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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Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2016

In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.

Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.

The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.

Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.

First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:

Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.

Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.

Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.

Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.

So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?

No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.

Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.

God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.

It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.

Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.

Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.

Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable.   But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Proper 9, Year B, 2015

Almost anyone who has worked for a white collar American company or educational institution has, at some point in their career had to take some kind of strengths inventory. We love to focus on our talents, our natural aptitudes and then strengthen them even further. In the 80s my parents talked a lot about whether people were Abstract Random or Concrete Sequential. Clearly their school had done some kind of training in Anthony Gregorc’s learning styles. (By the way, all of us Kinneys are Concrete Sequential. No question about it. ) By the 90s my parents were talking about Myers-Briggs testing and I made all my high school buddies take the test. When I became involved in churches I learned about Spiritual Gifts inventory and by the time I was a priest the book Living your Strengths was very popular for people discerning their role in the church. Focusing on our strengths makes us feel like we have a place in the world, like we matter.

And we aren’t alone. As you may remember from when we’ve discussed the church in Corinth previously, the Corinthians loved focusing on their strengths. Some Corinthians truly believed they were better than others because of their spiritual experiences, authentic or not. So, in our snippet from 2nd Corinthians today Paul toys with them a little bit.

Paul references a spiritual experience he had. He tells them “someone he knows” was once caught up in the third heaven. Now, there is not a single Biblical commentator that knows that Paul means by that. We know from Acts that Paul had a serious spiritual experience when God confronts him on his way to Damascus. But, I like to think Paul is also messing around with the Corinthians a bit. “Oh, you’ve had spiritual experiences? Well, I’ve been to third heaven.” You can just imagine them going. “Oh, yeah, third heaven? I’ve totally heard of that.”

After Paul earns that credibility with the Corinthians, he turns his whole argument on its head. He tells them that instead of boasting in these profound spiritual experiences, he boasts in his weakness. He tells them he has been given a thorn in his side. We don’t know what that thorn is, either. But whatever the thorn is, it humbles Paul. The thorn limits Paul in some way. And Paul rejoices in those limitations.

Paul is not interested in his own glorification. Paul is interested in God’s glorification. And Paul believes that God uses Paul’s weaknesses to reveal God’s own strength.

This is such great news to us ordinary Christians, who haven’t seen the first heaven, much less the third one! Whether the thorn in our side is a bad hip, a speech impediment, chronic anxiety, God can use those weaknesses as a platform for his own glory.

One of the most striking experiences I’ve ever had as a priest was being with a beloved parishioner while she was experiencing congestive heart failure. I was sure she was dying as she literally clawed the air as if she was drowning. Under the care of her excellent physicians, she did not die and a few weeks after the incident I paid her a visit. When we are in pain, it is so difficult to focus on anything else than relieving our own discomfort. I expected my parishioner to talk about her awful medical experience. But this woman, a faithful Christian of eight decades, wanted to talk about her prayer life. Her own suffering had made her think about all the suffering in the world and she was a little overwhelmed about how to pray for it all.

Talk about strength in weakness. She had been so faithful to God for so long, that when she was at her literal weakest, he used her to pray for the suffering of the world.

When you read great Christian thinkers, there is often a point in their lives where things just completely fall apart. Augustine abandons a lover of more than a decade and their child. Thomas Aquinas is literally kidnapped by his family when they find out he’s joined a Dominican monastery. Martin Luther’s vow to become a monk happens in the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm.

Cranmer loses a fellowship at Jesus College to marry a woman named Joan, and then Joan dies. Our modern thinkers are no different. Buechner’s father commits suicide. Anne LaMotte and Glennon Melton face addiction. There is something about brokenness that God finds helpful to do his work.

When we are broken, we are vulnerable. We are open to change. We are open to re-imagining the world.

