Friday, January 28, 2005

Epiphany 4A: Serious Gospel Foolishness

Today’s readings contrast folly and wisdom. Paul puts it to us most directly. The message of Christ crucified is folly to the Greeks and a scandal to the Jews, but it is the very wisdom of God. The gospel illustrates the point. Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount appears to be sheer foolishness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… the meek… the mournful… those who are persecuted…” The poor blessed? The meek inherit the earth? The mournful will rejoice? In human terms, Jesus’ words make no sense. They are the folly of which Paul spoke.

Micah does not employ the categories of wisdom and folly but they are implied in his words. Wisdom would tell us that the proper worship of God involves elaborate sacrifices and impressive ritual but instead what God desires is humility and justice.

We resist folly. Appearing foolish exposes us and makes us feel embarrassed. That’s what comedy is all about. Why do we laugh at the clown who slips on a banana? One explanation is that we feel relief that we are not in the clown’s place. But too many times we have been in the clown’s place, and we don’t like it. We have slipped on that very banana peel or fumbled the words when we had to speak in public or spilled a plate of spaghetti down the front of our best dress and heard the choked laughter and seen the stifled smiles of the people around us. It didn’t seem funny to us, but the clown’s purpose is to make it safe for us to laugh at our own misfortune.

One of the principal difficulties of the Christian faith for me is that it exposes me and makes me vulnerable; it makes me look silly, stupid, foolish.

Following graduation from college I took a year off to figure out if I wanted to become a priest. I had not done a good job of planning what I would do during that year, so I pieced together a few part-time jobs and more or less made ends meet. My classmates were in law school or med school or working for senators on Capitol Hill or interning at Goldman Sachs. I was teaching piano to children, playing the organ for a small church, and supervising high school kids in a boarding school dormitory. Around Christmastime, my mother, an elementary school principal, asked if I would play the piano for the school’s Christmas program. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Harvard graduates did not play Christmas carols in the lunch room of a rural elementary school! But my mother has a knack for making you offers you can’t refuse, so I went. Sullenly, I played for the first part of the program. Then the special education class came on stage to perform. These children beamed as they stumbled through a few Christmas chestnuts. “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” had never sounded worse… or better, because these children had caught the essence of Christmas. They knew that Christmas (and for that matter Christianity) is not about looking good; it’s about love. And they were singing for love’s sake. I was suitably chastened but learned a lot about Christmas.

If we follow Christ faithfully, we will often look foolish. We will look foolish when we drop what we are doing to play for the special education kids to sing Christmas carols. We will look foolish if we take time to listen to the homeless guy on the sidewalk in front of our office to tell us his story. We will look foolish if try to do justice and walk humbly with God. We will look foolish if we hunger and thirst for righteousness. But that kind of foolishness is the very wisdom and power of God.

Like the clown, Jesus allows himself to be an object of contempt and ridicule. He takes our place. He makes it safe for us to follow him, to endure shame and ridicule for the sake of the gospel. But the joke is on the powers and principalities who nailed him to the cross. Did you hear the one about the empty tomb?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Epiphany 4A: Quarrels and Community

The four gospels agree that at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry he summoned the fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, to follow him. We have heard this story so often that we assume it was inevitable, but imagine alternative ways Jesus could have begun his public ministry. Jesus could have gone by himself to Jerusalem and proclaimed the advent of God’s kingdom; he could have simply gone around healing and teaching without summoning anyone to follow him; or perhaps he could have transmitted his teachings by writing them down on a papyrus scroll. But he started out by inviting four fishermen to follow him.

We could dwell at length on the significance of Jesus’ choice of fishermen to be his first disciples. They were simple men with little, if any, education, and no doubt there is much significance of Jesus’ choice of the poor and simple to be his first followers. But what interests me most is not whom he chose but that he chose at all.

By summoning these fishermen to follow him, Jesus was telling us three things: First, the Christian faith is a communal enterprise. You can pray and read the Bible in the privacy of your own home, but you cannot be a Christian alone. Someone taught you to pray and read the Bible. Someone baptized you. And holy communion is not like a frozen chicken pot pie; it involves breaking bread with others, not grabbing a snack in front of the TV.

