Monday, March 1, 2010

Lent: Day 6

[These are getting briefer and briefer as I struggle to catch up.]

Luke 3:21-38

I think it is impossible to overstate how much I love the trinitarian baptismal scenes in the gospels. We have the revelation of the three persons of the trinity, in the bodily Son, the voice of the Father, and the dovey Spirit. All of them demonstrating their inseparable but unique operations in the incarnation.

But why does Luke follow this beautiful scene with a boring genealogy? At least Matthew gets it out of the way quickly at the beginning. But perhaps Luke's use of the list at this point serves to draw more attention to it. It is easy to dismiss Matthew's version as if it is just a "preface" of some sort. Luke, though, places it right in the midst of two key theological passages [baptism and temptation]. Moreover, anyone who even pays a little attention realizes that this genealogy is quite different from Matthew's. It has tons more names, tons of different names, and goes back past Abraham all the way to Adam and God.

I think this last feature is the key. The baptism is the revelation of Christ's true identity and lineage: human and divine. If we extend this into liturgical reflection, we can see what it is to participate in Christ's baptism when we ourselves receive the water of regeneration. In the words of Maximus the Confessor, it is a "mystical adoption" in which we acquire a new birth, a new inheritance--or more accurately, or ORIGINAL inheritance--as daughters and sons of God.

In Christ's baptism we have the revelation not only of the Trinity, but of our true lineage of identity that is rooted in the creative love of God. As the Trinity reveals its inner life in the economic work of Christ's baptism, it invites us to be taken up into the life of the Trinity, to reclaim our own identity as beloved children of God through incorporation into the Body of God's only begotten Son and the love of the Spirit poured forth into our hearts.

Lent: Day 5

As I'm currently fighting a bout of insomnia, it seemed a good time to return to my erstwhile Lenten discipline... which is now over a week behind. I've decided that, though there is a good chance I shalln't finish these IN Lent, I will make it all the way through, even if I'm a little late.

Luke 3:1-20

What I love most about this passage is how easy it is to alternate between cheering for John and wincing at his indictment. On one hand, we want to rally behind his call for social justice and repentance. Yeah, you dirty tax collectors, stop extorting money from poor folk! Yeah, you selfish rich dudes, stop bogarting all the tunics! But then John gets all "prophety" on us. Jesus has a winnowing fork and he's gonna clear that threshing floor and burn up all the chaff. Yikes. Ease up John! Next you'll be telling us that Jesus came to bring not peace but a sword. That'd be ridiculous!

There's a tendency in Christian piety that goes all the way back to Marcion whereby we want to separate out the nice bits of God's love from the icky parts about judgment and condemnation and such. This lives on in any effort to put all the "vengeful" stuff into the OT and pretend that NT is all puppies and bunnies. But the orthodox Christian faith proclaims that the unapproachably holy and righteous God is also the incarnate loving God: you can't have one without the other. We see the truth of this affirmation here in John's prophesy. Jesus is bringing you the Holy Spirit. He is also bringing fire, and not just that strange warmth of Mr. Wesley's heart. Jesus brings a purifying fire that will refine us... painfully if need be.

Notice how Herod reacts to this message. Luke Johnson's translation of the passage has Herod "shut John up in prison." How often do we what to "shut John up?" Give us the good stuff John, but save all that judgment burny stuff for the fundies! No, if we are to embrace the Gospel, we must wrap our hearts around it all. We may legitimately personalize or spiritualize it, turning it into a meditation on our own growth in virtue and the burning away of all our moral impurities. That is a valid reading, I think. What we can't do, though, is ignore it, dismiss it, or lessen the severity and urgency with which John preaches.