And those are the kind of people God needs to do his work. We have a new presiding Bishop-elect, as you might know. His name is Michael Curry and he is the Bishop of North Carolina. He fits into the profile of Christian thinkers who have suffered in that his mother died when he was very young. When he described the work of the church in the press conference after his election, he describes it as making the world “more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare”.

And God’s dream is so different from our nightmare. Bishop Curry describes God’s dream as Christians figuring out how to live as the beloved community, the human family of God.

We are so much more likely to treat each other with compassion if we have known suffering or weakness. We are so much more likely to be honest about our own lives, to let people unlike us into our lives. There is something about suffering that makes us more deeply human. After we suffer, we look at the world differently. We re-evaluate how we spend our time and where we put our energy. We remember that we have a family, and friends, and that work maybe is taking too much of our mental space. We have more compassion for others, realizing that their lives probably contain suffering, too.   We may appear weaker to the world, but suddenly we are open to God showing his strength to us.

I do not wish suffering or weakness on any of you. But I also know that your weaknesses, your wounds are beautiful. Most of those of you I know well have suffered mightily at some point in your life and that suffering is part of what formed you into the people you are now. You are people who are generous with your time and resources, who are quick to listen or bring a meal, who volunteer countless hours to make your community better. Your suffering is not wasted. Your suffering is redeemed by God and transformed into his Dream.

May God continue to shine through our weakness as we seek to become his beloved community.

Amen.

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2015

First, a note to thank Eric for covering for me last Sunday! It is a great gift to work with a rector who completely understands your need to stay home with a feverish pre-schooler. And thank you all for all your concern. Charlie is just fine, thankfully.

This sermon was written for last week’s lectionary texts, when I was originally scheduled to preach. I encourage you to open your bibles to 1st Corinthians, chapter 8 from which this sermon springs.

On December 27th, a few days after Christmas, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, hit bicyclist Tom Palermo at 2:30 in the afternoon, killing him. She initially fled the scene, and then returned a half hour later. News of this hit and run has been all over newspapers and social media, especially when it was revealed Bishop Cook’s blood alcohol content was .22, which is the equivalent of having consumed at least ten alcoholic beverages. More questions emerged when it turned out that Bishop Cook had been arrested for a DUI in 2010 with a BAC of .27. This DUI had been revealed to the search committee for the Diocese of Maryland, but was not revealed to the larger Diocese.

This whole awful situation has raised many, many questions. Why did she agree to stand for election when she clearly needed help? Why did the search committee not see her previous DUI as a red flag? But Mike Kinman, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Louis has the most interesting question, I think. He writes:

 The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

 What does this say about us?

 What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

 He goes on to say:

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

Phew. Instead of locating the problem solely on Heather Cook’s shoulders, Canon Kinman encourages us to look at our entire church’s relationship with alcohol and addiction. But what do we have to do with Bishop Cook’s problem? We don’t even know Bishop Cook, right?

Believe it or not, Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about idol meat can help us here.

Yes, I know you have been waiting your whole life to hear what Paul has to say about idol meat and today is your lucky day!

Here is the situation at Corinth: You have a new Christian community mixed up of all kinds of different people. A group of “elites” has started to act in really snotty ways. They arrive at communion before everyone else and eat and drink up all the good bread and wine, they think their spiritual lives are way better than everyone else’s, and they happily eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Why would Corinthians even be eating meat sacrificed to idols? Corinth was a diverse town, and there were lots of people for whom worshiping their gods meant sacrificing an animal to their god. After these animals were sacrificed, there would be big social feasts in which the animals would be consumed as part of the meal.

The conflict in the Corinthian Christian community was whether it was appropriate for Christians to eat the food at these parties. After all, it had been sacrificed to a God that was not the Christian God.

The Christian leadership in Jerusalem had decided that there was nothing a person could eat that could defile them. But this was a really, really new idea. The Corinthian elites understood this concept and so thought eating the meat at these parties was no big deal. But there were other people in the community for whom the idea was just horrifying. They had recently become converts and eating the idol meat was just too yucky for them, felt too close to worshiping false gods. The elites thought these conflicted people were stupid, basically, and appealed to Paul to share his knowledge with them.