Second, it follows that love is central to the Christian faith, because community is impossible without love. One of my favorite quotations is from The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing we do however virtuous can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” Love is essential to community, because love is a verb, not a noun. Love is what we do, not just a nice feeling. Love is necessary for the creation and maintenance of community because community (as Parker Palmer reminds us) is “that place where the person you least want to live with always lives!" Love is what enables us to smile when the head of the Flower Guild rearranges the flowers we have placed on the altar. Love is what a pastor needs when an angry parishioner takes her to task for her sermon on the Iraq war. Love is what a lot of us need when our old and well-loved hymns are replaced by a five word, three chord chorus, and the words are projected on the wall via PowerPoint.

Finally, Jesus’ choice of three fishermen to be his followers means that there will be quarrels and divisions in the church, because wherever two or three are gathered there will be at least three or four different opinions. And this has been the case from first century Palestine to twenty-first century Philadelphia or London or Rome. Today’s reading from First Corinthians illustrates the point: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you…”

Counselors frequently say that married couples need to learn how to have healthy fights, because there is no couple that will not occasionally have a sharp disagreement. Similarly, the church needs to learn how to have healthy fights. We need to learn how to be frank and straightforward with each other; to challenge points of view that we believe to be in error; to confront one another in love when we see inappropriate behavior. We are wrong if we either rush to consensus on a topic or if we never take a stand for fear of alienating a faction within the church. A church that engages in spirited debate not only needs to know how to fight, it also needs to know how to ask for forgiveness.

One of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is in the wedding ceremony. We pray that the newly married couple would have the grace “when they hurt each to seek each other’s forgiveness” as well as God’s forgiveness. Note that the prayer says “when they hurt each other” not “if they hurt each other,” because life in community, even a community of two people who are in love with each other, will inevitably lead at some point to pain and the need to say “I’m sorry.”

We make two equally disastrous mistakes in the Christian church. The first is to over-emphasize doctrine and the second is to under-emphasize it. Some of our more progressive leaders, e.g., Bishop Spong, argue that our unity is constituted exclusively by becoming Christ’s disciples through baptism. For them, fidelity to historic doctrinal principles is virtually tantamount to idolatry. The second group argues that the Christian faith is constituted by close adherence to a set of propositions that have been passed down through the centuries, especially the creeds and holy scripture.

The truth is somewhere in between. The progressive group is right about the bedrock of our unity. Ultimately, we are Christians because we have been incorporated in Christ in baptism. But the more conservative group is right to emphasize doctrine because, while doctrines are not the path itself, they are (if you will) the signs that help us stay on the path of faithful discipleship.

The summons Jesus issued to the fishermen long ago he still issues to us today: “Come, follow me.” He did not promise that we would like our fellow disciples or that we would always get along with each other. Indeed, if the New Testament’s picture of the early church is to be believed, then we are in for occasional black eyes and bloody noses. But after we have had our say and heard each other out, then we need to hear Paul’s admonition again: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (A prayer for the unity of the Church from the Book of Common Prayer)

Friday, January 14, 2005

Dr. King Remembered

I grew up in Alabama in the age of the civil rights movement. I was born in 1955, the year that the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted Dr. King to national prominence. I was eight years old in 1963, the year of Dr. King's Birmingham campaign and the horrific bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which resulted in the deaths of four little girls who were waiting for Sunday school to begin.

I would like to be able to tell you that I have vivid memories of these events, but I don't. I remember some fear and anxiety in my family over the demonstrations that were going on in Birmingham. I am embarrassed to admit that I remember seeing separate drinking fountains and rest rooms and being told by my grandmother not to drink from the so-called "colored" drinking fountain. I remember that I was not allowed to take swimming lessons at the newly-integrated Birmingham YMCA because of fear of … well, I'm not really sure what the fear was about. And I remember being nervous when my elementary school was integrated, although I am certain I was not nearly as afraid as the black children who suddenly found themselves in a room full of white children.