We are in Lent. We are lying on the threshing floor. And we pray to Christ to sift us, to judge us, and to burn up our chaff in a smoky offering of repentance.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lent: Day 4

Once again, I'm playing catch up on my Lukan Lent blog. Day 4 [which for those of you keeping track is a full 2 days ago now] brings us the Song of Simeon, one of my favorite passages. I loved singing old Simeon's canticle before sleep at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is one of the most beautiful expressions of the life of faith and discipleship. However, since my discipline has been lacking, I'm going to cheat and offer a copy of a sermon I preached 14 months ago at my home church on this text. The prose is quite loose as it was designed for speaking and rhetorical whatnot... but hopefully it still works...

Luke 2:22-52

How do you sleep at night?

This past Friday, I went to bed around 11, read for a half hour, and turned out the light around 11:30. Seeing as how I was on vacation and didn’t have anywhere to be in the morning, I turned off my alarm clock and settled in for a long winter’s nap. I awoke at some point, looked up, pat my dog, and went back to bed. I repeated this process about 4 times, producing the fantastic snoozing dreams, before I finally looked at the clock. Expecting a late morning time, I was a bit chagrined to see that it was 1:30 in the afternoon. Chagrined, but not surprised. See, I love sleep. I never get tired of it, as it were. Sleep is my drug of choice, my number one vice, and the addiction that will probably prevent me from finishing my degree in anything less than a decade. Morning people freak me out. People who say they can’t get back to sleep after waking up bewilder me. People with insomnia… well that I get. I think I love sleep because as a kid I had so much trouble finding it. It took me hours to fall asleep. I would lay up later and later thinking about anything and everything, worrying and hoping and imagining whatever came to mind.

Our bodies, indeed our souls, need sleep… Sometimes it’s hard to come by though. There are some folks, though, well, I wonder how they ever get to sleep.

I have friends who work as chaplains in hospitals, on maternity wings and pediatric units, who spend their days and their nights holding dying children and mourning with the parents left behind, and I wonder, how can they sleep at night?
I think of Bernie Madoff, and I think of the billions that he scammed people out of, I want to ask him, how do you sleep at night?
I think of men and women in the armed forces, stationed in iraq and Afghanistan, who have experienced fear I’ve never known and live with real danger around them at every turn, thoughts like IED, insurgency, terror, fresh on their minds and real in their lives… and I wonder, how can they sleep at night?
I think of CEOs of gigantic financial corporations, who have laid off thousands of workers with families this year, and still have the gall to ask for 10million dollar bonuses, and I wonder, how can they sleep at night?
I think of any of us, who spend too much time watching CNN, MSNBC, or FOX news, who spend our days being told about terrorism, kidnappings, corruption, drugs, and war… and I wonder, how can ANY of us sleep at night?

When baby’s can’t sleep, you sing a lullaby. I still remember the one my mother sang to me. It didn’t really have words, just a leitmotif repeated over and over. When I was younger I found this soothing. When I became older I just realize she couldn’t remember the words. But that’s ok. As we get older, our parents tell us bedtime stories. Little tales to entertain us and make our minds wander so that we can sleep easily into dreamland.
As we get even older, I think we still crave, yearn for, in fact, NEED, a story to help us sleep

So let me tell you a story. There once was a little group of tribes living at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Now, for some inexplicable reason, they got it in their heads that they were special. God, they believed, was on their side. God loved them best. God loved them so much, in fact, that God had saved them from a life of misery and slavery and brought them to a new land to rule and live in peace. They had a law, given by God, that served as a contract. If they obeyed these laws, God would protect them and bless them. If they didn’t… well.. if they didn’t … then God might not. This is where a guy names Isaiah pops up. Things were looking pretty bleak for this tribal nation. They weren’t doing quite as well, politically speaking, as they once had. There was poverty. There was war. There was instability. And this guy Isaiah warned them that God would judge them in these times for not remaining faithful. Sure enough, things went south… or rather east… and the ruling class of people were taken into exile, away from their home, from their temple, from their God. Now Isaiah, or some folks who remembered him, went with them and spoke a new message from the Lord, one of repentance, forgiveness, and hope. This Isaiah promised that God would redeem God’s people, that they would again be in right relationship, and restored to their home. Sure enough, a few years later, they were allowed to return. Again, another “Isaiah,” speaking on behalf of the long dead prophet, proclaimed the goodness of the God, the blessing that this God had bestowed upon this people. They had been saved. It’s a good story. And it sounds particularly good when read from the point of view of this third, last Isaiah, in the midst of the NEW temple, in the NEW Israel, with the people restored, celebrating, and happy. This is the joy we hear in our first text today, the text from Isaiah.