But Paul turns things around on the Corinthian elites. He tells them that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to say that while the Corinthian elites were technically correct in their understanding of the issue, their knowledge didn’t really matter. What was important was that this issue was becoming a real stumbling block in the faith of the other Corinthians. Paul tells the elites if they sin against members of their family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, they sin against Christ.

The members of the church at Corinth belonged to each other, whether the elites liked it or not. Their welfare as a community hinged on the well being of every member, not just the “knowledgeable” ones.

I believe alcohol may be the Episcopal church’s idol meat. I came to the Episcopal Church after a brief flirtation with more conservative Evangelical traditions. At my first Wednesday night supper at St. James’ Episcopal church in Richmond I was totally stunned and, thrilled frankly, to see wine being served at a church dinner. It was my first clue that the Episcopal Church understood that one could lead a holy life without following all the “rules” so dominant in more conservative traditions. We can dance and play cards and enjoy a beer. I love the freedom of the Episcopal church. I also really enjoy a glass of wine! But I have also been in parishes where police had to be called because of public drunkenness at a church party and where a rector had to wrestle keys out of the hands of an inebriated parishioner. This week Episcopal Relief and Development announced a contest for Dioceses to raise the most money for relief efforts. The prize? A Beer Tasting at General Convention for the winning delegation. The culture of alcohol lives at every level of our church life.

Bishop Cook is far from the first cleric to be an alcoholic. And I’d hate to see the statistics of the numbers of clergy who use alcohol unhealthiy, even if they are not technically alcoholics.

I think Bishop Cook’s arrest is a wake up call for every Episcopal parish. In the spirit of Canon Kinman’s essay, I ask you to help me think about our parish’s relationship with alcohol. I floated a case study about a recovering alcoholic in the ethics Adult Forum I did a few months ago and the general sense was that it was the sole responsibility of the person in recovery to manage her own sobriety. But I think the apostle Paul would argue with us. I think he would ask us to take a hard look at our life together and really look at whether we are causing stumbling blocks for any one in our parish life.

I would love for anyone planning a church function—whether that be a Lenten supper, Ladies’ Night, or a parish retreat—to think really carefully about how alcohol is used in the function. Are parishioners being pressured into drinking? Is alcohol in the foreground or background of the event? Are there elegant alternatives to alcohol? We can probably do better than powdered lemonade.

If you are an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic, I invite you to share with me how you have felt safe or unsafe in our church setting. What can we do to make church a place where you feel respected and supported? Since the nature of recovery is often that those in recovery are anonymous, please feel free to send me anonymous letters if that would be more helpful to you.

This conversation may raise your anxiety levels, especially if you or someone you love in in trouble with alcohol or other addictions. But Canon Kinman has words of encouragement for us around the good news of Jesus Christ:

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus’ saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question — no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.[1]

And to that I add a hearty, Amen.

[1] Kinman, Michael, http://cccdean.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-right-question-about-bishop-cook.html

Proper 9, Year C, 2013

Listen to the sermon here.

How many of you went to see the film adaptation of Les Miserables that came out last year?

As a former teenage girl, I had been extremely familiar with Eponine’s plot—the poor rejected girl who has to suffer through watching the love of her life choose a soprano. Like many of you former and current teenage girls, I had sung “On My Own” in the shower about 500 times over the course of my life.  Every time some cute boy I had a crush on chose another girl, out would come my double cassette recording of the London production.

So what a shock to watch the film adaptation as an adult and realize that poor Eponine is not the heart of the story at all!  The real meat of the story is not Eponine’s broken heart, Marius and Cosette’s love story, or even Fantine’s extremely dramatic, extremely tuberculer death. The heart of Les Miserables is the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert.