Even though I don't personally remember much about the Birmingham campaign, the Selma march, and so on, I had the good fortune many years later to know some persons who did know a lot about these events from their personal experience. At two different universities in Birmingham I taught a course on religion and American history. Each of the three years that I taught the course, I invited a speaker to the class who had been personally involved in the movement. The first speaker was the Rev. John Porter, pastor of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, who had been Dr. King's associate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The second speaker was Rabbi Milton Grafman, the rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, and the third was David Vann, who had been city attorney for the city of Birmingham during the Birmingham campaign.

The most illuminating speaker by far was Rabbi Grafman. A good and gracious man, Rabbi Grafman led Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El wisely and well for many years. However, he will forever be remembered as one of the seven white clergymen who wrote to Dr. King urging him to delay his protests in Birmingham. Dr. King replied to them in his best-known essay, "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail". When Rabbi Grafman and his colleagues urged King to wait, he replied, "To the Negro, 'wait' has meant 'never'. We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights". Rabbi Grafman came to my class and gave my students and me a very persuasive explanation for why he urged Dr. King to wait. After he had left, I asked my students to tell me who they thought had been right: Rabbi Grafman or Dr. King. Every one of the students in my class was white, middle-class, and southern, and unanimously they said that Rabbi Grafman had been wrong and Dr. King had been right.

Undoubtedly, Dr. King's greatest accomplishment was his role as a leader in the civil rights' movement and a catalyst who must be given a large share of responsibility for the civil rights' legislation of the 1960s. However, I want to mention two other accomplishments for which he should be remembered.

Dr. King came to national prominence in the late 1950s. We remember the 50s as the age of Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and "I like Ike". Historian of religion Mark Noll argues that complacency characterized American religion the 50s: "Conservative evangelicals... translated the gospel into forms of entertainment that looked as much like versions of youthful diversion as alternatives to it. Mainline Protestants… were also busy creating a religion of the lowest common denominator with less and less that was distinctly Christian". (Noll, p. 441) And then suddenly, in this decade of complacency, Martin Luther King appeared.

One of King’s greatest accomplishments was to be a "public Christian". What I mean is that Dr. King brought the teachings of the Christian faith to bear on public issues, especially the most important issue of the 50s and 60s, full and equal civil rights for African Americans. In doing so, Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith. Many American intellectuals thought of the Christian faith as intellectually bankrupt and as having little or nothing to say about the great issues of the day. Dr. King never spoke simply as a politician; he spoke as a prophet. That is to say, he spoke as one who could see God's hand at work in human history and who gave voice to God's demands upon human life, both individual and corporate. In his very first public statement as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, he said, "We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action." The protestors must not hate their white opponents, but be guided by Christian love while seeking justice… "Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation". (Garrow, p. 24)

At the same time that Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith to those who regarded it with suspicion and skepticism, he also provided a model for Christians to speak out on the great issues of the day. His example inspired and encouraged any number of other Christians to apply the Christian faith to the great issues of the day, especially the anti-war movement. In other words, Dr. King stood on that blurry line dividing the sacred and the secular, the church and the world. He reminded the world that God is active in its history, whether the world recognizes God's presence or not, and he reminded the church that God created and loves the world and calls us to engagement in the world on behalf of the poor and the powerless.

Enough of history… the purpose of celebrating Dr. King's life should not be just about praising a great man. Charles Willie, one of Dr. King's classmates at Morehouse College, said, "By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity - his personal and public struggles-that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise". (Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 625)

I am certain that Dr. King himself would urge us not to dwell on his accomplishments. Ever a Baptist preacher, King would invite us to turn our attention from the messenger to the message and to invite the God whom Dr. King served to work as redemptively and powerfully in our own lives as God did in Dr. King's life.

What I take away from Dr. King is this: God has a mission for each of us. It will often be a mission that is difficult to bear, but God will give us strength. Dr. King put it better than I could. He said, "I pray that recognizing the necessity of suffering we will make of it a virtue…. To suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity's full stature. If only to save ourselves, we need the vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transform ourselves and American society…. We have … a responsibility to set out to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster…. One knows deep down with there is something in the very structure of the cosmos that will ultimately bring about fulfillment and the triumph of that which is right. And this is the only thing that can keep one going in difficult periods."

