. Low.

Whether we like it or not, our status in life is incredibly determinative of our life experiences. Some of us have great status. We are born to parents who have a house and some money and live near good schools. Some of us have worse status. We are born in poverty and violence and go to poorly funded schools. And status affects us whether we even realize it or not. Our status can determine what kind of higher education we get, where we get our first internship, whom we marry. Even our church denominations have status attached to them. Of the 45 Presidents our nation has had, a quarter of them were Episcopalians! Another eight were Presbyterian. There’s a lone Roman Catholic on the list, and no Pentecostals. You didn’t know you were grooming future Presidents by bringing your kids here, did you? Even within an individual congregation, social status can sometimes creep in and affect who has positions of power and who is taken seriously.

The Corinthians really struggled with status. We heard last week about how they were fighting about being followers of Paul or Apollos or Peter. This was just part of their struggle. Corinth was a new money town, full of people striving to climb the social ladder. And the church at Corinth was filled with a real mix of people of different statuses. The power structures of the world were getting played out in the local congregation. Rich people would gather for communion first and eat up all the good food before the poor people could get there. The church was also a mix of Jewish and Greek people, so their religious status was also an issue. The different groups were not united, not treating each other with kindness. People of higher statuses were acting like they were more special than people of lower statuses.

You might expect to Paul to wade in and sort out these arguments for the Corinthians—give them some direction about who was right and who was wrong. But Paul wants to make a larger point.

He says, “for the logos of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

New Testament scholar Alex Brown points out that

For Jews, the logos was the law and Wisdom … For Greeks, the logos signified the reason behind the cosmic order and the advances of philosophy in understanding that order.”2 Brown concludes, “This ‘logos of the cross’ constitutes a contradiction in terms offensive both to the reasoned and to the religious mind.[1]

Paul is saying much more than that the cross is a message. He is saying that the cross is part of the cosmic order. And in this cosmic order, statuses are upended, if not discarded altogether.

One would think that God would have the ultimate status. He rules over all of creation and everything within it. He could come to earth and lord over us all. Instead, when God does come to earth, he chooses not to exercise his status. Instead he is humiliated, put to death on the cross as a common criminal. If Epiphany is a series of revelations, this is a huge one: that God did not come here to lord over us, but to come alongside us and face even our worst humiliations.

Whatever our status, whomever we follow, any airs we might put on look ridiculous when compared to God’s sacrifice and humility. Paul writes,

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

Our world feels a lot like Corinth these days! Instead of people following Appollos and Paul, we have followers of Jerry Falwell or Jack Spong; Tim Keller or Nadia Bolz Weber. Conservative and liberal Christians have been at each others’ throats, convinced the other side fundamentally misunderstands who God is and what God wills for our country.

Is God primarily interested in us being faithful to the law and living pure lives? Or is God primarily interested in us being compassionate and welcoming to as diverse a group of people as possible? Whatever our position, we have certainly been getting on our high horses as we align ourselves with religious leaders, teachers, and politicians that reflect our beliefs. Whatever you believe, there is a Christian somewhere ready to yell at you about how your status as a Christian is questionable.

And it is humbling to remember that Jesus died for this. He knows this about us. He knows we can’t even talk about God without becoming defensive and hurtful. And instead of whipping us into shape and telling us what to do, he comes alongside us, loves us, and sacrifices himself for us.

That is foolishness! That makes no sense! It’s almost embarrassing to think about how the God of the Universe came to love us despite how incredibly petty we can be, how willing we are to demonize people, how sure we are that we are right about everything.

Whenever we are in conflict with another person, whether about politics, religion, or anything else, it is helpful for us to spend some time at the foot of the cross. Spending time with Jesus, who offers everything to us with utter vulnerability and without any regard to status, reorients us. And it helps us to give up our status—which is just an illusion anyway. And if we are willing to give up our status maybe we’ll be willing to encounter Christ in the other.

When anyone around us got too self-righteous, my mother would mutter, “He’s going to be really surprised at who is with him in heaven.” She was not a theologian, but I think she was on to something. We’ll all be there together—liberal do-gooders and conservative rule followers—because our salvation is not based on us believing the right doctrine, but on a series of historical acts—Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. And if we each focus on following Christ, rather than tearing into each other maybe we can get somewhere constructive. I have conservative and liberal Christian relatives. The conservatives help pack meals for the hungry and volunteer in schools. The liberals volunteer in soup kitchens and teach Sunday School. While their ideas about policy are completely opposite from each other, the way they live out their faith is very similar.

And I think we could yell at each other for days without anyone changing their minds about a single thing! There is a path forward, I think, in which we boldly express our opinions and frustrations to our elected leaders, and find a way of talking to those close to us that is rooted in the humility of being people who are free of status, standing together at the foot of the cross.