For the two of you who are not familiar with the plot:  Valjean in his youth stole some bread, was locked up for 19 years, released, stole some candlesticks, was forgiven by a bishop, which gave him faith and an inner drive to be a good man.  He changed his identity and became the mayor of a town committed to serving those around him.  Javert, on the other hand, was an upstanding police officer, absolutely committed to justice, who had it in for Valjean and relished the idea of re-arresting him.  There are also revolutionaries and barricades and shifty innkeepers and an orphan girl, but you’ll have to see it to get those stories!

Javert does not care that Valjean has changed his life and is a contributing member of society.  He can only see the former thief, former prisoner in front of him.  They battle throughout the musical.  At one point Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but does not.  Javert is so distressed that Valjean has offered him this grace, that he ends up throwing himself off a bridge into the Seine.  The heart of Les Miserables is a battle between grace and the law.

I don’t know whether God does screenings of movies in heaven, but if he does host a showing of Les Mis, I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul is in the front row with a bucket of popcorn, humming under his breath.

Paul spent a lot of time persuading people that grace was the new order after Jesus’ resurrection.  For the last six weeks or so, our lectionary has led us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

To sum up:  Paul is incredibly irritated with the Galatians.  He skips his customary opening where he spends a paragraph thanking the community for how great it is and just dives in telling them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”  Paul has visited the Galatians and taught them personally all about the grace that Jesus has given them.

Not long after Paul and his friends left Galatia, another group came in and told them that grace was fine, but the Galatians were still going to need to be circumcised if they wanted to be Christians.

Paul then spends five chapters outlining why this is a terrible idea.  Namely that the whole point of Christ’s resurrection was to create a new way for human beings to be reconciled to God, so that human beings no longer had to follow the law perfectly.

Don’t worry, lest things get too crazy, Paul explains that without the law we don’t just go around doing whatever we want to do, but that we now live in tension between the flesh and the Spirit.  The Spirit will give us the power to resist all the same yucky human behaviors from which the Law was designed to protect us.  Instead of walking around stewing in anger, factions, sorcery and drunkness, the Spirit will transform us into people marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.  (Not as exciting, I know.  But in the long run, much better for us!)

So, after five chapters of going on and on about circumcision and what a bad idea it is and how unfaithful the Galatians are being by perpetuating circumcision among new believers, you would think that Paul would end with a really strong finish.  After all, he is defending grace, the core of Christian theology!

Instead Paul writes this:

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

In the Greek the second sentence is much shorter—“Neither circumcision or uncircumcision—but new creation!”

This is how crazy grace is.  Even though Paul is theologically correct in being anti-circumcision, he knows ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Circumcision, uncircumcision—Eh!  Paul cares enough to want the Galatians to have a correct understanding of grace, but he loves Jesus enough to wish the Galatians on either side of the argument peace.

Christ’s resurrection changes the nature of the universe so completely, that our old categories do not apply.  Circumcision and uncircumcision aren’t even relevant. We are in a new creation and we are a new creation.

Jean Valjean lives into this new creation by living a life based on the idea that he is loved and forgiven and called to do good in the world.  But Javert cannot see the new creation, even when it is right in front of his face!  He can only see the old creation, the old rules, the old categories.  He can only see good or bad, criminal or upstanding citizen.  He has no capacity for nuance.  And his lack of imagination kills him.

As Christians we have done a terrible job living in the ambiguity of the new creation.  We love labels! Are you baptized or not? Are you confirmed or not?  Are you Catholic?  Are you Protestant?  Are you a progressive Christian or a conservative Christian?  We love rules.  We love to know who is in and who is out.

When I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college we had a problem.  We were a pretty conservative group who spent a lot of time worrying about whether we were following the rules correctly. But even though we were conservative, there was another group on campus that was snatching our members because they thought they were the only denomination that was following Biblical rules correctly. The International Church of Christ  recruited members on many college campuses and may still be operating.  When they pursued our members they would make it clear that the student’s faith was not adequate.  If they had not undergone a believer’s baptism, followed the doctrine of the ICoC, and actively recruited disciples, they were not real Christians.