Several years ago I read A.N. Wilson's biography of the English writer C.S. Lewis. It was a very controversial biography because it revealed many of Lewis' weaknesses and failings. However, I came away from it with greater respect for Lewis, because I discovered that he struggled with many of the same temptations that plague me. I feel much the same way about Dr. King. Did Dr. King have feet of clay? Of course, he did. Do all of us have feet of clay? Of course we do. But the message of Dr. King's life, as St. Paul reminds us, is that "God's strength is made perfect in weakness." Dr. King accepted the burden, the mission, that God gave him, even though the cost was great, even though it led to death. It was God's power in Dr. King's life that made him great, in spite of his weaknesses. And so it is in our lives. Our weaknesses are the very stuff which God uses to build a new world.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Epiphany 1, Year C: A Tall Tale

I want to give a personal two thumbs up to the movie Big Fish. Big Fish is the story of a father and a son that begins and ends at a river. The father, Edward Bloom, is larger than life. On the day of his son William's birth he catches the biggest catfish in Alabama's Blue River. The catfish is so big that… well, it's so big that it furnishes the material for stories that Edward tells for the rest of his life, including the night of William's engagement party when he makes himself the center of attention rather than his son and his son's fiancée.

William comes to believe that his father's life has just been one big fish story, and when Edward lies dying, William becomes determined to know what his father was "really like." But whenever William asks his father a question- about his childhood in tiny Ashland, Alabama; his college days; how he met his wife, William's mother; how he got his start in business - his father responds with another tall tale.

In a sense, the gospels are also the story of a father and a son that begins at a river. The gospels tell us that Jesus went down to the river along with the crowds drawn by the preaching of John the Baptist. And at the river, something happened. Something happened that sounds a bit like one of Edward Bloom's tall tales. Some say that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove and descended upon Jesus and that a heavenly voice spoke, saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

The Bible might be regarded as a tall tale, and indeed some scholars look at it that way. Water into wine? A handful of loaves and fish multiplied to feed five thousand? Sight restored to the blind? The lame leaping and walking? The dead raised? Impossible, they say. The products of naïve, unsophisticated and primitive people, or else willful distortions of the truth.

Perhaps they are right. What would we have seen and heard if we had been present at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that there was a dove that descended upon Jesus and a heavenly voice that announced that he was God's Son, the beloved one.

What if we had been there and had seen and heard nothing? What if years later someone told us this story of the Spirit taking the form of a dove and God's voice resounding like thunder? Would we be like the son in Big Fish? Would we dismiss the impossible story and say, "No, tell me what REALLY happened?" Or would we understand that sometimes a tall tale conveys the truth more effectively than the who, what, when, and where of a so-called factual account.

I liked the movie so much that I went right out and bought the novel on which it was based, which I enjoyed just as much as the movie. A scene in the novel Big Fish but not in the movie tells of the day that people heard that Edward Bloom was dying and began to gather in front of his house. First just a few and then more and more until dozens of people were in the front yard - treading on the shrubbery, trampling on the monkey grass. Finally, William's mother tells him to ask them all to leave. As they leave, one man says to William, "We all have stories, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold it to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up. That's why we're here, William. We're a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us."

Like the friends of Edward who gathered on the lawn when he was dying, we, too, have stories to tell about One who helped us. "Ways in which he touched us… Over a lifetime it all adds up… We're a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us." We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life again; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marveled at his words. He undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him; he was given a mock trial and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. And he returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and all his household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

In a sense, our stories, too, are about a Father and a Son and they begin at a river, or at least they begin with water. As children or as adults we were brought to the water, and just as the Spirit descended upon Jesus, so the Spirit descended upon us. And just as the Father announced that Jesus was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased, so the Father announced that we were his beloved daughter or son and that he was well-pleased with us, too. Does that sound like a tall tale to you? Is it easier to believe that your parents dressed you in a christening gown that had been handed down from great, great, great, great Aunt So-and-so and brought you to church where a doddery old man held you over a stone basin, mumbled a few words, and splashed water on your head? So be it, but personally, I prefer the Bible's tall tale and believe that there's more truth in it than in a "just the facts, ma'am" account of what happened.

The Bible's tall tale is our story. You are the Father's beloved daughter or son; he loves you and is well-pleased with you. And he has sent you out to have marvelous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love your enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others - the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of the quest you will have such stories to tell. "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time…"