Let me tell you another story. Again, about another little people. They knew this story of Isaiah and the people in the backwaters of the Mediterranean. And for some inexplicable reason, they claimed it as their own. That God, they claimed, is now our God. But they adapted the story a bit. The majority of these people had never been enslaved in Babylon, much less in Egypt. And THEY said, that god’s salvation was not just for this one group, but for all because of some strange guy who had been killed on a tree and, they claimed, raised from the dead. Somehow, they said, that guys death and resurrection, allowed the story of Isaiah, to be the story of the entire world. This is what we meet in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This guy Paul, bridging these two groups, tries to clear up the relationship between the two stories. Now, he claims, God does not just bring God’s contractual people out of bondage, but God extends that gift of salvation to all.

Both of these groups are proclaiming the faithfulness of God, the good things that God has done for their people, the ways in which God has saved them.

Let me tell you one more story, one that falls in between these two.

There once was a guy named Simeon. Now, Simeon was a child of those who had celebrated God’s might acts with Isaiah. He knew the story, knew the faithfulness of the Lord, and looked forward to something new and even greater that God was going to do for Israel and the whole world. He had received a promise from God, a promise that he would not die before laying his eyes upon the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one who would fulfill all of God’s promises to God’s people. One day, Simeon was sitting in the temple, the house of the living God, and a family walked by, mother, a father, and a newborn baby. Simeon looked at this family, he looked at the baby, this frail, helpless infant---and he began to sing praises to God, knowing that he had seen the ultimate blessing of God.

The interesting thing is that nothing changed. The baby didn’t jump up and heal someone. He didn’t stop his crying to offer some royal edict. He didn’t suddenly transfigure his diaper into a might image of the Lord God Almighty. He was just there. He just existed. Nothing, it seemed, changed. All the circumstances that caused Simeon to pine for God’s mighty hand to act were still in effect. The Romans still occupied the promised land. People were still living in poverty. Violence still ruled the world. There was still graft and corruption at every level of society. There was still injustice that caused righteous people to go hungry and the wicked to go free. Nothing had changed!!!!!!

But Simeon saw something new. He saw the truth of God’s salvation in that little baby. And he sang it for all in the Temple to hear.

What Simeon sang that night has been repeated for centuries by Christians. Beginning as early as the 4th centuries, as men and women gathered together in monasteries and convents to devote their lives to prayer and the service of God, they establish a ritual of prayer called the “hours”... at least 7 times a day the community would gather to pray through the psalms and read the scriptures together. It was a routine that rooted their lives in the rhythm and language of scripture. In the mornings they would sing the Magnificat, the song sung by Mary when the angel Gabriel told her she would bear the child Jesus, when Mary offers herself up as the handmaiden of the Lord. With this serving as a mission statement of sorts, Christians would go forth and live their lives, working the fields, laboring at looms and attending to the affairs of household and state, seeking to fulfill the will of God. At night, as they prepared for sleep, Christians across the known world would sing the song of Simeon, the song we have heard in this mornings text. After a day of trying to do the will of god, of encountering the evils of the world and the weakness of our own wills and the inescapable failures of our own sinful hearts, Christians sing this song, praying to God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Day after day, month after month, century after century, as kingdoms rose and fell, as the works of humans succeeded and failed, as the poor got poorer and the rich got richer, the latter all to often at the expense of the former, Christians have sung this song. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation,”