Not many of our group left to join the ICoC, but a handful did.  There was something compelling to them about having external rules to follow that let them know they were being faithful to God.  There was a safety in law.  With a strict law, their faith could be measured and found adequate.

As Episcopalians, we have the uncomfortable job of living in a lot of ambiguity.  Because our church is rooted in how we worship, rather than what doctrine we believe, sometimes what we believe can feel rather loosey goosey.  But I think the advantage to the way we do things, is that we are forced to actually turn to the Holy Spirit when we are making a decision, rather than following a universal set of rules.  And the fifth chapter of Galatians is a fabulous way to check in about whether we are following the Spirit.  Are our lives marked by enmity and jealousy and out of control behavior? Or are we slowly developing patience and love and joy?

And to be fair, Episcopalians do have hundreds of pages of Church Canons and we even pay church lawyers, so we probably don’t completely understand that we are living in a new creation, either!

What would our lives look like if we lived lives like Jean Vanjean’s, rooted in a deep knowledge of God’s grace?  What risks might we take?  What forgiveness might we offer others?  What forgiveness might we offer ourselves?  May God give us the gift of insight into his expansive, generous grace that welcomes all of us into a new creation.   Amen.

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

 

Proper 25, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

Unless you were living under a rock this summer, you have probably heard of the movie and book The Help.  Kathryn Stockett spun this tale of African American women in the 1960s and the families they served. The Help is a compelling story as it examines the sometimes loving and sometimes strained relationships between society women of Jackson, Mississippi and their household staffs. The story generated quite a bit of controversy. The inequality between the two classes of women still stings and the way in which Kathryn Stockett portrayed the African American characters in her book rankled many people.

The most heart breaking and fascinating part of the book was the relationship between white children and their African American caretakers.  As portrayed in the book, those relationships were often extremely tender and formative.  I believe a large part of the wild success of the book and movie was because of how powerful the relationship is between a hired caretaker and a child and how many people have strong, if complicated feelings, about those relationships.

This type of caretaker or nursemaid relationship was not new to the American South of the 1960s.  Nursemaids and even wet nurses have been used to look after children for thousands of years.  We have different names for them now.  We call them nannies, au pairs, day care centers, but the relationship remains.  Those of us who have the income, or those of us who need to work, hire another person, usually a woman, to look after our children in our absence.  We hope the woman or women we choose are tender and kind.  We hope our children will love them and feel safe with them, but not love them more than us, of course.

During the time the Apostle Paul was writing his letter to the Thessalonians, the nurse was a common figure.  Wet nurses were used not only for wealthy women who did not want to nurse their own children, but were used for slave women as well if their owners did not want them to stop working after the birth of their children.  At times mothers and children would be separated entirely, so nurses would be the only loving caretaker a child would know.  Infants, mothers, and nurses would have been an integral part of the house churches of early Christianity, so the imagery of the nurse would be very familiar to the community.

We think of many images when we think of the Apostle Paul.  We think of the murderous Saul, persecuting Christians.  We think of the powerful leader, developing churches throughout the Middle East.  We think of the strong man who survived shipwrecks and imprisonment.  Have you ever imagined the Apostle Paul walking a screaming baby back and forth all night or changing a stinky diaper?

In the second chapter of First Thessalonians, Paul describes himself and the other Apostles as someone who would do just that.  Not only that, he also mixes his metaphors and describes himself as the infant. While the NRSV translates the Greek as “gentle”, many New Testament scholars, including my mother-in-law, believe that use of the word gentle is an error caused by similar spelling of the original Greek word for infant. The original sentence should read “we were infants among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”.