And Christians need to get our act together because the world needs Jesus and Christians are Jesus’ current delivery system. Jesus did not die for us so that we could be right. Jesus died for us so God’s kingdom could spread throughout the world. A world of peace and justice. The world needs us. Refugees need us. Kids being trafficked need us. Hopeless people who have turned to heroin as a way out need us. Kids who can’t count on a meal at the end of the day need us.

At Diocesan Convention this weekend, Bishop Gulick reminded us that we are each crucial. The word crucial means cross shaped. We are crucial, because we stand at the foot of the cross–able to see ourselves and others clearly. There is no us and them, there is just us, forgiven and loved by God.

Let’s get to work.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3140

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Proper 9, Year B, 2012

What is on your resumé?

You list your successes, right?  You tell your future employers that you are an incredibly competent individual with a great track record of success!  You tell them you have managed projects and people, that you have delivered deliverables, and of course, that you are competent in the use of Microsoft Office and some basic HTML.

When you write your college essays, you try to horn in every sport you played and every drama production in which you performed.  You make sure to tell universities about your community service and your summer jobs.  If your SAT scores were great, you make sure that information is front and center!  And if they were lousy, you work extra hard to play up your other wonderful qualities.

And on a first date, you don’t lead with stories of how you completely ruined your last relationship.  You don’t admit that you spend most nights on your couch watching Law and Order re-runs.  No!  You make yourself sound extremely personable and interesting.  You talk about your travels, the exotic food you like to cook, what complex novel you’ve been reading.

Knowing and being confident about your strengths is part of surviving in our world.  Even in the church we do spiritual gifts inventories and think about our vocations in terms of our strengths meeting the needs of the world.

But do we rely so much on our strengths we forget to rely on God?  By having a culture in which people are valued for their contributions and accolades, where does that leave people who are unable to contribute?  Where does that leave people who have won no prizes?

The Apostle Paul is the founder of Christianity.  His writings were the first writings we had about Jesus.  His epistles were written years before the Gospels were written.  He traveled constantly, spreading the good news about Jesus.

His ministry was difficult, because he was ministering to places that were far away. He would help set up church communities and then keep up with them by letter, and in his absence, things would often fall apart.  Corinth was one of these places.

When Paul left Corinth, a group of other people claiming to be Jesus’ apostles came into town.  They tried to undermine Paul’s authority by arguing that if God was really pleased with Paul, Paul would not suffer.  But, since Paul has been beaten, arrested, even shipwrecked, God must not be in his corner.

This news gets to Paul and he writes the Corinthians this letter.  Paul is not ashamed of the things that have happened to him.  He claims each of them as part of his unique experience, and even as badges of honor.

Paul is confident in his faith.  In our reading today, he reveals this incredible spiritual experience he’s had.  However, he also reveals that he has some sort of “thorn in the flesh” that keeps him from getting too elated.  No one knows what this thorn is.  Could it be a physical ailment, sexual temptation, a disfigurement?  The ailment itself does not matter.  What matters is how Paul interprets the thorn.  Paul reveals that through prayer God has told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul clears up two things for the Corinthians.  First, Paul’s beatings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks are not punishments from God.  Second, the struggles that Paul has endured can be windows through which Paul and the world can see God’s power.

Paul knows that his value comes not from what he does, but from the Cross.  Paul knows that he is not the center of the universe.  Jesus’ death and resurrection are.  Paul’s thorn can be a window through which other people can experience the power of the Cross.

God is not impressed by our resumés.  If we are getting straight As and huge bonuses and are in perfect physical health and in incredibly happy relationships, we can get seduced into thinking we don’t need God, that the cross has no relevance to our lives.  We can start to believe that we earned our happiness, that our hard work and good character has brought us blessings.  And if we think we are so wonderful because of our hard work, we start to think that people who don’t share our blessings must not have worked so hard.  We perpetuate this sick theology that people who are poor, or disabled, or unintelligent have somehow displeased God.

Did you hear Michael Lewis’s speech to Princeton’s graduating class this year?  He warned Princeton students of just this phenomenon.

Lewis claims success is largely luck and that Princeton students are incredibly lucky to be born with intelligence and the schooling and the money to be able to attend the institution.  After sharing how his experience as a Princeton student got him a job at Salomon Brothers for which he was no way qualified, he stated:

“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either. “

He went on to tell the students about an experiment performed at CalTech in which groups of three students were tasked to solve puzzles.  One student was arbitrarily appointed the leader of the group.  A plate of four cookies was brought to the students.   Inevitably, the randomly appointed leader would eat the extra cookie.

Lewis ended his speech by saying, “All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”

While Lewis’s speech was not intended to be a theological one, it resonates with the ideas Paul is wrestling with here.

Whether we use the framework of success or blessing, we must be careful in how we think about God’s blessing and punishment.