One more story. There once was guy named Karl. Karl was born in Switzerland in the late 19th century. He was raised at the height of Modernity, at the peak of the hopes that science and the enlightenment would bring peace and harmony and complete understanding to all of humanity. He saw the promise of modernity come to a violent end in the bombs of the first world war. He lived to witness the height of human evil in Nazi Germany. And he lived through all of this not only as a brilliant theologian but a faithful pastor in war torn Europe.
This man, Karl Barth, once said, “Faith cannot reason with unbelief, it can only preach to it”

We must never forget the complete ridiculousness of our faith. Our faith is completely irrational. It does not line up with the assumed reality of the world around us. It is not easily evident. Everything we witness seems to point against it.

This baby whom Simeon saw, when he grew to manhood, would proclaim the kingdom of God. When he died and rose from the grave, his followers proclaimed that the world had changed. That all things had been made new. We cannot simply spiritualize these proclamations. They are real hopes for real changes in the world… Changes which we don’t see. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of god on earth, a jubilee year, And the world we live in does not reflect that.

And yet, we affirm it. We shout it. We sing it.

We proclaim something more, something different, something… something ludicrous

This is OUR lullaby, our bedtime story

I have a good friend, fairly atheistic, who tells me that belief in god is simply a metaphysical security blanket, something that helps to make us feel better. And you know what? She is right
What she misses, though is that we as Christians have no delusion (or at least we ought not) about the complete absurdity of our story.
At some point, we must look at this story, at this lullaby, and look at the world around us
And we must, in the midst of all evidence to the contrary, claim this story as our own. We must preach and live the truth of our story, of its radical veracity in the face of the narrative of the world, a narrative of death and greed and fear.
We claim and proclaim a story of hope, salvation, of the already and the not yet, of what God has done, is doing, and will do for us.

As Christians, we must look at that tiny baby in the animal food trough, and know, know, not just hope, not just pray, but know that God has, will, and IS saving us, that God has made all things new, that all of creation has been, will be, and IS filled with the redeeming love of our God.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Lent: Day 3

So I can't believe that I'm already this far behind on my Lenten discipline! To help catch up, I'm going to offer very brief comments on the last few days of readings.

Luke 2.1-21

We all know this story so well it seems trite. Part of me now, after reading it, expects to wake up tomorrow with presents under a tree. But it's not Christmas. It's Lent. And I think the reading is almost more appropriate now.

As we begin to delve deeper into the season of Lent we move closer and closer to Good Friday and to the cross. In all the gospel stories, but especially in Luke, the life of Jesus is defined by the journey to Golgotha. And here, joining the shepherds, we are told to find the fulfillment of God's promises "wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger," an image that eerily parallels Joseph of Arimathea's care for Jesus' body, he " wrapped in a linen shroud and laid in a tomb" (Luke 23.53).

The joy of Incarnation and the sorrow of the Cross must always inform one another. As we find ourselves wrapped in the sack-cloth of Lenten penitence, we are reminded that we are joined by Emmanuel, the God who is always with us. And as we unite our Christmas with our Good Friday, we know that not only are we crucified with Christ, but we rise with him at Easter as well.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lent: Day 2

Luke 1.39-80

The really fun thing about today's passage from Luke is that it contains two canticles, or hymns: the Magnificat of Mary and the Canticle of Zechariah. We may speculate--though we certainly cannot prove--that these hymns reflect liturgical practices of the Lukan community. More significantly, though, these two hymns quickly became incorporated into the worship of churches and, particularly, into the daily offices of monastic communities. Generations of Christians have recited or sung these canticles on a regular basis. They have been primary sources for our corporate language about who God is, who we are, and what God has done for us through Christ. With that in mind, then, let's take a closer look at the two hymns.