Paul claims two images for himself that the Thessalonians would never expect.  Paul tries to sell them on this new Christianity and instructs them in how to live their lives, so maybe they expect him to come and lord over them, acting like a king or military commander.  Instead, he packages himself in the helpless image of a baby and the incredibly nurturing image of the nurse.  He is not a threat to the Thessalonians.  He wants to take care of them.  In fact, in the metaphor, he is not a nurse taking care of someone else’s children.  He is a nurse taking care of her own children.  The level of affection and warmth is as high as it can get.

What do these images tell us about our own ministry?  What does it mean for us to strike a balance between being as vulnerable as an infant and as careful as a nurse?

Based on six months of research in my own home, I can tell you that to an infant everything is brand new.  For the first few weeks of Charlie’s life, he did not understand that he had hands.  His flailed around and hit himself.  When he saw his hands he cried because he did not know what they were.  Six months later, I still catch him staring at his hands as if they were the most fascinating object he has ever seen.

And anyone who has spent more than an hour with an infant knows that taking care of a baby requires more than snuggles and coos. The caretaking of an infant is an ongoing wrestling match in which a tiny person manages to dominate an adult over and over again.  A baby’s nurse must be prepared for long bouts of inconsolable screaming, projectile bodily fluids, and insatiable hunger.  And the nurse is expected to deal with all these challenges with warmth and affection.  Sounds like ministry to me!

Paul lived in the tension of these two images.  For Paul and his fellow believers everything about being a Christian was new.  Paul had not attended Christian theology classes.  He took no leadership courses.  He was figuring out what it meant to guide the Christian communities at Thessalonica, Rome, and Philippi as he went along.  He said his prayers and studied the Scriptures, but every day was a brand new day of understanding what Jesus meant to the world.  Paul and all the Christians of their time were infants in understanding of their new faith.

However, at the same time, Paul and fellow leaders in the church were called on to be caretakers of these new Christians.  And Paul loved the members of these communities.  When you read his letters, they are filled with affection, even when he is clearly frustrated with the churches’ antics.  But like a nurse, Paul sets clear boundaries about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for the church.  He is kind, yet firm.

This model of ministry has powerful implications for us.  First, what if we viewed the world through the eyes of an infant?  What if every Sunday, the liturgy felt brand new to us?  What if we encountered theological ideas with fresh minds?  What if we really felt the wonder of Advent and the sorrow of Lent this year as if we had never heard the old stories?

What if we approached the world with curiosity, rather than judgment?  What if we were able to marvel at the sound of leaves crunching under our feet and be as trusting of God as infants are of their caretakers?  What if we allowed ourselves to fuss and whine honestly in our prayers, sharing our true heart with God?

The world is filled with wonder.  From the slow moving glaciers of New Zealand, to the improbable structures of Stonehenge, to the majestic national parks of Utah even our rocks are breathtaking.  Think of the millions of different plants and bugs and animals that you’ve never seen.  Think of the all the muscles and neurons that have to fire for you to look to your left.  We live in a miraculous world, but we’ve lost the eyes to see it.   We can regain the wonder by putting on the eyes of an infant.  And that wonder continues on to our understanding of the Gospel.  The Creator God, who created us in the first place, chooses to become the created himself—to come experience the limitations of our rocks and plants and muscles and bones.  He dies so that we can live for eternity. That is an amazing, wonderful gift!

If we combined a sense of wonder with the patience, warmth, and fun of our favorite nanny or babysitter, church would be the most popular place in Princeton!  I have said it before and I will say it again.  We are called to treat one another with kindness and patience.  Even when the Apostle Paul was frustrated with a community, he treated the community with care and respect.  He was patient and loving.  When we are frustrated with each other, let’s just remember that we all used to be infants.  We all deserve to be treated with the care and tenderness we give our youngest members.

Wonder and kindness.  Maybe these are not the first qualities one thinks of when considering the Apostle Paul, but he claims them for himself, and we could do much worse than to embody them ourselves.

Amen.

For more about feminine imagery in Paul’s letters, read Our Mother, Saint Paul by Beverly Gaventa.