God is not a Kindergarten teacher who rewards for good behaviors and punishes for bad behaviors.  When wonderful things happen to us, it is not because God thinks we are wonderful.  When bad things happen to us, it is not because God is mad at us.  Life is incredibly complicated and we make a hundred choices each day that ripple out and have consequences we never could have dreamed.  And often, the best and worst parts of life are completely random.  On any given day we could meet our life partner or get hit by a bus.  The thorns in our sides may be a result of some behavior on our part, but more often are just part of the chaotic soup of what it means to be human.  The one constant, the one thing we can always rely on is that God loved us so much that Jesus lived and died for us, whether we are successes or failures.

And whether our thorn is a bad hip, or dyslexia, or being chronically unlucky in love, God can show himself in powerful ways in the midst of our difficulties.  When our ego is stripped away, we can begin a spiritual life.  We can begin to acknowledge that we are not the center of the Universe, that we need help, that we need God.

Our thorns bring us up short, stop us in our tracks, make us face our biggest fears.  But our thorns also bring us face to face with the living God, with the deep knowledge that even though we are in pain and afraid, we are not alone.  God is with us.

Do you remember the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis? Jacob and a mysterious man wrestle all night and the physical struggle results in a life long limp.  At the end of the wrestling match, the opponent tells Jacob that he will be called Israel from now on, and Jacob asks the man to bless him.  Jacob knows he is encountering the living God.  For Jacob to be prepared to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, he must first realize his own limitations and yield to the living God.

Our thorns force us to face God.  When we face God, we learn to trust him.  When we trust God, he asks us to follow him.  When we follow him, the adventure begins.

Are you willing to be defined by God’s love for you rather than your strengths? Are you willing to share your cookies?  Are you willing to face your thorns?  Are you willing to go on a great adventure?

 

The entire Michael Lewis speech can be read here:  http://www.businessinsider.com/michael-lewis-princeton-commencement-remarks-2012-6#ixzz1zmV6nc8r

 

Good Friday, Year B, 2006

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Cosmic Word.  From the very beginning he is clear about his transcendent nature and his close relationship with his Father in heaven. 

How painful then, for his friends and family, to see Jesus in the most degrading of human positions-hung on a cross.  He has been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and hangs before the Marys and his beloved disciple, slowly dying.  O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, a hymn we sing today, expresses this grief:

Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expirèd,
and quenched the light of light.

Jesus was light and life and hope.  Jesus dying must have felt like the most gut wrenching, mind spinning incongruity.  I know I would have wanted to run.  Run somewhere safe, somewhere far away. 

The Marys and the beloved disciple challenge us.  They do not run from the agony.  They do not turn away from Jesus’s pained body.  They do not try to get Jesus off the cross.  They have the courage to sit with Jesus, to commune with him, to be present to him, as he experiences his final suffering.

In the news lately, there has been a lot of talk about the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.  In this text, written about 150 years after our four Gospels, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus, Jesus asks Judas to turn him in.  There’s something comforting about this image-It presents a Jesus fully in control.  But none of the Gospels in our canon presents this convenient story.

Jesus was betrayed.  Jesus did die. Jesus willingly let go of control over his own life for our benefit.  And through all of that, the Marys and the beloved disciple never left his side. 

Last week, I had the opportunity of hearing Charles LaFond, the former assistant at Church of Our Savior, lead a retreat about Holy Week.  He told the story of the experiences of the chaplains to the morticians in New Orleans.  After the waters in New Orleans receded, the city was left with the horrifying task of dealing with tens of thousands of dead bodies.  400 morticians from around the country were brought in and a temporary tent city was built. 

Trucks brought in 40 bodies at a time, and they were distributed among the morticians.  While there were many drownings, there were also as many as 85 murder victims disguised as hurricane victims. After the autopsies, bodies were tagged and stored in refrigerated units. 

The job of the chaplains was to bless the truck with the bodies, to bless the bodies again as they were taken to the refrigerators after the autopsies, and to be with the morticians when they wept between autopsies.  Like the Marys and the beloved disciple’s ministry of presence to Jesus, the chaplains’ jobs were not to free the morticians from their horrific duties, but to stay close with them, to love them and pray for them, to be alongside them as they did their work.

That kind of commitment and presence takes enormous courage.  Facing Jesus’ death takes courage, too.  We worship a God who, while ultimately triumphant, was willing to be completely weak and mortal for our behalf.  While we are Easter people, we are also called to remember the shocking vulnerability of our Lord.  We are called to abide with him in prayer, as many of you did during the prayer vigil last night. 

In the same way, when our loved ones are experiencing crisis that makes us uncomfortable:  when they are losing their memory, dying, getting a divorce, losing a child, we are called to be with them.  We cannot solve their problems.  We cannot always make them feel better, but like the Marys and the beloved disciple, we can show up, we can pray for them, we can love them.

Good Friday invites us to grow into people who can abide in pain.  For we know that it is through Jesus’ pain, through his death that we must enter to experience the joy that follows.  In the meantime, we are asked to wait with Jesus still on the Cross.  Again from our hymn:

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.