The Magnificat of Mary:

The "title" of this hymn comes from the Vulgate Latin in which Mary's soul magnificat the Lord. She glorifies, magnifies, and extols her God because "he has considered the lowliness of his servant." Take a moment to read through the images of this song. Notice the constant contrasts between competing values. The great Lord considers his lowly slave. The mighty are pulled from their thrones while the lowly are exalted. The hungry are fed but the rich sent away empty. The same God who shows power in his right arm also takes Israel by the hand as a child. The God who communed with Abraham is still at work now with a young girl through whose humble status great and wondrous things shall be accomplished.

The Canticle of Zechariah:

Whereas Mary's hymn is more social and political in nature, Zechariah's is explicitly religious. Zechariah sings the glory of the Lord's salvation for his people. He connects the proclamations of the ancient prophets to the role his newly born son will have in preparing the way of the Lord. The God who saves us from our enemies and establishes a covenant with his people will also save us from sin through merciful compassion. It is through this compassion--proclaimed by the prophet John and embodied by the incarnate Christ--that we will emerge from the shadow of death into the light of life and walk upon the path of peace.

We in the Protestant Church lost a great form of spiritual formation when we rebelled so strongly against monastic practice. An over-correction based upon legitimate complaints led us to lose the piety that establishes habits of virtue through the contemplative repetition and singing of these songs. Chanting, singing, or simply reading these words regularly offers a different way of engaging scripture, one more powerful, I think, than mere "study." They also offer a different understanding of what the core of the Christian Gospel is.

What would it mean to have a faith--both corporate and personal--shaped by these hymns? What would our Christian life look like if we daily proclaimed the God who is at work in history, who exalts the lowly and humbles the proud, and who works with compassion for the salvation of his people? What would it mean if this were the language of our faith and practice?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lent: Day 1

I've decided that my Lenten discipline this year will be to write a devotional blog every day. My church (Saint Mark UMC) is encouraging folks to read through the Gospel of Luke. So I'll offer daily reflections on that day's passage. Some will be more pastoral, some more academic. Most, I hope, will be somewhere in the middle. If you should like, I invite you to join me on the journey.

I don't have much energy to offer for today's passage, and somehow I think that's appropriate. I've had the emotional crap kicked out of me today, and I come to Lent and to this passage weary in soul and looking for hope. I feel like Zechariah. Zech (as his friends call him) is a priest attending to the rites of the Lord. When the angel appears to him, he says that Zech's prayers have been heard. We are not explicitly told what those prayers are, but we can guess: for a child for him and his wife. Of course in the scope of Luke's narrative we know Zech's prayer for a child parallels Israel's prayers for the messiah, a hope that Zech no doubt shared. And yet, when the promise of God comes to proclaim the fulfillment of his hope, Zech refuses to believe. He is too old. It is too impossible. How can it be so?

We all have hopes for ourselves. And I'm not talking about career ambitions or that lottery ticket you just bought. I mean hopes for the types of people we want to be. We have hopes to change, hopes to grow, hopes to make amends, hopes to forgive, hopes to love more, and hopes to rage less. And we have a God who promises not only to forgive us but to change us, to give us her Holy Spirit that we might learn to love self, other, and God. And yet, when we hear those promises, we dismiss them. It makes sense for God to promise those things to others, but certainly not to me! I'm too broken. I'm too set in my ways. I'm too old or too young. I'm too indulgent of my passions. I'm too far gone.

But notice what the angel does to Zechariah: he shuts him the hell up! No more objections! God is going to do God's work and that's that!

My prayer for myself and for all of us this Lenten season is that we can learn to shut up and let God work in us. Let us bring our brokenness, our filth, and our regrets and lay them on the altar that God may pour out her Spirit upon us that we might be changed. May we exchange the bread--which from a whole loaf becomes broken--for ourselves, that being broken we might become whole.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Capitalism and Christianity: Part II

I heard this interesting piece on MarketPlace tonight. It provides a decent counter-argument to the Troeltsch quote I posted a few weeks ago. I invite thoughts.